The Complex Production of NBCs "Heist"

The NBC series Heist follows a team of career criminals as they plan a heist of historic proportions: the simultaneous robbery of three Beverly Hills jewelry stores during Academy Awards week. Playing the burglars in the ensemble cast are Dougray Scott (Dark Water, The Ten Commandments), Steve Harris (The Practice), Seymour Cassel (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Marika Dominczyk (North Shore) and David Walton (Stateside). Opposing them are the LAPD detectives played by Michele Hicks (The Shield), Reno Wilson (Blind Justice) and Billy Gardell (Yes, Dear). Doug Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) directed the pilot. Mark and Robb Cullen (FX's Lucky) are Heist's creators, writers and executive producers.

Aside from Heist's star power, pedigree and production values, however, the show would qualify for a top honor if the television academy gave awards for most frantic pace of production and most rushed postproduction schedule.

"We're basically doing a feature film every week," says Mark Cullen. "This is big stuff. We blew up a pizza kid, robbed a moving train, went down into the sewers, robbed a bank, did a chase scene with helicopters over downtown L.A.--and that's just in the pilot!"

In addition to nine cast regulars, hundreds of players have smaller parts in the 13-episode series. (NBC committed to a full season following the pilot.) The crew consists of 220 people--including construction personnel, set decorators, painters, casting agents and accountants--who travel throughout the Los Angeles region to shoot the L.A.-based show. "It's like a traveling circus," says Robb Cullen. "We load up the trucks and move them all over town."

About 80 percent of Heist is shot on location, which is high for a TV series, and 20 percent on a stage, which is located in the Van Nuys district of the San Fernando Valley.

The idea for Heist came about a couple of years ago. "We had just finished Lucky for FX and were talking about what we wanted to do next," says Mark Cullen. "We asked ourselves, What is not on TV? What don't we see? There are a lot of procedurals, a lot of earnest, dramatic acting. We said, Why not do a show that's a lot of fun--an enjoyable, terrific ride based mainly on characters? We decided to use the heist genre to achieve that."

Of course, that genre has been explored over and over again in films, with such classics at Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, Peter Collinson's The Italian Job and Michael Crichton's The First Great Train Robbery setting hard-to-beat standards.

"Yes, there's a slew of heist books and films," acknowledges Mark Cullen, "yet people still love it. We decided to see if we could pay homage to the genre and also make it our own."

Plenty of money and talent went into making Heist a complex, multi-character drama with gripping action sequences in realistic settings. While the Cullens (who are brothers) would not disclose the show's budget, Mark Cullen allowed that it was "pretty big and generous. We need that budget in order to put in our days on location and do a big, sexy show. We're putting every dime of that budget on the screen."

The talent that helped make Heist what it is includes a series of gifted directors. In addition to Liman, who helmed the pilot, others who have directed Heist episodes include Andy Wolk (episodes 2 and 3), Ed Bianchi (episodes 4 and 5) and Stephen Gyllenhaal (episode 7).

"We've had great directors thus far," adds Robb Cullen. "Plus, we have a great cinematographer in Jamie Barber."

Heist's frantic production schedule doesn't allow Barber, who is the show's only DP, much time to operate the camera. "It's tough to operate in TV with the time constraints you have," he says. "There's a certain speed you've got to work at because you have to accomplish 44 minutes of air time in eight days."

Barber explains that his operators work with the director and set up the shots while he's busy lighting. "I'll discuss with the director and the operators what we want to accomplish, what the shot is going to look like, but I can walk away from the actual setting up of the camera and be with my gaffer while we're lighting," he says. "When it all culminates, I'll make sure I'm happy with everything."

Barber wanted to stick with 35mm film for Heist and is happy with that decision. "I use Kodak 5212 and 5218 Vision2 stock," he says. "The 5212 is 100 tungsten and the 5218 is 500 tungsten. Vision2 is brilliant. The 5212 is so fine grained, and even the 5218 has very fine grain for a 500 film."

Barber used to work at Panavision and learned film cameras from the inside out. On Heist, he uses Panavision G2s. "They're incredible workhorses," he says of the cameras. Barber uses Panavision Z Series prime lenses, which are manufactured by Zeiss, as well as a 4:1 and an 11:1 zoom from Leica.

Heist boasts high-profile directors, one of the best cinematographers in the business and passionate executive producers, yet all the members of this team agree that the real stars of the show are the four editors who work at Heist's writing office in Santa Monica on eight Avid Media Composers linked via an Avid Unity system.

"We're a post-heavy show, working on a very accelerated schedule," says Mark Cullen. "We got ahead on the scripts, so for four episodes we were actually cross-boarding and doing two shows at a time. We then went to a show every seven or eight days. That means a very tight postproduction schedule, and we have a great post team that can do it. Film comes in every day and they work six days a week."

Juan C. Garza, lead editor on Heist, acknowledges the heavy workload in the editing suite, but for him that's just part of doing TV post. "It's a grind; we're working six or seven days a week," he says. "On any given day, all the editors might be working on an episode that airs eight or nine days later."

To make the workload more manageable, the production upped the editorial staff from three to four. "I've learned that that you can only do so much for about a month or six weeks before you really get fried," says Garza, who has been editing full-time since 1995. "By having the fourth person here, we still work long hours, but rather than working 16 or 18 hours, we're trying to average somewhere between 12 and 14. And we're happy to put in 12-hour days. That's nice for us. That's how it works in postproduction."

Heist's fast pace is the reason the editors are housed with the writers and the producers in Santa Monica rather than at the main production office in Van Nuys. "We're here to be close to the producers," Garza explains. "The writers are at one end of the building and post is at other. Each editor has his own room and is assigned to a different part of the show. Depending on where we're at with it, the producers, Mark or Robb, together or individually, will come in and work with us."

Material shot on 35mm is transferred to DVCAM and input into the Avid systems. "We do the offline in low res," says Garza. "We have eight tracks of audio to work with. We put in sound effects and music. Depending on the show, we might also have a lot of visual effects."

The effects are handled by Stargate Digital, a visual effects company based in South Pasadena. "They'll do the greenscreen work, remove things from walls, add logos and so forth," says Garza. "Usually they do everything after the show is locked, but because our schedule is so tight, sometimes we try to get them to start before we're fully done."

It's hard to conceive of this fast pace without the Avid Unity. "The old-fashioned way, where each Avid had its own media to itself, would never work on this show," says Garza. "We all have access to everything." Once an episode is fully offlined, the edit is sent to Technicolor for picture and audio finishing.

For the audience, Heist's payoff will come in episode 13, when they'll find out whether or not the ambitious robbery comes off as planned. For the editors, there's a payoff each time an episode is completed and made ready for air.

Garza is a realist when it comes to today's postproduction schedules. "If everything worked the way it was supposed to, schedule-wise, and things ran smoothly, it might be a different story," he says. "But there are always these curve balls thrown at you, and we have to be ready for that."