“Problem Solved…”

No matter what production we’re working on, or what job classifications we belong to, our jobs as Local 600 members always consist of solving problems. And one of the great methods of problem solving is by deductive reasoning. As I learned so many years ago in college, you identify and define the problem and then create criteria to find a solution. Of course, the problems on a 100-million-dollar movie are different than those on a half-million-dollar movie, which requires a different kind of intuition and invention than with a large crew and budget. 

There’s a great example of that from the early days of independent filmmaking. In 1959, a young cinematographer had to shoot on multiple days in a facility that was used to counsel troubled teens. What made it so tricky was that the space was used for other work during the day. This young DP needed to light inconspicuously, i.e., to be able to leave his lights in place during the day, and then walk in after hours with his crew to start shooting. In solving this problem he created two firsts, one of which I’m certain has been employed continuously on virtually every production, every day, of any size and scope, ever since.

So how did his deductive reasoning process go? He first determined the type of bulb that could be lightweight enough to be fastened on the wall and plugged in, with the cord hidden – otherwise known as reflector floods or RFLs. In 1959, these bulbs were readily available in different wattages, and they could be screwed into a simple Edison base with a zip cord that snaked down the wall into a typical wall socket.

As for how to hang the lights, he had a small engineering office in his home, where he experimented with a flat piece of lightweight aluminum. The socket could be fastened to this aluminum plate, thereby creating a base that could be attached to any smooth surface. For securing the light to the wall he thought about different varieties of tape – simple transparent (Scotch) tape was too weak, as was electrical tape. So he called up a tape manufacturer named Permacel to ask for a product that could peel off after use, and be white or silver so as not to absorb heat. After testing what Permacel supplied in his own living room, the cinematographer ordered up several spools of what he would later name “gaffer’s tape.” He used it to tape his small aluminum plate to a window, or a piece of wood on the wall. He could also use the gaffer’s tape to secure the zip cord down the wall to the socket. 

This young man was named Ross Lowell, and with these two inventions, Lowel-Lighting was born. However, he had yet one more problem: what if there wasn’t a wall to fix the lamp to, but rather (heating or water) pipes? The solution: cut a notch in the aluminum plate so the fixture could be wedged in place. Finally: how could he ensure the lights would be safe? Ross told me the idea of sourcing a ball-and-socket chain that would lock the plate in place came to him in the middle of the night but he forgot to write it down! (Several more nights later it came back.)

Ross Lowell was working for CBS at the time, and they were so smitten with his brainchild, they asked him to make up professionally available lights and kits. But he wasn’t done! Ross also wanted to control the light, so he invented a way of attaching barn doors, with lightweight springy aluminum, which could go around the reflector bulb. At one point, after creating several more accessories for his “Lowel-Light Kit” (like being able to clip onto the barn doors), legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite noted (on-air) how gaffer’s tape was brought along for emergency use on NASA’s first trip to the moon; even going so far as to explain the product’s relevance and ingenious attributes for the mission.

Local 600 members are confronted with similarly thorny and solvable problems every day in their work. The lessons gleaned from Ross Lowell (who always recommended buying the RFLs in any local hardware store when shooting on location with his kit) are simple and profound, particularly for those working on independent films: identify and define the problem, and then look for the easiest, most cost-effective solution.

You never know – great things might just be a piece of tape away.

 

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600

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