Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Friday, July 27, 2007

That's Hot

Mmm, there's nothing like the smell of New York City in the summer. Unless it's the humidity. Or a subway with no air-conditioning, packed with people trying desperately not to perspire all over their iPods and the latest Harry Potter or make any contact with each other's clammy skin.

Or working in the heat. Though it doesn't have to be summer to be hot on a film set, mind you. It can just be green screen. For some reason not entirely understood by me -- 'cause it's technical, and you know how to me anything technical is about eighth nature (I'm not sure what the first seven natures are but I'm pretty sure they include fidgeting and bacon) -- in order to make green screen work in post, it needs to be lit to the nth power with extremely high-powered lights, and from all sides, so that there are no shadows. So booming on a green screen set is probably as close as a person can get to what it's like to boom on the sun, except that on the sun your eyes would just fry, as opposed to being slowly bled of all desire to live by that horrible Green Eggs and Ham shade that they use for some other reason I don't understand.

Of course, basking in the glow of a thousand HMIs with me is the talent, and it could very well be worse for him/her if he/she has to do his/her job in, say, a long red beard and leprechaun costume (see accompanying bonus monitor prints). One of the lucky charms for me about work is that I can pretty much wear what I want, as long as it doesn't have too many holes or stains and isn't too terribly revealing. Although many women -- no department names, hair, make-up and wardrobe -- do wear skimpy outfits to work, doing that makes me uncomfortable. As frequently the only female on set, I get enough eyeball time as it is, and let's face it, once, as a woman, you become an object of attraction, it's harder to get guys to respect you for your work. Sad but true. So I try to walk that fine line when I dress for hot weather of trying to choose clothes that are comfortable yet appropriate. Whatever, inevitably somebody will still point out that they can see my stomach.

"Can you wear one of your short little shirts for me tomorrow?" Pete the AD always asks me.

"My shirts aren't really short, it's just that when you have your arms over your head –"

"That little bellybutton is just so cute!"

"Sure, Pete. Anything for you."

Sigh. He means well.

Of course, when the weather's hot, then everyone suffers all the time. That's why you're praying for soundstage work all summer, because even if there is air conditioning on location, it's too punk-ass to stand up to all the lights crammed into the room or blazing through the windows, and we'll have to turn it off when we roll anyway because even central air is too noisy. I know, you don't believe me when I say that, because it's inevitably the kind of white background noise, like humming refrigerators, buzzing fluorescents, and people from the agency talking on their cell phones, that everybody else ignores. But it's the combination of us both paying attention and actually hearing the way the stuff is going from microphone on to tape/hard drive that makes us act like what others seem to consider sound fascists, and gives everyone an excuse to play another round of Let's Blame the Sound Department.

"Are you sure we can't run it?"
"Sound says we have to have it off."

"Oh come on, they can hear that?"

Oh, they'll hear it too -- in post. Still, sometimes we'll make exceptions, if it's super super hot and the unit is super super quiet, or if our level of caring has sunk to an all-time low. For the record, when we turn the A/C off, we suffer just as much as everyone else. If you prick us, do we not bleed???

Sometimes I bleed, or at least sweat, more than anyone. I always seem to be booming next to a hot light, or from the top of a ladder, or the top of a bar or a desk, although I used to do that type of thing more when I was working on independent films where there were no ladders, or there was no room for ladders in the cramped locations we shot in, and I was young and reckless and enjoyed standing on the furniture. But in all of these situations, I'm up in the part of the room where all of the heat rises to, and it's amazing just how dramatically the temperature changes for every few inches higher up you go -- when I come down, it's like entering another climate zone. Also amazing is the amount of perspiration one person can generate, as if your body were liquefying, just like that senator in the first X-Men movie.

Probably the most I've ever sweat was the summer day I spent on an indie film called "Frogs for Snakes" when we were shooting in the old Jones Diner, one of those classic, atmospheric diners actually built out of an old diner car. It was like being in a toaster over.

"Hot up there?" asked Ian Hart, one of the stars, looking up at me from his seat at the counter to where I was, standing on it. Which placed the beads of sweat rolling from my kneecaps exactly at his eye level.

"Yeah,"I replied. "How'd you guess?"

He shrugged. Then he started pulling napkins out of the napkin dispenser and sticking them to my shins. I suppose he thought that was cute.

