Sharing the Love

The politics of working for free.

“No. I’m serious man, I’m not doing another take.”
Donald’s voice is muffled, speaking to me through the paint soaked Woolworths bag we’ve wrapped his head in. Spending the last eight hours as a dead body dragged from one car boot to another, through rugged bushland and ending up unceremoniously dumped in the freezing cold Cooks River is not exactly the high point in Donald’s acting career and his refusal, all things considered, is not unreasonable.
Dwayne and I put our heads together.
“How bad was the last take?” I ask him.
“I ran out of tape just as he was getting thrown in the river.”
“Hmm.” I squat down next to Donald and pat his knee tenderly. He blinks murderously at me through his non mud caked eye.
“You’re doing a wonderful job mate…” I begin.
There’s only one thing for it. I take out my wallet and gingerly remove a crumpled fifty dollar note. Donald drops his eyes and sighs.
“You bastard.”
In another three takes we have our shot.

Short films are built on favours. They are a necessary part of the business and used properly they can instil a set with camaraderie impossible to achieve on a paid production. I’ve been to enough Screen Aus talks to know that officially favours are held in high disrepute, and Equity is rightly vocal in its opposition to them – if everyone works for free we’ll all undercut each other and the industry will fall apart. True enough, but if you simply do not have any money and are not wily enough to trick some out of our favourite funding bodies, then your film is going to have to claw its way onto DVD on the back of a great multitude of favours – or it’s not going to get made at all.
The crucial thing about favours is they must be repaid. One of my colleagues recently donated a three week editing favour to a director, who while thanking her profusely has since refused to commit one day of his time assisting her shoot her own short. It seems some people see favours as their right, a privilege even for the giver, to whom they so generously afford the opportunity of slaving under such genius. Sometimes this is partially justifiable. When a cinematographer comes on board to help out a director mate get their dream film off the ground, it benefits all round if the film does well. It doesn’t necessarily trickle all the way down the crew however and the bloke mopping up the fake blood between takes probably isn’t going to be basking in accolades come Tropfest. It’s these people who should get paid first, or at very least placed smack bang on top of the “favours to return” list.
The art of directing actors is considerably more delicate on a budget free production and the allowable demands that can be made are substantially lower – despite the promise of “casting agents attending the premiere” or God forbid the dreaded profit share scheme.

For a director doing their first paid gig it’s positively a joy to order actors around knowing they’re being fully compensated. I was lucky with my first job and landed a corporate safety DVD which involved three hapless young NIDA grads spending ten hours stuck in a filthy drain, it was a wonderful day.

A great part about favours is that many find their way back to the giver in the form of paid work, I’ve scored countless ‘proper’ jobs after establishing a relationship over freebies - though it’s important to remain upfront as to the conditions of the work – and avoid the scummy “next time you’ll get paid” carrot held out to so many young freelancers.
With a little careful management and some creativity (I made a short film for a bloke last year in return for a bicycle) you might find yourself building a whole network of relationships based on trust and back scratching. If it works for our state government it can certainly work for us!

Dancing on Australia Day

We did a crazy gig on a moving barge for Australia day. !0 minute shows in different places around the harbour every 15 minutes. Completely exhausting, we all leapt into the (admittedly quite putrid) water after the last show!

My girlfriend Laura made the awesome junkyard set.

Lighting Woodford

Laura and I had the opportunity of working with Cave Urban Architecture at this years Woodford Folk Festival.

We lit a whole bunch of their structures and bars and learned a bunch of new skills including HEAPS and HEAPS of KNOTS. Which is possibly the most useful thing I’ve learned for years!

Playing the Handicap

Why fix it when you can compensate for its failings.

I have never been one for bestowing names upon inanimate objects. With one exception – Ahab. Ahab was a beautiful old Miller DS10, named thus due to his crippled legs. You see Ahab had no spreader, so unpacking him from his bag was a lot like birthing an eager foal. His spindly legs slipping and sliding this way and that. His bulky fluid head thrashing about like a mechanical Pantera fan and his single green spirit level eye rolling around like a madman. Once upright however, Ahab was rock solid. He could take anything up to a JVC 251 complete with adaptor and fat 10mm Primes. His action was as smooth as the day he was shipped and he could hold a pan on the end of the lens with the liquid precision that only age can bring.

With time I learned to collaborate with Ahab – not just compensate for his lameness, but actively work with his unprecedented flexibility. I learned to readjust his footing without taking my hands off the camera, I mastered setting the spirit level simply by shifting his weight from leg to leg and before long I ceased touching his Lock Knob altogether. Within a month I was setting up faster and reacting like a ninja; Ahab’s spreaderless freedom and rapid repositioning made him a priceless asset in the frenetic world of DIY Doco production.

