Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

That Call to Adventure: Participating in TV documentaries


Following are thoughts about doing commentary work for TV ... for people curious about it, or who might be getting invitations to participate but who are new to the process. I've participated in fifteen shows on History, National Geographic, and CBS: usually as commentator, once as a series consultant.
  • The fun begins with a note from your agent or a call from an associate producer. He works for a production company that acts as a contractor for the cable channel. The prodco is responsible to a showrunner there.
  • The associate or else a director will want to do an initial phone interview to hear your take on the subject, and will want to see what you've done before on TV. Be patient. You could get a call from an associate producer one day, respond to an urgent request for a phone interview two days later, and then hear nothing for five months. You don't need to remind the production company of your existence by leaving a string of messages. They'll call back if they need you  – know that an associate producer isn't going to forget about some expert he's already interviewed by phone. Sometimes the delay is because the network hasn't made up its mind about which commentators to put on the show.
  • Use the time before shooting to refine your talking points. I work them into sticky notes that go into a loose-leaf notebook, and highlight any key points that I hope to get into the raw footage (of course, they may not get into the show -- see the director's comment below). It's easy to flip through my notebook, brushing up, while waiting for the camera crew. (Photo: DP and director, setting up a shot for Life After People)
  • Trim your observations down to short sentences. Directors are also editors, and they need short, confident, vivid, declaratory statements in the editing bay.
  • Other than for people signed as hosts or series consultants (say, because the shows are based on their books), payment for commentators is per day of actual shooting -- not counting days of travel or preparation. Let's call it less than a thousand dollars a day, sometimes a lot less. In any case the prodco will pick up travel expenses (such as a limo from Newark International to NYC), and you won't go hungry. The days are long but time passes quickly.
  • Crew lunches are a good time to meet the gang and hear about what goes on behind the scenes, and about the latest in sound and audio equipment. It's interesting to watch the process; Titanic at 100 involved a lot of shot-checking during the shoot, because of the elaborate CGI that would interlace with digital footage from the Red camera:

  • I prefer setups that allow me to walk and talk, but that chance doesn't come often. The reasons are efficient use of time and certainty of results.
  • After seeing a rough cut, showrunners deliver the fateful message from the channel called creative notes, as in "add this" and "lose that." It's up to the director and post-production team to keep their blood pressure down and get the show through to picture lock. Commentators don't have to deal with that agonizing phase, except for occasional followup questions.
  • Despite an audience of millions for a prime-time show, don't expect residuals as a commentator, no matter how many times the show is re-broadcast on History or Discovery or whatever. If you're looking for fat residual checks, look elsewhere, like doing ads for the prime time shows! I've heard dazzling stories from helicopter pilots in LA about checks they received after flying in major TV ads.
Also, here's a good reminder about expectations, helpfully sent along by a director who does a lot of work for major cable channels:

“You, the expert community that we're lucky enough to work with, will always be our harshest audience, as you are a master of the field. Often documentary filmmaking for the major doc networks is an exercise in compromise: The full story rarely gets told, and programming ends up being closer to the 100 level course than the 400 level course. My suggestion to those being interviewed is to realize that you're fighting the good fight by piquing interest: Unless you're being interviewed for a Frontline, Nova, or program that has more journalistic aspirations, the majority of the doc networks fill a hybrid role of wanting to educate via entertaining.

"In such a format its hard to go into the kind of deep, detailed content that most experts would wish, but you're still getting your message out there and hopefully coaxing a percentage of the audience to take the next steps in researching the topic via the literature.
“So, in general, they should know that if we do our jobs correctly the big picture and intent of the topic will always come through, but often the juicy details that make up that big picture can get lost in the shuffle. From an expert's perspective I completely understand how this could be frustrating if you're not aware of this reality from the beginning of the process. We interview you for an hour or more, and sometimes you could end up in the show for less than a minute! … But unless the story is about you and your work specifically, don't expect the amount of time you're interviewed to translate into time on screen. But do know that your contribution is highly valued!”

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