Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Pursuit of Perfection

“Nothing endures but change.”

From Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius

In the summer of 1970 -- prehistoric times for many of you -- I had a chance to wander through the Smithsonian Institution, in our nation's capitol. A few weeks from turning 20, I was nearing the half-way point of a ten week tour of the country on a motorcycle (my own personal homage to Easy Rider), following a meandering path from the San Francisco Bay Area through Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, across Kansas and Oklahoma, down through New Orleans to the tip of Florida, and on up the eastern seaboard. After exploring Washington D.C., I planned to ride north to Maine, then take the Trans Canadian Highway all the way to Vancouver before turning left and heading for home.

That's pretty much how it worked out, with a few adventures in between.

But first came the Smithsonian, and its many thousands of fascinating exhibits, most of which I’ve forgotten now, nearly 40 years later. A few stuck in my brain, though, and continue to resonate today -- including a huge gleaming red and chrome piston-driven aircraft engine designed and built by Rolls Royce to power civilian airliners in the 1950’s. The technical details have faded into the mist, but as I recall, it was a sixteen cylinder turbocharged engine, tuned to deliver a huge quantity of reliable power. At the time, it was considered to be the ultimate refinement of the piston aircraft engine, based on decades of hard-earned knowledge and experience gained in peacetime and the life-or-death crucible of war -- the sum total of a legendary engine manufacturer’s engineering skill distilled and tightly focused on a single mechanical device. At the time, it was the very best humans could do.

This engine was a product of the pursuit of perfection, and to a certain extent, represented perfection achieved -- but what should have been a moment of crowning glory turned to ashes when the introduction of the Boeing 707 jetliner instantly rendered the piston-engine airliner obsolete. Much faster, quieter, and more reliable, the jet engine turned the airplane industry on its head, and in the process, relegated that beautiful Rolls Royce engine to the history books.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, while working on an episodic crime drama. After filming exteriors all morning, we moved inside to shoot the interiors, using two cameras whenever possible. Once the set was lit, we stood by our lamps to make any final adjustments, then began to crank out the coverage. That’s when it hit me what was strange about all this: we were actually shooting film, with a complete Panavision package. Nearly every show I’ve worked on for the past couple of years has used digital cameras, which means I hadn’t even seen a film camera up close for quite a while. I watched the familiar rituals as if for the first time – the 2nd A.C. running in with a case of freshly reloaded 1000 foot mags, handing them off to the two 1st A.C.’s in return for the exposed mags. While the 1st A.C.’s opened their cameras, mounted the fresh mags, then threaded the film through the sprockets, the 2nd A.C. was breaking the film on the exposed mags and shoving them back into empty case to be downloaded later for the lab.

A reload is all business for the camera assistants, but for the rest of the crew, it means a few minutes to relax, trade jokes, or sneak outside for a cigarette or phone call. The actors get a chance to regroup, while the director thinks about the next scene. This familiar, comfortable routine has been the rule since long before I started my Industry career -- it's all part of what comes with shooting film. At this point, Panavision and Arriflex cameras are miraculous devices, having evolved and been refined over the past 80 years to a point approaching technological perfection. In the hands of a good cameraman, there isn’t much a properly equipped modern film camera can’t do when it comes to delivering the most sumptuously gorgeous images -- but just as this level of near-perfection has been achieved, the digital revolution comes along to jerk the rug out from under the Way Things Are.

It’s deja-vu all over again.

Such is the price of progress, I suppose. Personally, I don’t much care for the new digital cameras. Where film cameras are all precision-machined metal, gears, and glass, digital is nothing but plastic and wires -- digital cameras look like cheap props from some lousy Roger Corman movie. Instead of the well-choreographed dance of the film reload after every ten minutes of shooting, digital cameras hold something like 45 minutes of tape, which means much less reloading – and when the time finally does come to re-load, it’s a simple matter of snapping a fresh cassette in place. What used to take several minutes can now be done in seconds. Maybe the producers think this is progress, but I don’t. Besides, each digital camera comes trailing an inch-thick cable all the way back to the digi-tech tent, further cluttering up the set while offering ample opportunity for the rest of us to slip, trip, and fall.

Hey, I’m a juicer – it’s my job to lay cables right where everybody else will trip on them...

As I watched the well-practiced ballet of the camera re-load that day, it occurred to me to look close, because I won’t be seeing it much longer. None of us will. Film is on its way out, slipping into the past as digital takes over. This isn’t the first big change I’ve seen, and it probably won’t be the last -- I used an upright Moviola editing machine to make a documentary in college, but that awkward, clattering machine soon gave way to fast, quiet flatbeds, which in turn disappeared when digital computer editing came of age. The old DC carbon arcs in common use when I first started were supplanted by an ever-evolving flow of modern HMI lamps, which may in turn be phased out if LED lighting -- or some other energy-saving technology -- can do the same job more efficiently.

I don't know that digital looks quite as good on the big screen as the best of film yet, but in time it probably will. Besides, visual quality was never the selling point for digital in the first place -- that argument was lost the moment the economics tipped in favor of digital. In one form or another, digital is here to stay.

That episodic I was working on? I'm told the show will be coming back next season, but with digital cameras instead of film. In the relentless pursuit of perfection – or something like it -- the only constant is change.

Same as it ever was.


John the Scientist said...

Good piece. So many times in history tipping points were nver noticed, but now your and my generation (I was going on 2 in 1970) have seen so many technological tipping points we have a body of experience that tells us when to take notice.

I wrote about this with respect to still photography a while back.

The Grip Works said...

Hi Michael !
I have not worked on digital video yet. In about 60 features as a grip, I worked on an HD camera for some VFX sequences on a movie for the first time in 2005. The rest of the movie was shot on film. The one thing that really annoyed me (apart from the thick cable trailing out the rear of the camera) was that suddenly shooting protocol seemed to go out the window. The discipline on set seemed to be affected by the disappearance of the routines that follow a film camera. The seemingly endless footage available on these cameras makes people sloppy (in this instance) it felt like the camera was never cut, and the Director kept walking into shot to speak to the actors without the 1st ad calling 'Cut'. It was nerve wracking and I have never worked on video since, and would not mind if I never do.

JD said...

When was the last time you worked on a production lit with arc(s)? I know that Mole ran a how-to seminar not long ago.

Michael Taylor said...

John -- that's a great post. Loved the post on Hendrix as well. I'll be keeping my eye on your blog. Thanks for stopping by.

Sanjay -- you're right about the change in routines on a digital set. Consider yourself lucky that digital is still so scarce in India.

JD -- I used arcs on a Pepsi commercial in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the mid 80's, and again doing a Dodge commercial filmed in Colorado around the same time. Since then it's been all HMI's,a ll the time. While working at Paramount in the late 90's, word spread around the lot that a DP had requested arcs for a feature on location, so the lamp dock buffed up six of the old DC arcs and sent them out. That's the last time I've seen or heard of an arc being burned in anger. In a way, it's too bad -- we used to cook nachos on the arc grids while filming at night. Can't do that with an 18K HMI...

Nathan said...

I've done a fair amount of HD work, but as a Location Manager, it didn't really make much difference. I'm working on a pilot Friday and Saturday that shooting on RED (whatever the hell that is).

I've been told that when they call camera wrap at any location, I need to have power (crystal) for the technician for another 20 minutes to 1/2 hour so he can backup whatever it is he's backing up. That means that, as opposed to video village (which can run off batteries for a little while), I need to have the electric truck (with genny) stay at the first set until he's done.

I predict...problems and a really slow company move.