Tuesday, August 28, 2007

AC's are my favorite people

I just realized I haven't mentioned anything about working with focus-pullers in such a way that you don't end up strangling each other. Focus-pullers (FP's) amaze me. The good ones can nail a shot with 2 inches depth of field consistently while walking with a moving dolly, tripping over the wedges. I stated earlier to be prepared to "abandon the marks." This isn't the best way to say this. Generally, an FP will have reference marks for anywhere the actor consistently goes. After a couple of rehearsals, or takes, you generally know what's going to happen. An actor who consistently misses a mark will generally miss it to the same place. Be ready, if you should miss your mark to signal to the FP how much you missed it by. When I said "abandon" the marks I just meant don't be glued to them no matter what happens. You have to be fast and loose and ready to adapt to anything.

Moving the Dolly (or start later, go slower, land sooner)

Now I'm really bored so I'm going to write a column on dolly moves. Essentially, there are 2 kinds of moves: motivated and unmotivated. The motivated ones are also what I call "practical moves." They are committed to aid in the blocking of a scene, generally to cover an actor on the move or make his action visible to the audience. An example would be that an actor rises from a chair and crosses a room to look out a window and the dolly rises with him and parallels him to the window. The other kind of move is what I call an "aesthetic move." These are generally unmotivated and are there to highlight tension etc. or just to look pretty. An example of this would be the "Spielberg push-in" like the one on Brody on the beach in "Jaws" or the push-in on John Wayne in "The Searchers" when he enters the insane asylum. It could also be a slow crawl along a mantle filled with pictures. Spielberg perfected the tension filled push-in to a science. They are smooth as silk and usually make a lump come up in your throat. One of my favorite examples of the push-in, however, is in "Die Hard" by director John Mctiernan. It's on McLean after he shoots Hans. What makes it special is the raggedness of it. It's bumpy but that actually adds to it. I always wondered if this was on purpose until I did 2nd unit dolly on a McTiernan movie and he specified that he wanted a particular move done on the floor so it would be ragged. This is genius (to me anyway) It blew my mind. It's almosta precursor to the shaky camera technique so prevalent in the 90's and most recently in "The Bourne Ultimatum."
On a side note, which head the operator is using does have an effect on how you do your moves. If he's on a fluid head, ease into your move (if it's a fast one) more than you think you need to because the fluid head is harder to control. The inertia of the move will make the head tip up or down at the start, ruining the shot. The same goes for the stop at the end. The geared head doesn't have this problem as much because of the indirect relationship between the operator and the head. I'm not going to bore you with talk about "feathering" (a word I've grown to hate) because that's pretty intuitive.
The thing to remember on a practical move is: watch the actor(s). A lot of dolly grips (rookie one's I mean) get caught up in watching their marks. This is death to a dolly grip. Another place where mistakes ar made is in the monitor. I've been asked more than once by a DP,"You don't use a monitor do you?" This is because the last guy he had did every move with his head buried in his personal monitor and missed something he should have caught. I generally only use monitors for holding over-the-shoulders. Although I do refer to them at other times too. They are only a tool. Don't get dependent on them. Learn how to do moves without them and then you can use them regularly. I know guys that use them all the time but they are all veteran dolly grips who learned how to do it without them and know when and how to use them. This of course is just my opinion, but I believe pretty strongly in it. Wubba Wubba, doodle doodle dee.

Friday, August 24, 2007

more tips and tricks

Here are some answers to a few questions I was asked:

1. When on dance floor, always mark the front wheel. This is because the back end of the dolly tends to shift around during movement and is rarely in the same place twice. I also generally mark the front wheel on track also just because it's easier to glance from the actors as they're moving, down to my marks. I do have a friend-a very good dolly grip-who marks his back tires. It works for him but he's been doing it for 20 years. I don't recommend it for anyone else.

2. Be prepared to abandon the marks. Actors will sometimes overstep, short, or completely disregard their marks. You have to adjust with them. Don't go through the move with your eyes glued to your marks. It ain't about getting from 1 to 2.

3. If you lay a track to the "lay of the land," in other words, not level from end to end but straightened by eye, don't get yourself in trouble by leaving too much slope. Bring the low end up enough that you don't have to strain every fiber of your being to push it. This is when they usually add a boom to the shot and you end up pushing uphill with one hand and booming with the other.

4. If the camera height they want in the blocking is at the bottom of the boom height, go ahead into low mode. They always want it lower. Trust me on this.

5. When possible, keep the operator over the dolly (chassis on the left).

6. Learn and remember the eyelines. If you don't know this rule., look it up. Knowing which side of camera an actor will be on will save you time in the setup and you won't look like a greenhorn asking where the dolly goes each time.
Hope this helps

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grips are not interchangeable with p.a.'s

I see this all the time. Someone trying to get into the film business as either a " p.a. or grip". Implying that both are interchangeable as entry level positions. I also see definitions of grip as "carries things", or "moves things." What the hell is this? For all you unedumacated, here it is: Grips are in charge of bounced and diffused light, shading, moving camera, specialized lighting and camera rigging. We also move set walls for shooting if need be. To be an effective grip you have to know lighting, basic engineering concepts, safety, lenses, moving camera platforms, basic construction. These guys spend years learning all of the aspects of the job. They hang thousands of pounds of truss over actors heads, rig and mount cameras on cars, boats, planes, bridges, and anywhere else the director wants it, shade and diffuse lights to meet the demands of the DP. If no one knows how to do it, they go to the Key Grip. With his/her army of grips they'll figure out how to do it quickly and safely. This is not to disparage my p.a. friends,which is an entry level position for the DGA. I'm just tired of being classified as "unskilled labor" by some jagoff who doesn't know any better.

more random thoughts (nap over)

Hi again, just woke up from my afternoon nap. For want of something better to do I will continue my bleary poorly formed and ultimately worthless thoughts and opinions on various aspects of , you guessed it, dolly gripping. I see a lot of questions on the web about laying track etc. Maybe some film student/ independent filmmaker will benefit from these bleary thoughts.

