Final Autoethnography: Lights, Camera and Bathrooms

I go to Chapman University. No, I’m not a film student. I know, that’s kind of weird because every time I say, Chapman, everyone’s eyes widen and mouth says “oooooh DODGE that’s such a great college.” They are the cool kids, they are the ones everyone talks about, the proud and joy of Chapman.

I have always had an interest in what exactly the “cool kids” do. The people who are extremely talented yet mysterious and make you wonder what they are up to. 

Dodge College is ranked the 7th best Film School in the US giving students the opportunity to learn the ways of the film industry while combining their creativity and new knowledge to eventually showcase their work.

My best friend is a director. She is always doing stuff, anything, and everything. She keeps very busy. She always tells me about the movie premieres she goes to, her radio show, her acting projects, and her films. I have always found her life to be so interesting and engaging because I guess I view her as a “cool kid.”

She asked me to help her with a project, I jumped at the opportunity to help out someone I look up to. Normally if anyone would ask me to wake up and go help on a set for no reason, I would say no. Little did I know, what I would actually be doing…

Most movie people like myself are unaware of what ACTUALLY happens behind the scenes. They don’t know how many people have their hands in the end product. Larger scale movies like Avatar took 10 years to make, including pre and post production. Kaitlin explained to me that while Dodge film students are making smaller films, it still takes about 10 people to work on a film that eventually only features two people. As someone who has only taken introductory film classes throughout high school and was taught to film on an iphone, I was in awe of how much went into making a short film despite my minuscule background knowledge. My short iphone clips are nothing compared to the dedication, number of people, time and equipment that goes into a finished film.

12:25: I come to a screeching stop in the crowded parking lot, run out of the car and take a moment to breathe. My heart beats heavily…Phew, I got here on time, 5 minutes early in fact. The aggressive driving and running were all worth it. I stand outside of the daunting building lined with tall windows and glass panels, feeling all of the creativity and innovation that lies within it. Portraits of the founders hang on the wall, staring back at me with two plastic bags full of food hanging from my one arm and a case of water in the other. Shoot, it’s 12:28, Kaitlin wanted the food at exactly 12: 30. I better hurry up.

I cautiously put my foot one after the other as I head through the noiseless lobby trying to make it there in time for the crew’s lunch break. I turn behind the desolate reception area and find two parallel elevators on either side of me. Kaitlin specifically told me to ride the elevator to the third floor since there are no stairs that lead to it. I look at my arm, it’s slowly turned to colors of deep red and pink as the plastic bag cuts off my circulation. Making a trek up three flights of stairs didn’t seem ideal anyways. I patiently wait for it to take me up to the third floor. I wait and wait, 30 seconds go by before it moves…beep, the number above me changes to 1…beep, changes to 2…beep, finally, I made it, 12:30, right on the dot. 

I step out into a whirlwind of people running back and forth, some sitting, some standing, some silent, some yelling, some stare at me, and some are unaware of my arrival. Two female actors are sitting and waiting for the lunch I had just picked up to be delivered. I guess I am the delivery girl. I realize that the fate of their hunger was in my hands which gave me a sense of responsibility and purpose but I also realize that picking up food isn’t the most important job. They eyeball the lunch hanging off of my arm. I quickly set down the bag as I knew lunch was a very timely matter. The director, Kaitlin, walks out and greets me, introduces me and asks for the food. We are in a lobby looking area with only two couches, two chairs and zero tables. I set it all up on the floor and the crew lines up. They each chose from salads, wraps, and sandwiches and grab a bottle of water. 

The crew scarfs down their food knowing they have to set up the lights, camera, audio and set before the next run through. The cinematographer grabs the camera, the boom operator runs across the room trying not to drop the boom microphone. Kaitlin eats her food, the AD yells from her chair that we have until 1:15 to eat, and I sit in silence on the floor.

Phew, I completed my first job.

In Hollywood the average number of crew credits in the top 1,000 films between 1994 and 2013 [is] 588, meaning there are 588 people working on the film.

Kaitlin explains to me that “allowing improvisation and giving actors what they need, especially the space, so they feel ready and comfortable to step into their roles” is one of the best things a director can do.

“Okay, let’s run through your lines again to get some audio recordings” Kaitlin says to the two actresses.

“Quiet on set”

“Action!”

As the younger girl says her first line, Kaitlin asks her to try it one more time. Both actresses go back and forth practicing their lines, trying out different voice inflections, tones, and pronunciations while I try to remain silent so I don’t interrupt the recordings.

My legs are shaking, eyes twitching, and body is forced still because I think any movement of mine will ruin all of their recordings. Despite there being no sound when someone blinks, I was very paranoid. 

One of the actors is being filmed throwing up in this scene so she tries out different moans and coughs trying to fine tune the perfect gag.

blahhh

ughhh 

blahhh

Finally, I take a breath. 

