Components of Production

A man and a woman sit across from each other at a tall round table in a crowded club filled with young up and comers with loosened ties and shedding restrictive jackets over the backs of wooden chairs. Waitresses move about the hustle with small trays elevated about the heads of those eager to gossip about their co-workers and drink cold beers. The man is no different than the others around him except that his drink of choice is scotch. He swirls half melted cubes of ice in a whirlpool motion and they clank against the rocks glass with half hearted intentions. They don’t have the sharp contact they had when the drink was laid before him. He has sat her for some time with this woman across from him.

She too is shedding the remains of her professional alter ego. The weekend officially beginning with this ritual of Friday night gathering with comrades. But, this woman appears to be less excited about the relaxation and joviality building around her. Her spine is stiff and her posture rigid. Her legs are tightly crossed at the knees and she taps the toe of her well worn pumps against the base of the table. She holds her lips tight, only parting them slightly to take a sip from her red wine. Something has exchanged between these two people, but what it is, is not clear. There is tension in the air that makes up the bubble they sit it, while others go about their business unaffected.

The woman stands abruptly pushing her chair into a fellow patron. She takes one last generous gulp of her wine then unceremoniously turns it away from her and tosses the contents directly into the face of her companion. He does not react. The reaction was expected from him. The wine sticks to pieces of his hair line, while legs of red liquid stream down his cheeks and chin and gather into growing stains upon his white work shirt.

No need to show concern for this couple. They are actors playing out a scene. The patrons about them are extras. The red wine is only grape juice and the scotch is apple juice mixed with flat cola. The scene will be played out again several times and from every possible angle. There will be people stepping in to change the actors stained shirt for a new crisp white clean one. The glasses will be refilled to the exact level that the scene started with. Loud voices will be heard competing to be heard over another’s and words and phrases like, “everyone back to one” will snap the room back into position for another take.

A man with a very impressive camera will sit on a contraption that looks precariously jerry-rigged with clamps and duct tape and others will roll him on his perch across parallel bars on the ground in smooth gliding, soundless motion. This is the “dolly”. Not to be confused with an “apple box”, a “stinger”, a “c47”, or another oddly nicknamed item. After all a “c47” is really only a clothes pin. But to call it that is to announce that you are new to the production world and you would rather not bring that kind of attention to yourself as someone may ask you to run an errand to find an item that does not exist. prank-playing by the veterans of film and video production on “newbies” is rampant in the industry.

An average production in Colorado can include as few as two people or as many as fifty. The average shoot day lasting twelve hours and the work week allows for only one day off. The work conditions can vary from the comfort of a sound stage to the bone chilling midnight hours after a ski slope closes and before it opens the next day for regular business, leaving the film crew to hustle through he night in below zero temps, with snot freezing in their noses and a constant stream of hot coffee being poured into their suffering bodies for extra warmth and adrenaline. Sounds like hell to most, but to those that make their living bring entertainment to our screens; this is what it is all about. The sacrifice, the challenge, the bizarre conditions, the combined laughter that can only be found amongst people that live just a little bit off the center, preferring the uncertainty of weather to a small cubical with a regular paycheck.

They are a special breed, the people that make your favorite show a reality. The people that make a commercial for laundry soap speak to you and want to purchase it the next time you are shopping. The people responsible for making cool independent films to take a date to and impress with your artistic and intellectual diversity. These people tend not to be shy, or inhibited, or socially and politically correct. They do not tend to hide their opinions or avoid telling stories about themselves that others would not share in other work environments.

frenzy will be highlighting a few of our local production wonders in the next four issues. In this series you will meet some of the people that come together to create art. They are all necessary to the smooth operation of any production. They all depend on each other and they know that their jobs cannot be done without the support of the others around them. Sometimes they love each other. Sometimes not. But, they always have good stories to share.

Eric Altman, Denise Strong, Rusty Lowdermilk

Eric Altman, Denise Strong, Rusty Lowdermilk

Now you will meet a director, an assistant director and an audio/video tech. They have worked on hundreds of projects ranging from tiny student films to large budget Hollywood block busters, and can handle anything that comes their way.

