This week coming up is the first in a long time that I have an entire week of work scheduled — like five whole days, in a row. It has also been well over a week since I’ve posted a blog, and so I’m way overdue for one. But when will I find the time to write it? Well, it looks like this is one of those jobs where I’m going to have to be at work for at least 12 hours every day, but I’ll actually have a lot of free time on my hands because not everything we’re doing involves sound, and when it does, much of it isn’t dialogue. So, for this week’s post, I’m going to try and chronicle this entire week of work while at work. As usual, details and names will be left out or altered to protect the innocent, and me, because I signed an NDA. Here goes.
Man am I tired. Call was 7 am, but my boss asked me to be here a little early in case he had trouble parking. I purposely did not ask what “a little early” meant, and decided for myself that it meant 15 minutes. So that meant I set my alarm for 5:20, but I actually was awake before 5. I often wake up before my alarm, and also Damon, who was reading on his phone in the wee hours as is also often the case, dropped it on the floor somewhere around 4:30, so that’s when I woke up. When I was the train on the bridge, I got a text from my boss saying there was no need to come early because he’d already gotten a parking spot. Oh well. I’m awake, sort of.
This job is mostly stunts. There are multiple cameras and therefore a small village of camera people, whereas we are only two. This is already a bone of contention for my boss, because normally on a job like this, we would have a third. Still, as the day gets going, it seems like we are going to have very little to worry about. One person says there are no lines today, another says no lines until Wednesday. So I’m just pointing the mic at sound effects, and I vaguely hear someone shouting during the take.
“Was that the actor speaking?” says my boss.
“Huh, was it?” This tells you where my interest level is at already, one hour into the first day, but it’s hard to maintain your normally laser-like focus (hahahahaha) when you know that everything you’re recording is going to be replaced in post.
I go to talk to the 2nd 2nd, who seemed very well-informed/authoritative earlier in the day. “Nope, he’s not speaking.” I pass this back to my boss. Five minutes later, my boss comes over to tell me that the script supervisor has confirmed tht there’s a line. I go and tell this to the first AD, who was one of the other people who said there was no line, who tells the director, who was the third person who had said there was no line.
“Oh, okay,” says the director.
“We should probably wire him,” I say, thinking about the multiple cameras.
“Let’s get him wired!” says the first AD. He’s the kind of first who thinks announcing things in a loud enough voice makes them happen (which, I have to admit, sometimes does work).
The actor doesn’t want to be wired.
“I can’t wear it, it’ll fall off,” he says.
“Can we boom it?” says the first AD.
“It depends on where the cameras are…”
“We’ll boom it!”
Luckily, only the steadicam will be on the actor when he’s speaking without the no crane shot, because otherwise it would be a crane shot of the steadicam, so while this first set-up suddenly gets a whole lot more stressful for me, because I actually have to do something, it ends up being fine. Turns out I should have savored it because it is, indeed, the only dialogue we end up doing all day. Despite this, my boss still complains about the fact that we don’t have a third person.
"Do we really need one though?” I ask.
“We really could have used one on that first shot,” he says. “While you were off getting the dialogue, one of those cameras was super close on that motorcycle, we should have had a mic on it. ”
This is the motorcycle that ends up being so loud that I have to point straight up at the ceiling when we’re recording it so that it doesn’t blow out the mic, but my boss talks to production and ends up getting us a third for the rest of the week.
The scene we’re shooting is one in which the actor is being chased by a monster who is alternately represented by a large cardboard cutout and two different stuntmen in spandex suits covered in tracking marks and wearing helmets with little styrofoam balls sticking up out of them to represent the monsters’ actual height, which makes it hard to find them very scary. A lot of things get thrown around and smashed. At one point the mic gets hit with rubber broken glass that they’re throwing at the actor. At another, I have to wear a face shield – despite that I notice no one else seems to be wearing one, even people who are closer to the action than I am. It’s pretty hard to figure out how to wear a face shield and large headphones at the same time. I try putting the shield on first and then putting on my headphones over it, but the headphones keep sliding off the back of my head, so then I decide to put the face shield over my headphones, and tighten it on. I have time to figure this out because everything on set tends to move super slowly when you have stunts. You rehearse with the stunt, without the stunt, then you shoot it a couple of times (unless you’re permanently destroying something of which you only have one, in which case you have to get it right the first time). We then shoot a lot of plates: without the stuntmen but with the actor, without both the stuntmen and the actor, with a color chart and a bunch of VFX stuff in the frame for reference, etc etc. Then half a dozen special effects people run around taking photos of everything.
The fight scene of the day is when the A camera operator yells at the steadicam operator over the fact that steadicam was in his crane shot, but that was basically was a foregone conclusion.
Our new third is a nice guy who is rather green and very chatty. I try to be nice back but I’m terrible at that when I’m this tired, so I give up and try to find places to hide so I won’t have to answer his questions. He eventually finds ways to keep busy, like replacing the labels on everything on the follow cart with the camera department’s P-Touch.
