After studying Television and Video Production at Emerson College in Boston, Tom Ragazzo moved to Los Angeles where he has worked his way up from being a PA on feature films like ALONG CAME POLLY and BEWITCHED, to Associate Producer on the hit NBC show PARKS AND RECREATION, where he’s in charge of all post production. Now in it’s 5th season, Tom is still with the show and handles the many day to day issues that come with taking a show from the footage that comes out of a camera, to the finished product you see on TV.
What does a Post Supervisor do?
The Post Supervisor role is different depending on what type of show you’re working on. On reality shows, the Post Supervisor (or Sup) is usually the head of the post department. On scripted shows, the Sup is usually the second in command of the post department, right under the AP or Associate Producer. In the scripted world, a post sup will usually assist the AP with day to day tasks, keep watch over the post PA (production assistant), handle the paperwork and billing for the department and other office type responsibilities.
While each AP runs their department differently, usually you see the post sup handling the video side of finishing an episode. Once an editor and producer “lock” an episode, meaning they are happy with the edit and pass it off to get ready for air, there are a bunch of tasks that still have to happen before you see the episode on TV. Since a show is comprised of both audio and video, there’s substantial work that is done to each of those before air. So the post sup will sort of oversee the video work that happens. That includes things like visual effects and video clean up (meaning adding any CGI to an episode to create elements that weren’t physically there during shooting, or cleaning up the picture to remove any set elements that accidentally got in the camera’s way, like boom poles or crew members), or things like adding opening and end credits, etc. The sup doesn’t actually physically do the work, but they will go in and work with the artist to pass along info as to how the shot should look and then approve the work once done. All of this work eventually gets married back to the finalized audio that the sound team had been working on, and then it gets aired as the show you see on TV.
What are your duties as AP on Parks and Rec? What hours do you typically work?
As the AP, or Associate Producer, on Parks and Rec, it’s my job to oversee the entire post production department. Once the tape comes out of the camera on set, it is my job to make sure that tape goes through all necessary steps to turn it into a TV show.
This ranges from setting the post budget for the episode, to overseeing the editors and assistant editors, creating a post schedule and making sure that cuts of the episodes come out when they are supposed to. The AP handles all overseeing of the audio finishing on a locked episode. I handle any additional voice recording that we may need from actors, to recording background voices, to finally supervising the final sound mix of the episode. The AP usually handles anything in regards to finalizing an episode that would include any type of creative input. This means that in a sound mix for example, the audio levels of various elements of the show are subjective. There’s no set level that is automatic for things like dialogue and sound effects. Because those things are more of a creative choice (what’s best for the show at that moment), the AP is responsible for those decisions. That also extends to the color correction of a show. When a show is shot on set, the color that the camera record is never what the viewer sees on TV. There is always some adjustment that we make in order to make it look as good as possible. And again, since this is more of a creative choice, that’s were the AP steps in.
Now, I am not the final say by any means, because the executive producers can come in (and have) and ask to make changes to anything. I also oversee things like the creation of the DVDs that you would buy in the stores of any of our seasons. While NBC themselves are the ones that actually design and put together the DVD, I oversee getting them any and all footage they would need for it, which includes deleted scenes and also outtake/gag reel footage. I guess I could really keep going with more and more tasks, but it would end up taking up way too much space.
Suffice it to say that my average day is about 9:30 a.m. till about 8:30-10:30 p.m. Eleven hour days are normal, twelve is very common and thirteen is not unheard of. It’s a lot of work. Plus I am always on call as we usually have vendors that are working on some element of our show during the overnight hours, and it’s also not unheard of to get a call at 3am because something came up.
Do you know (talk to) the cast/writers/other departments? Or are those areas compartmentalized?
I actually know the other departments very well. Because we all work so many hours in this business, we all become like a family (mainly because we see more of each other than we do our own families). But aside from that, my job requires that I work with other departments all the time. I usually need the writers to come up with new lines that we’ll need an actor to record in order to help fix something in the edit, or I’ll need the Art Department to create some graphics for us that are needed in a shot of the show, etc.
Plus, our physical offices are pretty much all together. We are spread over two floors of an office building, with our two primary sound stages (where we shoot the show) downstairs on the first floor. So I see and interact with not only the staff, but also the shooting crew and cast on almost a daily basis. Heck, I even have managed our shows softball team over the past two seasons. This is a really great show to work on in regards to the people (cast included). Everyone is just awesome, and the way I explain it to people that don’t work in the business – we are all just co-workers trying to get a job done, including the cast.
What was Emerson like? Did the course you truly prepare you for a career in TV?
Surprisingly Emerson as a college in the academic sense was not amazing. The years I attended, they were working off old textbooks and old equipment. Most of the TV studios had decade old cameras and decks (VCRs). They were still working mainly in the ¾” tape format for a lot of stuff. They did have some digital equipment, such as DVCPro, but that was usually reserved for the upperclassmen. Their editing facilities were also rather shoddy. We had a video class where we were required to buy Jazz disks (the bigger brother to those Zip disks that were popular around then). Jazz disks could hold 2 GB of data, however since they were only designed to backup data, they were terrible to use for editing (data backup writes information to the disk once and moves on, whereas video editing requires constant writing and moving of files, thus overwhelming the disks). The professor at the start of the course even told everyone that there was about an 85% chance we would lose all our work at some point due to failure of the Jazz disk. So, academically speaking, Emerson wasn’t really up to snuff.
