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Lessons From A Hollywood Whirlwind

February 25, 2013
Photo courtesy of J. Griffin Stewart at Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy of J. Griffin Stewart at Flickr Creative Commons.

Never underestimate the power of 48 hours.

Earlier this month, eight Communication undergraduates boarded a plane to Los Angeles, clad in business attire and jittery excitement. They knew the basics. There would be meetings with illustrious UW alumni. There would be questions, dinners and networking opportunities. And Chair David Domke would shepherd the adventure.

They wouldn’t know what hit them. For the next 48 hours, Hollywood would be pried open, spilling its secrets and wisdom, and filling the young hopefuls with more inspiration than their minds could hold.

Thus began the Communication Department’s first L.A. Expedition.

The selected undergraduates pose for a photo before take-off. Top row, from left: Garrett Nelson, Treyci Kay, Michael Lopez, Sean Fraser. Bottom row, from left: Christy Choi, Ilona Idlis, Shanoa Pinkham, Natalie Huyen.

The selected undergraduates pose for a photo before take-off. Top row, from left: Garrett Nelson, Treyci Kay, Michael Lopez, Sean Fraser. Bottom row, from left: Christy Choi, Ilona Idlis, Shanoa Pinkham, Natalie Huyen.

When I first heard of the pilot program—framed as way to prepare students for Hollywood careers by getting them acquainted with the alumni who live there—I approached it with a journalistic curiosity. I wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes of our country’s cultural mouthpiece. I figured knowing how Hollywood builds its fairytale narratives would help me unpack their messaging and be a better journalist. I ended up with so much more—professionally and personally.

Insider knowledge would indeed be abundant; we navigated spaces and conversations usually inaccessible to the general public.  But all that information didn’t just make me a wiser critic. Instead the trip fostered a huge respect for the gargantuan amount of work that these fairytales demand and even more for the passionately creative people who craft them.

Whether it was an episode of Hell’s Kitchen, Curious George or a Comedy Central digital short, the journey of a concept to a screen is rife with challenges, endless tasks and a lot of creative problem solving. Just learning the tricks of the trade was exhausting, so feel to skip about the anecdotes depending on what interests you:

Producing the Heat of Hell’s Kitchen

The group poses with Lindsey Marcus and Carley Simpson (center)  while Chef Gordon Ramsey looms in the background.  Ilona Idlis by poster.

The group poses with Lindsey Marcus and Carley Simpson (center) while Chef Gordon Ramsey looms in the background.

After a tour of Hell’s Kitchen Production Studios with alumna Carley Simpson (‘05) and Lindsey Marcus {’10), it became clear that a producer’s work is never done and there’s nothing easy about putting together a “cheap reality show.” For this series, multiple teams of four producers are responsible for crafting an episode’s plot, arranging resources and tasks lists for every single department, directing on set and then splicing the show together with a cohesive season theme in months of post-production.

Though Simpson and Marcus have a hand in every stage of the process, the most grueling days are spent on set. The actual live competition is filmed in a mere month, so producers will be at the soundstage from 5 am to 2 am, overseeing everything from hanging the right lights in the morning to the contestants’ last words before they hit the sack.

Don’t get me wrong. The show isn’t scripted—the drama of the rivaling chefs comes about naturally under the fiery reign of Gordon Ramsey (who Simpson says is just as intense off-screen, but totally a nice guy to grab a beer with). But documenting the struggles and squabbles of dozens of contestants requires an intense digital omnipresence. It requires the control center.

Picture this. From the moment the contestants awake, Simpson, Marcus and two other producers observe their every move from a room with 80 screens—one for each camera on set. Usually, “only” 17 are running, but in case that wasn’t sensory overload enough, the producers are plugged into three audio feeds each, listening for burgeoning conflict. When Simpson anticipates a confrontation, she signals the cameramen to get in the best position possible to capture the moment and tunes in.

After a big blow out or an eventful announcement, the producers must grab the contestants’ most visceral reactions. The trick to that is an “Ice Out.” The episode progression is frozen and the chefs are not allowed to speak to one another. They are sequestered into individual interview booths and one by one, the producers interview them to get the juiciest commentary on the previous scene.

When filming is done, it’s those interview bits that color almost every reality show’s narrative. The producers build a 50 minute show from hours and hours of footage. But the guiding light is always the story—and the story is very hard work.

Animation or the Long Road to Eleven Minutes

The group poses with alumna Ellen Cockrill at Curious George Production Studios. Ilona Idlis below poster

The group poses with alumna Ellen Cockrill at Curious George Production Studios.

Ellen Cockrill’s (’80) process is a little different. As Senior Vice President of Animation at Universal Studios, Cockrill oversees the production of the beloved Curious George cartoon series. While animation doesn’t require 80 cameras and a control center, the work is arduous in a different way—mainly the 11,854 drawn frames necessary for an 11 minute episode. After the concept, story and voice-over work are done under Cockrill’s prevue, the detailed storyboards are sent to be animated overseas. Three months later, the episode is sent back, ready for further revision.

