HBO recently released Craig Mazin’s miniseries Chernobyl. While nothing in this life is perfect, Chernobyl comes pretty darn close. From acting to directing to art direction to sound design, Chernobyl is a masterclass in filmmaking.
But the biggest story is probably the story itself. In the television world, screenwriters hold the creative power and, as writer and executive producer, Mazin made a variety of bold and effective decisions. For example, the explosion takes place in the first few minutes of the mini-series. He doesn’t make the audience sit through a lengthy first act or ordinary world, and it’s spectacularly powerful. But his reasoning behind the decision is what will really make things click for filmmakers.
In addition to the show, Mazin recorded a companion podcast with NPR host Peter Sagal to accompany each episode. In it, he explains his creative decisions. He shares insight about story structure, adapting true stories, portraying gore on screen, sound design, and even accents. It’s entertaining, engaging, and informative. It’s unfiltered information coming from a filmmaker at the top of his game.
Taken together, Chernobyl and the companion podcast are worth far more to aspiring filmmakers than anything you can find in a university catalogue. The podcast is free and HBO Now has a 7 day free trial. You have no excuses. If you want to learn about the craft of filmmaking, Chernobyl is a must.
Like all aspects of filmmaking, lighting has subtle, psychological effects on the audience. Knowing what these effects are and knowing how and when to use them will greatly enhance any film you make.
Low Key*: Darkly lit or low light scenes evoke a sense of mystery and danger, like this shot from The Shape of Water.
High Key: Brightly lit scenes like the opening of La La Land tend to be happier.
Soft Light: Few or poorly defined shadows create a sense of fantasy. For example, I find dragons and armies of undead more realistic than the fantasy world created in Letters to Juliet.
Hard Light& High Contrast: Well defined shadows create a grittier look like Sin City.
Warm Colors: Orange hues can evoke warm feelings and romance.
Cool Colors: Blue is used to create a sense of cold or uncaring.
The previous two images are both from the movie Limitless. You’ll notice the color difference the most by looking at Bradley Cooper’s skin tone. Skin tone one of the first reference points audiences latch onto.
Other colors can be used to create a sense of unease, like something isn’t right. The Matrix, for example, was decidedly green.
Knowing the Toolkit: Skilled cinematographers, of course, can also use these techniques ironically or to create a new meaning with juxtaposition. One example is flash photography.
You get this effect by having a harsh, bright light source right next to the camera (as you would on a disposable camera or smartphone). Things close to the camera (like faces) get washed out, while the background is underexposed. It also creates harsh shadows. (Look at the distinct black line on the left side of the red coat). It looks amateurish. But if you want your project to look like it was made by amateurs, this is your ticket. Thank you, Blair Witch Project.
One Final Thought
When you think about it, all movies, all TV shows, all video games, every viral video you watch on your phone is really a manipulation of light on a screen. The realty – the screen – remains unchanged. The meaning comes from your mind’s interpretation of that light and the story it creates. Controlling that light is the difference between staring at static and touching an audience.
*The “key” in “low key” and “high key” refers to the “key light” or main light source.
What is it with films and lighting? It’s right there, number 1 in the most cliched of all Hollywood phrases*. And if you’ve ever been on a film set, you know that the vast majority of time is spent lighting and relighting the scene. But why?
At its basic level, film (and the modern equivalent of digital video) is actually a way of recording and preserving light. So while we think of films as epic stories with huge budgets and special effects, it’s really a specific kind of recording device. On a technical level, you could compare film to taking a plaster impression of an animal print or recording tremors with a seismograph.
For those of you old enough to remember developing photos from 35mm film, this is “film” at its most basic. Photons bounce off an object, are focused by a lens onto the film, activate photo-reactive chemicals, and leave an impression. The film is then developed into a negative, and the negative is used to produce the positive picture.
The thing is, that 35 mm film from your disposable CVS camera is actually the same film used in movie cameras and was essentially unchanged for 100 years. Today, the process is digital, but essentially your iPhone and a professional movie camera work the same way. And it’s all about capturing light.
What are we waiting on?
So why does it take so long to light a film set? There’s a problem between seeing and seeing. Your brain plays probably about the same role in sight as your eyes. Yes, your eyes perceive light, but your brain needs to decide what to focus on (literally and figuratively). In addition to actual focal distance, it must determine proportion, patterns, colors, shapes, and movement. Are you looking at a cat or a lion? Or a toy lion? Or a picture of a lion?
Our brains concentrate on only one small part of what we actually see. But when a filmmaker sits you in a darkened room and projects an image 30 feet tall and 100 feet wide, they need to direct your attention. They have to be sure what they are showing you is more interesting than the exit sign in the corner of the theater or that weird haircut on the guy two rows in front of you.
Just to be clear, your director of photography and the camera are taking the place of the two most complex organs in the human body. This involves framing shots appropriately, dressing and costuming appropriately, and making sure the correct subject matter is in focus. And it also involves a LOT of lighting.
Consider this shot from Citizen Kane.
It’s both simple and incredibly effective. The main sources of light come from the back of the room, creating a hard silhouette of both subjects. They are both easy to see while also being obscured. The light beams add a sense of depth, while the desk lamp fills in some of the void. That way we aren’t merely looking at silhouettes.
This shot required critical placement of the lights, camera, and actors. The lights had to be focused and balanced in intensity so the desk wasn’t too dark or the beams too bright. Smoke or fog played a critical role in creating those beams, too.
Physics of Photography
Whether you’re taking photos at a wedding or shooting a film for Spielberg, everyone’s playing by the same rules. Light and film have certain properties and limitations. A lot of cinematography is understanding these limitations and finding a way to get the look you want with the tools you have.
There can be a lot of stuff in a scene: actors, props, sets. How does your audience know where to look? Light, of course. Here’s a very messy photo from my office.
Now where did I leave that fine point black Sharpie? When I change the lighting, it’s a little easier to see.
