The “Fame” Episode

Back in 1982, I was a consultant to Atari Design Research group. The group was headed by Harry Jenkins who was familiar with my installation and dance performance work. Harry’s sister is actress Carol Mayo Jenkins who played the English teacher on the TV show Fame.  Actor/musician Lee Curreri was in the process of writing the episode “Blood, Sweat, and Circuits” and they were searching for inspiration for an episode based on interactive video performance.  I met with him, and Carol in San Francisco where we had lunch and talked. 

They assured me that I would soon be called to work on the episode in LA at MGM studios. Time passed and I heard nothing.  First I was told the filming of that episode was delayed, and then finally that I wasn’t needed. They had found a post-processing house in LA that would process the recorded dance so I was written out.

I phoned and then visited the show’s producer Mel Swope at MGM and convinced him that I should be the one to do it, and we should do it live. I must have been convincing, and by Hollywood standards, I was able to do it for little money, so he took the small gamble on me and agreed to utilize my talents. He explained how unprecedented this was, hiring a crazy unknown artist from the SF bay area (non-LA) to work on a TV drama.  I didn’t know it, but he had a fallback plan.

During my brief stint in Hollywood, I learned a lot about the production of a TV series. The pace was frenetic when it wasn’t boring. Decisions were made extremely fast. In those days a season consisted of 23 episodes instead of just 12 today. During a single week the previous week’s show was edited, this week’s show was shot, and next week’s show and beyond were being scheduled. Everything was shot on 35mm film. Video was for game shows and soap operas. 

My contract specified that I was to give up any artistic license to the studio. It seems many of the cast members were causing trouble trying to “art-up” the production with their artistic input so all new contracts had to have this clause.  I signed up to be a tool only.   

While my performances were slow and deliberate with time being an important element for development, the nature of the TV show was to pack as much in as fast as possible. It was very new to me. Debbie Allen studied my performance videos and knew my work almost better than me.

I found myself on stage on the set of the school auditorium in MGM studio 26, the studio where The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain were shot. My homemade wire wrapped equipment and computer were set up on a long folding table. As a computer monitor, I was using a Sharp electro-luminescent display, the first small flat panel available at that time and super expensive. I obtained one through my consulting gig with Atari. The production provided video monitors so the performers could see what I was doing to them. The set designer provided the black curtain backdrop I requested and I was surrounded by lighting guys and grips ready to provide whatever was needed. Finally, Ms Allen showed up with “Leroy” played by Gene Anthony Ray.

The next hour or so was spent with Debbie Allen teaching Gene some steps to counts while I played with the keyboard, koala pad and pots, bringing up various effects that I thought might work with each move.  When she saw an effect she liked she declared it and named it. I had to remember these names and when to apply them. I soon discovered that all of her decisions were final and her memory was perfect. The piece was choreographed and designed on the spot in VERY little time. Of course, it was impossible to do all she wanted in real time. As I fumbled with it Debbie got more and more frustrated, but the performance taping was to be the next day. I hadn’t even heard the music.

I had my Betamax deck running during the design/rehearsal, so I did have a record of what was expected of me, and the choreography. That night in my room at the Beverly Hillcrest Hotel I hardcoded all of the effects that she wanted and programmed them to keys on my keyboard.  I was programming in Forth on an Apple II computer, so it was easy.  (I later realized that the implementation of instant effect assignment and retrieval would be pretty trivial, and I had that feature soon after in my software arsenal.) 

The next day I was back on stage. In addition to the lighting guys, there were some new faces; a sound person to roll music and videotape operator. The videotape guy was there to record Gene’s performance for post-production in case I screwed up.  That was Swope’s fallback plan.  He was also there to record my feed of effects. They had such little faith in me, but I couldn’t blame them.

There were a couple of run-throughs to a tape of the tune “Electricity” that Lee Curreri performed. I was hearing it for the first time. Apparently, Debbie had heard it as her choreography was timed to it perfectly, and the moves made sense. Luckily the effects went with the music too. We made a take, played it back, and we were done with that segment. There was one spot where I missed a beat on a change, and that got me a dirty look from Debbie, but in the end, it was more than good enough. Done in one take.

So we had done the effects segment live but without an audience. The auditorium was empty except for the technicians and talent. There was an actor hanging around I recognized from the show; David Greenly who played Dwight the hall monitor. He was there to study me while I worked as he was to play the computer whiz (me) during the reenactment before the “live audience” and he wanted to be authentic.

But there was more. The rest of the dance troop from the show showed up and we quickly reset. What had been a solo performance turned into a bit of a jam session with the entire ensemble. As the dancers one by one made improvised passes by the camera to “Electricity”, I got to play a bit with the effects with dancer’s wild leaps and spins flying by. I finally had a chance to have some fun with the kids and they loved it. As part of the script, Lydia after seeing the solo for the first time calls up her students to the stage and declares that the computer, stolen from the office, is now part of the dance department. This dance/effect segment will also be reenacted.

When I learned that there was going to be a reenactment with the processed video converted to film and matted onto a screen on the stage, I flashed back to all the B movies I’d seen where the optical matte on a screen danced around and looked fake. I expressed my fear to the director, Richard Kinon. He agreed and said they’d get a special camera with pin registration for shooting the stage with the screen. That did, in fact, prevent the problem. The matte was good. I also suggested that for the reenactment changing colored lights be directed at Dwight’s face as he peered into the effects monitor to simulate a real monitor. That suggestion didn’t fly. Nor did the one where I wanted to make a cameo appearance in the audience during the reenactment. I was not in the union, nor did I look like a high school student. My Hitchcock moment was dashed.

The next step was to get the 1″ videotape with the effects transferred to 35mm film for incorporation into the show. I was asked to oversee the operation at Perfect Post in LA. They had a custom rig with monochrome monitors, filters, electronics, and film transport that would put the video on film. I was able to watch playback and “paint” the video to get the colors and contrast I wanted.

The next day the film was back and I went in to watch the dailies with the rest of the cast and crew. It was a small screening room at the studio seating about 50. First, all of the normal film was shown, then my transferred video splashed onto the screen in glorious color but with a strange film look.  After the screening, applause erupted in the normally quiet room.  Swope’s little gamble and my work paid off. I was told that applause was extremely rare in there.