Sunday, 27 July 2014

Clothes Maketh the Film Extra

As I am busy for a while on a film shoot I am regurgitating some previous logs from Reelshow Mag

Or should that title read Costume transforms the supporting actor into an arrogant tyrant..

Well perhaps not, but over the years I have witnessed some amazing transformations and it might be worth a short study at some Human Science College.
I have worked on a number of hospital based dramas and there are always lots of supporting artists, or extras, walk-ons etc.The people who dash past the camera clutching files and looking very important The crippled old lady in the pushchair, the one who would kill you to get in front of you at the tea break, the two very chatty nurses at the Nurses Station, no doubt talking about last nights conquest … and they do all of this in total silence.

But of course they are not real people at all ..they are film extras.

On one occasion we had a couple of bus loads of these wannabe stars on a hospital location.
They arrived and immediately fell upon the catering wagon for what appeared to be their only meal in three weeks or so. Laden with several sliced pigs and a weeks output from some chickens and a pile of fruit they all sat down together, most of them were acquainted with others, they tend to all come from the same agencies and get sent to the same jobs, over the years they have become good pals..
Until the Wardrobe folk come a calling..

They want ten patients, ten doctors, ten nurses, two bed bounds, two cleaners, two trolley pushers etc, etc…
Still munching their breakfasts our doughty bunch of buddies wander off for their costume fitting…
When they returned…The doctors, in their white coats, scrubs, stethoscopes, all sat at one end of the refectory, the nurses sat at another table, the two porters and the cleaners were completely shunned and the patients were treated as though they had bubonic plague.

This attitude continued for the duration of the shoot..One social group did not interact with any of the others…It was the social grouping and the Uniform.

I had some Americans from NY staying over a couple of weeks ago and during the course of one of many conversations, you all know how Americans can talk, the subject of Hitler’s little helpers came it always does..

At one stage I shocked my guests by saying that if I had been of the right age and a German, at the outset of war or just before it I would have been inclined to join the SS or the Gestapo
Yep..That brought a few gasps from my guests, until I pointed out that the Uniforms were so bloody snazzy and smart any young lad would have been pulled in by them..In those days a very smart Black and Silver Uniform could transform some local, gormless village lad into the local babe magnet. Old Adolf played a smart card there and it was only a damn is example.

Another film I shot was set in a concentration/extermination camp in Poland where Jewish scientists had to produce a vaccine for a disease that was killing German troops fighting on the Russian front.
Those Jewish lads were clever, under the most arduous of conditions they managed to successfully produce the vaccine, but they did not tell their SS Officers in charge of the unit.

The vaccine was tried out on human guinea pigs in the camp hospital and it worked ..all of the sufferers were cured..The Germans were delighted and sent huge batches out to the front line, except it was all dud stuff..The Jewish Scientists removed a vital ingredient and the front line soldiers continued to die.

If they had been discovered they would have all been executed..Fortunately the end of the war precluded that event..The camp Commandant was in fact executed by the inmates at the end of the war before he could leg it.

The point of the story is exactly the same as the first story.

The extras who were issued with smart SS uniforms and the camp guards began to strut around and bellow at each other..and this was in the food queues at lunchtime, meanwhile the poor inmates, dressed in those dreadful stripey jimjams began to defer to them, they allowed them to push to the front of the queue and never ever joined them in any social group..the shoot was over a three week period and some of the actors began to have character changes…very odd and very worrying.

It doesn’t have to be the Germans and the SS I have also witnessed the same phenomena among some brit actors. …particularly during Miltary shoots..the officers begin to act differently and the squaddies all seem to start smoking their ciggies in a different way.

It could be argued that they were all getting into character, but the leading actors take off the uniform and become their former selves, the extras’ seemed to carry their roles home with them and hang on to them, maybe it had something to do with a power complex or loss of power complex..for some it might have been the only time in their lives where they actually looked smart and powerful..who knows..
When you have an opportunity to be in one of the situations described above just watch those film extras..I always wondered where Adolf got his helpers from and now I think I know..

They were all Fashionistas..!!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Shooting in the rain and night scenes.

