Mime is money...
I sit on an apple box looking in the window of a nice little waterfront restaurant, with the panorama of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf behind me. It’s night, the rows of boats along the quay awash in the cold blue glare of mercury vapor streetlamps. The bright glow of neon from a dozen restaurant signs sparkles through the night, reflecting off the cold waters of the bay. But for the absence of fog, this feels a lot like a scene right out of Dashiell Hammett.
Five feet away sits a lovely young woman with long dark hair, high cheekbones, full lips, and a magnificent chest. Dressed to the nines in a sleek outfit that makes the most of her impressive curves, she’s looking great -- and she knows it. I watch through the glass as she carries on a silent conversation with a man seated across the small table. All I can see of him is a shoulder, arm, and hand, and he’s not aware of me at all. But she is, and eventually waves, flashing a brilliant white smile. I return the wave and smile, all the while gently shaking another apple box under the window with a four foot pole. A wide, flat aluminum baking pan sits atop that apple box, the bottom covered with small shards from a broken mirror covered with an inch of tap water. Ten feet over my head, a 1000 watt Par Can gelled blue-green is focused directly on that pan, bouncing a reflection of moving water up along the window panes.
Meanwhile, Dan Ackroyd and Fran Drescher run through their comedic dialog one more time, seated at a table on the other side of the set wall surrounded by a carefully selected and wardrobe-appropriate cast of extras playing diners and restaurant staff. Four cameras on peds practice their delicate choreography as the rehearsal unfolds.* Being on the outside looking in, I can't hear the dialog, but that doesn’t matter -- my job is to remain out of sight of those four cameras while keeping the pale blue water reflections dancing over the windows. It's impossible for me to see how well it’s all working on camera, but that doesn’t matter either, since DP is watching like a hawk on a twenty-seven thousand dollar digital monitor. If I’m doing something wrong, his voice will crackle through my Secret Service-style walkie-talkie earpiece.
In this case, no news really is good news.
Since we're on a sound stage in Hollywood rather than a real location, “Fisherman's Wharf” is actually a large translight backing lit from behind by ten thousand watts from two 5K Skypans, with another thirty-five thousand watts or so from twenty more lamps illuminating the set interior. Amid all that firepower, it’s a very small thing I’m doing (and truth be told, it looks rather cheesy), but every scene in a television show or feature film is composed of many small elements. When all those little things are done properly and work together, the cumulative effect can be very convincing – and that’s the idea. This show being a multi-camera sit-com (a genre not known for subtlety), my ever-so-cheesy water reflections seem to hit just the right note.
Making such reflections during a shot is one of the oldest tricks in the lighting book. In one form or another, I’ve done this or seen it done on features, commercials, and television shows since the beginning of my career, and it probably goes back to the silent film era. Once we’ve set the lamps, the grips ordinarily handle such effects, but with so many windows on this set, the entire grip crew is already busy shaking their own mirror-and-water equipped pans, so I’ve been drafted to help. As a day-player on this show, my job is do whatever the gaffer asks, so here I am. That’s fine with me – doing something is almost always better than doing nothing on set, where tedium and boredom-induced lethargy can slow the clock to a painful crawl.
Having waited patiently all morning in the audience seating area, the extras in this restaurant scene are suddenly very busy indeed. During rehearsals and once the filming starts, they’re working hard – waiters bustling from tables to kitchen as the diners make their menu choices, order, and carry on animated conversations. The female extra on the other side of the window does a good job, talking, smiling, and flirting with her dinner companion. It’s very convincing, but she’s faking it, her every action performed in absolute silence. The extras have to pantomime everything so that the scripted dialog uttered by Dan and Fran can be picked up by the boom microphones and recorded with a minimum of background noise.
Clean dialog minimizes the need -- and expense -- of "fixing it in post," which means for the producers and extras alike, mime really is money.
Between takes the extra on the other side of the glass beams another thousand-watt smile at me, trying to figure out just what the hell I’m doing out there. The high set wall and glass preclude any verbal conversation – we’d both have to shout to be heard, which would be totally inappropriate – so it's my turn to do the mime-thing, pointing at the pans of water, then the Par Can above, and finally to the resulting watery reflections meant to simulate the effect of streetlights bouncing off the waters of Fisherman's Wharf. Her face lights up as she finally connects the dots.
“Wow,” she mouths. “That’s really cool.”
I smile and shrug my shoulders. Creating illusions is what we do, however silly and convoluted the process might look.
After five or six long takes, the scene is done. As all those extras change back into street clothes and get ready to go home, the cameras and crew are already on another set preparing to shoot the next scene. This being a blocking-and-preshoot day, there’s much to be done before we can think about going home.
Such is the life of a day-player – this show one week, another show the next. Until (and unless) my regular crew lands a show of our own later this summer, I’ll be a tumbleweed rolling wherever the winds of Hollywood blow... and glad to have the work.
* You still see dollies on broadcast network multi-camera shows, but almost never on a cable show. Once an integral part of every sit-com camera crew, dollies -- along with dolly grips and focus-pullers -- are now gone with the digital wind on cable, each three-man crew and dolly replaced by one camera operator and his-or-her camera pedestal.