Saturday, August 25, 2012


Every now and then, I see one I wish I'd done. Nice work, Sean.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Searchers

  I am a huge John Wayne fan. One of my earliest memories is of seeing True Grit at the drive-in. I couldn't have been more than three or four, but the memory of the snakes and the big man with the eyepatch remains as an indelible image on my brain. Since then, I have voraciously read every biography of the man I could find, and seen as many of his movies as I could. In that vein, I recently read a biography of John Ford. Aside from all of the stories of his legendary venom towards his cast and crew, I learned a few things about composition and movement. Ford rarely moved the camera. He believed that it would disorient the audience. While this may be a quaint notion today, after watching  The Searchers again tonight (under the influence of The Captain, of course) I was amazed at how right he is. In my daily work life I long for challenging camera moves. I get bored with the same old drifts and pushes. Ford, however, believed that the action within the frame gave the movie interest. His compositions moved the story along without a lot of fancy camera moves. He rarely moved the camera. In fact, he hated it so much that when he finally did, it was much more effective. Today, we move the camera constantly. It swoops and glides and never stops just so that some former music video director can "make the scene interesting." John Ford would have punched him in the mouth and said, "If your story isn't interesting, moving the f&;$;*^ing camera won't save you." I did a movie years ago that was basically shot like a music video The camera swooped and pushed and drifted for no reason at all. We never blocked a scene, we just stood the actors in a room and swooped around them. As a result, when we reached a shot that would have benefitted from a dramatic push-in, the move had no power. Watch The Searchers. Watch the push-in on John Wayne as he leaves the asylum. It's like a punch in the gut because the camera has been mostly fixed up until then. Until you watch this film, you don't realize how much we over move the camera. This movie was made in 1958, and it holds up so well, unlike the crappy "remake" The Missing of a few years ago. John Ford would have punched Tommy Lee Jones in the mouth too. And Ron Howard.  So if you've never seen The Searchers, watch it. And learn.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ironing Out The Bumps

  I often get asked about the importance of a level track vs a "lay of the land" one. My reply is usually that I'm more concerned with a track that has no bumps, than a level one. I had pretty much satisfied myself with my track laying and had rarely had a problem. Then along came the Alexa. This is my first feature that isn't film. Every show I'd done up to this one had been shot either on a Panaflex or an Arri 435, on back to the old BL (remember the coaxial mags?).  These old film cameras were as stable as anything you could ask for. Since the obsolescence of steel track, I rarely even had to use skate wheels anymore except for extremely long lenses (150mm or above). The first day on this show, I noticed something was different. I had a quick dolly move with an actor who stood up and walked briskly across a baseball field. We were on a geared head, on a relatively wide lens (I think around a 50mm on the 12:1). Take one, the director yells, "No, no, no!" He then yells that he sees a bump on the takeoff. Okay, I take a little steam off. Take two, the same thing. Over the course of the show, I begin to notice that I'm having to use the skates more often than ever, usually when we're on a long zoom. Complaints about the bumps become common from the operator and now I'm getting concerned. Finally, I've had enough and want to know what's going on. After looking at the camera, which I hadn't really bothered to do closely, I notice that it's supported solely by a tiny baseplate that's about 3" by 3". There's basically nothing supporting the huge lens or the back of the camera. It's all balanced on this tiny baseplate, an incredibly stupid design through which even the slightest of vibrations is transmitted. So, I've had to really go back to the basics on my track laying.  Now, I not only level with the whiskey stick (level), but sight down it afterwards and use shims to tune up the joints, even though it may not read exactly level afterwards, something I wouldn't necessarily have done if we had been shooting on a film camera. (As a matter of fact, I just finished a Panaflex show and rarely did this and never had a single complaint of a bump showing in the lens). I called some dolly grip buddies of mine who had done work with the Alexa and discovered that this was a common complaint, though maybe not as prevalent as on my show where we constantly use a long zoom and are also using the smaller diameter 15mm rods as opposed to the 19mm rods. We recently switched out to the 19mm and it seems to have helped, but it has been a pain up to now. My key grip finally told the DP that he can't redesign the camera in the field and the baseplate is an incredibly ridiculous design, so they tried the larger rods. Anyway, if you use the Alexa, be on the lookout for this. And lay it straight.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Product Review - CGE Tools' DollyMate MiniMate

For years I had an old ammo box that I had ripped the top off, and then velcroed it to whatever dolly I was using. As much as I liked having the storage space for all the "little things" - grease pencils for the Fisher Ten arm, pens for my crossword and shopping lists, etc - it was a little big and got in the way. I eventually stopped using it.

Like any good technician, I've been trying to up my water intake and with productions springing for water bottle alternatives, my dollies end up covered in water bottles - more stuff to fall off when "coming off the rails", etc.

Along comes CGE Tools' DollyMate MiniMate. As soon as I saw this little bag, I had to have one. I've been impressed with it's manufacture. I thought that the magnets wouldn't hold up to the weight of my larger water bottle, but it's been hanging on for a couple months now, without a sign of giving up. I asked CGE Tools John about the number of magnets sewn in the MiniMate and my concern, and get got back to me quickly saying that due to the price of the magnets themselves, it would have meant adding to the price. Fair enough. Works great as advertised!! I work day in / day out on a Hybrid and being able to slap it on the side of the dolly if I'm backed into a corner its incredibly useful.

CGE makes three sizes. The largest - the Archetype, is an apron that sized is appropriately for the back of a Fisher Ten and can carry almost everything and the kitchen sink. The medium is the MiniMate and carries two bottles, tape measure and any other little bits. The smallest (and not really) is the SaddleBag, with one main compartment, tape measure clip and a bunch of little pouches.

Thankfully I've been able to talk my local expendables store into carrying CGE Tools products (check out the website: and have since bought four more MiniMates as gifts.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

  It was interesting to read all the comments and emails from my last post. All the old-timers pretty much came up with the same answers, which were pretty much my own answers. The only one that they over-thought was the Fisher 10 question. I was looking for something along the lines of "ask if they are getting the round track wheels," but of course Sanjay and the others were correct. I did get a tweet asking about a question from the earlier post which was how the choice of head affects the Dolly Grip. The answer is that a fluid head requires you to be more careful in your starts and stops, especially on a tighter lens, as the operator is directly controlling the head with his own movements, rather than with a geared wheel. It's much harder to control the frame as the dolly accelerates or stops quickly. Everyone seemed to enjoy this post so I'll think of some more. Please send in some suggestions if you have any.
   Slate had a great article on the accident on Twilight Zone: The Movie, that took the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two children, as well as a helicopter pilot thirty years ago. Check it out here. Now, when you get those safety bulletins with your call sheets, you'll have a better idea why they're there. Check it out.