Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The View From Up There

There are a lot of odd things about my day job. Hell, what's not odd about my day job? I'm holding a pole that extends to 25 feet and trying to swing it around without whacking people in the head, or knocking pictures off the walls, or letting my hands make too much noise -- which they do when I move them, or sometimes even when I don't, because believe it or not, when you're tense, the stress rumbles out through your knuckles.

Sometimes, my job requires me to walk backwards for long distances; sometimes it requires me to run backwards for longer. Frequently it involves doing these things while not tripping over sandbags, metal dolly track, and one hefty guy who's pulling the dolly and a skinny one who's pulling focus -- and not elbowing the director in the ear (I have given many a director the elbow. Not hard and not intentionally, of course, although there are many I would like to bodyslam, if it wouldn't cost me my livelihood. But with a gentle nudge they tend to be either understanding or too distracted to notice).

Then there's making sure that the long pole and the microphone on the end don't end up in the shot, or cause a shadow or reflection, or at least a noticeable, boom-shaped shadow or reflection. Which means that in addition to the running-and- walking-backwards-without-tripping-or-elbowing skill set, I have others which are also somewhat wide-ranging and not altogether applicable in other areas of life. I have to know a certain amount about lighting, in terms of what light from what direction is causing what shadow and how to work around it, if it can be fixed, or is soft enough that maybe the DP won't see it if it doesn't move; and about lenses and camera angles -- 16 and 35, how wide they are and how they shape the frame as you move further from camera, and what can be seen when the camera looks up or down or in a mirror or window or chrome-finish toaster oven.

Which often requires that I spend a lot of my days -- the ones when I am not running backwards -- on top of a ladder. There are times when the camera is high up, and so no matter how high I hold the mic, the pole itself is still going to cut through the frame. And as many, many people like to point out to me (or suggest, in their extremely subtle ways), I'm not the tallest boom operator who ever lived (though neither am I the shortest), and so I just basically have to get taller. Sometimes, if I don't have to get real tall, I can stand on an applebox. For the uninitiated, that's a very sturdy wooden box, with holes for handles carved into the ends, that runs a standard 12" by 20" by 8". They're made to put pretty much anything on -- dolly track, wooden platforms, lights on pigeons, the director's cappuccino, teeny tiny actors, and, yes, substandard-sized boom ops. When they're flat, that's position one. When they're sideways, that's position two. I tend to go for position two -- not as stable as position one, but it can raise me a much-needed 12 inches off the ground. But sometimes, that's just not enough.

Ladders also come in standard sizes: the four-step, the six-step, and the eight-step. I try to go with the shortest one I can because, A) you never want to be reaching down -- talk about creating future problems for you and your chiropractor, and B) the higher a ladder gets, the wider it gets, and the harder it is to place it without getting in the way on the set. Which, incidentally, is a whole other skill set: staying out the way, not just of that dolly, but of electricians and grips trying to light, of actors' eyelines and extras doing crosses -- I mean, there's a lot going on. Although part of staying out of the way is knowing when to step in and claim some space. When I do it too early, it often ends with the gaffer deciding to put a light where I'm standing. Do they do it because I just happen to have chosen the exact best spot for said light? To annoy me? To prove that they can, because they're lighting and I'm sound? I'd say all of the above. But if I do it too late, then I don't have enough time to figure out where the shadows are or if I'm actually in a spot where I can see and reach all the actors whose lines I need to cover, get a frameline from the DP, and just generally let everyone know that I exist, so they won't be surprised when we roll camera and the boom suddenly appears on the edge of the frame. Which can freak out, say, your inexperienced young music video DPs no end.

But so I like to start by seeing if a four-step will suffice, then work my way up. Most often, I'd say I end up with the trusty six-step. It’s not too wide at the base, and it will get me over pretty much as wide a frame as the director can dream up in an interior (exteriors -- that's a whole other ball of wax, and if you're getting that wide on a New York City street, you might as well just throw in the towel and go straight to wireless). In general, the only time I resort to an eight-step is when I have to reach over a wall of a constructed set -- which, like I said, is a killer on your back, not to mention that it's really hard to figure out who's talking and how close you are to them when all you can see are the tops of people's heads, so I try to avoid that as much as possible.

But when it's the right height, there are a number of things I like about working from the top of a ladder. For one thing, I can let the boom lean against it and perch on it fairly comfortably. I know this sounds minor, but when you're standing for most of 16 hours on asphalt or concrete, large portions of that supporting the long pole, the value of being able to take a load off for a couple of minutes in between shots in your own private spot that nobody else can steal is not to be underestimated
(although they do try. No sooner do I walk away from a ladder I've planted on the set than it disappears because some neat-freaky grip clears it away, or the second AC puts the slate on it, or the second AD puts his clipboard on it...you get it, I'm possessive about my shit). Plus, it gets you noticed. It's like, "Hey everyone, look at me! My job's pretty tough, eh?" 'Cause sometimes they do forget. But on the days I'm on a ladder, I get a lot more people coming up to me and asking me,

"Don't your arms get tired?"

