Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Tribute to Jim Henson Part 3: John Denver, Harry Connick, Jr., Shelly Long, Harry Belafonte

John Denver

We were set up at a park off of Sunset Blvd, in the Pacific Palisades. It was a warm, sunny morning (big surprise) and we set up on a pleasant hillside. Because it was a hill, and because they just had to have a moving shot, they set up this elaborate dolly track that had to be put on some kind of an elevated platform. What a waste of time. I remember everybody working fast because John Denver was just going to saunter up to the location at a certain time and do his lines and leave.
The John Denver section starts around 5:30:

And that’s what happened. He showed up looking just like you remember John Denver looking. He went over his lines a few times, standing in front of this idyllic backdrop. These segments were supposed to be remembrances of Jim Henson, but most of it was scripted. I’m not sure how that worked. I guess there was this canned script that the talent started from and then I think they went off into their own memories of working with Jim Henson. This shoot went quickly and we were out of there in a matter of hours. John Denver seemed like a very nice guy, in a hayseed kind-of-way, but also canny and professional at the same time.

Harry Connick, Jr.
We shot in a post-production bungalow on the Disney lot. Harry was more of a musician than an actor in 1990, so he was with his jazz band in this studio; pleasant, lots of windows and warm morning light. Harry, for those of you who don’t know, plays piano and croons a bit like Sinatra. At this time he was sporting the slicked hair look of his crooning idols. He was also known to young men around the world as the guy that was dating Jill Goodacre, a Victoria’s Secret lingerie model. And I learned, while Mr. Connick and his band were getting ready, Jill was there! She was out in a sitting room. I, of course, had to sneak a look. She was at the height of her powers at this time and indeed looked as good as she came across in photos. If more petite.

This was an interesting job because Harry needed his glasses to read the text on the prompter and he didn’t want to wear his glasses. I tried making the font size larger, but it didn’t help. For whatever reason, he just couldn’t make it happen without his glasses. So, they ended up scrapping the prompter and Harry winged it. He was a nice guy, deprecating, and had a gentle, easy repartee with his band.

Which turned out fine. Often prompters aren’t really necessary. I mean, I’ve worked on commercials where, for individual shots (commercials are often broken down into quick individual shots), there is not a lot of dialogue. Maybe a line or two. And really, any actor worth her salt will be able to memorize her lines and not need the prompter. Harry's segment is another that didn't make into the finished show.

Shelly Long
Now, I shot Shelly Long on the Disney lot, but I’m not 100% sure that it was for this Jim Henson tribute. She’s not listed in the credits (like Dick Van Dyke), but I’m almost positive they shot her for the tribute because I don’t remember being on the Disney lot for any other shoots. So, let’s just say that, yes, this was for Jim Henson.

Sometimes my boss, Pamela, would give me special instructions or warnings before I went out on a job. And before I went out to do Shelly Long, Pamela warned me that Shelly had a reputation for being kind of a bitch, hard to work with. I always hated to hear this kind of stuff. I’m sure Pamela was just trying to prepare me for the worst, but it always set me on edge.

I showed up on the Disney backlot that morning and found that we were shooting a couple different exterior locations around the lot. Outside shoots are always more difficult, in general, but for a teleprompter in particular. I always needed power. And if I was placed away from power, I needed to bother a crew member, whether a grip or electric, to run me my own extension cord, or stinger. I always brought my own stingers, but sometimes the equipment I was sent out with wasn’t quite enough.

When working outside you have much less control over things like lighting and sound quality. In southern California the sun shines almost every day. So, this regularity of light helps. The day I shot Shelly Long, we started around ten o’clock on the sidewalk and lawn before a row of bungalows. Another particular problem with using a teleprompter outside in the sun is that the talent may have a difficult time reading the text. One piece of equipment I often needed, and which I never had, was a flag. A flag is a piece of heavy dark cloth set in a frame. You put a flag on a stand in front of a light (or affix it to the light stand or light itself) and move it in front of the light to cut if off, and otherwise manipulate the angle, direction, and strength of the light. Well, flags can also work other ways. One of these ways is to put it over the top of the camera lens to help ensure the lens is in shadow at all times to avoid flare.

