Rolling!


The directors see the action through their monitor, which is connected to the video camera.
The directors see the action on their monitor, which is connected to the video camera.

Had a real treat yesterday, having been invited to a movie set by some friends who are working on their independent film, Kilo. This project is a kind of follow up to the Film Racing winner, Sweep, which, like the other films in this national contest, was produced in 24 hours. Rather than retell the bios of the people involved, I invite you to check out the Kilo Crew page, and will add only the enticements Pixar, Quentin Tarantino, and SFPD Vice as incentives.

Livery sedan has its fifteen minutes of fame as an unmarked police car.
Livery car has its fifteen minutes of fame as an unmarked police cruiser.

When I arrived at the location in San Francisco, I found a buzzing film set complete with producer’s RV headquarters, grip truck full of stands, reflectors, and other lighting equipment, a catering area, sound engineers and camera crew, and lots of rolls of gaffer’s tape scattered here and there. Shooting had started early in the morning and the people involved moved with purpose, as each scene requires lots more time to prepare for than actually to shoot. In spite of the constant movement of people adjusting lights and mic booms and make-up, for me it was actually a fairly calm place to work compared to a MotoGP pit lane; the greatest danger of being run over was from the local traffic, as this set did not completely block off the street, and most people did slow down to look at what was going on. For some reason many of the passers by felt compelled to honk their horns or shout out the window, which suggested either a kind of desperate need to be part of the movie or a sad desire to ruin the efforts of the crew with noise pollution. Fortunately, I didn’t notice any of this unfortunate behavior while the camera or sound was actually rolling. I could easily imagine, though, that a take could be ruined by this jackassery. And to be fair, MOST of the people who stumbled upon this working film set were respectful and considerate. A sincere thanks to all of those who passed quietly by or who took pains to stay out of the camera’s view!

You think a DSLR has some cool tech? The Red One is C-O-O-L.
You think a DSLR has some cool tech? The Red One is C-O-O-L.

As a photographer I found the set to be a very interesting place, particularly when I watched how the interior of a car was lit. The signal from the Red One feeds its signal to a monitor the directors watch in real time in a makeshift tent set up to provide a darkened place to better view the monitor. The principals on set wear headphones so they also hear the audio signal as they watch the video feed. I was struck by the look of the lighting inside the sedan as I viewed it on the monitor, and how different it looked to the naked eye when I stood next to the car. This was one of the first details I noticed when I arrived and it immediately told me that I was dealing with some people who knew what they were doing. Okay, I knew that my friends, the co-directors/writers, are quite clever people with some major film experience, but still I somehow didn’t know what to expect about how an independent film would operate. And the car interior looked fantastic on the monitor, as good as any big budget film I’ve ever seen. Immediately I grew even more interested in the project than I already was, now seeing with my own eyes that in spite of the relatively small budget, this was a film being made by a highly skilled team.

A lot of people contribute to each shot.
A lot of people contribute to each shot.

The crew comprised a variety of people young and not quite as young, each operating his or her tools according to a given expertise. The Red camera is a bit of a beast when not on a tripod, and the cinematographer had several assistants who helped him mange his role; one watched the camera’s local monitor and made adjustments on the run, some others trailed behind to manage cables. Same with the sound engineer, who directed his two boom operators via radio, instructing them to get closer or farther from the actors for good dialog levels, while also keeping the shadows of the large mics out of the view of the camera. Others managed the scenes extras, which at one point included a man on stilts.

The Assistant Director, Michael Jordan.
The Assistant Director, Michael Jordan.

One of the most amazing performances I saw during the several hours I spent on the set was turned in by the Assistant Director, Michael Jordan. While I’m accustomed to my friends, Phil and Kiel, being super cool and ultra capable, I was often impressed by the other members of the team, and the AD struck me as one of the most remarkable individuals involved. The AD is in charge of preparing the set for the magic words “Rolling!” and then “Action!” And believe me, A LOT of thought, experience and effort go into being ready for those announcements. Many people need to be instructed where to go and what to do when they get there. Sure, the grips (lighting team) know their business and do their thing as they’re directed to do. Same with the sound people, and the actors, and the make up people, and the gaffers (electricians), and assistants who manage other necessary elements such as traffic, extras, food, and so on.

A film set is rather like a sailing ship at sea. And like a ship, a strong personality is needed to make sure everything is happening as it should. And not only the current scene, but also the next, which needs to be prepping so that no time is lost when one scene is complete. These are long days, after all, almost twelve hours on the set every day for a week. The AD managed all this with a calm authority of which I found myself to be very envious. His voice, pleasant and gentle when I was introduced to him, could suddenly rise above all the commotion on the set to announce his latest instructions for all to hear. And to the crew’s credit, when they heard the word, they moved with the intentions of professionals who knew what was expected of them. The AD always seemed to be one step ahead of the present moment in time, even when something managed to surprise him a bit. Unruffled, he adapted without a ripple or observable annoyance. He made me think of a conductor directing an orchestra of musicians whose various parts had to be played in a different order and a different location from one moment to the next. And when it was time for the directors to direct, the AD seemed time after time to hand them the keys of a sweetly humming car to take for a spin, watching by their side to help with any changes they wanted made before sound and video started recording. While the final decisions and responsibility for the film rest with the directors, the AD’s role is crucial and one which I had certainly under-appreciated until I observed the set in person.

From behind one camera to in front of another.
From behind one camera to in front of another.

Though many of the crew seemed to know each other from past projects, I was a stranger to all but three individuals on the set, and though I was grateful to be introduced to several people when I arrived, I was very pleased at how friendly many others were who came up to say hello and introduce themselves. Like many work places, a film set has a distinct hierarchy of roles related to responsibility and seniority. In fact I didn’t fit into any role except visitor, and my showing up to take photographs was as much out of personal interest as it was a favor to my friends, but probably more the former as I felt indebted to them for allowing me to come by and observe. Still, as I entered their world and moved among the crew, trying to take interesting pictures while being as unobtrusive as possible (I was reminded of the few weddings I’ve photographed, feeling like the invited intruder), I was pleased to find the lovely truth of photography lurking here on the film set, too: some people simply like to have their picture taken. And when you meet someone like that, it’s an honor and a pleasure to oblige.

I enjoyed myself immensely and can’t wait to see the finished movie. I’m not in it, but my truck is!

Stay tuned for updates on Kilo, and follow the official diary at www.kilothemovie.com .