It was on one of these “low-budget” shoots that I found myself prepping for a call-time around 4 p.m. It was supposed to be a relatively light day — a few hours for a couple of pages — shooting two scenes in an alley way at night.
I should’ve been suspicious when I first heard that the producer and director decided to tack on a daytime scene before the night shoot, but I wasn’t bothered in the least. Schedules change, scripts get rewritten, and the crew works around it. I wasn’t even suspicious when I heard that they were going to use the same location, but double it for a completely different country in the story.
As first assistant camera, I deem it my job to roll with the punches so I said “OK” as long as the director of photography (DP) was cool with it. The cinematographer is my general and I march to their orders. On this shoot, I had worked with the DP on many occasions and my loyalty resided with him. This is why we worked (and still work) so well together, because we have each others’ back.
It wasn’t until I arrived on location that my suspicions started to rise. I found out that not only did we have only a few hours before the light faded, but the scene was going to involve some fighting stunts that included a knife stabbing element which hadn’t been blocked yet.
But that was somebody else’s issue. For me, my main focus was on the handheld wide-open shooting style that would be implemented for the scene. I already knew before we started shooting that nobody was going to give me rehearsals and that I needed to be at the top of my game to keep things in focus with such shallow depth-of-field. While I built the RED One and mounted it with a Zeiss Superspeed set to T 1.3, I tried my best to enter into the Zen sweetspot of my mind to prepare myself.
When sound started speeding and I had the camera rolling, I ignored the 12 people gathered around video village ready to critique the sharpness of the focus. Concentrating in the moment is what it is all about and there’s nothing like 35mm depth-of-field in an unpredictable situation to hone that skill.
As we kept shooting, and the light kept fading, things on set were getting more intense. The stuntmen and coordinator were complaining that they didn’t have enough time to rehearse, the director was doing a lot of takes with very little time to go and I was starting to feel the pressure of having to move fast on lens changes and focus marks.
With barely just enough light to go, the crew managed to pull it off and the daytime scene that was added was in the can. Hats off to all of us because it was demanding to capture that scene in that time in that situation.
Unfortunately, the scene had taken longer to shoot than planned (that always happens, doesn’t it?). The alley way was in a fairly public area meaning that we needed permits to shoot there, permissions from police, and almost all of those exemptions expired at 12 a.m. that night.
As they say, there’s no rest for the weary, so we dived right back into the next scene — the originally scheduled one — and started filming. Luckily, this was a more methodically paced scene featuring a conversation between the lead talent and a supporting actor. After a few takes, the DP remarked to me that he found this moment to be the most beautiful master he had ever shot. I agreed with him and with that we expected to break to lunch and head to craft services in good spirits.
But alas, our spirits were crushed. Lunch was on set, yes, but nobody was calling for break. Instead, we were pushed into shooting another scene.
This next scene was, again, very complex as it was based around the rape of a character. That meant complicated blocking and choreographed movements between actors and camera. All handheld, all wide open, all rushed.
The 12 a.m. exemption period was beginning to creep up fast. The camera crew was working its butt off while catching glances of others eating plates of pasta around video village. This experience is the direct reason why I mentioned in my blog post, 5 Ways Directors (and Producers) Can Keep Their Film Crew Happy, that lunch shouldn’t be served unless everybody eats at the same time.
After a few minutes, production noticed our glaring eyes at the food and proclaimed, in benevolence, “Camera crew, go ahead and eat when you can, but were gonna keep shooting.”
Preposterous, I thought.
As a camera assistant, I have to stay by the camera and help operate the camera. I have to maintain it, change lenses, swap batteries, tweak settings, keep it running. If I eat, we don’t keep shooting. If we keep shooting, I don’t eat — which is what happened.
“Can you set aside a couple of plates for me and the camera guys?” I heard the DP ask. Immediately the first assistant director parroted his request to a willing production assistant.
At least I had some food waiting for me at some point. Not the ideal situation, but I don’t find it smart to complain on sets.
Slowly we hacked away the shot list for the rape scene all while listening to stomachs grumble, voices mumble, and the producer plead on the phone for just 15 more minutes at the location. Tensions were high and the only solace I found was that the camera crew was kicking ass in spite of all the misfortunes.
It was at 12:45 a.m. that we wrapped the last shot and the DP could rest his tired shoulder from handholding the heavy RED camera all day. The wrap out happened quickly and after I had placed the last support rod in the camera case, it was only a few of us left on set with the producer.
The cinematographer I was working for doesn’t like to eat until his camera crew can join, so he was waiting for us to finish our work. When I walked over, he revealed to me that the plates of food that had been requested to be set aside for us were gone and no where to be found. As a token for our loss, the producer had ordered a couple of pizzas from Little Caesar’s pizzeria.
This was not the news that someone who has just walked around with a 30 lb. camera on their back for hours wants to hear.
“No, that’s not fair. We didn’t work our asses off all day just to be given Little Caesar’s pizza. That’s such… I don’t know what you are going to do, but you need to fix this. We had asked for plates to be set aside, we’ve been working for 9 hours…”
As the DP continued his rant, I slowly put down the plate of pizza I had picked up. I didn’t want to say it, but I was pissed off too. I don’t like working 9 hours without eating only to be given the consolation prize of a cheap pizza. Thank God somebody was saying it. Like I said, this DP had my back and I had his.
The producer, obviously feeling that he had wronged us in the situation and wanting to correct it, offered to take us to a nice restaurant down the block and pay for our dinner. He pitched it, as producers do, as “the best hamburger you’ll ever have.”
Maybe it was the hunger, maybe it was the appreciation I felt for the DP sticking up for me, or maybe it was the way they cooked it, but to this day, I still haven’t eaten a better hamburger.