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The keepers of the crafts

The Artisans

May 21, 2006

Quick: What does a gaffer really do? How about an assistant camera person? In a company town where people stay for the credits (and even applaud the names in the fast-rolling small print), you'd think we'd all know. But as often as not, the world behind the scenes is lost in the illusion on screen. So we asked six technical craftspeople to step forward and talk about their jobs with Times staff writer Susan King, while staff photographer Mark Boster brought them into the frame.


The gaffer


"A gaffer runs the lighting department," explains Frohna, a nine-year veteran of commercials and features such as "Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich" and "Thumbsucker." "He hires the lighting crew and also puts together the lighting order in conjunction with the director of photography and the director.

"Gaffers also collaborate with the DP when we do our location scouts or we are in pre-production, and then decide what light units best bring about the desired look."

In the beginning, the job can feel like "taking dictation and executing." But with experience, Frohna says, gaffers can take on a more collaborative role with DPs. "There are some DPs who will tell you, 'I want to use this light for this' and there are others who will say, 'We need it to feel like it's morning time in this scene,' and that's all they'll say."

And knowing how to step in and bring light to one of those "feelings," he says, is the most satisfying part of the job.

The lead man


In his 10 years on the job, Shulem has worked on "3rd Rock From the Sun," "It's All Relative," "Crumbs" and "Listen Up," and he jokingly refers to himself as "The Sitcom King." "The set decorator determines the look of the set decoration of a show, and everything else pertaining to it is my job," he says. "The picking up and getting [props] to the set, the coordinating of trucks, the hiring of the crew -- the set dressers -- and usually the running of the budget numbers through my desk to keep the paperwork flowing.

"A sitcom usually spends $10,000 a week on set dressing. The money passes through my desk -- purchase orders are issued.

"I don't have anything to do with the overall look of the show -- I like to call myself the assistant to the set decorator, but I don't make aesthetic choices."

He does, however, keep track of 5,000 items a week.

The first assistant director


On a set, says Mente, whose credits include "Brick," "The Next" and "The Drone Virus," the first AD is pretty much the captain of the ship, juggling all the actors' schedules and location availabilities and the specific department needs. In the months leading up to production, she says, "it's trying to find the perfect schedule for the allotted number of days of shooting."

During production, she explains, "the goal of the AD is to make the day, which means every scene scheduled for that day needs to be done before the clock runs out. That means pretty much from the time you get there to the time you leave you are organizing everyone." When things go wrong (a prop melts, an actor flakes) she's the go-to person for Plan B.

"Aside from the name 'assistant director,' you are not really directing," Mente says. "You direct the production. It is a much more involved position than anybody who doesn't know film [understands]."

The scenic artist


Even in the age of CGI, moviemakers still ask for painted backgrounds, the worlds of the scenic artist. "They'll take photographs of the location in the background and we will reproduce that location for them and put it up on stage," says Denering, who has worked at Warner Bros. for two decades. "We'll do large cycloramas that go around the stage -- some of them are 500 feet long but 40 feet high or larger. We did very large ones for 'Lemony Snicket' -- we would circle the entire set for them."

The backdrop material of choice, he says, is muslin, which is thin enough that light can come through, meaning, for instance, that light can come through a painted window.

His assignments have been many and varied. Painting the White House for "Dave," interior murals for "Jurassic Park." "And for 'Ghostbusters' we did tons of scenes of New York -- when they are up on top of a building fighting the marshmallow man, that background stuff was all backings."

The assistant camera person


Sprague, whose father is a gaffer, began her career as a loader, putting film in the magazine of the camera. As an assistant camera person, she's responsible for cleaning and maintaining the camera. "As a first assistant I am also the focus puller," she says, "which basically means I am the person who keeps the subject or image in focus -- sharp. I don't operate the camera because that is what the camera operator does. But I am the one who stands beside it and I am the one who pulls focus -- the operator is the one who looks through the camera and operates the wheels."

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