John Carder Bush's
KBC Newsletter contributions
4. Shooting the Shooters

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Shooting the Shooters

When you watch a favourite video, the chances are that you will be drawn into a close relationship with the small frame of music and movement; safely and comfortably we accept the images and enjoy the experience that seems to be directed personally at us. It is easy to forget that each image is made up of carefully constructed moments linked together in a painstakingly slow way. Draw back from the view through the camera, and at least forty people are involved in the process. The centre of the hub is the camera itself. Everything around it is focusing towards what the camera sees, and in many ways it is like a weapon, a communicating-weapon, with its crew to serve it: someone sighting it, someone to work out the range, someone checking the weather, someone to load it, someone to push it around, someone to prepare the ground that it moves over, someone to assemble it and take it down, someone to supply it with power, and someone to say when it should shoot. And someone to be its target.

Spreading out from this tight unit are "continuity"--following and noting each take; production assistants, forever on the telephone; make-up, with powder and brushes ready to dampen shine; hairdressers, with spray-cans ready to freeze a capricious curl; wardrobe alert, to shorten a sleeve or pin up a flap; and so on, through the lighting technicians, video-playback engineers, carpenters, painters, electricians, canteen staff, props men, accountants, set designers, record-company reps., the producer, the director, drivers...

And amongst all these people is the stills photographer, who has had absolutely nothing to do with all the preparation and planning; who just turns up and moves skulkily amongst all the activity--and in the quietest, most emotional moments of filming his solitary "click" is heard. It is an uncomfortable, definite sound, and far more judgemental than the soft, multi-frames-a-second whirring of the movie camera. Whereas the cameraman is pushed through the set by watchful and skilled helpers, the stills photographer has to avoid the hazards around him while he tries to compose his shot and take it. A whole different level of disciplines and social behaviour becomes necessary, and he has to be constantly aware of not stepping on anyone's toes--physically and psychologically.

And so it was for Cloudbusting. This concentrated mass of creativity was found first in a set, where a small laboratory of the "fifties had been accurately built down to the finest detail of decoration and authenticity, and then lit with lights simulating a bright, American sunshine. Sitting in the middle of it all, examinig something with a microscope, was Donald Sutherland. And next to him was a small boy--or was it a small girl?--who, when she turned round, I realised was Kate. The reality of the place was stunning, and while Kate and the director Julian Doyle were discussing the next take, I took a closer look around to work out where I could best settle down out of the way but in a position to cover the action. Each apparently casually placed piece of paper was of the right period, as were the pens on the table, the light fittings, the furniture. Only the open front of the set and the sounds of hammering said it was an illusion. When I looked through my camera to check for the best lens to use, I was in the Oregon of my imagination. [The actual locations in Peter Reich's book were Arizona and Maine. Kate changed the location, perhaps because of the similar sounds of "Oregon" and "Orgonon".]

That day's shooting was intense and cramped. There was not much room for the camera crew, let alone me, and the lighting was changed frequently to allow for close-ups and candlelight sequences. When it was "daylight" on the set, using a still camera was fairly easy from a technical point of veiw: I could use a slow film and know that even though the lighting was not the best for still (shadows can work when someone moves through them and perhaps not so well when that person stays still to be studied) I knew the shots would be acceptable. But when the lights went down, or were working their best at an angle I couldn't get to, the problems began. Pushing film by pretending it is faster than it is leads to inaccurate colour and harsh-edged shadows which, together with a wide-open lens and a slow shutter-speed, presents a plethora of problems. And movement can get blurred unless I wait for the pause between actions; I try to blend my breathing with the performers'. Activity leading to a tiny moment of stillness is usualy done on an outbreath and at the end of that breath I take the photo.

In many ways this was Kate's debut as an actress, and it was fascinating to watch the "father and son" relationship being created by her and Donald Sutherland. In the video the laboratory sequence is not long, but in it many feelings and fears have to be communicated and the moods are very different. But easily the most exciting moment on a vey basic level came at the end of the day when the Agents came in to arrest Dr. Reich and then smash up the set. I don't think many people appreciated what this was going to mean, but I had been discussing this with the Agents a little earlier and had a pretty good idea of what was to come; after all, they had been there all day waiting to do their bit. So I put on my widest lens and stood well back. There was a lot of glass on the set, and every piece of it flew through the air, and at one point the cameraman was floored by half a phrenologist's bust to the kneecap. But it had to be done in one take, so he carried on filming as he went down. Then the table with all its test tubes, vessels filled with coloured liquids and intricate twisting glass filtration devices was turned over, and through the crash and mess the camera and its crew moved unheedingly.

