On a film shoot, before moving on to the next shot, there’s usually a tense moment where a first assistant camera must “check the gate.” The gate being the part of the camera that sits between the lens and the exposed film and the checking being done for tiny hairs or strips of film emulsion that may have come off. If the gate is dirty, another take must be shot because the last take could potentially be ruined by the hairs in the gate. If all is clear, however, the first AC will shout “good gate!” and everyone will resume moving on to the next shot.
Checking the gate, however, takes place only on film shoots. Digital cameras don’t have a gate and have eliminated this ritual from the set, though other conventions of shooting film still live on through the digital age. An example would be the champagne roll, a time where everyone on set toasts a glass of champagne to celebrate 100 rolls of footage in the can. It’s digital counterpart would be 100 downloads of a CF card or hard drive.
There is also a certain lexicon that still exists even though it explicitly refers to film-style shooting. This includes terms like “speed” and “rolling.” But language isn’t always sentimental and some phrases are simply not used on sets using digital cinema cameras. Among these phrases, hailing from places where celluloid runs through the camera instead of bits and bytes, is the aforementioned “check the gate.” It does live on in the digital shoot, albeit as a joke. It’s often said with a bit of snarky sarcasm, revealing a half-joking tone that simultaneously mocks the process and pines for it at the same time.
It’s not like people actually enjoy checking the gate, or like having to necessarily, it’s that checking the gate represents some kind of Hollywood aura that many haven’t achieved. It’s a call and response that evokes a true movie set, and not just a movie set, but a film set. If you’re on a set where a first AC is checking the gate, it provides a feeling of professionalism to the set, a feeling of importance.
That kind of feeling of professionalism can sometimes allude the low-budget indies shooting on digital platforms. There was one movie I was working on as first AC shooting with the RED One. Our director was relatively young and enthusiastic and liked to be the jokester of the set. He had directed before, but as far as I knew, none of them were film shoots nor had he worked with film as a director before.
As I said, he was enthusiastic, but often let that enthusiasm leak into joking around on set. The jokes were sometimes funny, sometimes not, and were hit or miss whether they would lighten the mood. It was no surprise to me, then, when I first heard him crack a joke about checking the gate and I played it off with a slight chuckle. But then he said it again and I realized what he was really telling me to do was check the “gauge.”
That made me laugh even more.
I immediately told the cinematographer who was operating the camera as well as one of the actors who I had befriended — we’ll call him Greg. It was a good situation to be in because now every time our director pronounced to “check the gauge,” he thought he was cracking the best joke in the world due to the huge response of laughter, but really we were laughing at his mistake. We let this go on for most of the day without ever correcting him.
Later on in the day, he was sitting at the monitor in video village with Greg and some of the usual crowd in their canvas chairs. The monitor was behind me as I was helping the DP set up the next shot. Eventually, without fail, the director again asked to “check the gauge.”
“The gauge?” Greg asked, “I don’t know what the gauge is. Might want to have them check the gate.”
Then Greg, chuckling to himself, walked away and shot me a knowing look with a huge smirk on his face. I remained silently smiling, the DP was too busy to notice, and the director, having been ousted on his gaff, sat focused on the monitor without a word being spoken.
For the record, I’m still looking for the gauge to this day and trying to figure out how I can check it. Maybe it’s next to that little red button?