Summer 2020


Jennifer Reiss
& Jason Melius

Rising to the Occasion

By Becca Nadler

2nd AD Jason Melius compared his at-home workspace to "a NASA command center."

1st AD Jennifer Reiss and 2nd AD Jason Melius have been working together on and off since 2009, so their teamwork process has become that of a well-oiled machine. "He shares the other half of my brain," Reiss says of Melius. "Makes my life easy." Their paths first crossed when Melius was part of the DGA's Assistant Director Training Program, and since then they've each worked their way up on various projects, eventually reconnecting on The Last Ship and For the People before their current show, CBS' All Rise.

"Our plan is to keep moving up together," says Reiss, who started out as a PA before joining the Guild and working her way up to 1st AD, spending time in the commercials world, then moving back to film and television. "And take over the world," adds Melius, without missing a beat.

Reiss and Melius were in the middle of shooting episode 21 and prepping the first season finale of All Rise when they received word that the Warner Bros. lot, where their soundstages were located, would be closing down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Within a few weeks, Reiss was in the middle of an entirely different kind of prep alongside director Michael M. Robin and UPM Ronnie Chong for a retooled season finale, which would be filmed virtually in order to comply with local and state social distancing measures.

"There were a lot more steps for so many different reasons," explains Reiss, recounting the virtual location scouts required of each cast member's home and the myriad tech meetings needed to ensure that all involved had the appropriate equipment for filming. "And then on top of that, I had to worry about the normal things, like having a prop meeting." One thing that wasn't a concern: actor availability.

Reiss was able to shift her focus toward scheduling once Melius was brought on board to take over the logistics of contactless equipment delivery. "That whole arm had to be created and swung out through the L.A. metro area over the course of about three days," says Melius, noting that their truncated schedule meant the deliveries also "had to be perfect. A lot of times you didn't get a second chance because it was shooting the next day."

Though some aspects of the job—like the call sheets—stayed the same, actually filming the episode presented still more challenges for Reiss and Melius. "We usually have face time together," says Reiss, "and now it was me texting him because I'm listening and talking to someone else; he's on another call getting people ready for the next scene. There was a lot of tag-teaming on the phone."

1st AD Jennifer Reiss "had five monitors going at any given time" while filming the All Rise virtual episode.

They each set up multiple devices in their at-home workspaces—"I had five monitors going at any given time," says Reiss, while Melius likened his setup to "a NASA command center"—so that they could handle the myriad responsibilities of a virtual shooting day.

"It was like being air traffic control on a busy day," says Melius. "You've got your text message thread with the actors, your other phone's got stuff going on, you're watching the set with another monitor, with another that's in a WebEx meeting with somebody else trying to get their tech figured out."

Because the production had to limit the number of people in the virtual set, video village and green rooms during filming, Melius wasn't logged on with Reiss. "Once I got the director and actors in a room for a scene, I would turn off my camera and mute my microphone," says Reiss, "just listening for my name, and I would pipe in if [Robin] called for me, or give instructions on the next scene."

Melius, meanwhile, would be prepping that next scene—in touch with Reiss, troubleshooting tech issues with the actors so that scene changeovers could happen as smoothly as possible or, in a different kind of challenge‚ virtually directing background actors.

The two scenes that required background—a yoga scene midway through the episode and a large dance party at the end—each required specific troubleshooting. For the yoga scene, all of the background extras initially signed into the video village, overloading the server and causing confusion. "Immediately the director's going, 'Who are all of these people?'" laughs Reiss.

For the dance party, Melius was able to implement his master plan of creating a virtual green room for himself and the background extras, all signing in from their respective homes, so that he could prep their at-home sets and costumes one by one as they waited to be rerouted to the virtual set. "It was so wild and different," says Melius. "It's my favorite episode of the season."

"It challenged my brain in ways I wasn't expecting it to," adds Reiss, giving credit to Robin and the producers of All Rise for their innovative work on the virtual episode. "It was a privilege to even be involved in something like this."

(Photos: Courtesy Jason Melius and Jennifer Reiss)

At Work With

Short profiles of Guild members in all categories sharing their experiences at work.

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