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In Appreciation of US Film Crews

by on Jan.25, 2010, under Filmmaking

It's amazing what a good grip can build you.

I’m a big fan of U.S. film crews.  I consider Los Angeles and Seattle my home bases for production–that’s where I work most often and have the fattest contact files–but I work all over.  Often, I’ll head off to direct a project somewhere else and pick up a local crew.  Wherever I fly around the country, I find that film crew quality is pretty consistent.  Sure, you run the risk of a bad apple once in a while, but on the whole, the crews I work with have an amazing can-do attitude, plenty of experience, and are almost never fazed by having to do the impossible in too little time with insufficient resources.  (In fact, it’s expected.)  Need to build a bicycle mount for the camera from just a hi-hat, two grip arms and a gobo head?  A good key grip will make it happen in about ten minutes (five if the sun is setting).  I often compare indie film crews to Marines–both have that “improvise and overcome” ethic.

It’s tempting to think this applies to crews in general, but from my experience outside the U.S., that ain’t necessarily so.  When traveling around the U.S., I’ve gotten used to having the little things available.  You have to travel pretty light on some of these corporate gigs, and I come to depend on the local crews for the little things.  Need some blackwrap?  Some Duvetyne?  Maybe a couple pieces of showcard?  Well it sure won’t be going in your carry-on bag.  But anywhere I’ve traveled in America, one of the crew guys have it in the back of their van.

When I was shooting in Russia last year, the crew didn’t have show card or even gaffers tape.  Gaffers tape!!! That’s like cooking in a restaurant kitchen that doesn’t have any salt.

True story:  The U.S. DP and I are shooting in this huge facility and the camera bag is about a half mile away.  We’re getting to the end of the tape, so we send one of our Russian crew guys back to get us another tape.  The punchline?  Ten minutes later, he comes back with exactly one tape.

Any filmmaker I tell this to usually cracks up.  A U.S. crew guy will bring you a minimum of three tapes, or better just move the whole camera bag to your new location if that makes sense.  Probably because on that person’s first day as a PA, he actually brought just one tape, one roll of gaff tape, or whatever.  Exactly what he was asked for.  …And some kind person on that set “mentored” him by sending him back to get another tape.  And another.  Until he learned to anticipate what was actually needed (or might be) instead of what was specifically asked for.  Glitches happen on film and video shoots–some tapes don’t work, or you need another right away–and you can’t wait around burning daylight.  Newbies may have a tough time their first few days as PAs, but that mentoring pays off big time in turning out crews who think ahead and are quick on their feet.  When I’m in other places (shops, businesses, the post office) I occasionally fantasize about how different they’d be if a film crew were running the place.

So thanks, U.S. crews.  It usually goes without saying, but I’m saying it…You are the best.


1 Comment for this entry

  • Bob White

    Doug, this is a great post and I couldn’t agree more. (Also love the site, btw – very fluid and easy to navigate with lots of goodies to explore.) As one of those who migrated from crewing commercials and indie films to making them myself, I have a soft spot for the ever-ingenious U.S. crew, who rarely have their praises sung. From my own experience, I remember fewer songs of praise and more strings of extremely loud four letter words. Yes, I admit that on my first day years ago as Art PA, I actually went looking for the board stretcher.

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