Last week I had a three-day job during which I spent a lot of time walking backwards. This is something that I have to do from time to time. When you’re booming someone (or more than one someones) who’s walking, often the only way to keep the mic in a good spot directly above their heads but just out of frame while they’re doing it is to walk backwards in front of them, so that you can watch them while you boom. It’s not actually that hard to do, provided that you know you have a clear path behind you so you won’t walk into anything, and, if you’re using a cable (which I happened to be on this job even though these days we work mostly wireless boom), someone reliable to pull it to keep it from getting under foot and tripping you up. Sometimes, if the path you’re walking is particularly hazardous, and requires, say, avoiding a lamppost or turning a corner, you may also need a spotter to guide you (generally just by giving you a helpful push or tug in the right direction). This is especially true if you’re walking/running at high speed, as you often are, because you have to match the speed of the actors, and they’re not thinking about you, they’re thinking about their motivation. A lot of the time, you’re also joining in a parade of people who are walking in front of the actors at the same time you are — camera/steadicam operator, grip spotting him or her, focus puller, an electrician holding a light, people pulling cables for the camera and the light, etc etc. It can be quite a herd, all jockeying for the best position from which to do their jobs and not get squashed against a wall or trip. On this particular job camera was on a dolly so the herd was minimal, which was lucky because I had to do all of the walking backwards without my shoes to avoid hearing my feet on a carpet of Astroturf that sounded not so much like grass underfoot as like breakfast cereal. Going shoeless in a gaggle of backwards-walking people is basically asking to get your toes stomped.
It took me a fair amount of tripping and getting stomped and walking into things to figure all this out. Some of the things I have walked into include trees, street signs, walls, furniture, lights, light stands, other kinds of stands, other people, and the camera. As a result of walking into such things, I have acquired many bruises and scrapes and burns, fallen on my ass, fallen on other people who have then fallen on other people, hit crew members with the pole or my elbow, and hit actors in the face with the mic. And of course, I’ve stuck the mic or the pole or my armpit in the frame while doing this more times than I can count. I don’t think I’ve caused any permanent damage to myself, others, or equipment, but that was probably more luck than anything else. Because it’s not like walking backwards is necessarily something that you get appreciatively better at. Every situation is different and has new pitfalls and obstacles, so you’re always likely to make mistakes. You just learn the rules and your cues and try to apply them as best you can, knowing that sometimes you’re still likely to fuck it up.
But especially now that I’ve been doing it for 20+ years, I actually find walking backwards kind of fun. It’s just not something you generally have license to do, at least not without people thinking that you’re either crazy or irresponsible or both. And there’s something exhilarating about moving quickly and confidently in a direction you can’t see, especially while accomplishing something else at the same time. It makes you feel simultaneously skilled and reckless when you succeed at something that improbable, which is pretty empowering.
If you haven’t already (and why would you?), I highly recommend trying walking backwards some time, or, better yet, finding something in life that makes you feel the same way. Then, when you find yourself having to do something else that seems challenging to mere mortals, like, say, starting conversations with strangers about yourself and your work at a conference, you can think back and remember, “Oh right, I did that last week, so how hard could this be?”