Hurry Up and Wait (For the Train)

The Secret to Hollywood Productivity

Rush to block, scramble to light, skip the rehearsal, and now let's wait for that plane to pass for sound. Hurry up and wait is all too true in the film industry, but it's that mentality that's the true secret to filmmaking productivity.

There’s an old saying on movie sets that captures the essence of working in Hollywood. The simple four word phrase is all at once a contradiction, a demand and an approach.

You hear it so many times on set that you grow immune to its truthfulness.

In some way or another, we all buy into its philosophy, but we have to because it embodies life in the film industry and is the secret to Hollywood productivity.

That phrase is “hurry up and wait” and streams through the lifeblood of every production — big, small, East Coast, West Coast, digital or film.

It’s the great nagging words of any below the line crew member. Everytime you find yourself standing by the camera wondering, “Why aren’t we shooting right now?” it’ll pop into your head.

Hurry Up and Wait (For the Train)

The best example of “hurry up and wait” in action happened to me on the set of a short film that was shooting in Brunswick, MD. A small town that reached its heyday when rail travel ruled the country, but has since seen those glory days drift away.

The story we were shooting was entrenched in this atmosphere of “moving on” and so it was appropriate that we found ourselves the next morning standing beside empty train tracks with a looming gloomy sky showing only differing shades of gray.

To get the shot the director truly wanted, he needed to have a train choo-chooing along the tracks. As the train pulled forth and the characters walked alongside, the camera would swoop down and pan up, landing at eye level of the main character during a minute long dialogue.

At least that was the idea.

Our small crew raced to construct a jib arm along the road that ran parallel beside two sets of tracks. Meanwhile, myself and the first assistant camera (AC) rushed to ready the camera and mount it on the arm of the jib.

15 minutes into the day and we had fulfilled the first part of the Hollywood promise: hurry up.

Now it was time to wait.

The Countdown to Shoot

A producer came back from the main terminal of the train depot to say we would hear a 2 minute warning whistle from any train before arriving at the station.

At this time of the day, there were no trains nor whistles so we got marks and practiced the camera movement. Rehearsals without the train went well and the director rolled on a few takes for safety.

But, after a couple rehearsals and three takes, we were still waiting to hear that whistle.

When news came that a train was scheduled to arrive in 20 minutes, the first AC powered down the camera. Since we were currently far from our “base camp,” we had a limited amount of charged batteries and didn’t want to waste any juice while waiting.

10 minutes of waiting… and a small group gathered near the tracks to place pennies, quarters, and dimes on the rails.

5 more minutes… and I stood up holding the slate, waiting impatiently.

3 more minutes… and all of us were starting to question whether the train was actually on its way.

Finally, off in the distance, somebody spotted the train. Like waking a grizzly bear from hibernation, the crew sprung into action. The jib operator took his stance, the director of photography (DP) snatched the joystick of the remote head, and the first AC powered the camera up

Did I mention that we were shooting on the RED One?

If you don’t already know, that camera takes an excruciatingly long 90 seconds to boot up. So, when the train went whizzing by while the camera was showing the “RED Mysterium Sensor” boot screen, our spirits were crushed.

By the time the camera had turned on, the train was at a complete stop. Hurry up and wait turned into hurry up for nothing.

We got news that in another 20 minutes the train would leave so we’d have a 2nd chance at taking the perfect shot.

But you know what this meant? More waiting.

You Can’t Game the System

Much like how I wrote we all have to learn to “keep on limping by,” were also all part of the big game of “hurry up and wait.”

It’s the unavoidable nature of the beast and you can’t game the system. You’ll find yourself laughing about it one day and frustrated another.

Think about how you hustle during production only to end up waiting a year to see a finished film.

Or how you send an invoice and wait weeks, sometimes months, to get the cash in your pocket.

Think about getting attached to a new movie: you get a call, you send off resumes, hire others in your department, and compile an expendables list. There’s a lot of hurry up, and then, about a month before you ever step on set, there’s a lot of wait.

You wait to find out if the job will actually happen. You wait to read final script breakdowns. You wait for call sheets. You wait, wait, wait.

Then, when day 1 rolls around, you know what you’ll be asked to do? “Hurry up! Let’s be ready to roll camera in 5 minutes!”

Yep, it’s the secret to Hollywood productivity, but don’t tell anyone I told you.