For the next major location all these people and their equipment were encamped on the top of Uffington Castle in Oxfordshire, which is where the summer of 1985 had gone to hide. After the first day's shooting I had to wear a hat to keep myself from getting any more sunburned; the weather was perfect and it didn't seem like England until the sun was going down in the evening and all around us the fields were burning with stubble fires and a cold, cold wind came whipping across the hills with the taste of autumn in it. As in a sequence from a Herzog film, the Cloudbuster had been driven up to the top and then pushed onto a ridge with a drop on one side, and just about enough room for the camera and crew to settle themselves for the angle required.

Although the weather was fine, the sky, of course, had a lot of picturesque and unusual clouds moving in it, and the lighting cameraman would hold his contrast filter up to the heavens and declare how long there would be before the light would change and everything would have to be reset; he was often only a few seconds out in his predictions. The optimum position for me was suspended over the drop, but I had to compromise and use a long lens that could get me through the heads blocking Kate. But the shots I found the most satisfying were those when she was operating the Cloudbuster, with the sun going down behind her leaving almost just a silhouette; and that's where the single bag came from.

Shooting began at six in the morning, and often ended at nine at night, when the last tiny vestiges of the setting sun were still there. There were short forays out to neighbouring areas for the linking parts of the story, and watching the agents in their black car on the back of a truck that sprayed water over them seemed to sum up the contrivances and illusion of filmmaking. It was a very tiring and full shoot, and the pleasure of being out in the countryside in a beautiful place for three days, involved in all that unified energy, was exciting as well as rewarding from a photographic point of view.

The Hounds of Love video was a first for Kate in another way. It was her first official role as Director, and she had the unenviable but so creative task of being in front of the camera and behind it at the same time. In this situation video playback is essential when the actual shoot is being made on film (all the videos from this albumm so far have been shot on film and not on video), but unfortunately nobody has yet been able to perfect a system of video playback synchronised with a movie camera, and the system available is in black-and-white and of very poor quality. This was a much more concentrated video than Cloudbusting in the sense that, apart from a short location on Wimbledon Common in the freezing cold at night, the locations were at the same studio. The first set, of a museum some time during the 1940s, was a masterpiece of lighting and design. Light poured through the long, tall windows, like real daylight, from tungsten monsters that smoked and hummed far above us. When the extras and the main performers came on the set it was uncanny, as the clothes and make-up totally transformed everyone: it was a bit like coming face to face with my parents and their friends when they were young. Many of the people had been picked for their similarity to well-known faces of the time--did you spot Hitchcock and Einstein?--and all were chosen for their visual appearance. It would have been enough to have had a couple of hours just to photograph them in the museum setting. Although the set was quite spacious, the important take involved a circular shot, which meant that all the set would be covered quite quickly--with nowhere for me to hide. Fortunately this had been taken into consideration for the benefit of the smoke and wind man: an alcove in the museum led off to the back of the set; so I ducked in there too. The sequence would go as follows: the camera would start moving around Kate; the wind and smoke man would lean out with his wind machine and then struggle back into the alcove; the camera would come round, its crew hanging onto it like merrymakers doing the conga; and I would leap out and catch the end of the take. Because the lens that they were using was so wide, there was no other thing to do. It was very hot on this set, and the contrast was extraordinary when we went outside to queue for lunch, because it started to snow.

The second main set was smaller and represented a church hall party in full swing, again sometime in during the forties. There were even civil defence instruction letters on the notice board. The party started at nine in the morning, and went on until eleven o'clock at night, and each partygoer had to stay fresh and happy-looking for every shot. Luckily for the camera, all the food and drinks were just props, and however tempting they looked they had to be left alone. For me the real highpoint was when the actual conga began. I had never thought of the Hounds of Love track being danced to by a line of drunk merrymakers doing such a traditionally establishment dance as the conga, but it was so striking that I am unable to hear the track now without seeing that line moving through the set over and over again. But however atmospheric it was for the eye, it was not the easiest place for stills. Because there were so many people on the set as well as in the shot, hiding space was limited, and getting photos of Kate amongst all the action was almost impossible. Again, the circular camera shots meant that all of the room was being used, and this time there was truly nowhere to hide.

But then, when we pull back even further from the ongoing party and go with the cans of film, the process moves into yet another field of high energy, where technicians and editors and video-transfer people take over. The cans of film go in one direction and I go in the other to pick through my rolls of film and find out what I have been able to harvest.

The three videos from the album (so far) have been very different, and for me it has been, as usual, a fascinating experience. But most of all, there is the privilege of being able to make one's own interpretation of someone else's hours of work and careful planning. In taking stills at Kate's videos I have enjoyed environments that I would never have been able to create in my own studio.

J. C. B.

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©1990 Andy Marvick