TAC Table of Contents
From Script to Screen
by Mike Kaweski and Brian McKernan
Jim: The first season of the Adventures of Superman was filmed between July 23, 1951 and October 13, 1951. But even after October 13, there was much more work that needed to be done on those 24 (or 26) episodes.
All that summer and into the fall, cameras captured the actors going through their paces. At the same time, other cameras were out taking pictures of the E. Clem Wilson Building and other establishing shots. Stock footage was being examined, and special effects were being developed.
So how, exactly, were all the different elements put together? The editor was presented with hundreds of pieces of film. How did he get them in the right order and how was that actually accomplished? Who added the fades and special optical effects, such as x-ray vision?
Mike Kaweski was kind enough to provide the answers to many of my questions, and it turns out that what happens in post-production depends very much on pre-production planning, so we might as well start at the beginning.
When I asked Mike to provide a short bio to help us know him better, he wrote: I am originally from New York but now live in Seoul where I work as a supervising animator on animated TV shows. To be sure… if it weren't for George Reeves I wouldn't have this career. I never drew anything until I saw the Adventures of Superman in 1959. I started drawing Superman then, and I didn't stop until Superfriends was canceled.
Brian McKernan is a former editorial director at Videography magazine and is already known to many of us. You can read more about him on his website: http://www.brianmckernan.com/
And so, with grateful thanks to Mike and Brian, let’s try to understand how episodes of Superman might have been put together. Please understand that production on the series started way back in the summer of 1951 and that each and every production had its own way of doing things. As often as possible we used images from the series to illustrate. Where we could not, both Brian and Mike supplied reasonable substitutes. Keeping all that in mind, the following should give us a pretty good idea of how things went that summer so many decades ago.
PART 1: PRE PRODUCTION AND PRODUCTION
Mike: Before anything else, a script is needed. The writer submits a synopsis about the story and, if approved by the story editor, he or she then writes the full script. Several drafts may be submitted until the producer and the sponsors approve it.
Then comes meticulous planning. The director will go through the script and create a shot list. He or she will consult with the cinematographer and together they will determine what shots will be needed: Master shot of the whole scene, close ups, and reaction shots will be determined. Also the B roll shots – establishing shots of the Daily Planet Building for example – or wherever the story takes place as illustrated below. Every new location needs an establishing shot. The producer looks at the shot sheets and determines the schedule and the budget for each days production.
The art director then gets to work designing the sets. Many static sets are built for the duration of the series and are designed by the art director.
But other locations are usually walls and doors and windows stored in big warehouses and called up for each episode. These are all temporary.
The prop master checks the script and determines, in consultation with the art director, which props will be needed.
Once filming is completed all walls are broken down again and everything is sent back to the warehouse. Every last penny is accounted for down to the minute.
Depending on the budget, many productions will shoot scenes from different episodes, but in the same location, all at once. That is a big money-saver.
Brian: That is indeed a big money saver and is called “shooting for convenience.” Filming for television is typically done at a brisk pace, since “time is money” and television budgets are nearly always tight. A good, professional cast and crew will strive to “get it right the first time,” and shoot as many pages of script per day as humanly possible.
Mike: Set ups of lighting and sound can be complicated if not handled well. During some rehearsal time, the scenes are “blocked” or choreographed to determine camera angles and movements. Marks are laid on the floor for the actors to stay in frame and in focus.
Brian: Lighting the set and actors is one of the most time-consuming aspects of filming. Stand-ins will often be used in place of the actors while the episode director blocks out the scene and the director of photography, the camera operator, and the assistant director figure out camera placements, camera movements (if any), camera angles... and the all-important — and often tedious — arrangement of lights needed to ensure sufficient illumination to capture acceptable-quality film footage.
Actors are then brought onto the set, instructed as to their movements, and rehearsed. Professional actors will have memorized their lines, which surely expedites progress.
Mike: The script girl, or continuity supervisor, watches the proceedings, making notes as to what items or props are in the scene; which clothing, wardrobe items, and fashion accessories the actors are wearing; and to check that the actors say their lines correctly. As each take begins, the assistant director or the clapper boy will fill in each shot's detail, take, sequence, scene, etc on a clapper board. He or she then snaps the top bar down to make a loud clap noise allowing the sound to be in sync with the picture. Each take approved or not is noted by a production assistant or the assistant director so the editing department can easily find and assemble approved takes.