However, the saving grace of the school was all of the extra-curricular activities. I learned most of what I needed in things like EIV (Emerson Independent Video), or working with the EVVYs (Emerson’s version of the Emmys). EIV did so many different things, from short films to news programs. I worked on most all of them, really anything that I had time to do, I did. I eventually was the Executive Producer of their Nightly News program (they had two news shows, one weekly and one nightly that aired on the school’s TV channel). The nightly news show was a sorta laid back format, shot like E!’s “Talk Soup”, where the host sits in front of a green screen. While the show was rather small compared to the weekly news, it required me to produce content, shoot a show and air it on a daily schedule. Things like that are what helped set the groundwork for my job now, because you learn how to delegate tasks in order to stay on schedule. Plus, you got to pull from the experience of all the upperclassmen. Those clubs are what made Emerson really worth the 4 years. Side note – the very next year after I graduated, Emerson opened a brand new building filled with state of the art TV studios, equipment, etc. So, ha, just my luck.
Talk about CON. What was the creation process like, and how did you get in a position to pitch/sell to Comedy Central?
When I finally moved to LA after college, my first couple years here were real slow in terms of work. It wasn’t uncommon to be unemployed for four months a year. So in one of those periods of unemployment, my roommate was working at a commercial post facility (they literally just edited TV commercials). While he was there one day, a friend of one of his co-workers came in looking to see if he could enlist the help of any of the editors there. His name was Skyler Stone.
Skyler was holding footage that he had shot with some friends and was in need of someone to edit. When his friend at the facility told him that no one could help, my roommate made the comment that I may be able to help Skyler, as I was home unemployed and I knew how to edit. So, that day Skyler came over to my house and told me the idea he had for a show. Essentially, he was an actor just starting out in the business, and being a very good people person, he learned how to sorta “con” his way into getting free things over the years of unemployment he had. When he saw how good he was at it, a friend of his (Zach Johnson) and him thought that maybe they could make a show out of it. Their “cons” were simple things that didn’t ever really hurt anyone – things like how to get a free hamburger at McDonalds or how to send mail for free. Simple stuff. So the idea for the show became taking those little con ideas and wrapping them up into bigger “life adventure” type of events.
The footage that Skyler had come to my house with was of him and two friends (Zach and Dave) going out on the Sunset Strip on a Friday night and pretending they were a “Girls Gone Wild” camera crew. Skyler wanted me to edit the footage to see if we had any way of making a show out of the footage. So I cut together what he had, and then we decided that we should try to appeal to guys our age, and we shot an intro segment of something like “It’s Friday night and I’m broke, but I want to go out and have fun…and of course that involves girls. So wouldn’t it be great if we could go out and get girls to flash us? How could we do that? I know, lets pretend we’re from Girls Gone Wild”… you get the idea.
From there we went on to shoot about 5 more “mini-cons” as we called them. Short 6-8 min episodes where we would start with a type of “I’m broke but I want to do X” and then figured out how to “con” our way into getting it. Then sprinkled throughout the main con, Skyler would show us how to do small ones (like the McDonalds burger or free postage ones). I edited all those extra mini episodes and created a type of pitch DVD. We had always felt that if we got a pitch meeting with a network, it would be easier to show them our idea as opposed to just telling them. So Skyler used his contacts to start getting meetings around town. There was interest here and there, but eventually Comedy Central really took the bait and agreed to have us shoot a pilot episode, which is what we did. It was really low budget and was a huge learning experience for all of us, but we did a good enough job to where Comedy Central picked us up for eight full episodes.
Do you have an ultimate goal in TV?
When you start in this business, it’s not uncommon for you to change your goal many times over. When I started out I wanted to be a film producer, then I wanted to be an editor, then a show runner. And now? Who knows? Haha. I like the track I’m on at the moment, however I don’t see myself here forever. The job is just too demanding. It’s not conducive to raising a family and so forth. I am actually a private pilot on the side (just as a hobby), and I’ve recently been thinking that maybe I’d like to get into something to do with aerial photography and filming. Just watch almost any car commercial or Michael Bay movie and you’ll see plenty of overhead helicopter shots.
Talk about your interest in flight? You have a pilot’s license?
When I was a kid I was always fascinated with planes, space, fighter jets, etc. When I finally got out of college and started my career, I promised myself I’d get my pilots license. So about seven years ago I started training and eventually passed all my tests to get my private pilot’s license. It’s an amazing sense of freedom. When you are all alone at eight thousand feet with the controls to the plane (and essentially your own life) in your hands, it’s a feeling that can’t be beat. It’s not uncommon for me to fly to Santa Barbara in thirty minutes (a two hour drive), just to have lunch and fly home. Right now I rent all the planes I fly, but I hope to one day be able to buy one. Just too much fun.
Could you easily transition (work-wise) into film, or is it a “one or the other” decision that is made from the time you first PA?
It’s definitely not as easy as you would think. Reality is different from scripted TV, which is different from film, which is different from commercials, etc. They all have their own groups and clicks. In this business, everyone sorta goes around with the same group. It’s like high school. When one producer gets hired on a new show, they usually take with them their whole crew (if possible). That’s why they always say “it’s who you know” in this business, because it sort of is. While it does happen, it’s a lot rarer for people to send in resumes and interview for a position. People usually come on recommendations from others.
Are you working on any personal/passion projects?
Unfortunately not at the moment. This is a busy time of the year, with us smack dab in the middle of the airing season, and then with us about to start work on a TV pilot within the next month. Hours are crazy and you find yourself sort of waking up, working, and going back to sleep. There’s not much time to take on other projects, which is kind of a bummer because it helps keep your mind in order. But the plus side is that I usually get about two months off in the summer when we are in between seasons, and as long as I know for sure that the show is coming back for another season, I usually just take those two months as a vacation, visit family back east and do a bunch of things I didn’t get to do during the year.