Friday, April 13, 2012

Prima Donnas and Challenges Old and New

(Another post out-of sequence, in my attempt to also track what is happening now, and put it in perspective with my career.  My next post, on Tuesday, April 17th, will be about a current gig that brings back memories of my first gigs - in theater! The story of "The Rook" will continue a few days later)

In the digital age, short films have become increasingly more popular than in the past, and this creates some new challenges, while some old truths remain the same.  Old and new were part of the mix for me recently as assistant director on a short for a director whose work I really like.

The new is how reduced budgets allow for less expense on the technology, but also means less money and time spent on the production side.  My production staff consisted of a production assistant who was a friend of the director who does not drive and who had very definite ideas about what was and what was not his job, and a foreign-born friend of the art director who came along to help out with limited English skills and no set experience, but a great attitude and the ability to drive.  The latter was infinitely more useful to me than the former, a film school grad who kept talking about his “real” projects when he wasn’t reading a book on producing or sleeping on the couch.

Perhaps my “favorite” part about the lazy friend of the director was that he took all notes on his brand-new iPad.  This might have impressed me (though it is unlikely) had he actually done half of the things I asked him to do.  Evidently, lists on iPads are somehow harder to carry out than notes taken on a paper pad.  Who knew?

Of course, I had no Second AD, but here, technology comes in handy.  Gorilla Software, which is my preferred software to EP, creates a nice call sheet (I know they are working on even better ones and the ability to incorporate people’s current templates).  While it is not as good as the excel marvels my better 2nds use, I would not have the time to fill the latter out, so even having the ability to generate call sheets as soon as I switch the schedule is nice.

While shorts leave less of a staff (no office staff to help with sides and copies, for one), some old truths remain.  Whether you email them, print them, or both, forms are only as good as people reading them.  Most of the crew, including the director of photography, didn’t actually read the call sheet emailed, so referring to it becomes kind of useless.  The printer the director brought never made it out of the bag until day 2, though it was one of the first things I asked the friend to set up when we got there the night before shooting.  Wonder if the iPad deleted it?

In the category of old comes getting lost on the way to location, something we managed to do even with GPS (the fact that all of the phones using the GPS were low on charges didn’t help).  That, as one of my DP friends suggested, gets very old very fast.

I was reintroduced on this shoot to something that is probably as old as the era of movies, and that was the prima donna* Director of Photography.  We've all worked with them, and it reminds me of a story the insightful  blogger Schmudde shared in his blog,  Beyond the Frame about the exceptional cinematographer Sven Nykvist:

"A crew member with whom he was sharing a moment of relaxation turned to him and said, 'Sven. let's hurry, they need you.' Nykvist turned back and replied, 'No rush, without us, it's radio.'"

I will generally agree with Schmudde that the quote is brilliant, but then again, so is Nykvist and his work ethic in general.  To an AD working with a mediocre, at best, DP, it loses its luster.  I have seen too many mediocre DPs with one or two impressive credits to their name bully directors and approach  films as if it were their set, and it is when people with lesser talent take on the mantle of superiority that I take issue.

Digital cameras make it possible for people who would not know what to do with a light meter or how to load a film camera to call themselves DPs.  Not a knock on the technology - I just worked as post supervisor on a film shot on a 7D that was truly amazing, images to match anything I have ever worked on.  I also have had the pleasure of working with a number of talented young DPs who I have no doubt will reshape the future of cinematography, using new technologies in ways we have not imagined.

ADs and DPs butting heads is also a part of film , as both professions attract a certain number of people with God complexes, and polytheistic film sets tend to be untidy.  (Least I suggest that only DPs can be prima donnas, a good friend who was a DGA intern shares this story.  Part of her first job as DGA intern was to stand in the closest parking spot until the 1st AD arrived.  Once he parked, he would get out of the car and hold his arms up, and she would have to put his walkie and headset on him.  When he left, she was to do the same in reverse, taking the walkie and headset off of him.)  It's probably why I have always treasured the many DPs I've worked with who were not only talented, but team players, and people with whom I got along.

This DP had assembled quite a team, and luckily, they were talented.  The team included a camera operator, as the Prima Donna DP had no skills actually operating a camera.  While many DPs prefer to work with an operator, on a small indie level, most I know are talented operators, and on most of the indie features I worked on, they were their own operators.  This operator was not only talented, but great to have on board, which I came to appreciate during filming of a scene in a bathroom.

Bathrooms being shot on location have had the same challenges from the beginning of time, tight space and reflection.  I was not able to scout the location before we shot, but specifically asked both the director and DP about the bathroom on location before we shot, and Prima Donna DP assured both of us that it would work fine.

So here we are shooting the bathroom, and the tight space and the reflection make it difficult to get the shot right.  It's an emotional scene, and the first scene in the movie, so it's obviously important, or so you would think.  The DP, however, had done little preparation, and when I tried to figure how we could stop catching the operator in the reflection, her answer was "It's not my fault.  The door on the cabinet (with the mirror) opens the wrong way."

Wait, you were on the scout, right?  Did you not open the cabinet to see which way it opened?  Further, it won't matter to the audience that the cabinet opened the wrong way.  When open, the inside of the cabinet was poorly lit.  Again, the answer was the cabinet opening the wrong way.  I have only had DPs solve this problem about a million times in my career, and with bathrooms just as small.  Her answer, simply, was that it was not her fault.

The only person with an answer was her gaffer, the only person on set who understood lighting.  On more than one occasion, I heard him tell Prima Donna "don't worry about units - just tell me what you want," a good suggestion since she didn't know much about units or lighting.  I should point out at this point that both my gaffer and key grip  were amazingly talented and easily the hardest working people on the crew.  If not for them, the Minnow, as they say, would have been lost.

All of this confusion about the bathroom led to the poor operator having the camera (a RED) on his shoulder way longer than he should have.  Simple rule - once the camera is on the operator's shoulder, everyone focuses and busts their rear until he is able to take it off his shoulder.  Not a rule Signorina followed, as her frequent smoke breaks outside the cabin we were using could not be interrupted for such trivial things as an operator having the camera on his shoulder.  It also did not keep her from joking with the friends on the crew during these periods, completely oblivious to the fact that the actress was playing an emotional scene where she had just discovered her dead son.

Many operators would have been cursing up a storm, but not a peep was heard from him, something that earned my complete respect.

The other reason the DP was not engaged with the scene was she knew it wouldn't wind up on her reel, so it didn't really matter, as that seems the only reason she was on this shoot.  There were three scenes which concerned her, one of which was a Magic Hour shot.  The rest were just there, I guess, to connect the three scenes that she could show to others.

If there were any doubt about the "important" scenes, she made a big deal of announcing, prior to the shoot, that it would take "at least" two hours to light each of these scenes, and later, her estimate revised upward.  Thanks to the hard-working and talented Grips and electrics (dolly grip - also great), their set-up times were shorter than that, but we still got to the time she suggested and passed it as she made endless and needless adjustments, adjustments she hadn't taken a second to actually plan, it seemed.

I have seen DPs who were shooting their reels before, but the feeling never stops irking me.  For them, the current shoot is a mere pit stop along the way of a race they intend on winning, one that brings awards and acclaim and bigger money.  All of the latter is fine; to some extent, we all hope that our good work will bring us more good work.  However, for these DPs, what it means is that time doesn't matter, and if we have to do endless takes of their favorite scenes and the director has to cut other scenes later, that is just fine.

A film set is a team, a collaboration, which can be the best part about this craft or its downfall, the fact that one key member being out-of-step can hurt an entire project.  DPs shooting their reels also bring along a lot of attitude, as it helps to deflect any criticism of the crazy amount of time they are spending on set-ups.

This, I learned was true of her on other shoots, as a hard-working and talented camera person I know who worked with her shared that she would often scream at her team and remind them who was in charge.   In all lines of work, people who have to remind you of who is in charge usually are not very good at earning respect, since if they were, there would be no need to remind others.

I could say that Prima Donna DP made this an unpleasant experience, but that would not be entirely true, as I once again got to meet a lot of the great people I mentioned.  I am sure she will go on to some level of success if her crew continues to follow her and make up for her short-comings, but it doesn't matter, because I know the other people (including the director, who has already directed and produced some very nice material) will go forward, because they not only are very good at what they do, but a joy to work along side.

That is also something that never changes; that no matter how bad a situation on a given shoot can seem, there are always, always good things to take from it, and more often than not, it is the good people you do meet.

* While the origin of the term "prima donna" comes from opera and its literal translation of "first lady", I use the term here without reference to gender, as I often use "actor" for both male and female performers.  Consider the closer definition this one from our friends at Merriam-Webster; "a vain (or undisciplined) person who finds it difficult to work as part of a team."

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