Friday, May 29, 2009

Hitting the Mark...or not

Tommy, a Dolly Grip pushing a show in Michigan sent in a email saying I should write a post on marks. When is it critical to hit them? How important are they? My answer is, you should ALWAYS hit your marks.......until it's time not to. Most of us come up hearing, "Marks are just references, it's most important to watch the actors blah blah blah." True. Marks are what allow us to recreate a move sequence down to the inch...........with second team* We all know, however that a lot of actors rarely, if ever, do the same thing the same way twice. Things happen during a scene. Furniture gets moved, extras stray from their designated path, the actor thinks, "my character wouldn't stop by that chair." This randomness is part of what keeps us from being replaced by servos and motors. It's also what gives us a certain amount of control over how a shot looks. We have to make split-second decisions about where the camera should be at any given time during a move and adjust to keep the lens where it should be. This sometimes results in "disregarding" the marks. Say I'm doing a parallel move with an actor from one end of a room to another. He's walking along, we're in sync. Suddenly, he stops five feet short of his mark. Rather than blowing through to my mark, it's my job to stop the dolly to match (and make it look like it was supposed to happen). Or, same shot, say he lands on his mark, but an errant extra has shifted a little too far to the right and will block him from lens at this mark. You see this impending situation, shoot through the mark enough to clear, the shot is saved. A good AC will also see this coming and adjust focus accordingly. If this actor hits his mark and everything's cool, you should nail it. Another example- say your doing an opening pull back and stop. Some actor walks into frame, you push back in with him, not necessarily matching distances, as he goes to another mark and stops. If he stops 4 inches shy- hit your mark. If he overshoots by 4 inches-hit your mark. The reason? Your position on that mark is the one anchor the AC has in the room that's constant. If he sees you are on your mark, he automatically knows how much the actor is off by and can adjust. On a completely aesthetic move- a dolly down a row of pictures, a push in on a flashing bomb- you should nail your mark. Marks are important and hitting them while not watching them is an art unto itself. It's a technique that's developed over time that involves quick flicks of the eye to them and back to the subject, and a kind of hyper-awareness of where the dolly is in the space. A Dolly Grip who consistently hits his or her marks is much appreciated by focus pullers and camera operators. I've had more than one thank me when I've hit marks and I ask them don't most Dolly Grips hit their marks? They say a lot aren't even in the same zip code, which makes their job harder.
One my favorite things to do is a walk and talk pull back. This is a real test of your distance judging. You have to pull back with actors, holding the exact distance, and land exactly when they land. It's always cool to reach the end of the shot and land precisely on your mark as they land on theirs. It's even cooler to reach the end and land two feet short of your mark as they are two feet short of theirs, glance up at the Panatape readout, and see that it's the same distance you started at. Now there are ways to help yourself with this shot, but I'm not going to go into that today (no it most certainly does not involve dragging a string or a laser). Thanks Tommy for the suggestion.
I will reiterate that any of you experienced guys out there who want to write a post yourselves are welcome to email me one and I'll clean it up, and paste it onto it's own post. I won't use your name if you ask, but I would like to know who you are privately just so I know who I'm dealing with. I know a lot of you are aspiring writers so this is your chance to speak to a community of Dolly Grips that literally spans the globe. Send it in!

*"Second Team," for those not in the film business, refers to Stand-In's. These are people who are hired to recreate the actor's movements during lighting and camera blocking, so that the actors can go to makeup after rehearsal. "First Team" are the actual actors.

Completely off-topic, every now and then I like to recommend movies or shows that I think have particularly good work in them and send some good press to someone who has earned it. This time it's Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg's film about a teenage master con artist. I caught it last week on cable and had forgotten how good the work was. Jerry Bertolami delivers a master class on how it's done. The camera never stops, and the moves are flawless (and Jerry's a nice guy). So check it out.


Onno said...

