Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Postus Interruptus: Film Is A Visual Medium. Your Work Will Be Obscured To The Fullest Extent Of Available Technology. Thank You For Playing. (Part Two)

I left you a few days ago half-way through talking about how each member of the crew on a movie has the heartfelt conviction that their part in making a movie is the mostest importantest, critical, necessary and worthy part in the process.  I alluded to the sad fact that most of those people are wrong; how could their contribution be the most important when obviously, my contribution is the one that really matters?*

Let's pick up where we left off; a bit more about instances where the location was clearly the star of the scene but the Director, the D.P., and the Editor didn't get the memo.

Interruption ::insert car screeching to a halt sfx::

So I got this far into writing this post and what happens?  My phone rings and it's one of the producers from a job I worked on a couple of weeks ago. And he's calling to say he forgot to thank me for my work; that the footage looks great and the buildings we chose cut perfectly with the interior scenes they shot on the stage.

Who the hell does that? Making people feel all appreciated and shit?  Hell, I'm usually satisfied to just get paid in a reasonable amount of time and this guy's got to act like a total mensch? Way to fuck up a perfectly good rant, Jeff.

Note:  I've got a long-standing policy of not naming names here and I'm half-way keeping to my own rule, but I don't think I'll upset the apple cart by outing someone for being one of the good guys. In fact,  everyone connected with this show is over-the-top, unexpectedly, unnecessarily, stupendously NICE.   Yup, same show; same group of people.

If you pay attention (in a couple of months), I'll be pimping a new network series and you'll be able to put two and two together and figure out exactly who I'm talking about. And, not only are the people making the show really terrific to work for; the show's actually really funny.  You should watch it.  I'll give you a heads up when it starts to air.

*On a semi-serious note, I remember when Vanilla Sky was released and the BIG thing they all talked about in the publicity was the scene where Tom Cruise finds himself alone in a completely deserted Times Square.  It's a spectacular sequence and a jaw dropping bit of imagery.  And every time it got talked about it was about how this person or that person (Director, Star, Producer, Film Commissioner, etc.) pulled off a miracle to make it happen. And while I don't doubt that each of those people was directly involved to an unusual degree, it might have been nice if anyone acknowledged that the movie even had a Location Manager. The credits list more than one NY Location Manager and I honestly don't remember who did what on that show, but suffice it to say, pulling that off took an impressively HUGE amount of work for the Locations Dept.  Excellent work, guys!

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Brief Non-Commercial Interruption.

I'll get back to telling you about how the Powers-That-Be are conspiring to conceal my contribution to the art of cinema -- there's not even an Oscar for Bestest Locations -- but first, I wanted to show you some really cool pictures I ran across recently on a friend's FaceBook page.

I met Iris Ng a few years ago when she was the Rigging Gaffer* on a show I was working on. These shots are from another movie she was working on and there was no way to get the camera crane up to a 12th floor roof except to haul it up with a construction crane. One of these shots is the crane on its way up and the other is on its way down. (I'll also give props to the Location Manager, since using the construction crane called for shutting down traffic on 36th Street twice for a few hours each time.  Suck it, crosstown traffic!)

Also, as long as I'm snarfing content from Iris' photo album, here are a couple of shots that actually involve her department.  This is what happens when you set 44 electricians loose on 13 rooftops!

* For the typical scene, all of the lighting is done by the electricians on the shooting crew, but for larger scenes there's a separate Rigging Crew brought in hours or days ahead of the shooting crew. The Rigging Gaffer runs the Electric Department on the rigging crew, supervising the roughing in of however many miles of cable and however many lighting instruments will be needed to shoot the scene(s). By definition, there's only a separate rigging crew brought in for scenes that involve larger lighting situations ranging from "Hey, that's a lot of lights" to "Holy Crap, did you leave any equipment for the rest of the shows in town?"