What’s the longest delay you’ve had to endure on set? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think about “hurry up and wait.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jen-Nne/656377370 Jen Nne

    Only last year i started to get some serious set time, before that mainly student films. The first big one for me was a Dutch mini-series called ‘De Macht van Meneer Miller’. I was a camera intern/2nd cam assist for one of the best DOP’s in the Netherlands, it was great. But we were using the SI2K (of Danny Boyle fame), and a particular buggy one with that. As a rookie i was basically hired for giving lenses, assisting the focus puller etc. But i turned out to be the dude who kept the camera working. As the days went on i became the only one who kept it kind of working. It was really buggy, overheating, crashes, even blue screens of death. Everyday a new batch of problems to solve, but usually i got it working again pretty quick.

    There were 2 directors. It was the first day for the second director, his first shot of the production. And the camera died on us… it didn’t recognize the sensor, and it crashed when we hooked the other one. Whatever we tried, who ever we called, we just didn’t get it working. 30 crewmembers and the director were waiting for me, the intern, to get the production rolling again. Already an hour delayed the production manager asked me “should we get a RED?”. “Yes” i replied somewhat suprised that i had to make the call.

    The producer went to the rental company to get the RED while we struggled to get it working again. And finally, after 1,5 hours of delay, we got it working. How? Use one sensor head to crash the camera, hook up the other sensor head, and it worked again.

    For the rest of the production we got the RED with us, for free, as a back up camera.

    It was a pretty intense day for my first real set haha.

    • Ralph

      posted with wrong account, feel free to delete :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jen-Nne/656377370 Jen Nne

    Only last year i started to get some serious set time, before that mainly student films. The first big one for me was a Dutch mini-series called ‘De Macht van Meneer Miller’. I was a camera intern/2nd cam assist for one of the best DOP’s in the Netherlands, it was great. But we were using the SI2K (of Danny Boyle fame), and a particular buggy one with that. As a rookie i was basically hired for giving lenses, assisting the focus puller etc. But i turned out to be the dude who kept the camera working. As the days went on i became the only one who kept it kind of working. It was really buggy, overheating, crashes, even blue screens of death. Everyday a new batch of problems to solve, but usually i got it working again pretty quick.

    There were 2 directors. It was the first day for the second director, his first shot of the production. And the camera died on us… it didn’t recognize the sensor, and it crashed when we hooked the other one. Whatever we tried, who ever we called, we just didn’t get it working. 30 crewmembers and the director were waiting for me, the intern, to get the production rolling again. Already an hour delayed the production manager asked me “should we get a RED?”. “Yes” i replied somewhat suprised that i had to make the call.

    The producer went to the rental company to get the RED while we struggled to get it working again. And finally, after 1,5 hours of delay, we got it working. How? Use one sensor head to crash the camera, hook up the other sensor head, and it worked again.

    For the rest of the production we got the RED with us, for free, as a back up camera.

    It was a pretty intense day for my first real set haha.

  • Ralph

    Only last year i started to get some serious set time, before that mainly student films. The first big one for me was a Dutch mini-series called ‘De Macht van Meneer Miller’. I was a camera intern/2nd cam assist for one of the best DOP’s in the Netherlands, it was great. But we were using the SI2K (of Danny Boyle fame), and a particular buggy one with that. As a rookie i was basically hired for giving lenses, assisting the focus puller etc. But i turned out to be the dude who kept the camera working. As the days went on i became the only one who kept it kind of working. It was really buggy, overheating, crashes, even blue screens of death. Everyday a new batch of problems to solve, but usually i got it working again pretty quick.

    There were 2 directors. It was the first day for the second director, his first shot of the production. And the camera died on us… it didn’t recognize the sensor, and it crashed when we hooked the other one. Whatever we tried, who ever we called, we just didn’t get it working. 30 crewmembers and the director were waiting for me, the intern, to get the production rolling again. Already an hour delayed the production manager asked me “should we get a RED?”. “Yes” i replied somewhat suprised that i had to make the call.

    The producer went to the rental company to get the RED while we struggled to get it working again. And finally, after 1,5 hours of delay, we got it working. How? Use one sensor head to crash the camera, hook up the other sensor head, and it worked again.

    For the rest of the production we got the RED with us, for free, as a back up camera.

    It was a pretty intense day for my first real set haha.

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

      Ralph — your start in the industry is very similar to mine! I started out as an intern/2nd AC and soon found myself with more responsibility than I expected.

      That’s great that you managed to get it working and despite being only an intern, that you kept your cool and made the right call. Most people wouldn’t being able to handle that pressure. You have the makings of a good AC in you!

      Glad to hear that everything worked out, you would’ve had way too much “wait” and not enough “hurry up” on that set without getting a replacement camera.

