“CRITICAL HOURS: Building Blocks”

Q&A with producer/directors Jim Isler and Thomas Kail

  Q: How did you come up with the idea for your pilot?
After the recent slew of excellent documentaries about children in intense situations, especially Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, I began to miss my first jobs—as a tutor and a camp counselor. I needed to do something that put me back in the vicinity of kids.
     My younger sister taught 6th grade in the Bronx at IS 190. Her school had a Lego program, and I randomly had a friend who was a former Lego robotics instructor there. I was constantly in awe of their energy and their dedication, and how they were both able to always find creative ways to engage their students, day after day. I picked their brains about the Lego program, and became more intrigued about the possibility of documenting a team's growth.
     With a background mostly in theater, I had been searching for stories to document on film, and the chance to showcase the teachers of tomorrow's leaders was right in front of me. In September 2005, I reconnected with Jim, who I knew from his time as an actor in some early shows for my company, and later as an editor on a short film my company produced. We knew we had to move quickly, since we had a strict timeline that was dictated by the final tournament in late January, 2006.
JIM: My brother, Tom, and I have worked with this kind of subject matter before, producing a film about competitive high school theater in Maine. When Thomas approached me about doing a piece on competitive Lego robotics in New York City, I was coming up on a month between editing jobs. We decided to film a training session for teachers/coaches and consider it a casting opportunity. During the course of the day, we met many educators, each in charge of their own Lego teams, but we were drawn to three: Kelly, Seung, and Fred. And a short while later we were in their classrooms.
     After shooting, we were introduced to the New York Television Festival. The festival's pilot concept started us thinking about all the different worlds out there that could fit into this “Critical Hours” series. We saw how an episodic TV series could be a very interesting fit for this kind of subject matter.

Q: Very briefly, what entertainment experience do you have?
I have been editing for film and TV in New York since 2001, working mainly on documentary programs for such networks as VH1, National Geographic, Discovery, Trio, PBS, and A&E. My professional cinematography experience consists of shooting second camera for episodes of PBS's “EGG: The Arts Show.” My brother, Tom, and I have been creating documentaries and short films since our middle school days in Maine. Most recently, we directed a feature documentary, Festival (2005), about a one-act high school play competition in Camden, Maine.
THOMAS: I am the co-founder and artistic director of Back House Productions (BHP), a non-profit company that develops new work for the stage, though we have also produced two short films. BHP has developed and produced over a dozen new works for the stage in the last five years, including the new musical In The Heights, which I am directing, that is now produced by Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller (producers of Avenue Q and Rent) and is opening off-Broadway in January 2007.
     I am also the co-creator and director of the hip-hop improv show, Freestyle Love Supreme (also developed with BHP), that has run in New York for two years, as well as in the 2005 HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe, and the 2006 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. FLS has been working with @radical.media for the last year to develop a TV show about the group.

Q: Where do you see this series airing?
I see this series on a network like TLC, Discovery, or Discovery Kids—networks that like to peek behind the curtain and show how the machine works.

Q: Are there any interesting tidbits or factoids about the project that you wish to share?
The teachers and the principals were all very cautious and curious (as they should be!) about our intentions for project. They were adamant that kids not feel any pressure about “winning” or “placing” because the cameras were there; this worked well with our goal of highlighting the process and not the results. In fact, we had an offer to follow a team that had placed in the top three the last two years, but we were so impressed with our teachers, we decided to stick with our three schools, though we knew their chances of winning the whole tournament were slim.
JIM: We edited on Final Cut Pro and digitized our 60 hours of media at the photo-jpeg resolution. All three of us had copies of the video and audio files on our personal computers, allowing us to e-mail very easily email the edited sequences back and forth that would relink to our copy of the media. This was obviously great because we didn't have to coordinate screenings or burn DVDs at each stop along the way. It also encouraged great collaborative process between myself and Tom, as we could divide up the scenes and exchange rough cuts.

Q: What was the most difficult part about making your pilot?
It was difficult to know how often we should be filming in the classrooms. What are we missing if we're not there? We also set the goal to submit to NYTVF only about 6 weeks prior to the final deadline. So it was an intense period of post-production for me, as I was editing professionally full time during the day, and then coming home to edit our pilot in the evenings and on weekends. We also struggled a great deal getting our pilot down to the 22 minute running time because we felt that a show like this really deserved a full TV hour. When we were shaving the cut down to 22 minutes, it was difficult to let go of certain scenes that helped develop our characters, especially the students, simply because we didn't have time.
THOMAS: I often felt like a single camera wasn't able to get all the things that happened in the corners of a classroom. Every time I thought I was in the “right” place, I'd look up and 20 feet away something even more amazing was happening! Eventually, I realized that I had to just commit to my impulses, and shoot whatever struck me at the moment—and have faith it would all come together in the edit.

Date: Aug. 11, 2006