December 29, 2009
*Welcome to readers from the Tyee and CBC’s Early Edition*
As much as I love the city of Vancouver, I have an equal fondness for Toronto. (I’m a rare breed, I know.) Since I’m in Ontario visiting my family, I figured I might as well take the Roadshow with me. So starting today, I’ll be looking for some roadshow stops in this lovely, albeit (insert expletive here) freezing city. If you have any suggestions, or want to invite me to work, contact me here. I’m in Toronto until January 5th.
Also, I have the final list for the Roadshow Readers’ Choice. Here are the most popular (mixed in with some of my favourites.) I’m leaving it up to you to make the final decision. Contact me here to cast your vote, or to add a few more to the list!
Adult Store Attendant
Stand Up Comic
The Roadshow will resume with its regular-scheduled Roadshow stop posting in the New Year. Next up, Kung Fu fighting!
December 15, 2009
Roadshow stop: Film Executive
Roadshow mentor: Liz Levine, Brightlight Pictures Inc.
It’s pretty obvious from some of my previous posts that I watch too many movies. Or, more accurately, I’m prone to conjure unrealistic fantasies about particular professions based on their on-screen depictions. (See News Reporter or Stockbroker.) I know I’m doing it. And I know it’s wrong. But I can’t help it. Movies often create such a romanticized or ridiculous version of reality that it’s sometimes just hard to resist.
It is because of my willingness to succumb to these film fantasies, that I approached the Roadshow’s next stop with some apprehension. I was going to be a film executive. I wondered if seeing the behind-the-scenes action of this position, which in itself is a behind-the-scenes kind of role, was going to dispel or perpetuate my unrealistic notion of this job. Was I going to wine and dine actors and attend fabulous Hollywood parties? Would I get to zip around the studio lot in a golf cart? Might I discover the next big hit? Would I sacrifice a budding young director’s artistic vision for the sake of making a box office blockbuster? Or was this all just purely the media portrayal that I had bought into?
I was going to find out while spending a day at Brightlight Pictures, which is located at the Bridge Studio. Before I even stepped foot in the Brightlight office, my film fantasies were reinforced. I pulled up on my scooter to a gated security booth, (just like you see in the movies) and gave the security guard my name. She looked it up on a clipboard, and after verifying my identity, directed me to a parking spot–which had apparently been reserved for my scooter. (I suppose in my film fantasy of this, I would be in a more luxurious vehicle, like a Volkswagon Golf or something.)
Brightlight is a Vancouver-based production company that makes independent movies and TV series. They’re probably best known for shows like The Guard and movies such as White Noise, 88 minutes, and The Wicker Man. My mentor for the day was Liz Levine, the Executive Director of Development. Liz has been in the business for more than a decade, and started with Brightlight eight months ago. Her job at Brightlight is to find new concepts and scripts, assess them, and push them forward to production. For some projects she sees them from concept to completed and released product.
Liz’s office was filled with stacks of scripts–all potential projects awaiting their fate. The bound pages representing the heart and soul, and talent, of the author. The number of scripts Liz receives is overwhelming. They are sent in by agents and from people connected to individuals at Brightlight. There’s no way she can read them all on her own, so she’s helped out by a team of creative executives. They write “coverage”, which includes an overview of the story, the reader’s opinion of the script, and a recommendation to Liz on whether or not the project has any potential at Brightlight.
After setting up my laptop on Liz’s leather sofa (which she assured me was not a casting couch), I was given my first script and asked to write the coverage. I had never read scripts before but I know from personal experience that writing dialogue is tough. In fact, I would say it’s one of the hardest things to write well. People tend to write exactly as they speak, and that doesn’t always translate. In a script, so much of the story has to be conveyed in conversation–the plot, the character development, the tension, the themes. This is not an easy feat.
My first script was a TV show–a fast-paced political intrigue drama. And it was pretty good. As I flipped through the pages, I could hear the dialogue, see the characters, and was pulled into the plot. I wanted to know what happened next. So I wrote a coverage that said as much.
My next script was the complete opposite. It was a poor attempt at a TV comedy. I found this genre harder to evaluate, since so much depends on the timing and delivery of the actor. But even the most talented of comedians would have trouble making the lines of this script entertaining, or anything more than shockingly offensive. I wrote a scathing coverage that indicated as much. But as I jotted down words like infantile, cliche, unoriginal, I couldn’t help but think about the editor who passed on Harry Potter. And how quick he was to dismiss the manuscript. It made me second-guess my decision to so easily write off the script as crap. Just because it didn’t appeal to me, didn’t necessarily mean it was a flop. I wondered, was I fulfilling one of my preconceived stereotypes? Was I the ruthless film executive who couldn’t see the artistic vision in front of me?
I expressed this to Liz, in between her countless phone calls, and she explained that’s why scripts are all read and vetted by at least two people. But even then, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what’s going to be a hit and what’s going to be a bust. Because it’s not just about the script–there is so much more involved in making something a success–the timing, the actors, the director, the producers, the current market, the intended audience. But according to Liz, one thing can be guaranteed:
“If you start with shit, you end up with shit.”
That’s why she advises people to “read, read, read–the more you see the easier it is to identify quality when you see it.”
I decided to trust my gut and give my honest opinion on script #2–that it was “shit”. And hope that I wasn’t passing on the next Arrested Development. (I found out afterward that the second reader also found the script to be an insult to the written word.)
For the rest of the day, I sat in on Liz’s countless meetings. There are so many pieces to putting together a film or TV series–schedules, budgets, talent, marketing–just one film is a huge operation. And Liz and her colleagues work on multiple projects at once. In one breath Liz was trying to fix historical inaccuracies in a dramatic period piece’s script, in the next she was figuring out how to cut millions from an over-budget production plan. And while it wasn’t exactly the Hollywood glamour that I had conjured in my mind (there were no boozy poolside lunches with the talent), it was still exciting. (I especially liked that Liz and all her co-workers referred to actors on a first name basis–dropping names like “Dustin”, “Jamie-Lee” and “Robin”.) The day’s activity didn’t pander to my fantastical notions, nor did it really do anything to dispel them. It just made them a bit more realistic. A film executive has a fast-paced, enthralling job–but it’s not all parties and premieres. They actually have to work, and work hard, in order to get their schmoozing, cutthroat movie and TV counterparts up on the screen.
December 8, 2009
Last week I asked readers for submissions to the Roadshow Readers’ Choice. I figured you, the reader, would come up with a bunch of great ideas for a stop on the Roadshow. And I was right — the suggestions have been funny, interesting, terrifying, and weird. Here are some of the jobs that have been proposed for me to do so far:
Overnight Security Guard at a half-built condo complex
Cell Company Customer Service Rep
Adult Store Attendant
Stand Up Comic (this one scares me the most)
Parade Float Dismantler
IMAX Screen Cleaner
Organic Farm Inspector
Keep the suggestions coming! If you haven’t played guidance counselor yet, be sure to think up a job for me. (Visit the rules before making your suggestions.) You can email me your ideas or comment below. Send them in by December 16th. To recap what jobs I’ve done so far, visit my resume. Once all the submissions are in, I’ll compile a shortlist of the most popular and most interesting (and possibly the most terrifying) and have readers vote on what job they want to see me do for the Roadshow.
November 23, 2009
Roadshow stop: Personal Trainer
Roadshow mentor: Steve McMinn
Irv’s pull-ups. He barely needs my assistance.
My pull-ups. Steve is doing most of the ‘heavy’ lifting here.
Pull-ups are harder for women than men. It’s how we’re built. However, I am not 64-years-old and diabetic. Nor have I had eight coronary by-passes or high blood pressure. Irv has. You would think this might even out the playing field a little. But I got schooled.
Irv’s physical prowess for a man his age with his health record can be attributed to the twice weekly exercise he does with personal trainer Steve McMinn. They’ve been at it for two years. And it’s made a huge difference. Before training with Steve, Irv could hardly walk up a flight of stairs without the assistance of a hand rail. Now he can kick a 33-year-old (moderately) fit woman’s ass in pull-ups.
But ever the gentleman, Irv assured me with a big smile, barely discernible beneath his giant strongman-style mustache, that with practice and training, I could easily match him pull-up for pull-up in no time. Still breathless from trying, I rolled my eyes and laughed. He winked at me and in his soft voice said, “It’s true.”
“He’s right,” Steve said. “With practice you could do it. Anyone can.”
Steve had just done most of the work pushing me up to the pull-up bar five times. But he seemed unfazed and not the least bit breathless from hefting all 175 cm, 70(+)kgs of my squirming, flailing form to the bar. After demonstrating five unassisted pull-ups of his own, he explained in technical detail what muscles were involved, why it is such a difficult exercise to do, and how I could train for it. From the simple plan he laid out, I believed I might be able to do it.
Or, even more surprising, would want to do it.
I have mixed feelings about exercise. As a kid, I skipped school the days we had to do our fitness challenges, which included things like the dreaded pull-up. As an adult, I like it best when I don’t realize I’m doing it (like skiing or biking). But I need to exercise five times a week to stay in shape and keep the stress pit bulls at bay. So I force myself to run, swim, and go to the gym. But I’m most happy the moment it’s over–because this means it’s the longest period of time before having to do it again. (Probably not the healthiest attitude for my day as a personal trainer.)
I figured to be a personal trainer, you have to possess a blind addiction to exercise, replete with saccharine enthusiasm or testosterone-fueled pumping iron zeal. But after my day with Steve, I discovered that personal training (a least successful personal training) is more about relationships than being a gym nut. You have to be apt at reading people and sussing out what motivators will work for them. Because I’m not alone in my aversion to intentional exercise.
Steve’s been a personal trainer for the past seven years. And he’s not a gym bunny or a meat head. In fact, he’s really normal. He’s ebullient and sometimes a bit of a goof. (Like when he described to one of his clients the best way to defend herself in a knife fight–from his enthusiasm it was hard to tell if he was being earnest–as though this young, middle class Realtor would ever realistically find herself in this situation. The answer, by the way, is run like hell). But somehow this, along with his unruly mop of brown curls, makes him even more approachable. I always associate trainers with making me feel bad about myself because I drink too much wine, or inadequate because I’m not fit enough. But Steve doesn’t dole out the judgment. Instead, he motivates his clients with genuine encouragement. And probably most appealing for me, he’s not infallible. He occasionally eats junk food (he had McDonald’s for lunch that day) and skips work outs when he’s feeling lazy.
