Multihyphenate producer-director-cinematographer and all around talented guy Randall Einhorn is currently the executive producer and director of the award-winning ABC show, Abbott Elementary. Randall began his career in series television first as the DP of The Office, then became one of the most frequent directors of the series. He got to know the mockumentary style intimately, and carried it onto many other shows such as Parks and Recreation, The Muppets, and Modern Family.
Quinta Brunson, show creator and star of Abbott Elementary, was a huge fan of The Office and pitched her idea to executive producers Randall Einhorn and Patrick Schumacker. Randall immediately knew that the mockumentary format would work well as they followed the everyday drama of teachers in an underprivileged elementary school in Philadelphia. They began shooting the pilot in August 2021, working with kids who were mostly non-actors and hadn’t been inside a classroom for an entire year due to COVID. Working with kids made everything harder, but also made everything better, and Randall emphasized that they would have a good time every day. The children were so happy and excited to see each other and to be in a classroom, even if it was a set.
On Abbott Elementary, Randall wanted the teachers to be treated like heroes, so they chose to use ARRI cameras and Angenieux Optimo Zoom lenses. The classrooms look inviting, with wood, warm earth tones and bright light coming in from the windows. By contrast, on The Office they would “dirty up” the frame to make it seem more spontaneous, as though something unexpected was actually caught. Randall would pan to someone, purposely defocus, then bring the actor into focus, to make it seem as though it was just caught. For Abbott Elementary, the camera crew keeps everything mostly in focus, but they will make a conscious effort to keep a piece of doorway in the shot, for example, to imply that people are having a private moment with the cameras hanging back. Randall feels that there’s an honesty to using a long lens and backing up so it would look like the actors are having an intimate conversation.
Randall naturally developed his mockumentary shooting style after working on reality and extreme sports shows. Executive producer Ben Silverman saw his work and thought his verite style would work well for The Office. Randall met with executive producer Greg Daniels, and they hit it off. Since he’d never worked on scripted shows before, Randall broke lots of rules that were considered “normal” for series television on The Office, such as operating himself and pulling his own focus. Blocking and planning the camera placement ahead of time was also essential- the camera crew would never put a camera where it couldn’t or wouldn’t be. He also figured out how to add to the improvisational comedy through the camera’s movement and focus. Randall would keep one eye on the eyepiece and another on the actors to see who was going to improv. He’d lean in with the camera on an actor, stepping in closer to make a moment even more awkward. Unlike the British version of The Office, which was always carefully rehearsed, they would just shoot the scenes and reactions, in true documentary style.
Randall’s company, Sad Unicorn, has a multi-year first look deal at Warner Bros. and he will continue executive producing and directing Abbott Elementary.
Abbot Elementary is in its second season on ABC and Hulu, and season three will likely be delayed due to the writers strike.
Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com
Sponsored by Aputure: https://www.aputure.com/
The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com