Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Lords of Advertising (and Puppets Who Speak Japanese)

First of all, let me disclaim: certain names, dates, places and other details may be changed to protect the innocent, the not so innocent, the extremely guilty, and me. The film community is a small place and news travels like brushfire in a global-warming-induced drought.

Anyway. A few weeks ago I worked on a Japanese car insurance commercial involving a baseball player, a puppet, and a jingle that I couldn't understand but nevertheless found a comfortable home in my brain after I heard it played back easily 1000 times. Still, overall, it was a good job, as I predicted from the moment I stepped on set and three people who knew who I was instantly descended on me:

“Hi, I’m Akiya, I’m the producer. Nice to meet you.”
“Hi, I’m Kioko, I’m the first AD. We’re going to need playback first, in about an hour.”
“Hi, I’m Yuki, can I help you move that?’
This never happens. Let me back up and explain why.

The commercial is the most hierarchical – the feudal society, if you will – of production jobs. The ad agency personnel – writer, art director and agency producer for the spot – and their clients – the up to 20 marketing folks from the company that makes the frozen pizza, flea collars, or stretch mark removal cream that we are hawking that particular day – are the monarchs. Sound like too many kings? Ah, therein lieth the problem, the one that maketh the shooting of a 30-second spot an all-day affair. The director, usually considered king of the film set is, in this case, but a prince, trying to prove himself worthy by satisfying this royal committee, each of whom will either have a distinct idea of what is or is not funny/glamorous/supercool, or just feels they need to speak up in order to justify the fact that they’ve been released for a few days from their fluorescent light-dominated habitat to gossip, flirt and chow down at the snack table we call craft service.

Next: the level of dukes and duchesses, beginning with the producer, who, as the highest-ranked person from the production company, spends the day trying to make sure things stay on schedule and running back from “video village,” where the kings and queens sit ensconced before a flat-screen video monitor, to deliver opinions to the director, resulting in conversations along the lines of

Producer: They want him to say it more ironically.
Director: We did twenty ironic takes an hour ago!
Producer: They said they couldn’t see the logo -
Director: Jesus!

You can see how much fun this job is. Nevertheless, the producer is the highest-ranked person on set from the production company (except when the executive producer, who owns the company, makes an appearance. You can tell the difference between the two because the producer will be pale and display either black humor or total resignation while the executive producer is always tan, fit, sports a nice leather jacket, and zips in and out to do a brief round of hand-shaking before disappearing off into the mist in his BMW. I’m not sure where he fits into the hierarchy, maybe he’s the Archbishop of Canterbury). On the crew side, the director of photography (DP) and the assistant director (AD) are the dukes and duchesses (generally dukes), then the rest of the “keys” or department heads – first assistant camera (AC), gaffer, key grip, sound, hair and make-up – are your top level of vassals, the people they hire to work for them – like me – are the lower vassals, and the PAs – the lowest level on any set, hired by the production company to do whatever work nobody else wants to do - are the serfs.

See, we’re all beholden. Everyone on the crew needs to get rehired on the next job by their key, the keys need to get rehired by the production company, the production company needs to get rehired by the agency, the ad agency needs to get rehired by the client – so everyone’s constantly watching backs and kissing asses, and if yours is not an ass that requires kissing, you probably won’t be deemed worthy of notice (unless you screw up, which isn’t the kind of notice you want). Movies and television shows are longer jobs and so and there is the chance for everyone to get to know each other as people. But on a commercial, even though you develop friendships with the people you work with frequently, the production itself retains that cold, cubicular corporate feeling that it’s all about the bottom line, and unless you’re pulling in the big bucks, you’ll be treated like the cog you are. I was just on a job where the director and the script supervisor introduced themselves and chatted at the beginning of the day, but once we began shooting, her name devolved to “Script! Script!” - generally punctuated with a snapping of the fingers.

As with feudal society, this dictates all sorts of social rules as well. For instance, people from the crew don’t socialize with people from the agency/client. It’s just not done. I’ll talk to them when it’s part of my job, and there are rare occasions where they will ask me questions (“How do you hold that pole up there for so long?”) and they are always perfectly nice, but it’s in kind of the distant way in which people are nice to other people’s pets. So you stick with your department - the “vanities” (hair, make-up and wardrobe) hang together, camera with camera, grips and electrics with grips and electrics - but this can be a bit claustrophobic. Some people – sound mixer, key hair and make-up, wardrobe stylist - only have one other person in their department; some – script supervisor, video playback (VTR) – have just themselves. So when lunchtime comes around, most of us in smaller departments try to be social with those of similar rank, with varying results; you can end up sitting with some group who’ll be talking about something you just don’t get (“Did you read about the bleach bypass processing they used on that film?”) or sitting with the uncool kids (“I've done background on all of DeNiro's movies, on the last one, I think he recognized me.”) or sitting alone – which is more like high school than feudal city-state but it’s my analogy, I can do what I want with it.

So to step on to a set and already have three people from the production crossing ranks and making me feel important was odd, oddly...professional. I suppose one can just attribute this to the formality of Japanese culture in a professional setting. Strangely enough, however, in other ways, film culture seemed to trump Japanese culture completely. The Japanese AD jumped around, barking commands (some in Japanese) and was willing to lie on the floor, supporting the elbow of a puppeteer swathed in green nylon to match the green-screen that would eventually be replaced with something resembling a video game (the sound mixer and I really had no idea what was going on in this commercial) if that was what it took to keep us on schedule. The Japanese art department had infrequently-washed hipster hair, wore used, camp t-shirts, and acted bored. The hair and make-up guy sported oversized sunglasses and the Kim Jong Il ‘do while the clothing stylist was turned out in a tight skirt with a large hat pulled down over one eye. And the director, of course, with his expensive-casual guy clothes and gelled hair, ignored everyone, working on his tiny laptop, until it was time to shoot, when he became obsessive about the puppet’s performance, often going so far as to move the puppet’s hands himself through five rehearsals.

So in every other way, this ended up being like all the other commercials I’ve done with puppets singing about insurance in a foreign language, which would be none, but that’s not the point. The point is that in some ways, it’s nice to have your place on the ladder formally recognized, even if it’s not the most important place, or a place you’d like to occupy forever, rather than having the people above you feeling they need to constantly reinforce their non-formal rank through things like getting frappucinos upon request while others must content themselves with set coffee that tastes like water from the Gowanus; by getting driven to set from their $1000/night hotel room at 9 am while you peeled your eyes open to be on the subway platform at 6; or by acting like they never even have to acknowledge that you exist – even though the work they do would be impossible without you. I don’t expect to get any of those things they get. But it’s nice when people learn your name.

By the way, the people who are at the very top – God in my hierarchy, I guess, since I haven’t left room for anyone else - are the famous people who sometimes star in commercials. Always treated to the heights of extravagance, they also are often the ones, like our Japanese baseball player, Hideki Matsui, who care the least about it. Even though he’d come from a game and was clearly exhausted, Matsui was cordial to everyone and did everything he could to act opposite a moving piece of felt in front of a background he couldn’t see, although his resigned expression showed he was probably thinking, “Am I really getting paid enough to do this?” But he did do it, without complaint and without airs, because after all, what did he have to prove? It was only a commercial.


Blogger Da Nator said...

Great blog, Snag. Some of the most amusing writing I've read from you so far - I love the tone. Keep it coming!

P.S. Would you like to exchange blog links?

11:23 AM


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