Eric Altman

Eric Altman

Eric Altman
frenzy: Let’s start with the basics. How long have you been in the business?
Eric: 25+ years I guess. Started in the mid-80’s

frenzy: How did you find yourself in this line of work?
Eric: I repped a still shooter, Nicholas DeSciose, who was transitioning into being a director/cameraman. Knocked on ad agency doors all over the place. Later I worked at a local company called Film/Video renting and selling equipment for what seemed like ions. Got to know a completely different side of the business. Dabbled in distribution for a couple of years but never really got much traction in that arena. It sure was fun going to Cannes a couple of times and getting to see the “bontemps roulez” there.

frenzy: What was the first department you worked in?
Eric: We needed a location for some turkey product job so I schmoozed the hell out of someone in the design center and shazaam, we had a showroom kitchen to shoot in and was king for the day. Locations and producing become my shtick.

frenzy: What was the best job you ever had and compare that to one of the worst jobs?
Eric: What’s the yardstick? The community interface/sales piece we did for the kind folks who owned Shotgun Willy’s was certainly a lot fun. They needed a film that would help explain their clubs, and very favorably, to the concerned folks in Des Moines or Cheyenne or Omaha. Talking to my then wife on set as all those lacy double-D’s floated by was an interesting experience. “Worst Job”…I’ve repressed that one…or those ones. Any day working beats a day of not. Well, there was the time I had to admit very publicly that I had absolutely no idea of where to go from here, (where we were in that moment). That was tough but I have a knack for getting good people to hang with me so they were kind and patient as I pulled myself together and we all combined (our efforts), saved the day.

frenzy: How closely do you work with the producer and the assistant director?
Eric: I’ve produced a lot of my own stuff so the, “We can’t afford that expensive sh*t” or “It’s really time to move on”
conversation is rather short. The AD is absolutely of primo importance. That’s my wing person, the one who helps make sure I don’t weave and stray too far as well as keeps us all sharp.

frenzy: What is the job description for a director?
Eric: Be the holder of the story ideally. Have the picture in mind and then go play point man.

frenzy: At what point are you brought into the production?
Eric: That depends on what kind of project is at hand. In the most general sense, as soon as the message to be delivered or unveiled or revealed is known, then it’s time to talk/daydream/imagine how that message or story could be told.

frenzy: Are you considered “above the line?”
Eric: Yes, the director is, “above the line”. Means my poop don’t stink no ‘mo.

frenzy: What the heck does that mean anyway?
Eric: Google, this. I don’t know. The producer, director, production director and writer are above the line for sure, can’t remember who else is or why.

frenzy: How do you relay a story that was written by someone else?
Eric: Is it conflictive if you do not see the same things as the writer or is he/she generally grateful for your interpretation? Either way, there is a little stress in your position. How do you cope? Some projects are really rigid about what is to be communicated or conveyed. If there are disparate points of view amongst a group of talented and opinionated people, the job of a good director in my view, is to work with the “committee” of caring contributors and yet not let the whole damn thing become a camel when it was supposed to be a horse. Or maybe just be a prima-donna a**hole and force the point of view as needed. License to be bombastic can be a very cool thing.

frenzy: Any cool perks for being the director? Your own trailer?
Eric: I think the DP’s monitor is actually my own any time I want it and since I’m the director, he or she has to give it up. Love that huge power feeling. That and always having hot coffee in my cup.

frenzy: What is your company Create Films doing these days?
Eric: We did a PSA for the One Book, One Denver program a few months ago which was a lot of fun. I’m working on a doc for the city on Burns Park, that unique triangle of grass and sculptor at Colorado and Alameda. That’ll be done in the next several weeks. It’s the head of a new year now and there seem to be a lot of possibilities in the air. This is a good year I can tell already.

Denise Gann Strong

Denise Gann Strong

Denise Gann Strong // 1st AD
frenzy: Denise, I learned about you before I actually met you. A mutual friend recommended that I ask you to be the director on my own small project. I worked with you a few months later on a commercial and you scared the crap out of me. My first impression was that you were not a woman prone to holding back. Is this planned on your part or are you just naturally a take charge person?
Denise: Aaaawww, I feel bad that I scared the crap out of anyone on a set. I don’t know the specific project that you are referring to but I have to assume it was high stress for me since I had that effect on you. When I work as a 1st Assistant Director (AD), I find my communication to be direct, concise and to the point as I work toward maximum efficiency within the shooting day. However, I don’t ever want to be abrasive or isolating as I work to achieve productivity. Some days I am more effective than others but I always want to honor everyone with basic human respect. And yes, I have always been a natural leader – even in childhood – so I think the “take charge” part comes naturally to me.

frenzy: Was there ever a time when someone scared the crap out of you on a production?
Denise: Maybe… Benita Allen, 1st AD… I first worked with her around 1990 on a small stunt film titled Fast Getaway. She is British, strict and demands the highest set etiquette with her crew. I respected her well-rounded knowledge of feature film production and my work ethic earned her mutual respect. I learned a great deal from Benita and I had the unique opportunity, as she took me under her wing, to gain information and perspective about being a female in male dominated career of a 1st AD.