Steve believes being a successful trainer is about having the right personality. But he also believes it’s crucial to keep abreast of the latest developments in physical fitness. The best practices in exercise are constantly evolving, and he feels an obligation to his clients that he be on top of the most recent research–not the most recent fads, but effective techniques to safely improve fitness levels. It was through this kind of study that he came across his principle mode of training: kettlebells.
Kettlebells are an ancient form of Russian weight training. They look like cannonballs with handles. Although old, they fit with proven modern techniques of safe and effective weight lifting. According to all of Steven’s clients, hefting and swinging these cannonballs around is fun. And having fun is integral to Steve’s method of training. He believes it’s essential for people to actually enjoy their work out, or they won’t keep up with it long term.
After saying our goodbyes to Irv, we packed Steve’s kettlebells into the trunk of his silver Volkswagon beetle and headed off to meet the next client. Through the course of the day, we met with five personal training clients, and then did an evening group kettlebell class. (Personal training is not cheap, so to make it more accessible, Steve offers a variety of different programs, from individual training to group classes.) The day started at 7:00 am and finished at 7:30 pm. (We were supposed to start at 6:00 am, but thankfully for me, that client cancelled.) There were breaks between clients, but it was still a long day. Steve didn’t seem at all tired–or if he did, he was really good at hiding it. He maintained the same energy for his 6:30 pm class as he did for his 7:00 am client.
I think his stamina stems from not only a genuine (and non-annoying) love of physical fitness, but more importantly, a real love for inspiring and motivating the people he trains. Because he’s not just helping them shed a few pounds. At least that’s not what it feels like he’s selling. While that may be an end result and a goal for some clients, Steve seems to derive the most pleasure out of seeing the difference it makes in their lives. Irv is the perfect example of this–he claims Steve saved his life, and in many ways he probably did, or at least vastly improved the quality of it. Irv is far more active and mobile in ways he never thought he could be. (Including kicking the butt of a 33-year-old in pull ups.) And admittedly, Steve’s ebullience is infectious. He has a way of making his clients believe they can succeed–and once they believe that, they almost always do.
So even for someone like me, who would avoid exercise at all cost if I could, Steve’s somehow convinced me that becoming a pull-up champion (or at least be able to do one on my own) is a possible and even desirable goal.
To learn more about Steve and his kettlebells, visit his website.
November 21, 2009
Although Rule 4 prevents me from accepting money for the Roadshow’s labour, I am sometimes offered free stuff in turn for my work. Usually food or booze. Or sometimes swag. (The legal swag, not the other kind.) And I happily accept these tokens. Last night, I was invited to the screening of the short film Wood If, which I worked on a few weeks ago. I thought it was very kind of them to include me on the guest list.
It was a good party at Grace Gallery on 3rd and Main. I was given wine and popcorn (two of my favourite things) and got to see some familiar faces from my day as a swing. The film turned out great and is playful and fun as Judson’s furniture. Overall, a pleasant evening. But little did I know, there was another surprise in store for me. As we watched the credits role, I noticed I had been given a shout out–a very sweet gesture by producer Liz Levine and director J.B. Sugar. So it looks like fame and recognition, albeit minor, is also one of the Roadshow’s perks.
November 18, 2009
Roadshow stop: Nitobi Software
The lights were low and the place was filled with the constant accumulative hum of high powered computers. In the entrance way sat a Foosball table, the little plastic men, abandoned from a recent game, pointed all askew. A half assembled soap box derby car was propped up haphazardly in a corner. In the board room were stacks of empty pizza boxes. Desks were littered with jars of salsa and half-drank bottles of Dr. Pepper.
My mentor for the day was Brian LeRoux, a software developer who’s been with Nitobi for four years. (Before that he was ‘playing video games and pumping gas’.) According to him, his responsibilities include coding and client management. As well, he said with a laugh ‘evangelism and general B.S.ing.’ (No, that’s not developer jargon–he meant the universal language of bullshitting). Brian explained to me that software development was more like gardening than manufacturing–it wasn’t just building, but creating something that needed to be tended and maintained because of its ever-evolving nature.
After chastising me for not bringing my laptop (“Who comes to work at a software development company and doesn’t bring their laptop?” he asked) and mocking me for the analog notebook I did bring (spiral bound with ruled sheets), he told me to go check in with the ‘guys’ to see what kind of work they were doing.
I started with the front room, which housed about five developers. Some of the developers eyed me warily, curious as to what the heck I wanted. Others avoided eye contact. Some slipped on their headphones. (I wondered if they were suspicious of my lack of a Y chromosome or if they were just busy.) But these avoidance tactics weren’t going to stop me. I grabbed an ergonomically correct desk chair and rolled up to the first work station. From here, I hopped from desk to desk getting tours from each developer on what they were working on and what kind of projects they had worked on in the past.
