THROUGH THE COVID LENS: The West Wing
Reassessing “The West Wing” in the Age of Coronavirus
In 1999, “The West Wing” first arrived on our television screens and — thanks to streaming — it has never left. Created by Aaron Sorkin and produced by Thomas Schlamme and John Wells, “The West Wing” was, to that point, one of the most ambitious network television shows ever created, featuring long takes, intricate blocking, expert cinematography, and lush production design.
If not the inventors of the “walk-and-talk,” Sorkin and company certainly popularized it (to the point that Sorkin’s name is now synonymous with it). Nearly every episode features at least one walk and talk. But none of them comes close to the scope and scale of the cold open in season one, episode four, “Five Votes Down:”
Directed by Michael Lehmann with cinematography by Thomas Del Ruth, this four-minute-long shot involves over 500 extras, nearly the entire principal cast, and one canister of film per take. It was filmed in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and took half the night to shoot. While varying accounts put the number of takes anywhere between the mid-teens to the upper thirties, one thing is clear: it was a monumental undertaking.
The shot begins in the ballroom with President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) giving a speech while his staff listen and fret in the wings. Speechwriter Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) quietly critiques the President’s performance. At the same time, Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman (Bradley Whitford) receives news that they are five votes down on a crucial piece of legislation.
As soon as the President finishes his speech, he and his staff head down the long hall toward the exits; Toby ready to give his boss a good-natured ribbing, and Josh prepared to spread the bad news to his colleges. What follows is a Steadicam shot that rivals the Copa Shot from “Goodfellas” only with far more cast members and some beautiful pieces of in-camera blocking.
From the ballroom, through the lobby, down service stairs, through a kitchen, down back stairs, through a long string of corridors, around several corners, out through the loading docks, and finally into an awaiting motorcade with police escort, this shot is truly a work of logistical wonder.
Ginger Rogers once observed that she did everything Fred Astaire did only backward and in heels. Well, a similar statement must be made about Dave Chameides. While the cast scurries around, slinging Sorkin’s signature rat-a-tat-tat dialog, moving in and out of the shot with perfect timing, Steadicam operator Dave Chameides must do the same, backwards, while carrying a 35mm film camera. He nearly passed out from exhaustion by the end of the night.
In this article, we will look at this legendary shot with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into four categories:
- Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
- Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
- Small tweaks that increase safety
- Major changes that maximize safety
This article is designed to help you to better understand COVID-19 safety by showing you how pandemic guidelines could affect one of the most famous shots in television history. Let’s look at the tracking shot from “The West Wing” season 1, episode 4, “Five Votes Down,” and see, first, what elements are already COVID-19 approved.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
In August of 1999 — when this scene was filmed — no one was thinking about pandemic safety on set. And yet, there are several aspects of the shot that follow good COVID-19 safety procedures. Here we want to highlight two of those areas:
- Main cast isolation
- Suggestive scale elements
Main Cast Isolation
When it comes to minimizing exposure to COVID-19, one of our best courses of action is to keep our main cast isolated from our extras. Extras, especially large crowds, provided too many opportunities for coronavirus transmission. For this reason, we highly recommend eliminating any interaction between extras and the main cast. If we put aside a few early moments where President Bartlet interacts with extras (which we will address later), we can see that the staging and blocking for this scene is already pretty safe.
First, the President is on a stage, behind a podium, and well over six feet from the ballroom’s crowd. (There are a few people on the stage with him, and we will address them later in this article.) Here the world of the show and the reality of the shoot complement each other perfectly.
Martin Sheen is a major Hollywood star and arguably one of the most important actors on the show; indeed, as President of the United States, he is the most essential character in the show. It makes sense for the character to be safely distant from the crowd just as it does for the actor to be far from the extras.
Second, the staff is off in the wings, separated from the audience by pillars and television equipment. Again, the reality of our world and the world of the show are working together. The staff are not in the spotlight and, therefore, can justifiably be distant from the excitement. They need separation so they can take phone calls and listen to the speech without distraction.
