by Meg Huber
When we were little, we learned one thing about making a movie—the director yells, “Lights! Camera! ACTION!” and the filming commences. What we didn’t know was that that command was extremely simplified.
I spent the past three weekends on a movie set, learning what those three words really mean, even in a short, low-budget film, such as Lemonade. The team behind the film (who have worked on such blockbusters as Abducted, The Dark Knight Rises, Love and Other Drugs, The Avengers, and One for the Money) were connected through The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, working on commercials, and internships—so the fact that I ended up on the set with them amazes me. I had received an email from Assistant Director Nicholas Buchheit, who had my resume, asking if I wanted to help out as an unpaid production assistant on the shoots in Sewickley and Greentree. Of course, I said yes. Nick McMillan wrote the script for a class assignment and got his friends together to bring it to life. Most of the $15,000 budget came from private donors, while Quanti Studios—where producer Brandon Snyder works—also contributed money and production equipment.
Being on a movie set for the first time is a little bit like traveling to a foreign country. You just stare bewildered at first, not understanding what is going on or what is being said. Then you start to learn the language without ever having stepped foot in a classroom or seeing it written down. Someone says a word you don’t understand, points to the object, and you repeat after them, making sure to remember it for next time. You don’t know proper grammar or spelling or punctuation, but you start to communicate.
The movie set itself becomes a Rosetta Stone. I learned a whole new vocabulary. The spelling may be wrong and my usage may be wrong. But I can hold my own.
During the first weekend of the shoot, I learned that a 17-hour-day is not unheard of and that I knew a lot less about the technical aspects of production than I thought I did. I learned that little kids can memorize lines surprisingly well. And I learned that a movie crew will stand in the rain for hours, waiting for it to stop.
The next weekend, I added even more to that knowledge. I learned that sometimes they ask the crew to be extras in the film. I learned that I was good at telling people to be quiet—or more like yelling at them to be quiet. I learned that some days, you just need three cups of coffee. I learned to check for continuity in the scene. And I learned how to properly place a sandbag on a light stand.
And then came the final weekend, when I put all that information together and finally learned how to ask questions. I learned what kinds of lights the Grips needed and the difference between flags and scrims. I learned about setting up C stands, combos, and mambos. I figured out that gels are really just clear-ish colored pieces of plastic and that the 1200 lights need a header and a ballast and a stinger—and ballasts can definitely not get wet. I learned how to put a Kino Flo back together and that the Martini shot is last one for the day. I said the words, “rolling, quiet please” and “copy that” so often that the phrases got stuck in my head.
And most importantly, I learned that you can never have too much patience for a movie set. The days are long— it takes hours to set up the lighting for a 20-second shot, and the child actors (Jacob Vito and Matt Schieb, making their film debuts after appearing in commercials) had way more energy than I did. Sometimes I had to do something that seemed silly and sometimes I had to do things I had no idea how to do. And sometimes I wasn’t asked to do anything at all.
There is a lot that goes into the “lights” and a lot that goes into the “camera” and a lot that goes into “action.” We shot nighttime scenes during the day and daytime scenes at night. The production team needed all sorts of different lights and boards and bulbs to make the lighting perfect. The shadows were perfected and rearranged a bunch of times. The Director of Photography doesn’t just hit “record” on the camera. The angles have to be perfect and the frame has to be correct and they need the wide shot and the medium shot and the close up and the over-the-shoulder shot. The actors don’t just start acting. They need to know their lines and they need to know exactly what they’re doing with their hands and where their feet are placed and where their eyeline is. They need to be able to repeat all their actions at least twenty or thirty times per scene. Then, when all of these things are perfect, only then the AD can say “rolling” and the director can say “action.”
That is patience.
And that perfection is what makes a movie great. It’s what makes creating the movie great. Hopefully, this short film about kids selling lemonade will be entered in (and win) film contests and festivals in the Pittsburgh area. It definitely gave me a chance to meet some great people and explore this new language of a movie set. And of course, the kids who acted in this film won’t have to enter early adulthood thinking that a movie is as simple as “lights, camera, action.”