In the case of the prompter, a flag helps keep the text in shadow so it’s easier to read. I often had to improvise a flag if the grips didn’t have an extra one, or if they were assholes and wouldn’t let me use one of theirs or help me find one. To make my own I’d find some cardboard and tape it to the prompter—basically extending the black covering part of the prompter (the mirror was encased in a black triangle which often acted as enough flag). Sometimes when I did this, it could be seen in the lens. Meaning, I’d gone too far out over the lens, and the edges of it actually could be seen in the shot.

Back to Shelly Long. The sun wasn’t a problem for the prompter. We were in shade and Shelly was patient and seemed very nice and read her lines well and the shot was in the can. Then we moved down the block and the sun had shifted and was stronger now (that famous L.A. haze generally burns off around lunchtime) and poor Shelly had to strain to read her text. But, she was a trooper and got through it okay. I don’t remember if I had to use a flag or not. So, that part was okay. But I was plugged into a junction box (a remote box of usually four regular outlets at the end of a heavy-duty stinger) and for some reason the connection was loose. Every time somebody walked on this stinger my power cord running the whole contraption would unplug for a second and it would take a minute or two to reboot. We were in a hurry because the sun was moving and if they didn’t get their shot the way they had set everything up, they’d have to start making adjustments for the sun which would slow down their progress. So, I was holding them up.

I’m not always great in a pinch. I get confused as to the best course of action. I should have said, “Don’t step on my singer; keep away from this junction box.” And/or taken a minute out of my schedule to tape everything down with some gaffers tape. I did finally say, don’t step here after the very nice director said something embarrassing like, “Is there anything we can do to help?”
Bottom line: they got all their shots and Shelly Long was very nice. A trooper in this crappy situation with the sun in her eyes.

As a side note, this Disney job was unionized. Meaning that all the crew members belonged to unions. All except me. The company I worked for was non-union. 98% of the time this wasn’t a problem, but occasionally we ran into trouble. Unions are very touchy about what they perceive as non-union workers taking jobs away from their union members. And many other teleprompting companies were unionized. Turns out, for one day of this Jim Henson shoot that my company couldn’t work (maybe a last-minute day when all our prompters, including myself, were booked) Disney had to go with another teleprompting company. This other company was unionized. The prompter (the little shit) knew the situation and made a stink with Disney over using a non-union teleprompter company and blackmailed the production, saying, “Use my unionized company or I’ll tell.” So, for a couple weeks I didn’t work with the Jim Henson crew.

Turns out, this other company wasn’t very good. And, behind this other company’s back, Disney ended up hiring us again because we did a better job. It was, however, a strong introduction to the whole union dynamic in Hollywood. And it was not the first time I was looked upon as a scab worker in a town controlled by unions.

Teamster joke: How can you tell when a Teamster’s dead? He drops his donut.

Harry Belafonte
This one was shot in some schoolroom in some random school. It was a quick shoot: we set up and then when the crew was set, Harry came in and it turned out that he couldn’t read the prompter very well, so he ended up just kind of winging it. He seemed like a nice guy. He did not sing.

The Harry Belafonte section starts around 2:15:

I also worked with Steven Spielberg for this, but I ended up prompting with him two other times as well, so I’ll cover that in another post.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Tribute to Jim Henson Part 2: Dick Van Dyke

Dick Van Dyke was another celebrity brought in to be part of the Jim Henson tribute show.

As I mentioned with Rita Moreno, certain show people are always on. It’s a little disconcerting to be around because, for the crew, we’re just there to do a rather precise and technical job, whereas the talent just shows up and does what they’re told: hit their marks and read the copy on the prompter. It’s like engineers having to build a machine that a mouse will work, and they, at some point, have to work with the mice to get their input. It’s two sides of the brain meeting in the middle. And it’s probably the same with all Hollywood projects. Business vs. art. When we shot Dick Van Dyke on the Disney backlot in Burbank, he was definitely on.

Let me explain about studios and their backlots. There are a few main studios in Hollywood, and they all own property. On this probably, usually in one location, are the main offices of the studio. Buildings where the studio heads offices are. And where producers have offices. And people like Clint Eastwood, who is talent but also produces and directs. Or Steven Spielberg, who (before Dreamworks anyway) had his own company called Amblin Entertainment, and because Spielberg didn’t have his own studio, set up Amblin at Universal and had a building for his company on the Universal lot.