Ever had an annoying camper shine a flashlight in your eyes in the middle of the night? First, it’s painfully bright. Then it takes your eyes a few seconds to readjust to the darkness. Your irises make minor adjustments constantly, and because it happens so fast, you don’t usually notice. What happens if you’re filming a scene that includes very bright and very dark parts?
Here, Phillies Bear and Phanatic Pillow Pet are very excited to watch the Phillies (currently number 1 in the NL East!), but the problem is, the window behind them is grossly overexposed.
If we set the exposure for outside, it looks like they are sitting in a black hole.
The solution is to add light inside the room or take light away outside (most likely by putting filters on the windows). Either way, it’s going to involve some lighting.
The intensity of lights decreases as you get further away. Not by a little, but by a LOT. In fact, light follows the inverse square law. That means if you double the distance between your subject and your light source, but want to keep the same light intensity, you need to quadruple your lighting power. Bigger shot? More lights.
How many lights did it take to illuminate this post-apocalyptic set from Bladerunner: 2049?
Well, start counting.
You’re out of your depth.
Lighting adds a sense of depth to a scene. After all, we see in three dimensions, but movie screens are flat. If there were no depth, everything would look like a cartoon. In the shot from Bladerunner: 2049, you can see the silhouette in the foreground, our actor in the middle distance, and hazy ruins in the background.
This shot from The Third Man, shows the depth of a tunnel. Even as a still frame, you get a sense of the dimension.
Today, many movies are shot in 3D, but lighting still plays a critical role in creating the space for a scene.
That covers some of the technical hurdles that go into lighting a scene. In the next post, I’ll cover some of the other things a director of photography considers on a set.
*The phrase “lights, camera, action” was probably never used to get a film crew rolling. Even today, lights take a while to warm up. There is also some dispute about the origin of the phrase. In reality, the dialogue before a take goes something like this:
1st Assistant Director: “Let’s roll.”
Production Assistants: “ROLLING!”
Sound department: “Sound speeds.”
2nd Assistant Cameraman: “101 take 1. A mark.” (Hits slate.)
Film sets can be dangerous places. There’s heavy equipment, high voltage, and people working 70 or more hours a week. Every day, we do our best to work safely and return home to our families, but as a new person on a film set, it’s important to stand up for yourself and your safety. More importantly, it’s incumbent on department heads, production managers, and producers to look after their crews. A film set isn’t different than other kinds of work. A producer is the same as a business owner, a foreman, or a school principal. It’s your job to make sure your employees are safe.
Strangely, people get very worked up about trying to get some particular shot before the sun sets even though they don’t have the right gear or the manpower or the permits to do it. They act as though it’s going to win the war or cure cancer, but it’s not. We’re just making movies. Don’t let the pressure get to you.
The reason I’m writing this now is that a friend of mine from high school died recently in a driving accident. He did not work in the film industry, but he had been driving an Isuzu cab-over box truck — a truck that was identical to one I had driven for years as a production assistant.
It takes some skill to drive a truck. They do not stop quickly. They take wide turns. They have poor sight lines. But for some reason, production managers will often assign the job of driving a production truck to a recent college grad without any training. The first time I drove a truck for work, someone threw the keys at me and said, “You know how to drive a truck, right?”
Fortunately, I’d had some experience helping friends move, and I knew enough to take my time and watch my overhead clearance. After some time, I carved out a niche as a “truck PA.” I knew how to load a truck. I knew all of the common stops in New York, which tunnels you could use, what roads had low bridges, and what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requirements were. And because of my added experience and responsibility, I asked for a higher rate.
Most producers paid it. Some did not. They asked if I could recommend other drivers that would work at a lower rate. I refused. They hired people with no experience and they ended up paying for it in other ways.
The people involved in these accidents were okay, but they should never have been put in those positions in the first place. We are only making movies. Don’t put your crew in dangerous situations. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. It’s going to be okay. Take your time. Be safe. And get home to your family.
It’s really a physics issue. Gravity pulls down, but belts pull in. Freakonomics actually did an episode about this a while back. If you, like me, are required to carry around work tools, this can be a serious problem. (Things are about to get a little specific and wonky, but if you want to learn about filmmaking gear, vests, and my own persnicketiness, read on!)
The Things They Carried
This is my regular complement of work tools.
All told, you’re looking at 3 pounds, 5.7 ounces. And that doesn’t include the cell phone, car keys, etc.
The first thing I did was try to minimize weight. If you have to carry wrenches around, here are two big (or small?) recommendations. First is the Neiko Mini Ratchet. It does require you purchasing 3/16″ hex bits, and I’d recommend putting a drop of glue on the end to be sure they don’t pop out.
Then there’s the Lobtex lightweight adjustable wrench. Besides being incredibly light, this wrench opens up to an inch, so you can still use it on cheeseboroughs. Those little changes saved me just over a pound. Look at the difference!
You do sacrifice some leverage, but it hasn’t been an issue yet.
Strangely, the lightest 25′ tape measure I’ve found just so happens to be my old Stanley at about 13 ounces. I have yet to find a lighter one, and many of the weights listed on Amazon are wrong.
Okay, great. But there’s still the problem of where to keep everything.
Most crew members carry various kinds of pouches, sometimes on a second belt. But that really doesn’t solve the gravity problem since you’re still pulling in against something that is pulling down.
Here, we have a winner. Vertical pockets (somewhat) reasonable price. Thick cotton to resist tears and fire. Great success. Unless you’re working on a stage next to a heating duct… (Also, I notice that it’s on clearance, so I’m not sure what will be available in the future.)
Capitalism, even in its communist form, has a way of funneling things down to “good enough.” There are a handful of these vests sold by different companies, but I have the deep suspicion that they’re all made in the same place.
Anywho, if you’re on Amazon and see a vest with vertical pockets that’s only $30, you’re like, well, why not? Sure it has a sticker on it that reads “Fashion Style” and I had to order three different sizes because no one can just write a chest size on the product, but it’s only $30. Well, after a week of wearing it, one of the buttons popped right off. Then I noticed that the inside pockets weren’t actually stitched into the vest… So, I’d avoid this one.
This had the lightness of the Chinese vest combined with the durability of Duluth, and, of course, Swedish style. And a price tag to match. It did not, however, require allen wrenches to assemble. Plenty of vertical pockets to keep the tools from falling out (with snaps, not velcro). Sadly, it is rather expensive, but hopefully it will last a long time. I would certainly keep your eyes open for sales.
But now, success at last. I don’t have to worry about my pants falling off. It’s very easy to shed all of that weight at the end of the day (Just take the vest off), and you can even sit on a toilet without getting all tangled up in your walkie talkie cables. There you have it.
Cold weather: Duluth.
Warm weather: Fjallraven.
And as your reward for dealing with all of that, enjoy this:
A while back I wrote an article about “grips,” one of the first film credits the average movie goer puzzles over. But gripping isn’t my day job. I’m usually a video assist operator. Most people, even my coworkers, don’t really know what video assist entails. Well hold onto your BNC*, because you’re about to find out!
Do you ever watch the bonus features at the end of a movie and see the director watching a television monitor? That’s video assist. The video assist operator sets up that monitor. Pretty basic. More broadly, it’s the video assist operator’s job to get the image from every camera (no matter how many there are or where they are) to the director. In a nice, studio setting, it may look something like this.
This is a control room we built for Comedy Central. On a stage, with one camera, this may be as simple as connecting the camera to a monitor (with some BNC). Things get a little more complex if you’re riding around the street at seventy miles an hour or if one of your cameras is in a helicopter. In those situations, we use transmitters to get the image from the camera to the director.
Once upon a time, we filmed on something called “film.” This was a roll of cellulose coated with a film of photo reactive chemicals that had to be developed before you could see what you shot. Each day, someone would run the film to a lab where it was developed. Then they would race back with “dailies” for the director and producer to review. It worked great for about 70 years.
But in the 1950s, television and video came onto the scene. Television captured images electronically and recorded them onto magnetic videotape so there was no need to “develop” film. Although the quality was far inferior to film, people could now watch what they filmed immediately after they filmed it.
In 1960, Jerry Lewis used this new technology for his film The Bellboy. As both the director and the star, he couldn’t watch his own performance. He connected a video system to the film camera allowing him to instantly playback what was just recorded and make adjustments to his performance. This is generally considered the invention of video assist** and the first use of video playback.
In addition to getting the image to the director, the video assist operator records the action, allowing for immediate playback. This allows directors to re-watch takes without waiting for dailies. Directors may call for playback to check performances, look for continuity errors, see if a piece of gear was in the shot, check to make sure a stunt or effect worked, or watch something back in slow motion.
The video assist system is also used to record rehearsals. When we shot on film, this was a critical way to practice camera and actor movement without wasting thousands of feet of film. Today, most film production is done on digital video, but film crews still use rehearsals to practice shots before all of the lights, makeup, and effects are in their final places.
On a one-day shoot for a thirty-second commercial, playback may not be critical. But on something like a feature film that may take months and is generally not filmed in chronological order, playback can play a major role in keeping a film’s continuity. One intern I worked with said that video assist sounded like the film’s library. I kind of like that. (To be fair, the script supervisor is the film’s librarian, the video assist operator is the guy who has to go to the basement and find all of the old reference books…)
It’s important to point out that video assist is for reference only. When we shoot on film, the video feed or “tap” doesn’t have nearly the depth of field or exposure range of a piece of film. Video playback is not a completely accurate representation of what you filmed. In fact, oddly enough, video taps only record what isn’t on the film. The light entering the camera either exposes the film or goes to the video tap. Most things happen so quickly it doesn’t really matter. But several years ago, I was working with a producer to film gunshots for an action movie. When I played it back for him, he didn’t see the muzzle flash. I had to explain to him that was a good thing because it meant the muzzle flash was on the film. (Ugh. Tech talk.) And while that’s not the case with modern digital cameras, the video feed is a compressed version of what you’re actually recording. Much to the dismay of one producer whose intern deleted their favorite take, video assist operators do not record full resolution video files.
One other note is that for decades, video was recorded on tape. This led video assist operators to also be called video tape recorders or VTR. And while many ADs will still stay “let’s roll video” we moved on to computers about ten years ago.
In addition to the image, the video assist operator works with the sound department to get audio to the director. It’s critical to make sure all of the cameras and the audio are synchronized. Like watching a badly dubbed film, it’s disorienting and distracting to watch things out of sync.
This may sound like a simple thing, but let me give you an idea of what it’s worth to a production. A few years ago, shortly after we switched to high definition signals, quality, affordable transmitters were still in development. The transmitters we used, while great at long distances had a noticeable delay. (It takes some time to crunch down all of that video data, shoot it through the air, and unpack it back into an image.) This isn’t an issue if you’re filming across a football field. It is if you’re sitting ten feet from your actor and the actor on your television is moving noticeably slower. So after one frustrating day of filming on a new television show with transmitters that were less than a year old, our company shelled out $40,000 to upgrade to the latest transmitters.
Gak is a technical film term for stuff. And video assist operators have a lot of gak: monitors, switchers, speakers, cable, transmitters, hard drives, HDMI, BNC, barrels, patch bays, UPS’s, power conditioners, batteries, power cables (OSHA cords, P-Tap, Lemo, Hirose, 4-pin XLR), 3-pin XLR, mini XLR, intercoms, video printers, and on and on and on. Again, all of this is to get the image from the camera or cameras, synchronize it with the audio and give it back to the director for live viewing and playback.
It’s a lot of techno-wizardry and it can be kind of mesmerizing. Maybe that’s why everyone likes to look over your shoulder. Or maybe they just like watching TV. Whatever the case, the video monitors always attract a crowd. The director, assistant director, and script supervisor are generally at the monitor. The producers will often get their own set of monitors. Then there are the hair, makeup, and costume people who need to be sure the actors look their best. And you’ve got the additional assistant directors cueing background actors, the electric and FX department standing by for cues, the humane society looking out for their four legged actors, and a couple of groupies for good measure.
