Watch out, these woods are infested with film crews.
It was a fine August day when I arrived in Fort Bragg (Mendocino County, not North Carolina) for my first day on the set of the movie that was then called Homeworld-X (it’s since lost the “X”). I had only the vaguest idea of what to expect. The others who were there had already been working together for a couple of weeks, so at first I felt lost, an outsider who doesn’t get any of the jokes.
Fortunately, I was given what may be the best job on a film set: second assistant camera, or to name it more accurately, slate guy. (My only interaction with the camera came during handheld sequences, when I occasionally held it between takes so the director could rest his arms.) This involves kicking off every shot by announcing the scene and take number, clapping the slate, then quickly moving to a safe place out of the frame and remaining quiet and stationary until you hear the word “cut.” Then you update the slate with the new scene or take number, and do it over again.
This is far from mind-taxing, though it does require a certain amount of focus to make sure you’ve always got your numbers right. Each scene consists of a master shot (say Scene 49) and a number of secondary or close-up shots, each of which gets its own letter (49A, 49B, etc.). It was sometimes a little tricky to figure out exactly what constituted a new shot, rather than just a different take of the same shot.
But this was the extent of the challenge involved in the job, leaving me with lots of of processor time left to observe what was going on around me. Also, because the slate has to be ready the instant the shot is set up, I was generally excused from the other tasks around the set like setting up reflectors and clearing brush; instead I mostly stood around watching others do these things, always my preferred working method.
I also spent a lot of time watching Pedro the sound guy, who aside from Phil the director was the only professional on a set full of enthusiastic amateurs. He had a lot of pressure on him, because he had to set up complicated microphone arrangements in very short periods of time, but never — OK, very rarely — showed any signs of stress. Pedro was so unflappable that it was the third day, I think, before he told me that my loud slate clapping was causing him pain.
You see, because the sound guy needs to hear every single thing that is happening during the scene, he is listening with headphones turned way up. Therefore, any loud sound near a microphone is going to hurt him. I remember a particular scene where one of the actors screamed a line at the top of his lungs. He was asked to moderate the volume but was so In the Moment that he kept forgetting; so at the same point during every take I would look over and see Pedro wincing as his ears were blasted. But he never cried out and ruined the take, and that’s what I call professionalism.
In truth, for a group of volunteers, our crew mostly handled itself very professionally, with one or two exceptions. One guy did get fired during the week. It’s not so easy to get fired from a job you’re not being paid for, but he pulled it off. I myself struggled to make it through the week for reasons having to do with sheer exhaustion; more on that later.