Some of the developers were working on what they called their ’20 percent’. Nitobi has an 80/20 policy, meaning 20 percent of developer’s time can be spent working on individual and personal projects. According to Andre Charland, co-founder of Nitobi, product development has proven to be a good source of revenue, and he felt what better place to create these products then with his staff. PhoneGap is an example of a successful product built in-house. So eight hours of an employee’s 40 hour work week can be spent on doing his own thing–and he gets paid for it. Sounds like living the dream.
It was clear that fun was an integral part of this workplace. And not just the appearance of fun you sometimes see in big corporate offices to placate over-worked, over-stressed, and under-appreciated employees. These guys seemed to actually enjoy what they did and enjoy being in the office.
“We take work seriously, but not ourselves,” said Andre.
“Nitobi is the idealized fantasy of what software development is all about,” said Brian. “Other software companies are mostly cubical farms.”
At the end of the day, I was told I would be sitting in on a meeting with Mark Scott, President of D&M Publishing. As I made a few notes and waited for the meeting to start, I noticed a small group gathering around Andre’s computer. They were ogling a girly calendar–the Rad Boob Club Calendar, which was created by female skiers to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. It features photos of (fully dressed) female skiers doing daredevil moves off cliffs, soaring over highways, and plummeting down vertical drops. The guys appreciated it with the same enthusiasm one would expect from a swimsuit calendar.
As they admired ‘Miss December’, Brian proposed cracking a beer. Andre suggested waiting until Mark arrived. I assumed he meant waiting until after Mark had come and gone. Clearly I was new to the world of software development as beers were distributed ten minutes into the meeting. (And everyone, including Mark, took one.) With icy Pilsners in hand, the developers, designers, and Mark went through some of the finishing details of Book Riff, a new publishing website that will allow users to pick and choose from published books, add their own content, and have a book printed, bound, and shipped within 24 hours.
Admittedly, going into a day of software development, I figured I would be immersed in a world of computer geek stereotypes. But I was dead wrong. This office wasn’t filled with socially awkward, ill-dressed, girl-fearing men. What I discovered was quite the contrary–smart, creative, self-assured professionals who love their jobs, make super neat stuff, and work in an almost utopic office environment. Okay, maybe I have a residual soft spot for the computer-inclined because of my college boyfriend, or maybe it was the fact that they gave me free beer, but after a day of hanging out with software developers, I think they are, and what they do, is cool as hell.
Follow-up Thank You Email
Thanks for letting me come in and follow you around. It was fun. And will definitely provide me with some good stuff for a post. It will probably take me a week or so to get a story fleshed out.
Thanks again. It was a real pleasure meeting you. Oh, and thanks for the pils.
eh no worries — glad it worked out for you / let me know if you need any more details. feel free to stop by and drink our beer any time!
You may want to reconsider your unconditional offer of free beer to someone who has no gainful employment. You may live to regret it! Will let you know if I have questions/need details. I’m sure I will.
nah, anytime — fairly certain no guys here are going to complain. shit, bring some friends. =)
November 14, 2009
Roadshow stop: University of Texas Press
Roadshow mentor: Casey Kittrell, Acquisitions Editor
When I worked at Whitecap Books, my favourite days were the ones a new shipment of books arrived from the printers. The Marketing and Sales Manager would circulate the office dropping off a copy for everyone–the spine still uncracked, the dust jacket smudge and fingerprint free. I would stick my faces between the pages, take deep breaths of the new book, and rub the smooth pages against my cheeks. For each new title, I would spend a few minutes like this with my nose pressed into it.
Indicative of a glue-huffing addiction? Perhaps. Mildly perverted? Probably.
But I’m guessing this sensory experience won’t creep out other book enthusiasts–especially ones who have worked in the industry. I think they’ll understand the compulsion to take in every detail of the book, not just the words in between the covers. Because book lovers really do love books. They frequent blogs like this one, dedicated to the design of cover art. Or this one that gives the origins of a book’s title. (Did you know it was originally supposed to be called Catch-18?) Book lovers aren’t just avid readers. They’re a breed apart.
When I was visiting my sister in Austin, Texas, I was invited to spend a day at the University of Texas Press, shadowing an Acquisitions Editor. And although I have already worked in publishing, I jumped at the chance for two reasons:
1. If I said no, I would be breaking Roadshow Rule Number One.
2. I clearly have a thing for books.
A University Press operates a bit different than a private publishing house–obviously, they publish a large list of academic books, including books for college courses. More important, profit is not explicit in the press’s mission. While they publish many books that are widely read and reviewed, others are so specialized their audience is not large enough for even modest commercial success. So UT Press uses its nonprofit status and connection to the university, to fundraise for their most specialized scholarly books–a credit line not typically found in the ledgers of corporate houses (Surprisingly, a title like De-colonizing the Sodomite: Queer Tropes of Sexuality in Colonial Andean Culture is not often a contender for the bestseller’s list and may require a little funding from the alumni).
For my afternoon at UT Press, I sat in on two meetings–the Big EC and the Little EC. (Editorial Council). The first meeting was a check-in with all the departments needed to bring a book from concept to creation–editorial, production, design, accounting, rights & permissions. As with most industries, the creative and the financial departments had the occasional head butt, and there were a few murmurs and suppressed smiles when discussing the ‘marketing plan’ for a book with a proposed print run of 500 copies and a title like The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, HD, and Yeats. But overall, it was a mostly civilized conversation about books.
The Little EC was comprised of the editors and the director. In a round table discussion, each editor pitched projects that they had recently unearthed. The group would discuss the book concept’s potential and then decide whether to pursue it, research it more, shelve it, or bury it. It was another conversation about books with people who loved them as much as I did. And who understood the magic and thrill of how a book proposal or idea could take so many shapes before it became a bound, finished product.
Smart people and Books: Two things I love that face potential extinction
After hanging out at UT Press, part of me wanted to jump off the Roadshow and throw myself back onto the publishing bandwagon. To surround myself with smart people and books. Sure the job has its drawbacks–the pay is lousy, and authors can occasionally get all diva on you. (My personal favourite at Whitecap was a D-list celebrity chef/cookbook author who reamed me out for 45 minutes before I could get a word in to tell him he had dialed the wrong extension.) Overall, however, it’s a pleasant environment to work in.
But part of me is reluctant to re-enter the publishing realm and not just because it’s tough to get into. But because there’s an elephant sitting in the office of every North American publisher—people simply aren’t buying books like they used to, in volume and in format.
There are a lot reasons for the grim state of the book business, some well-documented and some still theoretical. According to my mentor at UT, Casey Kittrell, part of it can be attributed to online access to cheap, used books.
“The Internet revolutionized used book sales,” Casey says. “To the extent that most brick-and-mortar stores now function more as offices for online sales rather than browsing spaces. And it IS wonderful that if the old hippie bookseller down the street doesn’t have a $2 paperback of Noam Chomsky you can have one 24 hours later via an old hippie in the next county, state, country. Ah, Noam doesn’t need the royalties anyway.”
But online used sales are just the trunk of the elephant. There’s also a decline in the number of people reading—people have shifted their attention to other forms of entertainment, such as film, TV, video games, and the web. The analog book is suffering a popularity slump compared to its digital competition.
Digital publishing is another piece of this literary Dumbo. Google announced last month its upcoming launch of Google Editions, which will allow readers to buy books that can be read on their laptop or smart phone. And serial literature is making a comeback on blogs, and in Japan, on cellphones. (Keitai Shosetsu) To what extent these new trends and technologies will affect traditional book publishing in North America remains to be seen.
Some publishers are embracing digital publishing so much that they are redefining not only how books will be read but how they are created. Book Riff, created by Douglas and MacIntyre and Nitobi Software Inc., melds book publishing with user-generated content. Users can pick and choose content from existing publications, combine it with their own, and have a book bound and shipped within 48 hours. But Book Riff is well ahead of the game. Because the majority of publishers don’t seem to be engaging digital publishing with this kind of innovation or zeal. Many are sticking to business as usual.
But information and how readers consume it, is undergoing a continuous transformation. And, as much as I don’t want to admit it, the book can’t continue to hide between its covers–eventually readers will demand (for some genres at least) that books, and book publishers, catch up to the digital revolution.
So although I loved my day with smart people and books, I’m not sure I’m ready to jump back into book publishing. But I am intrigued by what direction digital publishing and other upcoming technologies will do to the book. Perhaps this impending and inevitable publishing ‘revolution’ will present a new industry and a new opportunity worth exploring. Although, I’m not sure if pressing my nose against the screen of an e-book reader and taking a deep whiff of glass and plastic will hold for me the same level of sensory satisfaction.
November 10, 2009
Roadshow stop: Set of Wood If
Roadshow role: Swing
There were military trucks everywhere. Police cars. Ambulances. There were even two tanks parked on the Clark St. Bridge. It was downtown Chicago, August 2007. Crowds of people lined the banks of the Chicago River to watch the action. Two helicopters buzzed past flying so low they were amidst the skyscrapers. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd.
The helicopters did another dive along the river. And two minutes later, again. Was it a terrorist attack? Was there an important political figure in town? Was the city under siege? Then I noticed the cameras. And it turns out, it was all three. They were filming a scene from the The Dark Knight. I stayed and watched the helicopters make their pass between the buildings for another hour. They shot the scene at least two dozen times. The scale of it all floored me. I see movies being filmed in Vancouver on a regular basis, but rarely do I spend more than a cursory glance to see how they’ve re-fashioned Gastown to resemble New York City, or if there’s an actor I might recognize. But this was such a grand, over the top production. I had never seen anything like it.
A year later, when The Dark Knight opened in theaters, I was eager to see the scene I witnessed. I figured from the amount of time, effort, and money devoted to shooting it, the scene would be pivotal to the movie, or at least part of an epic action sequence.
It was less than three seconds long.
The shot had no real relevance to the film. It was filler. Or what in the ‘biz’ would be called an ‘establishing shot’. Perhaps in one iteration of the film, it had more significance. But if so, it never made it out of the editing room.
