I played a lot of sports growing up. I think that’s what gave me my sense of coordination. How I became adept at falling I can only guess. Maybe it was my creative side that, in my youth, created in me a tendency to walk around with my head in the clouds. My mom once commented that creativity was a virtue that I got from my grandfather, the singer/songwriter. Or maybe the ultra conservative media critics of the 1980’s were right and I became the most coordinated klutz in Texas because I watched four hours of Looney Tunes every Saturday throughout childhood. That’s a good possibility because the results were often highly comical.
For example, when I was in the Green Acres Baptist Church basketball league in the eighth grade, I remember once after a turn over, I was chasing my guy who just received the pass. As I sprinted, my toe landed on his heel tripping me up, propelling me forward on a trajectory that would have put your average athlete face down, sprawled out on the floor. But somehow I executed a summersault in mid air, came down on my back, and bounce/rolled forward, landing on my feet, kind of like a cat. It happened so fast that people in the stands were astonished, there were gasps and, after the game, smiling spectators complimented me on my acrobatics. The same thing had happened a couple years earlier at Pine Cove summer camp when my cabin mates and I were walking downhill headed towards the location of our daily activity. I tripped on a tree root and flew forward only to pop back up like a weeble wobble a half second later. My camp buddies were equally amused and impressed. While I like to brag about these and other humorous challenges to my athleticism experienced in my youth, nothing beats the college feat when I fell off the Dessau Hall stage, backwards, while filming a movie, without knowing it…….. and stuck the landing.
It was our first year in the program. I didn’t know anybody when I started out so I had to make friends. I’m not one of those kids who’s been making movies since age eight. It sounds archaic to millennials with smart phones but in the 80’s VHS camcorders were like $$$ two grand $$$ and my family was too low on the income scale to justify spending that kind of bling on a “luxury item”. If there were any events to be filmed such as me or my sisters playing sports, my dad would borrow a camera for the day and he was very clear that this was a tool, “not a toy”. So when I started film school, I had to be proactive in learning the craft as well as networking with classmates who had already paired up and formed groups. By the second production class, I had built a reputation for being somewhat skilled because In Production I, I had gotten to direct one of the semester end multi-cam studio projects with a really good blues band and the production turned out well in spite of the ambitious multiscreen rear projection set design that we implemented. So When I approached Bryan and Mark about teaming up for various projects, I already had a little street cred. Our program used a co-op type structure in that we all wrote and produced our own films and helped each other out as crew. Bryan was in a band called The Roam. His dad had been the keyboard player in Buck Owens’ band on Hee-Haw, a sketch comedy show from the 1980’s which means he was from California, but his mom was from the Texas Hill Country which, I suspect, was the reason he came back to Texas for college after their divorce. Mark was a native Austinite who had gotten bit by the film bug when cast as a freshman student in the film “Dazed and Confused” an indie film shot in the Austin area in the early 90’s. These guys were pretty cool and we would end up working on many films together over the next couple years.
One of the essential lessons used to teach film narrative structure is the “In Camera Edit” project. In this exercise, there is no post production editing so you have to film the shots of your story board in order, hence the name. We were shooting on 16mm film, no sound, no elaborate blocking of talent, just basic stories and simple shots. The camera employed for this task was the workhorse of the mid-century newsreel era…a Bolex. The Bolex was designed for versatility. There was no need for batteries because the motor mechanism was wind up, effective anywhere in the world, including undergraduate film schools all around the U.S. Everything was mechanical, no electronics. So, the trigger for turning the camera on was also mechanical, a spring loaded switch that the operator would pull towards him or herself and hold until the director called cut and then release to stop filming. Another peculiarity of the cinematographer’s version of the swiss army knife (Bolex is Swiss), is that there was no zoom lens. It had a lens turret that would rotate between three prime lenses, usually a wide angle 12mm, a normal 25mm and a long 75mm lens.
