Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Q&A with Dave Chameides

Do you remember the first time you saw or heard of the Steadicam?
I was in school at NYU working as an AC on a "feature" called Crawdaddies in upstate NY. Horror movie, no pay, mud, sleeping on the ground if we did, ahh the glory of youth and being a filmaker. Anyhoo, this guy named Bob Fiske who I am still friends with came out with this contraption he had built out of things he had lying around the house that he called a steadicam. The center post was a paint pole, the remote was literally a return mechanism from a vcr. I don't recall what the arm was made of but the vest was made from foam and old plastic 5 gallon buckets. It was wild, it worked (to a degree but at the time seemed amazing) and I was hooked. The first time I saw a real one was a spec spot that Kirk Gardner was on. He had a 3 (or maybe a 3A) and blew me away with it. I recall him letting me try it on and thinking that was about the coolest thing in the world! And it was.

What was it about the Steadicam that made you want to pursue it as a career?
Can't really say, but something clicked. I just knew that's what I had to do. I think it's the idea that it's a specialty, it's not easy, and most importantly, when that camera rolls (remember when cameras actually rolled?) you're on and it's make it or break it. As I got into more and more interesting shooting situations I recognized how much creation is involved with being a Steadicam op, meaning actually molding the shot, and have loved that aspect ever since, but I can't say that was part of the original thought processes.

And then of course there are the women.....

What were you doing prior to Steadicam?
I was a first AC on low budget straight to hand puppet theater movies. Even got to do a few Corman gigs before they closed shop. That was a place indeed. I was in school when I first saw the noble beast (or a version thereof) and moved out to LA the following year.

With a Steadicam Model II, on set of Bitter Harvest
What were some of the biggest challenges you remember about becoming a Steadicam operator?
Umm, walking, panning, tilting, starting, stopping, standing still, standing up, and of course, soldering wires in between shots. I know that sounds crazy but it seriously was.

I took an EFP workshop down in Santa Monica that was a three day weekend thingamabob that Ken Ferro and two others (can't recall who....James Livingston maybe) taught. I flew back east the next night and actually brought a cardboard paper towel tube with me to the airport to "practice" panning the rig. That's how nuts I was. When I got my first rig, a model I serial number 22 (nicknamed Old Smokey) I spent about a year running around my apartment building with it because I couldn't make the stupid thing do anywhere near what I wanted to make it do. So I just kept hammering away, hours a day until I was able to do at least something decent with it. I do recall how totally overwhelming it was and how much I wanted to be in the rig for 20 hours straight to figure it all out but how much my body hurt and I couldn't be. Sort of an addiction now that I look back.  I probably could have used some therapy.

What are some of the biggest challenges now?
I'm 43 and i've been an owner op for just about 20 years. I'd say the toughest thing now is rebounding. I remember the days when I would triple book and do 36 hours of operating, sleep five and then get up and do running shots and love it. Now the rebound after a long day is tough.

I've also found that what I enjoy has changed. For a while it was "who can do the longer shots with no cuts" and I was truly blessed with ER, West Wing and others to get a lot of chances to do some cool long stuff. Now though I'm much more interested in the slower finesse moves. Landing perfect lockoffs, timing pans, etc. But I digress.

What was the question again?

I think the other challenge that's odd to me is that we are back to either super heavy or super light cameras. When we started there were just a few Steadicam cams and I remember more than once flying Golds with Primos on a model 1! Craziness. But then the lightweights came out, the Arricams, etc. Now we are in this digital age where things are either 70 pounds or two. It's weird and I miss the days of showing up and not even having to think about the build because it was a Pana Lightweight or something I'd flown 5000 times. Now it's a new camera every week and we are always having to reengineer, rethink, get new plates, etc. One step forwards two steps back. Or something like that.

Dave's first day on set of ER
Did you ever have a "big break' moment? A career event that clearly changed or paved the way for everything to follow?
Without a doubt that was ER for me. I did a cross country bike trip for charity the first year ER came out and I had no idea what it was. I remember being in Who Knows Where, Indiana and the black and white TV was on, coming in and out, and there was a medical drama on. I was half watching it and the antenna was not very good so it sort of came in and out, but at one point remember thinking "holy crap that shot is still going" and no one knowing what i was talking about.

I got back to LA and used this new thing called email to send a message to Guy Bee (who I didn't know) telling him how amazing the work he was doing was. I think nowadays we take it for granted but he was doing stuff on a daily basis that a lot of us only dreamed of. We corresponded for a bit and then one day he called for me to fill in for him which totally shocked me (thankfully I didn't have to wear the pants though). I did one day, didn't do much Steadi and the DP operated A, but was out of my mind with excitement. When he left the show after the second season, they called and gave me the shot and I jumped.

