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Filming The Office

I love the writing and the performances on The Office, but I think the show is elevated by its camerawork.

It shapes the narrative and participates in the story.

- What?

Oh! Yes! Thank you!

- A mockumentary is a filmmaking style that simulates a documentary but obviously isn't.

- This is exactly what Michael Moore does.

Famous documenta--rian.

He goes up to people with a camera and he's like: Why did you do this? Why did you pollute?

You are bad! You're a bad person.

It's very dramatic.

Although I can't say I was a big fan of Bowling for Columbine.

Because I thought it was gonna be a bowling movie like Kingpin.

And it wasn't. It was something else.

- The Office maximizes visual comedy by using camera moves that match a character's emotional state.

So handheld can feel out of control.

A pan can feel disconnected.

And a zoom is just funny, whether it's anger.

- I'm your boss. - So I feel like--

- Discovery.

Or making a mistake.

- He is in love with a girl he works with who's engaged, so just cut me some slack, please.

- Pam!?

- Other shows are labeled as mockumentaries simply because the filmmaking evokes a documentary.

The camera shakes, the camera zooms, and the editing breaks the rules of screen direction.

- Get on the phone!

Tell them that you're jumping before you're pushed!

- ( DING )

- But I'm referring to a subgenre that is pretending to be a documentary.

The production interacts with the fiction.

Which means the camera has a relationship with the characters.

- He's always looking at the camera like this.

What is that?

- By looking into the lens, Jim is connecting to the audience.

It's a gesture that communicates awareness, either positive or negative.

Normally, addressing a camera subjective.

- Why what? His neck!

- Like we're listening to someone's thoughts or watching their perception of events.

But because of the mockumentary, looking at the camera is the most objective thing a character can do.

The Office is partially about the victims of irritation.

So the mindful characters are aware of their surroundings,

while the oblivious characters are preoccupied by themselves.

- Hey look!

I'm king of the WORLD!

( WHOOPING )

- This is reinforced by the talking heads.

Every character looks slightly past the frame.

Except Jim.

He looks at us which makes him relatable.

So if you wanted to subvert Jim's position as a social prodigy, you could do it with the camera.

- Time thief! Time thief! Fire him!

- Dwight, you've really never stolen any company time?

- Never!

- After a discussion of ethics, Jim challenges Dwight's superiority by timing him for little things.

- There is no way that that was-- - ( BEEP )

- One second.

- Which only makes him more diligent.

But eventually, Dwight leaves to sleep with Angela.

- What were we doing for nineteen minutes and forty-eight seconds?

- None of your business!

Fine.

- So maybe you're not...completely ethical after all.

- Yes.

- Maybe I'm not.

- Jim feels like he outfoxed Dwight, but according to this...

...he didn't.

It's a joke that's unique to this medium.

But I'm more interested in a mockumentary's limitations.

Too often, a sitcom relies on a gimmick to communicate what's funny.

- Bazinga! - ( LAUGHTER )

- So that means no laugh track. No sound effects.

- ( ROARING )

- There's not even music, even though it's possible to score a documentary.

Another easy joke is to flash back and let the difference between now and then drive the episode.

- ( LAUGHTER )

- The Office can only use footage from the show or home videos.

- I hate you!

- So everything has to be external which means no fantasy, no tripping, and no dreams.

- Oh my God!

Oh my God!

- Even dramas will inexplicably include dream sequences just to get a few extra laughs.

- I don't know why you're here, but I didn't do it. - ( LAUGHTER )

- On The Office, they have to recite their dreams for the camera.

- I feel like I'm describing a dream I had.

- But after all these limitations, have they also limited the possibility of being funny?

- (Stephen Merchant): We became sort of so obsessive about the rules of the documentary,

that it began to kind of cripple us, really.

You know in the--in the end, you've got--you've got to remember you are making a TV show.

You are making a sitcom.

- So The Office takes the best parts of a documentary without compromising the TV show format.