And of course, all of these people need chairs and coolers and tents and heaters if it’s cold and, frankly, before you know it, you’ve got a regular village on your hands: a video village, which has become the industry term for, well this.
One of the biggest positives about video assist, however, is that you always want to be near the director. So if it’s raining, you’ll be dry. If it’s cold, you’ll be warm. If it’s warm, you’ll be cool. And you’re generally the first person to know if craft service is serving something better than hot dogs.
24 Frame Playback
Video assist operators have one more vital function that isn’t related to anything else I’ve mentioned so far. We are responsible for every “on-screen” video display. Every time you see a smart phone or a television or a computer monitor, a video operator has provided that image. Here are a few of the riveting images I’ve put on screens.
Amazing stuff, right? The video operator works in conjunction with the director, props department, and editor or visual effects department to make sure the right images get on the right monitors. Sometimes, that image doesn’t exist yet, so we just put green or grey screens on the monitors. That helps the VFX department create the image in post. Green makes it easier to remove the image. Grey allows light to fall on the set and actors like a real television.
Video assist operators need to be careful about what they put on screen. One of my coworkers was troubleshooting an issue with his personal phone and forgot to delete the number when we went to shoot. Months later when the DVD came out, he was inundated by calls from curious fans who wanted to know who Jason Statham called in the middle of the film
The name, “24 frame playback” comes from the fact that film cameras used to film 24 frames or individual pictures a second. Televisions, however, display 29.97 pictures a second. So for every 1 picture a film camera takes, a television displays 1 ¼ pictures. (Oh God. Math…) Because the television is projecting light, that means ¼ of the television screen will appear brighter than in every picture the film camera takes. That’s why in old movies, you will see television screens flickering in the background. To fix that, playback operators force the television to display images at 24 frames, not 30.
Modern TVs and flat screens like your phone don’t display images the same way older TVs did, so we don’t actually need to create a 24 frame video. That’s why it’s anachronistic to call it “24 frame playback” when it’s no longer 24 frames and playback actually has another meaning. Sheesh.
For some more information about how a television actually works, check out this fascinating video from The Slow Mo Guys.
Roll the Credits
There you have it. Another one of those hundreds of names that scroll by at the end of a movie explained. While it’s true that most of the work of the video assist operator doesn’t end up one screen, the movie – and filmmaking – wouldn’t be the same without them.
*BNC, the ubiquitous tool of the video assist operator, is a type of connector for video cables. BNC is also refers to the cable itself. Many people erroneously think it stands for “British Naval Connector,” a rather shoddy backronym for an American invention. It actually stands for “Bayonet Neill-Concelman,” the connecting mechanism and the name of its inventors.
In this crazy business, you’re going to end up travelling for work. It’s as certain as Murphy’s Law or the phrase “It’s perfect” being followed by “Let’s do it again.” (As I write this, some of my coworkers are prepping for a schlep down to New Mexico to finish our current project.) If you’re lucky when you travel, you’ll have a one-night stay in clean and completely forgettable accommodations. If you’re unlucky, you may end up with bedbugs, a lifelong vendetta against a hotel chain, or brain surgery. (I’ll get to that.)
The second feature film I worked on set up shop in a Quality Inn. We rented roughly an entire floor for the crew to stay in and jury-rigged two rooms into an office. Productions will often rent designated office space in hotels (rooms with extra phone lines, printers, and a higher desk to bed ratio than 1), but you can only do that if you use a hotel that has office space to rent. (Something you should consider if you plan on being there for fifteen weeks…) Even as I was making the necessary renovations to our office, something about our hotel choice didn’t sit right.
For example, while waiting in the lobby for crewmembers to arrive, I noticed that a lot of people would come off the street to use the lobby bathroom… at the same time. Then there was the problem that the hotel was managed by Indians (from India), but the cleaning and maintenance staff were Hispanic. I realize this sounds racist, but it’s not really a recipe for success if your management and staff can only communicate with each through a shared, tenuous grasp of English. A minor request like, “Could we please get a second phone for the office, and, for the love of God, please fix the leaking sink,” would result in them replacing the phone (but not giving us a second one) and telling me there was nothing wrong with the toilet.
But production soldiered on and we made the necessary adjustments on our own. We removed all of the pictures to put up schedules, hangers for file folders, and dry erase boards. We disassembled the furniture and packed it into the closet. And we drilled through the walls to pull in that second phone line from the room next door. (This is what happens when you give creative people problems, free time, and power tools.)
The hotel did get its revenge. About ten weeks into the shoot, it became infested with bedbugs. Granted, this can happen anywhere, but as you can guess, the Quality Inn didn’t do the best of jobs handling the situation. First they denied it. Then they shuffled our rooms around much like the Catholic Church trying to hide a pedophile. And much like the Catholic Church, things didn’t work out great.
When we wrapped, the wardrobe stylist, who by this point had witnessed the rise and fall of several bed bug civilizations in the cast’s clothing, decided to just walk away and let the hotel deal with it. The baffled cleaning ladies dutifully threw the remnants of our film’s wardrobe into the trash. (It was a horror film, and frankly, torn bloody cheerleader outfits are not something you want to be seen carrying around.) For some reason, the staff thought this would be our procedure for checking out of all of our rooms. Two days later, when our poor production assistants were wrapping the set, the cleaning staff decided to empty out their rooms. They took fifteen weeks of accumulated living detritus (clothes, personal items, food, film equipment) and unceremoniously threw them in the dumpster. (They did pilfer some of the less bedbug prone merchandise like a rather nice poker set that only miraculously re-appeared in the break room after much cajoling and arguing in multiple languages.)
I did however get the last laugh. I was the last production person to leave the hotel and passed by our ramshackle office just as the hotel manager was opening the door. He had a look that was equal parts dread and disbelief, like some archeologist who had just pried open a newly discovered sarcophagus to exhume the discovery of his lifetime only to find it piled nipples deep with fifteen weeks of unspeakable film production horrors. I will cherish that look until the day I die.