frenzy: How long have you been in the film/video industry?
Denise: Since 1987

frenzy: Was this a career that you were aiming for or did you fall into it like many others? Did you go to school for film?
Denise: I have a BFA in Theatre Arts – there was no film degree in 1984 from Texas State University but I don’t remember really caring about it either. Just months after graduating from college I became a flight attendant for Continental Airlines. After a few years flying I decided to return to the theatre and started working toward that goal. It quickly became clear that although I had an abundance of free time, my flying career was a conflict in my ability to be involved with the run of a live show. I started looking toward film instead because the commitment of each project could be short term and would work in conjunction with my career as a flight attendant. I worked as a Production Assistant, Location Department Assistant and through all of this experience I learned that I wanted to be mentored to eventually become an Assistant Director.

frenzy: Your husband is also in the industry and I believe you have a son. With two parents in the business, do you encourage your son to follow in the family footsteps or steer him in another direction?
Denise: I hope my son will pursue a different career. I want him to do something significant, like save the world as a scientist, surgeon or something else substantial, (my dreams are big) maybe a world peacemaker. I try not to discourage the film/video industry as a choice though because if I push him away he will want that which he “can’t have”. Ultimately, as long as he is healthy and has a passion for what he chooses in his life, I will be really happy with that.

frenzy: Tell me a bit about what an Assistant Director does on a production. What are your responsibilities?
Denise: The First Assistant Director is responsible for the shooting schedule and running the set in an efficient and safe way. After doing the prep work of understanding each shot or scene detailing the requirements of each department, the Assistant Director comes up with the best shooting order and the call times for all involved. As the shooting day progresses the AD will communicate with all departments to keep things running smoothly and safely.

frenzy: What does a typical production day look like?
Denise: What I love most about this job is there is never a dull moment and no day is the same as the next – there really is no typical day but I’ll try to describe a stage day with simple talking head talent. A typical stage commercial shoot day would start with breakfast at 7AM – call time 7:30AM. The crew sets up while the talent gets ready. The director, ad agency and client approve the wardrobe and the talent comes on set for rehearsal around 8:30 or 9AM. We shoot until lunch which would be no later than 1:30PM with a 7:30AM call time. For a 10 hour day we would be camera wrapped by 5PM so everyone is wrapped out and off the clock by 6PM.

frenzy: At what point are you added to the production team?
Denise: On a commercial I usually come on just a few days before in order to scout and prep. I get all of the information and make a shooting schedule. On a feature film, the sooner the better… as soon as the script is pretty solid. I like to have many weeks to breakdown the script and scout/prep properly.

frenzy: What is the coolest part of being an AD?
Denise: Being able to make a significant difference in the efficiency and safety of the on-set shooting experience.

frenzy: What could you do without?
The west coast egos… assuming you must not know much, you don’t live in LA… “Well, In LA we do it like this…”

frenzy: Tell me about the most outrageous job you ever worked (no names).
Denise: Wow, there are so many outrageous situations it is hard to narrow it down to just one job. One experience was after shooting two weeks on a feature film, the director fired the leading lady and then cast herself as the lead. We had to go back and re-shoot her coverage in all the work we had done the first two weeks. On another movie instead of doing miniature work the director insisted that we build a full size ark and launch it off of Castle Rock in Utah for the climax of his movie. We shot for a week on the ark which was built on top of Castle Rock. The crew had to literally climb with ropes to get up to the set. Actors and lunch were brought to set by helicopter. The first day the plastic-ware flew out of the basket and everyone had to eat lunch with their hands. The best part was after everything was said and done, no one got hurt. The worst part was that the lumber was never completely cleaned up as promised.

frenzy: Did you meet your husband on a job?
Denise: Yes, we met on a movie titled Slaughter of the Innocents which was shot in Ohio and Utah. (What? You missed that one? You aren’t the only one ) .

frenzy: What was the last project you worked on and what are you planning on next?
Denise: Just did a TGI Friday commercial on Wednesday. Next week I have a GE job for 2 days and a Dish Network job for two days. Next month I will go to Baltimore where I do CarMax commercials every few months.

frenzy: You have a long list of impressive credits, including Dumb and Dumber and Things to do in Denver when you’re Dead. You’ve met some very cool people. Anyone in particular that left an impression on you?
Denise: Steve Buscemi (I got to work with him twice) was extra special and so was Steve King. Jeff Daniels was really down to earth and Jim Carrey kept us laughing. I got to do a Lake Powell trip over 4th of July weekend with a few crew members and Jim and Lauren while shooting Dumb & Dumber.

Fill in the blanks:
// My favorite item in Craft Services is //
Mint Gum

// Longest production day I have worked was //
21 hours long.

