From ‘The Office’ to ‘Abbott Elementary’, here’s how to make the perfect mockumentary

Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.

It’s been over 15 years since The Office popularized the mockumentary format for American TV audiences, and director Randall Einhorn has been an integral part of it. The Office and Parks and Recreation director now helms Abbott Elementary, which premiered Dec. 7 on ABC. 

Created by Quinta Brunson, who leads an outstanding ensemble cast, Abbott Elementary takes place at the titular underfunded institution, where teachers and students alike make the most of a suboptimal learning environment. Brunson and her writers create a rich world and warm comedy style, rooted in the unique relationship children form with their teachers, and the begrudging camaraderie of adults surrounded by other people’s vomiting children.

“The thing that I was really clear upfront about when we started shooting the show is the rules,” Einhorn tells Mashable in a phone interview. “Other shows don’t necessarily have rules, they have styles that they’re serving. But to keep the documentary honest, we needed to have rules, and that can make a lot of things harder.”

Einhorn comes from a documentary background, so he approaches mockumentaries aiming for the same look, feel, and timing. On a normal TV show, cameras deliberately capture everything driving the plot, but a mockumentary captures many things just a hair late to sell authenticity. The camera operators themselves become actors, pretending to catch a line, action, or reaction just as it’s about to slip away.

“It was actually harder to make it look like you just missed something than to actually just shoot it,” he says. “What we’re always trying to do is we’re trying to activate the viewer, to make them a participant rather than a passenger.”

“It’s a very interesting way of framing something,” he adds. “What it does is it just dangles the carrot out in front of the viewer a little bit, so that they’re always reaching for it and they’re always paying attention.”

Ava (Janelle James) and Janine (Quinta Brunson) have very different relationships with the camera on mockumentary comedy “Abbott Elementary.”
Credit: Gilles Mingasson /. ABC

Most directors watch a scene play out from nearby or a monitor connected to cameras — but for Abbott Elementary‘s pilot, Einhorn himself picked up the cameras. He ended up operating every camera on every scene in the pilot (most scenes use three cameras) and having extensive conversations with camera operators to set them up for future episodes. 

“The best direction I can give a camera operator is kind of similar to direction that you would give an actor,” he says. “Something like, ‘You know this but you suspect that because you saw this down here’ — the best way to get good camera operating is by explaining or talking about their knowledge and their point of view.”

Einhorn says he thinks of the camera as a character in the show, or at least a unique viewpoint within it. The Office interrogated this in later seasons by introducing the film crew into the story, while Parks and Recreation never really addressed how or why the cameras were there. A show like Modern Family uses the talking head element, but never suggests that there are cameras and camera operators. In Abbott, the film crew is hired by new principal Ava (Janelle James) to promote the school. The teachers don’t love it, but they’re too busy to be bothered or take time away from their work.

“We certainly use some voyeuristic techniques on Barbara,” Einhorn elaborates, referring to a senior teacher (Sheryl Lee Ralph) who struggles with new technology in episode 4. “That was really fun, seeing [someone] who’s normally this super earnest, very truthful character and seeing the crack in her — seeing her need to deceive, almost. It was quite interesting.”

Barbara hasn’t quite warmed to the cameras — indeed, she may never — so they catch her when she thinks no one is watching. Shots like that, filmed through a door or from a distance, are very deliberate.

“Any time… something really means something to somebody, or it’s an important emotional moment, when they’ve got a secret — I back off rather than move forward,” Einhorn says. “It’s something shot like a spy camera or a long lens through a doorway. I think that helps the suspension of disbelief that that person doesn’t necessarily know that there’s a camera just outside that door because you’re keeping the edge of the doorway in the frame. Those moments are very, very thought out.”

That person doesn’t necessarily know that there’s a camera just outside that door… Those moments are very, very thought out.

Einhorn says every character has a different relationship with a camera — think about Jim’s signature looks on The Office and how he is implicitly confiding something in the camera operator and the audience. The young and optimistic Janine (Brunson) lets the camera in, part and parcel of her worldview. Ava uses them to craft a public persona, while teachers like Barbara and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) keep their distance. And then there’s the new sub Gregory (Tyler James Williams), still unsure of how to answer to this outside force that catches him in vulnerable moments.

“He’s just such an interesting character because the camera’s always trying to catch him,” Einhorn says. “I love the way [Williams] hides everything, and the more that somebody hides something, the more the camera has to look for it. [He] gives us just enough that you just have to dive in and really look for it.”

At the end of episode 1, after his first day at Abbott, Gregory decides to stay on. As he says this in a voiceover, the camera catches him looking at Janine — and then directly into the camera, immediately guilty.

“He’s almost catching himself like ‘Oh shit, did you see that?'” says Einhorn. “It’s really, really cool. His tiny little glances at the camera when he’s a little bit caught I just think are so rich. Or when he catches himself looking at her too long and he realizes that we’ve looked at him looking at her too long. His recoveries are pretty outstanding.”

It’s still early in the season, but Abbott’s hallways already feel as welcoming as Dunder Mifflin or Pawnee. It’s no wonder Gregory wants to stick around.

Abbott Elementary airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.

Related Video: 11 Easter eggs from ‘The Office’ you might’ve missed

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