What’s the difference between making a short film versus a feature film versus an episode of television?

For David Greenspan – director of the Palme d’Or-winning short “Beancake,” the upcoming feature 51-50 Mall Cop, and 53 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy – the two biggest differences are time and creative control.

In film, your budget and your patience determine the amount of time you have to prepare, shoot, and edit. But in television there are air dates, and they come up fast. Further, on a film, all creative and logistical decisions go through the director. On a TV set, the director mostly concerns him or herself with making sure the shoot stays on schedule (therefore, on budget) and that the shots and actors’ performances convey the writer’s intention.

The Short Film: “Beancake”

My first bona fide short, “Beancake,” was my USC thesis film. I had a full crew, and I took a lot of time to prepare – I storyboarded the whole film. I was able to do so because there were only two locations and I had access to them ahead of time. The script was only 10 pages, so even though I made changes to it throughout pre-production, there weren’t that many storyboards to change. I was able to show the cast the blocking ahead of time and we rehearsed the whole film in one afternoon.

It was a very civilized experience, a five-day shoot spread out over two weekends. We only had about two pages to shoot each day so, even though the crew was made up entirely of film students (and the cast was mostly kids), I never felt like we had taken on too much. I even had time to screen the dailies in between the shooting weekends, allowing us the opportunity to reshoot a scratched camera roll and plan to get a few extra close ups of our leading lady when we went back for the second weekend. The almost unlimited time and level of organization I had on this first film did not prepare me for the typical run and gun quality that characterizes most shoots.

Palme d'Or

“Beancake” went on to win Greenspan (center) the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film in 2001.

The Feature Film: 51-50 Mall Cop

My next filmmaking opportunity after “Beancake” was a low-budget independent feature called Mall Cop (now called 51-50 Mall Cop). Unlike with “Beancake,” I had a very qualified line producer working with me the whole time.

More Material

The budget was much larger, but the biggest difference was the sheer size of the script. There was just a lot more to keep track of. Instead of 10 pages there were 120 pages, so we had to shoot an average of four pages a day. The story took place over a few months instead of one afternoon. There were a lot of costume changes and only half of the locations were locked before we started shooting. I tried storyboarding the whole feature, like I did for my short, but I only got through about half of the script during pre-production. Because many of our locations were not set, some of the storyboards were useless because I had to simply imagine what the scenes might look like.

More Crew

The Mall Cop crew was much larger and more experienced than on my short, so even though the workload had expanded, the burden I felt was about the same. For example, the DP was a veteran of many low-budget shoots. Whenever we had to shoot at a location that I hadn’t had time to prep, he would join me on set about 30 minutes ahead of the crew call and together we would plan out the blocking and coverage.

Kathleen Robertson and director David Greenspan om SECURITY

Actress Kathleen Robertson and Greenspan on 51-50 Mall Cop

Continuity Blues

With a longer, more complicated script came continuity issues I’d never tangled with before. Unlike a short film it’s practically impossible to shoot a feature (or a TV episode) in chronological order, so continuity is a big deal. In fact, on Mall Cop we messed up once with a costume change and had to re-shoot an entire scene.

Rehearsal Time on Location

In spite of that mess-up, directing the feature felt a lot like directing the short. I could concentrate on the performances and the shots. And after we finished casting, I really only had myself to answer to on creative decisions. As for rehearsal time with the actors, we didn’t have a ton. The actors arrived just a day or two before the start of principal photography so we only had time for one full-cast read through. But we were all living on location in the same hotel in Albuquerque, so we were able to talk about the characters over dinner sometimes, and whenever there was downtime on set, the actors would happily get together and run the scene again and again.

Of course, every feature is different. Rehearsal time isn’t necessarily a function of the length of the script. If you have access to willing actors ahead of time, you can rehearse and workshop a script to your heart’s content. On Mall Cop, we had a 30-day shooting schedule which I’m told is a luxury on a feature film with a budget as low as ours was. There were definitely a couple of night shoots where it felt like we were trying to get too many pages done in a short time, but for the most part I didn’t feel too rushed.

Total Control… Over 10 Years

I edited Mall Cop as well as directed it, which was a blessing and a curse. When you’re making your first independent feature and you own the editing equipment, you can edit forever if you allow it. You live with that project until the very end. I directed the composer who patiently worked with me over a period of many months. I’m still with the project. It is finally getting distribution more than 10 years after principal photography. I’m so grateful to finally get it out there—but it’s been a long road.

The Television Show: Grey’s Anatomy

The Need for Speed

Episodic TV directing, as you might imagine, moves at a much faster pace. One episode of hour-long network television generally takes one month to complete. Literally a month after you start shooting, the show is ready for air. On Grey’s Anatomy, we have about nine days to shoot a 60-page script. That’s an average of more than six pages a day. Before getting to direct the main show, I directed the very first Grey’s Anatomy webisode. On that we actually had to shoot 11 pages in one day. It’s a break-neck speed. With a schedule like that, there’s a constant discussion either in video village or in your own head:  Was that take good enough? Do we need that extra shot? Can I edit around it? (From my experience in the editing room I know that the answer to those questions are usually — yes, no, and yes.)

There’s only time for a very quick rehearsal with the actors before every scene, like a matter of minutes. You need to have your blocking worked out in advance. But it’s tricky: You can’t block with the actual actors on from the show because they are not available during your prep time. They are shooting the previous episode while you’re prepping yours. The solution I’ve found is to bring other actors (usually my good friends) to the sets on the weekends and block the scenes with them. The few minutes of rehearsal time you do get with the actors are basically devoted to relaying your blocking plan and making sure it works for them.

An Experienced Team

While TV moves a lot faster than film, there are many things that help you along when you direct. The crew has made over 200 episodes, so they’re very fast. They’ve lit all the sets a thousand times before, so whatever shot you can imagine they’ve got it handled. Often, the DP can come up with a camera move that’s even better than the one you had in your head. And the actors are very talented and most of them have played their characters for many seasons.

Not Reinventing the Wheel

Directing TV isn’t about inventing a new character or shooting style. It’s about coming up with a visually interesting and clear way to tell the story of your episode as efficiently as possible. To be honest, trying something visually interesting often costs you precious time, so in this sense, directing TV is a real balancing act.

Directing Greys

Greenspan directs an episode of Grey’s Anatomy

The Limits of Control

In my mind, the biggest difference between directing for TV and directing indie film is that, on the set of a TV show, the director isn’t really in charge of the content. There’s always a writer on set, and that person is in charge. It’s a very collaborative process but the writer’s opinion carries much more weight than on a feature or a short, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s almost always a great help to have another storyteller there to bounce ideas off of or to help evaluate performance. And on a few occasions I’ve found myself tempted to move on too quickly because I’m trying to avoid overtime.

Ultimately, most things are the director’s call, but it’s good to have the input of someone whose only concern is the story and not the schedule. Making an episode of network television teaches you to get rid of what you don’t need from your shot list and what you don’t need from your cut. It teaches you how to focus on the story and keep things moving and entertaining. There is no doubt in my mind the experience of directing television will benefit me when I shoot my next feature. I know it’s already made a huge difference in my short films. MM

Indican Pictures released 51-50 Mall Cop on VOD and DVD.

Mentioned This Article: