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Werthead

Production Blocks

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Over on WiC there seems to be confusion over how the 'production block' system that HBO is apparently using for Thrones is going to work. If we assume many of the people keeping an eye on this situation are Americans and regular American network TV doesn't use the same system, this is understandable.

American network TV shows like Lost use a 'rolling production' model, where each episode is filmed sequentially after the last. Most American shows film one episode over 6-7 days and then straight into the next one, or sometimes with a single day off between episodes (with usually a longer break, maybe a week or two, around Christmas). Upwards of half a dozen episodes will be in production at any one time. One episode will be filming, another will be in post-production, another will be in final mixing and music scoring and another will be being delivered, whilst on the other side one episode will be being written, one will be having pre-production budget meetings and rewrite discussions, another will be in read-throughs with the cast and another will be prepping to shoot. Simple shows like sitcoms will be shot over 4-5 days (with the bulk of filming on a studio audience night), whilst a more complex show like Lost will shoot over 7-8, with an overlap in filming (the last day of shooting Episode 4 will simultaneously be the first day of shooting Episode 5, but it will be arranged so that the same actors will be not be required). Due to the increase in serialisation, it's also possible that scenes will be shot that span episodes (the final scene of the BSG episode Revelations saw the entire crew trucking out to a beach outside Vancouver for the classic cliffhanger ending where the crew discover a nuclear-ravaged planet; rather than get everyone else out there again the following week, they simply filmed the scenes for the following episode Sometimes a Great Notion immediately afterwards, with another director stepping in).

American TV prefers this model because it allows them to shoot relatively close to transmission. If a show is not performing ratings-wise, they can cancel it and only have spent the money for another 3-6 episodes, not the entirety of the season. It's a somewhat flexible model. This model does mean that directors will usually not direct consecutive episodes, because the workload is insane (it requires directors to be prepping one episode whilst simultaneously filming another and then switching to cutting an episode whilst filming the next, and there simply isn't enough time to do these jobs at once), though for two-parters directors will sometimes prep both episodes in one go and then cut them in one go.

This is not the model that HBO are using for Thrones, however. It appears (although it is not fully confirmed) that HBO are using the British 'production block' system which is instead used on Doctor Who, Torchwood and indeed a lot of British dramas. This is because HBO have commissioned the entirety of Season 1 and will show it and give it a chance to grow regardless of initial ratings. This is the same attitude of a lot of British shows. The block system is not used in the States because it is only possible to use it if the entire season is being filmed in its entirety some time before transmission, which of course is not possible for network shows that want to be able to cancel shows at 3-4 episodes' notice if the ratings tank (I don't know if the production block system is used for American cable shows which are filmed in their entirety before transmission).

The block system sees several episodes combined into one solid block of filming and production lasting many weeks, maybe a month to two months. This block will involve the same behind-the-scenes personnel, and will be designed to maximise efficiency and minimize costs, so episodes set in the same location, using the same guest or recurring actors and so on will be combined, regardless of the actual transmission order of the episodes. Most notably, the same director will be assigned to the entire block. The block will be prepped, read-through, go through pre-production and budget meetings and then filmed and put through post in one long process. Usually whilst one block is filming, the next director will be stepping up and prepping the next block so the actors go from filming one block to the next (sometimes with a short break between them).

As an example of this process, on Doctor Who the episodes Rise of the Cybermen, The Age of Steel, Army of Ghosts and Doomsday (Season 2, Episodes 5, 6, 12 and 13) were filmed in one large block. This was done because the expensive Cybermen costumes could be fabricated and used immediately across all four episodes rather than being put into storage and then pulled out again, and because these episodes reused a lot of the same guest cast who could film their scenes right through rather than having to take a few months off inbetween. These episodes, whilst filmed mostly in the standard Cardiff studios, also used significant amounts of location filming in London, which could be again done in one go for all four episodes instead of having to truck back and forth between the two cities.

Doctor Who also sometimes uses a deviation of this system to maximise filming efficiency. An extra episode is sometimes added to a filming block which is in fact directed by a different director and indeed an entirely different filming crew. This extra episode is then filmed whilst the rest fo the block is being recorded elsewhere. These episdoes by definition cannot have the Doctor and/or his companion in significant roles, resulting in the 'Doctor-lite' episodes like Blink, where the main actors only appear briefly and the focus of the episode is on guest cast. The episode Love and Monsters kickstarted this trend the previous season. For the show's fourth season this process was furthered by the episodes Turn Left and Midnight. In the former, the Doctor is almost completely absent and in the latter his companion Donna is completely absent. This allowed these two episodes to be filmed almost completely simultaneously, which saved filming time and money.

It appears Thrones will use a similar process. We have three directors already but apparently there will be more. If there are five directors for the season, for example, the most efficient model is for each director to handle two episodes in one production block (with one of these directors handling a full episode and a reshoot of the pilot), based on what locations are needed and ready, which sets need to be reused and which actors are available. This likely explains why some actors have been able to take other jobs very close to GoT filming even if they are in Episode 1 or 2; these will not necessarily be the first episodes shot. This appears to be confirmed by the news on WiC that the current focus of read-throughs and costume fittings is Episode 4, and this may be the first episode to be shot.