      (BTW, deleted your accidental comment)

    • http://twitter.com/HumanGobo Jeremy Bernatchez

      wow…Evan’s right, you have the makings of a good AC :) Troublshooting is key!

      • http://www.facebook.com/ralph.85 Ralph Lindsen

        It helps a lot knowing you’re not the one at fault.

        Haha, the funny thing, during the shoot a lot of people were asking why we didn’t use a RED in stead. But when we actually used our back-up RED as a second unit, guess what camera crashed? Yup, the RED.

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

          Haha I was gonna say — the RED isn’t the most dependable solution.

          You are right about knowing you’re not the one at fault. That does help because you know if you can’t fix it, you’ll walk away without the risk of losing your job.

  • FB

    So true, Evan!
    Happened to me yesterday, today, and countless of times, which clearly shows that the most valuable (and expensive) thing on a film set is time.

    We’ve been shooting a wonderful short film the last for 4 days (with some truly early call times, but great crew and locations) and our DP is great at using mirrors and reflectors. We had a few powerful lights, but the locations were very difficult to reach (natural reserve, steep paths, mud, rivers, small narrow canyons, etc, and on top of that we had to walk for more than a mile to reach the set, in the darkness, with no carts to bring our stuff down, or back up), so it was more logical to bring mirrors to the set. The problem is that our beautiful little planet spins around the sun, so a mirror in perfect position “now”, when we say we’re ready to shoot, won’t throw the same amazing light in even 5 minutes. If we’d been shooting on Red, probably we would’ve left the camera on, at the risk of running out of battery. We had some problems anyway because by the time the young actor was on set and ready to shoot, the mirrors had to be re-adjusted, but we pulled it off, thanks to a great gaffer and crew, and some logistical common sense.

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

      Yes, the most valuable and expensive thing on a set is time. I’m always astounded at the amount of money that a film production can go through in one day. When people ask me why the days are so long or stressful, I always point that out to them. It’s usually an extraordinary amount.

      The situation you described sounds like one of those things where the idea is more glamorous than the execution. The locations seem remote, albeit beautiful, and while I’m sure they will pay off on-screen, they sound like a nightmare to deal with logistically!

      I can’t imagine with the hurry up and wait you put up with on that set aligning mirrors. Be thankful you weren’t shooting on RED (but I didn’t have to tell YOU that :P)

      • FB

        you don’t want to know what we were shooting on… :-)

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

          7D?!

          • FB

            impressive, Evan, got it at first try! ;-)
            (with non-cine lenses, it was so much “fun”pulling focus on a 70-200 zoom, no follow focus, a kid running towards us, with no marks….)
            Luckily we should be working with Alexa for the remaining three days of the shoot, and then I’m off for a relatively long S16 job…can’t wait to go back to film :-)

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

            Ah yeah, pulling focus on those things is a joke. The first time I worked with one, we were doing a handheld shot with a moving subject. I even got marks with the DP/operator.

            Take 1 was an out-of-focus mess cause I didn’t have a monitor and this particular lens had NO witness marks and the follow focus had so much play. After two attempts, the DP and I decided it would be best if he just pulled focus himself since he had the monitor.

            At first I felt weird and sort of guilty that I wasn’t fulfilling my AC duties, but then I thought how it would be impossible for me to pull focus in those conditions. Especially at a 1.4.

            I hope you had a better experience than me! People love those cameras cause of the shallow DOF, but it makes pulling focus so tough. And to be honest, I’m growing tired of shallow DOF.

            Alexa and the S16 job should be your bread and butter. Have you worked with Alexa before?

          • FB

            If there’s one reason I’m waiting for a DSLR killer, whatever camera that will be, that’d be focus pulling on lenses that simply weren’t designed for moving images/targets. Actually, the cameras themselves are not designed for any job like that, but that’s another story, I guess. Sure you don’t need a forum around here, Evan? :-)

            Shallow DOF is a tool, and should be motivated. Right now it looks like it’s still “the new toy on the block”, so to speak, for lots of people: beginners, amateurs and generally people who’ve been “stuck” with very deep DOF thanks to their fixed-lens miniDV cameras are getting crazy with f/1.4 and so on. It will pass, when they realize it takes more than that to make something that is visually stimulating and interesting.