Bryan had a story idea and in the true new wave tradition, it centered around something ready at hand, for us that was a band. Since The Roam had an upcoming concert scheduled at Dessau Hall, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to use these available resources as a setting for the film. So we showed up to the venue a few hours early and scoped out the setting. This was a large venue that must have held around 6,000 patrons. The stage was large and sat at an elevation of about six feet off the ground. In front of the already deep stage, there was a giant speaker box that extended the performance space out another three or four feet. Well, we fell behind due to problems with loading the camera. Once that was ironed out we start filming. We take turns with the camera operator duties and when it comes time to shoot the drummer sequence, it’s my turn. According to the storyboard, this sequence starts with a close up of the drummer, then goes to a medium shot including a couple more band members, then a wide shot of the entire band. The venue operator is getting antsy because we only have 30 minutes to finish up before doors open. My partners are rushing me as a result and so, in order to get the shots, I start moving pretty fast. With the Bolex fully wound and the 75mm lens rotated onto the sweet spot, I get the close-up of the drummer drumming away with no problem. Then for the second shot, I move the lens turret onto the normal position and find that I have to back up quite a bit to get a medium shot as indicated in our chicken scratch hand drawn images. Since I’m up on a high stage, I’m keenly aware that I have to be careful since the edge is at my back. As I frame up the shot and find that it’s not wide enough, I look back at my right heel to locate my footing and verify that there’s room to take a step back. I’m moving so fast that, as I step back, I simultaneously whip my head forward while raising the camera to my eye, so fast in fact, that I don’t even comprehend what I’m seeing until my eye comes to rest on the viewfinder and I register the band standing there waiting for me to get set so that the director can call action. Well I had to step back several times and check the framing before getting the second shot but, the shot goes off as planned. Now I’m pretty far towards the front of the stage and we’re ready for the last shot, I have to rotate to the wide angle lens before framing up the shot and finding that, yet again, I’m too tight. So I look down, step/whip, focus….still not wide enough. Again…look, step/whip, focus….close but no cigar….again. This time as I look down, just behind my right foot, I see the edge of the stage. Just behind that is the giant speaker box. I say to myself, “Sweet. That extra four feet is just what I need to get the shot”. The venue manager comes back around again, nervous as ever and reminds Bryan, loudly so that I’m sure to hear, that doors are opening in fifteen minutes. By now I’m pretty proud of my pacing and I’m sure that one more look, step/whip, focus is all I need to pull this thing off. So, sure enough, I look down at my right foot, whip the camera up to my right eye while closing the left so that I can focus as I step back onto the speaker box….with my left foot.
Come to find out, that speaker doesn’t actually go across the entire front of the stage. The outer edge is smack dab in the middle of the spot where I’m standing so, I step back onto nothing at all! But, I’m moving so fast, and with my left eye closed and right eye looking through a lens, that I couldn’t tell. I’m looking through the viewfinder expecting to see the same group of twenty something rockers staring back at me that I’ve seen on every other view through the camera, but instead they’re just gone and I remember thinking to myself, as I fall backwards through mid air like a 100 foot tall pine tree felled by a lumberjack, “Hey, where’d everybody go”? Then…….WHAM! OWWW…what the HELL? I land flat on my back. Upon impact, people around me, exclaim, “OOOHHHH!” in unison and just stand there for a few seconds, stunned. Then they come to their senses, rush forward and check to see if I’m ok. Falling from the height of six feet onto your back is not a pleasant experience but in hindsight, It’s kind of funny since I stuck the landing. No bounce, no roll, no sprawl, no broken body parts. I just landed flat, “BANG”. If stage diving were an Olympic event, this would be judged an 11, Gold medal all the way. I laid there stunned for about a minute then my partners picked me up and walked me off to rest up. Not only did I not get a concussion, I didn’t even hit my head. If I had been aware of what was going on during the fall, then I probably would have broken something but, I held my form. I kept stiff. That’s the secret, stay stiff.
After the fall, my crew picked up where I left off without skipping a beat. We got the shots, finished shooting the film and the concert went off without a hitch. About a week later, we get the film back from the lab. Bryan and Mark screen the film without me (I was working on some other project). As they sit there at the flat bed editor running the work print through the ancient machine, an experience constructed of loud humming noises, the smell of old, hot lamps burning and dozens of mechanical sprockets and gears turning, pushing the 100+ year old medium of celluloid past a projection gate, splashing light passing through the film onto the top mounted viewing screen, they finally get to the drummer sequence. The first shot goes by and cuts smoothly to the medium shot. As the third shot pops up, Bryan is like, “whoa whoa whoa. What was that? Did you see that”? Mark pauses the machine. Bryan: “roll that back”. Mark rolls the film back and pauses it in between the medium shot and the wide shot, which is strange because there’s not supposed to be an in between. The budding filmmakers sit there with their heads cocked to the side like two dogs trying to figure out what to think about a strange noise. Mark, with confusion ponders, “What IS that”? On the screen is a dingy yellow, cross hatch kind of a thing. They roll forward and find that the grid like pattern is on only three frames. Suddenly, they recall that this is the point at which I did my Greg Louganis (or was it more of a Triple Lindy?) off the 2 meter platform, they can only conclude that it must be the ceiling of Dessau Hall and their conclusion would be correct. Remember that spring loaded trigger? Apparently, I hit the ground so hard, it turned the camera on…….for about a tenth of a second.
Now that’s, New Wave!
Feature Image: Steenbeck 16mm flatbed ST 921
Copyright Drs Kulturarvsprojekt 2012
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