Michael J. Pepin and his Guild Camera Team head back to school for ABC’TV’s smash comedy hit, Abbott Elementary
by Margot Lester / Photos Courtesy of Warner Bros Television / ABC
“The mockumentary…is generally seen as subversive, in that it undermines the documentary’s claim to objectively tell the truth. As a genre, the mockumentary mobilizes irony, either in the parody of the form of the documentary or in the satirical treatment or critique of an issue.”
From Mockumentary: Encyclopedia of Humor Studies (2014)
Some of the most successful TV shows in recent years have been mockumentaries. Emmy-winners like The Office set a high bar, followed by others like Reno 911!, Documentary Now! and, this season, Abbott Elementary. Television is especially fertile ground for the genre because, as academic analysis shows, the format delivers “extraordinarily rich sources of appropriation and commentary.” Created by writer-producer-actor Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary centers on a group of educators in an under-resourced school. It uses the genre’s parodistic and satiric notes to highlight the reality of American education – the lack of supplies; the crumbling infrastructure; the societal realities that impact kids; teachers laboring under ridiculous constraints.
The show has been a popular hit and garnered seven nominations for the 2022 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Brunson’s portrayal of second-grade teacher Janine Teagues. Guild Camera Operator Brenda Zuniga [ICG Magazine Generation NEXT December 2021] attributes the show’s success to its accessibility. “We all had that one teacher that inspired us; or that eccentric science teacher,” Zuniga observes. “Beyond the easy laughs, the show touches on some pretty harsh realities of how underfunded our public schools are and how undervalued our teachers are. It all starts with schools like Abbott and teachers like Ms. Teagues.”
Academics say the mockumentary genre draws us in because it “posits a dialogue of knowingness between the structure of the documentary and the viewer” (Faking it: Mock-documentary and the Subversion of Factuality, Manchester University Press). Abbott Elementary’s Director of Photography, Michael J. Pepin, agrees. “It’s been done so well in the past, but not exactly overdone,” explains Pepin, who started in unscripted (The Real World, Project Runway, The Apprentice) before operating on The Office and Parks and Recreation. “It’s a proven formula that people are very comfortable with. Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Ricky Gervais, and Greg Daniels, to name a few, have all used it to inject social commentary with humor and make the mundane entertaining. Randall [Einhorn] pioneered this type of cinematography back on The Office. We’ve updated things a bit on Abbott Elementary, but the DNA is quite clear.”
Einhorn, who is Abbott Elementary’s executive producer and director for six episodes, shot the first seven seasons of The Office, just under 100 episodes overall, along with directing 16 episodes. He says the genre has staying power because it brings the viewer in and makes them feel part of the experience. “Like when you’re seeing somebody on the longer end of the lens, it inherently makes those moments feel more intimate because they feel authentic and real,” explains Einhorn, who also directed several seasons of Parks and Recreation. “If somebody’s having an honest conversation, I would not go next to them with a camera. My instinct would be to back away so that it looks more real, more caught. Frost everything in this view, use the look of authenticity. By doing this, the viewer feels a privilege, like, ‘Oh, this is something juicy and I can’t believe I can just see it!’ That’s something I’ve carried from the documentary world into the mockumentary world,” says Einhorn, who also lensed the documentaries NASCAR Drivers: 360, Coachella, and The Quest. “It’s a very effective tool.”
Pepin adds that “like most mockumentaries, we apply zooms and a handheld camera to match the tone and pace of a scene and bring realism and the illusion of spontaneity.” The three-camera production uses ALEXA Minis (for their small size and weight), Angénieux Optimo lightweight zooms, Fujinon Cabrio 85-300 zooms, and Panavision Ultra Speed lenses. “The Angénieuxs are fast, small, and clean zooms, which get us from 15 to 120 millimeters through the set,” Pepin continues. “The Fujinon is fast and long for its relatively small size. We can shoulder it, and it works well when we need to get past 120 millimeters. We use the Ultra Speeds primarily for our ‘talking head’ interviews as a visual cue that isolates our cast from the background – though we occasionally sneak them in when we want that super shallow look to help evoke an emotion.”
Without a Steadicam or stabilizers, the series relies on “steady hands and shoulders,” laughs A-Camera Operator Jeremiah Smith (ICG Magazine Generation NEXT December 2019), who says the show’s operators were told early on to loosen up because they were too steady. Most of the time, anyway. “I genuinely find the writing and acting hilarious,” Smith notes. “Sometimes the snap zooms cover my shoulder shrugging from me laughing during a take. I’ve had to hold my breath to stop myself from laughing. Sometimes that doesn’t work. ‘Sorry! Take two for me, please.’”