The prop department has brought a ton of stunt dummies today, which they leave lying around the set half-naked and in disturbing positions. At one point I see one pantless dummy lying on the ground, holding a cigar – until a prop guy grabs it out of his hand.
“That’s where I left that,” he says.
Our scripty is a character. She’s always wearing bright red lipstick and kind of frumpy lady clothes but with a low neckline, and heels that click when she walks. In another life, she’s somebody’s sexy librarian grandmother. My new approach today is to ask her if there are lines and then go inform the first AD, who then tells the director. They also did finally give us a script, which helps, though not all that much because all of the action is being broken up into pieces and shot out of order. Still, my new method for staying on top of what we have to do seems to work well, until we get through most of the day and the script supervisor notices that there are a bunch of lines we haven’t covered. She tells the director and he freaks out.
“Oh man, I was supposed to cover these…”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“It’s not your fault,” he replies. He then calls over and proceeds to berate his assistant. I guess it’s his fault.
“As long as he didn’t say it was our fault,” says my boss.
Working with multiple cameras can be a bitch. Sometimes we actually have seven cameras, although this generally is only for stunts that are so dangerous that I can’t be anywhere nearby anyway, and I’m just getting whatever crashing sounds can be gotten from an adjacent room. But generally, we have four cameras, and that’s bad enough. At one point, I have to work from a ladder to get the pole high enough to avoid having it in the crane shot, even though two of the other cameras are doing close ups. But we’re almost never doing dialogue, and even when we are, most of it doesn’t count because it’s being said by stuntmen, and even if it is going to be used, everyone is shouting. So again, hard to maintain a really high level of caring.
On this shot, however, the actor, who seems like he’s at that point in his career where he’s just starting to feel entitled, has another line and is refusing to be wired, even though there is one really wide camera on a crane that’s going to make the shot pretty impossible to boom. The director says he’ll go talk to the actor about it, but then he either forgets or he decides, eh, that’s a conversation he doesn’t want to have, because he never does, and then it’s our problem. We decide we’re going to try to get them not to roll the wide camera on one take so we can move in the boom close enough to get the actor’s lines.
When I’m back up on my ladder, the safety supervisor hands me a face shield, which is even harder to put on over your headphones while holding a long boom pole and trying not to fall off of a ladder. Then, just before the shot, my boss rushes over to talk with me about something. I can’t push off one of my ears as I would usually do so I can hear because I’ve got the face shield clamping them down on my head, and the shield itself is also deadening the sound. I keep trying to move things on my head and saying “What?"until I just get fed up.
"I’m not wearing this, fuck it.” I throw the face shield to the third, who, luckily, is always on set, even when he’s not supposed to be.
Sometimes, when I do things like this, I have this premonition of disaster — like you’d have in a movie, where you see the protagonist making a mistake in slow motion that’s going to end up causing something terrible to happen later on…But this is reality, so what happens is we get one version of the shot where they let me have the pole in the frame, and plus the actor is shouting, so it all turns out fine, and I don’t get any plastic fake glass anywhere close to my face.
Everyone is testy on this job due to the lack of communication. The actor gets snippy with the first AD. The director gets snippy with the first AD. Actually, everyone is getting snippy with the first AD, except for the DP, who is getting passive-aggressive with the director, like a petulant spouse.
“We’re not lit for this, but you know what? I don’t care.” And he starts walking away.
"Okay, how long will it take to light it?” says the director, chasing after him.
“15 to 20 minutes, but if you don’t have time to do it —“
"Well, we don’t really have time but if we have to —“
"Then let me light it!”
In fairness, they all have a point, particularly the actor. He’s doing a lot of physical stuff, so it’s got to be pretty exhausting, and there’s only so many times you want to run into a wall, even if you’re not doing it all that hard. In one of the gags we are doing, he has to run into a pile of wooden flats, knocking them toward where I’m hiding with the boom behind a car.
“It’s not safe there,” says the stunt supervisor, so I move. It’s no big deal, because the actor doesn’t have a line. Except then all of a sudden, he’s talking again.
“Wait, he has a line?” I say to the first AD. “Then I have to be back there behind the car.”
“I thought you were back there.”
“No, because you guys told me I couldn’t be back there because it wasn’t safe.”
“Just stand here instead,” says the stunt supervisor, indicating about six inches to the right of where I was standing originally. I don’t really see how this is safer, but then again, I didn’t see how my original position was really unsafe. I think I’m finally coming to understand how stunts work: nobody actually knows what’s going to happen, so everyone just overcompensates to cover their asses. Which, I guess, is better than not saying anything and having people get hurt, but still. Anyway, everything goes fine.
At one point I ask the stunt guys — who, when they sit around in a group, kind of look like a pack of camouflage Teletubbies — why there are so many of them. They explain that they try to take turns doing stuff, and they each have special skills. As far as I can tell, these skills include driving things, jumping or flipping over things, and having shit thrown at them.
Our third’s special skill is trying to be helpful by stating the obvious.
"If it’s a really wide shot we’re probably not going to be able to use two booms.”
“Looks like another stunt where they’re smashing up cars.”
“They’re slating the cameras.”
