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

by Edward Copeland
November 5, 2012 8:00 AM
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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.

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  • Alexandra | May 12, 2013 2:27 PMReply

    Your articles on St. Elsewhere have been so enjoyable and informative. As new graduate nurse at the time that the series first aired, I watched it religiously every week. Today, I am swept back to this wonderful time in my career, everytime I watch a rerun and especially when I hear the opening theme song. Those were the halcion days of medicine in spite of the new big challenges like AIDS, financial cutbacks and the pioneering of tranplant surgery. This wonderful ensemble cast captured the true essence of the day beautifully in their performances. Thank your for such your wonderful article!

  • Joe | December 26, 2012 10:48 AMReply

    Thanks for a fantastic article. I was lucky enough to get the entire series on DVD recently and am up to season 5. What a great show. I saw it when I was 20 and now at 50 it brings back great memories. I do have great sadness regarding Ed Flanders. What a great actor - to know he committed suicide is heartbreaking.

  • Manel | November 11, 2012 9:23 AMReply

    I suggest you change the article's name to "Everything you always wanted to know about "ST Elsewhere" but couldn't because of the lack of a proper DVD release". I can't really thank you enough for this fantastic series of articles about one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It really advanced some stuff that shows like "The Wire" or "The West Wing" developed almost 20 years later. The acting was truly phenomenal, excellent writing, cast development, the unforgettable WTF ending...
    Thanks again for the articles, deeply appreciated

  • Paul F | November 5, 2012 7:41 PMReply

    Thanks for these articles, they've been great. I watched the entire series a few years ago, and you're making me want to do it again. Thankfully, being in Ireland, I can watch the entire show on Youtube:

    It baffles me that they can have the show easily available for UK/Ireland people and completely unavailable in the US.

  • Edward Copeland | November 6, 2012 12:05 AM

    I wonder if somehow the British company that original bought MTM retained the U.K. rights before they sold it to Pat Robertson's company who eventually sold it to Rupert Murdoch's or if Murdoch just gets out of paying residuals to the artists by showing it through his interests over there instead of here. It's puzzling. It's been a true international effort to obtain the non-season 1 and final episode clips that we've been using.

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