Saturday, March 27, 2010

Latest Gig: Background P.A. on "Homework"

My latest gig is as background P.A. on a low-budget feature called "Homework" starring Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts among other note-worthies (not to be confused with several other films with the same title, I noticed).  I knew at least half the crew before we started and everyone's cool; the AD department is especially likable. As I write this, we're on Day 3 of 22 and I've been really hustling, making mistakes of course, but they're the learning variety and my supes have been impressed. 
(Picture: A prepared Background PA. I'm still in the learning stages,  I guess... )

One particular mistake that had me burning inspired me to make a system I'm sure will make the process easier and more efficient.  When you're dealing with a multitude of restless background players, who are for the most part just sitting around waiting to be called to set, chances are you will get crossed up at some point about who has done what, who is wearing what and who needs to do what.  After the twelfth hour, you're not going to remember this stuff in your head and mistakes will happen, which they did.  Fortunately, they were not critical mistakes, though I personally  thought they were.                                                                                  

As I sat and contemplated critically over seemingly critical mistakes, I came up with a simple solution: create a chart that will breakdown scenes, the number of the background player in that scene and what that player is wearing for that scene.  It's so simple, I'm sure there's a chart for this specific purpose already, but I'm going to make one for myself so I can keep my thoughts (and especially the thoughts of the 2nd AD) together.  So, I doubt I will be making this mistake again. 

What do Background PAs do, you ask? We process and organize background talent (extras) on behalf of the Assistant Director and his/her seconds, who set the players in various positions in the camera frame and give them quick directions on what to do.  At the beginning of the day, the background talent will come to me in a specific holding area, where I check them in off of a list called "skins" that has their name and assigned number. I give them releases to fill out and sign; these are for permission to use their images in the film for whatever purpose production has for them (i.e. exposition, marketing, etc.) at the agreed rate, which is always a set day rate. These releases must be filled out every day and kept organized for later use.

A member of the wardrobe department will come in and look over whatever clothing and sets of clothing (changes) the talent was told to bring that will give them an authentic look according to the description of scene; sometimes providing changes if they have the budget to do so.  After wardrobe approves, we all wait for the 2nd AD to call for stand-ins (extras who literally stand in for the principal talent on set during technical rehearsal), then selects the number of background talent he/she wants for the scene.  I will select whatever number is needed (a few to all) and escort them to set, then depending on the needs of the 2nd AD I usually stay to assist in placing and queuing background, and when the scene is completed I escort them all back to holding and organize for the next scene. 

What I've learned so far is that these changes occur quickly, and I have to keep up by knowing who is needed in the scene and in what type of outfit.  I have to keep the background talent informed and prepared for the needs of the scene, then hustle them on and off set as needed.  Again, this can be hectic and confusing without a system in place to organize them, so each player is assigned a number for accounting purposes, but it helps me organize the talent for my chart as well. 

At the end of the day, I sign out the background players on a sheet provided by accounting and pay them according to the designated rate. After that, I fill out a report that describes the number of background players as well as their in, out and meal times, not to mention a running tally of how many background have been used to date.  When all the paperwork has been processed, I take my leave, drive the electric department truck back to the lot and go home to sleep for a couple of hours and start again the next day.  Literally.

I've been a freelance PA for over four years, and I've been working in the film industry off and on since 1995 when I first interned as a locations assistant for the Hudson Valley Film & Video Office.  At the same time I was cast in my first starring role on a straight-to-video production called "Brothers" by the ancient Greek slave/writer Terence. I was a background player for two years on several big TV shows and feature films, and jumped to the other side of the camera after graduating from film school, going full time as a freelancer when I realized I was getting calls on a regular basis.  In all that time, I've worked in various departments, but I've never run background like I am now.  It has been a learning process indeed, but according to the 2nd AD and others, I've been a real asset, which was my intention from the start.  So I'll keep learning and growing with this experience, and hope to land similar work right after this; keep the streak alive and all. I've been hustling like crazy and I'm tired.  But it's a good tired.  >;)

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Railrodder (1965)

I remember in elementary school when we had assemblies, we would watch a movie or a national TV event, like the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia, or a presentation of Pete's Dragon, or even a tour of the puppet cast for a program debuting later that year (which the name, for the life of me, escapes me).  Watching these kinds of things together in an auditorium sounds weird nowadays, but I guarantee you that they made some lasting impressions on my generation.  I may not remember the names of all of the programs we'd seen or the people who gave us presentations (a science-fantasy author for one, who was impressed with my theory on time and space relative to the speed of light), but I remember what had taken place, where I was sitting, who was with me and flashes of what we watched.

Tonight of all nights, I was struck by inspiration to track down the name of a movie we'd watched in one of those assemblies; in my mind it was a black-and-white silent film about a man riding on a railroad handcar cross-country and living as though he were in his own home.  It was an ingenious little film because it played on kids' love of trains, not to mention the rustic scenery that burned a permanent impression on my mind.  I happened to be watching a Buster Keaton film (Our Hospitality) in which in the early part of the film he was riding an ancient train from New York City to the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia to claim an inheritance.  I was fascinated by the fact that the train depicted as the 1829 Stevenson Rocket was a replica and really nothing more than a smallish steam locomotive pulling what looked like narrow and ornate stagecoaches. Seems as though Buster Keaton really liked trains; the movie I thought we watched in assembly, The General, was not in fact the same movie, but was great nonetheless (even if his character was inadvertently on the "wrong" [Confederate] side.) Nevertheless, it is considered one of the finest movies involving trains.

Then I got the notion to look online for movies involving handcars; the pump-trollies that you might remember from Westerns (Blazing Saddles; the quicksand scene) or Warner Brothers/Hanna Barbera  cartoons and I came across a great train enthusiasts site, Rail Serve, which among other things lists many movies that greatly involved trains.  I scrolled down the list until the cover art for one movie drew me in; Buster Keaton Rides Again featuring The Trainrodder.  I soon realized that yes, The Trainrodder was in fact the very same movie we watched in assembly and subsequently on TV all those years ago. 

My memories of the film were almost clear; it was in fact filmed in color, yet it had almost all the conventions of a silent film (a musical score and recorded sound effects, no dilogue).  I remembered much of the scenery and some of the visual gags that took place on the handcar, but it was not really a pump-trolley but a track speeder; a motorized rail cart similar in dimension to a golf cart used by track-workers. Also, the scenery was not strictly rustic; there were in fact as quite a few city scenes as there were backwoods scenes.  But that was actually part of the point of the film...

The Trainrodders depicts an English gentleman in London, England reading a full-page large type newspaper ad that simply states "SEE CANADA NOW!!" After jumping into the Thames, he emerges in what we gather is the eastern seashore of Canada and, upon discovering train tracks and a signpost that shows the Pacific Ocean being exactly 3,982-1/2 miles due west, he begins the long hike, but encounters a motorized trackrider.  While inspecting it, he sits down to relax and accidentally kicks it into gear, taking off like a shot down the track and leaving behind a chagrined track-worker on his break.

The rest of the short film depicts his inadvertently casual journey along the tracks on what amounts to be a speed buggy/mobile home as he makes his way across the Canadian landscape, including tours of Montreal, Ottowa and Vancouver (and all apparently on one tank of gas!).  As he's traveling along, he discovers that the cargo box contains just every amenity he can think of, from meals (including a tea service) to clothing and blankets and other accoutrements to make his journey rather comfortable; there's even a scene where he outfits the trackrider with tree limbs and brush to create a hunting blind as he traces a flock of geese also traveling west (the shotgun compliments of the inexhaustable supply cabinet from the trackrider).  During the trip, he also has several close brushes with trains mostly going in the opposite direction, some of them on the same track as he... 

I won't tell you what happens in the end, and it's not hard to see it coming, but it's still funny and punctuates the charm of this film.  Buster Keaton, in one of his last films, retains the same energy ingenuity from his youth during his heyday as a silent screen star, and the beautiful landscape is prominently featured throughout.  Director Gerald Potterman (Heavy Metal, animation for Yellow Submarine) sets a leisurely pace that is both engrossing and chuckle-inducing for kids and adults alike. 

As I said before, watching this movie as a child in assembly made a strong impression on me, and though 45 years have passed between the making of The Railrodder and now, I would not mind taking a similar journey in the a similar conveyance if the opportunity presented itself.  Of course, I'd have to have the permission of the Canadian railway authorities who helped make it all possible...

The movie was released by the National Film Board of Canada and serves as both a comedy and a travel documentary, serving both purposes well.  What has always been strange to me though is that it used to be shown in school and on TV, perhaps on PBS or even WPIX in New York, but it disappeared along the way and I hadn't seen hide nor hair of it until now.  Yet, it's a testament to the strength of the film's charm that I was able to track it down all these years later, still remembering certain scenes and sight gags like they were filmed yesterday.  Let me know what you think... >;)