Interview: Brad Tanenbaum

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Prior to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation‘s premiere in 2000, it’s safe to say viewers had no clue what the inside of a human body looked like–at least what it looks like after being struck by a bullet. Twelve years later, CSI has introduced viewers to a smorgasbord of fascinating and intricate technical shots, thanks in large part to Co-Producer Brad Tanenbaum. Since CSI‘s inception, Tanenbaum has helped mold the look of various visual effects seen on the show and, for the past several seasons, take on more of a commanding role serving as one of the show’s in-house directors. With his thirteenth credit coming up this Wednesday, Tanenbaum chats with CSI Files’ Shane Saunders about challenging effects, how technology on the show has changed, and tease his latest episode. (Spoilers after the jump!)

CSI Files: This week’s episode “Tressed to Kill” is your third episode this season and also one with a huge void – the absence of Catherine Willows. What immediately went through your mind when you found out you would be directing the first episode after Marg Helgenberger‘s departure?

Director of Photography Crescenzo Notarile (left) and Director Brad Tanenbaum (center) prep a scene on 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' (photo: Brad Tanenbaum)

Brad Tanenbaum: It was hard for everyone when Marg decided to leave. I have been working with her for twelve seasons. I thought she went out in a very classy way. I have been lucky enough to shoot some very memorable episodes with her.

It was weird, we actually started this episode while she was shooting her last one. On day one we did a scene with Eric [Szmanda, Greg Sanders] and George [Eads, Nick Stokes] in Catherine’s office. Not to give too much away, [but] it looks a little different now. The Art Dept had to redress the set the way it lives now and redress it back with Catherine’s dressing for her to shoot in it the next day. It was very strange walking in there knowing that this is no longer going to be Catherine’s office.

CSI Files: Did you have any worries or concerns when prepping the episode? Anything particularly challenging about this episode compared to your previous installments?

Tanenbaum: Every episode has it own challenges. That is the great thing about working on CSI. No episode is ever alike.

I was pitched this story last season. Ed Whitmore (the writer) and I worked together on an episode called “Unleashed” last season. He told me the idea for this story then. I was lucky enough to get it. When I read his outline, I immediately saw the teaser in my head. Almost shot for shot. I pitched my interpretation to Carol [Mendelsohn, Executive Producer], Don [McGill, Executive Producer], and Ed and they liked it. The most challenging part was, where it took place. The opening needed to be filmed in a shopping mall, and we shot this episode right before Christmas. We were lucky enough to find a mall that allowed us to get in and out very early in the morning. We were also able to shoot around the Christmas decorations and the tree.

CSI Files: The CSI team is dealing with a serial killer who has an obsession with hair and makeup. What else can you tease about the episode?

Tanenbaum: This episode takes creepy to a whole other level. This is my second creepy crazy serial killer episode this season. I also Directed “Tell Tale Hearts,” I guess that is my calling this season.

This serial killer has a lot of crazy obsessions that all unfold before your eyes. The cool thing to look forward to is the emotional roller coaster that Russell [Ted Danson] will go through. Ted really delivers an amazing performance. He is backed up by everyone else’s, including a stellar guest cast.

CSI FilesRoger Bart plays a hairdresser in the episode and the actor is excellent at giving creepy, chilly performances. Was he your first candidate for the role?

Tanenbaum: Roger is great in everything he does, from Broadway to TV and Movies. His character Fitzgerald will be memorable. We looked at a couple of people, Roger seemed to be the right fit. We have an amazing guest cast. Brianna Brown who plays Paula delivers a great performance as well.

CSI Files: In Catherine’s absence, who steps up to the plate to fulfill her duties? Will there be any mention of her from the team?

Tanenbaum: Catherine will definitely be a presence in this episode. Her void will certainly take it’s toll on our CSI’s. Because of the escalation of this killer, this case becomes a must solve for our CSI’s. Everyone must fill the void. Russell will find a nice confidant in the end.

