The Anatomy of a TV Show Pilot

A television show’s first episode – its pilot – is a crucial one. This one standalone episode often determines whether or not a network will pick up the show for a few episodes, a half-season or even a full season. Many pilots never make it past that first episode. Others, clearly, have found great success.

“Working on a pilot is brutal; it’s like shooting a movie but in hyper speed,” says Hunter Via, a supervising film editor and Full Sail Hall of Fame inductee. “Everything is new. You’re creating the world and the characters.”

Since the future of the show often weighs on that very first episode, working on a pilot is much different than working on an already established TV show. The crew wants to make the best product possible, and for that the network lets them spend more time and more money.

“You want to make that product look amazing and wonderful so it carries on,” says Steve Cainas, a production coordinator for film and TV, and a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee. “Shooting a pilot is not as run and gun as it is when you’re shooting episodic over and over again.”

While working on the first two seasons of ABC’s Lost, Steve says a typical episode was shot in 10 days, but for the pilot, they had 2-3 months to prepare and 30-40 days to shoot. Steve is in charge of handling the day-to-day logistics on set, and one of his biggest (and most time consuming) responsibilities for the Lost pilot was acquiring the downed plane (the infamous Oceanic Flight 815) used in filming.

“We got the aircraft from a plane graveyard in the Mojave Desert,” says Steve, who mainly works in film but also worked on the first season of HBO’s True Detective. “Then we had to get it to Hawaii, which involved cutting up the parts of the plane and loading it on to a barge.”

There’s more creative freedom as well, both on set and in post. On a pilot, you’re setting the precedent for what the entire mood of the show is going to be. According to Hunter, you get to experiment a little more.

“What’s the musical style of the show?” says Hunter. “What is the cutting pattern? Is it something that’s a little bit slower that we can live in a moment or is it going to be all close ups? What’s the sound of this world like? We get to figure all of these things out in the pilot.”

Hunter has worked on several pilots in his 10-plus year career, including The Walking Dead, The 100, Sons of Anarchy, and Arrested Development. Each experience is different … even unexpected sometimes. Hunter remembers an actress on one particular show whose performance wasn’t clicking, but when the show went to test audiences to be screened, she was one of the most popular characters.

“When you do a pilot, people literally sit in a room and watch your show with a dial,” says Hunter. “They hate it and you watch the numbers go down, and if they love it you watch the numbers go up. It’s so fascinating and terrifying and weird. And in this instance, they loved this person.”

Once the pilot is complete and in the hands of network execs, the end goal is airtime. From there, it’s up to the network to decide if they want to see more, and for crews, that often means they’ll get to work more too. After Lost was picked up by ABC, Steve spent two seasons working on the show.

“It was pretty exciting [shooting the Lost pilot]; we never knew whether we were going to come back or not,” remembers Steve. “I kind of had a gut feeling because of the amount of effort and the people involved, but with a pilot, you never really know how successful it will be or for how long.”

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