This -- not specifically Irishmen combining my suffering and indiscriminate use of paper products to amuse themselves, but the experience of how easily a location can become sauna-like -- is why I'd rather be shooting outside than in on a hot day. Not that shooting in direct sun in 98-degree weather (that's 36.66666666666667 to those of you living in Celsius) is a picnic either, although people I don't work with sometimes think, based on my savage tan, that that's where I've been, perhaps one in the Caribbean. But usually the answer is no, I've just been standing around in the Giants Stadium parking lot, trying to sneak under the courtesy flag they set for camera, which tends to be a challenge when you've got the DP, the first AC, possibly the 2nd AC, and the dolly grip, all fighting for that one little rectangular patch of shadow. Or I can loiter under the client tent until somebody notices that I'm not one of them, which, believe it or not, generally doesn't take too long. Or I can try to get some portion of my body under the shade of the sound mixer's umbrella, which is generally only wide enough to cover his head and the equipment. Because that's right, our equipment enjoys the heat even less than we do. Too much sun sends DAT machines into error mode and sweat kills our wireless, electrical generators and ballasts overheat, tapes and film stocks can get iffy, and you don't even want to know what happens to those Gummi bears at craft service.

Of course, shooting in the cold sucks too. Crew people have all the top-notch gear -- expedition-grade Goretex, Capilene and Polypropeline for camera, grip and electric, so they can keep moving, while script supervisors who, aside from their constantly scribbling hands, may not move all day long, do their best to completely cocoon themselves in
full-length down coats and moon boots. And then there are the sound people, who may own one or two items of serious cold-weather-wear but are really hoping that we can sneak inside or into the client tent, next to a space-heater. Yep, we're cowards, but why should we suffer? And again, it can be roughest on the actors, forced to wear skimpy sundresses or t-shirts if the setting happens to be summer, sucking on ice cubes so you don't see their breath. But at least they can dash into their coats between takes or go to holding between shots, as long as the ADs are looking out for them -- which they aren't always, mind you. And while actors can be prima donnas, on the flip side, actors who aren't Big Name Talent often won't ask for anything for themselves because they don't want to be difficult. They're kind of like your grandmother in that old joke,

How many Jewish grandmothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Never mind, I'll just sit here in the dark.

(Which reminds me, have I told you all my set lightbulb jokes?)

So often, because I'm the one listening to his or her teeth chatter, I might be the only one to notice if an actor's not doing so well.

"Are you all right?"
"No, I'm fine, I'm fine. Although I can't really feel my ears..."
"Pete, do you think maybe he should go inside?"


"The actor. He's turning blue."

"Oh, yeah. Would you like to step inside?"

Why do we shoot outside in freezing weather? Well, people generally come to New York to shoot what typifies New York, and most of that's exteriors -- Wall Street, Times Square, Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Promenade, anything on the Upper West Side if you're Nora Ephron. Combine that with the economic factor of winter being dead dead dead in New York for film work and you've got a lot of people willing to suck it up. Though most of us do draw the line somewhere. My commercial prop friend Jerry told someone he works for that he'd take movie days in the winter, unless they were nights on the Brooklyn Bridge. And sure enough, when he got the call, it was for a week of nights shooting on the Brooklyn Bridge. And that is some cold shit. Even those clothes REI makes for climbing Mount Everest are not designed for standing around for 12, 15 hours at the summit, waiting for a director to decide if Will Smith was Legend enough on the last take. And yet, I'm sure they got an entire crew of people to do that job.

Your feet and hands are always the worst. I once sprained my ankle days before I started a job mixing a low low low budget feature. We were shooting on the wind-whipped Jersey City promenade, and while my circulation is normally bad, squashing all those little capillaries made it ten times worse. I realized at some point, after we'd been out there for a couple of hours, that my foot had started to feel like was having an out-of-body experience, and finally finding time to take a break, went into the bathroom, took off my boots and layers of socks and stuck it in the sink. It was so white and bloodless, it looked like a piece of frozen chicken. I started to run hot water over it, which I couldn't feel at all. By that time, a crowd of crew members had formed, staring down at my foot.

"Wow. That could be the first sign of frostbite."

"What are the signs of frostbite?"

"It probably looks like that."
"No it doesn't."

"Does that mean they'll have to take the toes off?"

"I heard that --"

"I can feel something! OW!"

I didn't get frostbite, but later that same day, my Nagra did lose power during a take. Batteries don't do too well in cold weather either. In fact, equipment in general likes the cold even less than the heat -- and lenses fog, gaffer tape won't stick, cable refuses to coil and recoil properly, just like your muscles won't. At the end of a long day out in the cold, I find myself aching all over from the exertion, not just of booming but of tensing everything to keep warm.

