Back when I was editor of the University of Delaware’s student newspaper, there was a quiet photographer who would pop into the office and accept assignments.
Her name was Alisa Colley. She was blonde and quiet and very good at taking pictures.
And, well, that was about it.
Fast forward two decades. Alisa and I are Facebook friends, so I check out her bio and somehow wind up here—at her IMDB page. And it’s friggin’ loaded. Name a movie or TV show, it seems as if Alisa has worked it as a second camera assistant or a camera loader or a film loader. I’m not being sarcastic here. Read her sheet, and it’s big production after big production. And while I was (am) dazzled by the work, I never actually took the time to ask Alisa about her career.
So … here we are. From hanging in Donald Trump’s apartment to being attacked by Derek Jeter and LeBron James to having to endure far too many hours near Steven Seagal, Alisa’s life is one unique Hollywood moment after another after another.
And now, she received the Academy Award of mediocre weekly Q&As …
She receives the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Alisa, before we go anywhere with this—you sent me an e-mail that included the sentence, “I’ve been in Donald Trump’s apartment in Manhattan.” Um … what? Please explain.
ALISA COLLEY: I did the New York unit of a movie called Self/less with Ryan Reynolds in 2014. He rented out his apartment to be used as the location of Ben Kingsley’s character‘s home. You can make a lot of money renting out your home to movie shoots. However, it means 50-100 people with more equipment than you can imagine occupy your house. His house was as tacky as you can imagine. And filled with fake artwork. The locations department preps the locations before we get there and they would have never left priceless artwork on the wall.
Trump, of course, claims it’s the real thing. A little bit of cardboard protecting a priceless painting? Oh, come on. He was there, but I didn’t meet him. I’ve worked with several people who have the bad luck to work with him or have contact with him. I’ve never heard anything redeeming. I’ve heard enough personal stories to believe all the ones we hear on the news.
J.P.: So you’ve worked on literally dozens of films in camera management, ranging from “Men in Black 3” to “Notorious” to “School of Rock.” Which seems like such a randomly quirky cool profession. So … how did this happen? Soup to nuts?
A.C.: The film industry is one where you can get an entry level position with little experience and learn on the job. The entry level position is called a production assistant. You are basically a go-getter—go get this, go get that. I started working as a PA in college. My degree is in photography, so I was interested in motion picture camera work. States and cities all have film commissions; public employees who are the contact for production companies who want to shoot in a particular area. Some of them provide classified-type ads where they advertise jobs. I started applying for short jobs in Philly, a lot of times working for free. From there you start creating contacts. I get all my work word of mouth. In my case, the director of photography or cinematographer gets hired, then they hire a first assistant cameraperson, then the first AC hires me as their second assistant cameraperson. You need to live where the jobs are, generally either New York City or LA, or recently Atlanta. Since I am an east coaster, I moved to New York City in 1998. I had a couple of contacts and branched out from there. I worked as a non-union camera assistant for a year and then joined the union in 1999.
I am a member of International Association of Stage Theatrical Employees local 600. Film crew workers are craftspeople—grips, electrics, props, scenics, makeup, wardrobe etc. You can start as a PA and move into any of the craft positions. Our jobs are solid middle class jobs with pension and health care provided thru our union, but paid for by our employers (the producers and studios). You don’t need to go to film school to work on movies and TV shows. The industry is actually pretty family based. One local was started in 1922. I worked with a prop person whose grandfather operated the fan that blew Marilyn Monroe’s skirt up on The Seven Year Itch. On any job, there are a lot of relatives and people with the same last name. Sons following fathers into the family business originally and now a lot of daughters.
J.P.: I remember writing a piece for TV Guide about a show called “Love Monkey,” starring Tom Cavanaugh, Jason Priestley. And I was invited to set—which sounds exciting. Then I got there, and it was standing, standing, standing, shooting the same scene 100 times. So boring. And I wonder–if a movie set exciting? Dull? Both? Neither?
A.C.: I worked a couple days on that show! It’s both fun and exciting … and boring. It can be like any other job. It has its moments. Different places, doing different things every day. As a crew member, you stay pretty busy. Every day we have a call sheet. It lists the scenes that we are going to do and what we have planned to do for the scenes specifically. We don’t just show up and start shooting. The director and key crew members have visited the location already and planned out the shots. Props, wardrobe, special effects, etc. have all been planned and prepared. When we arrive to begin shooting a scene, it has a set of guidelines. Rehearse, block, light and shoot. The actors and directors rehearse the scene. This is often the first time the actors and director rehearse the scene in the location with the props, wardrobe, set dressing, etc. This is the time where spontaneity, creative decisions, acting decisions are made within the parameters of what’s been planned. Then crew is called in for the blocking rehearsal. This is where the crew sees what the actors are going to do in the scene.
