Tuesday, March 27, 2012

TV/Film Scenic Work (2004-2011)

For the last few years when people have asked me what I do for a living I was never sure how to answer them. The easy answer was “I work in film.” But when they ask for specifics and I tell them “I’m a scenic industrial or shopman” invariably I am met by blank stares. No surprise, considering I certainly had no clue what the job entailed when I first started doing it.

After I left Marvel I worked briefly in the gaming industry for a company called Ion Storm located in Dallas, Texas. I had a blast while I was there and met some amazing folks.

I then returned to New York, where my professional career took a plunge and spiraled into the abyss.

Fast forward a couple of years. I was now living in Rhode Island. My friend Chris Hebel, who I’d known since the Valiant days, encouraged me to become a member of his union, United Scenic Artists Local 829, located in New York. He really saved my life and changed it for the better. Major gratitude!

Thanks in large part to his efforts I joined Local 829 and got a job as an industrial on the TV show The Sopranos. Flying by the seat of my pants it was training on the fly.

I quickly learned that shopmen are basically the squires to the scenics.

Working hand in hand with all other departments, scenic artists are the ones responsible, under the guidance of the various Art Directors, for bringing the Production Designer’s vision to life. This goes way beyond plastering/prepping walls and painting and aging scenery. Their impressive array of disciplines includes mold making, sculpting, wood graining, creating fake marble, painting drops, sign writing, etc. It’s an intense, high-pressure job. It involves long hours and hard work under tough deadlines, and they are often not credited for their efforts. Scenics are the unsung heroes of the film industry, along with construction and set dressing.

As a shopman my duties involved, among other things, helping scenics prep the sets (i.e. paper floors and mask off specified areas), set up their workspaces, pack kits for locations, maintain all tools and sprayers, keep a clean shop, and clean up at the end of each day. Let’s just say I washed a lot of paintbrushes and buckets when I first started out. It’s a very physically demanding job, which I enjoyed. This was very different from anything I’d done before, and there was something about the physical labor that was very rewarding. You definitely feel like you’ve earned your pay at the end of each day. The downside is the physical toll it takes on your body.

One of the things I never ever got used to was getting up at 5 AM every day to drive to work. Our call time was usually 7 AM, though sometimes it was 6:30 on out of town jobs. Most days we finished around 5:30 or 6:00 PM. My New York commute was an hour in the morning, and an hour-and-a-half to two hours (one day it was four!) to get home. Like I said—long hours. I was usually in bed by 9:30 or 10:00 PM. Winter was the worst. Not only battling the cold, but also not seeing daylight for months at a time on the drive to and from work. Soul-sapping!

The Pink Panther was my first foray into film. Thanks again to Chris Hebel, who introduced me to scenic charge Roland Brooks and his foreman John Ralbovsky. I was immediately impressed by their dedication to their craft and the top-notch quality of their work.

For whatever reason Roland had faith enough in me to hire me as his head industrial, despite my lack of experience. Little did I realize what an incredible journey I was about to embark on. It proved to be an amazing ride.

I can’t thank Roland and John enough for welcoming me into their crew and taking me under their wing. I feel my time on The Pink Panther is when I really learned how to do my job. I remained Roland’s head shopman for the remainder of my scenic days, with few exceptions.

I soon became the buyer for our department, which meant I was in charge of establishing relationships with various vendors and ordering all supplies as needed. Easier said than done, for this involved tracking down and finding suppliers for all sorts of funky items and getting these items into the crew’s hands in a timely manner.

My responsibilities grew to include administrative tasks such as keeping track of daily labor reports and schedules as well as our department budget, filling out time cards and purchase orders, handling petty cash, processing start paperwork, etc. It was great because I got to interact with members of other departments—from props to set dressing to accounting to production office and everything in between—giving me a better sense of how the whole production process works.

In addition to my regular shopman duties every once in a rare while I got to do some hands-on scenic work here and there, which was always a treat.

The following year I would return to The Sopranos as the key scenic industrial for the first episode of the sixth season.

By the time The Good Shepherd came along I was feeling pretty comfortable with my duties.

But the truth was that I was in no way prepared for the logistical nightmare involved in such a big-scale production. My job became a veritable juggling act that took multi-tasking to a whole new level. I have no idea how I handled it all. I guess when you’re putting fires out all day long (“We need more orange!!”) you don’t really have time to panic. You just get it done and move on to the next emergency.

I don’t think most folks are aware of the amount of work involved in the making of a film. It really is a small army of people working together under intense crazy conditions. A true collaborative effort, with often amazing results.  

The Good Shepherd was blessed with outstanding art direction by Jeannine Oppewall. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Design for her efforts.