Once the scene gets moving, and the walk and talk begins, this mirroring of in-world and in-reality safety continues. Of course, the President exits the hotel through a predetermined path that eliminates unnecessary interaction with hotel staff, fans, and the press. This reduces the number of people our main cast interacts with and dramatically reduces the chances of COVID-19 transmissions.
Finally, as they exit the building, the fans are behind crowd-control barricades and kept at a safe distance from the characters and the cast.
By allowing the in-world safety requirements to dictate the reality of the blocking, the creative team could isolate their cast and minimize transmission points.
Suggestive Scale Elements
While there are two large crowds visible in this shot — one at the beginning, one at the end — we want to focus on how the filmmakers use several elements to suggest scale and crowds without depicting them directly.
- Diegetic Cameras and Screens – “The West Wing” is famous for showing television screens and cameras in their shots. If we watch this scene’s beginning, we will see several in-world television cameras and even more in-world screens showing us what those cameras are broadcasting in-world. This adds scope and scale. The crowds we see on our home television screens are a lot smaller than those the show is telling us are there. In a COVID-19 version of this scene, we would love to see them rely even more on this technique to reduce the number of extras on set.
- Sound design – In much the sameway that the screens and cameras increase the crowd’s size, the sound acts as a force multiplier too. We hear many more people than we can see, which convinces us that the ballroom and the loading dock are crammed with people. However, this technique is used to its greatest effect when the main cast passes through the kitchen. We hear a bustling kitchen but don’t really see one. This sound design works hand-in-glove with the blocking.
- Strategic Blocking – What do we see when we pass through the kitchen? A few servers, a couple cooks, and several bussers. It is not much, really, but they cross frame quickly and interact with people and things that are off-camera. This suggests that there are even more people we cannot see, which increases the scene’s scale while minimizing the need for more extras.
As Tony Zhou pointed out in his groundbreaking YouTube series “Every Frame a Painting,” this is something that Michael Bay does to great effect in all of his movies. This is, possibly, the only thing that “The West Wing” and the director of “The Transformers” have in common, but suggestive scale elements are vital tools of the trade. In the COVID-19 age, they are more useful than ever.
By having actors react to off-camera elements while in-camera blocking emphasizes the scale of those elements, combined with sound design that further multiplies the scale, we create a scene that feels enormous without requiring much of that enormity on-set during the shot.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
From the first frame to the last, this tracking shot has several potential contamination points. In the COVID-19 era, these elements are best avoided, if possible:
- On Stage Extras: The extras on the stage with President Bartlet are too close for comfort in a pandemic. Worse yet, they glad-hand the President as he walks past them after the speech. These extras serve no purpose to the story and are, in effect, glorified set dressing. When we set out to maximize safety in the COVID-19 era, these are precisely the types of things we should eliminate.
- Secret Service Proximity: Everywhere the President goes, his secret service not only follow him, but some of them are way ahead of him. We cannot eliminate this element without losing creditability and accuracy. So we can keep them in the shot but block them farther from the main cast.
- Interiors without proper ventilation: The biggest COVID-19 safety issue in this scene is that most of it takes place indoors, specifically, in poorly-ventilated corridors. We are most at risk of contracting COVID-19 when we are inside, in poorly ventilated spaces close to other people. This epic tracking shot is basically all of those things from start to finish.
We should verify that every location we shoot in has proper ventilation. If a site lacks ventilation, we need to have contingency plans to make our day without endangering our cast and crew. So it is imperative to have a detailed, safety-oriented schedule. This is also a reason why we emphasize the importance of onboarding risk managers during pre-production. Even with properly ventilated places, however, we should limit the amount of time we spend indoors.
Remember: Ideally, we should replicate real-world safety measures on our sets. This means, at a minimum, mask-wearing, social distancing, and staying in well-ventilated spaces. All of which are outlined in A Safe Way Forward.
Small Tweaks That Increase Safety
Minor tweaks to this scene allow us to maintain the scene’s integrity while increasing the safety of the production.