My job during the blocking rehearsal is to physically mark each position for each actor with tape. We decide how we will cover it—ie how will we actually shoot the scene. Camera angles, camera movements, etc. We set the first shot, generally a wide shot called the master. Then we light the scene. Lighting a scene can happen quickly or it can take a long time, depending on the situation.
Then we shoot! Each shot is called a setup. Once scene can have one setup, or more than 50. The best way to understand this is to watch a scene without the sound. Count how many different camera angles there are. Kind of shooting the same scene 100 times, but each time is different. The crew is busy during all of this. Setting up lights, cameras, rehearsing camera moves. Or prepping for the next scene, the next week, etc. When you see us standing still, it’s because we are rolling or rehearsing and need absolute quiet.
The most recognizable aspect of my job is I am the one who slates. I am the person you see on those behind-the-scenes clips holding the clapperboard. I call out the scene and take number, for example scene 137A take 2 and then say “marker” and hit the sticks. The slate is showing the editors the camera roll number and the scene we are shooting The letter refers to the camera setup and the take number is how many times we did that particular setup. It serves two purposes—A. Gives a visual ID so they can catalogue the film footage and B. To sync the sound up. The sound is recorded separately from the camera. When I call out MARK, I am telling the editor there will be a clapping sound seconds away. They align the visual of the clapperboard to the sound of the clap.
Each show is different as well. A show that has a lot of action is going to be different to work on verses a show that has a lot of talking. I’ve done three of the Marvel Netflix comic book-based shows. Daredevil season two, Luke Cage season two and Punisher season two (quick plug, it’s out now—check it out) I enjoy the action-packed shows because they are a lot of fun and challenging. We get do car chases, fight scenes and shootouts.
J.P.: You don’t have to name names (but you certainly can)—but what’s the biggest asshole moment you’ve experienced/witnessed on the job?
A.C.: I did a movie with Steven Seagal called Pistol Whipped. That should sum it up. And he’s as you would expect. Every day was an experience. And if it was bad for us, think of the poor actress who had to do a love scene with him (Jeff’s note: A moment of respect for Renee Elise Goldsberry)
J.P.: Along those lines, what’s the kindest moment you’ve had with an actor/actress/director?
A.C.: Filmmaking is a collaboration. The best producers and directors recognize everyone has a part in making the movie/show happen. The best times are when we are co-workers like in any work setting, contributing to a common goal. The most talented actors and directors are usually the most low key and down to earth. I can have a easy conversation with a grip as well as with Tom Hanks.
A nice personal moment was on the TV show Smash. Generally all the songs were recorded beforehand, the actors lip sync to the recorded version when we film. One day they hadn’t a chance to record the song beforehand, so we recorded it as we filmed it. Bernadette Peters sang Everything’s Coming Up Roses from Gypsy. She is amazing. The personal story is this: I would bring my dog Dazzle to work. Dazzle was hanging out one day by our equipment. Bernedette is a dog lover and rescue advocate. She stopped to say hello to her and sang her a song that she made up. Basically the Dazzle song, a little song about one-minute long, just for Dazzle.
J.P.: Working on a film, can you tell whether the project is terrific or awful. I mean, we can use “School of Rock” as an example. Fun, peppy, joyful flick. Were you aware that’s how it would turn out? Can you read what the final project will look like from being there?
A.C.: Yes, you can tell if it has a chance from the script. If you don’t have a great script you won’t have a great movie or show. The actors, action sequences, beautiful photography can make it a good movie or parts of it great. School of Rock is a perfect example—good script, great energy and performances. The kids who were in the band were all amazing musicians. The battle of the bands sequence was a lot of fun to film. Jack Black had a oxygen tank back stage to take hits on because he was working so hard. It’s held up well considering it’s 15-years old. This summer I was shooting in a orthodox Jewish neighborhood in New York City. I was talking to the kids watching us film. A girl about 12 asked what movies I had worked on. I mentioned School of Rock and she got really excited. I was surprised they never did a sequel, but there is a Broadway musical.
They wanted to use a Led Zeppelin song for a scene in the movie. Led Zeppelin does not often grant permission for their music to be used in movies. We filmed a shot of Jack Black asking for permission to use it with the crowd chanting in the background. And it worked! Check out the clip.
J.P.: Your resume includes this sentence: “Responsible for the care and maintenance of professional motion picture camera system that is constantly evolving and updating.” OK, I get what you mean in the literal sense. But what does this mean? What does it entail?