But if you're looking for the ultimate in equipment-and-soul- killing weather, there's nothing like the rain. Most of us have at least some rain gear -- boots, jackets, hats, pants -- as one key grip once said to me, "You're not serious without the pants"-- but unless you're wearing a rubber suit, none of it's going to keep you dry for too long in a steady downpour. Which will not, necessarily, keep us from shooting, mind you, because one of the great ironies of production is that, unless the rain is really really hard or backlit, there's a good chance you won't see it on film. And very often, they didn't plan for a rain day and they don't have a cover set to go to, and let's face it, if the calculus becomes shoot in the rain or start hemorrhaging money faster than you can say "Chapter 11," which one would you do? So production will cover the camera, keep the actors covered with a flat and attack any stray drops on their wardrobe with a hairdryer between takes, put up a courtesy tent for sound and video, and cross their fingers. Everyone lives in fear of what happened to one sound guy I used to work with who had a pop-up tent collapse on him, dumping water all over his perhaps $30-$50,000-worth of sound cart. Thank God for insurance, but at that point your day is basically over, and the rest of your week you will spend non-stop on the phone, scrambling together another sound package from the rental houses as you simultaneously try to reorder every piece that you lost. It's not pretty.

All you can do is try to be prepared -- which if you've got a cart really means having your own tent, or at the very least a couple of waterproof tarps. But I don't have a cart. In the Life Below The Line Booming Kit, Summer Edition, you will find headphones, a belt with some carabineers and a pouch containing a stereo-to-mono adaptor, scissors, some old moleskin and an apparently broken flashlight, a sweatshirt, a rain jacket, maybe rain pants, sometimes a change of shoes, sunscreen, lip balm, Advil, Pepto-Bismol, gum, and a couple of old New Yorkers. In case you were wondering. Winter Edition: add long johns, wool sweater, wool socks, fleece, heavy boots, hat, scarf, gloves, maybe a couple of toe warmers, and then, well, you're not exactly ready for anything, since we know that in our business anything really means ANYTHING, but you're ready.

Because right now, it's hazy and the sun is out, but they're predicting a 30% chance of Isolated T-Storms at weather.com -- not to be confused with the Scattered T-Storms they're predicting for tomorrow, even though they each show the same little stormy cloud icon with the sun peeking out from behind it, so will somebody please tell me what the hell is the difference?! As if they know anything anyway, since we are, after all, talking about the weather.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual, I love how you make me laugh and feel sorry for you at the same time. I hope your mother didn't know about that almost-frostbitten foot! Mine would have made me quit and go to law school, or something.

6:07 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for objectifying you, but your belly button is cute. I concur.

So what weather does the equipment like?

9:23 PM

Blogger Scripty said...

"script supervisors who, aside from their constantly scribbling hands, may not move all day long, do their best to completely cocoon themselves in full-length down coats and moon boots." LOL that's totally me! to complete the picture my winter hat comes down to just above my eyes, and my scarf covers my mouth and nose!

12:09 AM

Blogger AbsentDad said...

Ah, the joys and romance of working on sets! No wonder the film schools of the world are generating so many future crew members.

And, having worked boom in my youthier days, I agree that it's amazing how much cooler the weather is once you come back down to ground level. For a few minutes you get to feel refreshed and wonder what all the groundlings are complaining about.

Keep up the great work!

10:24 AM

Blogger syncsound said...

Having recently finished my first feature with about 18 days on location, the majority of which were 90 degree days in the sun with no umbrella, on dusty wind-blown railroad tracks, I feel your pain, sister. :)

Great as always,

9:41 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're still using DAT????

Let me be one of the first to welcome you to the 21st Century.

I got rid of my last DAT machine two years and you'd have to pull my fingernails out to make me go back to one of those total pain in the ass machines. I almost said you'd have to pull my finger.... and then realized that's another joke for another day.

My FR-2 is every bit the equal or better in quality of sound than a tape machine, with no moving parts and about 1/3rd the cost. And this is the bottom end of things, my next move is to a Deva, more bucks but a ton of more choices.

Just another sound guy in L.A. la land.


4:55 PM

Blogger BTL said...

Oh, pardon me, Jerry, I meant to say, "sends DAT machines into error mode, BUT NOT HARD DISK RECORDERS BECAUSE THEY ARE FAR SUPERIOR."

If you're looking for a discussion of the finer points of hardware, my friend, you've come to the wrong place.

1:46 AM


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