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Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 2

Press Play By Edward Copeland | Press Play November 5, 2012 at 8:00AM

Your ears didn’t deceive you. In the clip above, Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) takes a verbal walk down Memory Lane as his residency at St. Eligius comes to a close in the final episode of "St. Elsewhere"’s six-year run and says it lasted “three years.”
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THESE SHOOTS ARE MADE FOR WALKIN’

The short clip that began this piece also demonstrates some of the new techniques from feature filmmaking that St. Elsewhere brought to TV—namely long unbroken takes using cameras like the one from Panaflex, light enough to carry and allowing of more movement. “On St. Elsewhere, we would do a lot of . . . one-shots covering a long amount of dialogue in a single scene,” Mark Tinker said. Part of Paltrow’s redesign of the set when he stopped production on the pilot allowed for floors and lighting to conceal dolly tracks. The show’s budget couldn’t cover a Steadicam. “We had a guy named Rick Gunther, who was an amazing hand-held cameraman, and occasionally we’d put him in a wheelchair—either a standup wheelchair or a regular wheelchair—but mainly he walked,” said Tinker, who wrote many episodes and directed even more in addition to his other roles. Tinker helmed about twice as many installments as the next most frequent director, who turned out to be Laneuville, performing double duty as Luther Hawkins. He made his directing debut in the second season episode, “After Dark.”

That scene from “The Last One” between Fiscus and the opera singer (Ealyn Voss), which Tinker directed, displays another filmmaking illusion that St. Elsewhere often employed. “We would also do things like walk into the elevator and then have a scene take place in the elevator that never stopped, that never had a cut,” Tinker said. "The characters were in the foreground and the doors in the background were facing out. While they were playing the scene, we’d switch out what was outside the elevator, so when they stepped out, it would look like a different place and make it seem like the elevator really worked.”

The typical episode of St. Elsewhere took seven days to shoot, though the length of shooting days on series varies widely today. Tinker, who now serves as executive producer on ABC’s Private Practice, the spinoff from Shonda Rimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, continues to direct not only on that show but others as well as he has in the years since the doors closed on St. Eligius. “Most shows (today) are eight, some of them are nine. For all but the last year of NYPD Blue, we did eight days. For the last year, in order to take about a million dollars out of every episode, we did seven-day shows,” Tinker said. On (Private Practice), for the first five years we did nine-day shows and we sort of did the same trick for this year, and then we took a day off and made a bunch of budget cuts, so we’re doing eight-day shows now. Some of the cable shows, like The Closer,  did seven all the time.” Just for comparison to other cable shows currently on the air: HBO’s True Blood averages between 11 and 14 days to film an episode, while AMC’s Breaking Bad typically shoots an installment in eight days.

Shooting schedules aren’t the only things that have changed in the decades since St. Elsewhere aired. It’s also rarer to find sequences on series that linger on a moment and allow the viewer to drink it all in, whether on network or cable. “I remember the scene where Helen Rosenthal comes back to work after her mastectomy,” Pickles said. ”There’s a scene [when Helen walks back to] the nurses’ station where [Dr. Beale] asks her if she’s ready to go back to work, and she says, ‘Yes.’ They would normally now cut there and go to another place but in those days the director cut back to Helen’s face, looking unsure and conflicted, in a very moving shot. Nowadays, that would not be in a television series.”  Exceptions do exist, of course. Even though Breaking Bad airs with commercials on AMC, it still gets away with exquisite eight-minute long dialogue scenes, at times.

This article is related to: Television, video essay


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