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Sunday, January 30, 2011
Three Hundred Seconds of Freedom
A grip making the most of Blocking Day...
“The waiting is the hardest part”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Multi-camera sit-coms are unlike other type of television show. Episodics, dramedies, and single-camera (non-laugh track) comedies are shot in the same time-tested manner as a feature film (albeit at a much faster pace), but with four cameras recording the action in front of a live audience, sit-coms are an entirely different beast. While single camera shows follow the standard rhythm of blocking, lighting, rehearsing, and filming each shot – then moving on to the next -- for a good twelve hours or more, a sit-com is carved out of the ether in distinct phases. During each of the first three days, the actors and director rehearse on set from morning into mid-afternoon, then do a full run-through of the show to see how well each scene works in the overall context of the show. At that point the actors, director, and stand-ins go home while the grips and juicers work on into the night lighting the swing sets and doing whatever tweaks are needed on the permanent sets.* Day Four is for blocking and pre-shoots, and Day Five is when the bulk of the show will be shot before the audience.
For me, blocking day the most trying day of the week. After three days of working at our own pace, the stage and sets to ourselves (and with no assistant directors running around hissing “quiet!” every thirty seconds), blocking day marks a rude return to reality. We take an early morning call to find the stage rapidly filling up with camera operators, assistants, a five man sound crew, script girl, a camera coordinator, four or five stand-ins, all the AD’s and their assistants, and the entire cast. If there are pre-shoots scheduled for shots requiring special effects, stunts, or large crowd scenes (all of which eat up time with set-up and re-takes), the hair and makeup departments will be setting up camp in front of a large bank of monitors, while wardrobe people scurry hither and yon.
Meanwhile, the extras swarm the craft service tables like an army of well-dressed, perfectly-coiffed locusts.
Don’t get me wrong – after working together for many months now, I know and like all these people, but their presence on blocking day means that instead of being able to get in there and do our work, the juicers and grips now have to stand and wait...and wait... and wait.... until we finally get a chance to add or tweak the lighting as needed. No matter how many run-throughs the DP and gaffer have seen, there will always be some changes -- and when the action in the scene changes, so does the lighting. We can’t bust in with man-lifts and twelve foot ladders when four cameras and the cast are on set, but must wait until the first AD says “That’s a five,” calling a five minute break. For everybody else, this represents three hundred seconds of freedom – time to graze at craft service, have another cup of coffee, hit the bathrooms, smoke a cigarette outside, make a quick call, or simply stare like zombies into the glowing screen of their smart phones. But for grip and electric, the race is on to complete as much work as possible while our DP nervously paces the floor, watching every move with a relentlessly critical eye. By now, the pipe grid above each set is festooned with lamps, power cables, meat-axes, flags, and teasers – all of them hanging down like an impenetrable phalanx of stalactites - making it extremely difficult even to get up there, much less adjust a lamp or hang a new one.
But we have to do it, and do it fast - thus the paranoia of our DP, who is constantly afraid that in the process of a setting or adjusting a lamp, a juicer (well, this juicer, in particular...) will disturb his carefully orchestrated ecology of flags, cards, nets, and teasers, thus ruining then lighting.**
When those three hundred seconds are up, and the rest of the crew returns, we hustle the ladders and man-lifts off the set, then go back on watchful-waiting/standby mode while they resume blocking.
Blocking Day is a long grinding crawl of hurry-up-and-wait, during which each scene is broken down to its component parts, then painstakingly reassembled with camera moves to match the action. From this piece-by-piece process emerges a delicate ballet between the actors and all four cameras designed to tell the story (and emphasize the humor) in a way that will appear effortless on screen. But as usual in Hollywood, making something seem effortless requires an enormous amount of concentrated work.
Sometimes – during a really good week – there isn’t all that much for us to adjust on blocking day, and then we too get to enjoy those periodic three hundred seconds of freedom. But even if that never happens (and it's very rare), there’s one saving grace that prevents this most draining part of the week from being a total pain in the ass: on our show, blocking day also happens to be payday. Shortly before the one hour lunch break, a smiling angel beams down from the office cloaked in a misty golden light, passing out those little white envelopes that make it all worthwhile. There’s nothing quite like the slobbering Pavlovian satisfaction of getting paid to take the sting – however briefly - from this ugliest day of the week.
And the best part? By the time the Payday Angel makes her rounds, blocking day is halfway over...
* Sets brought in for that particular episode only, then taken away once the episode has been filmed. While much of each episode takes place in the permanent sets (usually a living room and kitchen), one week’s script might call for a scenes in a gas station and bowling alley, while the following week's episode could require swing sets for a coffee shop and a pet store.
** His worries are justified. Although I do my best to avoid moving any grip equipment, my patience is limited when working up in the air. At a certain point, if it's in my way, it's coming down -- and once I'm done with my work, the grips will just have to go back in and repair the damage. But you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs...