As an executive producer and showrunner for TV shows set in New York City, (I worked on “Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit” for ten years before moving to work on “A Gifted Man“) a very important part of my job is signing off on where we shoot. Sometimes, we write a specific setting into a scene — a store in Chinatown, an upscale restaurant, or a small boutique — and then we have to face the challenge of finding real locations in the city that will work on camera. Here are a few things I’ve learned over my many years overseeing large-scale television productions in the New York City area.
If You Can’t Make It, Fake It
Even if you can’t find the perfect fit for your script, there are tricks to making a place look like somewhere else. For example, a lot of the action in “A Gifted Man” unfolds in Clinica Sanando, a health clinic for the needy located in Alphabet City. In reality, the exterior of the Clinica is a vacant storefront near the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. We use computer-generated graphics to superimpose the signage over the awning.
This clip from “A Gifted Man” demonstrates how computer-generated graphics convincingly transform a vacant storefront in Brooklyn into the entrance to a health clinic in Alphabet City.
But Sometimes, There’s Nothing Like the Real Thing
There are some locations that can’t be faked. When Robin Williams made a guest appearance on “SVU”, we shot a big scene in Grand Central Terminal in which his character organizes a flash mob. There’s no way to recreate that. It’s tricky because you have to shoot on a night or a weekend.
Also, I would say that almost every episode of “SVU” included a scene shot in an apartment that actually belong to someone. We only use a soundstage for tight shots without much motion. In an episode guest starring Joan Cusack, we used a real apartment because the script called for the camera to move through several different rooms.
Use Your Ears
The biggest difficulties are in sound issues. You can’t just stop life on the streets or in an apartment building, so you’re likely to run into a lot of different types of noise. My main advice is for exterior shots to find an area that won’t have too many factors causing background noise.
Let There Be Light…
Regardless of where you shoot, remain aware of how sunlight shifts and modulates throughout the day. For example, the season finale of “A Gifted Man” includes a car crash. We had to be on set all day to shoot the scene and pay very close attention to how the light shifted in between takes.
A trailer for the season finale of “A Gifted Man.” According to Neal Baer, one of the trickiest parts of shooting the car crash scene was predicting the shifting daylight.
Leave It Better Than You Found It
I’ve worked with many talented location managers and they really know how to work with building tenants and keep them happy. They always leave a building in the same condition as they found it, if not better. They’ll even bring buckets of paint to touch up the walls if there are scratches.
Ever Wonder About the Addresses on Law & Order?
Every “Law & Order” show includes the signature “clunk clunk” sound effect followed by a titlecard showing an address. Don’t bother looking them up, they’re always fake. A lot of the time the numbers would put you into the Hudson River.
Dr. Neal Baer is the executive producer of the CBS television series “A Gifted Man” and previously served as executive producer of the NBC television series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” He recently published his first novel, “Kill Switch,” which is set in New York City. Dr. Baer earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School and holds master’s degrees in education and sociology from Harvard.