For this next stop on the Roadshow, I had mostly forgotten my behind the scenes glimpse at The Dark Knight. But it all came back to me when I stepped on set—the cameras, the lights, the sound equipment. The big difference, of course, being I wasn’t on the set of a major blockbuster film. Quite the opposite. It was a short (two-minute) film being made for Bravo!FACT Presents, a branch of CTV that produces short films highlighting Canada and the arts. The short, Wood If, featured the Dr. Seuss meets Guillermo del Toro-style artwork and furniture of Judson Beaumont and his company Straight Line Designs.
There wasn’t a multi-million dollar budget, a crew of thousands, a 12-month filming schedule, or any on set divas. It had to be filmed over the course of three weekends with a budget of $15,000 and the crew, which was less than 20 people, were all volunteer. They weren’t paid for their long days or hard work, but did it because they believed in the film and in Judson’s art. Comparing the two productions seemed like an exercise in apples and oranges.
But there was one big similarity–shooting a film of any scale or budget requires a lot time and effort. A smaller production, however, doesn’t have the luxury to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into a three-second scene. Instead, they have to maximize each second of their day as they shoot on a limited budget with limited resources. Creativity, innovation, and dedication take the place of ample bankrolls.
Our first location was a 2800-square foot all-white sound stage. Judson, dressed in black, was being shot with one of his dressers. The white stage with its curved corners took away all depth perception and made Judson and the dresser appear to be floating in nothingness. The abstruse setting seemed an appropriate backdrop for Judsons’ playful and logic-defying furniture. The crew was filming a long shot, which had Judson walk towards his dresser, open a drawer, and then walk toward the camera. The scene had to be shot over and over again to ensure everything was just right: from Judson’s walk to the camera angle to the correct lighting to the optimal sound capture.
It was a lot of repetition. And a ton of ‘hurry up and wait’. But no one seemed to mind. It was just part of the process–and vital to the end result.
My role for the day was Swing–meaning I would help out wherever I was needed. There were only ten people on set that day, so an extra set of hands was in high demand. After shooting the scenes on the sound stage, we tore down the equipment, packed it into a half-ton truck and headed over to Judson’s workshop. At the workshop, I assumed the role of grip (or lug would be more appropriate) and spent the next two hours hauling equipment into Judson’s studio with one of the crew’s actual grips, Melissa Beaupre. And there was a ton of equipment to haul: cameras, cranes, dollies, lights, cables, scaffolds, electrical boxes. Just because a film is only two minutes long, doesn’t mean it needs any less equipment.
When all the equipment was unpacked and organized, Melissa and I watched from outside Judson’s office as the director, J.B. Sugar, and director of photography, Henry Chan, filmed Judson sketching. It was almost 6 pm and they had been going steady since 8 am. But there was no waning of enthusiasm. J.B. and Henry were keen to make their own art from the art being created in front of them. And they shot take after take to ensure they got it right.
There were no helicopters or tanks on this set. But it didn’t need these big price tag props. Because all day long there was an air of exhilaration of something big happening, something important being created. The crew was charged with the possibility of accurately portraying Judson’s spirited personality and artwork. And even though the process was slow going and ate up their weekends, the crew was driven by the prospect of playing a key role in the creation of this two-minute final product.
Writer / Director J.B. Sugar
Producer Liz Levine
Artist Judson Beaumont
Director of Photography Henry Chan
Steadicam Bob Findlay
1st AC Francis Kramer
2nd AC Jeremy Lundstrom
Assistant Director Matthew Blecha
Composer & Sound Recordist Dany Gagnon
Gaffer Rory Soderman
Key Grip Benoit Lamarche
Grip Melissa Beaupre
Grip Garrett Lalonde
Grip Richard Burton
Grip Dawson Oatt
Location Manager Oliver Rappard
First Aid/Craft Service/Props/F.A.C.S. Sara Quine
Driver Jameson Parker
Stills Photographer Kyla Day
October 10, 2009
My Mentor: Kyla Day
My Mentor’s details: Freelance Designer and Developer
Looking good isn’t easy. Sure, there are a few natural beauties that can spring out of bed perfectly quaffed–every strand of hair in place, looking dewy fresh with breath smelling like hibiscus and roses. But I’m guessing most people’s blank palette is closer to mine–roll out of bed with hair that could be mistaken for a glam band from the eighties, pillow wrinkles on the cheek, a faint stream of dried drool on the chin, and breath that makes you wonder where the cat came from that defecated in your mouth some time during the night. It requires some effort to transform that into something even remotely attractive.
And this doesn’t apply to just people. Making things look good also takes a lot of work. More than most people realize. And this is particularly poignant with the everyday things we see. Websites. Newspapers. Magazines. Logos. Brands. Books. Blogs. And who is responsible for all this hard work? For keeping print and web from looking like this? Graphic designers. These often unsung heroes are responsible for preventing the assault on our senses and infusing art into our daily lives. They give so much to our visual world and we don’t even realize it: order, beauty, simplicity, vibrancy. And unlike a visual artist, who gets to dictate their own vision or inspiration, a graphic designer has to answer to someone. They have to fulfill the needs of a client or a boss or a board. And that’s tough. Because most people have no clue what they want until they see something they don’t want.
