29 Aug So you think you can pilot?
As Mannequin Pictures gets ready to film a brand new television pilot, Michel’le Donnelly takes a look at valuable points to keep in mind when producing the first episode of a successful series.
The pilot is the most important episode of any television series, mostly because it’s the one that determines whether or not there will be a series. The aim of a pilot episode is to convince networks and audiences that your show is worth squeezing in to an already packed schedule. There are of course those who get it horribly wrong, but for those who get it right, well, there is nothing but sweet, television glory up ahead.
Founder of The New York Television Festival, Terence Gray, shares five points to remember when producing a well-to-do pilot.
1) Keep in mind the networks to which you’d like to pitch your pilot as it’s being developed.
Gray suggests: “Having an eventual destination for a pilot can really help shape the idea from the very beginning of the concept”. This is especially true in TV-Land today. For example, there is absolutely no point in filming a pilot about a strong, independent woman “who don’t need no man” – and then trying to pitch it to ABC because everyone knows that space is already occupied by the kween, Shonda Rhimes. Just like you wouldn’t produce a pilot about a kasi kid trying to make it in the kwaito music world, and then pitch it to kykNet.
I feel like this is where Dan Harmon went wrong with the show Heat Vision and Jack. I mean, sure maybe the concept was a little too obscure– an astronaut, who is exposed to excessive amounts of solar energy granting him super-intelligence, and his talking motorcycle (who is actually his roommate) have to put a stop ‘bad guy’, actor Ron Silver – but if you watch the pilot you’ll realise, it was just before it’s time! Sadly, Harmon pitched it to FOX, who canned it. I honestly believe that had the show been pitched to FX, who are known for supporting strange concepts, we’d all be cult followers of Heat Vision and Jack. You can watch part 1 of the pilot here.
2) Establish a consistent world and tone.
This is where many shows go wrong. They try to fit way too much into a single pilot, thus failing to create a unique world and tone that viewers would want to visit week in and week out. “One thing that’s going to help you set that tone is establishing a core group of characters, and even if your series has 40 characters in it, you don’t want to establish more than five to follow in the pilot”, says Gray. If I think of pilots, one that always sticks to mind in terms of establishing tone and characters, is Friends. Friends used its pilot to set up exactly what it is we’d we tuning in for each week and introduce each character perfectly. And then they were taken off air and no one told us life would be this waaay! Sorry, slight distraction.
Moving on, another show that established a consistent world and tone through it’s characters was Arrested Development. The pilot introduces each character in a unique way and sets up the premise of the show without giving too much away. The uber-dry show, following the Bluth family as they deal with the arrest of patriarch George Bluth Senior, makes no concessions in its vision. Many of the show’s running jokes and trademark character traits are established in the pilot. It was cut waay too short (after three seasons), so cheers to Netflix for the recent revival!
3) Story Progression is important
Gray said: “An audience needs to see more than a premise. They need to see momentum on both the character and the story level.” Vince Gilligan exercised this perfectly with the genius pilot for Breaking Bad. That opening scene, with the trousers flying in the air as Walter White frantically drives the RV through the desert in nothing but his white undies, is everything! Seeing how a premise is going to play out is far more engaging than being told the exact plot bit by bit. “If you can have a B story, that’s great, but the most important thing, the Holy Grail, is that you cannot solve the main conceit of your show in the first episode.”
Mannequin Pictures Director, Delon Bakker, believes a great pilot should always end with a “dramatic cliffhanger, which keeps you hanging on for more.” The South African superhero series, Jongo, did exactly that in it’s first episode. It introduced Eli Smith as an ordinary man and by the end of the episode we’re hanging on to see what happens next as he, “transforms and acquires super powers after he comes in contact with a mysterious alien crystal found at a cave at the Cradle of Humankind”.
4) Get a director and an editor.
“We see a lot of pilots that are written, creatively produced and directed by a single person. While they’re often good, they could have all benefitted greatly from an outside eye”. Gray is right, some people think they can do it all but what you end up doing is creating something as bad as the pilot for the US version of The IT Crowd. I’m assuming they did not use a director or editor because it was just so awful. I really don’t understand why the US insists on creating terrible versions of great shows. There’s the US version of The Inbetweeners and then the US version of Broad Church. Don’t even get me started on the US version of The Bridge! Dear America, would you please stop taking these amazing shows and making them awful, thank you.
5) Don’t neglect production value
Whilst it’s understandable that a pilot would not be as polished as the rest of the season, it should still be something that people can watch without damaging their eyes. The gang over at FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia filmed their original pilot on their own, with 2 camcorders. The production cost was $85-$200 and that money was mostly spent on the tapes! Thank God FX picked them up because it’s eleven seasons later and it’s the longest running comedy series in television history. Gray advises, “ … the problems in production should not be distracting — that’s the key. You don’t need the executive that’s viewing to be taken out of the story because you can’t hear the dialogue or the lighting is really bad.”
By keeping these steps in mind, Gray insists you’ll create something worth picking up. “I think the main thing for an artist is that they need to trust their vision, and just make great content, just produce – because the next great TV show is definitely out there.”