// If I wasn’t an AD, I would be a //
Location Manager or maybe a Teacher.

// They call me //
De – NICE or De Nay Nay or Double D was on older
nick name because my name was Denise Denver
on set.

// During family discussions, do you ever accidentally yell
out “quiet on the set!” ? //
No but my husband has been know to say “I’m not
your F’ing PA!!!

Rusty Lowdermilk

Rusty Lowdermilk

Rusty Lowdermilk // AV Assist
frenzy: We worked on a commercial together for the Colorado Rockies a few years back. I remember this job like it was yesterday, because I offered you a cup of fresh coffee and you said… wait for it… ”I only drink tea”. Am I right about this? No coffee? How do you handle the rigors of a shoot day that starts before the sun rises and ends after it sets without some form of caffeine?
Rusty: I used to drink coffee and one day my body said enough so now I drink tea. On those long days when I need to stay awake, a Mountain Dew works, but I’d prefer to be drinking coffee.

frenzy: We chatted on the phone the other day and you told me that many people confuse your role, or title, in the production line. What is an AV Assist? What do people confuse you for other then the AV Assist?
Rusty: I put monitors around the set to provide a video feed for whoever needs it. I work for the assistant director but get video from the camera and sound feed from sound, provide visual continuity for the script supervisor, play back for the director, help the director of photography with visual effects and matching shots, and make prints so the editors have a visual reference during the edit. I provide a way for the director, clients and crew to see what’s going on in the camera, record the takes and rehearsals for later playback. Video assist is a tool for getting things right. Sometimes I’ll be watching TV and I’ll notice a problem that could have been avoided if there was a video assist on set.
Budgets are getting tight and video assist gets axed often. Some young filmmakers have never used video assist, so they don’t understand how to use playback as a tool. Sometimes I hear “we’ll playback off the camera” and this sometimes corrupts the data before its backed up causing a re-shoot, which can be real expensive.

frenzy: Like most people on a production crew, you’re pretty versatile. What other positions have you had while working in film and video production? Any of them cool enough to pull you away from your cart and monitor? I mean, if someone with decision making powers on a job turned to you and said “Rusty, you pick first. What do you want to be on this project? AD, DP, PA, etc. What would it be?” Probably not the PA.
Rusty: I like being a camera operator and I’m a gear-head so assistant camera is cool. I’ve been a production assistant, video assist operator, electrician, grip, carpenter, painter, truck driver, assistant camera, camera operator, director of photography for a couple of things and the only thing I know is I don’t want to direct.

frenzy: Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing? Did you belong to an artistic family? Did your parents support you getting into the film world? Was this a stretch from what they had envisioned for you?
Rusty: My dad and grandfather were highway contractors and both can draw very well. My dad used to sculpt. My mom is a math major and worked on some Apollo orbits for NASA before I was born. My sister is an art professor at Lane Community College in Oregon. My brother teaches math. We all seem to have a little art in us. I grew up in Denver but we would always go up into the mountains and hang around the various highway construction jobs my dad would have. We did a lot of hiking and I was really into photography.

frenzy: Did you attend a film school? If not, what were you planning on becoming professionally?
Rusty: I was supposed to go into construction after college. I have a business degree, a minor in economics and a self-constructed commercial photography degree. Tried the construction thing for a while but it didn’t suit me. So, I started assisting in still photography for a couple of years and one day got on a Ford commercial. I liked the environment better and made the switch to motion pictures. No film school but I did take a four week filmmaking course and have taken classes and workshops.

frenzy: If I can remember correctly, you have semi-to-fully grown children. Did you ever take them to work with you? Any of them thinking about following in your footsteps? Would it be cool with you if they did?
Rusty: I’ve got a stepdaughter and two boys, one is 15 and the other is 21. Both boys want to be doctors. My daughter has a communications degree and has worked in Public Relations and for professional associations. The kids can do whatever makes them happy! {f}

Fill in the blanks:
// My earliest call time ever was… //
2:45 am

// How many times a day does someone put an
open container of liquid on your work space //
Not very often

// Why do people say “I’m on set” instead of
“I’m on the set”? //
I guess because sometimes there are
multiple sets and on set would imply that
you’re on the set where the camera is.

// Admit it, though, you say it too, right? //
No reply …

// True or False. The name Lowdermilk is Norwegian. //
False. It’s German.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info] Julie Gallahue is based in Evergreen, CO, and owns and operates the boutique production company GOLDIE MAE PRODUCTIONS, LLC. Julie has worked in the film and fashion Industry for over 20 years in multiple departments. [/author_info] [/author]

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from the editor - issue 001.2012

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