At the end of August, I was passing through L.A., and so Nick Bakay (with whom I have conversing regularly in order to keep this site up to date) kindly offered to show me around the set of Sabrina. I gladly accepted, and on Friday the 28th of August 1998 I spent around three hours on the set of Sabrina at Paramount Studios watching them finish the filming of Sabrina episode #055, "Pancake Madness"! Wohay!
Unfortunately, Salem wasn't acting that day (for that episode Salem's bits were all done on the 27th and 26th), so I didn't see the puppet or the cats, but I got to talk quite a lot with Nick Bakay, who is a thoroughly nice bloke.
Also unfortunately, I forgot my camera, which is just typical, so I have no pictures, and yes I have kicked myself for that already, although thank you for offering.
Below is everything I can remember learning from this very exciting visit.
While Salem often whimpers (for example here and here), Nick emphatically denies that he ever does that when he is himself.
The Salem puppets are carefully hidden away under lock and key when Salem is not "acting".
The whole crew is extremely friendly and they get on really well. It's like they're all part of a big family.
Melissa Joan Hart (who plays Sabrina) is really short. No, not as short as she looks on TV, which is already short, I mean really short.
Season 1 was taped at Universal Studios, but now Sabrina is shot at Paramount.
Sabrina is based in a big building almost slap bang in the middle of the Paramount grounds. The building is labelled as being "Stage 14" on one side and stages 11 and 12 on the other (Nick Bakay's dressing room is, I would guess from looking at a map of the Paramount lot afterwards, in stage 11. The makeup room(s) would therefore be in sound stage 12).
Stage 14 is just next to Paramount's New York set.
The sound stages are around 98% sound proof.
They have no Studio Audience for the laughs - it is all done artificially later. (They don't even play back the episodes to an audience and record the laughs from that). If you hear someone repeating a joke as if the laughter is live, it's probably the crew since they do - sometimes - laugh after hearing a joke during filming.
They will spend hours on just one scene. For example, in episode #055, "Pancake Madness" there is a bit where Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina) is surrounded by people singing a song inside the cafeteria (Act 2, Scenes 30 and 31) and they spent over 45 minutes filming one or two variations on the scene. In the actual aired episode, it will probably take around 30 seconds max.
Sabrina is recorded onto film, not video tape. That is because the cheaper, digital, video tape used on most other shows is much poorer when used with special effects. Using film means higher costs and longer production times, but it makes for nicer special effects.
They use three cameras, which are cleverly called A, B, and C.
The connection between the cameras and the director's screen is wireless (about the only thing that is, the floor is absolutely covered with cables).
Production of a Sabrina episode starts on Monday, discussing the script for two days. They then spend the whole of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday filming. Then at the start of the next week (Monday to Tuesday, maybe Wednesday) they do the editing. The whole thing is finished in less than 8 working days. (At least, this is what I understood).
For one of the scenes they filmed, the director (Mark Cedrowski) said that they would probably not use that bit in the episode, but use it for a trailer for ABC - so that explains why trailers sometimes use scenes never seen in the episodes.
To do this they carefully measure the position of the mirror on the blue screen, with an Melissa Joan Hart stand-in standing in front of it, and then when Melissa herself comes out on set she stands in front of it too. They then superimpose the final frame of the penultimate outfit shown in the introduction sequence with the shot from the camera (which has also been carefully positioned, they measure everything for this shot!) and get Melissa to stand in exactly the same position, hand and all, until the lastframe and the current, live, feed match exactly and when it does, she turns and delivers her line.
While I was there they taped three lines, two in a cook's outfit, and one in a "tarzan" outfit.
You may remember there was talk of a spin-off series, involving Sabrina's cousin, well, it was stillborn - I don't think they ever even got as far as a pilot. However, they did make a doll for that series, and so they will be using it in a future episode of Sabrina (Nick Bakay didn't know which episode that would be).
There was a steady trickle of visitors to the set, mainly relatives or friends of the cast/crew, and mainly small groups of young girls of 4-8 years old and their adult parent/guardian. During the time I was there, I think I saw three separate such groups. A favorite question of theirs when talking to Nick was "Please say something like Salem!".
The set is something like the diagram below. (This is from memory. I only walked around it once, and as I said I have no photographs, so this may be inaccurate in parts. However, it is the general idea).
Large Paramount's New York Backlot Entrance \/ S +----------------------------------------------+ T /|:''''':''''':<1 :''''''':''''':10>:'''' :''':| A |: :,,...: : 7 : 9 : :'';' ; :| G |: 6 : : :<2 :.......:.....:11>:..:..:...:| < E |: ; :,..: 12^ 13^ | |: :,,...:<3 :''''''': 19>:''':''''':| 1 |: : : : : . :.,.: .17:| 4 |: :.. :<4 : 8 : 14 . :15 ;16:..:| |:......5:...: :.......: . :...:......|<18 +------------------- -------------------------+ | STAGE 12 STAGE 11 | LEGEND: | = wall. : = set wall. /| = door. ; = door in set
1-6 are all the school set.
,,) you can see through the main entrance corridor, through the double doors, into the cafeteria, and through the double doors the other side into what looks like the corridor into the kitchen (but is in fact a corridor into nowhere containing a pile of "school kitchen things"). This is labelled as 5.
7 and 8 are temporary sets, They change all the time.
10-13 are the top floor of the house.
I can't remember if there is a corridor to the aunts' rooms, but there must be. I've probably got the scale on the map all wrong.
15-19 represent the ground floor of the house, and I didn't get a good look. The map is accordingly very poor.
Unfortunately, my memory of the set of 16-18 do not match my memory of the house as I see it on the show, so I am sure I made some dramatic mistake there.
This was one of the most exciting and interesting events of my life, and hopefully I have conveyed at least some of what I learnt to you! Don't forget to look at the other sections of the site!