Exploring the craft every other production department relies on. By Pauline Rogers.
To kick off our first in a five-part series on IATSE crafts, we asked grips across the country not only to define their jobs but to reveal how they go about, as New York-area Local 52 member George Patsos describes it, capturing on film the dreams of others. “Grip actually comes from an Old English term that referred to suitcases with handles,” Patsos explains. “As time went on, people moving the camera cases, which resembled those suitcases, became known as grips.”Expounding on what grips do to a film-savvy readership might seem redundant. But how many of us, in or out of the camera department, can fully appreciate the complexity of the job? Everyone from studio execs to crafts services owe a debt to what these miracle workers accomplish every day on a set, but does our industry as a whole really understand the lengths to which grips have to go to get their jobs done?
The answer is not necessarily. Key grip Wells Smith, with Local 478 Studio Mechanics in New Orleans, will never forget one hot Texas shoot with a light punched through a 12x silk set up for fill and a 20x silk overhead, reflectors for background, dolly, track and more. When he headed back to the truck for something, he passed video village and heard one of the producers utter: “Grips! They’re making things go slow! I can get monkeys in here to carry sand bags!”
As Smith recalls the moment: “Sweat was pouring off me and I was pissed. So, I calmly picked up the radio and called my crew back to the truck. Fifteen minutes passed. There was no one on the set to move the director’s tent for the turn around, the dolly sat on the track with no one to move it, the 20xs sat, cabled and safe. Makeup and Hair didn’t have any apple boxes to sit on. When the AD asked what was going on, I simply pointed to the producer and repeated his statement. As we started to walk off the set, panic set in. It became a ‘him or us’ situation. Needless to say, we finished the shoot!”
The incident Smith describes is one that IATSE Local 80 business representative Thom Davis knows all too well. “When I started in the industry,” Davis recounts, “a tool belt slung over your shoulder could get you in anywhere. Now, it takes an Act of Congress to get anything done. Is it that too many people really don’t know what we do? That may be part of it. Add to that the bottom line mentality and the ‘attitude problems’ we’ll encounter, and it really isn’t easy out there. Grips, and every other department, need support – from their fellow artists and a strong form of representation that our Unions bring to the table, so they can do what only they can do.”
It’s human nature to think rotten apples are rare and education can change minds. So, there are, thankfully, many younger grips encountering acceptance on the set, Acts of Congress notwithstanding. “I recently worked with a 1st assistant on a show who said her philosophy is ‘never leave home without a grip’,” insists Detroit-based dolly grip Tommy Daguanno, with Local 38. Daguanno, 23, missed the old studio system that Davis remembers, and he says he’s been lucky with his young career so far. “I’m working with production people who know a good grip can save time by coming up with quick solutions to problems.”
Logan Berkshire, a member of Local 491, in Wilmington, N.C., says that making sure the camera sees what it is supposed to see and doesn’t see what it is not supposed to see is just part of the job. “People do realize that we definitely end up touching every department,” Berkshire says with obvious pride.
Veteran Local 80 key grip Richard Mall agrees, adding that “grips do whatever no one else wants to do, or doesn’t know how to do!” Mall says problems can stem from a gap in the education in some of the younger creatives on a set – producers, UPMs, even directors. “There is a key grip, best boy grip, dolly grip and grip, and let’s not forget about the rigging grips for a reason,” Mall explains. “There has to be [so many different kinds of grips] because the grip department is where every other department goes when they need help getting something accomplished.”
There is even another aspect that many people seem to overlook when it comes to gripping.
“Although we are no longer looked on as the safety officer on set, I believe we are looked to as a common-sense safety sounding board,” describes Tim Driscoll, a member of New England Studio Mechanics Local 481, near Boston.
Indeed, safety is a sacred word to the grip department. “We have to builds rigs that are strong and safe, yet temporary,” describes key grip Herb Ault with Local 80. “And, it has to go away much faster than it came in to make way for the next shot. It’s like the old saying of ‘good, cheap or fast? Pick two!’ Our job is one of constantly shifting priorities. What once was the most important thing in the universe a moment ago is now way down the list.”
“Most film crews understand that a good grip department sails the ship,” adds Local 480’s Kurt Kornemann. “But, sometimes we are looked on as a bunch of knuckle-dragging day laborers. The truth is that you have to be very smart to be a good grip. You have to understand engineering, as we are always putting heavy equipment over the heads of the cast and crew.”
It would take many more pages to fully enumerate the challenges grips face. But, fortunately, there are those in-the-trenches stories that quickly reveal a grip’s value to a production.
Like Local 80’s Jim Shelton, who recounts a typical conversation with a cinematographer. “They’ll ask: ‘Do you think you can mount the camera here? The side of a moving train, the edge of an ice cliff or the belly of a raging bull?’” Shelton smiles. “And then quickly add, ‘in five minutes, okay, because we’re losing the light!’ Those are the situations that have kept me coming back my entire career!”
Key grip James Kwiatkowski, a dual member of Locals 80 and 476, remembers director Steven Spielberg wanting to attach a camera to the back of a motor home/laboratory vehicle and flip it three times, slamming it to the ground each time.
“The catch was the frame had to stay level the whole time,” Kwiatkowski recalls. “Steven wanted to see everything inside, along with the stunt actors, tumbling around. A gimbal was the easy $120,000 solution. But that was the point: Steven didn’t want to spend that kind of money and wanted to know if it could be done another way, so I presented it to best boy Kevin Erb, who has a great sense of humor and responded, ‘Well, that’s easy!’”