These small adjustments can help make this scene safer to film during a pandemic:
- President Bartlet stands alone on stage. As mentioned above, the extras on stage with him add little to the scene beyond crowding the frame. In many other episodes of “The West Wing,” the President stands behind a podium on stage by himself. This scene can easily be another one. By eliminating the on-stage extras and their subsequent contact with the President, we can maintain the scene’s purpose while keeping our staff safe from COVID-19.
- Have the secret service personnel posted throughout the route and have them crossing frame in front of and behind the cast while remaining socially distant. This way, we can keep the secret service in the scene and still maintain on-set safety.
- Ensure proper ventilation systems are in place for interior corridor scenes.
- Rely even more heavily on suggestive scale elements to eliminate crowds entirely. If we film the crowds separately and then play that footage back on the in-world television screens, we can fake that the crowd is in the room, when in reality, they are not there. Couple this tactic with robust crowd-noise in the sound design and strategic blocking that has the main cast interacting with off-screen fans, and this scene can be achieved without ever having the extras and the main cast in the same location at the same time.
- Schedule this scene as late as possible in your shooting schedule to minimize the potential of an outbreak.
Without drastically changing the scene, we can still increase set safety by reducing the extras, separating the secret service, checking the ventilation, relying even more on suggestive scale elements, and moving the scene to the end of the schedule.
Major Changes That Maximize Safety
“The West Wing”regularly ranks among the best television shows ever produced. So it is ridiculous to consider changing it. But we’re just thinking about this as an example. We have said it before, but it bears repeating: We must consider the worst-case scenarios when assessing risk on a production. With COVID-19, that worst case is death. What if Martin Sheen got COVID-19 during this scene and died? Or Allison Janney? Or Bradley Whitford?
If we were filming “Five Votes Down” today — with an eye toward COVID-19 safety — we would take a closer look at this scene during pre-production. There are several choices the creative team can make to retain the meaning of the scene while eliminating safety issues.
In their podcast “The West Wing Weekly,” hosts Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina often talked with cast and crew about the elements that made this show so fun to watch. High on that very long list are:
- Production design
This scene has all three of these elements. The walk and talk brings the pacing. The interactions and dialog bring the humor. The tracking shot through a real-world location showcases the production design.
Now, looking through the COVID lens, can we find ways to maintain those elements and maximize safety at the same time?
- Instead of filming inside a hotel, where distancing and ventilation are issues, what if this speech took place outside? This is something “The West Wing” has done in other episodes and could easily do here.
- To maintain the walk and talk pacing, could we have a similarly long tracking shot from an outdoor stage to an outdoor motorcade while still maintaining the impressive nature of the choreography?
- To further minimize the number of on-set personnel and, in turn, further maximize on-set distancing, could we have a few of the cast members communicating via cell phone with those remaining in the walk and talk?
The cast can still trade barbs with each other in that signature Sorkin style. The pacing can stay quick, and the walk-and-talk can remain intact. The audience will still get the beautiful production scope and scale — all without any COVID-19 hotspots.
When the cast and crew of “The West Wing” reunited in 2020 for a special election show on HBO Max, they illustrated the importance of following COVID-19 safety protocols. As the above image shows, they even had the cast wear face shields between takes. The production took safety seriously, opting to shoot in an empty Orpheum Theatre instead of the planned sold-out show.
While most of us cannot afford to send home our audiences, and indeed few, if any, of us are looking to stage something as starkly as this “West Wing” special was staged, we can still applaud their efforts and example.
When it comes to shooting a television show during a pandemic — even one with the grand scope and scale of “Five Votes Down” — we must remember that it is possible to maintain high production values and intricate staging while also increasing on-set safety.
Safety concerns don’t need to constrain our creativity. On the contrary, they can, and should, ignite our imaginations.
Join us next time, when we will look through the COVID lens at a Thanksgiving classic with one of the most famous speeches in film history: “Scent of a Woman.“
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
UPDATED: This article was updated on April 13, 2022.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.