photo credit: Graham Racher
As a camera assistant, you end up in the oddest situations: in front of explosive fake blood squibs, inside the dirty den of a dilapidated strip club, and even holding the camera in the passenger seat of a Lamborghini Diablo (it’s true, this happened to me).
But not every scene mandates a strange location and, in fact, many are beautiful.
One thread I’ve seen weaved throughout my career is the appearance of — to borrow a term from caving — “squeezes.”
“Squeezes” are the nearly impossibly thin gaps between two large rocks cavers have to experience. To get through takes an incredible amount of persistence, time (sometimes hours), and a body that has never heard of “craft services.”
And while a squeeze on a film set doesn’t quite have the same deadly consequences of a cave, there is the feeling that you’ve got to do what it takes to get the shot — there’s no turning back.
Discomfort and Mastering the Gorilla Walk
I still have back aches that arise now and then from the time I was slumped over for 12 hours in the basement of an old house on Ghosts Don’t Exist. For a pivotal scene in the movie, we had to shoot in a concrete cellar underneath the rickety floor boards for an entire day.
At 5′ 8″ I intimidate nobody with my size, but my short height never bothered me. When I heard a producer once remark to a camera assistant (AC) who stood at six feet, “You’re the tallest AC that’s ever existed!” I felt OK to be vertically challenged.
So it was surprising to me when I went into that cellar that day and had to lean over. Like the scene in Willy Wonka where the hallway slurps into a tiny hole, I stepped into the cold dampened room with a tinge of panic and bit of confusion.
While I didn’t have to crawl around like a caver in a squeeze, I did spend an entire day walking like a gorilla — arms drooped low, back at a 30 degree angle, grunts from the effort it took.
There was one shot in particular that was tough for the situation we were in and involved a 4 part lateral dolly move. The actor would pace throughout the room grabbing different props while the camera pushed back and forth following. I was commissioned with wrangling the BNC cable for the shot.
I learned on that day that being uncomfortable for a shot wasn’t uncommon.
Rolling Tape on the Ground
My theory of discomfort was confirmed no less than a month later on the set of Below the Beltway.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking about that as I laid on the ground trying to avoid being viciously stomped on by an actor…
Let’s backtrack a bit and I’ll explain.
The scene took place in the control room of a TV studio where a character was watching a live show take place. And the show that was being taped would provide cues for the actor to react.
We had already shot the “live” show, but how would we play them on the monitors? By using an old technology called “tape.” And somebody had to cue up and play those tapes.
Since I was both technically inclined and not really doing anything (I was data wrangler on this show) I volunteered. But there was a problem: as soon as I hit play, the “show” started and the actor would react. There was no way for me to cleanly clear the set.
After very little debate, it was decided that I had to just lay on the ground near the tape decks.
During the rehearsal I was ready. I had synced up the tapes, tested them, and was huddled into the corner on the ground.
I smashed my finger onto the play button and everything was going smoothly. Since I don’t try to make eye contact with actors during a scene, I was looking at the ground when I heard him start to play his part.
“Woo! Yeah baby!” “There we go, that’s looking good — go to camera 2″ “This is how you make live TV!”
At that point, another character busted into the control room and had a confrontation with the character standing above me. Before I knew it, my legs were being stomped on, my feet mashed, and my general level of comfort declined greatly. In the hussle I had managed to fit under a desk, but only after a few stressful moments of unexpected turmoil.
“Cut on rehearsal!” came as a relief and when the actor apologized to me and asked if I was OK I laughed off the situation.
“How’d the tapes look?” I asked and was given a thumbs up from the first AC.
Then, for five takes in a row, the same exact thing happened over and over.
When You Think You’re Stuck, You’re Almost There
For the DP, access is never a problem for getting the shot — instead it’s yours. And as camera assistants we have a problem: we can’t say no. We don’t allow ourselves to say no. Instead we counter with “we’ll find a way,” or “give me two seconds and you’ll be good to go.”
The nooks and crannnies you crawl into are a challenge. It’s a test to see if you’ve got what it takes to get the job done in the most odd circumstances. Sometimes that means you have to hug another crew member and other times it means you’re stomped on by an actor.
But no matter how tight the “squeeze,” there’s always a cavern on the other side — something vast and full of air and beautiful.
And even though the shot may end up being a disappointment or never make it into the final edit, it’s never the shot you remember, but the challenge you faced in getting it.
While I would never seek out an uncomfortable shot on set, I would never turn away from one either. There’s something fun and adventurous about getting down and dirty, about testing your limits and your ability to put up with the discomforts.
You’ve got to do what it takes to get the shot — there’s no compromise, there’s no turning back — and just when you think you might be stuck, you’re almost there.