On one show I was working on as 1st Assistant Camera the days had constantly been running long. 12 hour days often ran to 14 or 15 hour days with no overtime pay seeing as this was an ultra low budget feature film.
Anybody and everybody who has worked on a film set knows the sinking feeling that can happen when the days start to run long. People get cranky, tempers rise and irritations can burst from nowhere.
It was one of those situations where we were shooting what was supposed to be a simple 1/8th of a page of a scene and move on. It took longer than needed, we were shooting in a hotel room full of cockroaches (not set there by Art), and it was beginning to look like the day was going to be lengthy again.
I’ve never been one to blow up on a set and one of my cardinal rules to keep professional is to never complain, but especially not about a situation that can’t be changed. If a problem ever arises, I will usually tell the person working directly above me in the chain of command and let them decide it’s importance. Because of this, if I do ever get annoyed, I simply remain quiet and stay focused.
Complaining gets nobody anywhere, including yourself.
We had just spent a little bit more time than needed to set up a shot of a man writing a letter and panning up into a mirror to show our lead standing behind him. Simple enough. The camera got set, actors got marked, I got my marks and despite having to stand on a hotel bed to pull focus, I was ready to go.
We popped off the takes as quick as possible. The cinematographer, one of my good friends, and I knew that this was something we couldn’t afford to spend a lot of time on. We were trying to work as quick as possible for the director so we could move on to the heftier scenes.
After a few good, if not serviceable, takes had been canned, it looked as if we could move on to the meat of the scene. However, right before we were about to change set-ups, the producer stepped into the hotel room from video village outside and suggested a shot: he wanted us to pan from a window, to the character sitting, to a prop, to the mirror, to a second prop. More marks and more time.
I remember the distinct look I gave the cinematographer, who also operates his “A” camera. We both exchanged that same kind of desperate, “we don’t have time for this, but what can we do?” You don’t say no to a producer- at least I don’t.
My friend very well could have justified not doing the shot being in his position.
In effect, I’ve always considered myself working for the cinematographer. If he wants to do it, I do it. I would never do a shot without permission from the head of my department, even if it was the director asking me. It’s an awkward position to be in, but I usually defer to the director of photography unless it’s something that would obviously not be a big deal.
It’s best not to get between things on set.
So, we exchanged our look and with exasperation it was agreed to do the shot. We did a few extremely quick rehearsals. I grabbed some quick marks and we went for it. Take 1, 2, 3 – bam, bam, bam. We hammered them out. I like to check my monitor while I pull, so I was doing so during the shot, and both my friend operating and I hit our marks quite exquisitely.
Later that night, as we always do, we were talking about the days events: what went well, what didn’t; lying around talking shop. I brought up how flustered we both had been when the producer asked for that shot and we agreed that neither of us really wanted to do it when it was asked of us.
Then we both agreed it was the right choice. The shot was beautiful. It worked so well, was much more clever in it’s composition to the shot before and it was executed nicely.
To this day it’s one of the more proud moments we have on that shoot as a camera team and we owe it to the producer. He had an eye for something that nobody else did with that suggestion and it was the right thing to do.
It’s those kinds of moments that make me excited, thrilled and happy to be working in this industry. Instead of a calculated hurry-up and wait, it was a shot conceived creatively on the fly and it felt sincere, genuine and spontaneous.
Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.