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Film Is A Visual Medium. Your Work Will Be Obscured To The Fullest Extent Of Available Technology. Thank You For Playing. (Part One)

When I was in college, if you were majoring in Film, you had to produce a "Final"  film and the crew was made up of fellow students. I remember working on one film where Student "X" was working as the Gaffer...and he was really fast. The problem was that he'd light the scene as soon as he knew where the actors would be acting, but not before he found out where the camera would be. So he always set up the lights in the shot. The third or fourth time this happened, he screamed at the Director of Photography, "The lighting is beautiful! How about if you 'adjust' your shot to avoid the lights for once ‽"

You may find this ludicrous -- and at the time, so did I -- but I'm beginning to sympathize with the poor deluded schmuck. It's true; everyone who works on movies has, at one time or another, felt like their contribution wasn't getting the respect it deserved. (They've also all felt they deserved a really cool leather crew jacket or even a shiny new BMW instead of some crappy T-shirt as a wrap gift, but that's another story altogether.)

It's a good news/bad news situation.

For the filmmaker, it's good that someone is obsessing about what time shows up on that clock at the beginning of every take of Scene 87B.  It's good that someone is obsessing about the lead character always wearing that bracelet during the third day of the story, but not on the fourth day of the story.  It's good that someone is obsessing about getting a clean recording of that mournful train whistle in the distance.  It's good that someone is obsessing over there always being plenty of peanut butter & cheese crackers on hand; even if most of the crew thinks they're disgusting, they keep disappearing at an impressive rate, so they must be making somebody happy.

For the obsessed, though, here's the bad news.  No matter how dedicated you are to carrying out the narrow focus of your job description, it's never going to be a movie about a clock that says 9:42 A.M. at just the right moment of screen time; it'll never be a movie about that adorable tennis bracelet; it's never going to be a movie about moody train whistles and if it's ever a movie about peanut butter and cheese crackers, there had better be a fairly engrossing subplot.

So yeah...I get it. the movie is about the people and what they do and say in the locations you pay me to find, but would it be asking too much to actually let the audience get a look at the places sometimes?  Huh?

You want an example?  On one movie, I was sitting down for a meeting with the Director and the D.P. to discuss the look of the film before I got heavily into scouting.  The D.P. said he intended to shoot most of the movie "kinda long-lensey, in your face, really intimate".  "Great", I said, "We can shoot the whole movie in your office." (I swear this is an accurate transcript.)

Here's the opening scene of the movie and here's just a screenshot since embedding is disabled.
Go ahead and watch the whole thing; it's a pretty terrific scene.  But it's also a pretty terrific location. We looked at 42 BAZILLION restaurants before choosing that one. I'm not sure why we bothered.*  Look, I know the scene is about the people around that table, but couldn't we get one stinking in-focus shot of the place? (Why yes...I am being a whiney little bitch.)

One of the first movies I had any real Locations responsibilities on was True Believer.  The opening sequence of the movie is a murder in Chinatown that sets up the rest of the plot.  Here's the trailer for the movie and you can see a snippet of the Chinatown sequence in the first few seconds.

The scene takes up a couple of minutes of actual screen time and it took two full nights to shoot. It took me two solid weeks to make all of the arrangements necessary to shoot there ... stores/restaurants keeping their lights and signs on all night, access to a bunch of roofs and fire escapes for lighting and camera positions, etc.**

Once's a terrific scene, but Chinatown is really fuzzy and out of focus for most of it. Does a little part of me resent the fact that two weeks of my hard work is barely visible on the screen?  Nooooooo!  That would be petty and stupidly self-centered of me. (Feh.)

This Post Will Be Continued with more petty, self-centered whining...
Stay Tuned!
*For the record, that scene was shot at  O'Neal's on Grand Street.
And just a bit of trivia...O'Neal's is across the street from the Old Police Headquarters Building.  If you go into the basement of O'Neal's, you can still see a small remnant of a tunnel that used to connect it directly to the Police Building so cops could get there clandestinely during Prohibition.

**The director wanted the street to "suggest" that there was some sort of street festival going on and he wanted a bunch of banners strung across the street to add color and texture, so I had to get permission to string those between buildings.  Nobody really cared what the banners would say, since most of the audience wouldn't be able to read Chinese, so the Art Department hired some Chinese sign-writer to make them and told him to just make them say innocuous stuff -- "Venerable Honored Ladies' Club Flower Sale" -- stuff like that.  The sign writer decided it would be really funny to sell the movie a bunch of banners filled with rabid Communist slogans -- which we discovered when the Art Department started hanging them up and the street was suddenly filled with people screaming at us and threatening all sorts of dire consequences if we didn't pull them down immediately.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Just A Tad of Sutton Place.

