This is the story of my hellish time filming the latest rehash of Ivanhoe for the BBC. It is a tale of incompetence and snobbery. Some of the incompetence was mine, but for snobbery, I was left in the shade by the film crew. Stick to video, I should - the people are nicer.

First, a photo taken from my camera position up on the battlements of Aydon Castle, Northumberland. That's Ivanhoe on the left on the white horse.


Well do I remember the day in question. I got a call from the production manager of Ivanhoe, from Aydon Castle which I know quite well, asking if I might come and be a focus puller. Glad to be asked, but careful not to deceive, I told him that I was not the world's most experienced film focus puller, but that I had done some and was willing to give it a bash. Some while later, after he had presumably tried to find someone else (I do not blame him), we spoke again, and he hired me. He told me that I would be needed at 4.30 p.m.

I arrived before 2 p.m. and was told again that I was not needed until 4.30, and was told to join the cameraman I would later be working with, up on the castle wall. This suited me, as I would have time to observe the crew's working practices, and familiarise myself with the workings of the particular camera being used, as all cameras have their individual quirks. As luck would have it, it was an Arri, and I have worked with Arri cameras before, but not the one which was in use there, which had many functions on it which baffled the cameraman as well.

I have always been advised to be meek and cautious when joining an existing camera crew. When asked to change a lens, I asked for confirmation that the mounting collar unscrewed anticlockwise, which is the usual direction, but I wanted to be sure, since jamming the lens on the camera would have been an unpopular and unimpressive, as well as avoidable, mistake. After a shot, the cameraman said "All yours." When I had decoded this to mean that he wanted the gate checking, I thought that I would show keeness and good nature, by helping the camera assistant to check the gate, even though I myself was not to start work until 4.30. The camera assistant was the man I had seen handling the camera with confidence and familiarity, the man who looked like a camera assistant, talked little but camera assistant talk, carried the camera assistant's bag, and did camera assistant-like things, such as operate the clapper-board (I was told that another guy was the clapper-loader, working with the other camera). He was, I discovered several hours later, not the camera assistant, but the camera driver. By then, it was too late. He was expecting me to do the checking, and was trying to help me, and I was expecting him to do the checking of the gate, and was trying to help him. The inevitable result was that I looked hesitant and unsure, and perhaps too as though I was trying to get him to camouflage my inexperience. At the same time, of course, he seemed oddly hesitant to me. Fearing that I might be treading on his toes, as some people get touchy when you try to help them with their job, I backed off.

The next time, the production manager talked to me, he told me that the crew had reported to him that I didn't even know how to change a lens. I have many times been warned that crews will always try to prove that a newcomer is incompetent, and this was hard evidence in support of this. I was surprised to say the least, but remember that at this stage I was still mistaken as to the identity of the camera driver.

The other focus puller, crewing the main camera, clearly didn't like me. I formed the impression that he had taken against the idea of me before I had even arrived. Time and time again he tried to make me look a fool. When he heard that most of my experience was in video, he scoffed and clearly counted this against me. When I told him that I had been dolly grip and focus puller on one production, he inaccurately informed me that this was impossible. Actually, it is perfectly possible for several reasons. For a start, video cameramen are used to doing focus pulls themselves, while operating, which is a skill which most film cameramen seem to lack. On another occasion after hearing me mention a camera where to check the gate one takes the front off, not the back as he was doing, he interrupted my conversation with someone else, to inform me, again inaccurately, that one can take the back off all cameras. I have owned a 16mm film camera for many years, and taking the back off that one to check the gate would be a very silly move indeed. Even on a modern Arri, I prefer to check the gate from the front, as it fogs less film, and disturbs the film less, but I was not instantly certain how to do this with the particular cameras they were using that day, and damaging a camera would have impressed no one. About one minute's tuition on the clips and fixings on that camera would have enabled me to do the job. In fact, I probably could have worked it out myself, but why should I take the risk, with several people on hand to show me?

To prove to me that I was useless, the other focus puller started telling me other things too, to put me in my place. Most of these, unfortunately, were not true. The best one was when he told me that video experience was counter-productive since depth of field is so much greater on video cameras. I failed to see how my experience could actually be counter-productive, and marvelled to hear someone working in the industry be so naïve on a technical matter. Clearly he had not the experience of studio video cameras which I have, otherwise he would know how shallow the depth of field is on them, and how tricky it is to keep the picture sharp. I knew of the phenomenon that is the film snob, but meeting one was still a revelation. Presumably he thought that in the vicinity of video camera, rays of photons obey different laws of physics, and somehow refract differently through lenses, to hit a CCD which is near enough the same size and shape as the film plane in a 16mm camera. Thinking it wise and diplomatic, rather than point out his folly, I just nodded in wide-eyed wonder.

The day I had on location with Ivanhoe is one I am unlikely to forget. It was interesting to talk to various people, for instance the matte artists who finally got out of me answers to technical camera questions relevant to their work, which they had failed to get out of the camera crew, presumably because it was too ignorant and haughty to tell them. The nicest people I met were from the design department. While I may be well-trained in the areas of technical matters, it is clear that I have a long way to go in learning the tricky art of dealing with film crews. Joining any team which has been operating for some while is always problematic, and in the middle of filming is doubly perilous. No matter, it was, as I say, excellent experience, and next time I will know for instance to ask the chap who looks, sounds and smells for all the world like a camera assistant, whether or not he is the camera driver.

The production was the usual nonsense. As you can see in the photograph above, the ground inside the castle, where there was a working farm complete with a herd of period goats, was green and pleasant, and not trodden to bare earth at all. Also, note the period hairstyles. The make-up department still kept with the myth that everyone in the medieval period had fly-away hair and filth-covered faces. I don't use soap on my face, nor shampoo in my hair, and both look fine. People in the past still judged each other by appearances, and it would take very little trouble for a person to rub their face with wet hands once a day, which is all it takes to keep a face clean. The designers also saw to it that mist drifted across almost every shot, thanks to a man just out of shot with a smoke gun. Why anyone should believe that the past always involved mist, I do not know. On top of the compulsory knitted-string chainmail armour, was the cliché of a wall-mounted metal brazier, with a bright orange flame coming from it, outdoors, in the middle of the day. What was this meant to be? Some gas-powered light? Why would anyone go to the trouble and expense? As for the studded leather armour, don't get me started...

Those who know me, are aware that the previous paragraph contained compaints about the inauthenticity of films set in the past, which have been aired by me once or twice before. It is bad enough seeing such things on the screen, but to be within arms'-reach of some inauthenti-thing which I could rip down, well, you must understand that it tries a chap's patience.

Still, got to laugh, eh?


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