Friday, February 1, 2008

The Looming Tower


I reached my car around 10:30 pm on the last day of the 5-day shoot as freezing rain was just beginning to fall. Mine was one of the last cars remaining on the very top level of parking deck 1 at Duke South Hospital, where I had parked over 10 hours before. I had wanted to park in deck 2 because that was close to our load-in place at Duke North Hospital. But that had been full, so I had to come to deck 1 and spiral all the way to the sunny top level where just a few spaces were still open, frantic because I would have to walk back several blocks, while carrying bags of gear, to Duke North and probably not arrive early but merely on time, which constitutes “late” in our business.

Returning now, all that gear I had been carrying and fussing with for 5 days was behind me, packed into cases and waiting to be loaded into the truck by the lighting guys who were running the lift gate up and down, raising carts full of rattling stands, lights, anvil cases. I was told to leave so that I would not accrue overtime. So I said my goodbyes and left the bustle and complicated traffic signals of the Duke North Hospital entrance, and came to the top level of deck 1 to find it desolate.

The remaining cars looked abandoned. One wheel chair stood empty, like a shopping cart. I wondered if the hospital sends out people to round these up.

From up there I could survey the rooftops of the modern children’s hospital, eye center, Duke North and South, the medical center library, all of concrete and glass. Sodium lamps made everything look orange and HVAC units gushed vapor like fumaroles. The entire vista rumbled as if from great forces, movements beneath the earth.

Rising above the roofs was the Duke Chapel tower. Everyone knows it was built far too recently to warrant its Gothic facade. But after witnessing in its seventy years the growth of the best in modern medicine, it can now call a certain slice of history its own.

I remember sitting one night at the West Campus bus stop early in my Freshman year, 22 years ago. Nearby was this other guy whom I recognized from the Wind Symphony where I played trombone and he French horn. While we waited for the bus, he mostly looked back at the Chapel Tower bright against the sky, lit from spotlights trained upward from nearby roofs. I mostly looked at the slate under my feet.

‘It’s beautiful,” he commented.

To me, the chapel tower looked like a sphinx. The twin windows opening into the carillon were its eyes, the transept its haunches. Unlike the sphinx, it offered no answers. Not even guiding questions. Then again, even with the sphinx, you have to ask it the right questions, right? I was in no shape to do that at that age. I pretended I was right for physics, and I plodded doggedly along through the requirements -- ten physics courses and five math -- never making an “A” in any. In two courses, in fact, my test and exam average was disgracefully below a “C.” Luckily, these two courses had research papers. While I had a terrible time working the problems, I could explain a physical concept once it had been explained to me several times. So I got “A’s” on the research papers and pulled my overall grades for those two classes up to “C.”

Partial credit on homework and test problems also helped me get through. I have a cousin who teaches physics at Virginia Tech, and he says that partial credit gives a false sense of accomplishment. I think he is right about this. But then, without it, how many students would stay in the physics major? As it was, the number of us getting B.S. degrees at Duke, in my class, was only about 15, just 1% of the roughly 1500 members of my class there. And I think a scant few of these went to graduate school in physics, though many went in other areas.

My Dad kept saying it would come to me eventually. He talked about how, when he started his Junior year of college, he was planning to fail out and join the Navy. He had quit caring. But his schedule was so busy that semester that he was forced to work hard, and he started doing well. Eventually he got a PhD in his field, biochemistry.

My own Junior year schedule included teaching geometry to middle-schoolers by mail, a full class load, Wind Symphony, orchestra, trombone lessons, occasional participation in my fraternity life, and feeling lousy because my first girlfriend had run off with a physics major from UNC. I was plenty busy, but this did nothing for my own physics. I sat and stared at homework problems. I wrote equations that spanned an entire page width, and when I would reach the end of a line, I would have lost some of the general sense of the problem I was working on. I would have to re read it, get my bearings again, try to intuit what the next transformation would be. There was always some secret I was not fathoming. Sometimes I would ask for help, but when it was explained to me, there would not be a feeling of anything clicking into place. One solution looked as good as another. My instinct for the field, which had seemed strong upon entering college, had long since run out.