Kwiatkowski says if he had hard mounted the camera to the vehicle, it probably would have exploded on the first tumble. “Instead, we mounted a steel square frame with half-chain loops welded to the inside and a smaller steel frame with half-chain loops welded to the outside of the steel frame. There was about 10 inches of space between frames. We connected them with ¾-inch bungee cord and pulled tight with enough space for movement to take the shock. Inside the smaller frame we rigged the 360-degree Ultimate head that kept the frame level. Operator Mitch Dubin laughed when he saw it. But it did a great job getting what Steven wanted, and it was safe, which is always a prime concern to Steven on his movies.”
Chemistry is also a big part of making shots work. “And trust,” says dolly grip Darryl Humber, a member of Locals 479 and 80. “I’ve been working with operator Simon Jay for years. We get so that we just look at each other and he goes and gets a cup of tea while I set up. On True Blood, there is a lot of dance floor work with multiple points and booms following a lot of cast members. As a result, shots changed and evolved as they happen.
“Last season we did a bar set where the camera started out on a LAMBDA head over the bar, pulled back into an over the shoulder as a character walked in, crossed the line over the other shoulder, rotated around the foreground character as the main character walked back and forth, and finally ended up on yet another actor. On a feature that would take four rehearsals, but in TV, you have to nail it in one or two. We had to constantly read the actors and work off each other. It’s all about an operator and dolly grip’s working relationship that shines through.”
Never underestimate a grip’s ability to come up with creative solutions. “When filming Elephant, director Gus Van Sant wanted extremely long continuous takes with a Steadicam operator pulling 1000-foot loads. “I developed a dolly which we affectionately dubbed ‘The Sidewinder’,” describes Bruce Lawson, with Pacific Northwest Studio Mechanics Local 488, in Portland, Ore. “This enabled us to mount the arm on the dolly rather than the operator’s vest and in one case lead the actors down the main hall, through the cafeteria line, pass through the dishwashing room, pick up our actors again and then proceed to the ladies’ room, where they purged themselves of what little they ate! It took 10 minutes and that’s how it is in the film.”
Driscoll says he loves it when a DP challenges him. “Theo Van de Sande [ASC] threw me a few curve balls on Grown Ups. He asked us to cover a large boathouse from direct sun, on the day, shooting three cameras, so he could look 340 degrees. On The Box, Steven Poster [ASC] wanted a two-shot on the front of a golf cart that was driving through a factory and panning 360 degrees. I had a special sled built for that where the operator laid on his back and the remote head was mounted an inch above his abdomen. That was fun!”
How teams work together to put available technology to work is a big part of the grip’s craft, as dolly grip John Mang, with Local 80, relates.
“[Local 600 camera operator] Mitch Dubin and I did one of my favorite pictures, The Soloist. [Director] Joe Wright wanted a shot that started some 40 feet off the street and ended up 40 feet in the air two blocks away. Key grip Herb Ault worked with me to put the 50-foot crane on a Chapman Maverick base, which enabled us to track down the street as we swung the crane back and forth from one side to the other, creating a fantastic shot! The stabilized remote heads we have provide options to do shots that were unthinkable 15 or 20 years ago.”
Truly, there’s no end to a grip’s creativity and invention, but there is another part to this story, like the challenges (and advantages) of new technology. “I’ve been working with new digital cameras [Canon 5D, RED®, ARRI] that have opened up a total nirvana of by-products and processes,” enthuses Angel Pastrana, a member of Local 494, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “It’s easier to make new tools for these cameras, thanks to their small size, weight and features. But, it does challenge us to create new and improved workflows. On our next shoot, Treasure Island, we are going to need to keep the digital equipment safe against the sea and surf environment in Puerto Rico,” he continues. “We began customizing our equipment on Pirates IV: On Stranger Tides, so you can say we’ve ‘rehearsed’ and we’re in good shape.”
“Video has changed our approach,” adds Aubrey Husar, a member of Locals 480 and 80. “Day exteriors on video are more grip-intensive because of the increased sensitivity and conversely, the nights are easier for the same reason.” Local 38’s Mark Strachan insists new technology is hitting the camera department a little faster than the grip department, however. “The difficult thing is getting your hands on it,” Strachan says. “Especially outside the hubs. So, often times, we rely on what we have. A slider, for example, is the dolly grip’s best friend.”
Michael Anderson, a member of Locals 38 and 80, says good gripping will always be more about experience than technology. “We learn to use one item in a variety of ways,” Anderson points out, “versus a piece of camera gear that has one function. New tools come along but they are still made of metal and still pretty heavy. I’ll be really excited when they invent the variable weight shot-bag with a knob to dial in the amount of weight you want.”
East Coast, West Coast, all points in between: Grips are the backbone of a production. Just as Smith points out, when challenged in Texas, “everyone comes to the grip department eventually,” and the grip has to communicate with every other department on the set. “We read the script, scout locations with the director and other department heads, and sit in on production meetings,” explains Grey’s Anatomy best boy grip Tim Day, with Local 80.”
“We’re there to help every department,” adds Grey’s rigging grip Toulouse Holliday, also a member of Local 80. “In my area, I handle the projects that are too time consuming or not practical to do on the actual shooting day. Grips aren’t just available to camera – we’re there to supply support for every department on the show.”
And that’s why that guy with the tool belt, who appears to have a faraway look on his face, is most likely simply trying to figure out how to best capture the dreams of so many others.