by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Ellen Sandler knows just about everything there is to know about writing for network television. She has developed over a dozen pilots, worked on several prime-time half-hour shows, and she received an Emmy nomination for her work as a writer and co-executive producer on Everybody Loves Raymond. These days, Ellen shares her knowledge as a consultant, a speaker, and through her wonderful book, The TV Writers Workbook.
LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa spoke with Ellen about the classic TV format — the multi-camera half hour show — and where multi-cam scripts are heading today.
Angela Bourassa: For the uninitiated, what are the key differences between multi-camera and single-camera half-hour shows?
Ellen Sandler: Multi-cam shows shoot the whole episode in one night, and the show is performed and shot on a single sound stage in front of a live audience. There are four cameras running simultaneously, hence the term multi-camera. Each one will be focused on a different angle – master long shot, medium two shot, and single close-ups of each actor. The cameras move across the front of the set (what is known as the fourth wall in the theater) following the action as it plays, and they cover the whole scene in one unbroken run through. All the sets are up at the same time and the actors and cameras move from one set to the other, playing the scenes in the order they appear in the script. It’s a lot like a one-act play, although there are breaks between scenes for wardrobe changes and to re-set cameras and sound equipment.
A single-camera show shoots over several days, and there is no audience. Like a movie, the scenes are shot out of sequence, with each shot set up separately, one angle at a time, usually with only one camera running. (Two may run simultaneously in order to get different angles — like a close-up and a medium shot — at the same time.) All the scenes that take place in a particular location are scheduled to shoot at the same time, no matter how far apart they are in the script.
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Angela Bourassa: Are there other, more nuanced differences between the two formats?
Ellen Sandler: In a single camera show, scenes are generally much shorter — usually half a page to maybe two pages — and there can be many more of them, as many as 30 scenes in a half hour. There are also a lot more locations, many of which can be exteriors, in moving cars, traveling from room to room, and scenes can incorporate background action and extra players. In multi-cam shows, scenes are longer — they can run for six or seven pages. The locations are limited because every set has to fit on the sound stage, so generally no more than four or five sets, and they are almost always interiors. Exteriors and moving vehicles come off looking obviously fake on a sound stage.
Angela Bourassa: Do you think the multi-camera comedy is dead? Should budding writers bother to write multi-camera pilots?
Ellen Sandler: Single camera is currently more common and many writers like to work in that format, but many of the most popular comedies on network TV are multi-cam. Audiences seem to be comfortable with the format, and networks like them because they can be cheaper and faster to produce.
Angela Bourassa: It seems like the most successful multi-camera comedy shows of the last decade have evolved the form in some meaningful way. For example, How I Met Your Mother played with memory in innovative ways. Big Bang Theory often doesn’t give neat resolutions to storylines at the end of every episode — they might end with a discovery of a lie that would come in the second act of any other sitcom. How should writers approach taking this traditional comedy format and evolving it into something fresh and exciting?
Ellen Sandler: That is a wonderful question, but it’s impossible to answer. A fresh and exciting new form by its very definition is surprising, and that means we haven’t seen it before and we can’t predict what it should be. If writers create multi-dimensional, unique characters first and then follow those characters with honesty and genuine interest, they will discover the unique aspects that are appropriate to their particular show.
Angela Bourassa: In your opinion, what are the multi-camera comedies that writers should be watching and studying?
Ellen Sandler: Any show you like and respond to is worth studying. Watching a show and connecting with the characters on a visceral level is the first step. If you really want to study a show and learn how it’s put together, you need to go further and read scripts for that show. As many as you can. Then you need to break those scripts down, scene by scene, element by element. In my book, The TV Writer’s Workbook, I have a whole chapter on how to breakdown a script and study it. There is even a sample chart of how I would study any show I wrote for.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.