PART 2: PRODUCTION AND POST PRODUCTION
The film is shot on 35mm negative film and a work print is struck from that negative. An editor will create a rough cut of picture and sound but a sound editor will sync the dialog more accurately. Each day’s shooting is logged and cataloged so the editor knows exactly what he’s got and in relation to the final show. As each part is filmed the editor then goes thru the film with sound on moviola and fine cuts the show to format it for length and for commercials.
Brian: Postproduction on Superman was no doubt pretty much the same as it was on every film-originated TV series before the advent of digital editing/postproduction in the late 1980’s. The difference with Superman, however, was its frequent use of special effects, some of which were done during filming (such as background “process” shots or “physical effects”—such as bending steel bars) and others during the editing/postproduction process. Those effects were created on an optical printer (see below). Experienced film editors work quickly in “assembly-line” fashion, cutting and splicing a workprint to match the script and the time allotted for each portion of each episode. As the editor proceeds with trimming the footage, producers will typically view their progress to determine if “re-takes” are needed. Actors might even be invited to view the previous day’s “dailies,” although this practice is more common with feature films. The pace of editing film for television is typically so rushed that time doesn’t allow for it.
Mike: The editor also indicates on the work print with a grease pencil where fades and dissolves, and optical effects are to be inserted. After the producer approves the fine-cut the work print goes to the negative cutter. Negative cutters usually work in “clean” rooms where dust in the air is filtered clean. The cutters themselves wear cotton gloves and hair mats to keep the negative elements absolutely clean. The cutter uses the workprint as a guide to cut the pristine original 35mm camera negative according to the tiny code numbers printed on the edge of the film.
This negative is then run thru an optical printer where special effects, animation and processed shots and special filters are combined with the negative to create effects like titles and credits, x-ray vision, double exposures, night time effects or whatever else the script requires.
Brian: As an aside, when Superman began to be filmed in color in 1954, additional postproduction steps became necessary. These included the use of a “colorist” using a “Hazeltine” or similar system that employed special gels and filters to make sure the color was consistent from shot to shot and properly balanced for duplication into 16mm distribution prints destined for TV stations.
An optical printer is basically a projector aimed into a camera and both are in sync with each other. Process shots are easy to distinguish from “normal” shots. The shot of George Reeves flying over Hollywood at night is a process shot. Setting the “tolerance” for process shots were difficult to achieve in the early 50s. George would have a faint glow around him as he flew towards the camera. These days software takes care of that easily.
The shots of George flying Judy Nugent in “Around The World With Superman” are rear projection. Film is shown on a big screen behind the actors while they do their scenes. The projected image and the main camera are locked in sync via an electronic pulse so there is no flickering.
This is useful for scenes inside a car for example to save money on a special truck and crew so the actors can appear outdoors in their car. Rear projection is still used today but more sophisticated using blue and green screen with backgrounds mapped in with software I can't even pronounce.
Any flubbed lines or poorly recorded dialog is fixed in a “looping” session where the actor watches the scene in a sound booth and has to try and match exactly what he or she said during the shot. This is also used for scenes shot outdoors affected by wind noise or an errant airplane flying by. After that all the clean, mixed audio is brought together in another editing suite where sound effects and music are edited to fit the picture. Traffic noise, room tones, general ambiance as it’s called. Finally all the elements are combined onto a master negative that all prints are struck from.
PART 3: POST POST PRODUCTION
Inevitably, controversies arise on many productions due to skittish network executives and or sponsors of a production. Parents groups as well. The Adventures of Superman was far from alone regarding this. From the initial approved script, notes may be sent down from the head office to tone down violence for example.
I personally have never seen the first version of season 1's “Crime Wave.” At least I don't think I have. I understand that after it was completed and approved, Kellogg’s objected to the violent opening and demanded it be replaced.
When a show is completed there is the master negative. From this negative, copies known as “internegatives” are struck. Positive prints are struck from these negatives for distribution to all markets. I do not know how many of these were made. These days its done via satellite. The master negative is not touched. I've read that most shows store their negatives in vast warehouses where the temperature is icy cold and dry, or they are stored in secure underground caverns in Kansas City and somewhere in New Mexico. From what I've read about the Adventures of Superman they just grabbed what was handy and released in on DVD. Also, on the revised version of “Crime Wave”, one of the internegatives was used. A new opening was shot and edited to make it milder, and the negative cutter again donned the clean suit and gloves and cut the new section where the old section was.
Jim: And there you have it: A good explanation of the work needed to put the Adventures of Superman onto film. Each episode had to be meticulously assembled and edited to the minute.
October 28, 2021
"Like The Only Real Magic -- The Magic Of Knowledge"