In 1963 or 64 and I was assigned the exciting job of directing the television adaptation of George Johnson’s hit novel My Brother Jack for the ABC.
I was criminally young to be given such a job but we were all young directors. One of the things that was already working in my mind was how ponderous the huge television studio equipment was, for any kind of liveliness in the coverage of the things that you can get with film.
In fact the whole thing about directing live to air drama – 50 minutes of it – was pretty complicated. You sent the scripts out to the actors as if it was a radio play. You ran your dry rehearsals as we did in a warehouse in Woolloomooloo, in which, (your having designed the set) , the floor manager would lay out the map of it on the floor only, so that you could get an idea of it; and the actors could have an idea of the space.
I always brought major props in for the actors to handle right from the beginning. And in later rehearsals you brought in basic furniture and so forth.
And you had a shot list. I made a shot list of every single shot of that 50 minute – sorry 30 minutes – every single shot. So there might be 150 shots in it.
Took that to rehearsal; saw everyone with my mind’s eye, or with what was called a Bretz box: a lens box. Walked around as the actors were acting; worked on the performance; said “no – five-inch lens on that, I don’t want the background to be in focus” and so forth. The script assistant would alter it. Next rehearsal the following day the actors would run through the scenes; you would alter each lens – the actual lens you were going to use – and the position on the floor work; with the actors a little bit more; work with the sound director where the boom was going to be.
Coming into the studio for two days: a day of rehearsal and a day to do final camera rehearsals. Every key person had to have the script with the key markings. So, the sound director was given the sound map for it. The people on the three camera control units each had a script with the work they had to do on it. The levels of each camera had to be separately adjusted and equalized.
The sound boom operator had to have it; the sound assistant the floor manager the assistant floor manager the props master the standby props person the script assistant the vision mixer.
And you went in to rehearse every single shot. Bit by bit.Then you do a run of a few. Then a run of a few more altering the sound perspective, altering the position of the boom and so forth.
And so it could be said that when you went to air finally, if there were 150 shots in the show then 150 separate shots had been conceived, rehearsed camera rehearsed, by 35 different people. Who had to coordinate exactly, in the flick of a switch, to get it right 150 times.
So the technical side of it was enormous to the extent that I sometimes I remember saying when someone complimented me on the fact that my cameras worked very hard – and they did: we had a lot of shots in every show – I remember saying that in one sense there were two theatres in live television. One was on the studio floor and the other was in the control room because the control room was full of instructions. With the script assistant
- readying the next camera to be shown;
- the script assistant reminding the cameraman he was on a two-inch lens not a five-inch lens;
- readying sound;
- we had film which had to be played in from a remote room telecine on the far side which had to be contacted by telephone;
- and the script assistant had to roll the film exactly seven seconds before the cut came.
And that skill was absolutely extraordinary.
We very rarely got it got it wrong.