You reach sort of a continental divide. You cross over a point where you figure you might as well finish what you started rather than change. Nowadays, when I have physics dreams, they take place near the end of college, often coming back from some break. Everyone else is in their home stretch toward a sense of completion, and I’ve got the feeling that more and more my situation getting out of control, and it’s just a matter of time before I find myself outside the university in some disgraceful void.

Thankfully, my adviser advised me against doing an independent study, and I took the standard advance lab course instead. There, I recreated the Raman-Nath experiment which uses lasers to determine the speed of sound in water at different temperatures. Each of us in that class was recreating an historical experiment, and over the course of the semester, we each had to give a presentation to the class to explain what we were doing. I couldn’t understand the other students’ presentations, and as the time to give mine approached, I was determined to make it understandable to the others. For one thing, there was no modern physics involved -- no need for any “particle view” of the laser.

I constructed my presentation very carefully as, later in life, I would make lecture notes for teaching an audio class. I made very clear transparencies with colored washable ink. There were a limited number of transparencies for the entire class, and the professor would take them back and redistribute them as we finished presentations. This was before power point and digital projectors.

In the midst of my presentation, the professor asked a question relating to a matter of thermodynamics. I did not know the answer, and he chastised me for this in front of everyone, asking whether I taken thermo (I had) and saying that the professor of that subject was a very smart man.

The moment passed, leaving me embarrassed, and I got through my presentation. I told myself that at least my presentation had been clearer than most. Later, I asked the other students if they had understood it. “No,” they said.

Nowadays, I have memorized over 130 dance moves each lasting 1 to 3 measures. I can recite the list of 10 to 15 syllabus moves (with names like “Crossover Flick and Syncopation” or “Lock Whip, Check, and Throwout”) for a particular dance if I knew it well 2 months ago and have not looked at it since. I should have majored in something invovling rote memorization.

People ask me how to get started in film/video production. It takes some nerve to “knock on doors” and get started. Mostly I lack this nerve, so I tell people, if I could get in then anyone can.

And once in, how did I get to be a surviving audio recordist? I didn’t really mean to become an audio guy. When I was finishing college and dreaming of something to do outside of physics, I envisioned myself on a ladder adjusting a light. I had some feeling that I would provide creative input. Two years later I was working as a wardrobe intern on the movie Wildflower in Charlotte, NC, and found myself at one point standing in a checkout line in a Bi-Lo with large yellow boxes of Downy stacked to about eye level on the conveyor belt. I realized then, with despair, that creative influence in this business was a long way off. It doesn’t occur while you’re adjusting a light, it’s not while you are out buying supplies. We crew members are all hired help. If we are creative, it is in figuring out how to make overlarge overalls fit better, or how to deal with the rustle of a starchy lab coat. In fact, if you want to really have a creative influence in this business, then don’t become a crew member at all. Just start directing movies any way you can -- start in your backyard and move up from there.

But as an ex-girlfriend once said, I don’t really have the panache to be a director either. I made two “backyard” shorts, and really didn’t like the fact that I had to ask friends to help on those projects. So I started keeping my creativity mostly to myself in short stories, and stayed with the schlep jobs in production, driving other people’s vans, picking up drinks, relaying messages, loading and pushing carts. On small productions, more and more they asked me to put on the headphones and “run audio.” Eventually, the headphones stuck to my head.

Standing on the top of parking deck 1 looking at Duke Chapel with an ice storm beginning, I had the feelings that I’ve come to expect after a fairly big job. There’s the relief that it’s over without major mishaps, like equipment failure or breakage. There’s a tentative feeling of satisfaction. And there’s some apprehension that maybe the audio won’t be okay. The tape could get mangled or magnetized by accident, though having simultaneous backup recordings, as we did on this job, mostly eliminates this concern. There’s the concern that the timecode fell out of synch between two or more of the timecode devices: the slate, the digital audio tape recorder, and the DVCam deck. We had checked this multiple times during the day, and yes, the slate often had lost correct timecode, and sometimes we clapped it despite its incorrect numbers, but we made careful notes of this.

But the biggest concern is that some little audio problem that I had thought was not worth taking time to fix will cause the client to complain. We had gone through several locations each day at Duke Med Center, dealing with background talking and HVAC noise everywhere. We had asked nurses and secretaries to be quiet and turned off blowers when we could, but we had had to live with a lot.

