Control freaks! From top to bottom—from the feather-brained writer to the sociopathic engineer—the entire production team is a collection of control freaks, terrified of leaving the rarified air of the studio, office, or maintenance shop for parts unknown.
And they aren’t wrong in their misgivings. It’s a nasty world out there… too hot, too cold, and way too noisy. And all those pesky people! The voltage may be low, or it may even be too high; and what if the coffee’s bad or I can’t find a comfy seat?
Nonetheless, there are shots you simply can’t get in the studio... settings you can’t simulate, construct or computer generate... and you find you’ve got to go on location.
For the visual team, going on location can be a stimulating experience; rich textures, sweeping panoramas and natural light can squeeze the most out of today’s best cameras. For everybody else, though, location shooting can be a disaster—maddening logistics, the vagaries of the weather, and a near-uncontrollable environment for the sound department. They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going; for us, when we get going, the going gets tough. Period.
(click thumbnail)Douglas House is ont of the New York area’s best-known location houses. It is a little island of tranquility in a world of harsh location realities.Of course, finding the right location is at least half the battle. There are people who are paid to do that... who track down the perfect location, be it a home, factory, state park or tenement. Where I come from, we call that “cheating,” preferring instead to canvass friends, relations and neighbors, so as to inflict the greatest harm upon our personal lives once the inevitable disaster strikes, as we all know it will.
But what could go wrong?
The legendary disasters are familiar as apocryphal stories we’ve all heard, and which we all tell over and over again when anyone will listen. There’s the locked up hydraulic dolly which blew its seals—and black, gooey oil—all over someone’s all-white living room. And the story about the 5K spotlight left under a sprinkler head, and the resultant rusty shower which kept a shoot going around the clock… ouch! How about the canaries released in front of the green screen—that instinctively flew toward “the sun,” played that day by a 10,000 W open-faced lighting instrument?
One grip I knew proudly left a scrap of gaffer’s tape under the seat of each celeb or CEO he shot; other folks mark their territory in less subtle ways, such as with stains, burned carpet and nicked drywall. As for me, well, I once left a new set of “knotholes” (shaped curiously like the vent holes on a Lowel D light) on the knotty pine ceiling of a famous violinist’s summer cottage. It’s a miracle we ever get invited into anyone��s home in the first place, and no mystery when we aren’t invited back.
INVISIBLE GRIP TRUCK
Our most recent location adventure required a drop-dead gorgeous kitchen for a test spot, and the friend-of-a-friend method returned several solid choices. Most of them, however, were located in a nearby town which didn’t grant filming permits—in fact, it outright prohibited shooting in private residences. This added yet more layers of complexity to an already confusing shoot: To stay below the radar, we’d need unobtrusive parking for the clients; a nearly invisible slot for the grip truck; and a way to feed 10 or 15 people without arousing suspicion.
One suggestion was to tell each attendee... client, cast and crew alike... to bring along a covered dish, and to march up the front walk and proudly ring the doorbell, as though paying a social visit or attending a mahjong match. Who’s to say this was anything more insidious than a prayer circle or Tupperware party?
Still, paranoia is a constant companion on location, and there was a strong temptation to pay a production assistant to peek out through the curtains and call out, “Cheese it! The cops!” if the occasion required.
BUILT FOR ABUSE
It’s hard to talk about location work without recalling one of the New York area’s best-known location houses, Douglas House. Set on a bucolic 8-1/2 acre plot in nearby Rockland County, Douglas House was born many years ago when Marjorie Douglas was shut out of the location business by a similarly restrictive ordinance in her own New Jersey town. Her response: Purchase a fire-damaged 18th-century farmhouse, and rebuild with the movies in mind.
As a result, you’ll find amenities for every member of the production team: 400 Amp electrical service in two central locations, with trapdoors everywhere for routing feeders; window-like openings between adjacent rooms, sized just right for an HMI light; and a kitchen whose cabinet faces are removable and interchangeable for different looks. Best of all is the fully-functional master bathroom, whose fourth wall can actually be wheeled away to provide camera and lighting access.
In effect, Douglas House is a little island of tranquility in a world of harsh location realities. There are no permits; no noise, except for the noise you make yourself; and nothing to suggest that your production, like life itself, is anything less than fully on track…
A perfect place for control freaks like us.
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