Rambo Autopsies An Episode Of 'CSI'

By Rachel Trongo
Posted at May 4, 2009 - 8:16 AM GMT

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Supervising Producer David Rambo spends most of the year crafting elaborate murder mysteries for the hit television show, but on Monday, April 27th, he turned the microscope on the writing process itself. "[I thought] it might be fun to do an autopsy on an episode," Rambo told students, faculty and guests at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), where he'd been invited to give a seminar about the logistics of writing for television. "Every episode, we do an autopsy on a victim. Let's turn the tables, let's see what the elements of CSI are, what goes into making an episode of a TV series."

It all starts with an idea, he explained. "Everything--every hour, every minute of this starts with an idea," he said. "It starts with the page. It starts with the script." During season nine, CSI had 12 writers. These writers explore ideas in the writers' room. "We have five whiteboards on the walls and a mirror," Rambo shared. "When we run out of whiteboards, we write on the mirror. It is a very interesting place." Being in the writers' room is not always pleasant, Rambo noted, but that's where it all begins. "We often work late into the night," he revealed. "We sometimes start very early in the morning, but every episode of the show really is born in that room."

"We get in that room, sometimes as many as five or six of us, often just three or four, with a writers' assistant," Rambo said. "We start with the idea. Before anything goes on the whiteboards, we spend a day usually talking about ways we might tell the story." The writers explore the idea and answer some important questions: "What is the true crime? What really happened in the story? And then at what point do we enter the story, and what kind of discoveries can our CSIs make?"

The hardest part of creating an episode, Rambo revealed, is getting started. "Each script has its own identity," he said. "It has its own thing to say. At some point during the creation of an episode, an executive producer asks, 'Why are we telling this story? What are we saying? What do we want to explore? Why do our people care?'" If the show's main characters don't care, the core audience is not involved, Rambo explained. Another important question that needs to be asked is, "How much can we tell and still keep it a mystery?"

A narrative outline is created from the notes on the whiteboards, and this is sent to the various departments involved with the show. These departments provide comments on the outline, and one writer takes all of the information and writes out a preliminary draft of the script. "The turnaround on this is pretty fast," Rambo shared. "If I have 10 days to write a script, and I turn in about a 58 to 60 page draft, that's a lot. Sometimes it's just five to seven days." At this point, the guest stars are cast, and the shooting script is finalized before the episode is filmed.

After the episode is finished, it gets uplinked by satellite and sent out to be broadcast. "It's so weird," Rambo said. "It's this thing that goes out into the ether, and then it goes around the world. Once we process our film, it's never touched as film again. It's entirely digital."

Rambo explained to the group that there is so much more out there besides CSI. "This is just one series," he said. "When you see this, remember: there's a whole industry out there making this happen on four major broadcast networks, some minor broadcast networks, dozens of cable networks--every day of the week. This is a huge industry."

"Television has been described as a great maw, wide open, that needs to be fed constantly," Rambo explained. "It's so exciting to be part of it. CSI is one part of this big, crazy, fantastic industry." The series has finished filming for the year, but Rambo revealed that he would be back to work in the not-too-distant future. "June 1," he said, "[the ball] starts rolling again."

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Rachel Trongo is the news writer for CSI Files.