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The Virtue of Predictability December 22, 2011

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Communication, Learning, Movies.

As an ENFP, I’m hardly what you would call predictable or prone to monotony. Far to the contrary, I’m always on the lookout for a new or different way to do the repetitive tasks that make up the substance of life.

However, there are situations where doing things exactly the same way, every time is absolutely essential, and potentially life-saving. Consider the longitivtiy-enhancement of putting on your seatbelt, washing your hands after going to the bathroom, or putting your foot on the brake before you putting an automatic transmission in Drive. (To be fair, the second one is a bit dated, since the “unintended acceleration” accidents that brought the demise of the Audi 5000 pressured most automakers to install shift interlocks that force this behavior.)

In less serious realms, this notion of boring repeatability can not only promote good habits, it can reduce stress on those you work with. This past week, I was reminded of this when I was thrust again into the team environment of a movie production crew.

“Roll sound…”

The movie in question is a smaller budget feature titled “Bad Blood: The Hatfields & McCoys,” directed by Fred Olen Ray. When Fred decided to shoot this in Kentucky, he brought along with him a core production staff that included: an Assistant Director (AD), the Cinematographer/Director of Photography (DP), the Production Coordinator, the Lead Makeup Artist, the Gaffer, and several others. Locally, he hired Location Sound (me), the First Assistant Camera (1st AC), the Key Grip, several Production Assistants (PA’s), an Assistant Makeup Artist, and several others. In other words, we had a small army of production people, many of whom had never met, much less worked together.

Now, if you haven’t been on a movie set before, calling it “controlled chaos” is a bit of an overstatement. It’s not nearly that controlled.

Any given scene in a movie is made up of numerous shots. Each of those shots is a combination of light and sound, all coordinated to communicate information and emotion. In addition to the actors, every person listed above has a role that plays into the generation of light (gaffers), the reflection of light (gaffers and makeup artists), the capturing and recording of that light (grips, camera assistants, and the cinematographer), the generation of sound (actors, production assistants, and foley artists), and the capturing and recording of those sounds (yours truly, and sometimes the cinematographer).

Left Brain vs Right Brain

The person unfamiliar with actual movie sets might think that all of the activities above are managed and coordinated by the Director. After all, isn’t “directing” people what he or she is supposed to do? Well, that’s true, but it rarely happens… directly. Usually, there is an intermediate involved, who is typically the 1st or 2nd AD.

The reason for having AD’s on the set is that the Director, being an artistic, frequently visual person, rarely exhibits the personality traits necessary to coax a team of people into coordinated activity. It’s been said that everyone on a movie set is supposed to hate the AD’s by the end of a movie shoot, because this person’s role is to demand adherence to process, with almost total disregard for whose feelings are hurt.

The HD AD: The Not-so-Benevolent, Hyperactive Dictator

While the Director is being warm and fuzzy with actors (who tend, by their nature, to have more sensitive egos) and Producers (who really shouldn’t appear on location, but sometimes do), the AD’s are busy making sure the trains run on time. The Director has the luxury of being warm and fuzzy–the AD’s do not. If, for whatever reason, someone does something that screws up a take, it wastes the time of every actor and every crew member.

As a result, the AD’s should make you feel bad for doing something stupid that wastes people’s time. You should learn quickly to not make that mistake again. The production schedule, which directly or indirectly affects the personal and professional lives of everyone involved, isn’t something anyone should trifle with, even on micro-budget productions. On larger productions, delays can become hideously expensive.

On our set, the AD had a nice balance of hyperactivity and obsessive-compulsive-disorder. Rarely, if ever, did he stop moving and conversing and listening and moving some more. He was always listening to a response, giving direction, asking questions, or looking for a reason that we weren’t rolling the camera RIGHT NOW.

Being predisposed toward action this way creates a wonderful tension between the creative types (typically the DP, but to some degree, the Director) and the demands of the shooting schedule. While the Director and the DP are aware of the schedule, the AD knows the schedule. Knowing the schedule backward, forward, and upside-down means that the AD can suggest changes to the shooting schedule based upon unexpected events, such as props not being available, actors not being in the right costume, and so on.

The OCD AD: Obsessed with Process

Because the AD is ultimately responsible for making the trains run on time, he/she is constantly pushing the metaphorical gas pedal to the floor, racing the production toward the next shot. In doing so, they create a sense of urgency that is contagious.

Being in charge of sound, I was toting around a battery-operated field recorder (Edirol R-44) to capture sound from the various microphones we were using. Since it ran on batteries, I was constantly in fear of losing power in the middle of a take. (Having the batteries die in mid-take would not have killed us for this production, because we had redundant systems in place, but I still didn’t want be a potential source of delays.)

To make sure I was never surprised by a lack of charge in the batteries, my pre-shot routine became:

  1. Establish the audio connection to the camera
  2. Set the recorder to the “paused but ready to record” mode
  3. Confirm the levels on the meters are acceptable
  4. Check the battery level
  5. Determine the best location for the boom mic, and how it might have to move during the course of the shot

By doing this the exact same way, every time, I had to deal with dying batteries only once during the 8 days of shooting, and this was a situation where I had already replaced the batteries twice (we were quite a distance from the base camp, where the rest of my batteries were stored). Even then, I wasn’t surprised by the situation, and was able to warn the DP that we would not have a redundant recording of audio until I could get some fresh batteries brought in from the base camp.

Now, this might not sound unusual to you, especially if you are a detail or process-oriented person, or don’t know my proclivity for spontaneous and unpredictable behavior. I am the antithesis of a process-person, as the repetitive nature of such behavior bores me to tears.

Random Acts of Regularity

In spite of this tendency of mine toward randomness, I found that the regular routine of the AD inspired me to take on (and maintain) a perfectly repeatable routine within my responsibilities on-set. Not only did I accept the routine, but I found a strange form of comfort in it. Doing things exactly the same way, every time, gave me confidence that I wasn’t going to hear the dreaded “Waiting on Sound” call from the AD.


1. Allison - December 25, 2011

This is an interesting perspective of the filming process– particularly about the role of the AD.

Favorite line: “As a result, the AD’s should make you feel bad for doing something stupid that wastes people’s time.”

TimTheFoolMan - December 27, 2011

It was exhausting, but also interesting to see how someone accustomed to bigger budgets uses similar processes to ones I’ve used to keep the pace up. – Tim

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