You do whatever it takes to get the shot...
(photo courtesy of Mike Murray)
Fresh out of college forty-plus years ago, I agreed to help a former classmate who was about to produce, direct, and edit a short film he hoped would win him entrance to the American Film Institute. As the premier post-graduate film school on the West Coast, a degree from the AFI was -- and probably still is -- a direct conduit to a Hollywood career.*
A twenty minute drama filmed in 16 mm color with sync-sound and amateur actors is hard enough to make under the best of circumstances, but even harder if you have to plead for help and scramble for every penny. My friend needed all of his considerable ambition and drive, because he had to beg and borrow from many sources to get his film done -- but he pulled it off. When the editing was done, he paid for and supervised a thoroughly professional sound mix, struck a couple of prints, then held a public screening to thank all those who helped or contributed to his project in any way. He reimbursed the camera rental house for the 12-to-120mm zoom lens we dropped on the rocks of the Santa Cruz Harbor breakwater one very bad day, and eventually paid back those who lent him money to make his film.
He was indeed an honorable young man.
Unfortunately, ambition, drive and honor couldn't overcome our limited knowledge and lack of cinematic sophistication at the time. The end result of all his effort was a sincere but deeply flawed film that failed to punch his ticket to the AFI... but the experience of making it taught us all valuable lessons about the reality of filmmaking.** Although I didn't know it at the time, those two or three weeks of chaos, confusion and unfulfilled ambition would turn out to be excellent preparation for what awaited me in the SNAFU world of non-union, low budget feature films in Hollywood.
More importantly, I learned that solving problems on the fly -- making it work with what you have -- is a blast.
My first lesson in this came while we were preparing to film a drive-by, panning with the picture car as it came down a road and rounded a corner -- a simple shot complicated by the car moving from full, hard sunlight into deep shade at its closest approach to the camera. Our film stock didn't have the latitude to deal with such a stark contrast, and with no big lights, generators, or reflectors, we had no means of brightening the shadows. We could expose for sunlight, then lose the car in the dark shade, or expose for shade and leave the beginning of the shot looking as if it had been filmed under the glare of a nuclear blast somewhere in the barren wastelands of Death Valley.
The other option was for the director to pick a different stretch of road, but he was reluctant to compromise.
Just as it seemed we'd reached yet another impasse, I had an idea: we could expose for hard sunlight, then try an "F-stop pull," opening the iris as the car entered the shadows and swept by the camera, which in theory could allow the film to be more-or-less properly exposed throughout the entire shot. But since none of us had tried it before, we had no idea if it would actually work -- and there was a good chance it would look really lame.
With no other choice, we gave it a try -- and being my idea, I got the task of handling the iris. We did two takes, and although both seemed to go pretty well, we wouldn't know for sure until the film had been processed and printed, so we just moved on to the next shot.
The cast and crew gathered a few days later to screen the rushes in a darkened living room, where we held our collective breaths when that drive-by shot came up, watching as the car moved from sunlight into shadow... perfectly exposed. The F-stop pull worked like a dream, allowing the entire shot to look good. It was like magic -- and all these years later, I still remember the elation of that moment.
Hey, problem solving is fun.
I wasn't on the job with that 18K-on-a-dolly rig in the photo above, and don't know why the shot required such a big moving lamp or what lighting problem it addressed, but that doesn't matter. It's just another example of the fun aspect of working below-the-line in the film and television industry: coming up with a way to get the shot.
Problem solving -- making it work -- is very satisfying when you've got the budget to get whatever equipment you need. It's always great to have the proper gear, which allows you to get the desired shot faster and safer than might otherwise be possible. But we don't always enjoy working with a fat budget, and even when we do -- especially on a distant location -- directors have a way of coming up with a new idea for a shot that demands on-the-spot improvisation.
Without the specialized equipment that would make it easy, the question becomes "Can we make it work with what we've got?"
Film crews get paid to say "Yes" -- to make it happen -- and that's where the Gaffer and Key Grip earn their money. It's also where they have fun, because making it work with whatever's at hand really scratches that creative itch. That's one reason I like Shitty Rigs, which demonstrates how crews from all over come up with improvisational solutions to on-set problems using whatever they could find. Granted, some of those solutions broach the line between sketchy and dangerous -- and you really do have to think twice before crossing that line -- but in a situation where there's no other way (and assuming everybody on the crew is fully aware of what's going on and kept clear of any danger), it's a case of no harm, no foul.
Talk to any industry veteran for a while and you'll learn that creativity on set is not limited to the writers and directors. Our work below-the-line can be endlessly repetitious for very long hours, but situations arise that fully engage our collective resources and ability to think creatively in solving the problem.
That's when it stops being "work" and starts being fun.
* And speaking of fun -- there doesn't seem to be much of that at the AFI nowadays…
** Among those lessons, that truly bad acting will kill you every time.