Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Model of Production - Part One

Much has been said about Guiding Light's "new production model", a lot of it by people who have no idea what the old production model was like. As a long-time viewer, I remember well what the old model was like - the sprawling sets, the warmth of film, the tight editing, the flexibility, the sound quality, the lighting, the musical score. For me, the old way of doing things wins this competition, hands down.

Before I go any further, I need to make one thing clear: Guiding Light was not cancelled due to the new production model. The new production model came about in an attempt to prevent the show's demise. Ellen Wheeler and others have stated, in no uncertain terms, that the changes made were made for financial reasons. The "new" model was, in fact, the "cheap" model, and it looks it. That said, having spoken at length with several people who were at the coal face for these changes, I have nothing but respect for every actor, every camera operator, every single crew member who stuck with the show and made the best of a lousy situation. In many ways, I feel it was a labor of love for them to continue producing a show under conditions that others might have found impossible to work under. 

Springfield, Circa 1994 - The Sets

In 1994, Springfield, USA (that's right, Springfield was always Anywhere, USA...not Illinois as has been implied during the last couple of years - there was never any intention to try and pass off this sleepy, little town to television viewers as Springfield, Illinois) had some grand buildings: 

  • The Spaulding mansion - so stately, with big rooms and rich-looking furniture. 
  • Vanessa's house - warm and inviting, with that great stairway off to the side of the living room, by the front door: the perfect place to stand and eavesdrop on what was going on in the rest of the house or even the front garden. Vanessa's house had an upstairs, with large bedrooms, and even a bathroom, that we saw - a rarity on daytime television. 
  • Towers restaurant - a huge rooftop eatery with two levels, big tables, wide aisles, fine linens, elegant waitstaff,  a grand piano, and live entertainment. Oh, and a panoramic view of Springfield.
  • The Springfield Country Club - the hub of activity for the town's movers and shakers, the country club boasted a large cocktail room with a long bar, a dining room flooded with natural light coming through grand, French doors that led to the stone patio and outdoor area, where a fountain flowed. The country club also had a huge, elegant ballroom - big enough for every member of the community to comfortably attend a wedding or awards ceremony - which one entered dramatically via curving stairway. 
  • The lighthouse - a nod to the show's name and history, and home to anyone lucky enough to rent this quirky home from Ed Bauer 
  • Spaulding Industries and Lewis Oil had offices, the former austere, the latter less formal, but still business-like. And windows - the offices had windows.
  • On 5th street, there was the Diner - a traditional, all-American spot with chrome-and-formica tables, counter service, and a juke box. And a pay phone that played a key role in so many dramas.
  • Holly's house - an open plan living/dining area and kitchen, a fireplace, lots of windows, two bedrooms, a basement - was just a short walk from the diner. 
  • A drive out of town led to the Jessup farm - pretty much abandoned since the death of Hart's grandfather, its screened-in porch the only room Hart could bring himself to inhabit. 
Other Springfield sites included WSPR offices and studios, the Bauer house, the Boarding House, the Springfield Banner offices, Blake and Ross' house, and Mindy's studio, where the women of Springfield went to be fitted for formal dresses. And, of course, Cedars Hospital, with its full E.R., O.R. and waiting room. 

These were sets - not actual rooms. They allowed for multiple stationary cameras shooting from different angles. They allowed for large group scenes to be shot. The lighting didn't come from a switch on the wall, but from a lighting crew who specialized in lighting for television. There was flexibility. The open nature of the country club and Towers sets, for instance, made it possible to film large-scale events such as weddings, and have characters move around from inside to outside, from room to room. Under this production model and with these sets, an entire episode might revolve around one setting. Picture it: Towers. Roger and Holly sit at one table, Roger pretending to listen to Holly's concerns about Blake's newest scrape, while actually planning in his head to crash the upcoming Spaulding board meeting and stage a coup. Alan-Michael is at another table trying to talk Vanessa into voting his way at the next meeting of the Spaulding board. By the grand piano is Gilly at the mike, singing a jazz number. Hampton stands at the mezzanine level, where he confides in Billy his suspicions about Gilly and Alan-Michael. At the bar, Nick and Fletcher are getting slightly tipsy, scanning the room, talking about women, and trying to figure out how someone as smart and sensible as Holly can stand to be with Roger. Enter Ed and Eve who are out for a civilized dinner date with no drama - highly unlikley, given the fact that Ed can't help noticing Holly and Eve can't help noticing Nick. There's even more tension when Vanessa notices that Ed is with Eve, who she doesn't like or trust, given Eve's history of stalking and threatening Mindy. How can Ed have this crazy woman in his life, in his home, in Maureen's home, where Maureen's little girl lives?

