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Sunday, February 21, 2010
The Silliest Job Ever
Nope, not this one...
I know what you're thinking -- the Hollywood Juicer has finally lost it, slipped down the rocky slope and tumbled head-first into the abyss of Internet cliche. There, having hit rock bottom staring at the creative brick wall of bloggers-block, he was forced out of sheer desperation to dredge up a "cute cats" photo in a pathetic attempt to post something -- anything -- that might salvage his street-cred as an active Industry blogger.
That day may come, but not just yet -- and I swear, there will be no more of this third-person crap...
Although I had nothing to do with the photo above, it did jog my memory to recall the silliest job -- and silliest shot -- I've ever been paid to light. Given that I put in twenty years working on television commercials (which are nothing but concentrated silliness), that covers a rather wide spectrum of absurdity. We once did a shot where an actor/stunt man took a 150 foot bungee plunge right next to the Queen Mary while holding a Taco Bell burrito, another with a half dozen tiny human babies nestled inside Michelin tires, sleeping like... well, babies, and a spot where the ad agency's vision called for seducing a full-grown ostrich into committing a highly unnatural act for the camera. But when it comes to full bore, triple distilled, two hundred proof visual absurdity, a cat food commercial I worked on back in the mid-80's takes the proverbial cake.
Have a good look at those eight cats above, stacked like so much furry feline cordwood, then try to imagine just how long it took the photographer get that shot -- keeping eight highly individualistic cats exactly where they need to be, paying full attention and all looking in the right direction long enough to click the shutter.
Assuming the image wasn't created via the digital magic of photoshop, that took a while. The phrase "herding cats" didn't materialize unbidden out of the ether, but emerged as a perfect metaphor to describe something that's all but impossible to do. You can herd cattle, goats, sheep, pigs -- even people -- but cats? No. Trying to get one cat to jump through any pre-determined set of hoops is enough of a challenge, but eight?
Given that, just how difficult might it be to get twenty-one adult cats lined up in a perfect triangle for the camera, one at the head, the rest fanning out on either side, each sitting primly at a small bowl of cat food while wearing a tiny white chef's hat?
Cats wearing chef's hats... You can bet that concept brought high-fives all around at the agency/client presentation, but they weren't the people who would actually have to put the image on film -- and in those pre-CGI, days, that meant orchestrating the real thing: Twenty-one living, breathing cats doing something no self-respecting cat would ever do.
The gaffer and I had the easy end of this job, lighting the small scale burning-of-Atlanta crane shot reveal of the feline triangle. Once the lamps were set, all we had to do was sit back and quietly watch the circus as a crew of six cat wranglers worked their asses off. The twenty-one cats, needless to say, did not cooperate. They absolutely hated those little chef's hats (what a surprise...), and when not trying to tear them off, were busy eating the food from every other cat's bowl but their own. Even in Cat Land, apparently, the grass is always greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Succumbing to their natural curiosity, the cats would not sit still, fascinated by lights, the flags, the camera, the crane, the crew, and their very strange new surroundings.
The hapless wranglers earned every last penny of their paychecks. Caught between a rock and a hard place, six wranglers were at once too few and too many -- not enough to fully placate and control every single cat, but too numerous to get off the stage without disturbing this highly volatile lineup before the camera rolled. By the time they finally got all the cats properly arranged, then tiptoed off the stage, a dozen of the animals would already be wandering. It was just impossible -- and at a certain point, I figured we'd eventually get into triple time, which back then kicked in after 18 hours.*
But miracles do occasionally happen, and right around the 12 hour point, everything clicked and we got the shot. Since we were shooting film with only a crude black and white video monitor for the clients, nobody could be sure we really had it until seeing the dailies -- which meant we all had to come in the next morning just in case.
One more fat commercial payday was fine by me, especially when the word came down the following morning that the shot was good. All we had to do was wrap the lights and cable, then head home well before noon: a full day's pay for a couple of hour's work.
Those really were the good old days. I don't know about you, but I could use some of that silliness right about now.
* We were working under NABET rules, not IA...