Every line of work has its own language. If you’ve ever been trapped at a party by a group of physicists, software developers, or political strategists, you know what I’m talking about: there is a whole world of proprietary lingo that people in a profession develop by and for themselves. This frequently happens out of necessity. Those physicists could have continued to say, “I found a new one of those thingies in space that sucks in every other thingy around it,” or developers could still be writing, “This e-mail contains something underlined that you can click on but you probably don’t want to because then I will have sucked every more time from your day,” but one can see where there was a need to be filled here.
On the other hand, did anyone really need to come up with the word “memo”? Wasn’t “group note” good enough? Was it only with the advent of the modern hospital that people needed things not just fast but “stat”? I think not. I think that there is another reason that people develop lingo and that is to show that they have their own little thing going on. It’s their way of saying, if you can follow our conversation then you are one of us, and if not, then there’s something we know and you don’t, ha.
Nowhere is this more true than in the film business, which has its own litany of terms that don’t even make sense to those of us who use them. Part of this is explained by the fact that, in the early years of this century, the process of filmmaking evolved sort of ad-hoc, absorbing equipment or people from other jobs. With certain terms, like “dolly,” which is the large, wheeled piece of equipment on which the camera is pushed around in the grip of the “dolly grip,” the derivation is obvious.
Not so much with the nautical terms. The reason there are so many of those in the movie terminology glossary is that many of the early stagehand “crews” were hired from sailing or whaling crews. Thus, we have the “boom,” which refers to the pole with the microphone on the end that is swung over people’s heads during the shot (the pole itself is called a “fishpole”), and the “gaffer,” the name for the chief lighting technician, which somehow comes from the name of another type of ship’s boom called a “gaffe,” something akin to which was used on movie sets to open and close tent flaps that let in natural light, back when that was how movies were lit.
Then there the gun-related terms, such as “shooting” or “shot,” or the camera’s loaded “magazine” or “mag” of film (which of course we almost never have any more, since most everything is now digital), but since most Americans are familiar with guns, those don’t keep people in the dark for very long. But when it comes to such terms such “best boy,” which is the name for the second in the lighting department, or “Dutch tilt,” which describes a frame cocked at an angle that looks like it was set by a drunken DP (that’s Director of Photography to you laypeople), one has to wonder why they haven’t been replaced with terms that might be self-explanatory and wouldn’t offend the Dutch.
But no, we have to maintain our mystique. We have to keep using these terms so that people have to turn to us in the dark at the end of every movie and say, “What the heck does a 2nd 2nd Assistant Director do?” We have to hold on to the words so that people will make conversation with us at Academy Awards parties and ask us if we’ve ever worked with the people who are nominated and are they really that tall. It’s so people on the street can overhear us having conversations like,
“Is that the best boy? Did you talk to him about the tie-in?”
“No, that’s the gaffer. The best boy is over there, by the 10-K.”
And they will think we’re cool.
Then there is “the Abby Singer.” This is the name for the second-to-last shot of the day, supposedly named for Abby Singer, a well-known production manager and AD who worked in episodic television for three decades on such shows as Columbo, St. Elsewhere and Remington Steele (and just naming those shows and admitting that I am familiar with all of them makes me feel old). This term developed because, according to legend, when asked how many shots were left to the day, Abby would reply, “We have this and then one more.” The final shot of the day is called “the martini,” leading to such conversations as,
“Is this the martini?”
“No, the AD just told me it’s the Abby.”
“I guess we’re not going to be wrapped for a while, but at least we’ll get some OT.”
Contrary to popular belief, there is no connection between the martini and the Abby. Abby Singer did not call out, “That’s a wrap!” and drink a martini. I’ve heard no clear explanation of the derivation of the term “the martini,” but I’d imagine it has more to do with the strong penchant for drinking that naturally exists in an industry filled with 18-hour days, broken marriages and dashed hopes.
