‘One Day at a Time’: Phill Lewis on Directing Animation Amid COVID-19

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Actor-director Phill Lewis has decades of experience in the sitcom space, primarily focused on live-action comedy. This television season alone he has directed episodes of Netflix’s “Mr. Iglesias,” CBS’ “B Positive,” the “Punky Brewster” and “iCarly” continuation series, and the still-to-be-scheduled “Head of the Class” reboot. But, the COVID-19 pandemic gave this industry veteran a first: directing animation with “One Day at a Time’s” “The Politics Episode.”

How different was your process to prep for “The Politics Episode” than a live-action one?

The most important part was knowing the actors as well as I did. I think that really helped alleviate any stress going from live-action to animation because I knew what their wheelhouse was. My live-action system is getting the scripts, reading through and figuring out blocking before the table read so that when I’m standing in front of the actors I’m able to say, “Here’s my thought, let’s go ahead and try it and whatever doesn’t feel right, we’ll figure something else out.” With animation, sometimes there’s stage direction [but] a lot of times they would send me pages that are just dialogue, so I don’t know what the actors are going to do. It was this collaboration of me looking at a cell, basically, and [the animators] actually did a temp with [a version of] the voices — a really rough, stick-figure temp of what the show would look like. Once I got that, I was able to see what the show would really look like. They’re relying on me because I know the tone of the show and I’m relying on them because they know the animation.

And all of this was done during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, so how did working remotely affect this process?

It was strange. With pre-production I was on Zoom with [showrunners] Mike [Royce] and Gloria [Calderón Kellett] and the animators. They would share their screen and then I was able to talk directly with the animators and the animation director [about being] true to what the show was. They’re not part of the production every day, so I was that conduit. But it was all Zoom or phone, and that’s how we did it with the script, as well.

Did you feel your voiceover work as an actor help when directing actors for this episode?

I was coming from an actor’s perspective because I do a recurring voice on “American Dad” and I did “Special Agent Oso” and some other stuff. Normally you have the actor in the booth, the producers and director on the other side of the glass, and you’re able to give notes quickly and effectively, and you can see their faces and they can express things to you. That was comforting as an actor. We [did] this over Zoom where I could see the actors and the actors could see me. A lot of times they had their screen and then they had an iPad that was shooting them. We had a sound person bring a microphone to their house and there was the option of, “You can go take the mic and set it inside your home, or our sound guy can come in, completely masked up and in gloves, and he can set up the microphone.” But the sound guy stayed outside of the house while we were recording. If someone lived in the Hollywood Hills by the 101 freeway, the guy’s outside in 95, 100-degree heat and we have to deal with all of the ambient noise around. People were recording in their living room or their closet; there was no controlled environment for this. So, you’d have to wait for a plane, a car, a motorcycle, a dog barking. It did take a lot longer [than usual] but, performance-wise, I got my daughters to help me out as assistant directors and they would highlight all of the lines [we were recording] and they were all numbered, so I knew I had to get lines 1 through 75. And because I had seen the cell and the mock animation, I knew we might need certain things in addition, so, for example, when Rita [Moreno’s character Lydia] comes over with the spray bottle and sprays, I need a reaction from Justina [Machado] because I can see [her character Penelope] in that shot. We did a bunch of adlibs: grunts, moans, sighs. The last thing I wanted was for the animator to want to cut to a reaction of someone and not have anything to put in their mouths.

You had relationships with the “One Day at a Time” team from directing earlier episodes, but then you also stepped into “Punky Brewster” during COVID, when sets were still limiting contact, without a deep history. Are there added challenges to that?

Because I have managed to change courses in this business, going from acting to directing, nine times out of 10 when I go to work, even if I have not met those people, I recognize them. So there is a common ground: “Oh he knows what he’s doing because he’s been there.” There’s a familiarity, which is very nice. But because I hadn’t worked with certain folks, for me, it is all about preparation. When I’m doing live-action I go the week before to see how the set runs and to make sure that I’m fitting into their process and just get some face time. With animation, the big question was, “Where do I fit in in this process?” And once I figured out it is pretty much the same: because I’m an actor’s director, I fit in where the performance really comes out.

When working on reboots or revivals that intentionally draw on a sense of nostalgia, how much does research and direct reference to the original inform some of your directorial decisions and tone?

It is a blending of the old and the new. With “Punky Brewster” I went back and watched a bunch of episodes of the old show to get a feel for what they were doing, and I had a meeting with Soleil [Moon Frye] prior to coming on, so I got a sense of how much she wanted to lean on the old show. If there were nods we could do throughout the episode, I’d try and find those. It’s really being conscious of what the actors and the executive producers want to bring to it, and fitting into that system.

What is drawing you to these modern takes on classic sitcoms lately?

We’re in a time where people want comfort food, for lack of a better term. I just finished worked on the pilot for “Head of the Class,” which was produced by Doozer, Bill Lawrence’s company, and Bill Lawrence did “Ted Lasso,” and the strength of “Ted Lasso” is that we can just sit down and feel good about what we’re watching. I think what’s happening with these shows [is] we’re going back to what was so much fun about what we used to do as a family, sitting down to watch these shows together. Because we’ve had so much time with our families; we’ve dealt with confined spaces and what are we going to watch tonight? My kids are 22 and 20 and [there’s] common ground of, “You guys are going to like this. We used to watch this growing up, let’s sit and watch it.” I think that’s part of what’s happening. And for me, I have been a student of multicam television because multicam was primarily the shows that I grew up on, so it’s always been extremely important to me. It’s in my blood, and my bread and butter when I first moved out here in the mid-’80s. And it’s presented in a way that’s very easy to digest.

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