On that same film, the producers quickly realized that they couldn’t keep our talent in the same hotel. Contractually, they weren’t allowed. Fortunately, even though we were filming eight miles west of west bumblefrack, there was a four star hotel within thirty minutes of the set. Unfortunately, they drew their staff from the same pessimal talent pool as the Quality Inn. Despite our block of rooms (which we wanted to keep and simply refresh when one actor left and another arrived) the staff decided to release one of our rooms when an actor checked out. That left me in the unenviable position of having to find another four-star hotel within the same hemisphere as our location.
I ended up in customer service hell, listening to prerecorded messages and repeating account numbers until I had apparently shouted enough profanity to merit live human intervention. The operator first recommended a cheaper hotel that was managed by the same parent company. It was only a few miles further away. I explained to him that I was contractually obligated to secure a four or five star hotel for my client to which he cheerfully replied, “Oh, we’ll we don’t use a star rating system, we use diamonds.”
“All right, how many diamonds is it?”
“Oh. Out of how many?”
“Ten.” Granted, he was not being graded on this exchange, but I wish to God he had been because that would come out to a D-.
He does get an “A” for effort, though, because he then tried to find me something that was at least eight diamonds (which is apparently equivalent to four stars) and triumphantly told me that there were some available rooms in “Reeding.” I could be wrong, but I am fairly confident that Reading, PA is named after Reading, England and despite its misleading spelling is pronounced “Redding” across the globe. For my own amusement, I asked where he was located.
So much for local service. We ended up shuttling the actor back and forth from New York.
More recently I stayed in the world’s most pretentious hipster hotel. The furniture was made out of repurposed wooden pallets, the wall fixtures were bare copper piping, and the room numbers were filthy plastic lamps that looked like they had been salvaged from a fleet of 70s era taxi roofs.
It gave the overall impression of crashing on a friend’s couch in a shitty, walk-up apartment. I would know because I’ve done it. (No offense, James.) The pretense was so complete, I genuinely thought they were pumping in artificial city noise. It sounded like my room was directly above a subway station, below a construction site, and wedged between a kitchen and a brothel. It wasn’t (at least I don’t believe so), but the hotel had somehow managed to find the least sound dampening material know to man.
The real coup de grace, however, was that several of the walls were painted black. Seriously. Here’s a picture of my room with all of the lights on.
It could have been helpful, since we were doing night shoots, but a friend of mine got up in the middle of the day to pee, walked into one of the walls, and gave himself a concussion. He later required brain surgery. No I am not making that up. You can look for my review here or just read it here.
Then there was the ultra-modern “W” in D.C. (Seriously, are kindergarteners naming these places?) This is the kind of place that is so chic that it takes you twenty minutes to figure out how to turn the light on. The evening I checked in, I had been working for fourteen hours in the rain and just driven an hour and a half to the hotel. I boarded the elevator with my luggage including a pillow.
Some bros got on after me. They were headed to a party on one of the upper floors, one of those those yuppy gatherings that is equal parts networking and mating ritual. Joking around, they asked why I was carrying the pillow. I think I said something to the effect of, “Because I have a knife on me and if you say anything else, I’m the only one leaving this elevator alive.” The rest of the ride was tense, but silent.
I also had to do battle with the bathroom, which was something I thought humanity had more or less conquered about fifty years ago. The newest rendition of the toilet, however, has no tank, so you have no place to set your phone, glasses, or shower beer. The massive, minimalist, walk-in shower was impressive as well, but also lacked any place to set your beer… or soap… or towel. That latter issue required you to either hang your towel over the door (getting your towel soaking wet) or leave your towel at the sink (getting everything else wet as you went to retrieve your towel).
Then there was the time I couldn’t sleep because of how loud the HVAC was. I took the vent off of the wall and shoved a pillow in it. Or the creepily friendly hotel manager who repeatedly invited me into his office to chat about gladiator movies. While it’s never happened to me personally, a handful of my coworkers have returned to the hotel after working fifteen hours and opened their doors only to find that the hotel has somehow rented their rooms to someone else and not bothered to tell them or deactivate their room keys. And in perhaps the ultimate absurdity, who can forget the time someone literally took a dump outside the production manger’s door? (No, it wasn’t an irate crewmember.)
So what do I look for in hotel? Cleanliness. For the love of God, I can sleep in the bathtub, just make it clean. In the first world, water and electricity are (I hope) a given. Refrigerators are nice and ranges can be a fun perk if you’ll be there for a few days. Location is also very important. Proximity to set is nice, but proximity to a bar and some dinner options is more important. Hotel bars can work, as long as the food is decent and not too expensive. If your crew has to drive forty-five minutes for dinner every night, it will be abundantly clear at call time.
For your own sanity, throw earplugs and a sleep mask in your travel bag. Even the best hotel can have noisy neighbors. And personally, I’ve found that while it is a pain to drag the slippers, contour pillow, and chia pet along for a shoot, those little touches of home can make a surprisingly big difference after a brutal shoot day.
Finally, no sharing! Sharing rooms is one of those red flags that should make you wary about working with a company. It’s a sign that they’ll be pinching pennies and cutting corners every step of the way. And do you really want to deal with that after listening to the producer’s nephew snore all night?
While it’s true that working out of a hotel can be a pain, it’s also a fun to work in and explore new cities. Get the all you can eat crabs in Baltimore, check out Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and try the edibles in Colorado. But no matter what happens when you travel for work, you’re going to end up with some interesting stories.
It can’t be helped. We exist in time/space. We’ve all been at work, staring at the clock, wondering when our time in purgatory will come to an end. But on a film set, the different circles of hell each have names and meanings. As a filmmaker (especially if you’re a production assistant (PA)), it’s good to know what these times are and how they affect your day.
Call Time (In)
This is the time you show up to set. For our example, let’s say call time is 6:00am. This is known as “general crew call” because it’s when most of the crew will show up. However, any good production manager will say, “Be sure to check individual call times.” Production will generally have a “pre-call” to make sure doors are unlocked, parking is sorted out, and the caterer knows where to set up breakfast. Your individual call time is listed next to your name on the call sheet (pretty straightforward). So with a 6:00 call time, a PA can expect to have an individual call time of 5:00 or 5:30. Even so, if someone asks you what the call time is, they’re probably asking about general crew call. (And remember, if you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired.)