The Language of Tact
So a designer needs to gently coax out the desired direction from their client and lead them to an appropriate aesthetic. It’s harder than it sounds. And usually requires figuring out what a client needs and not necessarily what they say they want. After a lengthy discussion intended to decipher these needs, a designer then visually translates it, and hopes that she creates something that is both effective and pleases the client. Since mind reading is not an option, designers have to speak a lot of different languages, and perhaps the most important is the language of tact. Because a surprising number of people like ugly design. Or at least they think they do, until a professional gives them something better.
For this leg of the Roadshow, I got to witness a designer in action: Kyla Day. Kyla’s been a designer for ten years and a freelancer for the past year. Her clients range from political parties to musicians to doctors to marketing firms. On the day I shadowed her, she was doing a layout for a friend’s blog. And as usual, her client had no idea what she wanted.
For this particular client, Kyla didn’t get to go through her usual routine of research and questions. It was a rush job. And the client claimed to not care what it looked like, as long as it was ‘cool’. According to Kyla, this lack of direction usually doesn’t forebode well. While it sounds like free-range artistic license, it usually just means more work to try and decipher what exactly it is the person unwittingly desires.
Indecisive and Difficult
Kyla had put together three thumbnails, each representing a visual direction the blog could take. I sat in on the meeting where she pitched the looks. Normally, Kyla would organize a more formal encounter but since this was a rush job for a friend, things were more casual. But certainly not any easier. As soon as the client looked at the designs, it was clear she was going to be difficult. She was enthusiastic about them all. But unwilling to commit. She waffled. Back and forth. Twenty minutes passed. Still indecisive. She turned to Kyla for advice. “Which one do you like?” she asked. Instead of choosing for her, Kyla diplomatically and patiently pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of them all. It was clear the client was in agony. She was wrought with worry because choosing meant committing to something that would become her brand, her visual representation, her face to the online world.
After another 15 minutes of flipping back and forth Design Two was rejected.
Another 15 minutes: Design One was rejected.
But with conditions. The client wanted to combine parts of Design One into Design Three.
Revisions are more work than you would expect. It’s not a simple click of the mouse. It’s labour intensive. It takes time. Some changes, regardless of how minor they seem, might involve hours of work to achieve. But Kyla maintained her calm and professional manner at the requests. At this stage in the design, revisions are expected and encouraged. And can be done quickly. It’s when the client begins making revisions to the revisions that things get sticky.
Again, because the client was a friend, things didn’t follow the normal course of action. Kyla would usually take the client’s feedback and then rework the design on her own. But in this case, the client sat in on and directed the changes. But since she didn’t know what she wanted, her directions were vague and indecisive. She made suggestions and then second guessed herself. She wanted things changed back, and then changed again.
“I’m just not sure about the colours,” she said. “What if we change the yellow?”
“And maybe a different font?”
“Okay, no. I like the yellow.”
“I’m not sure. Which one do you like?”
“I hate the yellow. Can we change it?”
After an hour the original thumbnail was no longer recognizable. It was amazing to watch the transformation. Kyla created something brand new from the ambiguous suggestions. She had managed to piece together the client’s cloudy vision and give her not only exactly what she wanted, but also what she needed to look good.
Looking good isn’t easy. But with a professional’s artistic eye, even a pillow-wrinkled, drool-covered mess can emerge into something attractive and dewy-fresh.
October 2, 2009
My mentor: Kristine Kittrell
My mentor’s details: A chef with 10-years experience in the kitchen. Also happens to be my sister
Office/Organization/Business: A four diamond restaurant in Austin, Texas
Catch phrase: colourful language, but heard with frequency “F*ck a duck.”
‘It’s hot, noisy, and the pay is shit. But you do it because you love it,’ said Dave, the line cook standing next to me. Dave was working the grill, flipping a recently killed soft shell crab for a crab and bibb lettuce salad. I had been the harbinger of death for the little guy–mercilessly hacking off its head and penis with a huge cleaver. It still twitched with its last pangs of life while grilling to perfection.
This was day one of the unemployment roadshow. I had jumped feet first into the kitchen fire as a line chef at a four-diamond restaurant. And I was nervous as all hell. I had seen the battle wounds on my sister’s hands and forearms–the scars and burns mapping out the menu of her career. I didn’t know much about working in a professional kitchen, but I did know that it was hot, fast-paced, loud, and dangerous. For someone who is regularly soft-spoken, slow moving, and clumsy, this didn’t seem like a likely pairing.
Anthony Bourdain once likened the kitchen to a pirate ship. It’s such an apt description. It’s hot. Space is economized. People cuss. People drink. They wield sharp knives and bang around hot metal objects. They break the rules. When things go to all hell, they call it being ‘in the weeds’. And there is a strong sense of camaraderie that these people are in it together. They even look like pirates. They have lots of tattoos and wear bandanas and loose-fitted pants perfect for squash buckling. And the topics of conversation would make a Human Resources Director faint. The most colourful from the evening was an argument regarding what the term Spiderman-ing meant. I won’t elaborate, but it was sexual and nasty.
