How to shoot network TV in your own back yard

This morning the Today show crew came calling, up here in Amherst. It was quite a production. We had Amy Robach, who interviewed us; Danielle Kowalski, the producer, three camera men, and two customized Suburbans full to the brim with cameras and gear. In this shot, my son Cubby checks out the cameras, which are somewhat more sophisticated than his . . .

The plan was to film my brother at his house, my brother and me together, and me at my house. They also wanted some background shots . . . me with my cars, my son, my musical stuff, and my old photos. I think they got more than they bargained for. They left, ten hours later, with a duffel bag holding three hours of tape. It was a long day, but exciting and fun.

Watching the crew, the difference between local television and a big network show was apparent. Everything was set up, lit, and miked. There were three cameras: one on me; one on Amy, and one with a wider shot of both of us. Each of us had a lapel microphone for close sound pickup, and they had an overhead mike. All three went into a mixer and then into the recorders, just as in a studio.

I was very impressed by the way they took control of the shooting environment. We shot the first segment in my brother’s living room. They moved all the furniture and set up chairs for the interview. The actual setting in my brother’s house was way too cluttered for television, and they turned it upside down to make a setting that looked totally natural on camera even though it looked like a tornado cleaned the place out in real life. Once the chairs were in place one cameraman watched the monitor while another moved objects in and out of the background, seeking the right scene balance of color and shape. They added lights in the rear, to give the illusion of afternoon sun behind us. They masked all the windows, and replaced their natural light with their more controllable movie lights.

In this shot two of the crew are setting up:

Nothing was left to chance. The Today crew spent several hours setting up a scene that will play for a matter of minutes on network television, but in those few minutes, four or five million viewers will be watching, and they made sure every little thing was right. As a technical guy, I really enjoyed seeing it unfold.

And now it's ready . . . here my brother and Amy get ready:

My brother needed to head for New York, so we did his part of the interview first. I watched to get a sense of what I’d have to do, and soon enough, it was my turn. But it wasn’t that simple . . . the whole set at my brother’s house had to be taken down, and a new set assembled at my house, 750 feet away. New setting, new furniture, new lighting . . . three hours passed while they set it up.

Even though it was my first network television appearance, I was pretty relaxed. Amy was really good and I felt at ease the whole time. I always think of myself as serious and deadpan, but she burst out laughing several times when I was answering her questions, and she assured me the TV audience would feel the same way.

It’s a funny thing . . . when I wrote Look Me in the Eye, I thought it might be boring because it lacks graphic sex, violence, and depravity. But as I do these interviews, I am learning that it’s a fun story for everyone who gets involved, because it makes people feel good, and it’s entertaining, and actually good for people, like the foul-smelling fish oil your mom fed you when you were sick. The interviewers always seem to have fun here.

Once the interview was done, they shot what they call B-roll footage; things like me and Cubby, me with my cars, and Cubby and me talking about the KISS guitars. While we did that, another cameraman used his camera and an easel to film tons of childhood photos.

Finally, it was time to go. It's just amazing what goes into a network production . . . I started getting ready before 8 in the morning, and now it was dark, and the editing hadn't even started. I was worn out. I can’t imagine how they’re going to cut all that down into four minutes for the show. I asked Danielle, and she said they’ll work two weeks editing it. This give a you whole ‘nother sense of what goes into those little stories on network TV, doesn’t it?

And now I’m off, to the next interview . . .


Drama Mama said…
I love that you take us with you every step of the way.

Let us know airing dates...please?

I want to burst out laughing, too.
I have a feeling that you're going to be a star...can your ego handle it?
Kanani said…
The actual setting in my brother’s house was way too cluttered for television, and they turned it upside down to make a setting that looked totally natural on camera even though it looked like a tornado cleaned the place out in real life.

This made me laugh. Someday I'll take photos of my house and you'll see it's very cluttered as well!

But good job all of you, for making through an arduous day!
Nita said…
Do you know when the piece will air? I'd love to watch it, especially after reading your "behind the scenes" description.I've always wondered about those living room interviews. Because there's no way they could get the cameras and crew in my living room, no I know, they just take everything out.
John Robison said…
Nita, it will air on Weekend Today just after my book goes on sale. I'll post a date and time as soon as I know.
Polly Kahl said…
Hey John. Can you get copies of the films they took, even though it won't all be aired? Might be fun for your family to have in the future. You know, when there are Mini-Cubbies running around, and they wonder what Grandpop was like, back when he could still walk and talk.

Can't wait to see it.
Drama Mama said…
Just re-read my post from this morning. My comment about the ego sounds flip and mean, but truly, I am curious...are you ready for the waves of love about to come your way? (Sorry for the tone of the former post; it was 6:18am my time...)

Also, off topic - I was listening to your audio clip on your profile and my 8 year old traipsed downstairs. She listened to your voice, your words, and was immediately intrigued. She listened, then asked me to buy the book. I told her I most definitely would, and I announced that I am going to have my students read it, too. She then changed her mind, and asked for the audiobook. I said sure, and then, asked why.

"His voice feels like home to me," she said.

I find this very interesting, and loved that she has such good taste.
Being on the spectrum, perhaps she will be able to relate and be bolstered by your words.

