For the official launch of joshglassonline.com, I wanted to publish an appropriately themed blog post. So I decided to talk about what I like about being on a film set. Enjoy…
For those unfamiliar with the film set work environment, there isn’t an easy way to describe it. Maybe if you start with the view from the actors’ perspective – they may be positioned in a normal circumstance and setting, except the desk they’re sitting at is pushed away from the wall it’s supposed to be against, because that’s where the camera needs to be. If having a camera aimed right at your face isn’t strange enough, try having hundreds or thousands of light wattage aimed at you, modifying or creating the shadows and lighting around you, to fit the desires of the Director of Photography. Let’s step back a bit. On the other side of the lights and the camera, dozens of other crew members are buzzing in and out, performing whatever preparatory duty they’ve been given. Grips moving lights and C stands. Camera operators changing lenses. Art directors and set dressers moving set pieces around. An Assistant Director asking when the shot will be ready. Production Assistants bringing people water. Or getting yelled at to get out of the way. From an outsider’s perspective it can be chaos. Sometimes from an insider’s perspective it is chaos. Hopefully it’s organized chaos.
There are things to like about being on set, and there are certainly things to dislike about being on set. Let’s talk about the things to like.
If you’re like me, although this chaos is a bit overwhelming at times, you can’t help but admire the whole thing. Depending on the players involved, the shoot can go smoothly and you can look back in wonder at how amazing it was that the whole thing came together. If things didn’t go so smoothly, it becomes very easy to point fingers and figure out why. On set, you’ll hear enough stories about what can go wrong, that no matter what happens, there’s always someone who’s been in a worse situation.
On most sets, like any other job, there is a variety of rookies and veterans, so to speak. Those in lower level positions, the entry-level PAs and in some cases Grips, and ACs, can brush shoulders with the veteran DPs, Directors, ADs, etc. Whether it be to teach a lesson, or compare with a current situation, or maybe to show their expertise, you’ll find some veterans love talking about other thing’s they’ve worked on. Let’s face it, everyone loves talking about something else they’ve worked on, if it adds to the conversation. Especially in a business where jobs can last all of a number of days or weeks. People who work in production can rack up dozens of projects to put on their resumes within a couple of years. Each project has it’s own stories – something similar, something different. It’s a great way for the new-comers to learn about the ins-and outs of the business. What to look out for, what to aim toward. It’s great on-the-job training/education, almost without having to do anything.
Of course you have to do things. Everyone has their own job. In the big scheme of things they’re all aiming at the same goal. On a smaller level, every department gets in the way of the other departments, and whatever department you’re working for is the most important, of course. In my experience, a major example of this dynamic is the constant fight between visual and sound.
Unless you’re doing a music video or silent movie, you need production sound. That means an annoying Boom Operator standing next to the action, out of frame, shoving a skinny microphone on a stick at the actors. Not only does this sometimes bug or distract the talent, but if you don’t watch it, you can find yourself creeping into the frame. Basically, your sound mixer wants you to get as close to the action as you can, because that will get you the best sound. It makes sense. The major problem I’ve noticed, in the few examples I’ve had, is that sound is often treated as a second-class citizen. A director and DP don’t care where the mic is positioned, as long as it’s not in the shot. If the take is good for the actors and the DP/Director, but someone in the background dropped a water bottle and the microphone picked it up, your sound mixer has to let someone know that in post, you won’t be able to use the take because the sound went over someone’s lines. Oh yeah…and if you forget to turn off the Air Conditioning, or it’s on for half the takes and off for the other half…the two halves won’t cut together, because although you may not notice it in real life, you certainly notice the absence of a hum that will be there in some other takes.
Back to the Boom Operator and funny-looking microphone contraption. While to some people, myself included, it may look hilarious when you see the tip of the microphone drop into frame, it can be a very annoying thing that ruins a take. And if you’re the operator, even if the rig you’re lifting is starting to burn your muscles and you can’t hold it up for 1 more second, too bad – you’ll ruin the shot if you drop it any lower. And if you ruin a take it’s no one’s fault but your own. Deal with it, it’s part of the job. One AC I’ve worked with once asked me how I was doing as the boom operator. It was my first real gig as a boom op. I told him that, and he said he could sympathize – he’s had to do the job before as well. “People were always yelling at me to get the boom out of the shot. I was like, ‘Well where do you want me to go?’…Although,” he added, “when I’m not doing it, I’m usually one of the ones yelling at the boom op to get out of the frame.”
That leads me to my next point. Most people in the industry don’t have one particular interest. In such a creative industry with such creative and ambitious people involved, there is definitely no lack of multi-taskers or multi-hyphenates as we call them. Someone who’s hired as a grip may know a thing or two about sound or camera, or even editing. Someone who’s acting may also know all those things. These multi-faceted crew members can be very useful on a low budget set, where there isn’t enough money to pay for 20 grips, 10 PAs and a team of Camera operators and assistants. Sometimes you have to make due with 1 of each. And if you’re working on job and know something about another, on a low-budget project you can really help with the efficiency of the shoot by helping out another department when needed. I worked as a PA on an AFI Student Thesis, and depending on the day was also a Set Dresser, Grip, Stand-In, Runner, and Craft Services person. Fun shoot. Learned a lot, in really small doses.
To finish this off, I want to talk a bit about working with the different kind of people you meet on set. There’s a camaraderie that occurs when you’re in the thick of it with your fellow crew members. There’s always something to commiserate with, even when the shoot is going well. Sometimes it’s the 1st AD, and how they’re in everyone’s face, trying to get things moving (the basic job description of a 1st AD). But it could also be the Director, DP, Producers, other department heads…just like any other job, where employees complain with each other about their bosses. But because production is such a collaborative environment, other crew members can also talk about your boss with you, or vice versa. If the sound guy is slowing down production by bugging the director with comments about the sound on every take, a grip or a camera operator can see this and can talk about how they’d be done so much earlier if that wasn’t happening, or if the Director and DP had story-boarded their shots beforehand and knew what they would be shooting, so they didn’t argue for 20 minutes about it before every shot.
I say all these things about being on set, and of course I understand that I’ve only been on a small percentage of sets that other people in the industry have been on. Some of the things I’ve mentioned may not be true for everyone, and I may have different opinions the more sets I work on. I just wanted to talk a little bit about things that have come to me after a handful of on-set experiences. I look forward to learning more and working more of course, and as I move on in this industry I hope I can use the knowledge I’ve learned so far to my advantage. It’s a great field, and I’m glad I moved all the way out to LA to be in it. Let’s just see how far it takes me.