The zooms do allow the crew to keep pace with the jokes and hold the audience in the action. “We may give you a slow zoom during an emotional moment or a snap-in to punctuate a big reaction,” Pepin relates. He’s also fond of using a double zoom, starting close to convey curiosity about the first part of a conversation, backing off a bit, and zooming back in after the conversational climax. “It really is a language unto itself,” Pepin adds. “We wield it boldly but thoughtfully.”
The double zoom technique is seen in Episode 8, “Work Family,” where master teacher Barbara (2022 Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series nominee Sheryl Lee Ralph) tries to get teacher Gregory (2022 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series nominee Tyler James Williams) to relax a little. The scene starts with the audience over his shoulder, then the camera feels him turn towards us. The shot widens out to reveal an awkward look, which is zoomed in on before zooming back to Barbara. “It plays great all together rather than in cuts,” Pepin asserts.
The entire show is shot on the shoulder to follow the actors’ movements and navigate around kids in classroom sequences. “Developing trust with the actors is important, as well as ‘dancing’ with the other camera operators,” notes Zuniga, who collaborated for years with Pepin on MTV’s unscripted dating show Are You the One? and more recently on Life in Pieces. “In the unscripted world, we quickly learn to follow the story and know when the reaction is more telling than the actual dialogue,” Zuniga describes. “Keeping your other eye open is also key to this style of shooting. I have to give tons of credit to my focus puller, Matt Guiza. He was so good at keeping me sharp through all of the surprises I threw at him.”
While the dance empowers operators to find great shots, it also gives actors more options. “They knew that they weren’t physically tied to their marks, and that allowed them to open up and create some truly hilarious unscripted moments,” Zuniga adds. A couple of notable departures from this standard appear in Episode 9, “Step Class,” shot on the Warner backlot and framed with a green screen, restricting the cast and crew’s mobility. Einhorn and Pepin envisioned a shot requiring Zuniga to start close to a dancer’s T-shirt reading “Abbott Elementary Step Team” and then quickly pull back on a butt dolly to reveal a full auditorium of dancers, students, and teachers. They invested more time setting up the shot than usual to get the timing right, and the effort paid off. The sequence is in almost every show promo.
Another sequence from that episode called on Smith to execute a two-part POV shot beginning at the window of the teacher’s lounge as Janine notices Gregory eating in his car. “I react to seeing Gregory, whip-pan, zoom and tilt down to set up the POV of him eating alone,” Smith recounts. “Then I whip-pan, zoom out and tilt up to see the rest of the teachers looking out the window noticing Gregory as well.” The second shot in the sequence was the POV and match cut. The crew constructed an enclosed teachers’ lounge window on the roof of a backlot set to match the POV from the lounge. “It was a warm fall day, and about 100 degrees in that enclosed structure,” Smith continues. “I’m handheld, at the end of my 300-millimeter getting different takes of Gregory hunched down enjoying his bland yet delightful boiled chicken sandwich. When I handed the sweaty camera to [1st AC Chris] Workman, I said, ‘The camera may need a wipe down, and can I get a new eye chamois and a towel please?’ The two shots were cut together seamlessly as one. Simple but challenging.”
Much of the show’s action occurs in scenes with 30 or more kids under age 10, which, Pepin laughs, “kept our curse words at a minimum. As the days are shorter [with minors], it’s the speed at which we need to work that offers the most challenges. We’re dealing with kid time and need to keep a brisk pace.” Operator Caleb Einhorn says he spent a lot of the season “running around at the end of an 85- to 300-millimeter lens trying not to knock any kids down, not hit anything and keep the shot steady to get sneaky moments between characters on-the-fly.”
An example of this strategy appears in Episode 4, “New Tech,” which was initiated in a packed classroom, where Einhorn had to “run, carrying the scene into the hallway, ducking through a doorway holding the camera lengthways with half an inch of clearance on either side, moving immediately into a heated conversation,” he recalls. Pepin says the challenging – and liberating – aspect of the show is that “we don’t cheat or betray the technical aspects of documentary filmmaking. It tends to surprise people when I tell them that we do not dig in for coverage and don’t cheat for eyelines. We read the pages and block the scene in a manner that allows us to get all of our coverage without placing the cameras into angles that would not be possible to get if we were making a documentary in real-time,” Pepin explains. “Working this way is very freeing but it also creates cinematic puzzles to solve as to how we approach scenes. It can become quite complex if the scene has many actors or large set pieces.”
