Pre-production! Finally, an area where there are more similarities than differences in the Unscripted and Scripted worlds.
Everything depends on Prep!
“A stitch in time saves Nine” is equally agreed upon in both Unscripted and Scripted. Whether it’s scouting locations/permits, organizing shooting schedules/ crews/editors staff, deciding on cameras and shooting style, juggling actor/participants’ schedules (harder in Unscripted because they are not paid so we always have to work around their schedules), finalizing scripts or beat sheets, it’s always the same: the better the prep, the better the shoot/edit. And of course, the opposite is true.
In Scripted (with more time and money available), there is a greater emphasis on production design, wardrobe, script analysis, makeup/hair, actor prep, and rehearsal, shot lists, camera, and lighting plans and the coordination of sometimes over 100 crew and cast. In Unscripted it’s usually under 40 crew/cast, and sometimes under 10, depending on the show or project.
One of the greatest joys for an Unscripted director transitioning into Scripted, is to be able to expand the above elements and develop scope and depth in character and story during prep. Again, it’s like Picasso moving from doodling to painting with oils. The flexibility of the short, fast, spontaneous shoot with fewer moving parts (and people) is sometimes more simple in prep (though definitely not easier). But having time to really develop the prep process with various department heads gives more opportunities for shared creativity and can heighten the chance of a great show. Everything of course, depends on the collaborators involved. Personally, I love both spaces for all of the above reasons.
Production – at last!
Production, whether in a studio or on location, is where Scripted and Unscripted execution really differ! In both worlds, directing is where the second layer of writing occurs after the actual scriptwriting.
Once the prep is completed (of course it continues behind the scenes throughout problems, challenges, pitfalls, etc.), an Unscripted crew hits the ground running at a wild gallop. Where a Scripted director will have had weeks to analyze the script and actors, and prepare shot lists and will have had multiple meetings with Showrunners, Directors of Photography, Wardrobe, Production Design, Sound, Hair/Makeup, etc., an Unscripted director for hire and their team have days/hours/minutes to meet, discuss, prep participants and get their shoot moving.
In Unscripted, directions to camera crews are often given en route to the shoot and the director and their team need to develop a short-hand to convey and understand what and how they are going to shoot a particular scene. Because there’s no script per se, a lot depends on the director’s beat sheet which will indicate what production thinks is going to happen.
There are, however, no guarantees for what will happen, so my crew instruction is often “Here’s what we’re going after and what I think is going to happen. However, if something golden lands from heaven and takes us in a new direction, we’ll drop all that and spontaneously follow the new storyline.”
As you can imagine, this requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to pivot. FAST. I once was hired on a show about a woman who was terrified of barking dogs and her sister-in-law was constantly bringing her two pets over when she visited. As a guest director, I arrived at the shoot to find that the normal camera operator wasn’t there. I didn’t know it at the time but he and the usual director refused to take the job out of fear. The sound mixer was new and the host of the show was there but refused to go into the house. I had a couple of hours to shoot the interviews and b’roll and nobody I was working with had experience on the show or knew what to do. Did I have to fly by the seat of my pants? You bet!
Between managing the fears of my team along with that of the participant and host, I had to get shots of crazily barking dogs while trying to keep my camera operator safe. I was directing and designing shots on the go and, as always, in Unscripted, I had to rely on the quick-thinking abilities of my hand-held camera operator and sound crew. Was it a nightmare? Yes. Was it ultimately exciting, safe, and did it produce a brand new look for the series? Yes. The showrunner was so taken by the “breathless” fast-paced (we were running!) “hunt and pecking” style, that nervously captured the action, he reworked the rest of the season in that style that we had created out of necessity. Now that style is often used in Scripted movies and series as a particular style to keep the audience guessing and on edge.
This was an extreme example but the Unscripted shooters often have a lot more freedom (and responsibility and fun) to grab their shots on the fly and still bring in quality footage.
As a director, I always use a small portable monitor so I can see what’s being captured. Interrupting non-actors can really destroy their attention and flow, so this is where I develop silent codes between myself and the crew in order to signal closeups, wides, pushes, swish-pans to something going on on the other side of the room. But the camera crew often has to make split-second decisions on their own as the twists and turns of the situation reveal themselves. Teamwork, skill, and trust are vital to the success of the shoot.
