On "CBS Sunday Morning" this past weekend, you might have seen a story unlike anything the show has offered before: a faux awards show called "The Sunny Awards," for which I was the tuxedoed host (and writer, and video editor). Enough people have asked how that story came about – and how I made it under stay-at-home circumstances – that I thought I'd offer a look behind the scenes.
I'd been wanting to do a "Sunday Morning" story about those viral videos (among the few joys of the coronavirus crisis) made by actors, musicians, comedians, dancers and magicians who are stuck at home. During the Great Lockdown, they no longer have access to stages, live audiences, lights, or props. They can no longer tour. And yet the best of them have still found ways to perform, using ingenuity and technology to produce stunning, moving, and wildly entertaining videos of their work.
One day, it hit me: What if I presented the story in the form of an awards ceremony, and interviewed each "winner" on a screen next to me?
I do, after all, have a green screen in my basement. As TV and movie fans know, a green screen is the basis for a common special effect: if you film someone standing in front of a green wall or sheet, then computer software can replace every spot of green with another image of your choice. Like, for example, a fancy awards-show set!
I emailed my bosses to pitch this utterly bizarre story idea. Incredibly, they immediately said yes. To me, that indicates some seriously open minds and a good deal of trust; in the 40-year history of our show, I'm guessing that this would be the first to be filmed entirely against a green screen.
Producer David Rothman was a key collaborator. He kept coming up with ideas to make the story funnier and better: Each award should have a funny name (like "The Von Trapped Family Singers Award")! There should be four judges, who are all played by me! We should get glimpses of the "live audience," which would actually be hilarious, black-and-white, 1940s-era film clips of people clapping in their finery!
In the original plan, we'd find one spectacular performer in each cultural category: Music, Dance, Theater, Comedy, and so on. In practice, though, some of the best videos were uncategorizable. Jack Buchanan, of New Zealand, wrote, arranged, filmed, starred in, edited, and choreographed "Family Lockdown Boogie." Which category would that be?
In the end, we gave up on the strict categories. We chose six wildly different performances – a combination of my own discoveries, Rothman's finds, and suggestions from my Twitter followers. (Thanks, you guys!)
Rothman ordered trophies from a custom award-design place and shipped them to our winners. Meanwhile, I had to figure out what our "awards ceremony stage" would look like.
I visited Fiverr.com, an amazing marketplace for really talented artists all over the world who work incredibly inexpensively. For example, for $5 or $10, you can find someone to retouch a photo in Photoshop for you, or draw you as a caricature, or copy-edit your résumé. I searched for "3-D set designers," and found a young man in the United Arab Emirates who made a gorgeous design for the Sunny Awards set.
He surprised me by delivering pictures of the virtual set in four different angles, which meant that I could address the "audience" standing in one spot, and interview the winners in another "spot"!
I planned to interview each winner on an iPad mounted at eye level, so that we could have what looked like a natural on-stage conversation; but the iPad's screen was too small; it looked like I was interviewing a shrunken head.
Instead, I set up a computer monitor. To bring it to my eye level, I put the monitor on a music stand, which was itself on top of a wicker trunk I found in the basement. It was a little wobbly.
But if you think that setup sounds complicated, wait 'til you hear the instructions I gave our winners! They went something like this:
"You're going to need a laptop in front of you, so that we can see each other over a Zoom call. Unfortunately, video calls are grainy, washed-out, and low-resolution; we don't want to show you on TV that way! So, we'd also like you to tape your smartphone to the laptop lid, and use it to shoot video of your side of the interview. (Your phone has much better audio and video quality than a Zoom call.) Later, you'll send us the captured video to incorporate into our story.
"Oh, and one more thing: When you're answering my questions during the interview, please face front but turn your head so that you're 'looking at me,' because I'll be 'standing next to you' on the stage. And I'm 6'2, so you may have to look upward a little bit, too, so you're 'looking me in the eye.' Oh, but not all the time – during your answers, feel free to look out 'into the audience' from time to time, too, which means looking forward toward your laptop and taped-up phone…"
That may not make total sense to you as you read it, but never mind: All six of our winners grasped what we were going for (maybe because they're all experienced performers!).
Some of our winners, like actors Tony Shalhoub and his wife Brooke Adams, and dating comedians Sam Morril and Taylor Tomlinson, are already celebrities; others were amateurs who'd done amazing work. But all of them joined this crazy, jerry-rigged shoot with patience and good humor.
The highlight of each interview was the moment when I "handed" the trophy to the winner "through the screen," as though I could reach across space into their homes. Here's the secret: Duct tape! When handing off the trophy, my hand went behind the computer screen, where it stuck to a wad of duct tape, so that I could pull my hand away empty.
At that moment, each winner "took the trophy from me" by reaching off-camera to receive it. The result looked so smooth, I burst out laughing the first time we tried it.
I edited this story on a Mac laptop running Final Cut Pro X, a fantastic video-editing program. I spent a week of 12-hour days editing the story – much too long, of course, but what else do I have going on? It was a great chance for me to dive into video-editing features I'd never used before, to learn (by watching YouTube tutorials) how they work. How do you clean up green screen glitches? When you've filmed in your basement, how do you remove room echo from the audio? How do you make the stupid music stand stop tilting?
Now I know!
Comedians Morril and Tomlinson made their interview extra hilarious by wearing silk pajamas for their interview, in front of their own green screen in their apartment! The joke was that they intended to replace the green areas with a picture of an over-the-top fancy L.A. apartment interior.
Of course, what this meant is that I had to replace their green screen with the fancy-apartment photo, and replace my green screen with our stage set. It was green screen Russian nesting dolls, but I finally figured it out.
Producer Rothman found some fantastic silent stock footage of vintage audiences, some applause sound effects, and even some brassy awards-show music to complete the effect.
My software replaced the green screen background with the "photo" of our stage. I replaced the grungy, tilted music stand with a nicer-looking pole I found on Google. I gave the background a tiny bit of blur, so it would look like it was far away. In the end, the video shot in my basement looked for all the world like a glamorous TV awards show. No social distancing was violated in the making of this story!
I have only one regret about this project: that the Sunnies aren't an actual awards broadcast, hours long. I would have loved to have shown more than an excerpt of each winner's work, to have included more of each interview, and to have spotlighted more brilliant performers. (After the story aired, viewers sent me links to brilliant talents I'd missed. In particular, I wish I'd known about the work of Mary Neely, who, living alone during quarantine, has single-handedly re-created scenes from classic Broadway musicals, even those involving multiple characters, men and women, with hilarious use of wigs, costumes, and impeccable lip-syncing. In her "Beauty and the Beast" opening number, I counted 43 different characters.
But never mind that. I was trying to use the same kind of at-home improvisation and creativity to conjure up the "Sunny Awards" story that its recipients had exhibited in the first place. The coronavirus may be keeping performing artists (and TV correspondents) at home, but you know what? The show must go on!
To watch the final Sunny Awards video click on the player below: