Spike Jonze, Cardboard Cutouts, and Pulling Pranks On Set

Spike Jonze, Cardboard Cutouts, and Pulling Pranks On Set

Spending days working long hours often leads to silliness and pranks on set. Whether that means sending a PA to go find a bag of T-Stops or simply making your own 40mm lens, a crew goofing off is a crew that is building teamwork. And a crew that works as a team gets things done. Spike Jonze knows this and he's seen it first hand.

I’ve been on plenty of sets where practical jokes are welcome. I’ve watched actors fed lines to make the others in the scene laugh. I’ve watched directors do obscene things near the camera to throw off their talent.

And I’ve watched people laugh when it all happens.

But pranks don’t have to be anything elaborate. Sometimes the silliness translates into simple acts without anyone getting an egg on their face.

Cardboard Cut Out Jerry operating the camera on Beta to the MaxFor instance, there was a film I worked on called Beta to the Max that took place at a 1980’s tech convention. In one of the booths there was a cardboard cutout of the main character, Jerry.

During the shoot we would sneak up on people we caught napping on set (mostly our gaffer) and have Jerry provide a wake up call. Other times we would stage Jerry as the camera operator. When the shoot was over, we even brought one of the cutouts of Jerry to our mini-wrap party so he could take part in the celebration.

Looking back on it, this simple joke boosted our morale and Cardboard Jerry is one of my distinct memories from that shoot.

Why Pranks Are Good for Crew

In my experience, a prank now and then is healthy for crew members. They keep spirits high, put smiles on faces, and loosen up the set. The best antics are the ones in which the person the joke is on is able to laugh at the situation themselves. The cohesiveness this forms is unmatched and its a sign that a crew has come together as friends.

Like we had Jerry on Beta to the Max, crews form bonds pertaining to these jokes because they are good humored and provide fond memories. And as reader Simon Olney poignantly stated, “the journey is as important as the finished product, the sense of community you share with a group of people on a feature set is what you remember, and sometimes is the only thing that keeps you going.”

Jokes and pranks provide that momentary escape from the immense pressure and stress that crew undergo everyday. No matter how brief, these acts of silliness provide a breath of fresh air that everyone appreciates.

Spike Jonze Isn’t Immune

I was reminded of all the hijinks I’ve seen on set by watching this behind the scenes video from Where the Wild Things Are. In it, director Spike Jonze gets an unexpected surprise when, during a scene, he finds out his beloved Vespa scooter hanging from the rafters of the set.

He takes it in stride and it’s fun to watch because you can see the bond between his tight knit crew. They all love Spike and know that he enjoys a laugh — even if it’s at his expense.

Click the image below to watch the clip (Quicktime MOV file):

Of course, pranks have their time and place. It’s usually on long form features and low budget shoots that you find opportunities to mess around. And you have to be careful with who you prank. When in doubt, don’t go for the boss!

Experience teaches you when you’re able to joke around and when you need to shut up and focus. If experience doesn’t tell you, an angry first assistant director certainly will.

It’s a fine line to tip toe.

If you find yourself being pranked, know that its not necessarily a bad thing. You should be happy that you’ve found some friends on set. Laugh it off and scheme a way to get back. Or pretend to be angry and demand they owe you a drink. Either option works.

What sort of pranks have you seen on set? Do you usually do the prank or end up being pranked?

  • Keaton

    We just filmed a scene on a final film for my final semester of in a film course.

    The scene entailed one of the leads standing on a stage, under a spot light, acting like a magician.

    Long story short, he spits up a fish head.

    Way to many jokes came from that.

    We were 2 hrs behind, and in a very silly mood. It was great for morale.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=671437107 Matthew Bowen

    Obviously, a fun game of “clothespin the AC” is an excellent way to relieve stress. Usually, as an AC, I’m the prank-ee, not the prankster, but this is one of my favorites.
    Simply put, during downtime, members of both the lighting and camera departments join forces to see how many C-47s they can pin to the back of the AC’s shirt, pants, belt, hat, whatever, before he/she notices.
    This is especially fun when you’re shooting outside and it’s freezing. The extra layers cushion the 47s and the extra weight, so you can sometimes get 15-20 clothespins… if you’re ninja enough.
    This is a solid prank because it’s inexpensive, safe, and unlikely to upset even the gruffest director… as long as it happens during downtime.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Haha I have definitely been subject to this game…

  • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

    Haha I can imagine how silly you must’ve been after being 2 hours behind. Sometimes the stupidest things make you laugh the hardest at the end of a long day

  • Lee

    On my first film set working as a PA, we were shooting in a carpark in London and during the early evening, while walking down one of the stairwells, I found (and had to remove) a hooker and her client.  For the rest of the shoot I’d get “Hey can you get me 2 C-Stands, the big lamp and a 34c brunette” !!

    The good thing was everyone knew who I was and got me work after the shoot.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Haha! What a find, Lee :P 

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  • Gregg Bond

    As I work in TV (live at that) I might not be your intended demographic, but I have found the blog to be a truly wonderful resource for camera skills, and a great insight into the glamorous world of movie making.

    Over the last decade I have had the fortune to work several times with the same crew at gaming conventions, spending a week several times a year with people in close quarters means we are basically brothers (battle hardened in the crucible of live telly). Jokes are how we make it through the day.

    I cant remember when, but we picked up an additional crew member, a mascot if you will – Ducky.

    Ducky’s job is to sneak onto set and hide, and try to get into as many shots as possible.

    Here he is waiting for his cue, basking in the glow of the lighting desk.


    Thanks again for the blog Evan. I am now deep in the backlog :)