Saturday, August 27, 2011

Part Time

 I find myself in the not-too-unpleasant position of a two or three day a week fill in dolly grip. This is a phenomenon that often arises for dolly grips who are between shows during a relatively busy time. Television has cranked up and I'm getting calls to do a lot of double up days and 2nd units, as both A and B camera, for tv shows as well as filling in for guys who just want a day off. If you can time it right, this results in staying employed basically three or so days a week with the rest off. In the last month, I've worked on four different shows, thanks to a friend of mine who shoved some of his calls to me. I've also been able to reconnect with a lot of people I haven't seen in a long time. That's another good thing. I really dislike coming in cold to a crew I've never met, but so far I've seen at least a couple of old acquaintances on each set. The grip crews on each of these shows have been very welcoming and top notch professionals. I have four days this coming week on two different shows, then, hopefully, the cycle will start over and a new batch of double up days will start as new episodes begin. I'm certainly not getting rich, but I'm keeping the wolf away from the door. And there's always an opportunity to learn something new from people you've never worked with. It would be nice for a big feature to come along about now, but if it doesn't for a while it's ok. As long as I can keep going like this I can pay the bills and not dip into savings. Anyway, I hope you are all staying busy. Don't be strangers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Doug Slocombe*

  If any of you ever wondered who shot Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was a British DP named Douglas Slocombe. When I was a young boy, still enamored with movies and the way they looked, I would scan movie posters and memorize the names of the Directors of Photography. Even before I knew exactly what the job entailed, I somehow knew that these names were responsible for how the movies looked. As I got older, I knew who my favorites were. Douglas Slocombe was my first favorite. I devoured every book I could find on filmmaking and before I even knew what a light meter was, I knew that he believed that a good DP didn't use one outside.
   While most high school kids my age were idolozing names like Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson, I was reading everything I could about Haskell Wexler and Alan Daviau. I guess that makes me a little bit of a nerd. I remember in college I saw Dangerous Liasons, and suddenly I wanted to know everything I could about Philippe Rousselot. A college friend and I (he now is a very successful producer of reality shows for the History and Discovery Channels) would discuss Rousselot's techniques and how we could recreate them. Movies were still a very magical thing to this fresh, skinny going-on-twenty-year old. Here is now a pretentious list of films that that beer infused (and this Captain Morgan infused) young (forty-something) man counts among his favorites photographically:

ET-  Smoke. That's what first caught my attention. And it's the first time I remember it being used. It blew my mind. Now, it (smoke) just pisses me off and makes my face break out. Seriously though, this was one of the first times I began to notice photography as a way to establish mood. I was mesmerized. I remember wondering if they actually blew smoke onto the set on purpose. I soon learned the answer.

Empire of the Sun- Daviau again. A flawed story still beautifully told in light and smoke. This Daviau guy was getting my attention. You get the feeling while watching it that Spielberg is attempting to do "serious" work. And there's a hole or two but still a beautiful movie.

The Abyss- Spielberg seemed to always hire the coolest guys. Mikael Salamon was my new favorite. I know that Spielberg didn't do The Abyss. I think I was connecting Salamon with Always. Where I first noticed his work.

Do the Right Thing- Ernest Dickerson brought Spike Lee's New York to life.

The Navigator- I saw this with my college girlfriend to make myself look cool and intellectual. Shot by Geoffery Simpson (who I would work with years later), lit mostly with torchlight. She thought it was cool. I was, by association.

  At this point I had actually broken into the film business as a young grip, toiling away on movies that often involved biker gangs and robot mutant serial killers.

A River Runs Through It- Philippe Rousselot won the Academy Award for this one. The guy just blew me away. Later on, he became my regular DP. A true gentleman. I dropped his name every chance I got. And still do. I once told Mr. Rousselot how much I had enjoyed his work when I was in college. He said something along the lines of, "I don't understand that." If Philippe reads this he'll probably roll his eyes and send me an email telling me to find a hobby.

Tequila Sunrise- A mostly forgotten, and forgettable film except for the work of Conrad Hall, whose work I was first introduced  to on this one.

Mississippi Burning- Peter Biziou won the Academy Award for this one. Flawed story, beautiful to look at.

A Little Princess- To this day, one of the most gorgeously photographed films I've ever seen. Emmanuel Lubeski became my new photographic hero.

Road to Perdition- Every frame is like a painting. Mr Hall's final masterpiece. I can watch it over and over. Even with the sound off. A perfectly photographed film. Watching this movie makes me inexplicably want to punch Robert Rodriguez  in the face.

Heaven's Gate- Yes, that  one. It's long, boring, and has an immigrant roller rink. The photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is pretty unbelievable. It's worth sitting through just for that. Some shots will literally make your jaw drop. Mainly possible because they had the audacity to do thirty takes of a train pulling into a station to get it right. And Michael Cimino told the studio to pound sand. Cimino also hasn't worked in thirty years. He actually has. Just not anything anyone actually watched.

The Natural- Caleb Deschanel. Caleb Deschanel. If you say it a bunch of times, it loses all meaning.