Manhattan's east side has a bunch of bulges in it, so First Avenue isn't always the furthest one to the East.  Downtown, there's Avenues A, B, C, and D.  Way uptown, around 116th Street, there's Pleasant Avenue between 1st Ave and the East River.

At 57th Street, there's one street east of First Avenue...called Sutton Place. (It becomes York Avenue as you head north and runs up into the low 90's.)

Anyway, Sutton Place was established as a wealthy enclave starting around 1920.  If you look it up, you'll find a list of famous people who have lived there.  At the end of 57th Street, there's a little park called Sutton Place Park.  It's actually cantilevered out over the FDR Drive.

Here's a couple of little items there.

First, before you enter the park, there's a townhouse that is (or was?) owned by the Heinz Estate. (Yeah, the pickle people.)  One of my first jobs in NY involved a shot on the street in front of the house and the director wanted it to appear as if the lead actor was coming out of the house.  For days, I kept getting stonewalled by a fairly officious housekeeper who kept taking messages, but I'd get no response.  Finally, I asked another doorman nearby if he knew any way I could contact someone.  He told me that the owner walked her two little yappy dogs every afternoon at the same time.

So I waited for the alloted time (OK, I stalked the owner) and got permission for our actor to stand outside the door for the shot.  The lady I spoke to was roughly 135 years old at the time (1986), so I'd imagine she's really cantankerous now.  Here's the house.  Same blue door as 25 years ago.
The UN Secretary General's Official Residence is next door around the corner.  The cop in the booth out front gets really pissy when you take pictures of it, so use your imagination.

The park itself is below grade just outside of the frame if you looked to your right.  It's a lovely little park with a great view of the Queensborough Bridge just a few blocks north.  (No, I'm never going to start calling it the Ed Koch Bridge, official declarations be damned.)  Anyway, the centerpiece of the park is a bronze statue of a wild boar.  I don't think there's any special significance to the boar, just that the guy who donated it, liked it.

I'm not sure whether or not the pedestal is a replica of the original, but it's covered with little mice, toads, crabs, snakes and other crawlies. I have no idea what their significance is, and I highly doubt they hang out together like that in nature.

Here's another thing.  While trying to find out about this statue, I found a link discussing a life-sized sculpture of an elephant that was donated to the UN for their sculpture garden a few years ago. Apparently it's got a prominent two foot long penis!  According to what I could find online, the UN cheerfully accepted the elephant and then promptly landscaped it so that it looks like the elephant is charging from a thicket of bushes -- hiding it's nether regions.  I think the sculpture garden is closed for renovations, but I promise to document this wonder for you at the soonest opportunity.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Luna Brooklyn

Today Is National ________ Day!

I'll admit I'm a little disappointed.  Today seems to be National...uh...nothing Day. On the face of it, I'm sure you find this as disappointing as I do.  (Oh, c'mon! How hard is it to humor me?) Here we sit in a wilderness of 5 days commemorating and honoring...nothing at all between Guy Fawkes Night and Armistice Day.  Unless you're a devoted nihilist, this doesn't inspire your inner-squee.

You can, however, choose to join me in viewing this as a grand opportunity.  November 9th is just champing at the bit for something to celebrate.  Think of it!  How many times have you found yourself wanting to honor something only to realize, all the good days are already taken!   Well, November 9th is up for grabs -- as are November 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th!  It's a veritable cornucopia of days just hankering for something to devote themselves to! (to which to devote themselves?)

I have a few suggestions.

-National Head Lice Day (This could be either "pro" or "anti"; I'm flexible).
-National Chopped Liver Day (the good old American - i.e. Jewish -- kind, not that Frenchified pate' stuff.)
-National Bile Appreciation Day. (Face it; you need the stuff. And think how boring the internet would be without people spewing bile and venting their spleens! It's second only to cats in filling the intertoobs!)
-National Jabberwocky Day.  (Talking like a pirate has its own day. Is nonsensical stream-of-consciousness any less deserving?)

of possibly my favorite pet issue --

-National Blog Hijack™Day! (I think this one speaks for itself.)