There are some situations that occur in every Director of Photography’s career that can make or break that career..
Asking around among my colleagues who specialize in this dark art it transpires that the pet hates and worries are night shoots and filming in the rain.
I love both of these situations and embrace every opportunity to go out at night and scare the neighborhood, if I can I will use big lights and rain..What a sadist I am..
A film I have much time for “The Road To Perdition” has a scene where the hero, played by Tom Hanks appears from the darkness and in a downpour, with a blazing machine gun, he wipes out the gang surrounding his main target..Paul Newman..
It is a great scene but it would have lost most of its impact visually if it had been shot in ..a, daylight..and ..b,at night without the very heavy rain.
At the very top of the scene the mobsters exit a restaurant into a dark street, it is almost entirely heavily backlit and the figures are almost virtual silhouettes. The rain is bouncing off the street and forming a little spray cloud around them as they attempt to get into their cars..That’s when the demon Hanks goes for them… of my favorite scenes…And to my eye, one of the easiest to light for maximum effect..
I have no idea how explicit the script was or how much input came from the Designer or even the Director but this was the craft of lighting for film at its finest…
For a number of years I was fortunate to work on some very heavy duty crime films, which inevitably had lots of night scenes, not much killing takes place in broad daylight, and in every case I would plead to have some rain employed.
I remember one scene that took place in a bleak and very dark back alley in Glasgow, and they don’t come much darker or bleaker, where our victim walked up to the iconic red phone box, with its twenty watt bulb, opens the door, picks up the phone and then was immediately grabbed and murdered..I lit the entire scene with one 2k blonde and the lamp in the phone box.
This was only possible because I used lots of rain effects..
Another scene from the same film starts off in a Glasgow bar where our two stars start fighting each other, they brawl their way along the bar and then out onto the street, where they continue for a little while longer until one of them runs off up the road into the dimly lit centre of the city..
Again this scene was shot at night, entirely from the exterior of the pub and we tracked along as they stumbled out onto the street..It was lit with the existing lights in the bar and one 2.5k HMI from a building opposite.
The exposure level throughout had to match the level on the street and the level of the road, which was lit by street lights.It was fortunate that there had been a very heavy downpour that evening and the lights just kicked up from the wet road surface..But I did have a water bowser on stand by..
Beware the source of the water supply..I say this because I filmed a love story for HBO and it was mainly set in a castle on the remote West coast of Scotland.
The two lovers meet after a long absence, they both arrive at the great gates of the castle, in separate cars, get out and dash towards each other for a passionate embrace.This was all done in a raging storm, lightning, thunder and sheets of rain, all ours of course.
It looked terrific, there they were, kissing away and oblivious to the weather, soaked to the skin, they were completely unaware of the elements.
So was I until some of the spray from the rain finally got to me and trickled down my face. I wiped it from my mouth..What was this…salt water…sea water..
For this particular shoot I had secured a brand new super sixteen Panaflex camera, never been used before, first one in the country, a beautiful machine..And there it was being covered in a fine film of spray that even the camera crews frantic efforts to cover failed to stop the corrosive salt water getting onto the body.
It was ruined.
The water supply team had thought they could do the job on the cheap and instead of supplying a bowser full of fresh water they had simply put their pump over the castle wall into the Loch, a sea Loch..
It looked great but the camera was a right-off..
Night shooting..
Again this is something I love doing..I hate the hours and the disruption to ones social life but sometimes they just have to be done.
The maxim for me is to make sure you have sufficient lights. never go with the small stuff, you can never make it brighter but you can make the bright stuff darker..
And the other Maxim is to keep it simple.
Usually I prefer to three quarter back light, from both sides, this is not always possible but it’s not a bad rule of thumb, and if it is at all possible do the location recce at night, it lets you work out what is available from buildings and street lights.
Allow plenty of rig time..never push the sparks, its dangerous rigging at night and accidents can happen..
Two very quick anecdotes.
I had a big scene to light where four thieves robbed a country house/mansion, at night.
The Director had them running across a field, along the driveway , up the broad circular stairs to the front door, which had columns of stone pillars along the balcony, they had a key and the shot finished with a close up of the key sliding into the lock.
Easy eh..
We laid a 150 foot track which had a dolly and crane on it, the start was on the robbers feet, so we started low, track along with them and as they went past the camera, about half way along the track the crane would rise and leave them in the bottom of frame with the grand mansion at the top of frame
…are you still with me..
Good, there is more..
The crane would then continue its track to move close and pick out the lead robber as he mounted the steps, the camera had to be perfectly placed as he ran very quickly and there were these darn columns, the key was in his hand , the camera is moving very fast, the key is in the lock and the camera finishes on the bcu of the lock. Cut..
It took one take.
The light for the scene was a quarter Wendy Light on a crane at the far side of the field and provided an even back light and the crane/camera operator was a pal of mine who had been the operator on the first Star Wars movie..One take, job done, home for tea and biscuits. Simple..
High winds and lighting towers/cranes/cherrypickers.
It is always better to have the big back light as high as possible so we use high cranes or cherrypickers, wonderful tools of the trade, except they are severely limited by weather conditions.The drivers /operators will not take them up if the wind is too strong.Fair enough
I was shooting a SAS film some time ago , out in the desert..a stone quarry in North London really, big scene, lotsa shooting, at night.
The cherry picker was up there with the back light,and a wind got up, it started to rattle the gel on the lights, the recordist complained, the director wanted the light brought down and the gel attended to.
The wind was now very strong, the cherrypicker should have been brought down anyway for safety reasons, but it would never have gone up again…the scene would be incomplete..A quick walk over to the wagon to have a chat with the operator. He was fast asleep and not monitoring his wind meter…we very quickly finished the scene..
Just recently I had a night shoot on the moors above Manchester, again we had a cherrypicker, the idea was to backlight some rescuers who were searching for a missing child..The wind was horrendous… The operator said it couldn’t go up…What to do..
I put the large lights,4x6k HMI’s, on the ground, over the hill top and skimmed the light just above the ridge, then I ordered some smoke machines to go down to the bottom of the hill and pump out as much smoke as possible.. we upgraded the powerful torches the rescuers had…It worked…Thank heaven..
Adversity is best planned for and is sometimes the mother, and father of invention.
More lighting tales next week..

Previously posted on Reelshowmag

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Cinematography..where to put the first light..

Cinematography Where to put the first light

Ok ..So you have got the gig..someone has placed the budget in your hands,, what you do on the set can decide the employment fate of everyone involved in the Production…
You are the Director of Photography
You have read the script, consulted with all the Heads of Department…discussed the mood…look.. colour.and indeed every aspect of this very first scene with the Director and Producer…They have gone to a dark place to worry and you bravely enter the scene of battle..
The Big Black Hole.
The place where nightmares live and careers crash…
The unlit studio.
Three years studying film at college…a reasonable showreel, its the one that got you the job..and a few short visits to film sets….now its down to you
Where do you put the first bloody lamp.
It looked easy when you casually dropped in to a studio visit..along with the rest of the students in your class..the D.O.P just seemed to vaguely wave his hands occasionally and whisper in to his walkie talkie and things would change slightly. A lamp would be moved…switched on or off, a filter would be placed on a frame in front of it..the studio would get brighter or darker… Easy…
But where do you put the first lamp…and why.
I well recall the very first big commercial I had to light..There was serious money involved by way of my fee and it was a major break for me with a big commercials company.
The deal had been done on the phone and I had only seen some drawings of the set..or should I say sets..there were fourteen in all..stretched across two large ..very dark was a travel company commercial and the sets ranged from a bedroom to a hotel kitchen to a tropical island beach..a seaside bakery making pizzas.. with variations in between…you get the idea..
I had never shot a commercial in my life.I had recently been employed as a staff member of a large TV company.
Now I did not have my own ,very reliable crew, or my Gaffer Spark (Electrician). The crew had been booked by the production office and I had never talked to the Gaffer. This was a very scary situation
Off I wandered in the this dark cavern for a look around while everyone had their breakfast..Out of the shadows a small man began to follow me . He was still there after I had visited a couple of the dark sets. I turned on him and asked who he was.
“The Gaffer Sir” he said.
“Good” I said..”What is the biggest lamp we have in the studio”
“ We have five 12 Ks, five 6K’Ss, Ten 4K’s, Ten2.5’s assorted little fellas etc.
This was my moment of decision ..
“Put Point two on 2 X 12 Ks’ and we will start on the desert Island set”
Off he scurried.
Why did I make that choice..
The desert island set was at the far end of the studio from the lamp store and those lamps are big…it would take some time for them to be rigged…..precious time for me to try and work out where the rest of them would go.
There is no pattern and I hope that when you get to that positon that you are better prepared than I was but whatever you do…do it with utmost filters down through the rest of the team.
The Commercial looked good and ran for a couple of years..
The meal I bought for the sparks at the end of the two day shoot nearly took care of the big fat fee I was paid but I did learn a lot from them and it was worth every penny

