On the Set: Decoding Film Production Jobs Behind every director is an army of men and women, marshaling dozens of cables, wires and lights. They work away from the spotlight so when the call for "Action!" comes, the cameras can roll. Susan Stamberg zooms in on two of these key offscreen players: the sound mixer and key grip.

On the Set: Decoding Film Production Jobs

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We are demystifying movie jobs this week on MORNING EDITION, a pre- red carpet stroll up to Sunday night's Oscar awards. So far NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg has explained that in movie slang a martini is not a drink with an olive; rather it's what the crew calls the last shot of the day. Today, Susan zooms in on some key off-screen players.


We always think this is how a movie gets made.

Unidentified Man: Background action! And action!

STAMBERG: And it does, sort of. Except that the director has an army of men and women marshalling dozens of cables and wires and lights and lipsticks. So when the call to action comes the cameras can roll.

At this year's Golden Globe Awards, actor Anthony Hopkins paid tribute to all those movie worker bees.

Sir ANTHONY HOPKINS (Actor): ...make movies, the crews, the camera people and the sound people, the grips, the electricians, all that wonderful bunch of anonymous people who work harder than anyone.

STAMBERG: On the set of Freedom Riders, Paramount was shooting in a San Pedro restaurant the day we were there, a second assistant cameraman makes a familiar sound to get things going.

Unidentified Speaker: Mark.

STAMBERG: Over on the side of the restaurant, sound mixer Dave Parker sits at an audio board, the obligatory headphones clamped atop his black baseball cap. Dave's listening to feeds from two boom microphones hovering over actors Hilary Swank and Scott Glenn.

Mr. DAVE PARKER (Sound Mixer): Okay, they're both open hot and both backgrounds are the same.

STAMBERG: Dave Parker and his crew have one rehearsal to decide where to put their mikes to get the cleanest dialogue recording. They make the room as quiet as possible. Off goes the air conditioning, shush to the kitchen workers...

Mr. PARKER: Copy that.

Unidentified Speaker #1: Roll sound.

Unidentified Speaker #2: Rolling.

Mr. PARKER: Credits, (unintelligible) stop.

Unidentified Speaker #1: Rolling, (unintelligible) tape.

Mr. PARKER: Seventy-six apple, take one.

Mr. SCOTT GLENN (Actor in Freedom Riders): Let the kids order whatever they want, we're in no rush.

Ms. HILARY SWANK (In 'Freedom Writers'): No, Dad, it'll be fine. Pizza'll be cheaper, too.

Mr. GLENN (In Freedom Writers): No, I'm paying for dinner. Go ahead, dear, order what you want.

STAMBERG: After the last take, Parker and company will record layers of sound, mumbles from diners, clinking of dishes, other effects, and then it's all mixed, sweetened and otherwise enhanced in post-production.

But don't you hate all those people messing with your work?

Mr. PARKER: Well, I like to look at it this way, that when we do our job correctly, it makes everyone else's job so much easier. So no, I don't really mind people coming in and, you know, improving the sound that we record here on set.

Unidentified Speaker #1: (Unintelligible) follow around Elizabeth(ph).

Unidentified Speaker #2: And, action!

Unidentified Speaker #3: Roll, please.

Unidentified Speaker #4: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Speaker #5: Okay.

STAMBERG: On another set for the Diane Keaton film Because I Said So, actress Mandy Moore is crossing a busy boulevard in Venice, California.

STAMBERG: Traffic is directed, cued, stopped by local cops and various crew members.

STAMBERG: On this set we are asking what a key grip does.

Mr. JULIO MACAT (Director of Photography): The key grip is my main man who puts the camera wherever the camera needs to go.

STAMBERG: This is the director of photographer, Julio Macat, boss of the key grip.

Mr. MACAT: If we need to build a platform, he sets it up for us. Anything having to do with moving the camera.

STAMBERG: The key grip for Because I Said So is Gary Dagg--55-years-old, six foot two, with a few comfortable extra pounds and a green T-shirt. Dagg has done this work for decades. His many films include The River Wild, that 1994 thriller with Meryl Streep risking death by killers or the violent rush of white-water rapids.

Mr. GARY DAGG (Key Grip): We were chest deep in the Kootenai River and the Flathead River and we didn't lose a camera and didn't lose any people. It was one of the most challenging and one of the most fun movies I've ever done.

STAMBERG: Dagg's work this day is a lot dryer, although wet or dry, the key grip and his crew of seven have to schlep an awful lot of equipment. In addition to the excruciatingly expensive cameras, there's lots of hardware store stuff, too.

Okay, this is your kingdom here. What are we looking at?

Mr. DAGG: Well, I'm leaning on my ditty cart. This basically holds hand tools, power tools, anything that we might use or need quickly on the set.

STAMBERG: He has forests of C-stands, tall poles that hold equipment and light filters in place. There are clutches of giant metal clothes pins, grip clips is the technical term.

Mr. DAGG: So Rodney, what's up? We're two cameras here on the...

STAMBERG: Now we get to see key grip Gary Dagg in action.

Unidentified Speaker #1: Here we go.

Unidentified Speaker #2: Roll please.

STAMBERG: The Steadicam operator, heavy cameras strapped to his chest, stands directly in front of actress Mandy Moore to film her coming toward him.

Which means Mr. Steadicam has to walk backwards across the street, stepping over wires, cables, up a curb.

Walking behind him, with his hands on the cameraman's hips, is Gary Dagg.

Mr. DAGG: Great. Okay, one successful.

STAMBERG: They navigate afternoon traffic on Main Street with all the grace of a Fred and Ginger routine, like touch dancing.

Mr. DAGG: Some don't like to be touched unless they're absolutely in trouble. Don's fine to be touched and taken to the right place. So...

Unidentified Speaker: The closed camera would be good sort of focusing more on her bottom and then...

STAMBERG: In this part of the scene, cute young Mandy Moore must endure having a red balloon stick by accident to her posterior. Static electricity. It's a comedy. While the director and his minions ponder this problem, Gary Dagg reflects on the long history of gripping.

Mr. DAGG: You know, we have a tremendous legacy since the beginning of film when grips, they used to line up outside the studios with their grip bag. When you consider the pyramids being built, that's what grips do. They take something out of nothing. They look at an area and before you know it there's a way to photograph it.

Unidentified Speaker #1: Picture up.

Unidentified Speaker #2: Pictures up.

STAMBERG: The late actor George C. Scott once told an interviewer that if he were ever stranded on a desert island there would be three things he would have to have: food, shelter and a grip. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Los Angeles.

Unidentified Speaker: Hey Mandy, this practically further than gravitates (unintelligible). You'll have to go all the way down.

Ms. MANDY MOORE (Actress): Okay.

Unidentified Speaker: Alright, let's try it. And, action!

Ms. MOORE (In Because I Said So): There's a lot of static out here.

Unidentified Actor: You can say that again.

Ms. MOORE: There's a lot of static out here.

MONTAGNE: To get a look at the key grip in action, go to NPR.org. Tomorrow our series on movie jobs ends with the job on which so many acting jobs depend, the casting director. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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