Mapping the Season
Caroline Dries (Writer and Co-Executive Producer) We meet for five weeks after each season ends and before the next season actually starts to map out the [coming] season. So, while my other writer friends are on hiatus and Instagramming pictures of their daytime cocktails, I’m eating ice from my Starbucks coffee in our windowless writers’ room. As much as I huff and puff about it, it’s incredibly helpful. Our seasons are long — season four was 23 episodes. That’s an insane amount of story to brainstorm. We break down the season into four chapters to a) make things sane and manageable and b) give us mini-arcs within the overall spine of the season. In theory, these mini-arcs build on each other and push us to the end with a bang.
Jose Molina (Writer and Coproducer) The senior writers gathered to start discussing season four while season three was wrapping up. We spent weeks brainstorming the broad strokes of the year — a luxury I’ve never even heard of other shows having — and cracked the spine of the whole year in that short a time. [The entire season] was all planned out before we gathered the entire staff in June. Unheard of.
Pascal Verschooris (Producer and Director) The writers meet at the end of the previous season and discuss the direction to go for the next season. They hopefully take a short break and gather again very early on for the new season. I get an idea of what [that narrative direction] will be. It does evolve, so I also have to use my instincts as to whether to invest in sets, locations, etc.
Dave Perkal (Director of Photography) I [have] meetings about where the show’s story would go for the entire season. These are just beats about the trajectory of the season’s arcs but it gives you a sense about what will happen over the course of the year. I use this information to assemble a team and we make adjustments to make the production more efficient while maintaining The Vampire Diaries look.
From the Writers’ Room to the Screen
Caroline Dries (Writer and Co-Executive Producer) Picture a group of the bestlooking people you know, sounding like the most charming people you know. And then think of the opposite. You’ve got a writers’ room. So there’s the writers’ room, and then there’s the actual process of writing — they’re two totally separate things. In the room, usually Julie or I will be in charge of discussion and coaxing ideas from the genius staff. Then together we’ll all organize the ideas and then shape them into a story. There’s a lot of banging heads against walls and crossing out ideas, and feeling lost, but we ultimately get it to a good spot. That takes about a week.
Jose Molina (Writer and Coproducer) The biggest novelty for me [coming to TVD after writing for other series] was how monstrously collaborative the writing had to be, simply because every story affects every other story. There’s no such thing as a standalone TVD episode; writing any series is a team effort, but this one required that the entire staff have a certain level of telepathy with each other.
Caroline Dries (Writer and Co-Executive Producer) Then we go off to write the script alone. Here we’re free to get lost in the characters and be writers who get to arrange words in clever ways. That takes about a week. Then we all read it and realize it’s all wrong and take what nuggets we like from the story, and build on it, and reshape things, and de-complicate it and rewrite everything. That takes about three or four days. It’s a hellish process (unless you compare it to a real-person job, in which case, it’s a dream) because sometimes you feel like you’re living with an episode forever. But it’s actually very rewarding once the script is delivered to the studio and network because you know it’s pretty much the best it can be.
Jose Molina (Writer and Coproducer) There are three basic stages to writing/ producing a TVD episode: breaking down the story from a concept to a six-act structure, outlining/scripting that idea, and supervising set to make sure everyone is on the same page about the story. Each stage is pretty timeconsuming, so we all tend to be far more involved in our own episodes than in everyone else’s. That said, we all pitch in as much as we can, and it’s not rare for non-credited writers to write scenes in someone else’s script or have a huge influence on their stories.
Tyler Cook (Editor) The show is a six-act structure. Act 1 consists of a teaser or cold open, which is meant to pique the audience’s interest and tee up the rest of the episode. From there Act 1 sets up the rest of the show (where the characters are in the overall story, resetting important information) and then ends on the new problem that the gang will have to deal with. Acts 2 and 3 usually involve figuring out the plan/arguing about the plan, and then acts 4 and 5 are about executing the plan (or failing to execute the plan, in some cases). Act 6 is about dealing with the aftermath and setting up the next episode. As far as act breaks are concerned, we always try to break each act at its most exciting place or the next turn in the story. We always try to leave at the highest note so people will stick through the commercial breaks and come back for more.
Pascal Verschooris (Producer and Director) [I become involved with an episode] as soon as we get the script. Often I try to get information prior, to find out if we need to build a set, a prosthetic, a prop, etc. Do we need to scout for a new location? Once we have the script then I work with the UPM [Trish Stanard, unit production manager] and the ADs [assistant directors] and we come up with a schedule. The schedule defines our episode. We usually need to make it work with nine days (eight, plus one second-unit day). I pass along information that I have, I help with the design of the sets, the logistics of the schedule, and also communicate with the writers about our production needs.
Dave Perkal (Director of Photography) I start to get involved as soon as a “beat sheet” or rough draft is released to production. My first move is to start a dialogue with our production designer, Garreth Stover, about what kind of sets he envisions and how we can work together to make them shootable. During the first few days of that prep, the director will usually start formulating an idea about where and how they would like to visually convey the episode’s story. My job is to help support their vision and elevate the material. I will then go with production to scout locations. Together with the production designer, 1st assistant director, and location department, we will formulate the best time of day and direction to shoot a particular location. The 1st assistant director and I will go over schedule plans and work out a shootable plan for the episode. We will have production meetings with all departments, from a concept meeting (a rough draft of our intentions) to a final production meeting (our final plan), to make sure that we are all coordinating with the same vision for the episode. During this prep time, I am in constant contact with my key departments, lighting, grip, and camera, so that the heads of these departments can be prepared when we start shooting.
Tyler Cook (Editor) I get involved with an episode usually the day before it starts shooting. The script is distributed to the entire cast/crew and there is a meeting to talk about the overall story direction of the script, what are the most important moments of the episode, and the best way to convey those through the direction, photography, and editing.