There's an episode called The Deposition,

where lawyers pour through evidence trying to piece together the timeline of Michael and Jan's relationship.

Pictures. Diaries. Performance reviews. Testimonies.

- Mr. Scott, the timeline here is actually very important. Please, when did your relationship actually begin?

- But they don't ask for the footage by the crew that's filming them right now.

Obviously, if they did, it would undermine the whole episode.

Strangers don't react to the camera crew unless there's room for a joke.

- We're a legit operation with a license from the city. I can show you.

We pay minimum wage against commission.

- Nope, they're with me, so...

- The crew never gets in the way unless a character is really panicking.

- (Dwight): Have you ever seen a burn victim?

- Move it!

- And they rarely make mistakes, even though it's acceptable to show equipment in a documentary.

If you take the documentary at face value, then these are perfect filmmakers.

But really, this is just a TV show and too many references to the camera would be distracting.

But they do bend the rules.

The Office has some impressive long takes, but given how easy it is to ruin a take...

- ( LAUGHING )

- ...it's important to have multiple cameras to edit around.

But sometimes they'll cut to a camera that doesn't exist.

For example, Jan is giving a tour and this is the only cameraman in the room.

- White and Eggshell White are exactly the same color.

- Babe!

- Then they cut to this angle.

It's not a mistake in the traditional sense, but for mockumentary, it is.

- ( LAUGHING )

- In this scene, they cut to an angle in the car,

even though there wasn't a cameraman in the passenger seat.

But you probably wouldn't notice, because it cuts together like any conventional coverage would.

I think that's why they started using dash-cams in Season Three.

You don't have to worry about the logic of a cameraman.

You can get multiple angles.

And you can actually see their faces.

- ( SINGING )

Sweet.

- But there's one thing a dash-cam can't do.

- ( CRASH )

- Did you see who did it?

- Oh, no need. We can just check the security tapes.

- The camera is an omniscient perspective.

We're given access to all the footage we need to understand the story.

- And Andy, where is he?

Where the hell is Andy?

- Embarrassing moments.

- I am awesome!

- Betrayal.

- ( SIGHS ) I can't talk here.

- Affairs.

- (Angela): Wait a sec--wait a second! Wait a second! What was that?

( GASPS ) I didn't know they were filming then!

- It looks like the cameraman was hiding behind the shelves.

- Wait, so they were filming all the time, even when we didn't know it?

- Oh my God!

- Nothing is off-limits except for maybe filming in the bathroom.

But even then, there are creative ways around that.

- (Michael): Stanley, you don't need to answer me now. - (Stanley): No.

- Nothing is private because they're all wearing mic-packs and we can hear them wherever they go.

- Well yeah, but what if we turn off our mic-packs?

- They've got parabolic mics that can pick you up a hundred yards away so...

...no, if you were around there, they got you.

- I think some of the funniest jokes are when characters try to get privacy but can't.

- (Holly): Do you think they can hear us?

- (Michael): Not if we turn these dials...

( VOLUME INCREASES ) ...all the way down.

- Now they can't hear us at all.

- (Holly): Oh, good. - (Michael): We're totally alone.

- Jan famously hates the cameras because she's ashamed to be with Michael.

- (Jan): Am I on camera?

- Nope!

Totally private.

You can say whatever is in your heart.

- ( HANGS UP )

- You can take a five if you want.

- Cinema has always been about intimacy, watching strangers in their closest moments.

But how often are they influenced by you?

Since the cameras are always around, the characters can't really say how they feel.

They have to put up an artifice.

So the intimate moments are shot remotely.

The cameras have incredibly long lenses, so as far as the characters are concerned...

...they're alone.

- Listen, Jim.

- Cinematography will always have personality.

Framing. Movement. It's all there to sell an emotional experience.

But for a camera to be an actual character, that's something different.

- Wow, what time we got?

You know what?

That's a good place to end it. Right there.