Depending on the day, other departments may have a pre-call as well. The grips or set dec may need to get in early to prep a location. The camera department may have a special piece of gear to prep for the day. But no matter how many staggered call times there are, there will always be an official general crew call.
First shot is when you get your first shot. (Duh.) The script supervisor is in charge of recording this. (On a small shoot without a script supervisor, however, an assistant director (AD) may record it.) Ultimately, this time goes to the 2nd AD who puts the production report together. An AD or producer may ask you when the first shot was. All you have to do is ask the script supervisor. (Fun note: The script supervisor is the official timekeeper of a film set and keeps a record of all of these times.)
Ah, the second best time of the day. Lunch is owed to the crew 6 hours after general crew call. In our example, lunch would be 12 noon (6 hours after call). Technically, production can break whenever they want, but there may be repercussions…
If production does not break after 6 hours, they owe the crew meal penalties (AKA money). This is why production almost always breaks after 6 hours and why ADs always freak out after 5 hours and 45 minutes. (Sadly, PAs do not get meal penalties and often end up working through lunch. But sometimes they do get to break early.)
What about those grips who were in at 5:30? Shouldn’t they break at 11:30? Yes. That’s why many call sheets will say, “All crew must NDB.” That stands for non-deductible break. As time permits (say the director needs to have a heart to heart with his star) crew members break away one at a time for a 30 minute break. That way they don’t go into a meal penalty, but production may continue uninterrupted. They will still break for lunch with the rest of the crew.
Production may also ask for a grace period to finish a shot in progress. This is only 12 minutes and needs to be asked for and agreed to by the crew. Then you may break for lunch at say 12:03 without going into a meal penalty.
Crews generally break for half hour lunches, but that clock doesn’t start until the last crew member (last man) is through the line. Let’s say lunch was called on time at 12:00, but the crew needs to be shuttled 10 minutes away to catering. It takes a further 8 minutes to get the entire crew through the catering line. So your half hour starts at 12:18. As a PA, it may be your job to watch the line and call last man. After that last man is through the line, tell the AD the time for last man.
Back in is the time lunch ends. In our case, that would be 12:48. The crew is “back in” at catering, so don’t expect to shoot anything until everyone’s taken that 10 minute shuttle back (~12:58). At lunch, after the last man is called, PAs will be asked to inform the crew. E.G. “Last man 12:18. Back in 12:48.” As with these other times, you may be asked to relay this info to and from production, the ADs, and the script supervisor.
First Shot After Lunch
Same as the first shot, just… after lunch.
(That’s a wrap…or is it lunch? Or both?)
“That’s a wrap. Everybody go home!” Ah, the best time of the day. When the first AD says those magic words, it’s time to start packing the trucks. This is the official camera wrap, but much like the official call time doesn’t dictate when you stop (or start) working.
Once the trucks are loaded and the crew is shuttled back to the parking lot, they are “out.” This is the individual wrap time and varies from department to department. Departments are generally (but not always) out as a group (e.g. the grips are out at 7pm). Most productions will assign a PA to each department to get out times. This information is relayed back to the 2nd AD for the production report. To simplify things, most productions have started using daily time cards that a representative will fill out and pass to the PA. That makes it easy to just run everything back to the office.
(Note: remember that 6 hour rule? If you continue to film 6 hours after lunch, production will owe another meal break or go into dinner meal penalties.)
The production report is a kind of mirror image of a call sheet. Whereas a call sheet is when you’re supposed to show up and what you hope to achieve for the day, the PR is what ended up actually happening.
At the end of the week, production will send PRs to each of the department heads. PAs often call these “cheat sheets” because crew members will copy the information on them to their time cards. But PRs have much more information on them than in and out times (injury reports, rerates, additional crew members that weren’t listed on the call sheet, etc.). Department heads (or their seconds) should actually be checking the PR to be sure that the information on them is correct. If you want to sound like you have a clue, call them by the correct name.
Now when someone asks, “Did we break on time Tuesday?” “What was call time today?” “When are we back in?” or “What was camera wrap last night?” you’ll have a vague idea what they’re talking about.
Bonus! Time cards!
To make this all a bit more confusing, times cards are filled out in 10ths of an hour on a 24 hour clock. Before your brain explodes, let me explain. First, a 10th of an hour is 6 minutes. 0:30=0.5, 0:18=0.3, 0:48=0.8. So 7:24 is… 7.4. Not that difficult.
A 24 hour clock simply means that Instead of going to 1pm, you go to 13.0. Just add 12 to the normal time. 3:24pm=15.4, 5:42pm=17.7, 11:54pm=23.9.
But wait, there’s more! If you bleed into a new day, you don’t reset the clock. So midnight becomes 24.0, 1am is 25.0, 2:12am is 26.2. (Last week, I wrapped at 31.0 or 7am Saturday morning.)
On set, everyone still speaks about time in the normal 12 hour, 60 minute way, but if you see a bizarre number like 14.6 on a PR, now you know what it means. (Also, it’s always morning when you start your day even if it’s 7pm… or 19.0.) As a nerdy form of masochism, check out the time card below and see if you can get the same results I do! (Notes: Even though I list the whole lunch time, only 1/2 hour is deducted from the time worked. Also, straight time is 8 hours, 1.5X is 4 hours, any additional time is 2X.)
When all of the credits fly by at the end of a movie, “grip” tops the list of titles that keep people scratching their heads. What is a grip? What does a grip do? (Insert any number of punch lines here.) Grips have a wide range of responsibilities on set. Most of them involve lifting heavy things (sand bags, steel pipe, stands, cameras, plywood, lights, weights…) so these are some of the toughest guys you’ll see on set. But gripping also requires a lot of problem solving and smart working (How do you minimize the amount of heavy things you have to lift?) so grips also need to be well versed in film equipment, knot tying, construction, and physics. When there’s a twenty pound light swaying in the breeze above your actor’s head, you want to be sure the guy that put it there knows what he’s doing. So what exactly is a grip?