Phobias and Filming

Cinematography- Film Through the Pan Glass Part 13- Bugs and other Phobias

As a film cameraman and serious documentary maker for many years I have been in lots of odd and dangerous situations.
Some times there have been situations that I would have given the earth to get away from…
Mainly because I have, like many other people, phobias.
Most phobias are controllable but some are most definitely not controlled and can curtail ones life experiences. In the case of a cameraman these phobias can be a career setback.
I am slightly claustrophobic..fearful of being in a confined space.
How does this manifest itself..I hate being on an aircraft, unless I turn left at the front door. I hate being in a small or crowded elevator and would often choose to walk up all the flights of stairs to get to the floor I needed to be on, you have got to be fit for that one.
This fear of confined spaces is really odd for me because I started my career as a trainee coal mining engineer, working 1200 feet underground on a 3ft high seam…you never got to stand upright…how scary is that.
I have also spent weeks on a submarine, been submerged in a diving bell, crammed into the rear of small cars, airplanes, and crawled through long tunnels to reach ancient burial sites..And I still recall every terrifying moment..Even to this day I will not allow anyone to be in front of me or behind me in some narrow passageway or narrow spiral staircase, how stupid is that.
But then I do think the entire Solar System/Universe is a little cramped
Another bad one for me…Cockroaches.
I was raised in a slum house that was totally decrepit and completely infested with these vile creatures, the big black ones, they were everywhere…in the food, clothes, beds, the furniture, all over the walls and floors..disgusting
Then I get a long, 5 month trip to India..I remember bring in Cochin, taking a bath in my hotel room and I killed over forty of them that ran around the rim of the bath…then there was the restaurant to contend with..We would spend the first few minutes when our food arrived from the kitchen, picking out bits of cockroaches from the dish..
And then there was the bed..they seemed to like to gather on the sheets in the bed, often as many of twenty or so.I never left my suitcase opened in India for the duration of that trip. This was five months of horror for me.
Snakes and most reptiles scare me, Australia was a haven for them, particularly up in the Northern Territories, as was Malaysia. Although in India I would lure geckos into my room, they ate the cockies..
Sharks…seen a lot of them in action and now I only swim in a pool.
I once had a monkey trash my room in Gibralter..The Manager said it was a good job I hadn’t gone in when it was there as it might have trashed me too. Add large monkeys/apes to the list.
Scorpions fill me with dread, we have lots here in Italy..
Heights do not bother me, I once made a film on the Eiger, and have dangled out of helicopters/cranes/slings and rope runs everywhere but I did have an assistant who was released from the shoot because he would not go up any height anywhere, and in this instance it was to hand me bits of equipment up a small household step ladder.
I have recently worked on a production that had a circus clown as one of the extras…The 3rd assistant director could not go into the same room, he was totally petrified of this character, and the AD played rugby for his local team, was well over six foot tall, but actually quivered with fear when the clown was on the set.
What is the point of this item..not sure really except to say that if you follow a career in the film/TV industry you may suddenly be placed in a situation where you will be face to face with one of your phobias. Do you run away or control it. It could be a career choice.
My advice…control it. Its all in your mind..I hope..

Friday, 11 July 2014

Walking the boards ..

Next week I begin a five week shoot for the BBC in the UK.The series is very similar to the American version of Greys Anatomy,set in the surgical wing of a large ,mythical, city hospital.
I have worked on the series before and have probably clocked up a hundred hours of screen time but it was all several years ago.I am quite excited to see if the production requirements are the same or if they have moved on...the trend for lighting these days is for a much darker,more natural look...we shall see.If I can, then I will keep you updated on events on set.
In the meantime if any of you want to catch up on some previous posts you may not have seen then please visit the Reelshow Magazine wher you will find, under my name on ythe sidebar, about fifty posts..some of them for techies and sonme just a meander through life as a cameraman.



Readers review of Maginty's Quest.

Check out the very first readers review of the new childrens adventure story by Chelsy Swann.
Hours of fun for those of you who read to your children and grandchildren

Maginty's Quest   by Chelsy Swann @    or any Amazon site.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Maginty's Quest

Meet Maginty,Deacon,ace navigator ...and Sissy..(Thats an octopus,a turtle  and an electric eel)
as they battle pirates in the Spanish Main,crooks in london and a gang from China...all in  modern day Chelsea, London.

This is an adventure story for the intelligent adventurous young reader aged ten to ninety.

Available on Amazon .com