Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Days Like This…And That

The Film Production Bad Day is never-ending. It comes with other Bad Days in packs of three, four, five, six, back to back, and they last 12 hours and up. And they're all part of the same job, because the bad days tend to be planned by the same people who have either no idea what they're doing, or do have an idea and are being paid to try to do something they know is impossible. Like, say, make eight Taco Bell spots in four days, with 10 locations on the first day, a second day of complicated hi-jinks involving trying to create a hot tub in the top of a stretch Maserati limousine, a music video scene where a guy has to sing a theme song with a heavy metal band, and making someone fly off on a gold, supposedly jet-propelled Vespa -- which, naturally, requires him to be suspended from a crane. By comparison, the last day, which only has too many shots and lots of complicated make-up and is to be shot in a house so tiny that even a family of four would feel claustrophobic, to say nothing of a crew of sixty who are already sick of each other, is only your standard-issue nightmare.

On The Bad Day, you never stop moving. As an AC I know once described working on the now-defunct TV show Third Watch, "Every morning, it's like someone kicked over an anthill." It's shot after shot after shot, and nobody ever knows what's going to happen next, or once they do, nothing is happening the way it's supposed to, so you're always scurrying to catch up. Things immediately go immediately from "Clear the set so the grips can work" to "Picture's up!" Huh?? What happened to "Clear the set so sound can work?" Never happens, of course, even on a good job. But on bad jobs, there's no time to check for shadows, reflections and sound problems, run your cable, plant a mic if need be, these are things you're supposed to be able to do in the brief period when the lighting is winding down and they're gearing up to roll, which is a short enough time as it is but it seems like an eon compared to the milliseconds you're given on The Bad Day. A lot of this is because bad jobs have bad ADs who don't know how to make things happen in the order they should happen. They don't know that they're supposed to control the set, so they let it run out of control.

On The Good Day, everyone is happy to see each other. Your favorite people from every job you ever did are there, it's like This Is Your Life, and you have time to catch up and swap stories and flirt and shoot the breeze because the day is lazy -- not so lazy that you feel like things aren't moving, like you'll never get to go home, but enough that you have time to do your work the way it's supposed to be done, with a little social and decompression time thrown in.

On The Bad Day, they're shooting HD instead of film. A 1000-foot magazine of film lasts about 10 minutes, so that's the longest you can shoot for, but with tape, which is cheap, you can just keep rolling and rolling and rolling until kingdom come. If you're lucky, they're recording to 45-minute tapes, but if not, they're recording to two decks, so when they have to change tapes, they just crank up the other one without missing a beat. Meanwhile, you're just standing there with your arms over your head, holding up that mic like there's no tomorrow, which there isn't for you, because you're going to die if they don't cut. You find ways of adjusting your posture and your back and resting by standing on an apple box so you can lower your arms sometimes, and somehow you manage to keep it up there, and people are impressed by this. DMC from Run DMC comes over to feel your muscles, Beyoncé tells you she's "givin' you respect," professional athletes shake their heads and say that they couldn't do what you do, and that's all nice, but none of it matters, really, when you're waiting for them to cut, please cut, please CUT SOMEBODY!!! But of course the director won't cut, he (it's never a she) just wants to keep shooting and shooting and shooting, and then the agency and client want new versions and alternate lines on everything, and you need to cover those in every conceivable size, and then again in both French and Spanish, and your heart sinks every time you see the producer come over to whisper in the director's ear with just one more idea.

On The Good Day, the director knows your name. You've worked together before and he actually asks your opinion about the sound and even respects it. The people from the agency are friendly too, and the clients (okay, maybe not the clients, they always scare me when they get friendly). They all act like human beings with lives to go home to just like you, and they realize that this is just advertising, not open-heart surgery, you're not saving lives here, good enough is good, they know what they want and actually see the value in making decisions rather than having a gazillion choices in the editing room, 98% of which they'll never be able to use in the 30-second spot they're trying to make.

