Lights . . . camera . . . zoom

If you and your friends could create a fun television show, would it be like "ZOOM," the popular program for kids on public TV?

"ZOOM" looks like seven ordinary kids just walked onto the set and started having a good time in front of the camera. They play games, tell stories, perform plays, do science experiments, make crafts and recipes, tell jokes, and just lounge around and talk.

They really do have fun, as a visit to the studios of WGBH-TV in Boston proves. But they also work hard. And sometimes the hard work is to make it look like fun when it's the 10th time they've had to do something for the cameras.

You can see the results of their hard work and fun starting today, when ZOOM begins its second season. (Check local TV listings for channel and time.)

Work began at 8 a.m. every morning last summer. That's right: The show is taped mostly when school's out, so the cast has to work fast to make 40 half-hour shows.

On one particular morning, the cast was working on a numbers game. On cue, the members of two teams stuck out however many fingers they chose. The "even" team got a point if the total number of fingers showing was an even number. The same went for the "odd" team.

After Alisa, a second-year ZOOMer, explained the rules, a voice from the control booth interrupted: "Guys, you not only have to look at Alisa, you have to look interested. This is a new game you're learning about, and you can't seem bored. It's a very wide shot, and we can see all of you."

There's not much that three TV cameras miss. Two cameras are at floor level, and one is on a small crane-like contraption overhead.

One important member of ZOOM is a person you're not likely to see at all. Bob Comiskey is the show's director. He mostly runs things from the control booth. If he isn't getting the results he wants, he may tell everyone over a loudspeaker. Sometimes he'll talk directly to one of the crew members, all of whom wear headphones.

On this occasion, Mr. Comiskey came out of the control room to show the cast how to tilt their hands so the overhead camera could see all their fingers.

Comiskey isn't the only "invisible" member of ZOOM. Altogether, 55 adults work behind the scenes. They are acting coaches and makeup personnel. They gather props or double-check the math on the ZOOMsci science segments. Others read the mountains of letters and e-mails sent in by viewers.

Some weeks, 17,000 messages pour in. Many of them are filled with ideas for activities. A lot of those ideas are used on the show. And "Everything you see on the show has a kid credit," says executive producer Kate Taylor.

Zoe, the other holdover from last year's cast, says doing the show's opening, with its fast-paced dancing, is especially challenging. "It's lots of work, and you have to stay 'up' and be energized and perky," she says. "That's hard to do when you're tired."

The producers wait until mid-summer to tape the opening. By then the ZOOMers are broken in.

Five days are set aside just to shoot the opening (which lasts about a minute) and the address song where WGBH's Zip Code is sung by the cast "Ohh-two-ooone-three, four!"

These numbers require lots of rapid-fire editing and tons of computer-assisted special effects, such as fadeouts, letter wipes, camera spins, and more. Adding these effects is called "postproduction work," because it happens after all the in-studio taping is over.

Here's an overview of how ZOOM goes together: Cast auditions (see story at right) are held each winter.

The producers, meanwhile, busily review suggestions for the show sent in by viewers. They select the ones that they think will make good segments.

During the spring, new cast members attend CampZoom. One weekend is devoted to all kinds of team-building activities. Taping begins once school is out in June. It continues through late August.

The postproduction crew then gets to work editing the shows. This takes about three months. WGBH starts sending the finished shows out in November, and they begin airing in January.

One might expect the shows to be taped one after another, but it doesn't work that way.

"We don't plan whole shows in advance; we plan segments," says Ms. Taylor. "We don't know when we start shooting the segments that are going in any particular show."

Once all the segments are taped, then they are assembled into shows. "It's kind of a big puzzle," Taylor says.

The segments are different lengths, and the topics vary. Except when the whole cast is involved, the mix of children changes. So part of the postproduction team's job is to fit these segments together not only so they will fit a 28-minute show, but also so there is a variety of people and activities.

Since a segment one week might be packaged with one shot a month later, it's important that the ZOOMers not change their appearance. That might confuse viewers.

Each youngster picks an outfit and sticks with it. Hairstyles should remain constant, too.

Other aspects of the show are not so rigid. For example, there's no script! Cast members might write down what they want to say to explain a craft or a recipe, but they don't memorize it. That way, even with rehearsals, the show feels more "live" and interesting.

But there's a lot of trial and error involved when cast members puzzle their way through a science challenge. So what may end up as a four-minute segment may have taken an hour of videotaping.

Mistakes happen, but that's OK, too. WGBH has even produced a segment in which some of last year's bloopers are shown. (It airs Jan. 7.)

Director Comiskey shares one from the new season's taping.

In one play, Zoe was supposed to pretend her hand was stuck in a cookie jar. After several takes, she momentarily lost concentration and sent the jar sailing. A crash in the distance was followed by a hilarious look on her face. "Nobody could keep from laughing," Comiskey recalls. "Zoe felt terrible, but it was just so funny. And we always have a dozen of everything, so we were ready for the next take."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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