Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Checking The Gate!

There are any number of terms we use in film that have their origins firmly placed in bygone systems and obsolete technology. Like other bits of jargon, they're terms that are useful and will continue to be used.  You use that "cc" notation on emails every day, don't you?  But how many 20-year-olds have ever had the pleasure of trying to jam eight sheets of onion skin separated by sheets of carbon paper into a typewriter.  How many of them know that "cc" stands for carbon copy?

Every once in a while, one of these terms will stop me cold and have me scratching my head.  One of those terms is "Checking the Gate".

With cameras that use film, there's an actual "gate" that the film passes through as it's briefly exposed when the shutter flashes open.  Whenever we finish shooting a setup (one camera angle within a scene), the A.D. announces that we're "Checking the Gate".  This serves two purposes.  First, it's an instruction to the Assistant Cameraman to do just that -- to check the gate for hairs or dust or scraps of film that would indicate that the film might have been scratched or torn as it passed through the gate.  It's something that happens.  And it's much more economical from every standpoint to just shoot another take before moving to the next setup than it is to wait; see the scratched dailies; and then return to the location with the same actors and shoot the setup all over again. It also announces to the rest of the crew that you're about to be "moving on"; that they should prepare to get the next setup ready.

And now, even with digital media, the A.D. still announces that we're "checking the gate"...even though there isn't one.  I realize that it still serves the purpose of alerting the crew that we'll be moving on to the next setup, but, otherwise...just what the hell are we checking?  I suppose somebody needs to make sure they actually pressed "record" before the take.

"Best Boy" is used to refer to the 2nd person in the Electric or Grip Departments.  It has it's origins in the early studio days before unions made floating between departments unheard of. If the Gaffer needed an extra pair of hands to help for a while, he would ask the Key Grip if he could borrow his "best boy".  Similarly, "Craft Service" was a jack of all trades (and it's still a union position in L.A.).  Originally, this was someone who might sit on the electric truck helping to fix extension cords.  Or he might help the sound department if a scene called for two boom operators.  Or he'd help the grips hauling lumber.  And, since he wasn't always needed to fill some technical need, a big part of his job "servicing the crafts" consisted of running for coffee.  Over time, getting the coffee (and water and snacks and sodas) became his raison d'etre.  I'm told that in L.A., it's not unheard of to see Craft Service actually chipping in with one of the departments (which is allowable there, since it's still a union position), but you'll never see Craft Service pulling cable in New York.

I've mentioned before that the term for shooting a scene that doesn't need any recorded sound is "MOS".  That one is said to trace it's origin to a recently immigrated Austrian or German director telling the crew "Ve'll shoot dis one Mit Out Sound".  That may not be true, but I prefer it to the alternate explanations.

Everyone refers to the last shot of the day as the Martini...as in, we get this last one and it'll be martini time!  The second to last shot of the day is universally referred to as The Abby Singer, or just The Abby.  This one is named for the legendary eponymous Producer, Production Manager, Assistant Director who first started communicating to crews that "we have this and one more shot" to get.  A week or so ago, when our A.D. announced The Abby for that day, I found myself wondering how many people on the set knew that it was actually named for a living breathing person.  And I found myself remembering being a lowly P.A. (not that all P.A.s are lowly by definition -- just that I was about as far down the food chain as possible), on a two-day shoot when St. Elsewhere came to shoot on location in Boston.  It's a little surreal to recall the A.D. calling The Abby on one of those days...while the guy it refers to was sitting 20 feet away.

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