On The Bad Day, your boss is a dickhead. He (it's nearly always a he) tells you to do five different things at once, and then tries to do them himself. Everything is your fault, even if you were somewhere else at the time, especially then, why weren't you there?!?! Why didn't you see that the microphone under the actor's shirt moved, that they forgot to shut the door behind you, why don't you know what that sound problem was -- when you only have three boom shadows and a reflection in the toaster to somehow keep out of the shot, not to mention moving the mic to follow both a camera move you are watching on an onboard monitor that you can barely see because the AC's head is between you and it and the mouth of an actor who's swiveling his head back and forth like it was on ball bearings, all while trying not to hit the hot light which is inches from your elbow and making the sweat drip into your eyes. The truth is, your boss is just under a lot of stress and he can't handle it, but people who can't handle stress shouldn't be in the sound department, where they only notice you're there when something goes wrong and otherwise they don't want to know you exist, so you're always weighing whether to bring up a sound problem with the issue of whether they'll stop hiring you if you become too annoying. The Dickhead Boss crosses the line of annoying, big time, but he doesn't see it -- so you absorb all the stress of knowing he's screwing himself over, but secretly enjoy it at the same time.

On The Bad Day, there are six actors speaking at the same time, overlapping each other, and they're all un-boomable for any number of reasons. But your boss still wants you to boom them rather than wire them with six radio mics, 1) because he doesn't have six radio mics, 2) because there's so much RF interference, you must be near a cab dispatch, he's trying to test a mic and all of a sudden there's a horrible staticky sound and someone's speaking in Punjabi, and 3) having to mix six different mics down to two tracks is going to make him more mental than he already is. So you're stuck trying to memorize all the lines, even though the actors all have stand-up comedy backgrounds and the director wants them to improv, so you never know what they're going to say when. Inevitably, you're late for all the cues, missing half a line here, 3/4 of a line there, and Dickhead is screaming at you in your headset, telling you this when you don't need to be told, you've been doing this long enough that it's pretty obvious to you when you fuck up. By the end of the day, you're screaming back at him through the mic (hoping that nobody from the agency is listening because they all have headsets) because you thought you were a tolerant person but you just can't take it any more, and you're pretty sure that you won't be getting hired by him again any time soon, but maybe that's a good thing.

On The Good Day, you and your boss joke around, you enjoy each other's company, but you don't feel like you have to keep each other company because he is socially adept and not interested in only discussing sound geek stuff all day that nobody in their right mind would listen to if their job didn't require it. You've worked together enough recently that you know all of his equipment but not enough that you're sick of each other yet, and he wants your opinion and gives you just the right amount of responsibility -- to do some miking, do your own job, do all the communicating on set -- without expecting you to do everything while he sits around chatting about sports or the cost of equipment. You're actually a team.

On The Bad Day, the catering sucks. For lunch there is a choice of mystery loaf or bloody chicken covered in a sticky, unidentifiable sauce that they say is mango salsa but definitely is not mango, let alone salsa, and a choice of overcooked vegetables. Everything is covered in American cheese. It's like trailer food. Craft service (ie the snack option) is provided by the same people who did the catering, so it's all Doritos and stale trail mix. But of course you're shooting miles from anywhere where you could buy a sandwich, an apple, even a stick of gum, so you're stuck with whatever they've got.

On The Good Day, you eat well and too much. Craft service has fresh fruit and exotic cheeses and ten kinds of cookies, they've stocked up at Trader Joe's for gourmet items like mini-quiche and curry chicken puffs and you know that if you decide to skip lunch, you won't be starving. But why would you skip lunch when there's red snapper and sliced flank steak with chimichurri sauce, basil garlic mashed potatoes, jicama slaw and a beet salad, with a strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert? I mean, you can't afford to eat like this on your own, so you might as well take two portions of everything, even if you feel sluggish for the next hour, you'll have about that much time to get ready for the next shot while they're lighting, so it's all good. Except that if there are too many good jobs, you're going to have to buy all of your clothes one size bigger.

