When it comes to the question of where or how you should start your moviemaking career, there’s no right or wrong answer. For Robert Altman, whose films capture the grandiose spontaneity of life unfolding before our eyes, that feeling of cinematic bigness was first contained by the small screen parameters of television.

Altman’s work as a director for TV, first made possible by Alfred Hitchcock’s offer to the director to helm an installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, allowed him to make ends meet during a time before he could rely upon Short Cuts and Nashville as industry calling cards. Soon graduating to more technically and aesthetically demanding TV productions including Bonanza and Combat!, Altman began to fine-tune the meandering, open-ended style he would later be renowned for in his most studied and acclaimed film works.

In the video essay belowFilm Comment‘s Violet Lucca walks through Altman’s TV trajectory to underscore how the director’s early work functioned as a blueprint of sorts for an artistic output that “conjures up a portrayal of life that feels natural… Maybe it’s a character wandering through a landscape musing over some point, even if there’s no one there to listen. Or maybe it’s someone carrying on in a large group or street, surrounded by others, and not even always audible. This approximation of life—loose and focused, organic, is a little like a vaudevillian’s pratfall. It takes a lot of technical skill to make it look easy.”

Moviemakers: What are your takeaways from Altman’s foray into directing for the small screen? Let us know in the comments below. For more on Altman’s inimitable film authorship, check out our Criterion Crash Course on his masterful anti-Western, McCabe & Mrs. MillerMM

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