Thursday, January 19, 2006

Butler Did It

I was writing something about "Hill Street Blues" (the first season is available Jan. 31), and one thing that I've decided is that the director of the pilot, Robert Butler, must be one of the most important figures in the not-terribly-glorious history of episodic TV directing. TV directors are mostly traffic cops -- they tell the actors where to move, shoot the footage, turn it over to the showrunner, and move on. But there are a few directors who go beyond that, and Butler seems to be one of them. Among the pilots he directed were:

- Star Trek
- Batman
- Remington Steele
- Moonlighting
- Hill Street Blues
- Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman
- Hogan's Heroes

Of those, at least two stand out as having changed, and raised, the standard for direction of a TV show. One is "Hill Street Blues," where Butler introduced hand-held cameras (he actually wanted to do the whole show that way, but had to settle for just the "roll call" scenes and a few individual shots here and there) and a grittier, less formal look than any TV drama up to that point.

The other, strangely enough, is "Batman." Television episodic drama had always been pretty bland in terms of set design, blocking, camerawork: no matter what the subject-matter, the filming style usually consisted of pointing the camera and getting the script on film. "Batman" was a show where the visual style was as important as the script; with the set design, tilted camera angles, and "POW!" "BAM!" graphics, the thing looked like a Dick Sprang comic come to life, and set a new benchmark for what visual/directorial imagination could do for a TV show.

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