The crew behind the scenes
An Army in the Shadows
What would Birdman be without its director of photography or The Great Gatsby without its costume designer? Behind every movie, there’s a group of professionals and specialists working under the director. Here’s a standing ovation for the indispensable crew.
Text: Daniel Villalobos @villalobosjara
The classic Hollywood joke is that movies will become vehicles of expression for the artist’s soul when a day of shooting is as inexpensive as a pen and paper. Until that day, movies will be high-cost, intricately designed productions that must have enough money to not only pay the stars, but also the invisible, ultra-professional and essential technical team, described somewhat disdainfully by the producers – then as now – as “the crew.”
U.S. director David Mamet has a sign above his desk that reads: “All mistakes are made in pre-production.” In other words, rehearsals, bad ideas, failed scenes and improvisation should be born and die on the screenwriter’s desk before the first day of shooting. Why? Because once the army of people that make up a film production are in place, a countdown begins, defined by how many days of salary can be paid to the cast and the aforementioned crew.
PHOTO: sobras producciones
WHO THEY ARE
Around the world, in configurations and numbers that vary from country to country, a film crew includes:
The assistant producer, the location director and their crew.
The director of photography and his or her assistants, responsible for designing the images.
The camera operators and their assistants, responsible for capturing the images determined by the director of photography.
The sound technicians and their assistants, responsible for recording sound on the set.
The electricians, technicians in charge of the lighting equipment, under the gaffer (head electrician).
The art director and his or her assistants, who control specific aspects of the film, including wardrobe, props and makeup.
The script supervisor, who is in charge of continuity. He or she maintains a record of scenes shot and tracks them in comparison with the script, often working in collaboration with the editor.
Some film historians consider caterers and extras as part of the crew as well.
Endless Pasta & One Uniform
phOTO: MALA JUNTA
Beyond the romantic idea some critics have of the medium as a vehicle dedicated exclusively to delivering the filmmaker’s view of the world – the legendary “auteur theory” – when it comes right down to it, the quality and expertise of the camera operators, sound technicians and electricians are decisive in determining how a film turns out. Orson Welles learned this lesson for himself when he moved from Hollywood to Europe in the 1950s and encountered crews and technology far behind the advances made by the major studios in California, a headache that changed not only the nature of his stories but his production style.
The ideal situation is a set on which the camera people have their own assistants (and their assistants have assistants), where each section is compartmentalized and well defined. But that’s only the case for big-budget productions. The norm in independent film (and for small or emerging studios) is that the crew is reduced to a minimum and that just a few people serve a variety of functions.
My Kingdom for a Jeep
A good crew – which by definition is artistic as well as technical – also solves problems, detects shortcomings and offers solutions that sometimes involve various departments. However, there are occasions when the actor saves the day. Take, for instance, Catch-22 (1970), Mike Nichols’ black comedy about the U.S. Army, which benefited from Orson Welles improvising an idea out of the pure need to save time and money.
Nichols wanted to film a long, continuous shot where the camera would slowly slide on rails along a landing strip. On the day of filming, the setup didn’t work. A repair would have meant sending the equipment back to the studio, changing the shooting schedule and even losing an actor who had to head back to Hollywood to work on another film. Welles suggested mounting the camera on an army jeep and taking half the air out of the tires so that the vehicle could imitate the fluid movement of the rails, without the vibration produced by fully inflated tires.
phOTOS: latinstock / corbis, getty images
The transportation and props crew took out the jeep’s seats to make room for the camera. The technicians used ropes and hooks to lock the camera down and later installed a board for the camera operator to balance on. Nichols nearly wept with joy, and Welles received a case of booze as thanks. It would make a wonderful end to the story if we could say that it was one of the great moments in Catch-22, but the movie was too long and the scene ended up on the cutting room floor.
The movie business can be heartless, especially when it comes time to share out the profits, which explains why unions are a major force in the film industry. Through years of lobbying, strikes and negotiations, these organizations have provided their members with hard-won benefits that would be considered basic rights in other professions, such as health insurance and set work schedules.
phOTO: cristian robles
Throughout the history of the industry, movie making has attracted the sort of people who long to work outside the realm of the ordinary; they want to do something exciting, perhaps uncertain, but far from everyday routine. The crews for silent films, the pioneers who built, painted and blew up sets for legends like Charlie Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein and Buster Keaton were often barely literate laborers who learned the job as it was being invented. Some of them, like John Ford, went on to become great directors in their own right.
Others came to the world of film via more prestigious routes. Otto Preminger studied to become a theater director, but his degree proved useless when filming Exodus (1960) in Jerusalem, when he discovered that he had no money to pay the thousands of extras he needed. A local technician who was on Preminger’s crew offered a solution: if you can’t pay an extra, charge him! Preminger papered the city with notices reading, “Be in a movie, 10 shekels.” He got his extras, the scene was filmed on time, and the rest is movie history. in
PLACE OF HONOR
Whether on the cast or the crew, many Latin Americans have won awards throughout the history. Here are just a few.
Juan Carlos Macías
Emilio Mendoza & Ricardo M. Kaplan
José Luis Díaz