A.C.: A standard TV show or movie will have two cameras working every day. We call them the A and B cameras. Each camera is a package, consisting of the camera and all its support system. Each camera requires a camera operator, first assistant camera or focus puller, and a second assistant camera. The A camera is the primary, dominant camera, the B camera is considered secondary, getting additional angles and coverage. Each camera contains hundreds of extra parts and cables to make it work, with a package value of $150,000-to-$250,000. We also carry a steadicam package to be able to do steadicam shots. One of the camera operators would be a steadicam operator. A steadicam package has a value of a camera package. We often carry at least one additional camera package, a C camera, to be able use on shooting days where they want additional shots, like stunts. In addition to the camera package, we have a lens package, usually between 20-40 lenses, with a value of $200,000-to-$500,000. We are responsible for over $1 million worth of gear! We also may provide monitors for the director and producers to view what we are shooting. We have additional camera-persons, specifically called loaders, who would set up the monitors and are responsible for downloading what we shoot, either in film form or digital.
I primarily work as a “A” camera second assistant. In that position, I am considered the point person for the camera department. I oversee the department making sure we have everything we need for that particular shoot day, and most importantly making sure the sum total of everyone’s work, the exposed film or hard drives (when we shoot digital) is transferred to safekeeping. I am hiring additional crew members if we are doing a big stunt and have multiple cameras running. If the director and cinematographer need a particular piece of equipment for a special shot, I need to source it and schedule it to use for the day it is needed and arrange for its transportation. We work out of a camera truck, generally a 45-foot trailer pulled by a semi. And it is packed with camera gear. And, like any job, there is a lot of paperwork involved.
Camera assistants are also consider technicians. For film cameras, we were more like mechanics. Now that most cameras are digital, we are more computer technicians. We are expected to know exactly what each camera can do and how to make them do it. If it is having problems, we are expected to be able to get it back working again.
J.P.: The first line of your resume reads, “Experienced Manager and coordinator looking to transfer my skills to a new field.” So, Alisa, why?
A.C.: Well, that would bring us to the “glamorous” side of the film industry. I am an hourly employee, hired on a daily basis. Even when I am on a longer job (the longest a job will last is about 10 months, 23 episodes), I am a daily employee. I am only guaranteed work for that day. Your boss gets fired, the show gets canceled, you’re out of a job. Just because you worked the show last season, doesn’t mean you will be back next season. Here is a great story that illustrates this: A co-worker was working on a TV show for the CW Network. They were shooting the sixth episode, two had aired. The ratings were very poor. That morning the producer gathered everyone around and gave a speech. He told them even though the ratings weren’t great, the network loved the show and wanted to give it a chance. So no one should worry about the poor ratings. Six hours later, they are about to break for lunch. The same producer comes out and says, “Sorry, we’ve been canceled. We aren’t going to finish the season, we’re not going to finish the episode, and we aren’t even going to finish the work for today. Oh, and lunch is ready if you want a meal before you’re officially unemployed.”
We work long hours in all sorts of weather. Our workday is—at minimum—12 hours, with some days lasting 15-to-16 hours or more. When the polar vortex happened in January, I had night exterior work. I’ve been on New York City roofs in 90-plus degree summer weather. Rain, snow, etc.—we work in it. The job is very physical as well. The cameras weigh 25-to-30 pounds and the supporting equipment weighs just as much. We move as much as we can on carts we push that, when fully loaded, can weigh 250-to-500 pounds. A standard TV show will have seven carts of camera gear we use on a daily basis. A lot of the locations we shoot in require us to hand carry the equipment in. Daredevil season two we frequently shot on rooftops. If we are lucky there is a elevator to the top floor and we only have to carry the gear up a couple flights of stairs.
I have a resume ready for non-film work. One injury or illness could make me unable to work in my field. I have co-workers who have had joint surgeries, other physical job related injuries and general illness. I’ve broken my toes at least four times when gear landed on my feet. I’ve been doing this 20 years, and during that time I’ve had slow periods due to strikes by other unions, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, productions shooting in Canada because it was cost effective, etc. The film industry is very reliant on tax incentives passed by state governments. New York has a tax credit that has attracted a lot of production and created a lot of jobs. If the tax incentives go away, the studios may elect to shoot somewhere else. Ten months is the longest I have ever worked on one job—a TV show called Mercy. It was canceled after one season. Since my employment is precarious, I keep a non-industry resume ready just in case.
J.P.: What’s the absolute strangest experience you’ve had on the job?
A.C.: Not the strangest, but I’ll give you a fun sports-related story.
I worked on the Derek Jeter Re2pect ad for NIke. It was a big ad. We shot for a week. The opening shot, the camera is behind Jeter as he walks to the mound. I’m between him and the camera waiting to slate. He doesn’t realize I’m behind him and he swings the bat and hits me in the hand. Not hard, just like a rap on the knuckles. He immediately turns around to see how I am and tell me he’s sorry. I say, “It’s no problem, I’m fine, you just glanced my hand.” I slate and run over to slate a second camera. I look over and my crew members are looking at me shaking their heads and saying, “What are doing? You should have fallen down and grabbed your head and asked for a ambulance! That’s Derek Jeter—you would have been set for life!”
Shortly after, I am working on Trainwreck. We are doing a scene where Bill Hader and LeBron James are playing basketball. LeBron throws the ball and hits me with it. He starts to apologize and I drop to the ground and grab my neck and pretend I am hurt. When I got back up, I told him my Jeter story. He got a kick out of it.
Another time was when my dog, Dazzle, was featured in In Touch Magazine making out with Katherine McPhee.
J.P.: You’ve worked in film during the #MeToo movement, the Harvey Weinstein explosion, etc. And I wonder—what have you seen/experienced/etc in this regard? Is Hollywood gross when it comes to women? Has it been a thing as long as you’ve been working? Has it changed at all?
A.C.: I haven’t had any bad experiences to the level that is being talked about with #metoo. That being said, actresses are in a much more vulnerable position that I am, especially when they are starting their careers. I’ve experienced the same type of things that most women experience in their careers. Looking back in history, the film industry is like many others. There were some jobs that women/people of color were allowed to do and a lot they weren’t. The unions were closed off to women and minorities. I work with a producer who had originally wanted to be in the camera union. She tried to join and she was told straight out they weren’t letting women in.
Now there are more and more woman and minorities represented in the crew and talent. My union is still pretty white male dominated, though. No one was surprised about Harvey Weinstein. It was common knowledge he was a creep.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ALISA COLLEY:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ed Kowalczyk, Sam Darnold, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, “Roger Dodger,” Walter Eberz, David Dunlap, Roger Ebert, The Scrounge, Antonio Brown, the number 98: Guiding Eyes for the Blind, “Roger Dodger,” David Dunlap, Walter Eberz, Ed Kowalczyk, the number 98, Sam Darnold, Antonio Brown, The Scrounge (during all the time at The Review I can count on both hands how many times I got food from there!)
• Three memories from working on “Death to Smoochy”: Making Danny DeVito hot toddies every night for the martini shot(the last shot of the day) We shot in winter. One night I was so busy I didn’t have time to get it to him. The next day in the middle of the blocking rehearsal he stopped and pulled me aside and told me how sad he was. He looked forward to it every night!
Edward Norton was known to be a serious guy, not very personable. We had this remote controlled fart machine we used on some of the crew. We did a scene where Catherine Keener leaves him in a cab, I believe. We did one take with the fart machine in the cab. It goes off and Edward Norton stays in character and says “ But we’ve farted in front of each other”
It was a pleasure to work with Robin Williams. As you would imagine, once he gets started he doesn’t stop. I didn’t get to see much of it as I was the film loader on that job. I put unexposed film in the film magazines and take out the exposed film. With Robin Williams, you put three cameras on him and roll until you run out of film. I could barely keep up with keeping them supplied with fresh film so they could keep shooting!
For “Cold Mountain,” a large part of the movie was shot in Romania. The U.S. portion was shot in South Carolina and Virginia. We were in Charleston, S.C. and Jude Law was the main actor for our scenes. His wife went into labor early, and had to leave suddenly. Since we had nothing else to shoot without him, we got vacation days until he was able to come back! For one scene we shot Jude Law on the beach looking towards the ocean. Behind him was supposed to be a plantation house with slaves working. Since there were no longer any seaside plantation homes, we got on a plane and flew to Virginia. Then we shot what was supposed to be behind him!
• What are the three worst?: Pistol Whipped (it’s so bad its good!), Anger Management, Freedomland/Forgotten (basically the same plot. Julianne Moore is fantastic and a great cast in both movies. Sadly the movies were a disappointment.)
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. But I did work with someone who was in a small plane crash with a famous actor. They were traveling to a shooting location. The plane had to do a crash landing. He said as they went down all he could think of the headline: Famous Actor, four others dead in plane crash. Everyone survived!
I did go up in small plane with a co-worker who was a flight instructor. The pilot he was instructing was a another co-worker who had flown a plane for one hour before. We did some controlled stalls where you stall the engine and restart it. Then they asked if I wanted to do some mildly acrobatic moves. I said no.
• In exactly 15 words, make a case for “Arthur” (the new version) as an Academy Award-winning film: Helen Mirren. She elevates any movie that she is in. And it had the Batmobile.
• One question you would ask Al Roker were he here right now?: What’s your secret? He doesn’t stop working! Those morning show people get up earlier than me and I get up pretty early!