As Damian, DP Dermott Downs, and I walked through the opening sequence, it was determined that that this would be our best (and only) chance to control the machine, our talent and, of course, framing.
It starts with a balanced frame of Tim on the steps outside the warehouse as he puts on eye protection. Tim places a toy truck on a ledge, pushes it to knock over a series of dominoes, and setting the machine into motion.
We learned quickly that, to keep focus as closely as we wanted to on the toy truck, while remaining stationary and still panning smoothly to follow Tim’s action, I needed to get the lens within about 12 inches. But of course, I also needed to pan the camera, and gently push it away from me to make my next moves, while still keeping close focus on the car.
We were shooting on a staircase with a nonremovable railing, so there was no room for me to physically move. As soon as the director gave Tim his action to trigger the dominoes with the truck, Dermott remotely zoomed out with the lens. At the same time, I needed to “throw” the camera into position, run backwards up the ramp, and counter my movement up the ramp with a pan right/tilt down to hold the dominoes. This opening scene was the first of three ramps throughout the shot. As we worked into the night, dew settled on the outside ramp, making it slippery. To help solve this challenge, I mapped out my foot placement, and the engineers nailed down thin strips of wood to serve as footholds.
After leaving a kabuki screen tunnel, I needed to get to the next rigger, a globe as it traveled along on some rails. I needed to be in position and have enough momentum to once again run backwards up a ramp, and once again counter my movement, this time with a tilt up then down, and track with the ball. This would swing to reveal Damian and Tim, moments before Damian is yanked away by a zip line. (Trying not to cut off their heads )
The man responsible for pulling the trigger to send Damian flying couldn’t see the shot, so in order to prevent any accidental premature zip line action, I waited until I had my framing, and then yelled “Hey!” to cue the zip line. Why the word, “Hey?” Because by this point, I was usually already out of breath, and it’s about all I could muster up with any sort of volume to be heard over the playback of the song.
In fact, there were a couple of times when they would mute the playback so I could pay closer attention to what I was doing, and call out more specific commands or hear somebody who needed to talk to me.
As I rehearsed the shot the first few times, I realized the next ramp (coming down from the zip line gag) would either kill me, or the shot. In rehearsal, we found that the ramp needed to be altered, widened, and angled away and steeper.
As I rotated the camera and my hips to line up the next shot and the descent off the ramp, the camera could make it down but I could not. I needed to get down and off the ramp quickly. This would allow me to cover the action, and to avoid being hit or caught up in the rope attached to the paint can that swings down triggering the next action.
The paint can always caught some piece of me, or the rig. As long as it didn’t hit the camera itself or get caught on me, I would be fine — but you can see in the final video that the shot is affected when a paint can swings back on camera right and hits me.
When I arrived on set to shoot, the pressure I felt to help bring this project to life was intense. Before we began, I learned about betting pool. For a dollar, engineers and crew members could pick a “take” number — how many times it would take before the machine worked all the way through. As I geared up to shoot, I am pretty sure I overheard whispers that the highest pick was in the mid 40s and the collection was well over $100. I thought, “Forty takes? I hope it never comes to that.”
And so we began. And as afternoon gave way to evening, the numbers on the slate began to climb. Take after take, the machine was in constant need of adaptation and refinement and, with each adjustment, I needed to adjust my dance.
Amazingly enough, even the temperature and humidity played a part. The machine was alive and, depending on whether we were shooting at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m. the machine behaved differently. It was raining outside this drafty warehouse, and as wood swelled and balls rolled faster, there had to be changes to compensate.
The video was originally budgeted for two days of shooting. However, after two back-to-back 16 hour days, the machine had yet to work all the way through. And so, the time had come for a make or break decision. Scrap the original idea of a single shot, or sign on for another day and see it through to the end. As a whole, the entire team elected for option two and, thankfully the video’s sponsor, State Farm Insurance, agreed. I am grateful they did.
THE LAST DANCE
I worked without a spotter. It was me versus the machine. A dance partner whose construction and integrity consisted of materials ranging from paper clips, ball bearings and flags to pianos, oil drums and sledge hammers. All of which were meticulously placed, fashioned and organized with incredible attention paid to detail and the laws of physics. Bump the table — fail! Kick a trigger — fail! Stumble on a ramp — fail! Get caught up in a swinging tea pot hung by fishing line — fail!
There were an endless number of random variations to account for. I mentioned some of the ones related to temperature and humidity, but they could be totally random. A ping-pong ball bounces too far. A mousetrap snaps unexpectedly. In one case, a cardboard box bounced farther than usual, and triggered an oil drum rolling down a ramp too early.
In the finished video, you can see the barrel roll at me just under camera. What you don’t see is that it took out my legs. We almost lost the entire take, but I was able to reconfigure, and I sat on the barrel as it rolled down two or three feet, and push off to my next shot.
As take 85 flashed up on the slate covering band member Tim Nordwind’s paint splattered face, I had my doubts. But thanks to the incredible attitudes of the band members and all involved, I never lost faith. I couldn’t bear the thought of all this creativity, positive energy and incredible teamwork not coming to life. I couldn’t imagine that this imaginative, ingenuous rollercoaster-of-a-ride, wouldn’t be shared and, instead, would die in an old, leaky LA warehouse. It sure as hell wasn’t gonna be because of me.
Finally, a deep breath, an always encouraging smile from Tim and, the strength to utter the words, “camera speeds and is…set.” Take 85. We had our video……or at least one complete run. This first successful take was one where I didn’t get hit, I didn’t get injured, and everything was perfect — but the band looked exhausted, like they were getting root canals. It was two in the morning after a long day, and looked like it. There was no way we could use that take. It was just too depressing to look at. We used the second of the three successful takes we got instead.
When you watch the video, you’ll see a cut (mostly) hidden by a curtain as I’m being lowered from one floor to the other. I was being lowered by hand, and it took me nearly a half-second at the bottom to call out that I’d landed, get unsnapped from the harness and get moving again, all while the machine kept rolling.
That cut was only to compensate for that half second delay. It was most definitely not to “create the illusion” of a single, unbroken take that we failed to pull off. No, we got all the way through it — three times.
By the end, we knew that it had been a lot of work, but I don’t think any of us really appreciated just how hard it was at the time. We were just exhausted. It took me weeks to stop dreaming about it.