Hello D, and all,

Great post again and a good kick from Tommy!
At this moment I am mostly on commercials. When doing the shots I rarerly put marks since they will change anyway..:-( I just follow my instinct. When I put marks I will hit them. Sometimes I'll fail and when I fail the first take I will fail every take since the rhythm of the shot seems to ask for this new (unmarked) mark.. never have any complaints.
But as I said, every shot with its lens and its action has its rhythm; a creep in on a 32 or a 50 is 60cm (2ft).

Another thing is that I watch the wheels (or markings on the head), when the operator stops operating and I am near to my mark I will stop the move (ofcourse depending on the shot). And ofcourse it is a kick when the operator is done and I am on my mark, so is the action... then I just say to myself; It is like an orchestra, finished, in the can.

So far,


D said...

Great points Onno. Of course every set up is different, and episodic and feature work tends to be more rigid. Commercial work, in my experience, is more free form and allows you to play a little more. Thanks for the input. It's now 1:30 PM and I have to go to work. Have a great night all

Tommy said...

Thanks for the great post, D. It's nice to hear another perspective - especially from someone as experienced as yourself. I'm glad you mentioned the whole second team vs first team blocking aspect. On this show, with some big names, the blocking is almost guaranteed to change each take so my marks with second team are never my marks with first. Talk about not being in the same zip code, sometimes they're not even in the same country! But I like that aspect of winging it during that first take, feeling it out.

I also agree with what Onno says about finding a rhythm that may be different than what was layed out. The dp I'm currently working with is very open - she rarely gives me much more information about a shot than something like "camera here, doing something like this: *hand gesture*". Usually I am the one who suggests the boom and move timing based on the pacing of the scene. If a dolly grip is in tune with their dp then camera movement is just one less item that dp needs to worry about. I'm glad I can provide that.


D said...

Hi Tommy. Thanks for the idea. It sounds like you are in a good situation. It's always fun when the DP includes you into the creative process or isn't threatened by your input. Have fun! (but don't run over George Clooney).

Anonymous said...

I would say the marks you should be most concerned with are the reference marks you put down on your front and back wheel to make sure your dolly will react the same way every move

D said...

Anonymous makes a good point, and while I disagree that these are the most important marks to make, it is important to make sure your dolly starts in the same attitude on every move especially on a crab move. just put a reference mark at a front and back wheel at number one and line up on them on every reset.

The Grip Works said...

Hi D,
Great post. I've been away on a movie called "The Way Back", and only just got back. I could not post while I was away, via phone. Your site rejected the post, but on my desktop it does not seem to be a problem.
I think there are some good points being made here. You make marks for a reason. The dolly grip operates the operator. If you dont hit the right spot, there is no way the operator can get the right frame. Having said that, the right mark is not nessesarily the tape mark you set on the floor. It is knowing your relative position to actors, background, and various other things in the frame that are needed to give meaning to the frame. If one of them changes position, it goes without saying that the camera also probably needs to change position. finessing these moves and adjusting to changing situations is the hallmark of a good dolly grip. If all we did was hit our marks, as D said, we'd be replaced by stepper motors!!

GHB said...

Hey D. Sorry for my absence. Life gets in the way sometimes as I'm sure you know. Anyway. Great topic. I have to agree with D as usual. Hit your marks. Unless the actor is a mile off of theirs and you know that the shot will never work if you hit your mark, then by all means go directly to it. As D said, you are the only constant in the focus puller's life. If the camera is in the wrong place, he has a real hard time getting his bearings and making it sharp. I promise you if you're off your mark more than you're on it, you'll hear about it. I like to plan on hitting my mark and then through my periphery see where everyone is landing and correct from there. You have to assume everyone is going to go to the right places and if you're off your mark, you'll be the only one that didn't come through. I think the real proof that you're always on your mark or at least instinctualy in the right place is when your focus puller doesn't put his own marks by your dolly wheels. When they trust you enough to assume you're in the right place it's a beautiful thing. Having a good marking system is key, too. I was taught a really good one. Maybe this is a good related topic of conversation for another post.

D said...

Great comments! Sanjay and GHB, glad you're back. I was beginning to wonder where everyone went.