Friday, March 26, 2010

Freeballing

In my experience, there are basically two kinds of shows. Those where the shots are meticulously planned out, and those where they aren't. On most sets, the director and DP plan out the shot with a finder. You get your marks. You know exactly what's going to happen and have a vague idea of where the camera needs to be at specific points during the shot. On others, the director or DP gives a vague wave of the hands and says, "Start here and go over here." You look at the Camera Operator and he rolls his eyes and mouths, "Good luck." Needless to say, the first kind are the easiest for me, although not always the most challenging. I'm presently doing the latter. It's a comedy with two high profile comedy directors (figure that one out). They are both great guys and the DP is a joy to work with. But there is a lot of vague hand waving and pronouncements of, "Start here and maybe we won't see the track." The Camera Operator, who is honestly one of the best in the world rolls his eyes and....well, you know the rest. The beauty of this system is the fun of not really knowing what is going to happen and having to adjust the shot as it unfolds. It gives the Dolly Grip more creative control over the shot and your skills really come into play. This style is affectionately known as freeballing. God bless my Camera Operator. He honestly asks  my opinion about shots and framing and gives me the freedom to make split second decisions as the scene unfolds. It can get a little frustrating sometimes, though, because I never really know what to set up because the rehearsals are so vague. What can be difficult is coming from a very rigid form of working to this freewheeling type of shooting. I've done movies where the camera placement was critical down to the inch. I was literally measuring the rooms to make sure I knew where the exact, symmetrical center was. You learn very quickly to look for clues as to where the camera should be- lighting fixtures or tiles in the floor are great indicators for lining up a symmetrical shot. It can be hard, though, to go from this style and be plunged directly into the less formalized one. I got a little testy today with my Focus Puller over a shot that we literally were making up as we went. I didn't mean to. I'm usually a pretty easygoing guy with my camera crews, but at one point I was just, like, "Dude, I don't know. It's the first time I've seen it and it was with second team." Now I'm a guy who prides myself on hitting marks. I don't miss often and if I do, I'll be the first to tell the focus puller that I was off by 2 inches or whatever. But when the actor is all over the place and you have to clear another actor and you are constantly booming up or down or adjusting left or right or in and out to hold the frame, things can get a little tense. I have to give it to our focus puller and operator. As challenging as my job can be on this movie, I can't imagine trying to hold focus or keep a nice frame with actors moving all over the place and the dolly constantly adjusting. All in all, although I do like the freedom to wing it, I am ready to get back to a more controlled style of working. The good side of all this is that it's very relaxed and mistakes are easily forgiven. It's a comedy, and comedies, in fact,  moviemaking in general should be fun. I once did a comedy years ago* in which we used the very rigid form of working which was not fun at all. The DP was a Jackass and everyone from the actors on down was tense and unhappy. Overall, I'll take freeballing any day.

*To this day, this was the most miserable experience of my career. Six weeks in Vegas and top rate and all I could think about was leaving. Someday, we will meet again, my friend.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

2010 Fisher Open House

The Annual JL Fisher Open House is coming up on May 15. Fisher always pulls out all the stops and puts on a great event with Barbecue and Beer. It's a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and aquaintances, swap some stories, and see the latest that Fisher and several other equipment providers have to offer. The Moving Camera Seminar is also always interesting and it's our time, as Dolly Grips, to be front and center. I, unfortunately, probably won't make it this year due to a prior commitment (my daughter is in a play that weekend), but strongly urge all of you to go. I will need someone to represent Dollygrippery if I can't make it to report on the goings-on and take some pictures. If you are a working Dolly Grip, or just someone interested in the field, it's a don't miss. If you go, be sure to mention Dollygrippery.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Nerves

I can remember when I first started pushing "A" Camera. To say I was a little nervous is an understatement. Which way should I orient the Dolly? Should I use track or floor? I remember when working out a dance floor shot, the operator would keep adding positions and camera heights and I would begin to sweat. My anxiety increased with each new variable. How would I remember all this, much less actually execute it? As time went by, however, the anxiety began to dissipate as my confidence, and skills, improved. I would spend a little time before each show just practicing compund moves. I couldn't have imagined a time when a six point comound move with four camera heights wouldn't send me into the nervous sweats. Now, I don't even think about it. I even enjoy them. It's a little more of a challenge, and it makes us worth our money. Looking back, I think one thing helped me master this skill more than any other: TV. Episodic television is the perfect training ground for Dolly Grips and the older I get the more I believe it. The moves are consistently more complex, you're with people you know well from being around them for endlessly long days, and they're a little more apt to forgive mistakes. And you have to learn to be fast and accurate. You have to nail it by the third take, minimum. This is invaluable when you move to Feature world. Features move at a much slower pace (generally). By comparison, a TV dolly grip who knows his stuff looks like a whirlwind on a Feature set.  I try to go back and do a little TV every so often, and though it's a grind, nothing keeps you sharp like TV. So those of you who still get a little sweaty at the prospect of a seven point, five boom combo, stay with it. Believe it or not, there will come a day when you'll actually enjoy them. It just takes a little (OK, a lot) of time.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Different Scenarios

There's a scene in Die Hard where the FBI agent, played by Robert Davi, assesses the situation and says, "This is a standard A-7 scenario." or something to that affect. This line comes to my mind whenever a shot or setup that seems all too familiar comes up. Once you've done this long enough, it's hard to find a shot, or variation of a shot that you haven't done. There are also common dolly set-ups that you just have filed away in your head that you can pull up from the memory bank and slam together without too much forethought. The standard A-7 scenario. You know with a Lambda Head that you're going to need a camera offset (what we used to call a Ubangi until someone with way too much time on their hands decided to be offended by that term. I still call it that though.) You know you'll need a sideboard if it's a moving shot. And you know how to orient the offset in such a way that the camera operator can do the shot in a reasonably comfortable way. I generally always use a 12" riser with a Lambda also. It helps get the dolly arm away from the operator and I can still hit the floor with the head. After a while, you have dozens of these different set-ups floating around in your database. That's what helps separate a part-timer from a full timer. It takes years to build up a catalog of different scenarios to draw from. Over-Under Camera Rig? Bam! Got it. Twin Dollies Tied Together? Boom! Get me some pipe, sideboards for the Peewee and chain vice grips. Need to mount an actor on the dolly with the camera looking at him as he moves back? Front board and a camera offset (Ubangi). This database is what will save you valuable time and double work when someone else would be looking down and scratching their head.
On a different note, the show is going well. Again, the Camera Operator, Jaques, Matt, the DP, and Jeff, the
First AC are all top notch and a pleasure to work with. Internet service is spotty here, so I may be a little infrequent, but keep checking in.