Let's hear your neglected issues deserving of their own commemorative day.    

See? The kids are celebrating already!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Art By The Square Yard.

I was looking for something on my computer today and ran across these shots I took while scouting a show a few years ago.  I haven't been back to this street since I shot these, and I heard the buildings might be torn down for redevelopment, so when I'll speak of the place in the present tense even though past tense may be more accurate.

Anyway, these are some shots of 5Pointz, a self-described "Institute of Higher Burnin" in Long Island City (Queens).  The shots I've got are only a small fraction of what exists. And regardless of what you may think about graffiti, you've got to admit this is pretty damned awesome. (Comments about wildlife and nature being better will be summarily deleted - Nothing ever tried to bite me in Long Island City.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sometimes, I Just Amuse Me.

If you're unfamiliar with The Villages, this won't make any sense at all.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What If The Phone Never Rings Again?

Disclaimer: The phone calls that brought on this post confused the hell out of me.  So much so that I'm not sure I can tell this in a coherent manner. I'll just sum it up here before I begin:  If you read it and find yourself asking, "What the hell was that all about?", I'll have conveyed it perfectly.

If you read blogs by freelancers, you've run across a common theme...paranoia about turning down jobs. Turning down a job...any job...runs counter to pretty much every instinct a freelancer has.  No matter how busy you may be, you're never sure your phone will ever ring again.  So maybe you get a call and you're already booked for those days.  I guarantee you'll try to figure out how to do two jobs at once before you turn them down.  Maybe you're working nights and somebody wants you do some scouting during the day.  You'll think long and hard about working a week shuttling back and forth between both jobs.  I'll sleep when I'm dead is a thought we've all entertained.  You end up turning down those jobs but you always wonder if you could have pulled it off if you'd really tried.

There are times when you get a call from someone who doesn't really have enough money.  They want you to work for half (or less) of your daily rate; they can't afford for you to hire the help the job will require; they want you to find places that will let them shoot for free.  These are a little less difficult to turn down, but you still have your doubts..  Every time you think about that job you turned down, and you will think about it, you'll find yourself wondering if you just turned down the next Spielberg. 

Then there are the rare occasions when you get a call that just confuses you. I got one of those yesterday.  My phone rang around 4:30 yesterday afternoon to find out  if I was available to do some scouting.  The caller gave his name and the name of the company he was working for...both of them ringing the vaguest of bells in my steel-trap sieve of a mind. (The company turns out to be a real commercial production company and the caller had been a Production Assistant* on a job I did  a year or so ago.)

I explained that I'm already booked for next week and he says, "That's no problem.  We need the scouting done right away. Could you scout tomorrow and over the weekend?" That voice in my head that wonders if the phone will ever ring again started nattering and I agreed (unenthusiastically), that I could probably do that.

Now comes the part where the caller usually tells me what they're looking for.  This is where he'd say, "It's a commercial for such-and-such-product and the Mom is in her kitchen with her three crazed kids and 'so-and-so' shows up at the door and saves the day with the Wonder-Product."  They usually want to send me a script.  Or a storyboard.  Or a synopsis.  They usually want to tell me that it'd be great if the kitchen had modern reproductions of 1940's appliances and maybe some exposed brick and a skylight.  And copper cookware hanging down from a rack. And the kids' drawings all over the refrigerator.  And there MUST be a center island in the kitchen. Frankly, they usually want to tell me more than I need to know to get the job done.

This guy's version of telling me what they're looking for consisted of telling me they need to shoot near the end of November and they need a place with two different rooms (that could "even be in two different cities"), to shoot over the course of three days. He tells me they've looked at random Manhattan Address - (as if I have a photographic archive in my head of every Manhattan address) - and how that would be perfect except that it only fits about 10 people and they need space for 50 people.  This is all he tells me.  What he's told me is nothing. 