Each lot has a different feel. By the time I’d moved back east after being in L.A. for about 16 months, I’d worked on the Universal lot, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Sony (which used to be MGM), and Disney. I never got onto the Paramount lot, which might be the most famous because sometimes you see their front gate off Melrose Avenue in movies, and through that gate you can see the sound stages (or just stages, as they’re referred to by anyone who works on them) and you’ll see employees riding in golf carts, which is how people often get around backlots. Unless you’re a lowly grip, and you might have a 1-speed bicycle with a basket to peddle around on. It’s actually a pretty funny thing to see.

Paramount Studios, the early days:

These lots are old, built probably in the 20s when Hollywood was starting up. The Disney lot is beautifully manicured and probably reflects the ideals of Walt Disney: family friendly and gentle, reflecting a particular time in Americana. The post-war years, maybe. While some backlots are full of nondescript stucco buildings which might house dozens of offices, the Disney lot had what could be called bungalows. Small cottage-like buildings with offices. Writers’ offices, producers’ offices, and, maybe editing suites. Interspersed with the bungalows are the stages.

Stages all pretty much have the same look. They are large buildings that appear like airplane hangers. You’ve seen them in overhead shots of Warner Bros or Paramount studios, I’m sure. You’d recognize them. Inside they can be really cavernous: stripped empty or full of intricate sets. They are generally dark. Plus, there is a protocol when working on stages. If the red lights just outside the doors are lit, don’t go in. That means they are shooting something right now. They are in the middle of a take, with live sound, actors saying their lines, cameras rolling. When that light goes off and you hear a buzzer sound, that’s the all clear, and you can open the door and go in or out.

With Dick Van Dyke, we shot a stage. This stage must have been where a TV show was shot, because there were chairs set up in the middle, up on a rising platform, like bleachers, although there were no sets. This is where I first saw Dick Van Dyke. I remember him coming in by himself. And he was on. Boy, was he ever. I think out of everyone I prompted for, this guy was ready to work for his supper.

Dick just couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t sit still, like he had a compulsion. Like the vaudevillian in him was still still eager to please. He talked to the director and then when the director moved off, Dick kept sort of talking to himself, but really to anyone who was around. And he had these little moves he would do, like he was practicing something, or coming up with ideas of what he could do. Maybe they were dance moves, I don’t know.

Then it was time to shoot. As with Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke read his lines well, and then went into some personal memories about working with the Muppets. He was eager to please and really wanted to do a good job. I’d say he was happy to have the work, but I doubt he was getting paid. He seemed sad when the shoot wrapped and it was time to leave.

As a footnote, I can't find the footage of Dick Van Dyke from this show on youtube. The IMDB page for the tribute doesn't mention him. So, I have to assume his footage didn't make the cut.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jim Henson, Carol Burnett, and Teleprompting 101

Jim Henson died in May of 1990. A few months later Disney started putting together a tribute for him called The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. My company ended up being the go-to teleprompter company for this shoot, which went on for a month or more. Although looking at the credits of the show on IMDB, it doesn’t appear that they used all the segments that they shot for the show.

They got Carol Burnett for the show. This was one of my first solo gigs. The shoot was in a hotel room at the Beverly Hilton or the Beverly Hills Hotel. It’s strange that they would use a hotel room for a shoot. Why not just rent a stage for an afternoon? I guess it’s cheaper, and maybe free if they give consideration to the hotel in question? I was told to dress up for the job, business casual. I get there and I’m almost the best dressed person in the room aside from the director.

Here's a ten minute clip from the show. The section with Carol Burnett starts just after the five minute mark:

Let me back up a minute and introduce you to the way I worked.

When I went out on any teleprompter job, I was always sent with the following equipment:

• Small computer that ran teleprompting software
• Mirror contraption that was attached over the camera’s lens.
• A monitor that hung belong the lens.
• On metal plate that the camera would snap into
• Length of cable that ran between the monitor and my computer.

For every shoot I went on I’d find a place put my gear, always out of the way. My only request was that I had to hear the talent. I could be down the block, in the next room, or the neighboring building, but if I couldn’t hear the talent speak and take my cues from their dialogue, I couldn’t do my job.

I would need power as well, to plug in all my gear. After I had a place to work, I'd boot up my computer. While that was heating up, I’d work with the assistant cameraperson to attach the plate to the camera and then the monitor and the mirror. It was a bit clunky and over sized, but it almost always worked out. The camera crew would sometimes roll their eyes when they saw the prompter coming, but for the most part there was never a problem.

