On Set, by Jason Eaken

21 May

The simplest thing to say is there’s nothing like being on a movie set. There’s nothing simple about being on-set itself either. It’s chaos: all busy and technical and clustered and there’s a lot of waiting involved sometimes. But it’s the most exciting kind of chaos: creative. Nine people gathered in a Sherman Oaks townhouse: the DP and a grip talking about camera equipment and setting lights; the other grip setting up our food in the kitchen, just off camera. To the other side of the camera, down in the living room, a large pile of empty bookshelves that had cluttered the dining room with something akin to 500 DVDs and books, which now occupy a hoard of boxes upstairs in the bedroom of the producer. The 3 actors are bopping between upstairs getting into costume and make-up and downstairs eating Red Vines, Almond M&M’s and some new type of Pop-Tart that is kindof like S’mores, but different, too. I’m in the kitchen, too, playing with the concoction of foods and arranging them onto the plates for the actors. It’s about consistency, it needs to look gross and to achieve the effect we had to venture outside what is commonly referred to as “people food.” But I only do one of them, then stash it in the fridge and run over to check on lights, “We’ll be ready in fifteen,” he says, good to know, because upstairs, one of the actors is having hair problems. He can’t get it into a workable ponytail, so we’re scrounging for hair product and clips to hold it in place. I go ahead and explain the shot list to them to try to give a sense of the flow of the night, even though we went over it at our final rehearsal, but with so much going on it gives both them and me a bit of a foothold on everything to list out our agenda. Then back downstairs to make more nasty-fied food, and we haven’t set the table yet. “Which side of the plate does the fork go on, anybody know?” Left is our consensus, but then it’s switched and then a short discussion about napkin placement ensues, because film is in the detail and because this is a thing I don’t know and feel that I should at this point.

Once everyone’s ready and we’ve done some final tweaking and we’ve discussed our shots and which angle both of our cameras will be getting and I’ve checked those angles to make sure I’m happy with the spacing – because for this film the close-up isn’t a thing that interests me – and then which of our two boom operators will be where so that no shadows are present, and the actors have all gone to the bathroom and then I’ve gone to the bathroom too, because it seemed like the thing to do and because I wanted to be in private alone for just one moment to offer up a quick thank-you for even getting this far… so after all of that happens, then the fun part begins.

“Roll camera.”




Then off we go.

I love how quiet it gets. There’s a short little beat there just before “Action,” that is one of the most quiet quiets there is. Before that moment the energy on set is everywhere; it’s bouncing off the ceiling and back and forth, and people moving here and there and over there too. But then once that sequence of directions and responses occurs, the energy becomes focused in sharp straight lines. The camera points there. The boom mic, angled here. All bodies and equipment point to the action of the scene. And we watch and we listen and then we do it again.

Maybe my favorite part of directing is calling audibles. We rehearsed the film for a long time, but there is something about being on the set with cameras, props, lighting, costumes that elevates everything. So sometimes during a scene, there will be a line reading or a bit of business or blocking or whatever that doesn’t work like I thought it would. So in the middle of a take, I don’t have to yell cut, we don’t stop rolling, but I can just give little suggestions here or there. Or if I know we didn’t get a certain moment, we can just go back a few lines and get it right. It’s very fulfilling seeing and hearing an actor get something perfect or do something a little unexpected and bring a whole new dimension to a moment. Even if you don’t end up using that moment in the finished film (although lots of times you do) it’s something everyone notices. It’s like a 52-yard field goal. It’s like an extra pass and a three-pointer. It’s like a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. It’s like some other sports metaphor somewhere. It builds momentum for the other actors. It makes the crew perk up just a little bit, it sends a little shock-wave through everything. It makes my eyes go wide and my heart swell and the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

What could be better?

**photos courtesy of Alders Photography


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