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Filming The Mary Tyler Moore Show

by Sandy McLendon

IF you�re like most present-day fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, you�re wishing that time travel was a reality, so you could return to the 1970s, to see an episode being filmed on Stage Two at CBS Studio City. �What was it like?� you wonder.
   It was similar to the way it�s done now; you can still attend sitcom performances at Studio City today. But there were important differences, because unlike today�s videotaped sitcoms, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was done on film. Film has a warmer, more glamorous look; actors like it because it�s more flattering than the colder, bluish look of tape. And it�s easier to preserve for future generations. The drawback of film is that it�s expensive, and unforgiving. If a mistake is made on film, it�s much more difficult to back up and start over. Unlike today�s sitcoms, with their rich troves of "bloopers" made possible by the ease of video production, TMTMS�s cast and crew had to go into each week�s filming prepared to do everything right the first time, if at all possible. Rehearsals were the key, and TMTMS�s were some of the hardest�yet most rewarding�work in the business.
   Join us for a typical week on Stage Two. It�s the early 1970s; The Mary Tyler Moore Show is in full swing.

The TMTMS work week always began with a first reading of the script that had been distributed to cast members the preceding Friday. First readings give actors familiarity with the storyline, and they�re the actors� first step towards creating the performance that will be seen by the public. TMTMS first readings were done seated, in a conference room on the Studio City lot, and tended to be a blend of joking among the cast and serious work to identify and solve problems with the script. The TMTMS team worked as a "family" unit; suggestions were welcomed from all members, regardless of job title. If Betty White thought that one of Ed Asner�s lines was out of character, she was free to say so. If Ted Knight felt that there was an inconsistency between something said in one scene and something else said in another, he could point that out. Notes were taken of all the various suggestions, and given to the writers, so they could make any necessary changes.
   After lunch, the cast assembled on Stage Two, where a second "walk-through" reading was done on the sets to be used in the episode. This reading was done with scripts in hand, and it began the process of "blocking", or creating the various movements the cast would go through during the show. Deciding where the actors would stand or walk was very serious business, because of the three-camera, live-audience format used on TMTMS. Actors had to be within camera range at all times they were speaking, and visible to the studio audience, too. If everything went well on Monday, the cast would finish up with the walk-through around 4�30 p.m., but problems could cause an extra hour or so of work.
   Wardrobe made its selections this day, making sure that everything needed was available, in perfect repair, and colour-coordinated (it�s important that each actor wear a different colour, and that no colour competes with any other for the audience�s attention, except for special requirements). After the walk-through, any cast member who had to have wardrobe fitted reported to the wardrobe department. This was usually not needed on a weekly basis, since most TMTMS wardrobe was either purchased and fitted prior to the beginning of the season, or was the personal wardrobe of the actors.

The morning was devoted to more walk-through rehearsals on the set. The actors were in the process of memorizing their lines, and absorbing whatever changes to the script had been made as a result of Monday�s work. In the afternoon, a serious rehearsal began, without scripts in hand; the only time the cast referred to scripts after Tuesday morning was when changes had been made. Each scene was watched by the producers and directors, who decided if everything was okay, or if more changes were needed. If a joke didn�t work, or a scene fell flat, Tuesday night was when the writers worked on it, often late into the night.

Things started to get serious in mid-week. Changes made as a result of Tuesday�s work were distributed, and meticulous rehearsals were held of each scene. Scenes were done over and over, adjusting blocking, timing, and working out "business" (small bits of action, which in TMTMS�s case were usually comedic in intent). The director and producers watched these rehearsals even more carefully than on Tuesday, because Wednesday was the day the show was "locked in", with no further changes possible, other than minor ones to dialogue. This day tended to end later than Monday and Tuesday.

This was camera-rehearsal day, and it was the hardest day�s work of the week. A full camera crew came in, along with lighting technicians and sound people. The day began with a team of stand-ins taking the parts of the cast, running through each scene. Stand-ins are people who resemble the actors in height, colouring, and build, and their job is to stand endlessly and patiently on the stage while the camera, lighting, and sound people work on getting the episode ready to film. The camera crew had to work out the camera moves needed to capture each scene, and to set focus requirements for each movement. "Marks" went on the floor of the set at this time: they�re crucial to filming. The idea is that once a movement is perfected in rehearsal, the camera settings needed to keep the actor in focus are recorded on a chart. The exact spot where the actor was during the camera rehearsal is marked on the floor with tape or chalk. In the actual filming, all that is needed is for the actor to hit the mark, and for the camera operator to adjust the focus to the settings previously recorded, making for faster shooting. Lighting and sound requirements were very similar; lighting would be adjusted on certain marks and cues, and sound equipment like boom microphones would be placed to follow the action. Wardrobe would be laid out in dressing rooms this day, with all changes of costume recorded on charts, down to the ties worn by Ed Asner. Once the stand-ins did the grunt work, the cast assembled on the sets to run through the show with all the technical people once again.