When the Script is the thing…
Where I might lose some of the immediate connection to the action in Scripted when I’m forced to be a distance away from the actors and crew in “video village”, this can be made up with the use of walkies for crew and the “god mic” for the cast so I can issue instructions via a “floating” voice. Personally I prefer to be closer to both but time and the wishes of the production company need to prevail in some instances.
While directing actors in Scripted, I can really delve into the character and intentions during a scene. Even if rehearsal is limited, having good actors who understand their jobs is an absolute joy for a Scripted director. If time permits, I can shoot various angles of an important scene and a good actor can monitor the peaks and valleys of their performance with continuity so I don’t have to worry about “draining” them as much as I would when directing non-actors.
Additionally, when directing Scripted on a set with a budget that allows it, I can work with wardrobe, hair/makeup, and have more “toys” at my disposal for camera moves, design, and choreography. I get to “wild a wall” or remove something like a mirror so I get to shoot from an angle that wouldn’t be possible shooting on location. Heavenly!
I would say I have more options as a director for hire in Scripted but I also may have to give up flexibility and spontaneity that I might have on a small “run n’ gun” shoot. Production methods in Unscripted and Scripted can be drastically different but the ultimate goal is the same of course – a great, compelling show that viewers want to stay with.
Sound, how I love thee!
On set or location, sound mixers are the unsung heroes in either world but mixing sound spontaneously, and being responsible for making sure people are heard through a lot of chaos and noise makes me deeply appreciate Unscripted sound mixers and all the anxiety they have to go through. No one knows the quality of their work until post-production and then, it’s only if it’s bad and everyone screams at them. I’ll say it again: Sound mixers are my heroes and I maintain eye contact with them at all times so they can alert me if there’s an airplane noise or someone jumps on someone else’s line – this happens all the time in Unscripted with untrained “actors” because they don’t understand how talking over each other can screw up editing. In Scripted I don’t get to have that same close contact with Sound as they are often in another part of the studio but regardless, I admire and respect their work in either genre!
A skill is a skill is a skill
I’ve found times that my experience in Unscripted can affect how I approach a scene in Scripted and vice versa. In traditional Scripted shooting, one shoots a wide master shot first for eyelines, continuity, actor placement, etc. Then you move in for mediums, closeups, and specials.
Often we shoot Unscripted in the opposite order. For example, when a homeowner is coming into their house for the big reveal and we want to see their reaction of surprise, shock, joy, or whatever, we will start to shoot the scene in closeups.
It’s rare to get the same reaction in a second take with non-actors so it’s vital we’re there as it happens the first time. Then we can follow up with mediums, wides, etc.
In my Scripted short My Father, Joe, I wanted that same raw reaction from our 10 yr. old actor, Jamie Mayers as he saw his father’s real role in life for the very first time, shattering his image. So I never let Jamie read the script and I wouldn’t let anyone discuss the scene with him. I told the crew we were starting with his closeup and they looked at me like I had 3 heads. The shoot came off beautifully and that raw moment borrowed from my Unscripted toolbox was wonderfully caught forever in the film.
Something else I often do in Unscripted is to not call Action as it can put the participants on edge and suddenly they start “acting” (badly). So I have a code with the crew where I signal to them to quietly pick up their cameras and start rolling which can often ease the participants into the scene and it just goes from there. I’ve used that “trick” in Scripted directing too.
I’ve often transferred many of my actor-directing techniques from Scripted to working with Unscripted participants. People are people and many are terrified to be on camera. Actors hide it better but my role as director/sister/mother/daughter/friend/psychologist/ally is very challenged in both worlds. I may use different words that will be quickly understood depending on who they are. A non-actor won’t understand the word “intention” for example in a scene, but if they are, let’s say a carpenter, I’ll try to find an image or a word that they can apply to what they’re saying/doing. Words like “shave it off a little”, “grow your feelings into a house from a studio apartment”, etc. By constantly observing and listening to both actors and participants, one learns a lot about how to direct them.
I always try to keep a “light” set in both worlds. Both actors and crew can become distracted if things become too raucous or sullen after days/hours of work, travel, and workload, but with non-actors in particular, a pleasant atmosphere is often the only way to keep them fresh during long, arduous days which are totally new and foreign to them.
The team and teamwork are crucial in both worlds. We are all storytellers and are only as strong as our weakest link. We’re there to produce the best show possible, script, or no script.
Unscripted vs. Scripted: