The first three of my group's shoots were two weekends ago. We rotated through crew positions for each other, and I started out as the sound mixer. Consciously or not, I channeled the demeanor of other sound mixers I've seen on set before and spent most of my time with my headphones on, trying to stay out of the way of the gaffers and grips running around.
On the next shoot, I was the AD, a position which reminds me of program management in the technology world. As an AD, you spend most of your time running around keeping people on task, running a series of mental calculations to ensure the director gets all the shots needed in the time available. Most people don't like the AD, but there's an art to it. I enjoy the job in small doses, but it's not a position I aspire to. Since our first shoots are given a time and film constraint--from call time to wrap, we have four hours and four hundred feet of 16mm film--the AD has to be particularly tuned into where the shoot is in terms of film and time. Four hours has seldom felt shorter.
At the same time, all those years working at Amazon.com accustomed me to maintaining a certain zen-like focus in a maelstrom of stress and emotion. It's like trying to launch a website on time by facing down a series of bugs. Movies do not occur naturally; they require an infusion of directed human energy.
The third shoot came the same day as the second shoot and started in the evening. We were all running a bit on fumes by that point, but counteracting my exhaustion was a burst of adrenaline because I was DP'ing the shoot. If it's nerve-wracking the first time an AD calls the shoot and every one on set looks to you as the director for some answer, it's just as if not more intimidating to have the visuals of your classmate's directorial effort in your hands.
Up until each moment I turned on the camera, everything around me was a chaos of human activity. Lights going up, equipment and props swirling all around the sound stage, people shouting light meter readings, actors or boom operators asking questions. And then, when I flipped the Arriflex camera on, the gorgeous sound of the film being pulled through the gate would fill the air like a flock of birds taking flight, and all else would go quiet.
That chatter of film being pulled through a mechanical motion picture camera surely must be one of the most magical sounds in all of art, one of the beautiful pieces of analog feedback that's lost when shooting on video.
On my DP shoot, I had a taste of everything. The first shot was on a tripod. The second started on a high hat, but when that didn't work, I squeezed up against a wall and shot it handheld. Then I had a shot down from up on a catwalk, a PA holding onto me so that I wouldn't fall over and drop to the stage below.
The final shot, though, was a real doozy, or the coup de grace depending on how you looked at it. My classmate wanted a crane shot to descend from overhead onto a couple lying in bed, with the camera tilting and panning so that it ended up in a side profile shot from just off the side of the bed.
We didn't have a crane for this shot, so to simulate that we had to pop the bed upright and secure it to a wall. Then we staples the sheets and pillows to the bed and shifted all the wall dressing--photos, posters, a cross--to a false ceiling. Then the couple would stand up and act as if they were lying down, and to simulate the crane shot we'd dolly in at an angle and pan the camera as we moved in. It reminded me of what Michel Gondry did for much of his video for Massive Attack's "Protection."
We had about twenty minutes left when we finished the previous shot. I did not think there was any way we'd get the shot off, so I suggested just shooting a wide shot and then pushing in for a MS or CU so that she could just cut them together in the final edit. I didn't want her to have to live without any footage of her opening scene. But she believed we could get the dolly shot. She wanted us to go for it. Inside, I was glad. I wanted to try to get it.
The tech office had given us a special tripod head to mount the camera on horizontally, at a 90 degree angle. But try as we might, we couldn't get the tripod head to tighten on the camera. With ten minutes left, I suggested just shooting the shot handheld. But the director still had faith. We'll get it, she insisted. People were running around the set like villagers fleeing a horde of pillaging invaders, trying to set up lights and secure everything to the set.
With three minutes left, there was no time to fix the tripod head. I said I'd lay the camera on my shoulder. We threw the camera and tripod on the doorway dolly, and I jumped up beside it. We would not have time to rehearse. The gaffer shouted a couple quick light readings to me. I did some simple math in my head. The lighting was suitable for our T-stop. There was no room on the dolly for my AC, so I estimated the focus by eye and nodded to the director. This would be an all-or-nothing effort.
Everyone went silent, and then the director shouted "Action!" My dolly grip began pushing in, and I began panning with my right hand as we neared the bed, while with my left hand I pulled my own focus, trying to estimate how far to pull just by looking through the viewfinder. When we got all the way into the bed, I was twisted up like a pretzel, trying to maintain my balance and hold the camera still while the actors kissed and chatted on the bed.
My director looked at me. Did we have time for one more take? The TA gave us the go-ahead, so we rushed the dolly back to one. And again, without slating, we rolled. My dolly grip pushed in, and I panned and pulled focus and tried to keep the camera steady on my shoulder. It was utterly insane, and completely exhilarating.
And then our time was up, our film was done, and we had no idea if we'd captured anything. I spent two and a half days feeling a bit cold inside, wondering if we'd gotten it. Had I pulled focus properly? Was the pan smooth? Did the shot really look as if it had come down from overhead?
A few days later, we gathered to watch the dailies from the first weekend's shoots. I was bouncing in my seat the whole time, waiting for the footage to come up on screen.
When the shoot I DP'd came up on screen, I felt a knot in my stomach as the grey card appeared. I'd never seen film I'd shot projected before. It was stomach turning both in a good and bad way. One thing I miss from the days of shooting film is that gap in time between taking a photo and getting the slides or contact sheet back from the lab. It's maddening, but if you feel like you got off a beauty, it's like waiting a few days to unwrap a Christmas present. During that time, it sits there all wrapped and pretty and full of possibility, and your imagination runs wild until you forget exactly what you shot so that when you finally see the finished product, it's a surprise again.
The other good thing about shooting film is that it forces you to think when you're framing. An entire generation is being raised on digital photography, using the camera and cheap memory cards to just snap one picture after another until the right one shows up on the LCD screen in back. That's fine, but it transforms photography into a brutish trial-and-error art, and it doesn't work well if you're trying to capture a fleeting moment.
That crazy dolly/pan/tilt shot? We got it. By some miracle, we managed to get the shot the director wanted. If you hadn't known what we'd done, it would appear as if we'd shot the scene from overhead. I felt sixteen levels of relief and two of joy when it appeared they'd be usable.
Next time it won't be quite so tense. But you can't ever match the rush of the first time.