My Day on a Film Set (part 2…)

Organized chaos is often used as a metaphor to describe busy, bustling things that are a throng of activity where everything happens all at once.

Organized chaos is a perfect description for a film set.

It’s a place where time is compressed and expands, where minutes turn into seconds of footage in the final edit, where people can be standing around waiting for seemingly forever. And yet, all the time there’s a throbbing pulse of activity as people rush from set-up to set-up, capturing the images and audio that will make it into the final product.

(This is part two of this article – you can find part 1 here…)

And it is a product – let’s not romanticize that part. Most people who work on film – whether actual feature films, television, or corporate videos – are part of a chain of events that start with a single idea. Potentially months or years spent developing that idea turn it into a keenly tuned itemized shopping list of equipment, people, jobs, shots and setups which threatens to buckle and throw itself off course as creative whims come into play, alongside mistakes, timing and serendipitous happenstance which happily throw themselves into the mix.

But it is a sausage-making machine. A finely-tuned machine made up of a plethora of experienced people who all know the role they need to play to get it done. In this case though, it’s one of the few types of sausage that I really desperately wanted to see get made.

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Carts and carts of equipment – and on the right, craft services. I had a boiled egg and some coffee for breakfast.

We were shooting in a couple of side-by-side 60s houses in the Portland suburbs (I say we; I didn’t really do anything but try not to get in the way). One house was found by a location scout; yep, there are people out there whose job it is to put together a list of places that people can film things. It was awesome – white, concrete floors, and with something you don’t normally see in a house these days… Namely, a large atrium right off the front door (I called it a Zen solarium), with wooden deck flooring, and gravel filling spaces strategically around the edges. Corrugated plexiglass roofing allowed the sun to stream in. If the sign of an experienced stage actor is that they know to make as big and memorable an entrance as possible, this house was a total ham.

Next door, a house in warm wood paneling – which, if you’ve never seen this popular style from a while back, is kind of like someone had wanted to build a sauna and forgotten where to stop. 60s, ski-lodge chic décor. The owner was hanging around – her name is Carol – and I got to chat with her for a bit as the day progressed (never underestimate the power of an English accent to get people to open up and chat to you). She was marveling as much as I was at the hive-like efficiency displayed by the crew as they set up new shots and tore them down. The crew had asked nicely if they could film at her place, and she’d happily agreed, being curious about the whole process herself. Her sister even popped by to check on the proceedings.

First Impressions

Walking into Carol’s house, my first impression was “oh my God, these people know what they’re doing!”. Ignore the trucks full of equipment (two trucks and a large van), and the carts full of stuff which had been unloaded from them – that’s not the bit which got me. I was kind of expecting something like that – after all, if you’re going to rent a grip and lighting package (or have the equipment yourself), you need to get it there. And it wasn’t totally crazy either – for example, there were no trailers for the cast, although a couple of times I thought it might have been nice for them. But this was a short piece – there were no method actors here to throw off-kilter by having them hang around set between set-ups.

What got me was this simple thing: When I walked in the door, the floor was covered with plastic sticky carpet protector sheets (like saran wrap, but stronger and, well, sticky). If it wasn’t carpet, it was covered in rolls of cardboard-like paper, tacked in place with painter’s tape. And corners of walls which might get banged? The same deal. Wrapped in protective cardboard-paper, and taped into place.

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That Zen solarium I was talking about earlier – and oh, look! Carefully protected entrance-ways!

The owner’s furniture? Carefully moved out if it wasn’t needed for the shot, with items wrapped in moving blankets and cling-wrap. After all, if you’re going to move stuff around, it’s best if you don’t break it in the process.

Rule number one of shooting on location is that you’ve got to leave the place in as good a state as you found it. That means try not to cause any damage if you can avoid it, and if you can’t, replace it. They have a plasterer on call just in case someone accidentally puts a hole in a wall. (It happens).

The lights were already in place in this house, including a light bar, a couple of tunable light panels (which the color temperature could be shifted on), and a few other larger lights. Don’t ask me what they are – I don’t know enough about lights. That said, I did notice that they were fixed up on stands in most cases, and in a few cases, they were fixed up with huge U-clamps to beams overhead. With wooden shims under where they hit the beam to protect the beams themselves and spread the pressure.