The monitor hung below the camera lens. The face of the monitor would display the text that I would scroll for the talent. This text would appear in the mirror (1 way) that was affixed directly over the camera lens. So that when the talent was reading the text off the monitor (referred to as the prompter) they were also looking right into the lens. This gave the appearance of a seamless performance. Well, unless you knew they were reading a prompter--then you could see their eyes moving back and forth as they read.

There were variations of this setup, with the monitor to the side of the lens. If it was a live show on a stage, then there would be plates of glass on stands at an angle that the hosts could read from but were almost invisible to the audience. Another type of setup was used for live broadcasts such as the Emmys, Oscars, etc., where huge monitors were set out in the audience which all hosts and presenters read from.

They still do this, so I shouldn't write it like it's all in the past. If you watch the Oscar broadcast tonight, in wide shots from the back or the balcony of the Kodak Theater, look for one or two huge monitors in the audience. They're there, and they're what the presenters and hosts read from when they're not staring at the camera. They are usually cloaked in black, so that from the back and sides they appear as black holes.

So anyway, Carol Burnett. She was very nice and professional. She came in the room dressed and ready to go. Maybe a little make up was applied on the spot, or maybe she had already been made up. There was a dolly move, so the camera was up on the dolly which was on one length of curved track. Remember, we’re just in a hotel room.

Carol didn’t say hello to me as she did the rest of the crew. But I was situated just behind the dolly track, the only place for me in this cramped space, and so, when the dolly moved along the track, Carol was revealed to me and I to her, and she flashed me a few smiles. It was nice to get a little reaction, a little acknowledgement. After this, I always tried to have some interaction with the talent because I was one of the few crew members whose job directly affected their performance.

Here's what the prompter looks like to the talent:

As I was to learn, the talent always had a different reaction to the prompter. Sometimes it was a godsend if there was a lot of text for them to read. Sometimes they didn’t want to use or rely on the prompter. More often than not they understood it was just part of their job. When you have a big actor like Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood read off a prompter, there is an understanding that they are helping out on something that is probably beneath them. The feeling is that they are doing a favor, they’ve been roped into something by their studio or publicist, they just want to get it over with, and so will read whatever you put in front of them as quickly and professionally as they can.

The Carol Burnett shoot went very quickly. She only had a couple minutes of text to read, and she also threw in some personal remembrances. Then it was a wrap. She stood, said thank you to all, including me, seemed very pleased to be involved with the project, and left.

Breaking down never took very long for me. I would get the monitor and all ancillary equipment off the camera first, so that they could wrap the camera and I could get the plate off the tripod. This time it went quickly and I was in and out of the hotel in under three hours.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rita Moreno

Here's my first post to get you going. It's short and so very sweet. Every week I'll add a post documenting another of my adventures in the pseudo screen trade.

After a few years of working in Connecticut and New York as a production assistant on various industrial and corporate videos, along with work as a second assistant film editor and a first assistant sound editor on a low-budget feature in Manhattan, I moved to Los Angeles. I moved out with dreams of selling my first (and, it turns out, only) completed screenplay.

The director of the low budget feature who was living in L.A. hooked me up with a steady gig as a teleprompter operator. It was semi-steady work, and the pay was decent. Plus I got to work with all kinds of Hollywood types. Big names like Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, and Charlton Heston. Along with the occasional Mary Lou Rettons and the guy who started the Vans grocery store chain.

One of my first jobs after I started teleprompting was working with Rita Moreno. I was still training, so I tagged along with another teleprompter operator who was running the show. I was just there to learn. The location was the Hollywood Bowl, a huge outdoor amphitheater very near the 101 freeway, nestled on a hillside.

I don’t remember what the video was for, but we were set up on the stage. It was the middle of the morning, so the sun was starting to blaze down. It was impressive to just see the Hollywood Bowl, but there we were right up on the huge, expansive stage. It didn’t take long. We set up, the camera crew were already there and ready to go. Shortly they brought Rita out. She seemed distracted, couldn’t focus, probably didn’t want to be there. I discovered that a lot of show people were on the minute they got to the set or location. It’s a little creepy, this turning on and off of public personality. Anyway, Rita did her lines and we got out of there. It went very quickly. It was an easy morning. It spoiled me for other shoots to come.