I ask Kaitlin what she thinks the one most important thing about directing is and she tells me “110 million percent getting your actors to fully trust you, so that they can give truthful performances where they don’t feel pressured or scared, like you have to let them know, they are the story and what they think and feel is completely regarded and taken into consideration.”

1:10: The AD calls out, “Okay everyone we have five minutes until run through!”

Everyone rushes in a single file line through the narrow bathroom door, the crew manages to make their way into the women’s restroom. I walk in last, not wanting to barge right in since it was a tight space. I slowly filed in behind the last person and stood in the corner next to the trash can.

The cinematographer behind the camera shuffles around trying to figure out the shot. Large lights, reflectors and long fluorescent beams shine onto my face. Heavy industrial metal poles, reflectors, cords and wires were being handled by the rest of the crew.

1:15:

“Sound…check”

“Lighting… check”

“Take 21B” the second AD calls out as she claps her hands down like a reenactment of Jaws and then quickly tries to manage her way around the cables and cords.

“Action!”

The AD writes something down on the piece of paper logging their progress, the director intensely looking at the screen behind the camera operator, the boom operator holding the boom above the two actors, and me, who holds a reflector pointed on the two actors are now ready to film.

The lighting was too harsh, the 10 people in the tight-quartered bathroom, rushing to figure out how to fix it. They switch the light on and off and finally decide to place one of the crew members in the handicapped bathroom to hold up the light over the door. The cinematographer, Austin, says that he has “always been a techy person. I love tinkering with technology and figuring how to make things work.” I’m still holding the reflector on the two actors who are just rehearsing their lines over and over while everyone else was frantically moving around me. They acknowledge my physical being in the way of them but no one decides to tell me to move which makes me feel more uncomfortable that I am yet again taking up their time. I feel out of place with the cool kids. 

Austin, explains to me that “[he] love love love[s] long opening takes. I essentially start most my movies out with a long stabilizer shot where I establish the space.”

1:18: He first films the two girls standing up, then sitting on the bathroom counter. The motion-activated sinks keep running the water and dispensing soap.

The next shot was an extreme wide shot which features the subject far from the camera and as a result we see the area and environment around the subject.

Standing off to the corner, next to a line of bathroom stalls that remind me of my high school bathroom but way cleaner, minus the smells that come along with a bathroom, they were filming a wide shot of the entire bathroom and the cinematographer could see me. Flustered as I feel I am taking time away from their rigid filming schedule, I hop into a bathroom stall and close the door. I don’t know how long I am going to be in the stall and contemplate whether to sit or stand but realize sitting on a dirty toilet seat in my new jeans isn’t the best idea. Standing in the stall, peeking through the cracks of the door, hearing the normal call outs and sound/audio checks before the “Action!” and looking at the zig zag tile that makes me queasy, I wait. I’m scared that the motion activated flush is going to go off during the scene so I inch my body towards the gray door and lean against it furthering myself from the toilet. As I stand in the bathroom stall, a combination of tiredness from standing in a bathroom all day, the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights and the nauseating tile makes me close my eyes. My only role now is to stand silently in a stall. I know, really glamorous.

“Action!”

4:00: Sluggish and slumped, the crew members try to rush out of the bathroom to get to the hallway where the next shot is being filmed. The two actors take their time making their way to the next location. The scorching sun makes my eyes squint as they try to adjust to the light since I have been in the dark bathroom all day composed of unnatural light. Everyone seemed to be moving at a slightly less timely manner as I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing now. I felt like no one wanted to give me a job or ask for help.

4:30: Everyone was yawning and stretching their arms out. The crew struggles to set up the camera dolly track and kept testing out the cart to make sure the shot was going to run smoothly. Finally, they perfect the track and the cinematographer gets on top of the board while a crew member pushes him around. Seemed like quite a workout, thankful that I didn’t have to push him back and forth.

“Yes! That shot was so badass, we are done!” comes out of Austin.

He explained to me that it’s “important walking away proud of a certain shot or stylistic choice made that worked successfully” and that when he looks back on projects he has worked on, “It’s not so much the shots or the angles that I remember, sure I admire them when viewing, but it’s the effort and struggles that I remember and what I did to overcome those obstacles that I remember most.

4:31: Que the celebratory music because “THAT’S A WRAP!!!”

4:32: Not so fast, now we have to break down all the equipment and start cleaning up. The actor’s jobs are done so they thank the crew and take off. Kaitlin thanks everyone and walks around supervising everyone. The rest of the crew and I break down the dolly track, wrap up all the wires, pack all of the poles and lighting into small containers and clean up the areas we had been in. I took out the trash, organized the left over food, and took the elevator up and downloading the equipment and snacks into Kaitlin’s car.

5:00: Kaitlin, Austin and the rest of the crew thanks me for bringing them food and assisting them with whatever they needed even though I felt as if my three jobs were very minimal in the grand scheme of things .

5 hours later, now we are done!! Well, I am, not Kaitlin who has to start post production and edit her entire film.

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