Let's talk surfaces. By this I mean one of three possibilities: dance floor, track, or the actual floor. It really depends on the shot/ what lens is being used. The first thing I will do in a new set is check the floor. Is it linoleum or hardwood? Concrete? Wavy? All of these enter in to what you use. The hardest dolly shot to do is, believe it or not, a slow creep. They are painful. Especially if you choose to do one on a wavy floor. The dolly will surge and slow, throwing off timing and if there are foreground objects in frame, making the shot look like crap. When in doubt, even if the floor looks even, put something down. I generally go on track when possible because even your birch plywood will have imperfections that will cause a surge. If the shot ain't a straight line, lay a floor. If it's on carpet, double lay plywood. For some reason, set decorators love to use rugs that you rarely if ever see. If the DP agrees, yank 'em. It may be a pain in the ass but your life will get much easier without rolling over, or laying surfaces over these damn things. Track is pretty self explanatory. I won't bore anyone with explanations of track laying other than: find the highest point, level up to it . If for some reason you have a bump or dip that just won't go away, I have found that the more wedges the better. Add 'em anywhere there's a space. Skateboard wheels will also take A LOT of the bumps out. Generally, if the lens is tighter than a 50 mil and I'm on more than a two or three stick run, I'll go on skates. I personally use Porta-glides made by Porta-Jib. These beauties have taken a lot of the headaches out of skates by ingeniously using wheels of different diameters interspaced on their troughs. No More Flat Spots. I've had a 250lb operator sit on the dolly in one spot for as long as 30 minutes and take right offon the first take with no flat spots. Some guys like to use planks for a quick throw down surface (and I do too sometimes) but I generally don't like them because, again, surge.

Some of my dolly brothers may come across this blog and have some tips or disagreements with some of this. Please leave them in the comment section. I'll add them.

random thoughts on dollygripping

Being on vacation has left me extremely bored. The Styx song "Too Much Time on My Hands" applies directly to me right now. I basically sleep until 9 or 10, lay there til 10:30, feed dog(s), surf net, take nap, surf net take nap, feed dogs, read, go to bed. Anyway, I've been thinking of some aspects of my job that I've decided to write about before I take my nap.
Most poeple who care enough to ever think about it think that the moves are the main thing. This actually isn't really true (in my opinion). If you have the timing and the sense of where the camera should be, and have put in the practice, the moves will come as almost second nature. There will come a time when, confronted with a 5 point - 3 boom dance floor move, you won't automatically start hyperventilating and wishing you had stayed on the rigging crew. One of the main parts of the job is the work that happens between the setups. Being able to instantly know what will work and what won't, what equipment or rigging is needed, and what surface will be best is the part of dollying that is never discussed. I also enjoy being able to work out with the operator what's best for him/her as far as dolly orientation etc. in operating the shot. Learn what works and what doesn't. It's the time spent in dolly set up that will earn you respect as well as in the actual execution of the shot!
A few operators will insist on using a particular dolly without consulting the dolly grip. I don't understand this. Personally, I use a Chapman Hustler 4 and a peewee3 or 4. For hard locations (forests, swamps etc. ) I will use a Hybrid because it's a little lighter and has more ground clearance. Every Hustler arm I've ever used is pristine. Some old school camera operators will insist on a Fisher 10 because that's all they know and are resistant to new things. I tell them if they'll give the Hustler 4 a chance it will become their favorite dolly and I've already converted one operator. The Fisher is great for some pushers. I don't get it. I can never tell where I am in the boom because of the spring action in the valve handle. I also find the sideboard system in the Hustler ( while it weighs a ton) to be superior to the Fisher. Again, just my opinion. Don't even get me started on the square track thing (Yes I know they have round track wheels blah blah blah). Anyway, I wouldn't try to tell an operator which head to do the show on, why would he tell me what dolly to push? I know what I will do my best work on. It all comes back to respect. In the early years of filmmaking, when cameras weighed 150lbs and dollies weighed 600lbs, they basically needed someone big and strong enough to push the thing. Those old timers were pretty amazing too (see; "Rope", "A Touch of Evil" etc.) They also had a day to do 2 shots and most of the work was a push in, pull out, or walk and talk. Equipment is lighter and more mobile today and more is expected of it. Especially in tv where you get one rehearsal and 2 takes. More is expected of dolly grips today in the way of finesse, and quick set ups. Technocranes, hotheads, and various mobile cranes have changed the expectations for dolly grips and as a result, we are slowly getting a grudging respect.
Anywhoo, I'm getting sleepy (you probably are too). All of this is just my opinion (albeit a pretty informed one). Do with it what you will.