Where this process helps Thrones is that it solves the riddle of how they were going to handle the Daenerys scenes. The idea of the production crew filming for 10 days, flying to Malta (formerly Morocco), then back again to Northern Ireland for the next episode's Westeros scenes and then back to Malta again seems hideously inefficient. Under the production block system they can simply combine all of the Dany/Illyrio/Viserys/Drogo scenes into one shooting block and have the individual episode directors fly out to direct their portion in turn, or for one director to handle the whole lot and be dual-credited on the appropriate episode.

Needless to say, if it turns out that they are not using the UK production block system I've just wasted 40 minutes of posting, but certainly this sounds like the process they are using :)

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Interesting info, thanks!

So if an episode has a number of scenes from two different 'blocks' (like say half is Dany-stuff and half is in Westeros in a single episode) and each block has a different director, how is it decided who directed the episode? Or am I misunderstanding it?

ETA: Ah nevermind, I read through too quickly the first time; is dual-crediting allowed in television by the director's guild though? I know for the longest time movies didn't allow it, but the Coen brothers finally got their way.

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Interesting info, thanks!

So if an episode has a number of scenes from two different 'blocks' (like say half is Dany-stuff and half is in Westeros in a single episode) and each block has a different director, how is it decided who directed the episode? Or am I misunderstanding it?

ETA: Ah nevermind, I read through too quickly the first time; is dual-crediting allowed in television by the director's guild though? I know for the longest time movies didn't allow it, but the Coen brothers finally got their way.

Typically dual-crediting is not allowed for TV series (I believe in either the UK or US). My guess on how they handle it is that the 'Dany block' would be subdivided by all of the relevant scenes per episode, and then the directors of those episodes come in and direct those scenes and then turn them over to the next director. This may sound inefficient, but given how much the directors are paid and the costs involved in moving credits around, it may actually be the most cost-effective way of handling it.

This may also explain why they moved Dany's second chapter into Episode 1. It could be that this way they reduce Dany's appearances over the numbers of episodes but increases her screen-time per episode (so she might appear in 5 episodes rather than 7, which would be the case if they followed the book strictly, but in those 5 episodes she appears for 15-20 minutes rather than just cropping up here and there for 5 minutes at a time). This consolidation of her scenes means that each director gets to direct a reasonable chunk of material so they're not just flying off to Malta to record one scene for their block and then take off again.

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Very interesting. Trying to make the best of a very complicated show to film. :)

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This is very interesting. Thank you for posting. I had no idea that the US and UK production models were so different. The UK model seems like it would work well for the type of location shooting required for A Game of Thrones.

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I would think for an actor it could be difficult to perform a character's storyline out of sequence.

Like filming your death before the other scenes that help the actor conceptualize how it got to that point.

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I would think for an actor it could be difficult to perform a character's storyline out of sequence.

Like filming your death before the other scenes that help the actor conceptualize how it got to that point.

And yet they do it all the time.

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Scenes are filmed in the most bizarre ways sometimes.

In The Return of the King, the scene where Frodo sends Sam home was filmed in two parts separated by a year. Sam's coverage in the scene was filmed in November 1999 and Frodo and Gollum's reaction shots and dialogue were filmed in December 2000. It was a rain-cover scene, so they erected the Cirith Ungol rockface set in a school gymnasium and then left it standing for a year before they could come back and complete the scene. Yet in the movie it's totally seamless.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation Denise Crosby filmed at least one episode after her character's death in Skin of Evil. Her actual last filmed episode was Symbiosis (which is why, in the final scene on the hanger deck, if you watch carefully you can see her waving at the camera as the doors close). In fact, Babylon 5, noted for its tightly-scripted, pre-planned serialisation, had its first season filmed completely out of order. Signs and Portents, which introduces the Shadows, the growing discontent on Centauri Prime and Morden, was filmed three weeks after the Season 1 finale, Chrysalis (which was the 12th of 22 episodes filmed). Ed Wasser, who plays Morden, found it tricky filming his second appearance before his first but fortunately B5 was highly unusual in that scripts were ready weeks in advance (rather than days), so he had a rough draft of Signs and Portents to explain what happened previously.

Of course, on a more localised basis the scenes in an individual episode of any TV show are filmed completely out of order anyway. Professional TV actors deal with it.

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[Of course, on a more localised basis the scenes in an individual episode of any TV show are filmed completely out of order anyway. Professional TV actors deal with it.

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[Of course, on a more localised basis the scenes in an individual episode of any TV show are filmed completely out of order anyway. Professional TV actors deal with it.

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Could you tell me then, do you think they ever do "block" scenes if an actor has only a few scenes in the show and doesn't want to be hanging around for weeks? For example in GoT the first book, Littlefinger isn't really in it much, and I'm sure Aidan Gillen has other projects - would they arrange shooting to suit? Or is it that if an actor signs on they sign on for the 30-week shoot whether they're needed or not, and therefore can't do anything else during? (I'm not up on this at all - I'm a theatre buff.)

It depends. Arranging the shoot to suit Gillen, for example, might involve making things more complicated for the actor playing Pycelle, or for Sean Bean or someone else. So they come up with a system that suits as many people as possible and if it leaves things awkward for a few, they work around it.

Filming the show in the British Isles with a mostly UK and Irish-based cast is flexible in this way as Belfast is only a half-hour flight from London and a couple of hours' drive from Dublin, so the respective actors can get back home quite easily, do other jobs, get back to Belfast for a day or two to do odd scenes and so on.

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