Most people call this making mistakes and say they’re happy to learn from them.
But let’s not sugar coat it — sometimes it’s just being damn stupid.
Sure I’ve made simple mistakes as a camera assistant like misslates, forgetting to cut, or fingerprinting a lens, but all of those were relatively minor compared to this story.
In fact, it’s so stupid, that I’m surprised I was even able to get more work after it.
I thought for sure I was cooked. Grilled. Sent to filmmaking hell to burn with those poor production assistants you watch bring the wrong coffee to a director.
The Camera Department Greenhorn
The truth is, I was stupid and naive. It was my first job ever on a real film set as 2nd assistant camera (AC). I was enthusiastic, excited and green as can be.
I even went out to Target to buy myself a pouch (which I still use) and some tools that I thought would come in handy.
About a week into the shoot and everything was going swimmingly. I was changing lenses, marking actors, and loving it all. Veteren crew were impressed with how quickly I picked things up and the first assistant camera (AC) was relieved that he didn’t have to spend an entire month working with a sub-par camera assistant (at least that’s what I tell myself).
In short, I was the bees knees of the camera department. And I was about to bring all that hard work and reputation building experience to a screeching halt with a five second practical joke.
A Joke Gone Wrong
As my confidence among the crew grew, I found it increasingly funny to sneak up behind PA’s lounging around and give them a quick spray in the back of the ear with some compressed air I had bought. Looking back on it, it was juvenile and I can’t believe no one called me out for being a complete ass.
After the first AC saw me doing it, he called me over and whispered, “You should flip it upside down and do it in [the DP’s] ear.”
Well, he was my mentor and I genuinely trusted his word. So I snuck up behind the director of photography (DP) who was patiently waiting for some lights to be struck. I took my position and then smashed my finger into the trigger of the canister. Immediately, white freon launched out of the can into his ear!
“Oh shit!” he yelled, getting up while batting the liquid out of his ear. “Oh my god this burns!”
Uh oh. I hadn’t considered the fact that compressed air is an aerosol and has chemicals in it. I threw down the can, started apologizing and ran and got paper towels.
“Why’d you do that?!” the first AC asked me while watching the DP cringe as he cleaned out the freon from inside his ear.
I threw the blame ball right back, “You told me to!”
“I didn’t think you’d actually do it!” he said.
Well, I did. And nobody was laughing. I felt horrible. You know how you realize how bad an idea is right at the moment you execute it? Yeah… me too.
To this day, it serves as a lesson to me to never tell anybody to do something unless you actually want them to. On the flip side, you shouldn’t be taking somebody else’s words as gospel. I learned that the hard way.
The other lesson I learned was that practical jokes, while hilarious and fun at the time, aren’t always professional. There is a time and a place for them, but you have to be tactful about it. Something I obviously failed at miserably in this situation.
It’s funny now considering that DP and I have worked on more projects than I can remember. In that sense, I’ve been extremely lucky. When I ask him about the incident these days he says, “I was so pissed off at you. That burned like hell. We’re cool now, but I was so pissed off.”
Moral of this story: don’t be so damned stupid, you might not be as lucky as me.