Also, there had been the problem of starched lab coats. Starchy lab coats make loud rustling noises when the doctor makes normal movements, and this is a problem on body mics. I had asked, two weeks in advance of shooting, that all the doctor’s lab coats not be starched. The wardrobe woman arranged for all the extra’s lab coats to not be starched, but this didn’t matter because they were not wearing microphones. I should have specified my request to be for lab coats worn by everyone speaking lines.

So all the extras, not wearing mics anyway, were not starched. Meanwhile, the doctors speaking lines brought their own lab coats and the wardrobe woman had not asked them not to starch them, so they were, of course, starched.

One doctor’s lines would serve as pretty much all the spoken audio for one of the commercials we were shooting. He delivered all these lines on camera in wide shots, so a boom could not be used. So I put two wireless mics on him, one under his tie and one behind the fold of his lapel of his lab coat. The one behind the tie was muffled some, but had less clothing rustle. The one behind the lab coat was less muffled but had much more clothing rustle. I figured that the somewhat muffled sound of the tie mic was easier to fix in post, by equalizing, than the rustle on the lab coat mic, so I asked the video assist guy running the backup recorders to note that the tie mic was better.

This doctor was one of those people who talks with his hands a lot. This added to the rustle of fabric about his shoulders. And the director told him that he liked him using his hands. I figured I couldn’t do anything about the rustle and I couldn’t argue with the director so, as we say, “It was what it was.”

Another scene was done after the actors had walked through the sliding entrance doors to a hospital foyer. The director said they had to speak while the sliding doors were still open behind them. This meant that the very loud sound of blowers inside the air exchange just past the doors could be heard.

So all these things were on my mind when the job was finished. But I had alerted the director to what issues I thought he could possibly deal with, and done what I could in a reasonable amount of time about other issues.

In any case, it’s easier than physics. And it’s kind of fun, with lots of jovial banter between us crew members, and bonding during the tough days.

And, for a change, I had worked on a high-profilel project, a Superbowl commercial! The physics professors would not be proud. They would wonder how a graduate of their program would arrive in such a station in life. If confronted I could remind them of my transcript, but then they would just scratch their heads. It would be unfathomable to them that someone would take their program who was ill-suited to it. So unfathomable that it never occurs to them to say anything to a student who does not seem happy.

Well. 60 million people won't be watching physics on TV this Sunday. I will be the one with "street cred" in the dens of suburbia. Except, really, it’s just a local Superbowl commercial, so it will not be seen nationally, not really be seen by all those millions, and probably will not air until the popcorn bowls rattle with kernels, the guests have gotten up to use the bathroom, the kids are coming with questions about their homework, the game is bogged in time-outs, the announcers are talking about upcoming TV shows. Then, our commercial about Duke Medical Center treating a guy with a heart condition will air.

Duke Medicine. Closer to you. "We've found a way to fix your heart."

That’s heavy stuff. It was a real doctor saying it, referring to real advancements in his work. Me, I’m just an audio guy. And Duke Chapel is no longer an inscrutable sphinx. It’s just some guy pointing a flashlight up at himself, telling a story that will end in “Boo!”

Actually, in those five days, we made two commercials. Only the “Heart” one will air during the local broadcast of the Superbowl. The other is about a breast cancer patient experiencing new treatments based on her genetic makeup. Both of these will continue to air in the next months.

A week after shooting, I heard from the director of photography who also co-produced the show and hired me that the dailies sound good. That’s always good news.

Yesterday I had to do an emergency re-recording of a doctor for the “Heart” commercial because they wanted to change one of his lines from “close to you” to “closer to you.” We had to file transfer the line to the editing company in New York City by 1pm, which was when they would begin the audio edit. All this to be done in time to air on Sunday.

Last night it occurred to me that no one had directed the doctor, in his redoing of the lines, to pretend he was speaking to a room full of people instead of facing a blank sound blanket. It's not really my job to direct performances -- the director of PR for Duke Hospital was there to do that. He did make some direction, but did not address this issue.

Today I got a call saying that the commercial's director up in the editing sessions in New York had said that it turned out fine.

So. It's all set to go then. Something I'll be watching for on the big day.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

I saw that commercial during the Super Bowl! I was all, like, "This is Elrond's commercial!"

It sounded fine.