Filming Day was a balance of hard work and the joy of performing the show in front of its live audience. The morning�s work included that of the hairdressers, who would wash and set the actresses� hair, and give the men any needed trims. More rehearsals were conducted throughout the day; around 3�30 p.m., the make-up people began their jobs, making the cast look great. At 4 p.m., a final rehearsal was conducted in front of an "inside" audience consisting of friends, family, and business associates. This was the rehearsal that gave the cast a final comfort factor with the technical aspects and provided them with feedback on matters like where laughs were going to come and how long they might last. At 5�30 p.m., if all was well, there was time for the cast to eat, usually while the hair and make-up people did touch-ups and comb-outs. If there were problems, they were worked out during this time, and dinner had to come after the filming.
   Around 7 p.m., the studio gates were unlocked, and the studio audience allowed into the seats on Stage Two. The filming didn�t begin immediately; actors were still in their dressing rooms running over their lines. The audience was "warmed up" by David Lloyd: this was a crucial process to ensure that the studio audience knew what to expect during filming. Music and jokes put the audience in a good mood, and a Q&A session gave audience members a chance to understand what would be going on during the evening. Any needed explanations were given during this time.
   Each week, there was a reminder that the show was set in Minneapolis, not Los Angeles, so there would be references to unfamiliar places. And this was the time that David Lloyd made sure everyone understood that the filming of a half-hour episode took about an hour and a half. Finally�finally!�Mary Tyler Moore was brought out, and introduced to the audience. After the applause, Mary introduced the other cast members, and the filming began.
   Filming usually went quite smoothly, due to the intense rehearsal, but it could be a bit confusing for the audience. Camera rehearsals had ensured that the cameras blocked the audience�s view of the actors as little as possible, but there were still moments the cast couldn�t be seen for the equipment. The special cameras used were capable of delivering a video image as well as filming, so overhead monitors allowed people in their seats to see the action at these times. These were also used to show any pre-recorded material essential to the evening�s episode. At the end of each scene, there were frequent repeats of certain lines to create close-up shots, with each actor repeating only the words and action to be seen in the close-up.
   Once the close-ups were completed, everything stopped for costume and hair changes. There were times when something went wrong, and a scene had to be repeated. If the second try had problems too, the usual procedure was to go on to the next scene (so as not to bore the studio audience with too much repetition) and re-shoot the troublesome scene "in pick-up". This meant doing it again after the studio audience had left, and dubbing the original audience reaction on to the soundtrack. Usually, by 9�30 p.m., another episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was in the can, and the cast came out for bows and to thank the audience for coming. Even when it was over, it wasn�t, really: the cast left Stage Two to go home with scripts for the next week already in hand.

Putting it together
The filming of a TMTMS episode provided about an hour�s worth of raw film that had to be turned into the polished end product seen on CBS. This began with editing out all "bloopers" and unscripted moments. A "rough cut" was then put together that followed the script; this cut was then tinkered with to put all the close-ups in their proper place and to tighten anything that ran a little too long. Since the three cameras used in filming yielded three different perspectives of each shot, takes that showed the actors at their best could be selected.
   Once the episode itself was in good shape, the sound people worked to balance the sound, so that each line could be heard clearly. "Sweetening" of the audience�s reactions also took place at this point; a laugh could be raised in volume to give a better impression of how the people in the studio had enjoyed themselves, or lowered to keep a really fantastic laugh from drowning out the dialogue. After dubbing in music, and adding the beginning titles and end credits, the episode was entered into MTM Enterprises� legal records as a "property", a print was delivered to CBS, and millions of viewers got to enjoy it.
   Now you know what Mary, Valerie, Ed, Cloris, Ted, Gavin, Betty, and Georgia did to make the world of TMTMS a reality, as well as how hard dozens of other people worked, from cameramen to hairdressers to writers. It was perhaps the ultimate example of how smoothly�and how hard�genuine professionals can work to be sure that a television audience is entertained, reliably and on time, week after week.
   It�s going to be a while until someone comes up with a time machine. Until then, we have 168 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a record of the remarkable 168 weeks, where the TMTMS family came together to give us the best sitcom of its time. � Sandy McLendon

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  Article copyright ©2002 by Sandy McLendon. Site copyright ©1998–2001 by JY&A Media. All rights reserved. This site is not connected with ABC, News Corp., Twentieth Century-Fox and MTM Enterprises Inc. or their divisions. Site broadcast from San Antonio, Tx.