"Isn't that thing heavy?"

or simply,
"How do you do that?"

Or they'll come over to make jokes:

"Hey, how's the view from up there?"

or, covering their eye, "Aaah! Ow! Ow!"

Yeah, that's funny.

And then there are the classic singing jokes,

"I'm being followed by a boom shadow, Boom shadow, boom shadow."
(sung to Cat Stevens)

"Boom operator…Boom…operator…"
(sung to Sade)

Or, since I'm suddenly some sort of focus point, they just want to make my acquaintance -- and then I'm even more the focus point. It's a little weird how easy it is to become a celebrity if you're suddenly up on display on a six-foot pedestal in a room of 100 extras. Although if each and every one suddenly feels the need to talk to you, this can get a bit tedious. But in general, it's a major sock to my ego.

And then, yes, it does make me tall. Not that I mind being not so tall so much, but…maybe I mind it a little. It's just that when you're a female in a sea of masculinity, you always get underestimated -- and if you're a short female, it's that much worse. It's not that I feel any need to butch up, not that I really could if I tried. But I like being eye-to-eye with people, or better yet, with some of them, looking down. Namely the agency, the clients, the executive producer who shows up for an hour of handshaking in his Porsche and his leather jacket -- those who normally spend their days looking over my head. I don't know if you've noticed this, tall people (although I think you have judging by the way you like to come over and stand right next to me and stare down. You know who you are), but there's something about that vantage point that gives you power. Power that is generally not my purview.

But it also gives you perspective. You get to see the whole scene play out -- and I'm not just talking about the scripted one. You see the first AD go through his little man histrionics; you see the agency producer scuttle back and forth, ant-like, between the client and the set; you see the big egos reduced to bald spots and dark roots. And you can take that step back, or up, and really grasp your part in the big machine that grinds out product at 24 frames per second. It all looks just a tiny bit smaller and sillier from up there, and it helps you remember that it's just a job, just a day that will eventually end, just a lot of money for a little bit of celluloid that will hopefully make somebody buy aftershave.

And one more thing about being up there, if you slip or lean too far, you could fall on your head. And I guess that's the last key aspect of my day job, and also my non-day-job, perhaps the choices I've made in general: the element of risk. There are stakes, and they can range from making a fool out of myself, which happens almost daily, to never having my own house and two-point-five kids, or even a car that doesn't have the engine light perpetually on -- which are not unlikely outcomes at this point in time -- and still ending up with a career in which I don't finish a single film that 100 people outside of my family and friends will ever see. Or, I could get paid to make films I care about for the rest of my life. Which would be pretty great. But even if it doesn't happen, there's something about the risk, about standing on that ladder, and the way your heart beats a little faster when you reach out over the edge.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why the boom always stands where the fill light goes:

If you look where the key light is coming from and casting shadows, and figure out where you can tuck yourself out of frame opposite to that light, THAT is where the fill light is most likely to be put if we decide to add one.

Jendra, DP

8:11 AM

Blogger AbsentDad said...

As a 6'5" male, it GALLS me to see that not only have you discovered that the secret to our glamorous and successful lives can be be achieved with a mere 6 step ladder, but you've blabbed it to the whole world! Now I'll be forced to look eye-to-eye with people, thus losing my distinctive vertical advantage ... not to mention tripping over all those ladder feet that will be set up everywhere.

Thanks a lot.

But other than that, another great blog entry!

10:54 AM

Blogger Nathan said...

I think it's hysterical that you took the time to explain (to the uninitiated) everything there is to know about apple boxes, but left the same folks with the impression that we have pigeons trained to hold lights while sitting very still on an apple box.


1:25 PM

Blogger Michael Taylor said...

What a great post. While running heavy cable and setting up lights, it's not uncommon for a juicer to wonder why he didn't choose to become a boom operator instead -- holding that little stick all day rather than manhandling enourmous hot lamps.

But we all have our cross to bear on a film set -- it's all hard, each and every job. You really hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph, though: the element of risk adds enough spice to get us through what is often an unbearably tedious day. The prospect of sudden physical harm --and our shared desire to avoid it -- keeps us awake, alive, and paying attention.

1:45 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always heard the apple box positions in terms of cities-- New York (tall), Los Angeles (flat), and Chicago (in between).

2:47 PM

Blogger BoskoLives said...

As a mixer, I tell wannabe crew people that the best start out position is that of the boom operator. First, you can be almost face to face with a director that's in a screaming match with an actor on the other side of you, and they never see you, you are the proverbial fly-on-the-wall. Second, you can listen in on all sorts of conversations, even those going on behind you if you drape the pole over your shoulder. Last but not least, when lunch is called you can (if you have a good utility person) place the boom in the slot and walk away to be first in line. Or second, if I'm the mixer.
Jerry w

5:27 PM


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