My question - can an 8 year old handle your book? Can you suggest chapters that are suitable?
Holly Kennedy said…
Sounds like it was a great experience, John. I wonder if it will air in Canada on the same date it does in the US?

(Are you getting excited about the release date!!??)

Woof from the Rocky Mountains.
John Robison said…
Drama Mama, I had not been insulted by the first post. I have been asked similar things by the interviewers, like, "what will you do about your newfound celebrity?"

I am busier answering questions and responding to people, but I don't really see myself as changed in any other way.

I'm not really sure what it is that my ego will have to handle.

As to your daughter and the voice . . . I pulled out my audio book script and looked at it. There are some parts that might seem "bad" to a young child but there is no sex or violence, really. As I've told others, if it were a movie, it would have a PG rating, I think. Order it and listen for yourself . . . I think you'll feel she can play most or all of it.

For yourself, I suggest you get the print book too, because my audiobook is shortened by 30% in order to fit CD changers, and many interesting "side themes" were cut.

That said, the voice in the abridged audio book is that of a real Aspergian (me), and many people on the spectrum will feel familiar with my sound and pattern, as your duaghter noted. And that's going to make the audio book more alive for those who connect to it.

As to suggesting chapters for your child . . . the audio book does not really have chapters. It's a continuous script that I read. And the way I wrote it, each section builds upon the passages before to what I (and many reviewers) feel is an inspiring ending. It's meant to be listened to straight through.

I have never had a kid listen to it and I'd be interested what you think. It may surprise you to know that I have not heard any more of my audio book than you have, actually, since I recorded it. They should send me a complete book any day but the production was really a down-to-the-wire deal in order to make the Spet 25 ship date.

I'm confident that the audio book is a first rate production because you can hear it in the sample. My producer / director / engineer are the best in the business, as is the editing team at John Marshall Souond.
John Robison said…
Holly, I don't really know about Canada. Do you get Weekend Today up there?

Even if the TV show does not play up there you can get the video from the Today show web site. And they tell me that will have additional material, too.
Polly Kahl said…
I'll be getting it on audio and will be listening to it in the truck with our 11 and 13 year old sons, no problem. Although I would prefer the 100% version instead of the 70% version. Hopefully enough will sell that they will then release the full one.
ORION said…
Wow John,
I'm impressed that you didn't have a few butterflies even though it was taped and edited. I'm also amazed at how long it took to get a few minutes of material.
Very interesting.
I've also enjoyed the TV spots and interviews that I have done- it is so different than it appears in real life-
Do let us know when it will air and plan to be very BUSY over the next several weeks. For me now visiting blogs takes a backseat to other stuff.
Aprilynne Pike said…
Wow . . . pretty amazing!
ssas said…
How cool. I'm sure they had a great time working with you, too.
Tena Russ said…
John, I want my copy of your book right NOW!
John Robison said…
Tena, I wish we could all get copies right NOW!

Some books trickle into the market, and they are in bookstores 4 weeks before the published on sale date. Look Me in the Eye is controlled, though, so it's not going to be anywhere till the 25th.

Only 18 more days . . . .
Wendy Roberts said…
Wow! Thanks so much for sharing these details.
The Muse said…
Hey John,

You clean up real good! Look at you with the pressed shirt, long khaki pants, and the hair swept back off your forehead. Savvy.

They must have liked the footage that they were getting from you to continue for so long. That's great news.
John Robison said…
Muse, I did clean up good. If you had been around to compare the version of me that appeared at the KISS concerts in the book, and the version of me that's going to appear on the Today show . . . well, even an outlaw biker would be impressed.

As far as their sticking around because they got good material, I just hope you're right. The producer and Amy both told me they were very happy with the shoot.
Sandra Cormier said…
Weekend Today is on NBC on Sunday mornings, so I'd look for John's interview on the 30th or Oct. 7th. Our digital channel guide shows who will be featured.

NBC affiliate stations are in Canada. For us in Ontario, one of the NBC stations is WGRZ out of Buffalo. Hopefully the Canadians out west will have an NBC affiliate station to check out.
Sandra Cormier said…
If anyone ever interviews me, I think I'll have to hijack someone else's house. Mine is too much like a college dorm with all the hand-me-down furniture.
Anonymous said…
john, thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting. i cannot wait for your book to be released!!

i love the way augusten has described you, i am looking forward to your perspective on things.

be well, and good luck!
Anonymous said…
p.s. i can wiggle my ears too :)
and, i lived in amherst for about 10 months on pelham road.
Anonymous said…
what an exciting day! i can't wait to see it!! it IS startling what goes into the short segments we see. no wonder they get the big money.
Irene said…
fun stuff! i've done a very few commercials and voice overs and i'm always amazed at all the behind the scenes work that goes on for just a 30 second spot. fascniating. i'm sure you'll let us know when it's on, yes? still hoping to see you in nyc.
Amonly said…
Hey John,

What do you mean lacks depravity- I recall some questionable stories :) - all in point of view- but yeh, you turned out just fine! As to graphic sex-

maybe I will have to write about that....joking.....maybe..
John Robison said…
Alison, I would be embarrased to write graphic sex scenes like my brother does, but if you want to do so, go for it!

There's readers out there but I'm not planning to make a spectacle of myself in that particular manner.

I don't know if your dating book idea needs graphic sex scenes, though.

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