He's told me that they need a couple of rooms that hold 50 people.  He hasn't told me if this is for a commercial or a TV series or a feature film or an infomercial or a documentary about NASCAR widows.  He's told me that they need two rooms that hold 50 people.

Hmmmm, The Possibilities.
There are a lot of lecture halls that hold 50 people.

The Yankees' locker room will hold 50 people.

No problem at all getting 50 people into The Rainbow Room.

Hell!  I can cram 50 people into a little corner the the Hunts Point Fish Markets!

There's also the question of what's happening in this room that needs to hold 50 people. What exactly are those 50 people going to be doing?  Is it a scene about some Gala Charity Ball with 50 guests and he's not including the crew in his description?  Maybe they've got a crew of 50 people to shoot two people having an intimate conversation.

The thought crosses my mind that this may be something that has to be kept under wraps until it's released to the masses!

I've worked on things like that before. Most people have.  These are the things that Non-Disclosure Agreements were invented for.  It's really hard to have people shoot the commercial meant to promote your exciting brandy-new top-secret product without telling them what the brandy-new top-secret product is. 

For the moment, I decided to give up on that line of questioning. I asked what kind of schedule they're on. He tells me the producers would like me to come into the office first thing in the morning and show them some possibilities.  Uh...What?  I'm supposed to have possibilities to show them before they tell me what I'm looking for?  Before I get a chance to look for the thing that I-don't-know-what-it-is?  I'm starting to think he doesn't want a scout so much as he wants a Locations Library.  These are more common in L.A. than they are in New York, but there are companies here that just have a bunch of stuff on file** for you to look through.  I suggest that he might want to go in that direction.  He calls me back five minutes later to tell me, No, we want a Location Manager/Scout, not a service. They just want you to make your calls from the office so they can watch your process.

My PROCESS? My PROCESS is that you tell me what the fuck you want to shoot and when the fuck you want to shoot it and how the fuck much you have to pay for it I go out and find it.  That's my process.

I was starting (OK, I had already started a while ago), to get a bad feeling about this gig. I went back to trying to find out what they actually want to shoot.  After two more phone calls, he cheerfully announces, "It's a commercial!"  That's all he has to tell me that he hasn't already told me.

I tactfully expressed my regrets that I didn't think I was the guy they wanted to hire.  I tried telling him that I wasn't sure I could deliver what they wanted in the way they wanted it.  I tried telling him I wasn't sure I understood their expectations so I wasn't sure I could meet them.  I tried everything short of saying "I'm not at all sure you people have the first clue what you're doing".  No matter how I tried to say, "It's not you; it's me", he just didn't want to accept it.

Eventually, I just told him I was sorry but he was going to have to find someone else. And I'm still not entirely sure what the hell it was all about. And on top of all that, I'm not 100% sure I didn't commit some terrible faux pas (to be revealed at a later date), by turning down the Ambiguous-Enigmatic-Incomprehensible Mystery Job of 2011. Since it's more likely that some other poor schmuck of a Location Manager is now pulling his hair out, I'll manage to live with it.  But I'll always wonder What the hell was that all about?

Update: A couple of the comments seem geared toward making sure I don't feel too bad about turning down this job.  Don't worry. Sure, I'll have doubts about whether or not I did the right thing...but they're really minor doubts. I'm not seriously second-guessing myself.  Also (and this is important), I'm not willing to assign the blame to the P.A. based on what little evidence I've got. It's entirely plausible that he's just a victim of his boss's instructions.
*Getting the call from a Production Assistant doesn't set off any alarm bells, nor should it. It's common for Producers to assign a P.A. to make a bazillion calls to see who's available and then the Producer gets involved.  Or the P.A. might have come up in the world.  That's where Coordinators and Production Managers and Producers come from. (Rumors to the contrary, Producers are not just hatched with that alarming temperament.)

**Locations Libraries (or Services) and Location Managers are really two separate types of businesses. I could go into a long explanation of why the two different business models exist, but suffice it to say, Location Manager tend to come onto a project and start from scratch each time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Occupy Easy Street -- Signal Lost -- GPS Rerouting.

An overwhelmingly large percentage of people 
had an easier time reading this 
after clicking on it 
to activate biggification.