Making McBeal Surreal

It takes more than fantasy to create the special effects in Ally World.


LOS ANGELES -- We cannot vouch for Calista Flockhart, but Ally McBeal eats Duncan Hines milk chocolate frosting.

There's a can of the stuff in the kitchen that the neurotic little lawyer of the Fox hit series shares with down-to-earth D.A. Renee Radick (played by Lisa Nicole Carson). Right next to the box of Wheat Thins, the bag of Ruffles with Ridges and the SnackWell fudge brownies.

There's olive oil and coffee beans in the canisters, Lactaid and yogurt in the fridge, Lean Cuisine in the freezer.

Sure, it's prop food on a stage set, bags and boxes full of nothing in a kitchen where the rooms smell of sawdust and the walls sponged funky tangerine end not in a ceiling, but in a soaring tangle of metal and wire, lights and circuits.

But Ally's world feels real. Slap a roof on this spacious apartment and you'd be happy to live here. Hook up the toilets in the law office's unisex, and you'd be just as likely to spill your secrets, or swat a frog, as any of the denizens of the Cage/Fish law firm.

It's easy to be skeptical when you read that the inhabitants of Ally World claim they didn't know Calista Flockhart's weight had become a national obsession. Spend a day on the set and you'd understand. If you show up before daybreak and leave when it's dark and spend many of your waking hours in a place dedicated to the pursuit and enaction of illusions, it's not so hard to comprehend how the real world could start to feel like just one more story.

"There's such a fierce workload that you end up just going to work. There's no time to deal with extraneous stuff," says Jeffrey Kramer, one of Ally McBeal's executive producers. "And this is a pretty functional family" -- if, of course, you ignore "this misconception that the star is wasting away."

"We move along and we're happy."

The average feature film shoots one page of script per day.

The average sitcom takes a 30-page script and in three or four hours turns it into a 23-minute show.

Ally McBeal, an hour-long drama replete with hard-to-pull-off special effects, sits somewhere squarely in the middle, shooting seven to eight pages per day. "A gruesome pace," says Mike Listo, who's responsible for creating the show's special effects.

Ally is shot using only two cameras, as opposed to the three or four employed by sitcoms.

For example, to film a courtroom scene, both cameras will start off facing the lawyer's tables, shooting multiple takes of their speeches and reactions. Then the cameras will be turned around for multiple takes of the judge, the jury, and witnesses. It's slow, laborious work, made even harder by the necessity of working on several shows at once: the crew will be preparing one episode, shooting another, and editing three that have already been shot.

Blame David E. Kelley, who writes each of Ally's episodes himself, often perilously close to when they have to start shooting. The stories go from his legal pads to the small screen in record-setting time.

Ideally, there's a scant seven days of lead time to prep for an episode -- to cast the extras, build the 'swing' sets, to make sure everything from the right clothes to the right songs are in place. For "In Dreams," tonight's episode, the crew got only a day and a half.

"In Dreams" is about Ally's struggle to allow her ailing grade-school teacher to be put into an induced coma. The woman, played by Eileen Ryan, prefers to exist in a dream state rather than face the reality of being old, sick, and alone.

So while Flockhart gives her impassioned closing argument on the courtroom set, the construction crew is busily building the hospital where half of the episode will take place, and assistant directors off to the side are reviewing videotapes of older, tuxedoed gentlemen ballroom dancing, looking for a man with smooth moves and kind eyes, and Dyan Cannon, who guest-stars as Judge Whipper Cone, stalks back and forth in her dressing room, rehearsing her de rigueur retort to Ally: "It's kind of how our justice system works. Or were you buffing your nails that day?"

Mike Listo's title is producer. In reality, he is the Dancing Baby animator, the Fantasy Swimming Pool designer, the White's Tree Frogs wrangler. Listo, a former feature and commercial director, is Ally McBeal's special effects guy, the man responsible for making Ally's fantasies come to life.

Which is not easy. The fantasies come straight from Kelley's pen to Listo. "He'll write a scene that will say 'Ally swims out her door and through the office complex,' and then he'll say, 'Can we do that?' " Listo has never had to tell him no.

Sometimes it's not that hard. For the swimming scene, Flockhart was suspended in front of a green screen, doing the breast stroke. That footage was digitally added to a shot Listo took of the office full of smoke -- on television, it looks just like water.

"Calista's such a great actress, even doing it all against a green screen, she just sells it," he says.

Likewise, the Dump Truck -- a recurring vision wherein an about-to-be-uncoupled man or woman is shown being hurled into a Dumpster and driven away with the rest of the trash. "We just shot a dump truck and pop the people in the bins," he says. And the tongues -- another recurring effect in which an actor unfurls a foot-long tongue toward the object of his or her desire -- is also easy. "Once you make a tongue, you save it," says Listo.

The infamous Dancing Baby who haunted Ally during the show's first season was harder. Kelley had come across the gyrating infant on the Internet. "So first we had to buy the rights to the dancing baby. Then we built a three-D skeleton from wire. Then we did motion capture -- where you put electrodes all over a person and film how they move." No, they didn't wire a baby. "It was an adult. So you'll notice that the baby moves much more like an adult than a baby."

And the frogs, prominent players in this season's early episodes, "were real complicated." Kelley wrote the script, then three or four days before the episodes were to start prepping, casually mentioned to Listo, "we'll be needing some frogs. . . . Maybe you should make a few calls."

And the frogs weren't just any frogs. Stephan and Millie were very specifically identified as White's Tree Frogs. But Kelley wrote without realizing that those particular kind of frogs don't jump. The script called for jumping. Then it turned out that the frogs had a problematic tendency: They turned from green to gray under the bright lights.

Listo found a guy who had White's Tree Frogs available ("he does cockroaches, too,") and then worked with real frogs -- nine of them, with one on camera and eight keeping green in a cooler -- and frog models, who did the jumping. The faux frogs were called into action "any time a real frog could get hurt." Which mean that the stand-in for the frog named Stephan who got batted around the Fish/Cage unisex was a fake.

Listo's favorite illusion? Ally rounding the bases at Fenway Park. "That might be our best effect." Film was shot at Fenway. The actors did their thing at Cal State Fullerton. And the images were married -- so well that "people thought we really went to Boston."

Peter Politanoff knows one thing that Ally McBeal viewers want: Billy and Georgia's bed. Which is from Restoration Hardware and which, sad to say, has been discontinued.

Politanoff is the show's art director, the man responsible for everything from the color of Ally's bedroom walls to the distinctive look of the Fish/Cage washroom. "It has to look real in order to sell it. It can't look like a stage set," he says.

A former designer for New York theater and television commercials, Politanoff decorated Ally and Renee's space the way he would a real apartment, with attention to details, and verisimilitude. No Friends-style Architectural-Digest living on a cappuccino-slinger's salary. The apartment, with its funky blend of low-end antiques, Ikea cabinets and lime-green dining room chairs, is not only something that two up-and-coming young lawyers would covet, it's something they could afford.

"You try to make it as real as you can. It helps the storytelling to feel that you're in a real place," Politanoff said. "It makes the whole thing more believable."

And the number-one thing that Ally viewers covet? The 'companion doll,' which is a life-size inflatable man, which Ally and Renee sometimes dance with and sometimes beat up. "I can't tell you how many calls we got for that one," he said.