The freshman CBS legal drama managed to film an entire episode by having its cast use video conferencing platforms including Zoom, FaceTime and WebEx.
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“We started asking ourselves, ‘What would our characters be saying and doing?’ as we’re virtually having to work together,” executive producer Len Goldstein tells Variety. “We were thinking they would probably be figuring out how to handle the justice system and they would probably be checking in with each other like we’re doing. From those initial conversations we started to think, ‘What if there was a way to be able to achieve a season finale and tell a satisfying story using the technology of the times?’
It’s one thing to have the idea. Pulling it off is another matter. To maintain the level of production value consistent with a network show, 50-60 people in total worked on the episode. In addition, cast members were sent costumes, props, lights and other equipment, all of which had to be sanitized before it was sent. Having production-quality equipment, series lead Simone Missick says, helped set everyone at ease.
“Then it became very clear that we were definitely going to be doing this and going to be doing it as professionally as possible, which I think made us all feel a little bit more comfortable and more confident,” she says.
The episode was written to capture how the justice system continues to function despite the pandemic, while also showcasing how the characters’ home lives have been affected.
“I think one of our aspirations of the episode was to capture both specifically and generally what is the vibe of living in this moment and having to find a way to connect and find a way to do your job,” says creator and executive producer Greg Spottiswood.
The episode was directed by executive producer Michael Robin, who has directed multiple episodes of the series in the past, including the pilot. Given that, familiarity with all involved was not a problem. Where challenges did arise, though, was in figuring out how to direct people remotely.
Robin says that he would get all the actors in a particular scene onto a platform like Zoom, talk through things, then turn off his camera and allow them to perform. Executive producers Spottiswood, Goldestein and Dee Harris-Lawrence also popped in — using audio only.
“There would be these omniscient voices that would appear and give thoughts on the scenes. We’ve already talked about how to [continue to] do that moving forward,” Robin says, with a laugh.
Missick had a bit more difficulty adjusting to the strange new style of filming, specifically finding an eye line when she wasn’t sure how the various pieces would be cut together.
But, Missick came up with a novel solution: She printed out photos of her cast mates and taped them on the screen in front of her when she was doing scenes with them.
“In rehearsal I would look at everyone on the screen to get a sense of what their performance was going to be, and then I would start taping people’s faces up,” she says. “As actors, it made us all depend on one another when it came to really connecting with the relationships these characters have and being able to ignore the technology and the connectivity issues.”
“It was a remarkable feat that she pulled off,” Robin adds. “That was juggling chainsaws as an actor and it was amazing.”
Questions remain as to how sustainable this type of filming will be. Thousands of people remain stuck at home without a means to actively participate in production, though ideas are percolating as to how shows could gear back up as quarantine restrictions are eased. According to Missick, the current situation is at least allowing for creative thinking.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily the way that any of us would want to do ensemble drama,” she says. “It’s good that we were able to find a way to make it work for our show and I am excited to see if other shows are able to figure it out as well. But Michael and Greg always said, ‘Our actors are our production value: We don’t have big explosions; we don’t have car crashes.’ For shows those are a major part of, I don’t see that happening. But I think that there will be a bunch of creative people that come up with shows that can be shot like this that do take advantage of it.”
The all-virtual episode of “All Rise” airs May 4 at 9 p.m. on CBS.
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