            I’ve worked with Alexa, and it’s a very good camera, very AC-friendly, and so easy to use and configure, and frankly the quality of the images is very good, judging from film-outs projected on a theater screen (from ProRes, not even ArriRaw). Plus, it’s Arri-solid. Not to say it doesn’t have its quirks, after all, it’s still digital, but I’d say it’s more reliable than others. If I had to rent a digital camera to shoot, as of today, i’d probably pick the Alexa. Then again, if in the same situation S16 were available, i’d still pick film over anything digital, but you already know that :-)

  • Adam R

    At one point I was working on a high-budget fashion shoot in NYC. Frilly high-brow fashion with stick-thin models… kooky stuff. They spent 2500 on a superduper hairdresser for the two models, and so we sat and waited for 4 hours for hair and makeup. Dead stop to everything. We were so bored that I played three full games of scrabble with one of the lighting guys (iphones are amazing!) before we got back to shooting. Intense, carefully thought out games between two good players. Reeeeeally bored and trying to hide it.

    Model finnnnaalllyy walks out onto the cyc and the director yells “Roll camera!” and we have no prep as to what the model is actually doing or where this Fischer dolly is going.

    Yadda yadda, same story as always: the rest of the day was completely the crew’s fault for not moving fast enough.

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

      Haha! I laughed out loud at this comment, Adam. It sounds so typically frustrating, I can’t even imagine how you must have all felt taking the blame for that loss of time.

      I love that the crew has to wait, wait, wait and then they get no time for preparation with talent. We’re supposed to magically know blocking, frame, focus, measurements, etc.

      The moral of this story though, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that scrabble + iPhone is the cure to boredom on set?

      • http://twitter.com/HumanGobo Jeremy Bernatchez

        that or Angry Birds ;)

  • http://twitter.com/HumanGobo Jeremy Bernatchez

    Every time I work with the RED now, I dread this silly 90 second startup… sometimes (like yesterday) we have limited capability for battery charging (ie: had the charger running off the geni, and only one charger…every time they killed lights to move them, we’d lose valuable charging time!). Add to it that it was pretty chilly out yesterday for an all exterior shoot, and the batteries were draining fairly quick. I managed to find strategic times to turn the camera off, but there were at least a few when I had to tell the director & DP that the camera was rebooting. Not to mention it crashed once.

    On the plus side, I got to spend the downtime learning to configure the steady cam op’s Preston for the lenses :)

    • FB

      I know this is quite off-topic, but the long rebooting time is probably one of the main reasons a lot of people here in Italy don’t want to shoot with Red (I could name at least another dozen, but that’s me), especially DPs, Directors and Operators who want to frame the shot without having to wait the “longest 90 seconds of their lives” (that’s how a top AIC member I personally know describes that Red issue). That’s why, even though I’m not the biggest fan of digital (as some of you may have noticed), I’m pretty sure the Aaton Penelope ∆ and the new Arri Alexa Studio, with their optical viewfinders, will be very popular with lots of professionals, no matter whether any other digital camera is eventually able to have an instant start up or not, since even that would require a battery anyway.

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

        Even the Arri Alexa 1.0 model I shot with was loads better with its boot time. The RED boot is usually a non-issue until you’re on location without access to power to charge batteries. Or, when you’re limited with batteries.

        I remember on one shoot I had both those predicaments. Production only gave me 4 batteries (which I warned them would be cutting in close on a 12 hour day) and one charger. Couple this with a location we were at that had no power access. Only a generator which I was told had to be reserved for lights, but that they would plug in the batteries at “every chance they got.”

        Well, when we went almost 7 hours overtime at that location, there were plenty of times I had to request our batteries get charged. When we finally wrapped that day we had one battery left with 20% charge that was on the camera. The rest were dead.

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

      The 90 second startup is crucially long. I know what you mean about dreading it. I always panic a little when I choose to turn it off, but I let the DP know in case he has any last minute looks he wants to check and whatnot.

      A hot swap battery option saves tons of time when you’re shooting RED and I wish every production/rental house/camera owner would shell out for one.

  • http://twitter.com/HumanGobo Jeremy Bernatchez

    oh man, those hot swap battery plates are a GODSEND. Makes anyone I know operating much happier that there’s only 1 battery, and makes me happy knowing I don’t have to power down the camera to swap batteries. It’s just sad that they were developed in part because of the silly RED boot up time (or so I’ve been informed)

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

      Is that true? That they were developed cause of RED boot times?

  • Pingback: The Longest Moment On Set - Tips for Filmmakers and Camera Assistants - The Black and Blue

  • Pingback: The iPad Slate iWould Use: Ikan T-Slate | The Black and Blue

  • Pingback: The Soundtrack of the Film Set | The Black and Blue

  • Pingback: Shooting with RED Epic #2: REDVOLT Batteries Trade Power for Portability | The Black and Blue

  • Pingback: 5 Useful Cinematography iPad Apps for Filmmakers | The Black and Blue