A sequence in Episode 10, “Open House,” for instance, features three scenes that happen back-to-back in the school’s hallway. Pepin continues: “We wanted to tie them together, so we wound up sending a camera from their first position at one end of the hallway through the library and into the other end of the hallway so that they could be in position for the end of the scenes. It took a bit of hustle, but we pulled it off.”
All the elements – and the crew’s skill and talent – are on display in the closing sequences of the season finale, “Zoo Balloon.” The school group visits the zoo, and the characters’ futures come into focus. “It was super exciting for everyone because we had all fallen in love with the show and the characters and the cohesiveness of the cast and crew. So, we got the chance to celebrate with an ‘unsanctioned field trip,’” Zuniga says, using a term taken from the episode.
As occurs during any school excursion, a first grader named Kenny (Leon Cassimere III) wanders off, and Barbara marshals the adults into quick action. Janine finds the youngster in the zoo’s hot-air balloon, which is about to ascend. The sequence had multiple parts. It kicks off with a ground-level view of a scared Kenny huddled in the basket of the balloon. Smith grabbed the camera off the ground to follow Janine towards the child. Exterior plates were required for the visual effects, and shots had to be matched from outside in the field to the green screen on stage.
“I was able to shoot on the same Chapman crane that was used on some of the greatest films ever made,” Smith notes. “I can see my growth in that sequence compared to the first episode. That sequence, all the way up to the final talking head, just about sums up my experience on the show as well. For the experience alone I am humbled and proud.”
The “dance partners” strutted their stuff for the breakup of Janine and her partner Tariq (Zack Fox), who has a job opportunity in New York. The scene was scheduled for the end of the day, and the crew had to scramble to set up in an oak grove in time for Golden Hour. Pepin had the operators fall back and lens the scene from an observational POV. “I don’t think we even rehearsed – Jeremiah, Brenda, and I knew where we had to be,” Caleb Einhorn recalls. “We got into our zones and dived into this scene that culminated a season of emotional turbulence. I had Janine’s coverage on the end of 85 to 300 millimeters balancing on an apple box on uneven ground. The light was magic, and Quinta and Zach killed the performance. Standing on that apple box with some Duvetyn over one eye and shooting into the sun dripping with sweat, I knew we were getting something special.”
For Randall Einhorn, the bus ride back to school [from the zoo] was extra-special because it’s the payoff for a moment set up in the pilot. In the opener, Janine struggles to quiet down her class when the sage veteran Barbara shows her how it’s done. Janine shares that she hopes, one day, she can do the same. Then, in the closer, the kids are being rowdy on the bus and both Barbara and Janine stand up to quiet the din. Janine takes control, and the kids comply. She’s done it!
“For the vérité/reality moments, we use all beautiful vintage Ultra Primes,” Einhorn explains. “We went from our reality lenses to our interview lenses, and it’s the only time we did that. She’s sharp and everything else is soft. It drives your eye to her having made this journey, and it focuses your eye on her while all the kids sing in the background. It was one of those plans that felt so rewarding on an emotional level.”
Pepin says the entire Abbott team is uplifted by all the critical and audience acclaim, and, of course, the multiple Emmy nominations. As most of the camera department has worked with the director and DP on multiple projects, they are quick to credit each other for the show’s success. “It’s helpful to be efficient and productive,” Pepin concludes. “We need to be collaborative and make the right choices quickly. Preparation is essential, but we often need to be flexible and work on-the-fly, and that’s much easier on a team with shared experiences. That said, I believe in bringing fresh people into the mix and promoting from within. This show has been no exception.”
Adds EP Einhorn, “I always say I surround myself with brilliant people to make me look good, but it’s more than that. It’s surrounding yourself with people you want to be there with. Everything then just becomes more joyful.”
Local 600 Camera Team – Abbott Elementary – Season 1
Director of Photography: Michael J. Pepin
A-Camera Operator: Jeremiah Smith
A-Camera 1st AC: Chris Workman
A-Camera 2nd AC: Adam Tsang
B-Camera Operator: Caleb Einhorn (8 episodes)
B-Camera Operator: Jim Harrington (4 episodes)
B-Camera 1st AC: Will Emery
B-Camera 2nd AC: Kelly Simpson
C-Camera Operator: Brenda Zuniga
C-Camera 1st AC: Matt Guiza
C-Camera 2nd AC: Gregory McDowell
Utility: Jay Sharron
Unit Still Photographers: Prashant Gupta, Temma Hankin, Scott Everett White