Friday, November 7, 2008

Open Mic Night.

When I first started working in film (as a P.A. on commercials), there would usually be something like six or seven walkie talkies on the average set. The two A.D.s each had one and the PA's all had them. If you were near the camera, you'd turn your radio off when the A.D. called "rolling" and you'd turn it back on when he said "cut". The P.A.s quickly learned proper etiquette around the third or fourth time they were at the receiving end of an enthusiastically delivered "Stay the fuck off the air when I'm rolling, asswipe."

Then, one day, the A.D. said, "How come I can never find the Location Manager when I need him?" and suddenly, the Locations Department were all carrying radios. Another fine day, the Gaffer got tired of sending one of his guys 15 floors down to the street to the truck that was another 1/2 block away to get a spare lightbulb and suddenly, the Electrics all had radios.

You get the picture. nowadays the average feature set has anywhere from 50-70 folks running around with radios on their belts chatting away at each other on 10 different channels. Add a stunts unit to the crew and the number rises precipitously. Obviously, this could cause an issue for the Sound Department, so 90% of these people now wear little headsets or earbuds so that the set isn't awash with random radio calls.

(Let me take a brief moment to talk about Sound Departments. Honestly, I don't dislike Sound Departments, but, of all the departments on a set, they tend to be one of the bigger pains in my ass . Granted, they have really sensitive microphones that hear everything, so they're entirely within their rights when they send me off chasing random noises. So, it's standard operating procedure to know, in advance, how to shut off the air conditioning and the refrigerators and the ringer on the phones. But as soon as you shut off those noises, the ones they were covering up become audible. And I can't shut off the cash register making that hum because it's a fancy new computerized unit and if I shut it off, they lose all of their records and we have to bring in the I.T. guy who charges $1000 an hour for house calls. And guess what Mr. Sound Man. When you ask me to chase down that car alarm that just went off? All I do is walk around the block and wait for it to turn off all by itself and then I call you on the radio and tell you I've got it covered. Because there is no fucking chance in hell, I'm going to be able to find out who owns that car or where I might find him.)

Most Location Managers I know use hand-mics instead of headsets. Simply put, we deal with the public more than anyone else, and if you're talking to the store owner down the block, you'd like him to hear that someone just called you on the radio before you start ignoring him to respond to the call. If you're wearing a head set, you're just suddenly speaking to someone else and that comes off as rude. It is not a successful strategy in conflict resolution.

Having the open mic, though, can be a double edged sword. I was a Locations P.A. on Coming to America. There's a scene toward the end of the movie with Shari Headley running through a rainstorm. (This is not the "Rain post" I promised the Script Goddess. I'll get around to that another time.) Our location that night was outside of a car wash in Queens. The entire outside of the car wash was done up with a mural made out of sequins and it just looked outrageous, especially when we lit it. The only thing on the block that wasn't part of the car wash was in the middle of the block. The middle part of the wall was occupied by a large picture window that looked in on a car service office. (In NYC, yellow cabs cruise for fares and if you want to call for a car to pick you up, you call a car service.)

Rain scenes aren't pleasant for anyone, but the night we shot this scene, the tempreature dipped to about 14º. The first time they tried to shoot, all of the rain bars and spinners froze solid in about two minutes and Shari couldn't stop shivering regardless of the dry-suit she was wearing under her wardrobe. So we waited for a few hours while the effects guys used steam to get everything flowing again and then figured out how much glycol to mix with the water so that they could make rain. (Note: There's no way in hell you could get a permit to use any percentage mixture of glycol nowadays, and I'm sure we used a hell of a lot more than was permissable then.)

Eventually, I could see that we were getting close to being ready to try shooting again, so I went into the car service to ask the 400 lb. dispatcher who was watching us through the window if he'd please step back into his office so he wouldn't be in the shot. Just as I walked into the office, my open mic screamed, "Somebody get into the car service and get that fat fuck out of the window". I just looked at him sheepishly and told him he should feel free to stand anywhere he liked.

Another potential problem with radios is that just like email, just because you sent something does not mean it was received. One of the first things you're taught in radio etiquette, is to acknowledge all calls by saying "Copy" or "Copy that" which gets a little amusing because people start saying that to acknowledge face-to-face instructions. (The only "codes" we tend to use are "What's you're twenty {10-20} meaning "Where are you" and the response 10-100 means you're taking a leak. Some people like to say 10-200 which I think is just TMI.)

There's a story, mostly apocryphal about Cecille B. DeMille on the set of The Ten Commandments. To shoot one of the action sequences with a huge crowd of extras he decided to employ multiple cameras. He called all of the cameras on the radio to roll and then hollered "action" through the megaphone. After the scene was over, his A-Cameraman said, "I didn't get that. The film broke about 20 seconds into the action." B-Camera reported that a horse had kicked the lens and he didn't get the shot either. C-Camera responded that so much dust was kicked up that he couldn't see ten feet in front of him.

Picking up his radio, DeMille called D-Camera which was positioned for a high, wide-angle master shot. "Please, tell me you got the shot", to which the D-Cameraman is reported to have cheerfully replied, "Ready when you are C.B."


Anonymous said...

I'm going to start shouting "10-100!" in my house.

Nathan said...

Copy that!

Jim Wright said...

Damn, I enjoyed that. Thanks, Nathan.

Of course, those of us in the military live and die on radio comms, so let me add one more general rule to walkie talkie procedure: Fear the dreaded 'open mic.' I.e. Always ensure that you wear your mic in such manner as to not accidentally depress the transmit button for an extended period during which you are bound to have a conversation that you would rather not have everybody on the entire fucking circuit listen in on:

Example: I'm the officer in charge of a special operations unit, deployed far out in the Aleutian Islands. I've got a 3-star general inbound, and I'm supposed to meet him at the air field and take him and his staff up for a tour of my operation. I'm connected to my men via tactical field radio and because I am the OIC my chief thoughtfully set my radio to monitor all channels, not just C&C (command and control). All channels, including the personal chatter circuit.

As the general steps down from his plane, and I step forward and snap my best salute, the chatter circuit lights up - because the planes turbines were so damned loud I had the volume turned up all the way. The pilot picked that exact moment to shut the engines down. In the echoing silence came the following conversation:
"Hey, did the fucking plane land yet?"
"Yah, yeh. It's on the runway."
"Warrant pick up General Fuckhead yet?"
"How the fuck do I know? What's your fucking hurry?"
"I'm freezing my fucking ass off here waiting to get this dog and pony show going. Fucking generals"
"Yeah, fucking generals. He's probably gay."
... and so on and so forth.

General looked at me, I looked right back at him.
"We ready?"
"Just as soon as I kill my men, Sir. "
"Roger that, let me know when you're ready."

Nathan said...


That would go on the sidebar in "Best of Polybloggimous", but it's too damned long. ROFLMAO!

Another thing that goes on is that it's fairly common to have the actors "wired" (on wireless mics) and the director, sound man, boom man and a bunch of producers have "cans" (wireless headsets) to listen. A thoughtful sound mixer will turn off the feed between takes, but they've been known to forget. It's really embarrassing when an actor starts talking about what a moron some particular producer is and he's listening.

Anonymous said...

Jim, that's just priceless.

Thank you for the laugh!

Anonymous said...

I always wondered why you guys have open walkies.