The willingness to improvise and indeed the passion for it was instilled in me by an old DP I once worked with, who after losing the connector nut to a base plate on the first day of a two week zero budget shoot in utter whoop whoop, declared: “are we not here to portray reality? Are our characters to be observed through the static eye of a passive lens? Or with the urgency and thirst of a viewer embroiled in the heart of the action?” Of course everyone cheered for the latter and so he shot the entire film hand held. It was this same DP who taught me the “film the screen” trick as a quick way of upresing old footage. (I sometimes wonder if we ever crossed the line from compensation to compromise on our corner cutting pilgrimages…)

Rarely a shoot goes by where I am not faced with a situation requiring remedy or replacement. Be it an actor with a mental block or the entire redhead kit blowing due to shoddy bulbs. Once faced with a problem, the solutions are endless – new actors, low light cameras (or arty silhouettes which solve both), and any kind of “higher level” compensation like scene cutting or rewriting. Of course we’d all like to be able to down tools and wait until everything is back to perfect, but if your production is reliant on any of those infuriating “creatively handicapped” components like budgets, deadlines or clients, sometimes you just have to fix it by yesterday and the person who can think creatively under high pressure and present a satisfying solution will be invited back to the set time and time again.

I worked with Ahab successfully for two glorious years until one morning I was packing the van when I noticed a suspicious grey bag taking up all the room on Ahab’s shelf. Inside was a shiny new Solo DV75: carbon fibre, fluid head and factory built without a spreader. My chest tightened.

“Daphne sweetie, where’s Aha- - the DS10?”

“The old tripod? Thank god we threw that out on Friday, I can’t believe we had to put up with that piece of shit for as long as we did! Try the Solo, it’s rock solid – doesn’t use a spreader you know?”

I hurled the young upstart into the back of the van and cursed aloud for my fallen comrade. Truth be told the Solo turned out to be a pretty sweet piece of kit, but I’ll never forget my days with Ahab, and every now and then when I find myself on set with the right sort of tripod, I tear out the spreader, go with the flow and capture some energetic guerrilla style Dutch gold!

Ahabs replacement kicking arse in Dublin.

Laura’s Beautiful Brain

My girlfriend Laura has made a crazy piece of tech art called the “Brainlight”. You put an encephalographic headset on your head and it translates your brainwaves into light and makes a giant perspex brain glow different colours according to your mood.

Excess Baggage

Or how to talk your way out of it.

The CEO of our company was named Eddie. It’s an appropriate name and he would’ve sold it to you given half a chance. Hell he’d sell you your own name if it were legal. Eddie once sold an entire range of Mining Wear to a prominent minerals company. He came into the office the morning after and casually checked with me.
“We make T-Shirts and stuff hey?”
“Er, no. We’ve, never made a T-Shirt.”
“Mmm, ok, it’s cool – shouldn’t be too hard. See what you can get going over the next few days, some overalls and hats too.”

Despite his virulent sales prowess, nothing got Eddie’s adrenaline pumping like talking airline staff out of the excess baggage charge.
In the old days (pre GFC fuel tax hike) it wasn’t too tricky. We’d turn up with at the airport with enough crew, the weight would distribute fairly evenly and if it was a bit over they’d let it slide. The last couple of years however, the challenge has increased, and the technique refined.
It begins in the line, sussing out which counter to go for – it’s a good idea to look for a self assured posture, a broad smile and evidence of genuine compassion – like removing prior travel tags from the bags so the passenger doesn’t have to do it. When you get to the front of the line you may need to stall until the right counter is free – this is easy – fussing with luggage, searching for tickets or just acting vague all work well. When you get called, stride over with confidence, wheeling your cargo with ease, as though it’s the lightest freight in the world (nothing looks worse than a five person crew wheezing and straining and making multiple trips with a stack of metal boxes).
Upon contact with the staff member, strike up loud friendly conversation – something like: “Phew what a day! Great to be flying with you guys I tell you, makes it a lot easier. Yeah we’ve been shooting a documentary on babies and flowers for an animal charity in Guatemala, you wouldn’t believe what those kids go through.”
This must be backed up by a full team effort. Dwayne and I would be passing bags relay style onto the weigh station, helpfully removing old tags and double checking everything with the staff member, letting them know they’re boss. Our production manager Daphne would have all tickets and ID cards at the ready and her own pen to sign the fragile items waivers.
If the conversation looks like it might be heading into dangerous territory (“Wow, lot of gear guys!”) then go for a direct disarmament.
“Sure is, that’s why we’re relieved to be back with your airline. You wouldn’t believe the idiots at (insert rival airline), you’d think they’d spare a little heart for a dying kitten wouldn’t you? You know – I really think it comes down to the person serving – some people are just mean.”
This is the full hand – if you play these cards and they don’t fold you’re in trouble. Nine times out of ten though, you’re home sailing.