Of course, kitchens vary from restaurant to restaurant. Some are run militantly, with no allowance for tomfoolery or nonsense. Others are a den of mischief. My sister came home from one job to tell me she had been waterboarded. It had been a slow day so the chefs decided to do it to one another just to see what it felt like. Another kitchen she worked in allowed almost no interaction during dinner service and every morning they had to polish their cookware and plates with gin. Any screw ups, even the slightest in nature, involved a violent 20-minute reeming from the chef de cuisine. Kitchens also have to constantly adapt to deal with whatever crisis is thrown at them. And there are many. Walk-ins break. Dishwashers stop working. Pipes burst. One shift, my sister and her fellow chefs all had to stand on stacks of cardboard boxes because the floor was flooded with an inch of water. But meals still get sent out. And a successful restaurant will ensure that the diners have no clue as to the chaos that ensues on the other side of those swinging doors. Much like the occupants of a passenger cruiser unaware of the advancing band of marauding pirates, the patrons eat in ignorant peace.
Since I was job-shadowing, I expected to do just that. Shadow. Stand out of the way and watch the culinary mastery unfold. Not a chance. The kitchen was keen to have an extra set of hands, regardless of how blundering and inexperienced they were. I was immediately put to work on a mandolin slicing potatoes for the pomme frites. Mandolins are terrifying. They look like a miniature horizontal guillotine with multiple blades. Chefs make them look easy, like they will save a homecook hours of labour. But they are really instruments of torture designed to remove flesh and bone from the user’s hand. And like all blades in a professional kitchen, they are extremely sharp. This one was missing its safety. The only protection between my hand and the razor sharp row of blades was a flimsy terry cloth rag. I had horrible visions of my fingers julienned, but managed to push through the ten pounds of potatoes without drawing first blood.
From there I was given a list of tasks: slow roast the tomatoes (which I burned), de-membrane and blanche the sweetbreads (de-what the what?), peel the sunchokes (the what chokes?), stack the sheet pans of blanched pomme frites in the walk-in (stack the what where?). I had no idea what I was being told to do. It was spoken in a language that was foreign to my non-chef ears. And there was no time for explanations or demonstrations. Everyone was busy setting up their mis-en-place–preparing the ingredients they would need to cook the foods assigned to their station. They moved with efficiency, precision, and confidence to get the seemingly insurmountable list of things done by only four people. Without explicit instruction, I somehow managed to stay out of the way and still get through my list of duties–with the exception of the tomatoes that were so slow roasted they resembled astronaut’s food.
My last prep task was to scrub and debeard an 18kg bucket of mussels. It took forever. Their beards are securely attached and often have to be pried off with an ice pick. And they are covered in sharp, impossible to remove barnacles that leave tiny razor cuts all over your fingers. It’s a crap job and one that’s given to the person at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, which was me. I felt like I had been told to swab the deck.
The Hot Oil
After four hours of prep, dinner service started. I was given a 2-minute lesson on how to use the deep fryer and was assigned it as a station. I was responsible for cooking all the deep fried items on the menu. And since the restaurant’s signature dish was deep fried oysters, I was busy. The deep fryer is scarier than the mandolin. It holds almost 20 litres of boiling hot oil–190 degrees Celsius to be exact–just waiting to indiscriminately crisp, bubble, and burn whatever slips into its golden bath. But I didn’t have much time to conjure up the worst-case-scenarios involving me and the vat of bubbling oil. I had too much to do. Before I could get one order into the buttermilk, then flour and then into the grease, I had yet another order called out to me from across the kitchen. There was no time to think or do anything but fry. Soon my grease vat was full. Four orders of oysters. A rabbit confit. Three kids of potatoes. A dozen anchovy-stuffed olives. The hot pantry cook called for her pomme frites. The executive chef called three new orders of oysters. The cold pantry chef was demanding her olives. A barrage of ‘need’, ‘now’, ‘what’s the hold up?’s were slewed at me. Waiters hovered impatiently.
Before I could toss myself into the grease to end it all, Sarah, the pastry chef, showed up. She slipped in, refilled my vats of buttermilk and flour, tossed some pomme frites in sea salt and then slipped away again before I could shower her with my gratitude. But I had a feeling this was just what cooks do–they look out for one another so the whole operation can run smoothly. Sarah didn’t just help me because I was the new guy; it was because I was for that day, part of their crew. With just that little extra help, I was back on track. I got the food fried and delivered. I could yell back with confidence that the orders were up and ready.
Cooking attracts all sorts–restaurant cooks are a motley crew of illegal aliens, former lawyers and doctors, transients, teens, ex-cons, foodies. But while their backgrounds might be diverse, they take care of one another. Teamwork is crucial to their success. But with that loyalty also comes an equally fervent revenge when betrayed. One of my sister’s co-workers, who did a no-show for a busy weekend shift, found all of his belongings–knives, clogs, and pay cheque–frozen in a solid block of ice as pay back.
By 10 pm, dinner service was done. I was exhausted and covered in a thin layer of grease and flour. But I also felt great. I had successfully cooked food that was served to high-end diners. And no one sent anything back. They bought it–both in cash and opinion. They bought that their ‘signature’ oysters and other deep-fried dishes had been prepared by a trained professional. I felt like I had duped every single one of them, a pirate in my own right, stealing their credibility as discerning diners. It gave me a bravado and a swagger that lasted all night because Day One of my tour was over, and I felt ready to man the helm.