I literally spent the first month of that show thinking that I was going to get fired everyday because I was so far in over my head. But they kept on throwing my name on the call sheet and before I knew it, I had settled into it. While there are other shots and other shows that people seem to mention and like, ER was definitely the highlight for me. I was 25 when I started and it took me more places and gave me more experience than I could have possibly understood it would at the time.

And while I'm on ER, I would be remiss if I didn't throw a huge thanks out to my assistant Terrance Nightingal who carried me through those early times. He was a great AC and is now a great Steadicam op in his own right.

From whom do you take your inspiration? Has that changed over the course of your career?
It'd be stupid for me not to say Garrett because that's a no brainer. He's always been up there for obvious reasons. After that I'd say someone who most people may not even know, the man who taught me how to operate, Bob Crone.

When I took the masters class at Calamigos, Bob was the lead instructor. I can honestly say, he was one of the kindest, most patient people I've ever met in this biz. I'm going to guess that Bob was close to 60 at the time and he never put on the rig. As we'd head back to our rooms at night we'd joke that maybe he couldn't fly the rig anymore, etc etc. But then when it came time to do the Gran Prix shot, Bob put a 3A on to demonstrate it and to this day I have never seen anyone more elegant or excellent in a rig. He moved effortlessly, like a cat and even sitting here twenty years later, I can still feel the awe I felt back then.
One night Bob told us, in his quiet Canadian way, that the odd key to our job is that if we were to do it well, no one would ever notice that we had done it at all. I've taken that to heart all these years in how I operate and (hopefully) in how I conduct myself on set and have always thought that if I can become even half the operator he showed us to be then, I'd be happy.

Great man, great op.

Is there a shot, film, or moment in your career that you can think of as your most proud?
There's some pretty good stuff in ER I'm happy with, but ironically not the stuff most people think of. I remember one shot which was just a move in a door, a push in to two actresses and then a slow pull back. The whole thing was probably 100 feet of travel and it lasted about a minute and a half so it was painfully slow. I recall really being proud of that one.

I've always liked the stuff I did on Donnie Darko, but more for how it plays than the operating, and I just did some stuff on Shame last year that I thought was fun.

Mostly, I hate the stuff I do, so it's kind of hard to come up with stuff I like. Incidentally, my static reel is about 4 hours long now though and really rock solid. Sure anyone can move with this thing, but how many can stand perfectly still for 4 minutes after a 3 foot move. That's talent.

Is there a shot or film you can recall as being your most challenging? Why?
They all seem to be in their own way, but there is a shot in The West Wing on an ep called 5 Votes down. I won't recount it here because I think I wrote about it on the site already but three sets of stairs (one backwards) 3 plus minutes covering lord only knows how much distance, and keeping track of about 10 actors dialogue and when to cue on and off of them. It was a rough one, but came out quite nicely. 16 takes as my back can recall.

What work of your peers do you admire?
I know it's an obvious choice but I've always loved Larry's work of course. Jim Muro back in the day pulled off some great stuff and as I mentioned Bob Crone. Guy Bee has some great shots and left me some seriously huge shoes to fill. I think Andrew Mitchell does some amazing work on Glee and I can recall quite a few shots by Chris Haarhoff that I was totally blown away by. My good friend Charles Papert has done some really nice work over the years and I was always impressed with his ability to dissect a shot and break it into it's pieces. I was lucky enough to have him operate for me when I first directed and it was so great to have someone of his caliber have my back and turn in such great stuff.

It's funny though because there are a few names that everyone knows who they probably cite over and over, because of the high profile nature of their work and also their abilities. But that said, there are so many ops out there churning out solid work day after day who rarely if ever get any mention at all. Why? Because they are doing good work and as a result, like Bob Crone said, no one knows they are even doing it.

Somewhere right now, some op we may not have ever heard of is in hour 16 and has done 22 takes of a huge shot that he's nailed 19 times. He's a dayplayer and has to be on another set in 11 hours, has a 30 minute wrap ahead of him, and an hour drive after that. He's sweaty, dead tired, hungry, pissed off at having to remind the lead that she needs to find her light when she turns that fourth corner, and is wondering why the director is getting all the glory when he basically put this shot together. Oh, and one of his cables was just crushed by the DIT. But with all that, when they call "going again" in a minute, he'll brush all that off, pick up the rig, call out ready in a mildly irate tone, and then flawlessly nail take 23.

That's the op I admire most.

Many people will say they've tried on a Steadicam once, and immediately thought, "absolutely not." What do you think is different about those of us that say "absolutely"?
We're all crazy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Q&A with BJ McDonnell, SOC

Do you remember the first time you saw or heard of the Steadicam?
The first time was watching Aliens and seeing the arms used to mount Vasquez rifle. I was so intrigued by this and I couldn't stop drawing them in art class. I then found out what it was after watching behind the scenes of movies growing up.

