My 1st Foray 2nd Unit
Being a freelancer in the entertainment business in LA (as I have since 2000) can be a stressful balancing act, and after being at it a few years I began to notice certain trends – especially the times of year that work becomes more plentiful or… Less so. And as scarcity goes in the business, one thing is pretty consistent: If I’m not working by mid-November, there’s a greater-than-average chance that I might not be working until mid-January at the earliest. Why?
I don’t know if every industry allows itself to shut down so dramatically or if it’s just the slothlike nature of entertainment, but a week or two before Thanksgiving anyone who might hire me seems to check out of being alive in LA. Nobody wants to deal with a big shoot between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Stars are out of town, weather tends to be colder and even rainy, people’s heads tend to not be in the game. I’m not saying there’s never any work (as my feature Alien Raiders began shooting on December 2), but it’s scarce.
And so it was this past December until I got a FaceBook message from Toby Wilkins, a director whose work I much admire. He was contacting me about possibly shooting 2nd unit for him on Chosen, an original series for Sony’s web juggernaut Crackle.
Having spent the last few years primarily editing for money, and having never directed 2nd unit, I agreed immediately.
Don’t get me wrong – I love editing. But there’s something about being in the field, in the shit that I never get in a clean, dry, air-conditioned edit bay. Plus, this show – filled with action, stunts, guns, suspense, and violence (not to mention very sharp writing by creators Ben Ketai, Ryan Lewis, and Evan Charnov) is the kind of work I want to be doing, regardless of which unit.
Incidentally, if you’ve never seen Chosen, I highly recommend you do. Click this link, and watch seasons 1-2 for free right now:
Now asking someone to direct 2nd unit – when they’re an autonomous director in their own right as I like to think of myself – is akin to asking someone to replace his or her own creative instincts with your own and to put your priorities above theirs. In short, to be you when you can’t be there. To pick up things either too small or too time-consuming for 1st unit – closeups of props, POV shots, inserts of hands, driving shots, stunts, special effects, etc. Greatly, dramatic connective tissue. Working with actors – or even having audio – would be minimal.
Sometimes it would be about flying into an already-lit set to pop off some insert shots at the last minute with the hand or foot of a body double, sometimes it would be about recreating an insert-sized piece of set and lighting from weeks earlier in a location from miles away. Sometimes it would be about spending many hours setting something up that the 1st unit would never have time to do in their 8+ page day.
20 Days in the Trenches
So it was, with a 6am call the week before Christmas, that we began shooting season 3 of Chosen. In many ways, 2nd unit is just a scaled-down version of 1st unit and everyone needs to be at the top of their game. My crew, which included a producer/AD, a Director of Photography, an AC, a script supervisor, and a production assistant, had been selected by production. Obviously, this can go in many different (potentially unpleasant) directions if our team doesn’t gel properly, but luckily for us that was never an issue – we did our jobs, worked long hours, and wheedled our way down the lists that our producer – an amazing young guy named Jeff Overfield – produced daily.
Often we’d find ourselves doing stuff with cars. Or guns. Or special effects makeup. Occasionally, we’d blow something up or stage other horrible violent things (and if you know me, you know those were my favorite days). Unfortunately I can’t talk in any more detail about what we did without spoiling massive plot points of the season.
As the shoot went by and I found myself understanding my job better, I kept comparing what we were doing to the “code” Harry Dean Stanton gives Emilio Esteves in Repo Man. Apart from us going into tense situations, I couldn’t really find any other parallels. Certainly no cocaine.
I did, however, start to collect some rules of thumb that I would encourage any would-be 2nd unit directors to consider:
- ALWAYS BE SHOOTING. We would say this to ourselves many times daily, and I would always imagine Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross screaming it at me. Since we’re not shooting on film (or even tape) anymore, we had virtually no limit on how much we could shoot. Pretend you’re being paid by the frame.
- An insert shot is only boring if you let it be boring. There’s always some story being told at that microscopic level and it’s important to think about what that story is. As one extremely seasoned 2nd Unit director said to me, “Watch Michael Mann movies and note how much of the scene is made up of inserts.” Toby suggested for the purposes of Chosen to also watch the films of Paul Greengrass. They were both instructive.
- Make friends with the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician). You will be bothering him or her a lot digging up footage shot days or weeks earlier that you will have to match. The 1st unit script supervisor can be helpful, but he or she is likely tied up with 1st unit business, and the DIT will save your ass every time. It should be noted that the DIT on this show, Earl Fulcher, was outrageously nice, helpful, and fast at pulling up footage. And I still owe him a copy of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
- Few people under the age of 35 know how to drive a stick shift.
- Become a master of Zen-like detachment. If there’s an element you need for your shot (an actor, a prop, a lens, a light, an entire camera and the DP) that 1st unit needs, they always take priority. Let it go. Figure another way to do it. Do something else while you wait for that element. Go over the sides again and highlight anything that might be an insert later. Go mount a small camera to a picture car and get a new mounted angle of it driving around. It might be a wasted effort, but it will save your ass more often than not.
- Already shot the thing you came to shoot and you don’t have anything to shoot? Shoot it again from another angle. Who knows what angle will work best in the cut?
- When you’re lucky enough to have the real actor there for an insert, contrive some way to get his or her face into the shot.
- Re-creating anything is possible in closeup. Once, with an hour’s warning, we had to re-create an important moment that was shot on the ground in a park and we were miles away from anything like a park. All we needed was a patch of dirt that matched the park wide enough for us to get our shot and we did it in about an hour.
- Get everything the way the 1st unit director wants it before getting it the way you want it. That way if you only have time for one version, you’ll have the version the director wants.
- Showed up to location and the grips and electrics can’t spare you any lights or hands to do the lighting? Go shoot establishing shots. The editor could always use more of them. Think you have too many? Do them anyway.
- Every day, 2nd Unit should always get the first shot off, way before 1st unit. If 1st unit shoots before 2nd unit, the only acceptable reason is that 2nd unit has a very specific thing to set up at the beginning of the day that takes as much (or more) time to create than whatever 1st unit is doing. That being said – does that setup require the camera? No? Go shoot some establishing shots. ALWAYS BE SHOOTING.
- Even when you’re working with a skeleton crew, car stuff will take you 4 times longer than you think – if only because of traffic. Anything that can be done in a static car (or a static car with a light gag to indicate movement) is going to go faster.
- Learn to think inside a restricted frame. Why bring the whole car into a garage for a shot when all you need is the tire? Sure, this is a one-off anecdote of how we got an insert shot that we couldn’t have gotten otherwise (as we couldn’t get the whole car into the garage for a number of reasons), but the quick thinking of our intrepid and talented DP Spencer Hutchins turned a negative into a positive for a must-have insert.
It’s hard to believe that over two weeks have flown by since we wrapped the season. Since then I’ve caught up on sleep, shot and edited the first episode of a web series my friend Bob DeRosa and I created, got sick, read a pile of theater scripts for Sacred Fools, got well, and had auditions for an amazing play I will be blogging about more.
But I would put 2nd Unit directing the third season of Chosen as one of my favorite jobs I’ve had in years. I’ve often wondered if web series is somehow the rebirth of independent filmmaking, and even though Chosen is more like traditional television than “Annoying Orange,” participating in a project like this demonstrates that the independent spirit can work quite well in the “new media” economy. I wish them many happy returns (hopefully with me around somewhere).