The bulk of the interiors were built at the Bedford Armory in Brooklyn, a large structure originally built in 1901 for the United States Cavalry. Standout sets included the Skull and Bones Headquarters (giant logs!) and a replica of the interior of the C.I.A. offices, complete with cool-looking Technical and Communications Rooms which looked just like the real thing. A section of war-torn Berlin was reconstructed out in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was all pretty impressive. I was blown away.

The Good Shepherd was followed by the lower scale No Reservations.

The main builds included a fully functional industrial kitchen for the restaurant set and a New York apartment with beautiful wood floors.

Next came American Gangster, a location-heavy production.

I have fond memories of us aging seemingly endless stacks of giant four-foot-tall paper trash bags that would be used to dress the streets of Harlem. We soon found that the fastest and most efficient way to open the bags (which were rather unwieldy) and get them ready for spraying was to hold them above our heads and sort of climb inside, opening them from within. It was a pretty funny sight, and we all had a good laugh. It being summer and all, it was a welcome change of pace to work outside and enjoy the nice weather.

Leatherheads was my first experience working out of town on a film.

It’s an odd feeling staying away from home for several months, basically living at a hotel. The gypsy lifestyle takes some getting used to. But it definitely has its perks—best among them that you get to meet some great people along the way and work with super-talented individuals from all across the country.

Once again I was confronted with the insanity of maintaining/supplying multiple shops at a time—except this time I had none of my tried and true familiar New York vendors to fall back on. What was at first a liability proved to be a blessing in disguise, forcing me to build new relationships with local vendors. I met some super nice folks this way—all very accommodating to our wacky production needs. I’d have been lost without them. They were my supply lifeline. This became a pattern that would be repeated on future out of town jobs.

The rented vans that the production company provided for us became fully stocked mobile scenic shops as well. At one point we were spread out across two states.

Heartfelt thanks to Giovanni Rodriguez, who was the scenic foreman on Leatherheads. I couldn’t have survived the job without his help and support.

One of the most pleasant surprises on Leatherheads was George Clooney, who in addition to starring in the film also served as director, which is not an easy feat. He was always nice to the crew and his joy of the whole filmmaking process was evident in the way he comported himself. The man’s a class act all the way.

The next couple of jobs were a blur of road trips.

The Happening we did in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

This was followed by Shutter Island up near Boston, Massachusetts. New England in peak winter. It was brutal.

I’ve been very fortunate in terms of the caliber of artists and craftsmen I’ve gotten to work with over the years, and Shutter Island was no exception. Production Design on the film was by the talented Dante Ferretti, so we got to work on some pretty breathtaking sets.  

A special nod to foreman Garf Brown, who was responsible for the nuthouse location—a sprawling compound of pre-existing condemned buildings surrounded by a ten-foot tall hundreds-of-feet long perimeter brick wall that was built for the production.  He and his crew worked under grueling conditions, freezing their asses off at a location where there was often no heat or little shelter from the elements. Garf is truly one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met—with a heart of gold, to boot.

The next couple of jobs were back in New York. 

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice proved to be another crazy big-scale production with multiple locations. I was particularly impressed with the work the crew did on the underground training room set and the Chrysler eagle. Once again we returned to the Bedford Armory for the bulk of the interior sets. Other interiors were built at Steiner Studios.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jaime Reyes and Mike C. Smith, who were my right hand men on this job—as well as all the other shopguys (and gals) who worked on our crew over the years. Jaime had been with me since the trial by fire that was The Good Shepherd.

With them on the job I knew the shop would be under control and the scenics’ needs taken care of, allowing me to concentrate on the hundred other pressing concerns that screamed for attention during the course of each day. A simple thanks is inadequate to show my appreciation for all their hard work. They really busted their asses on a daily basis and made me look much better than I deserve. You guys rock!

After the rigors of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the low-key romantic comedy Something Borrowed was a welcome change of pace.

This was followed by work on the pilot episodes for the TV shows The Miraculous Year and Smash.

R.I.P.D. (which is currently still in post-production, scheduled for a 2013 release) was the last film I worked on before taking a sabbatical from USA Local 829 so I could go back to school. It marked my return to Dedham, Massachusetts, and the same shop space where I’d done Shutter Island. Stayed at the same hotel and everything. Only this time I got to be there during summer and fall, which was nice.

The scenic charge on this project was Doug Cluff, whom I’d worked with before. Doug is an awesome guy, and a pleasure to work for. He impressed me with his ability to maintain an even keel despite all the stress and crazy shenanigans involved in a major special effects-heavy production. He’s also got a great crew. I’d worked with some of them before as well, so it was great to see them again. I can’t thank them enough for making my last job such a positive experience.

We worked on some cool-looking sets on this movie. A lot of the stuff will be CGI-enhanced, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it will all come together on the big screen.

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