One of my favorite series to ever hit primetime television is NBC’s The Office. I enjoy it for many
reasons, the humor, how relatable it is, and the way it is produced. I think the most unique part of the
production of The Office is the camera work. Because The Office is made to seem like a camera crew is
actually following the characters around, it has a much different feel than most television shows.
Since it is made to appear as a documentary, all camera angles have to be believable. For
instance, if it starts with a wide shot, then cuts to a close up, the shot they cut to cannot be from an
angle within the original wide shot. It sounds confusing, but basically for the show to be believable as
a documentary, you have to imagine it being shot with multiple cameras at the same time, in such a
way that no camera would appear in a different camera’s shot.
Most television shows try to have the highest production value possible, The Office does the
opposite, but in a unique way that works for them. Being that its shot in a documentary style, one
would not expect The Office to have a high production value. When something supposedly is
happening once and there is only one chance to capture it or it’s gone, you don’t expect beautiful long
dolly shots or a steadicam follow shot. You expect shakey, handheld shots, with lots of quick camera
movement to ensure that all the action happening is captured. In real life the camera-man would not be
prepared for action happening across the room, so to get the shot he/she would have to use quick pans
and zooms to ensure that he/she can get all the action in frame, while putting the actual framing quality
on the backburner. The use of tripods is rare, and anything you would call “beautifully cinematic,” will
not appear in The Office.
If it were truly a documentary, the characters would be aware of the cameras that are constantly
following them. Often characters will look at the camera or the crew in certain situations. For example,
in the clip below, Michael is telling a joke he looks at the cameraman as if he is going to laugh at the
joke too. At another point in the clip Michael talks directly to the camera about whether or not
something is appropriate or not.
One part of the show that makes the characters extremely relatable is the individual and small group confessionals that most of the actors partake in. These are very similar to an interview, which are often used in real documentaries, frequently with b-roll being placed over the audio from the interview. The Office does the same thing, with the confessionals, making the show appear even more similar to a documentary.
I believe that the documentary style of shooting is a significant contributing factor to The
Office’s success. Because it’s shot as a documentary the audience believes the characters are real
people and that is the real way they act. Without this style the show would appear very scripted and
precise. While the scripted and precise style works for some shows, The Office’s style of comedy
revolves around the relationship the character builds with the audience, and without the documentary
style, that relationship would be gone.
Below is another clip that I feel really displays what The Office is really about.