Thus ends this exercise in pretentiousness brought on by too many beers and too much idle time.These are some of the movies that I can watch over and over just for the photography. But what do I know. I'm just a dumb old Dolly Grip (with a Southern accent yet).

*This includes the NDSR (Next Day Sober Rewrite). I didn't actually change anything, it was actually not bad. I just made some clarifications and additions. I hate reading it and hearing my own voice in my head reading it, but it's honest and I already got some good emails and one good comment so I'm leaving it up.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Anything Can Happen... pretty much my motto. Anything can happen at any given time. The recent stage collapse in Indiana got me thinking. For those of you who haven't seen this,  the Indiana State Fair had a stage set up for a concert. You know the type, a self-contained stage with box truss above for lights etc., and just before the concert a storm blew up and an estimated 70 mph gust brought it down. Five people died. After I saw this, I was talking to a rigging key friend of mine and asked him about what could have been done. "No one would have budgeted for a seventy mile an hour wind," he said. At the least, they should have just evacuated everyone when it started looking rough. Danger is all around you any time you rig something. Anything can happen.
   Years ago, I was doing "B" camera on a feature that involved a lot of eighteen wheel trucks  roaring down a highway. It was basically Smokey and the Bandit with more gunfire and less humor. And the trucker was smuggling guns instead of Coors. We had several specialty rigs for shooting and one of them was a top drive truck with a platform off the front and a crane mounted on the platform. A top drive truck is a truck with the actual steering and control of the vehicle done from the top of the cab by a stuntman while the actor sits in the cab and pretends to steer. The "A" dolly grip and I had strapped and harnessed ourselves to the front of this monstrosity, prepared to swing the crane arm around getting shots of wheels, driver, etc as we roared down the road. This was unsetting to say the least. I asked the other dolly grip what he was going to do if something went wrong. He smiled and pulled out a huge buck knife and stuck it in his teeth. This did not make me feel better as the truck pulled out onto the road and I could feel the engine sucking my shirt into the grill. I made my own knife handy and hoped for the best. Luckily, when the hydraulics for the steering on top of the cab went out, we were already pulling over to reload after several takes of the wheels hurtling down the road. It could have been bad. Just one of those things you wouldn't think about happening, but did. This also came to my mind a while later when an aquaintance of mine, a police officer, was talking to another police officer friend of mine and I heard him say, "D doesnt know what it's like. He doesn't face danger every day."  The fact is, that we do. And anything can happen at any time. So when you're doing that overhead shot with a camera shooting directly down onto an actor's face, and you've got a minute, throw a stand under the dolly arm. Or when the thought comes into your head that maybe you should double check the tightness of a knob on the crane arm, or a connection on the levelling arm, do it. You don't have to be paranoid, just go the extra step. Anything can happen and you could save someone's life.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Under the Bus: Thrown

 AJ over at The Hills Are Burning has a great post about getting thrown under the bus. I also mentioned it in the post below this one. Getting thrown under the bus, or the act of being publicly called out for a faux pas whether it was your fault or not, is a common but unfortunate by-product of an industry that uses blame like an engine uses fuel. I've seen it happen hundreds of times, usually for a minor infraction, and often the most inexperienced among us are the culprits. I remember several years ago I was pushing dolly on an Aarron Spelling series in Atlanta and  the sound department had secured the services of a young intern right out of college. He just generally kept the cables untangled and got in everyone's way. One day when we were shooting in a mansion somewhere in town, the mixer noticed a peculiar hum during the take. He listened for it again and after the next, "cut," he and his team went in search of the offending noise. There was much discussion while we all waited for a resolution. I was leaning on the dolly, minding my own business when I heard a voice rising behind me. "I was listening and it sounds like that thing right there!" I turned around to see the young intern standing on the stairs pointing, no, stabbing an accusing finger dramatically at my Hybrid like a scene out of Twelve Angry Men. After resisting my impulse to come over the steering handle and throttle the little finger sniffer, I patiently explained that the dolly isn't electrical and doesn't hum unless it's being charged. They later found the hum to be coming from a refrigerator which the intern unplugged, forgot to plug back in, and ruined thousands of dollars worth of fancy rich people groceries. Justice delivered. This is a classic example of getting thrown under the bus. An accusation made loudly by someone who doesn't know any better. Or, it could also be a case of someone letting someone else loudly take the blame for something they didn't do. Don't be that guy. Either quietly ask any questions you may have, or, if the fault for whatever infraction lies with you, admit it. In all these years, I've never seen anyone get fired for just hitching up their pants, stepping forward, and saying, "I did it. It was an accident and I'll try and fix it." When you run from any responsibility, loudly pointing at a co-worker, as in AJ's example from her post, you reveal yourself to the one who knows the truth as a weasel. And you paint a target on your own back. Believe me, a weasel won't last long. It all boils down to trying to make yourself look better at someone else's expense. And that ain't cool.
   I'm still on vacation but starting to get itchy. I did go in on Dexter for a couple of days, and I'm up for jury duty all this week, but haven't had to report yet. I believe I'm going to head to Atlanta next month and start shaking some trees. Write if you get work.