The Bad Days are a choice between heat exhaustion and hypothermia. It's 110 degrees in the shade and you are shooting in a tiny attic where, if there is air conditioning, it has to be turned off for sound (which, by the way, makes everyone hate you) and you're standing at the top of a six-foot ladder, where all the hot air congregates. You are sweating so much one of the actors is sticking napkins to your legs. Ha ha. Or you're outside in the burning sun and you haven't had time to put on sunscreen, because who has time to do anything on a day like this? Or it's 30 below with the wind-chill and you're shooting on the Brooklyn Bridge, at night, in the freezing rain, wondering how it's possible that there is such a thing as freezing rain, particularly when it's 30 below, it seems only to exist for you to be subjected to it when you've forgotten your boots. And because you're outside, in traffic, you're holding a big, long, heavy mic at the end of the pole covered with a zeppelin that makes it heavier, with an additionally heavy rain cover on it that looks like it's made out of Astroturf. And in the cold, your muscles start to ache, fast, they don't work the way they're supposed to, at least the way they did when you were 26 and you could hold that thing up forever, or was that just your imagination and you were never that good?

On The Good Day, you're shooting on an air-conditioned soundstage in Manhattan or Queens which is within 1/2 hour of your apartment. Or else you get your call and hear the location and you realize it's at the corner deli less than a block from your house, so close that you can go home to go to the bathroom. The weather is perfect, it's fall or spring, seasons that seem made for film production in New York City, which is clean and bright and glorious on The Good Day, the Chrysler Building looks as if it was just minted, and you're outside, getting a tan (you had time to put on the sunscreen), wondering why anyone would want to do anything else anywhere else.

And as much as you hate to admit it as a feminist, The Good Days are nearly all on fashion and beauty spots. Most of the shots involve hours of lighting and make-up and then pouting and posing, and the director's iPod is hooked up to a couple of speakers (which they have PAs take care of so it's not your responsibility) playing music to get the models in the mood for the pouting and posing, and they only want to turn it down when absolutely necessary, so they don't plan to record sound for most of the day. The first AD is a pro and he has planned for this, so the sound department gets to come in at 11 am even though the rest of the crew has been in since 5:30 (which they hate you for, of course), and this also means that there's no traffic if you're driving. You do a couple of shots with the models speaking their lines, and the director even agrees to turn off the fan that was romantically blowing their carefully-styled locks so that it sounds good. Even though the models tend to have thick accents and can't really act, the agency and clients know that nobody's going to be paying attention to the dialogue and don't insist on doing it a million times. They send you off to record the lines wild while the crew sets up for the next shot and you record everything a few times in a nice, quiet space far away from the set -- almost impossible to find in most places but on The Good Day, there seems to be a perfect spot, it's like a sound studio just waiting for you. Then you find yourself wrapped at 2 pm, maybe 2:30 by the time you finish packing up your gear, and your biggest problem is trying to figure out what to do with the unexpected windfall of a free afternoon. That and the fact that everybody hates you because they know they're all going to be there for at least another five hours. But you can live with that.


Blogger Ian Thomson said...

hi there, I was directed to your blog via R.A.M.P.S. and started reading the archived posts. when I found this one I felt compelled to let you knoe that last night - I had a rare GOOD DAY.

I'n not trying to gloat - but it deserved to be shared.

cheers for providing a lighthearted perspective to what we do for a living.

see ya

12:36 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

GOD help me, I am in production HELLLL! A she devil of a primadonna actress/producer is running the show and she's driving us all nuts. We've broken down and relit 3 times, all to try and reduce 2 little lines from her nose to mouth. This is the third and last time I'll work for a producer/actor!

10:25 AM

Blogger BTL said...

eewee, I would never begrudge anyone a good day gloat. And anonymous, I feel for you. But at least one good thing about our jobs is that they do end eventually...hopefully without us getting fired.

10:39 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why whine? This is the life you have chosen. You were smart and did your hollywood homework and knew what you were getting into, or stupid and seduced and unaware of the career path that is decades of hard, backbreaking work of 16 hour days to wear the badge of "production employee" honor to show off to your friends and family. So enjoy it while it lasts cause the world always will need more bartenders and retail employees if you wuss out. hollywood was built on abusing hardworking people just like you, that will never change. Nice blog keep it up!

3:15 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great writing! I have been really enjoying your take on this crazy world we work in. There have been several posts that was so right on and articulate but after having recently survived a bad day I enjoyed reading your spot on essay on the subject. Thanks for that!

1:09 AM


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