Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"What Is It That You Do Again?"

Oh no... It's that time of year again... It's the Holidays.

The time when so many of us make the trek from Hollywood to Virginia, Minnesota, Arkansas, Orlando, Seattle, Sacramento, or wherever else it is where we have family. After some long days of maneuvering yourself around a forest of stands, lights, and producers on cell phones, you're now battling the roads and airways with thousands of other cranky travelers, just to immediately be thrown into another tricky situation: The big family dinner.

You're suddenly face to face with aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, family-in-laws, and an assortment of people you're not quite sure how you're related, but they're always at these events anyway, pinching your cheeks and lingering a little too long around the booze. These are people that you only see about once a year; usually at Christmas or Thanksgiving.

While I love my family (cheek pinchers and all), I don't always look forward to seeing them because all too often, they ask the question: "So, what kind of work are you in these days?"

Ugh. I hate that question. Although most people love watching movies, not everyone thinks about how they're made. And even when they do, the extent of their knowledge is limited to Directors, Producers and Writers and it's usually that they know they exist, without a clue as to what they actually do. But it's not that hard to figure out that Directors direct, Producers produce and Writer's write. Just like it's not that hard to figure out that Computer Programmers program computers, Interior Designers design interiors and Customer Service agents deal with customers.

But most jobs on a film set aren't so self explanatory. Script Supervisors don't sit around watching the script, making sure it doesn't misbehave. Assistant Directors don't assist the Director with directing. And Craft Service doesn't have anything to do with Popsicle sticks and glue. And unless you're in the industry, it's hard to know what Gaffers, Key Grips, Best Boys, Grips and Electrics do. It's even harder to explain.

I usually try to answer the question with a simple, "Oh, I work in movies" to try to keep it short and concise, but rarely will they leave it at that.

"Yeah? What do you do in them?"
"Uh... I move around the lights and stuff."

This obviously over simplifies the job, but I find this to be the quickest way to satisfy their curiosity. Any other answer would just sound more confusing, complicated, boring, and awkward as I try to explain things in laymen terms. Trust me, I've tried every other answer I could think of.

This is also the only time of year that I'll 100% identify myself as a juicer. Why? Because as hard as it is explaining what a Set Lighting Technician does, it's ten times harder to adequately explain what a Grip does. Because now, not only do you have to explain that there are special lights that they use in movies, but that there's an entire department dedicated to shaping and controlling the light. Try convincing your Great Aunt Margaret that the sliver of a shadow in the corner of the show she's watching didn't occur naturally. Yeah, not easy.

Even my parent's aren't quite sure what it is that I actually do. Whenever anyone asks them, "So what's A.J. doing down in L.A.?" they usually say, "Oh, she's shooting and directing movies." I still haven't figured out if this is because it's the easiest answer or if that's what they really think my job is.

Only the people who work on set everyday will know what you mean when you say "I'm a grip" and unless you're from Los Angeles, you probably won't find a lot of them at your family get-togethers.

I know of a DP who'll answer the question with, "I'm a photographer," and while I understand where he's coming from, I kind of feel like that's a cop out. We've worked so hard to get to where we are in the biz that it feels like a shame that we don't get to announce our official job title to relatives who you know are silently judging your success. Even "Coffee House Barrista" has a more authoritative ring to it than, "Uh... I move around lights and stuff."

I think this year though, I'll try a new plan. It involves stuffing my face with a steady stream of turkey, mashed potatoes and pie. I can't answer the question if my mouth's full, right? I'll let you know how it goes....

Happy Thanksgiving!


Michael Taylor said...

I went through that a lot in the early years -- now those that are left know enough to simply ask if I'm working, and if so, on what show.

A lot easier.

Your post reminds me of something we've all faced a million times while on location shoots in public: "What are you filming?"

Give a truthful answer, and it'll likely lead to five more questions. Civilians don't understand that although it often seems as if we're doing nothing on set, we're actually paying attention to several different things at the same time, each of which can (and probably will) affect our job.

A crusty old gaffer taught me how to cut that process short: "Tell 'em it's a Kotex commercial," he grunted. "That'll shut 'em up."

He was right.

Hope you have a great Thanksgiving.

Nathan said...

Only the people who work on set everyday will know what you mean when you say "I'm a grip" and unless you're from Los Angeles, you probably won't find a lot of them at your family get-togethers.

Things have opened up a bit in NY, but when I got started Local 52 was dominated by a few families. The roles were just jam packed with Dolans and Finnertys and 3 or four other surnames. I suspect some of them at Thanksgiving Dinner with hammers and vice grips.


Oh, and I stopped trying to explain years ago that I don't sit around chatting with stars all day long.

Nathan said...

I think I meant "rolls".


(and Happy Thanksgiving!)

Nathan said...

And "at" probably makes more sense as "ate".

::stupid fingers::

A.J. said...

Michael - I think the unofficial answer these days is "mayonnaise commercial." I've been on a few different crews who give that answer to curious civilians and surprisingly enough, they usually seem satisfied with that answer.

Nathan - Ah... New York. For some reason, I keep forgetting about you people. :)

Scripty said...

I completely agree! Why is it so difficult to explain our jobs to civilians? Don't they watch enough behind the scenes crap....wait oh, yeah, the behind the scenes crap just highlights the director and actors...ah, so I explain, you know when you watch the behind the scenes crap on the DVD? You see the crew in the background? I'm one of them.

That usually confuses them long enough for me to go and grab another drink!

Nice post!

A.J. said...

Scripty - That's an awesome answer. I'll have to try that one sometime.

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