Cheap Drama 

1 January 2004

Making a drama series, of any genre, is expensive, very expensive, more so than most other genres of film and video production.

So, to make any drama series more affordable for a broadcaster or movie studio, certain tricks are often employed by producers and directors so that episodes won’t cost so much.

Standard and recurring sets

One trick that will often be done with a regular recurring series is to build some standard sets that can be dressed up for particular episodes or changed a bit for others.

In a soap opera you will always have regular sets, because soap operas by their very nature take place in the same area and the same places day after day, week after week, whereas other serials don’t always do that.

In other drama series, you may have a varying number of recurring sets. Doctor Who was always regarded as expensive, because you only ever had one recurring set through the entire series and that was the Tardis console room.

Star Trek on the other hand had the Bridge, the Transporter Room, Engineering, the Medical area, officers’ quarters and others. Although not all appeared in every episode, they would get used more often than not.

Recurring shots

If in a series you are going to see a particular shot or a series of shots on a regular basis, then there is no need to do that same shot repeatedly other than for times when the action is different or there are less or more people in the shot for a reason.

One example of this is what would often happen at the beginning of the Batman TV episodes.

Most stories started the same way, with Batman and Robin sliding down the Batpoles, arriving in the Batcave, jumping into the Batmobile, and driving 14 miles to Gotham City, arriving outside Police Headquarters and running in. That series of shots was shown almost every week for the first two seasons.

If you know that you are going to be using certain shots on a fairly regular or repeated basis, then it makes sense to record them just once and use them repeatedly.

These shots are obviously not shots that would include dialogue most of the time, although I have seen it done with shots that include some fairly standard dialogue, but thankfully nothing particularly story specific.

Effects shots

Here is an area where nothing is particularly cheap. When shooting effects, it always costs money – big money. Visual Effects are a permanent source of consternation to accountants because they cost so much.

Where it is possible to keep costs down here, some producers will very actively do so. It makes a lot of sense too, as sometimes not seeing something will build a tension or a mystery all of its own.

An example of this was The Incredible Hulk live action TV series from 1977 to 1982 on CBS. When Bill Bixby as Dr David Banner transformed into Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, it meant a lot of trouble and expense for the producers. Kenneth Johnson, who produced the pilot, looked into just how the transformation could be achieved.

His visual effects team tried all sorts of tricks to pull off that transformation, inflatable wetsuits amongst them, but they eventually settled on using 3 stages of make-up effects, and having his wardrobe team score seams on shirts that were slightly too small for Lou Ferrigno and having him flex his muscles to rip them.

However, even Kenneth Johnson knew he couldn’t do that every time Banner hulked-out as it would send the make-up and wardrobe budgets into orbit.

A selection of pre-ripped shirts and trousers were made available for Lou’s wardrobe instead. To avoid seeing the transformation every time, Kenneth came up with a “trigger mechanism” whereby once we saw this happen, we knew what was coming. The trigger was the “white eye” effect – hard contact lenses, specially crafted for the show.

Another trick that would often be used would be pitching Bill Bixby’s voice down on the dubbing stage.

This was especially good, since the show always required some dubbing, as the Hulk’s voice would be added later, as would scenes where the location sound wasn’t always up to scratch and sound rerecording would be required in order to properly hear the lines.

There was also at least one occasion when we didn’t even see the white eyes ‘trigger’, but since David had been thrown off a balcony, landing on a glass table, well, you sort of knew what was coming.

“Poor man’s process”

This requires a bit of explanation, so follow carefully!

A process shot is a shot that looks like it was done on location when in fact it was done on a stage. It usually involves a rear projection or a blue or green screen, with the actor or actors in front, on a treadmill, in a car, a helicopter, boat or even just standing there.

When a poor man’s process shot is done, there is no screen involved, they switch that off and just use lights to either simulate movement or to highlight something.

This trick could be used with an appropriate prop to give an indication of a location, without there actually being one.

Poor man’s process shots tend to be nighttime shots. However, it has been done with daytime shots, with some success.

If these shots are done well, you often don’t even notice it if you are not looking for it. This is a technique that is very widely used and not just by the low budget and no-budget guys. Even the big blockbuster movies will employ poor man’s process in order to get the shot done on time and in budget.


It is not an uncommon trick for producers to say to writers, come up with a story where we can use a lot of material from previous shows (a clip show), or come up with a story that involves very few actors and a limited number of sets (a bottle show).

This especially happens when a series is running out of budget and/or production time. This has always been happening.

Back in the 1960s Doctor Who did a story where the whole story was set inside the Tardis and only involved the crew of 4 who were in the Tardis, including The Doctor.

In 1988, Star Trek: The Next Generation did a story that involved using material from stories in the previous two seasons. This is not a new idea. Most American sitcoms do one once a season, if not to save money then to save it for the end of season cliffhanger.


TV dramas, or indeed movies, often have very tight shooting schedules. When time and budget are against you, you will employ all sorts of tricks to get the job done and done quickly.

In the second (or fifth, depending on your point of view) Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, C3P0 appears on the Wookie’s back at one stage in pieces, and they constructed a radio-controlled rig in order to remotely move the arms to make it seem like he had some life in him.

There was just one problem. They couldn’t get it to work. So with time against them, they resorted to an old reliable standby technique.

They hooked up wires to the robot’s arms and got Peter Mayhew, who played the Wookie, Chewbacca, to pull on the strings as he was running around the stage.

It just goes to show that even those with the biggest budgets still at times need to use the cheapest of cheap tricks to get the job done. It’s how we make good dramas.

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