Gripping is essentially attaching things to other things: attaching a camera to a dolly, a clamp to a pipe, a flag to a stand, a stand to a condor, or, like in this picture below, attaching some transmitters to a Ferrari.
Although it’s a little hard to see, the camera is on the left of the car, outside the driver’s window on what’s called a “hostess tray.” The grips are using speed rail and short arms to secure it. Look at that nice sturdy triangle they’re building!
Grips use a wide variety of clamps, special film equipment (Cardellinis, cheeseboros, apple boxes, elephant ears, ducks bills, etc.), rope, ratchet straps, screws, and tape to make this happen. Of course, you want to be sure you’re using a nice soft suction cup (not a screw gun) on the Ferrari. You’ll also need to be sure the suction cup is strong enough. How heavy is the transmitter? How much wind resistance will it create? How fast is the car going? Some jobs require impromptu carpentry, building platforms for gear or people.
Once the gear is set, it also needs to be secured with ropes or safety chains. Anything that creates a lever needs to be counterbalanced with weights. Stands need to be weighed down with sandbags. And that brings us to the grip department’s second, but perhaps more important job.
Because of all of the heavy things grips schlep around, they’re in charge of safety on set. Obviously they need to make sure all of the lights and cameras are safe. (Will the camera fly off that Ferrari and hit someone? What about the antennas on the transmitter? How secure are they? Did someone remember to remove the tape rolls from the hostess tray?) But because of that, they take on a broader safety roll.
Are there fire extinguishers and fire lanes on your set? Is it too windy for the camera operator to go on the roof? Is the road closed to traffic? Does everyone working on the boat have a life vest? And while different people have different responsibilities when it comes to safety, it’s ultimately up to the key grip (the head of the grip department) to make sure you have a safe film set. And if he says, “That’s unsafe, we’re not doing it,” well, that’s that.
A grip once explained his job to me this way. The electric department adds light. We take it away. Apart from all of the other things grips are responsible for, they also use a wide variety of flags, nets, and diffusion to control the light the electric department throws around on set. When you see behind the scenes photos, that’s what all of the random stands are for.
Grips are extra busy on outdoor shoots. When you’re on a set, the electric department shows some restraint in adding light. Cable is pretty heavy, after all. The sun? Not so much. Here’s a “flyswatter.”
We started filming a scene in a cloudy parking lot, but had several days of work. Eventually the sun came out. No worries, grip department to the rescue. The flyswatter is your custom built, movable cloud. (The “boom lift” or “JLG” brand name lift that the flyswatter is attached to is commonly called a “condor” on film sets.)
Moving the Camera
Grips are also the only people who aren’t in the camera department that can actually control a shot. While the camera operator is in charge of panning and tilting, the dolly grip pushes the dolly that the camera is sitting on. It’s up to him (or her, I know some great dolly grips who are women) to get the speed right. In the below photo, the dolly grip is on the far left, pushing the camera.
On the last feature I worked on, I had the good fortune to work with the rigging grips. We would show up before the shooting crew to set up larger rigging projects that may take hours or days to finish. The flyswatter was one of our projects. Here is another.
The electric department placed several lights on the condor. We built the box around them out of speed rail (1.5 inch diameter aluminum pipe). Although steel is stronger, you don’t want to put all of that weight eighty feet in the air. We ultimately covered the frame with blackout cloth and put diffusion on the front creating a very large, very powerful spotlight.
Film crews often black out windows so they can control the quality of light, no matter what time of day it is. Here is a tent we built over a sunroof. First the frame, then with the sides.
Wind was a major concern. You can see the copious number of sandbags weighing down the corners as well as the hemp safety lines.
Another fun project was blacking out or tenting the entire side of a building. Here’s a time lapse of us removing the tents after the location had been wrapped. For perspective, each of those pipes is twenty feet high.
Another fun project was building this scaffolding on the stage. We used it to throw stuntmen out of a third story window.
Here’s the same scaffolding after we covered it with green fabric. That allows the visual effects department to match it to the actual location even though we filmed it in a studio.
Here’s an electric car known as the “big rig.”
In the first photo, you can see the camera with the camera operator, key grip (driving), and support crew in the back. There’s also a generator on the front to power all of the gear for the support crew. The grip department built all of the speed rail and secured all of the gear to the big rig.
Here’s another fancy car setup for filming vehicles racing down the road.
One camera is on the tricycle. Another was on a crane known as the “Russian Arm.” In the first photo, the Russian Arm is the car on the right. The arm is extending to the left with the camera hanging down. In the second, the Russian Arm is the furthest vehicle to the right, the arm extending in front of it with the camera near the sedan’s driver side window.
The director and the support crew sat on the back of the pickup truck. The truck lights the driver and passenger for the scene and pulls the sedan. Again, these vehicles show up to set completely empty. All of the “gak” (that’s a technical term for stuff) was secured in place by the grip department. That’s some serious gripping.
So the next time you want to build a pretty awesome looking fort, blot out the sun, or safely race around the street on the back of a truck, get a grip.
The vast majority of jobs in the film industry are freelance. That means you, as an employee, are only hired per assignment (commercial, TV episode, feature film, mayonnaise training video…). Technically, you work for Paramount or Fox or Comcast NBCUniversal, but only for a few days at a time. The closest comparable thing in the “real world” is an independent contractor. These people own their own businesses and enter into negotiations directly with a client. Roofers, plumbers, electricians, etc. are all often independent contractors.
There is a slight difference, however. Freelancers are technically employed by a company (just for a few days at a time). If an independent roofer falls off of your roof, he’s the one paying the hospital bill. If you fall off of a roof making a commercial, the production company’s stuck with the bill. While it leads to countless jokes and is confusing to literally everyone, freelancing is a distinct form of employment that affects things like filing taxes, applying for loans, and unemployment compensation. (For example, when a project ends, you no longer work for Paramount Pictures, but you weren’t fired.)
