I often describe the lighting kits on indie films as “5 lights and 4 c-stands”. It may be an Arri kit or a couple of LEDs or even some work lights from Home Depot, and it might even be 6 lights, but the concept remains–there’s never as many as you’d like, and chances are you can’t even use all of them properly. So you can imagine how exciting it was to walk on the set of FAT KID RULES THE WORLD and discover an entire truck full of lights and grip equipment. And not just a pickup truck someone had borrowed, but an actual equipment rental truck. I haven’t seen one of these since all the way back in February when I spent a few days on Andrew Brotzman’s NOR’EASTER. That feels like a lifetime ago.
You see, I took the DIY path to directing. I made a (terrible) short (no, you can’t see it) in which I literally spent 20 minutes trying to figure out how to work the camera. I made more shorts after that, slowly adding more and more stuff, until the time came when I realized I was going to need a crew. I directed a feature before I even worked as a crew member. My experience with lights and grip equipment is limited to what I’ve used, which is the basic “5 lights and 4 c-stands”, hence the excitement about getting to use all these other things. It’s kind of like Christmas.
For Day 2, I’ve been assigned to the truck and the tutelage of Dan Misner, the Best Boy Grip. Dan’s based out of Boise, but works all over. In a couple of weeks he’s going out to Fargo for a shoot and has stories about working with Peter Jackson’s crew in New Zealand just after they finished the LORD OF THE RINGS films. Him: “I’ve never seen a crew so in sync. Someone would drop something and someone else would catch it before it hit the ground.”
Our first order of business is to black out the windows in the street level apartment. My thinking is we’ll put up a shitload of duvetyne, but first we’ve got to build a tent around one of the windows so they can put a light in it later.
In the photo, you’ll notice that wall isn’t ideal for attaching things. Sure you could tape it up there, but you wouldn’t have a whole lot of confidence in that holding all day. For an hour or two? Maybe. But all day? No chance, especially not in Seattle, where it’ll probably rain. Instead, Dan affixes a 12′ bar to the wall with clamps and we attach the top of the tent to that. It’s nothing all that complicated, it’s just the sort of thing that those of us in the DIY world never have. But why? It’s not expensive. It won’t fit in a car, but there are ways to transport it. There’s a million different ways to do it, none of them difficult.
I have my theories, but I’ll save them for a later date.
Dan’s pretty sure today’s going to be a slower day in the truck. This is neither our first or last day in the location. Nearly all of the gear that’ll be used in the apartment is already in the apartment and will stay there overnight.
For all practical purposes, our day will consist of 2 parts. Part 1 is daylight. But we’re shooting all night interiors, so it has to be dark inside. Ergo, we black out the windows. That’s done. Part 2 comes after it gets dark, but we have a couple of hours to get ready for that.
Until then, we organize, the priority being to have everything where we need it, so that when we need it, we can get it quickly. This gives Dan a chance to train me on the various pieces of equipment. Some of them I’m really familiar with, some not so much, and some I’ve never used before in my life. It’s instructive, especially for someone like myself who’s never actually been trained.
We know from the call sheet generally what we’re going to have to do tonight, and even over the next couple of days, so the goal is to get ready for that as much as possible. Sure, you can assume there will be changes and tweaks and a few moments of sheer OMG PANIC, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be ready and make educated guesses based on the information at hand.
Night falls and we’re ready. Using the schedule on the call sheet (and confirming over radio with people inside), we’re able to break down a window as soon as it’s no longer in play, so from the outside it all looks seamless. And that’s, essentially, your goal when you’re working away from the epicenter of shooting. They should have no idea what the hell you’re doing. If the director (or the DP or the actors) becomes aware of what’s going on in your part of the film’s universe, then that can’t be a good thing. Chances are you’ve f****d up. If you’ve got the equipment and the information, you should be two steps ahead of the camera at all times. They’ve got enough to worry about without having to make sure you’re doing your job.
And from what I can tell, Dan’s good. He makes it all look effortless. We’re so far ahead, I have plenty of time to take pictures through the windows, which makes for a unique way to watch a production. I feel a little bit like Jimmy Stewart, minus the broken leg. And Grace Kelly.
Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.