CSI Files: You have a long history with the show and have served in multiple capacities. From visual effects coordinator to several producing titles and now serving as a director since Season Seven. How did the evolution of your involvement with the show begin?

TanenbaumCSI has given me a lot to be grateful for. From a dream come true career to a wife and two kids. I owe everything to Carol Mendelsohn.

I got a job in the spiring of 2000 on a pilot called Crime Scene Investigation, I was the Executive Producer’s assistant. Jim Hart is his name. When the show got picked up,  Jim put me in charge of all the computer graphics, and the coordinator of the Visual Effects. I wanted to Direct and Produce and he said I needed to be able to carry myself in an Editing room to be able to do that. The show was in such an infant stage at the time. We were all just trying to stay on the air. A lot of us, especially me were doing things we had no other experience doing. It was really like going to Grad school.

As the scripts came in, they started to really write these very complex visual shots. It became my responsibility to get what the writers and directors wanted on screen. CGI was at it’s infant stage, when it came to television. So, along with our VFX supervisor we took on a very complex task to Produce, Direct and deliver these shots on a television schedule, television budget week in and week out.

As the years went on I have had the pleasure of Directing and Producing some of the most memorable shots on CSI. One day it’s shooting an apple at 10,000 frames a second with a gun, the next day it’s doing a two and a half minute single shot of our entire cast frozen in time as robbers are stealing a body in our morgue. That shot took months of planning, four days to shoot, and landed our VFX and Special Effects team with a much deserved Emmy.

CSI Files: From a director’s standpoint what big changes have you seen transpire over the years?

Tanenbaum: The biggest changes I have seen as a Director is technology. CGI has grown so much over the years. For an example, we don’t have to go to Vegas as much. We lay Las Vegas in the background in almost every episode. When we scout for locations we look for matte lines to lay in the skyline. We are using the Canon 7D camera a lot now. We still shoot the show on 35mm film, but the 7D gives us more flexibility to put the camera in some hard to reach areas.

CSI Files: You have thirteen directing credits to your name. Is there one you’re especially fond of? One you found to be more difficult than the rest?

Tanenbaum: They are all special. The most special will always be my first, “Lab Rats.” That episode wasn’t suppose to be more than a clip show for the miniature killer storyline we did in season seven. It was our first attempt to be funny. Our subject matter usually doesn’t warrant any humor. The challenge of that episode was to follow a group of Lab Techs, whom we knew very little about and they were to solve the miniature killer case behind Grissom’s back. Wally [Langham, Hodges], Liz [Vassey, Wendy Simms], Jon [Wellner, Henry Andrews], Sherri [Rappaport, Mandy Webster], and Archie [Kao, Archie Johnson] never even met each other. When I read this script I thought they were setting me up.

It really was like shooting a pilot. For the first time since the pilot we did a table read, and we saw what worked and what didn’t. And on day one, one of the first scenes we did involved all of the Lab Rats all together in Grissom’s office. The cast all knew the episode was suppose to be funny, none of us new how far to push it. We did the master shot and then broke for lunch. I was suppose to stay on time and budget, so I was expected to go into coverage after lunch. I told my AD, that after lunch I needed to reshoot the master. The writer [Sarah Goldfinger] and I all sat with the cast and defined each characters own inner dorkyness. We reshot the master, and the rest is history. That group of actors will always be very special to me.

CSI Files: The season is winding down, but you have one more episode that you’ll be directing. Do you know which episode you’ll tackle? Are you aware of what the episode will entail?

Tanenbaum: I do have another episode that I will direct, which will be Ep. 1219. I start prep in two weeks. I am going to work with the writers tomorrow. So stay tuned.

Thanks, Shane for all that you do for us. Thanks to everyone for watching!

Shane Saunders is a freelance writer and reviewer. His work can be seen on EDGE Network and ShaneSSaunders.com. Twitter: @ShaneSSaunders.

Shane Saunders
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