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.


  1. November 27th, 2010 at 09:12AM

    Great stuff, Leslie!

  2. March 16th, 2011 at 10:33AM

    I have often heard that the novel is dead. But I see novels produced, I don't know how many a week, in France. I have the impression it's carrying along quite well.

  3. March 12th, 2018 at 09:23PM

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