“That face shield doesn’t seem to fit very well.”
He’s a nice guy and I know he’s just trying to be a functioning part of our department, but I’m hoping at some point he will realize that there’s not that much for him to do, and when there is, the rest of us are about ten minutes ahead of him, so it’s easier if we just tell him what it is rather than have him trying to figure it out for himself.
Since it’s the last day, the prop department brings donuts.
“I’m just going to look at them,” says the producer. “Oh my God,” he says, after he bites into one. Clearly, they don’t make donuts like this in LA. He eats the whole thing. The stunt guys then challenge him to lift a solid iron bollard, which of course he can’t do. Looking at the producer, who has not removed the sunglasses from the top of his head since he arrived, it’s hard to think he has ever lifted anything heavier than a donut. How do these guys get into positions of power? If he were a woman, he’d still be a PA.
At one point, I hear this cheeping sound, and see one of the stunt guys trying to reach under a giant dumpster that is about to get smashed around in the next stunt set-up. He pulls out a tiny baby duckling.
“There’s a bunch of them under there,” he says.
I find a cardboard box and eventually he finds six ducklings which we stick in it. I put some water and bread in there but they just huddle together in one corner of the box.
“What do we do now?” I ask. “What if their mother can’t find them?”
“Isn’t their mother going to reject them now that you’ve touched them?” says one of the grips.
“It’s better than having them get squashed under that dumpster,” says the stunt guy.
Today there’s even less for me to do than usual, so I spend most of the rest of it trying to figure out what to do with the ducklings. First, I call 311.
“Here’s what it says for Animal Care and Control: ‘Unless the animal looks rabid or threatening, do not call Animal Care and Control,’” says the operator. “So I guess there’s no city department that deals with this. Anything else I can help you with?”
I start Googling. It turns out that when some ducklings were trapped on Park Avenue, the Parks Department got involved and sent some Park Rangers. I find a phone number.
“We have an event in the park today so I don’t have anyone who can come down there,” says the person who answers. “And there’s no mother, no water foul around? Try putting them somewhere in the shade where they can call for their mother. Maybe she’ll come back.”
“They’re not making much noise right now,” I say. If I jostle the box they start peeping again, but that’s because they’re freaking out, which seems kind of mean.
“Well, the other thing we do with injured animals is take them to the Wild Bird Fund up on the Upper West Side.”
I Google the Wild Bird Fund then call their number, which has an automated message. They don’t pick up animals, but they are open until 8 pm for drop-offs. I have a feeling we won’t be wrapping before then. I go to one of the ADs, who is frantically working away on her laptop.
“We don’t have any PAs available,” she says, looking incredibly stressed to even be talking to me. “We have three units going right now. Try one of the firemen, there’s like 30 of them sitting around at catering.”
“I can’t leave,” says the one fireman I find. “We have to stay in case they need us here, then when our shift here ends at six, we have to head right back to the firehouse to relieve the guys over there. You can try the police officer, he’s not doing anything.”
“I can’t leave, I have to stay here until you all are wrapped,” says the cop. “Plus, I’m not allowed to do something like that when I’m on duty. You don’t want to take them away from their mother anyway. What if the mother comes back and they’re not there?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like she’s coming back.”
“You know, animals die all the time.”
“I have to wait around here to talk with the director to plan out what we’re going to do tomorrow on the fourth unit,” says another one of the ADs, who I find hanging out at crafty, which has basically no food left thanks to the firemen. “Why don’t you take them home with you?”
“I live in a one-bedroom in Brooklyn,” I say. “And what would I feed them?”
“I don’t know, I picture them drinking milk,” he laughs. “I think you should raise them and write a children’s book about it.”
“Thanks a lot,” I say.
It’s like a lesson in why New York City sucks. Everyone is too busy and has some rationalization for why it’s not their problem. The only person who seems to take an interest is one of the effects people. I tell her about the Wild Bird Fund.
“But they’re only open until 8,” I say.
“Well, that gives us a couple of hours to figure it out,” she says.
Finally, sound gets wrapped while they’re doing the final stunt. I go off to help break down and load everything into my boss’ car. But the time we are done, it’s almost 8, and I know that even if I get a cab, I won’t make it to the Wild Bird Fund in time. I decide to go back and cut a hole in the cardboard box, so that if the mother does show up, the ducklings can get out. But when I get back to set, they’ve wrapped and everyone is gone, except for the script supervisor — and so is the box.
“There were ducklings?” says the script supervisor. “Aw, how cute. I would have taken them, I have a yard.”
“But what would you have fed them?” I ask.
“You can feed them greens, and a little ground corn,” she says.
“Huh,” I say, not feeling like this necessarily makes sense, but what do I know? Have I been right about anything on this job? “Well, they’re gone.“
Maybe the effort paid off, maybe one of the people I talked with actually took the ducklings home with them or somewhere where they could be taken care of. In the end, I have to admit that, like everyone else, I didn’t want the responsibility. For me, this job is over, and that’s the one good thing about what we do: when the job is over, you get to just leave it behind.