Supposedly, the term “free lance” comes from the Middle Ages when unemployed knights would hire themselves out as private ruffians. They were literally “free lances” AKA mercenaries. And that’s probably the most accurate description of what we do.
So what does the world of freelancing look like? Well, here are a few thoughts.
Who’s the Boss?
People will sometimes describe freelancing as being your own boss. That’s patently false. As a crewmember, your department head is your boss. Even as a department head, the producer or director is your boss. And if you’re in a lucky enough position to be a director, art director, or even producer, the client is your boss. Point is, once you get into the trenches, there will always be someone above you telling you how to screw up your job. Negotiating these conversations (using your skills and experience to achieve what your boss wants) is one of the freelancer’s most critical assets.
The Schedule from Hell
Can you set your own hours as a freelancer? Definitely not. As with your boss, once you sign up for a project, your time is at the mercy of the production company (or client). Working a one day job? Production doesn’t care if they go for eighteen hours because they only need you for one day. You, however, may have another job tomorrow. And if you do have something to do, it’s incumbent on you to find out if your shoot will go for eighteen hours (production will often give you bad information) and have your own contingency plan. (Keep a babysitter on hold, notify tomorrow’s production manager you may be late/exhausted, and sell your concert tickets.) Again, once the job starts, you’re in it for the long haul.
If there’s an act of God (inclement weather, a location falls through, an actor is taken hostage by the mob…) your job may push. Producers understand that you may not be available when this happens, and they won’t hold it against you. But you won’t earn that paycheck…
And of course, once you buy tickets to a sporting event, schedule a vacation, or plan a date, you will inevitably get a call for the most exciting job of your life. My wife’s friends (who have filled in for me on many dates) have started subtly suggesting I purchase more tickets to the ballet.
Right of Refusal
The idea of being your own boss and creating your own schedule originates from the idea of that you have a right of refusal. If you work for a normal company and your boss assigns you a shitty job, you can’t really get out of it without quitting. But if you’re a freelancer, you just don’t take the shitty job. Great in theory, doesn’t always work in practice.
For one thing, refusing a shitty job is contingent on whoever calls you for a job being honest about its shittiness. (Unlikely.) But questions like, “Who’s the director?” “How many locations are there?” “How many cameras are there?” and “Who’s the client?” can give you an idea of what the job will be like. (Pro Tip: If the person calling you can’t or doesn’t want to answer your questions, it’s probably a shitty job! I have also noticed that the number of phone calls and emails I receive before a job is directly proportional to how shitty a job will be. Sadly, at a certain point, it’s too late to back out.)
Then there are the market forces. A job you’d never take “in a million years” might not look that terrible in early January when you’ve drained your savings account over the holidays and haven’t been employed for three weeks.
Finally, if you turn someone down enough times, they’re going to stop calling you. That’s not always a bad thing. Some people just attract shitty jobs. But you never know who they’re going to talk to. It’s s small world and a smaller industry…
Rates are fairly standard by region and they tend to be higher for freelancers than full time employees. But part of the reason for that is, if you work for eighteen hours Monday, you’re probably not going to be working on Tuesday. It’s also important to clarify rates with new employers before you start. How is overtime calculated? When does it start? Are you paid for travel or mileage? Do you get a prep day? A wrap day? What about a kit rental? Depending on your department, this might be a slider, lights, lenses, filters, microphones, mixers, monitors, transmitters, tables and chairs, tents, props, or vehicles. Union crews don’t have to worry about this as much because everything is covered by a contract (except kit rentals), but it’s up to the crew to make sure the contract is followed.
Also, if you’re starting out, it’s a really bad idea to undercut other crewmember’s rates. It creates a race to the bottom, and you won’t make any friends. You’ll also quickly learn that you’d make more money at Starbucks.
On the plus side, rates are a good way to weed out some of those shitty jobs. For one thing, if a production manager offers you a shitty rate, it’s an indicator that a job will be staffed by inexperienced people with low standards. On the flip side, if you know this will be a shitty job, inflate your normal rate a little. If they say no, don’t take the job. If they say yes, hey, all least you have some extra cash for your pain and suffering.
If you read this post about taxes, you know what the bulk of freelancing paperwork entails. In addition to that, it’s entirely up to you to worry about heath care and retirement plans. If you get in a union, you’ll at least have a group plan, but you’ll still be amazed at the amount of paperwork required to maintain it. And sadly, there’s no H.R. office down the hall that you can visit on your lunch break.
Speaking of H.R….
It’s hard to talk about the film industry without bringing up Harvey Weinstein. With big personalities, small crews, and offices that constantly change locations and bank accounts, it’s not surprising that the film industry is a high-risk occupation for sexual harassment. The past few months have shown that men are pigs in all industries, but the film industry has no overarching governing body to enforce best practices. All of the unequal power dynamics that existed before Harvey was outed still exist today. Sadly, it’s up to you to look out for yourself.
Should you Freelance?
Depending on what you want to do, you don’t really have a choice. When you envision a film crew on the sidewalk, everyone (grips, gaffers, sound mixers, PAs, etc.) is freelancing. Most scripted TV employs freelancers, but shows with permanent sets (talk shows, game shows, late night shows, multi-camera sitcoms) will have a full-time staff. If you want a full time position, you need to find a brick and mortar studio with an open position. But recognize that it is your workplace and job description from there on out.
The real perk to freelancing is the variety of jobs, people, and places you get to experience. For some personality types, it’s the only way to live. But it is a lifestyle choice more than a job description. Hopefully this post gives you some good food for thought before you join the circus.
The majority of freelance work comes through recommendations. And freelancers get it. If someone asks you for a resume it’ll look pretty weird (usually just a list of credits).But if you apply for a “real” job after freelancing, you’ve got your work cut out for you. For one thing, most people don’t understand what freelancing is (a euphemism for unemployment?). And most jobs now require you to submit resume information online. How do you type in your employee history when you’ve had twenty-five employers in the last year? It’s not fun (though it’s not impossible). I highly recommend taking a resume writing or career-coaching course if you do go in that direction.