Which brings me to why the Abby sums up the contradictions of life in the film business. Because to me, what the Abby Singer is really about is the sort of endless workday that places people like myself at the mercy of people like Abby Singer. It’s the AD’s job to get the day’s work finished and to that end, he or she frequently will tell you that you are almost almost done and be lying, or, more often, just plain wrong. Because do you know the joke about how many directors it takes to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: Just one more, just one more! The director will always want more shots to choose from, and he/she (usually he) doesn’t care how tired of/pissed off at his incompetence/egomaniacal self-indulgence the crew may be — which is why virtually no one, Sydney Lumet and Woody Allen being notable exceptions, has been known to regularly finish a shoot day in less than 12 hours. And then the director is at the mercy, on one level, of “the talent” — the actor, child, ferret, puppet, or professional athlete — out of whom they have to coax a performance, and on another, of the Powers that Be. These can include the producer and the studio if it’s a feature, the executive producer and the writers if it’s television, or a whole horde of advertising executives and clients if it’s a commercial, all of whom may demand additional shots or takes or alt lines if they decide their original idea isn’t being fulfilled, they have a new idea that they just want to try out, the performance isn’t sexy enough, the shake doesn’t look frothy enough, or the supermodel doesn’t look super enough, despite the five hours she spent in hair, make-up and wardrobe before coming to set (yes, that is a real number). So in other words, the Abby is a cute name for what’s keeping you from your spouse, your kids, your dog, or at least your pillow, 5 days a week for maybe 2-6 months if it’s a feature, up to ten months if it’s a series, or a year and a half if it’s The Lord of The Rings.
And being bossed around by all those people reminds you that the interminable wait for that martini is also about another sort of interminable wait: the wait to be the one who gets to make the decisions. Because most of us who work in the business are doing it to get somewhere else. If you’re a second AD, you want to be a first AD, if you’re a camera assistant or a gaffer, you want to be a DP, and everyone wants to direct. And you have a screenplay you’re trying to finish, which of course you can’t finish because you’re holding a boom or lugging sandbags for 14 hours a day, and then the small amounts of time you do get at home are spent sleeping, paying your bills, and trying to keep your partner from leaving you and your plants from dying because you’re never around. Yet, we all really are waiting for that big break, the one that we know has happened to other people and just has to happen to us. Some day. One friend of mine told me that when he turned 27, he thought he was a failure because Stephen Soderbergh had made Sex, Lies and Videotape at 27. These days, I and pretty much everyone I work with except those starry-eyed PAs has officially missed that milestone by a mile. Every extra, grueling day we wait for that martini places each of us one day farther from being a wunderkind.
I realize now that what began as a mildly interesting exploration of film etymology has devolved into the kind of whiny, depressing lament that your friends get sick of listening to and should never be forced on total strangers. I’m sure you’re asking, at this point, Why the heck are you even in this business?
Because we’re all somehow attached to this world with its cool talk and false glamour, either because we love visual storytelling or we love fame or we love money, and we truly think that we’re on the Abby Singer. We tell ourselves that we’re just going to do this one and then one more and then we’ll either move up or get out. Lots of people do actually move up or sideways into another aspect of the business, some of them even hit it big. I’ve met a ton of electricians and camera people who’ve worked their way up to DP and maybe even director of the show they work on, many purely through cockiness. And some crew people move up to director from other positions, like David Platt and Darnell Martin, who both have impressive careers directing for television, and were once a sound person and a script supervisor, respectively. And I’ve known plenty of people who have left the business and gone on to become teachers or journalists or even librarians, something where they’re contributing something more to the world than stories or a convincing argument for buying frozen pizza. But then there are the people who always talk about quitting but just keep on going and going, and will probably keep talking and not quitting until they retire. Because they’re not ready to face the fact that maybe this way of life’s not taking them where they want to go and they need to find another way to get there, or ready to let go of the hopes and dreams they’ve had their entire lives, maybe, and make the decision to do something else.
On my better days, I like to think that I’m not one of them. But then there I am, just as I have been for much of the last, oh, 25+ years, holding a boom over somebody’s head and saying, “Do you think you could help me out with that shadow by putting a topper on the tweenie?” Truth is, for most of us, it’s hard to make the decision to call it a day. It’s easier to wait for someone else to tell us when it’s time to go home.