“A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in “Magnum Force”
Back on the Home Planet a few years ago, I attended a lecture by a marine biologist who had spent many years studying the feeding behavior and migration patterns of Great White Sharks. During a Q&A after the talk, he offered some advice to any surfers in the audience.
“If you sense something strange out on the water -- if you get spooked for no apparent reason -- pay attention. It might be a good idea to paddle in. We don’t understand how these things work, but following your instincts out there could save your life.”
I've yet to worry about Great White Sharks on set, but the essence of that advice came to mind recently while reading a post over at The Black and Blue concerning an on-set incident that resulted in a dropped camera lens. Fortunately for the camera assistant involved, no real damage was done.
Like the bumper sticker says, shit happens, and it doesn't always end so well.
While crewing on a student film in my post-college years, we were working on the rugged rocks of a coastal breakwater when an expensive zoom lens came loose and fell off the rented 16 mm camera at a very bad moment. The writer/director was scrambling over those rocks carrying the camera at the time, but it could just as easily have been me -- I'd been lugging it around most of that weekend. With the lens ruined, our day was done.
Youth and inexperience were the main culprit -- we knew very little about the arduous process of film-making or the need to continually check our equipment -- but it also happened because the director was pushing a little too hard. With daylight fading and the weekend closing out, he was desperate to get every possible shot in the can before dark. The cold logic of numbers was on his side, but sometimes you have to know when enough is enough, and my gut feeling was that we'd hit the wall. It was late, everybody was tired, it was time to wrap. The director felt otherwise, and paid a steep price for his attempt to get that last shot. The repair bill from the rental house blew a huge hole in his borrowed-money budget for the film.
Thus did the Joe Frasier School of Higher Education mete out another harsh lesson in reality.
I can't claim to have seen it coming -- I didn't -- but watching that lens bounce down the rocks towards the ocean taught me something about the wisdom of listening to my own instincts.
Accidents usually happen when someone is rushing things and/or not paying attention. Given the stress that crackles through every set, it's all too easy to move a little too fast. If you remain calm and work at a measured pace -- all the while paying attention to your gut instincts -- you can minimize the odds of causing or becoming the victim of an accident.
The same concept applies to young people on their way up the career ladder: don't rush things. You can’t be afraid to step up and accept more responsibility -– succumb to fear and you’ll never get anywhere -- but it’s important to be ready when opportunity presents. If you miscalculate and perform a painfully public belly-flop, it will be remembered (and the story told...) by everyone who was there to witness.
There are no hard and fast rules here. Each individual progresses according to his/her own learning curve and degree of ambition, but whether you're on the fast track to success or not, it helps to have good instincts in the first place and the sense to follow them.
Late in my own transition from griptrician to juicer, I got a call from a Key Grip asking me to Best Boy for him on a small commercial. Typical of such jobs, it would just be the two of us on the grip crew. Work is work, but I took the gig with some reluctance. Having concentrated on juicer work, my grip skills -- never that strong to begin with -- were pretty rusty by then.
The morning got off to a bad start at the location, a dusty ranch well north of LA. A little nervous and eager to get going, I grabbed a cup of coffee from craft service, then managed to spill the entire contents down my left pant leg -– a pair of white cotton painter’s pants I'd worn for protection from bugs, cuts, and the fierce Southern California sun. Feeling like a clumsy doofus, I tried to make up for this minor-but-embarrassing blunder, but was off my game. After juicing for the entire previous year, grip equipment suddenly felt awkward and alien to me. Nothing went easy all morning, so when it came time to move the camera -– a big Arri BL mounted on a tripod -– I hung back. I knew I should just grab it and go, but something didn’t quite feel right to me. Noticing my reluctance, the Key Grip came over to show me how it's done. Displaying textbook form, he squatted down, tucked his shoulder under the fluid head, then stood up and snapped the tripod legs closed in one smooth motion.
Before he took a step, the camera slipped off the mounting plate and fell five feet, slamming into the hard dirt of the corral. A moment of stunned silence followed during which I muttered a silent “thanks” to whatever had held me back.
Another camera was rushed in to keep us going through the rest of that long day, but the atmosphere on set remained a bit frosty until wrap.
I had no idea that camera would fall -– my knowledge of cameras and mounting plates was very sketchy to begin with, which is probably why I held back -– but heeding the unfathomable mystery of my own gut instincts saved me from a major professional humiliation. To this day, thirty later, I can still see that camera plummeting to earth in the highest of hi-def/3-D/mind's-eye resolution.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – some things you just don’t forget.
It's a fine line to walk. You can't build a career by standing back to let others do all the challenging work -- and the time will come when you really do have to make that leap of faith, but it's important to have some idea what you're doing before you jump. Learning to listen to and trust your own instincts can keep you out of trouble as your career unfolds, and just might help you avoid becoming the subject of someone else's on-set war story.