What was it about the Steadicam that made you want to pursue it as a career?
I love framing shots and telling a story thru movement of the camera. I started my film career as a grip / dolly grip. I loved working with the operators and really felt as though I was a big part of the filming process as a dolly grip. I needed more. I decided to pursue a career as a camera operator and the rest is history.

What were you doing prior to Steadicam?
I toured with a punk band for 6 years of my life, then became a grip.

What were some of the biggest challenges you remember about becoming a Steadicam operator?
Getting the D.P.s who knew me as a grip to take me seriously as a camera operator. Also climbing the ladder to be taken seriously as a camera operator. There are alot of people trying to do this as a career.

What are some of the biggest challenges now?
I think the biggest challenges now are with HD shooting. It seems as though when with film there was a art to the film process. With HD nobody wants to cut cameras and as a steadicam operator it calls for more endurance for longer takes.
Also the fact that more people are lowballing and making it harder for steadicam rates to stay up.

Did you ever have a "big break' moment? A career event that clearly changed or paved the way for everything to follow?
My big break in Features came from my friend and D.P. Phil Parmet. He always believed in me and he brought me on to be the B operator / Steadicam on Halloween. He is a true bad ass and great friend.
My T.V. break came from D.P. Charlie Lieberman. He hired me to do a T.V. show called Standoff which later took me to do season 2&3 of Heroes

From whom do you take your inspiration? Has that changed over the course of your career?
My Grandfather has always been my inspiration for the film industry. He was a actor and I was so amazed by the whole process of storytelling thru film. He paved the way.

Is there a shot, film, or moment in your career that you can think of as your most proud?
I did a shot in a film called Shrink a very long steadicam ONe take shot. Loved that shot. It timed out longer than the infamous goodfellas shot lol.

Is there a shot or film you can recall as being your most challenging? Why?
Battle: Los Angeles has got to be the most challenging film I've done. It was physically brutal. Steadicam was always comprimised by flying under helicopters etc... It was mostly handheld and it was just a really tough film. Im proud of it. Watching it you can easily say, "That was a bitch to make" lol.

What work of your peers do you admire?
Jimmy Muro, Charles Papert, Dave Emmerichs, Larry McConkey, etc....and I could name so many people. Honestly I admire almost all steadicam ops out there because there is a certain passion we all share for the craft.

Many people will say they've tried on a Steadicam once, and immediately thought, "absolutely not." What do you think is different about those of us that say "absolutely"?
When I first put on a rig I almost said "Absolutely not". I loved it so much I trained myself and muscles to be able to handle it. I say for those who say "Absolutely not" to not give up that easily. Like anything it takes practice. Learn the tool, love the art, know framing for the story you are telling because they can all range in different looks, and last just have fun because you are making a movie.

BJ's website can bew viewed here: www.mcdonnellsteadicam.com

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The "Big" Rig Dilemma

In the few years since I decided that I wanted to pursue Steadicam as a career, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what direction I wanted to go in, gear-wise. I’ve poured over countless rigs, new and used, read every review I could get my hands on, looked through pages upon pages of posts over on the Steadicam Forum, and done more business planning and financial hand-wringing as is probably sane for a person of my age. This is a struggle that I’ve seen many new operators go through recently – there’s a plethora of gear out there right now, and much of it is coming down in price. Also, with changes in modern production (lighter cameras, new video technology), it’s become increasingly tempting to pick up lighter-weight rigs, which cost significantly less.

So, how did I pick what range of rig to buy? It’s a long story, but it boils down to a simple point - I never wanted to turn down a job because my rig couldn’t do it.

I had owned a lightweight rig for a few years, and not only was I not taken terribly seriously by anyone who knew their equipment, but I also had to be very careful before applying for jobs. I never knew when a DP would ask me to put an extra accessory on the rig that would take me over my meager weight capacity. It’s not a good situation to be in!

Additionally, I found a big bonus to buying bigger, and it’s something I never would have believed until I got the rig. The bigger a rig is, the more stable it is. It’s a simple point of inertia – the formula for the inertia of an object is its mass times the velocity it is traveling at – thus a heavier rig has more inertia than a lighter one, assuming both are doing the same shot. More inertia means that the rig requires much less “babysitting” from the operator, allowing more focus on fine control. It’s a big, big improvement.

Finally, I had to work out what age of gear I was comfortable with. In my situation, it made much more sense to buy a bit older, and get a rig that could actually do everything I wanted. After looking at it, and realizing that I had a lot left to spend outside of the rig, I decided to go for the rig I have now, a PRO I, which allowed me to focus more budget on accessories. Even something as small as cables can add up quickly, when for every cable, you need a spare. On a set, I know I’d rather have a whole bag of spare cables (like when a PA dropped the monitor off my rig a few weeks ago and tore a cable in half) than a flasher, newer rig.

Finally, the dilemma is solved – big rig it is. Now to get back to practicing for the next shoot!