It looks impossibly easy. Lots of people on lots of shows do it. But very few have really mastered it. I’m talking about the art of carrying an effortless on-camera conversation. My “dream team”, the four original hosts of The KTLA Morning News are the unrivaled masters at the art of conversation. That’s probably because they’ve literally had thousands of hours of practice – and because it’s completely natural and instinctive once you get the hang of it, and once the talent, the director and the floor director are in perfect sync.
When I was producing these guys, I would go into each hour of the show 15-minutes “light”, meaning I only had content to fill 45 minutes of the show. The other 15-minutes would be ad-libbed by Barbara Beck, Carlos Amezcua, Mark Kriski and Sam Rubin. And 15-minutes was never enough pad time. We often got complaints that they would talk over each other. But I dismiss that. Listen to any conversation among your friends or family. They are all talking over each other. It’s a natural part of ordinary conversation. And that’s why their conversation sounds so natural.
But it’s not only what they are saying, but what they are doing that makes this an important lesson in your on-camera development.
When the show open resolves and the camera moves into them at the table, Carlos (on the right) is leafing through a book of photos that a guest is going to plug later on. Mark is already in mid-conversation, talking about cow tipping. Barbara is still settling in after what we called “the walk” from the news set to this 9AM chat set. And Sam, who’s got the big story of the day with the Emmy winners, is busy perusing through the stuff he’s about to report on.
Now, this particular clip is not a flawless example because the director of this episode is not Lenn Goodside, the “great director” who regularly directed the 2-hour newscast. So the camera “takes” are, like, a second or two slow, which annoys the hell out of me, and also forces the hosts to compensate for that by switching their gaze from one camera to another on air, which Barbara had to do on her first and third close-up. Recognize that those are director issues, not mistakes by talent. This director also makes the fatal mistake of sitting on the four-shot much too often – because it’s easier than cutting the cameras to the conversation. These kind of directing choices really piss me off and oftentimes with this director, I would find myself looking at the camera monitors in the control room instead of the line cut because I, as a viewer, wasn’t seeing what I wanted to see on the line cut. That’s an automatic reflex for me in the control room. I often don’t realize I’m even doing it.As I said, the viewers are kinda joining them “in progress”. They are already having a conversation. Mark continues to tell his story, and the first thing Barbara does (automatically), is bring the audience in on what they’re already in mid-conversation about. It happens to be about Mark discussing cow tipping with guest Olivia Newton-John. Barbara is a master at what I call “flirting with the cameras”. Not flirting in a sexual, come-hither way, but the everyday flirting we all do with people we like while we’re talking to them. Example: making a face, or a slight smile. Always giving an occassional glance to the camera just like she would do if the fifth person in the conversation was you, which, it essentially is. She touches Mark on the shoulder. An almost imperceptible small gesture but again, something people do when they flirt. When Barbara says, “It’s about the Emmy awards”, perfect example. She’s talking to you, but also to the other three, she raises her eyebrows, leans slightly into the camera. All of this coming together in a single shot. Sam effortless does the same thing while discussing Barbara Walters, and then Carlos punctuates the point when he talks about “elevating the medium” and turns to his camera to say “and that’s what we’re doing”. The hosts always know which camera they’re on (thanks to floor director Neil S. Levine), so when it all comes together, it looks beautifully choreographed but in fact, it’s the skill of the hosts.
OK, enough talk. Watch the clip and notice a lot of these things for yourself. Also notice how the celebrities love these guys. Everyone loved these guys. It comes across with Kathy Baker. And it comes across with the Ben Stiller crew, who interrupt the show to say “goodbye” while the hosts are on the air discussing something else.
Also realize that the entire segment you just watched was unscripted. Except for a few bullet points in the prompter telling everyone what’s next, this was all just off the top of their heads – which is how any good conversation happens! I would urge you to study this clip and then compare it to the hosts of The View or The Talk. You‘ll be surprised how difficult it is to pull this off so smoothly!Another thing to notice – the interview with Kathy Baker was what I call a “gang-bang” interview, where all four hosts participated. It worked so seamlessly that I bet you didn’t even notice. It boggles my mind how the network morning shows still don’t “get it” and continue to divide up the interviews among their hosts. Could be an ego thing as one host doesn’t want to share his facetime with another host. But even in 2011, the network shows haven’t caught up to the style and feel of this show which aired in what, 1993?