John O’Connell (the director) had a twinkle in his eyes as I walked in with Mike – he’d found a trampoline in the location next door, and was awake at 4:30am that morning figuring out how to get it into the the script. John had written the original script for the ad (Mike normally gets more involved in the writing, but on this occasion he hadn’t), and he’d worked this find in on the fly – remember what I was saying about serendipitous happenstance being one of those things that can disrupt* plans? More on this later. Except they’d need to move it over the fence from the stark Zen-house next door, and put it in the ski-lodge’s back yard. But that would come later. I didn’t get to talk to John much during the shoot; he was busy nearly the entire time, and the time that he wasn’t, well… he’s one of those quiet guy with a lot going on behind the eyes until you get to know him. (I know the feeling; if I hadn’t put my journalist hat back on for this particular trip, I’d have been a little on the quiet side myself).

Speaking of Product…

I was introduce to the producer – Alex Dean – shortly thereafter, who furnished me with a copy of the script and the storyboards for the shoot, along with a packet of headshots of the cast. We hung out outside for a while as folks grabbed breakfast from craft services. She graciously answered all of my questions as I figured out a few things I needed to know – like, just exactly how do you find locations? (the answer is earlier in the article). A lot of her job during the shoot was handling contingencies as they came up; this was the fun part for her, making up for the days and days of prep sitting behind a screen in an office back at cmd. Questions like… just how exactly do you get a hold of a bus for a film shoot? (Answer: hey, those places you can rent school buses from? They rent other kinds too – like metro buses). Begging, borrowing and … well… not actually stealing is par for the course when you’re looking for stuff for a film shoot – a lot of it is really truly just shaking the tree, and asking everyone you know if they know where to find the things you need.

I spent a good part of the day wondering where the heck I knew Alex from. I didn’t think I’d met her before… Same with the Director of Photography, Kevin Fletcher. Maybe my brain was on the fritz.

Catering to Whims…

Something I’ve always read and figured that was a truism – purely based on psychology, principle, and experience working with teams under pressure – was that the most important thing you can bring to the table for your crew is, well, a table full of food. If I remember correctly, the delightful lady who was running craft services was called Arianna. She’d wanted to get into film for a while, and while she’d considered other avenues, a friend of hers had convinced her to try craft services – because it was pretty wide open, and few people did a good job of it. She had a grounding in Buddhism, and was thinking about shifting into getting a job as a counselor, and was planning to make her move yet again. She’d always been great at talking to people, and thought she’d really enjoy it, be good at it, and would love to help people.

Apart from keeping the continuous flow of coffee going, she also kept snacks on hand, breakfasts of all kinds ready for breakfast (oatmeal? check. granola? check. pastries? yep. hard-boiled eggs? you betcha. enough candy to kill a small hospital waiting room of diabetics? uh-huh. fruit? Oh, so you wanna eat healthy? well here you frickin’ go – go to town. Gluten free? screw that, we’ll go gluten free and organic on your ass).

Lunch? Salads, salsa, and a variety of different kinds of enchiladas, served hot fresh from the oven, carried to the set in Pyrex baking trays covered in foil, transported in huge Styrofoam cases to keep them piping hot.

Tables and chairs, the whole deal.

In the evening? Fruits and cheeses (some splendid manchego), chips, nuts, cold meats, mystery-flavored gourmet popcorn (one of the wardrobe folks at one point in the afternoon walked past with a cup full of popcorn, asking anyone who was free to try to figure out the flavor, wondering aloud “Is this pesto?!”). And more coffee.

Coffee actually ran out at one point. It was nearly a catastrophe. But fortunately a catastrophe which was easily solved.

More to come in part 3. (Part 1 of this article is here)

* It didn’t actually disrupt any plans; everything went ahead of the shooting schedule, even with the addition of extra scenes for the trampoline. And the final product is better for it. Serendipity plays a big part – you’re not working in a sterile environment, so you make use – and take advantage – of everything you can find to make a better end product.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

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