The only time talking holds less sway is in foreign countries. Coming back from a shoot once in Japan we encountered a check in attended who had very limited English (though not as limited as our Japanese). He was charging excess based only on the number of bags instead of weight, so we tried improvising. Pointing at random bags we took turns counting out loud: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven and these two. Seven.” Confused he would start the recount and we’d helpfully jump in: “…five, six seven and these two. Seven.” After twenty minutes he was so distressed he apologised profusely for the confusion and sent us through. Amazingly this trick works in America as well – without the apology of course.

No matter where you are or what you’re doing, nothing kicks off a good shoot better than a hefty excess baggage evasion!

Checking into a hotel in Vegas.

Dancing with Femi Kuti

This dancing obsession is getting out of hand. Landed a guest spot with Femi Kuti at WOMAD! That’s me twerking on the left. Apologies for the atrocious sound!

4am Harbour Bridge Ride

Sooo somebody told us the Harbour Bridge would be closed from 4am last night in preparation for the marathon.

We thought “what a great opportunity to ride our bikes over the empty bridge.”

Turns out, not so empty…

Junkyard Beats

In an unexpected turn of events, I have joined a dance group…

Our Country’s Good

Utter photographic joy in the heart of nowhere.

We stopped the car 20 km short of Pincally, an outback sheep station 60km off the red Silver City Highway, 200km north of Broken Hill, 1600km north west of Sydney.

The pitch black sky had split clean in two, just metres in front of our car. A giant, whip cracking fork of lightning pounded the dirt, lighting up the desert like day. We couldn’t miss the chance; tore the camera out of it’s box and opened the lens up on the colour storm erupting around us. With the iris wide open and the shutter speed a dubious 25 it was possible to capture every little spark that lit up the sky, as well as the massive blasts that shook the earth.

Our destination that night was a sheep station deep in the heart of ‘corner country’. The arid dust plain where NSW meets SA and Queensland. The mood of the area has been dramatically lifted in the aftermath of the torrential ten year drought breaking rains that have reinvigorated the native land and it’s inhabitants. In fact entire place is now anything but an arid dust plain, with wild grasses, flocks of birds, emus and kangaroos, full lakes and healthy livestock. The populace has broken from the numb decay that has gripped the region for the last decade and celebrating with parties, gymkhanas and frequent two hour trips to the ‘local’. Our director Kat had put out a call for actresses on local radio and been invited by the successful applicant to stay at her sheep station with her family. We were due to start shooting in the morning but unable to resist the opportunity presented, we sped the last few kilometres to her house, banged on the door, asked if she’d mind skipping the formalities and jumping straight into costume so we could get some shots in the storm. She was all for it and twenty minutes later we had our ghostly figure striding through the desert lit up intermittently by the jagged shafts of 20,000k cumulonimbus outpour!

The sky cleared beautifully the following morning and apart from getting bogged a couple of times we were afforded a day of sublime photography. A thin ½ stop cover of cloud diffused the sun helpfully while leaving it’s colour and warmth intact. Shadows were rich but not harsh and the usual midday black holes under the eyes fell away gently into soft contour highlighting tones. The earth showed up a rich deep red, vivid against it’s sparse new coating of dark greens. Hovering overhead, it’s curvature clearly defined horizon to horizon, the solid blue of the sky appeared a lake beset by restless wisps of pure white.

From here every moment of our nine day shoot played out like a dream. Not just the visual performance put on by our benevolent wilderness, but the openness of the people and the eagerness with which we were received. A desperately refreshing lack of suspicion permeated the entire culture and the anal film savviness of the inhabitants of Sydney was replaced with a welcoming curiosity about our project.

“You want to interview the staff at the roadhouse? Over the counter at our busiest time on Monday morning? Sure! We love you to. No you don’t have to stick a shot of our sign in your movie! No we don’t have a scale free fee system in place for film crews already. No we don’t have our own set of location releases ready to go with letter head and perforated credit card slip down the bottom. What we do have is an outdoor cinema setup in the middle of a dusty paddock on the edge of town that we drag our swags to once a fortnight for a movie night!”

Needless to say I shed a little tear on exiting the Silver City highway and careering back onto the bitumen umbilical cord that connects our cutthroat den of pirates to the rest of civilisation. I will definitely be heading out there again as soon as possible. I wonder if they’ve finished crewing Mad Max?