That'd be a whole episode, right there, and a full one. It would have everything a good soap episode should have: character interaction, relationship issues, family dynamics, friendship,  politics, business dealings, cross-over/overlapping story lines, tension, secrets, and numerous nods to history and continuity. An episode such as this could easily have been filmed during the 1990s - the vast, flexible, well-built sets made it possible. In fact, there were lots of episodes of Guiding Light such as this mock-up during the 90s: mini-movies that made the most of just one or two sets, involved a large number of characters weaving in and out of, and interacting within three or four or five plot lines. There were party episodes where the only set used was Towers or the Country Club. New Year's Eve episodes where the action switched back and forth between Towers and the 5th Street Diner, illustrating the contrast between Springfield's haves and have-nots. Episodes focusing on medical emergencies where all of the action took place at Cedars.

Try doing this with Guiding Light's final sets. It's impossible. As GL winds down, Towers is a claustrophobic mess where even a high roller such as Olivia sits at a tiny table by the front door - because it isn't an old-school set, but an actual room with four walls, and a few crappy pieces of furniture. No room for multiple stationary cameras. No room for those long shots of Hampton walking from table to table to bar, checking in on the dozens of diners and touching base with the goings on of Springfield's elite. No room for the grand piano, let alone live entertainment. The "new" Towers is a rooftop restaurant with no sweeping view. 

In my opinion, of the new Guiding Light sets - all small, closed rooms with four walls and very little space for actors to move around - the only one that really works is the farmhouse. It looks and feels like the real thing. People who have visited the set remark on how tiny the farmhouse living room really is, but it doesn't look or feel small on television. There's an organic flow between kitchen and living room that actually does make possible, with a little help from a video editor,  shots of characters moving about from room to room/upstairs to downstairs. Of course, Natalia and Frank's engagement party had to be limited to a very small group of people, attending in shifts, because five actors and a couple of camera operators using hand-held cameras is about all that room can hold. It worked, though, and the lighting looks fine - especially in the kitchen.

Most of the other new sets sit on the other end of the spectrum. Affluent, successful people such as Josh Lewis and Olivia Spencer work out of tiny, bleak offices without windows, and have furniture that looks as if it's from Ikea. WSPR seems to have downsized and moved to a dusty abandoned building. Cedars is made up of several phone booth-sized areas covered in faux wood grain wallpaper. So small are the hospital sets that Alan and Phillip looked like a father/son traveling company of Gulliver's Travels as they tried their best to make a couple of small gurneys look like actual hospital beds. And don't get me started on the lighting that magnifies every pore, every blemish on an actor's face. Grotesque. Springfield's stately homes of yore? All but completely gone. The Spaulding mansion basically consists of a cheap-looking mock-up of Monticello - the quality of which would be acceptable for a school play. Alan Spaulding's living room looks smaller than Natalia's living room! Marina and Mallet's home looks like a shrine to Howard Johnson's. The other Springfield homes? With the exception of Reva, just about everyone else in town seems to live and get their business done at The Beacon. What the fuck???? Phillip doesn't even get a room - he conducts business via cell phone from a bench outside of Olivia and Emma's "suite." Huh? 

Overall, the sets are a failure. 

I chose these clips because they provide a decent cross-section of GL sets during the 1990s - they're not related in terms of content, which isn't what I was focusing on when I chose them.

The Country Club's Banquet Room


The 5th Street Diner/Holly's house (not the best example of this) /Executive office at Spaulding Enterprises

In Part 2: Outside? - Shooting outdoors and on location

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