The coronavirus might have brought most of Hollywood’s productions to a screeching halt, but a handful of television series are hustling to bring new content to their fans. Among them is CBS’ freshman series “All Rise,” the Simone Missick-led legal drama that made waves several weeks ago when the network announced the show would mark the industry’s first scripted series to resume production amid the ongoing pandemic.
The special “All Rise” episode, titled “Dancing at Los Angeles” and premiering Monday night, will follow Judge Lola Carmichael (Missick) as she presides over a virtual bench trial while she and the rest of the show’s characters continue living their lives while abiding by shelter-in-place orders. It’s a slice-of-life look at how urban professionals are handling the pandemic, but a relatable premise doesn’t necessarily equate to straightforward television production. IndieWire recently spoke to Missick and the series’ executive producers about crafting the episode and the challenges of producing a high-quality and visually-engaging television special when the series’ cast and crew are unable to interact in-person.
“We were shooting the last two episodes of the season as a two-parter when, like the rest of the world, we were told to be safe and go home,” executive producer Len Goldstein said. “While we loved the episode we had ended the season with prior, it wasn’t built as a finale and we were all talking about if there was some way we could shoot a season finale that incorporated what everybody was going through at the time. Since our characters deal with finding justice in the contemporary Los Angeles justice system, this felt like an opportunity to tell that story. Our show is also about community and connection, and we thought our characters would be wondering how each other is doing and checking in with each other. So, we saw a way to creatively use the storytelling device to deliver hopefully what is a good episode of the show, instead of just being a gimmick.”
The “All Rise” special was shot in around one week, with all cast and crew members abiding by social-distancing guidelines. Like the recently aired “Parks and Reunion” charity reunion special, the “All Rise” episode primarily consists of web conferencing, with cast members using Zoom, FaceTime, and other online tools to drive the plot forward. Though the cast never interacted in-person, crafting the episode required significantly more effort than merely positioning webcams in front of computer screens. Stars still needed to get into character without their usual teams of professionals, while lighting and set designs — never mind the need to ensure stable internet connections — needed to be carefully managed to ensure the show had a more polished sheen than the typical web conference.
“It was like shooting a very high-budget indie film with a skeleton crew of one,” Missick said. “If you could have a spouse move a chair for you, you were winning. It was all about time management. Normally I need about two hours for hair and makeup, because that’s when professionals do it. So how long do I need when I’m doing it? No clue. You have to move the lighting setup and we’ve got these long ethernet cords I’m dragging all throughout the house to make sure the connection is great.”
Missick added that the “All Rise” crew sanitized and shipped a variety of items to cast members’ homes to film the episode, including Wi-Fi boosters, various cables, and lighting equipment, to ensure that the episode maintained a polished look, despite the limits imposed by social distancing guidelines.
Even with the set designs and cast in place, directing an episode of what amounted to a handful of web conference sessions proved to be a considerable logistical challenge. “All Rise” executive producer and episode director Michael Robin noted that simply recording all of the actors in a grid view — the multiple webcams you’d see during a typical web conference — for dozens of pages of dialogue would kill any momentum the episode could’ve had. Robinson overcame this by working with a company to create a network that allowed him to individually record each of the actor’s webcam feeds while smoothly moving them in and out of scenes as needed.
“We found a company called Straight Up Technologies, who created our own private network,” Robin said. “Our actors, at the appointed call time, would dial in after having done their own hair, makeup, wardrobe, lit their sets, put their camera in the right place, got their own props, moved all the furniture in the right spot. What’s really remarkable is that we could get each one of their feeds recorded separately. This is all I needed for the capturing of it, and it was basically about good old-fashioned ‘let’s do a bunch of takes and shape the scene.’”
Monday night’s special “All Rise” episode will air at 9 p.m. on CBS.