Pascal Verschooris (Producer and Director) This show is amazing because everyone listens to everyone, so it makes it easier to come up with solutions, alternative ways to make the show. It is not always the case on every series, so it is important to point this out. But I think on TVD we’ve developed a reciprocal trust between production and creatives, which helps the process tremendously and allows for us to make a better show.
Jose Molina (Writer and Coproducer) We sacrifice a basket of kittens to the Egyptian god Set before the start of every shoot.
Dave Perkal (Director of Photography) Once we start shooting we are simply executing our plan. While we are shooting the episode, I am also in contact with our post department to make sure we are getting everything we need. Once shooting is completed, the episode goes into editing.
Tyler Cook (Editor) We start getting in the footage the day after they begin shooting the episode and that’s when we start assembling the show. The episode shoots for eight days and once the shooting is done we have another week to finish putting it together. That’s the editor’s cut. Then the director will come in and spend some time with the episode for a few days, and give his/her notes on what we’ve done. That’s the director’s cut. And then from there it goes to Julie and the rest of the producers. They watch the show and start to figure out if the moments of the show are working as well as they can be and if the show is as exciting and interesting as it needs to be. Or if we’re running too long, she suggests places where we can lift out scenes or lines of dialogue to get us to time.
It’s really during this time that Julie goes over the show in very fine detail to make sure it’s great. That process usually takes anywhere from one week to two, depending on the schedule and the strength of the episode. From there we show the episode to Warner Bros. and The CW and they weigh in with any final thoughts and we’re done picture editing the episode. That whole process usually takes a month. But the show’s not done. The composer starts to work on the episode along with the sound designer, and other elements such as color timing, VFX, and audio mixing take place.
Dave Perkal (Director of Photography) Once the cut is locked they send it back to me to supervise final color. Final color is like the Photoshop or printing portion of photography where we fine-tune the look of every frame of the show.
Michael Suby (Composer) I never read a script; I like to watch it when it’s completely finished. So I basically just get it and do it — right before the mix and right before it airs pretty much! It’s a very tight schedule. I just finished the season finale: I got it on Wednesday, I started Thursday, and they mixed it yesterday [Sunday] and they’re doing the playback today. So it’s three or four days. This show, that’s just the way it runs, it’s been normal for a long time on this show. I do other shows; Pretty Little Liars — that does not happen on that show. I can’t speak to other shows, but Kyle XY was not like that, I had about a week usually. They usually try to give you a week to 10 days because of the amount of work. So this one’s particularly tricky because it’s probably twice the amount of work in half the amount of time [laughs].
Tyler Cook (Editor) Postproduction can seem very small but it’s actually quite large. At its most basic there are three teams of editors and assistant editors (six people total) that are in rotation editing episodes of the show. In our office there is also the post producer, post supervisor, post coordinator, and post PA and they are in charge of running the postproduction office and juggling all of the various aspects of the process from the way dailies are transferred to scheduling when all of the cuts have to be delivered. Outside of that there are all of the VFX artists, the sound designer, the music supervisor, the music editor, the composer, the colorists. And they all have their own teams, so it’s a big operation.
Michael Suby (Composer) I do the whole show by myself. No one helps me, I don’t want anybody to touch it. [laughs] That doesn’t happen a lot on television these days either; most guys have a team and that sort of thing. I just get up, have coffee, and write music. That’s it. I write on my computer, I have a microphone set up, I’ll play guitar, I’ll sample things . . . mostly it’s on the keyboard, on the guitar, or I’ll get some vocals and record some chants. For this show, I’ve spent a lot of time off-season creating new sounds, new palettes. It’s a heavy-lifting show.
Tyler Cook (Editor) I think the biggest challenge of editing Vampire Diaries is that every episode is huge. I’ve never seen a dull episode of the show, it doesn’t exist. There is just always something gigantic going on and we go through seasons worth of story in the span of five episodes! And that’s what makes the show great. But it takes a lot of work. The way I always put it is that normal TV shows operate on a 5–7 intensity for their normal episodes and then crank it up to 10 for their premiere and their finale. We operate on a 8–10 for every episode and then crank it up to 15 for the premiere and the finale. But that’s what makes it so successful and why it’s so rewarding to work on. It’s hard work but you get this incredibly exciting product at the end of it that you can be really proud of.
Jose Molina (Writer and Coproducer) One significant difference between TVD and many other shows I’ve worked on was the level of trust we had from the studio and the network. By virtue of being a big hit and a critical success, the show earned the right to take chances, and Warner Bros. and The CW were behind us 100 percent, no matter how crazy we got.
Caroline Dries (Writer and Co-Executive Producer) I am proud of every episode because so much work goes into it — not just from me, obviously, but from the director, actors, makeup folks, props, editors, sound guys, etc. So many decisions need to be made and everyone works toward the same goal. It’s unbelievable how much gets done in such a short period of time.
Pascal Verschooris (Producer and Director) Almost everyone on the show is an unsung hero. This show could not function without the dedication of many. Our prop master, Joe Connolly, is probably the best I ever worked with; our 2nd AD, Brandon Leonard, who has to produce a call sheet every day and make sure that everything comes together, is genius; Trish Stanard, our UPM, who calls herself a workhorse, is an inspiration to all; Garreth Stover, our production designer, always comes up with incredible ideas, amazing-looking sets, but he could not do it without Karen, our set decorator, or Jamie, our construction coordinator, who himself could not do it without Billy and Tommy, etc. We have amazing drivers, incredible craft service people who keep the spirit high . . . Just everyone is important, and if one falls through then it shows, but thankfully it rarely happens.
Caroline Dries (Writer and Co-Executive Producer) I could go on about things I’m proud of on this show, but I don’t want to sound arrogant. . . .