Finding Funny and the Pitfalls of Measuring Laughter

The students met with Comedy Central's top digital executives: Brad Winters, Allison Winters, Jon Slusser, alumnus and EVP Erik Flannigan and Jason Jordan. Ilona Idlis center

The students met with Comedy Central’s top digital executives, from left: Brad Winters, Allison Kingsley, Jon Slusser, alumnus and EVP Erik Flannigan and Jason Jordan.

After a lunch with the upper echelon of digital innovators at Comedy Central, Spike and TV Land, the group became privy to a whole different struggle in broadcast media—keeping that toiled over show on air. Accompanied by his Viacom team, Executive Vice President of Multiplatform Strategy and Development Erik Flannigan (’90) was quite frank—selling a TV show to advertisers is an antiquated transaction and Nielsen ratings are the industry’s biggest frustration.

The clandestine organization has been the middleman operative to a show’s success for decades. It measures viewership by a “People Meter”—a device that registers the channel being watched—placed in 20,000 secret homes across the country. From this sampling of 0.02 percent of the population, Nielsen tells advertisers what shows America is watching and they buy commercial slots accordingly. That ad money keeps the shows running. But if Nielsen says no one is watching, you can kiss your favorite series goodbye.

Flannigan insisted that Nielsen’s methods don’t capture accurate viewership, since they don’t measure online viewing and gauge only a limited number of DVR screenings. The unaccounted for views often prove to be the death knell for quality TV shows. That’s why Flannigan’s task is building the Comedy Central brand in the digital sphere. He was the man responsible for putting full episodes of the Daily Show and Colbert Report on easily accessible web services like Hulu and ComedyCentral.com. Now he’s overseeing the founding of CC Studios—a production studio within Viacom that will incubate internet-only series.

“We can’t keep protecting the linear TV business,” Flannigan said, but the shift requires careful maneuvers. “What’s best for digital audiences is not always best for the company.”

Life Lessons

Our wanderings around production studios, Viacom boardrooms and the sets of How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family at the FOX lot were memorable, privileged moments. Experiencing the lived realities of Hollywood’s success stories informed and inspired new career paths. But for me, the most valuable part of the journey was the honesty, kindness and encouragement every alumna and alumnus offered our rag tag team. Their personal struggles proved to be the trip’s biggest teaching moments. Pete Chiarelli’s (The Proposal) successful career switch from producer to screenwriter alleviated my fears of a job choice’s finality. Ken Baldwin’s (Season on the Edge) raw enthusiasm and dedication to each new project—whether it’s salsa dancing or a fishing show—told me that anything is possible with the right attitude and unwavering commitment.

With each visit, our notions of Hollywood were tweaked, our understanding of success altered. But certain ideas resonated over and over. Alumni with no present connections apart from their alma mater would echo each other, reaffirming the truth of their advice. Their guide to success has relevance far beyond Hollywood, and so I share it with you here:

1. Surround yourself with good people. There’s plenty of negativity in Hollywood. Schadenfreude—pleasure derived from the misfortune of others—is abundant. But you won’t get far reveling in negativity.  

Surround yourself with aggressively creative people,” Jerry Collins, the president of Arnett/Bateman’s dumbdumb company, advised us. They’ll encourage you to try things, to keep going even when the going gets tough.

Ellen Cockrill assured us of the same: “There’s always room for good people at the top.”

The crew throws their "Dubs" up in a moment of Husky Pride with Jerry Collins of dumbdumb. Ilona Idlis at center

The crew throws their “Dubs” up in a moment of Husky Pride with Jerry Collins of dumbdumb.

2. Have confidence in what you bring to the table. Both Jerry Collins and Pete Chiarelli spoke on this point extensively. Rejection is inescapable and everyone will be a critic, but you can’t let that defeat your effort and talent.

“Give yourself permission to fail,” said Chiarelli. Then get up again, because no one can offer what you can.

“The more you change to be here, the less in touch you’ll be with your voice,” Collins warned. “Bet on yourself.”

pete with group and Ilona Idlis

Screenwriter Pete Chiarelli (center) poses with the group after a long heart-to-heart.

3. Make a choice and then commit to it. Pick something that interests you and then pursue it with all the passion you can muster. Don’t fret—it won’t be the last choice you ever make. If in two years, you don’t like where you are, you can seek another career. But now your acquired skills and hard-working reputation will transfer with you.

“Don’t worry about the position and salary of your first job,” Viacom’s executives advised on picking the right career path. “Just get in with a great company and inherit their business culture. Take the mail-room job to be with a great company.” Because from there, the only way to go is up.

These life lessons will stick with me much longer than the fleeting thrill of Hollywood’s glamour. I am incredibly grateful to the L.A. Expedition for giving me 48 hours to seize them and I hope they can help you, too.

All smiles after a dinner with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists: David Horsey, Evelyn Iritani and Carol J. Williams. Ilona Idlis on the left

All smiles after a dinner with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists: David Horsey, Evelyn Iritani and Carol J. Williams.

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