Monday, February 18, 2008

The Real Deal 2.0—Doin' It!

No CGI...Just Imagination, Talent, and a Running Camera...

I've had a lot going on lately, as you may have guessed by my semi-scarceness. Lots of things in real-life or as some are wont to call it, meatspace. Mastered a new piece of software to complete a project, and then as soon as I was done with that, as the WGA strike ended, a dormant project I was working on with a co-hort rose like a phoenix from the ashes and I was back on the case—scuttling through takes in a video bin, chopping for time and so on.

But a couple of recent posts here sort of stuck in my mind. I thought a lot about the time I've spent working, and also trying to work as a professional in the entertainment industry after reminiscing about my odd “brush with greatness” on a Hollywood backlot with the late Roy Scheider. He was a “real deal” kind of guy. My single dealing with him prompted a few in comments to remember other simple, “real” moments in coming across him. At the bottom of the post, I included a video of his stunning chase from “The Seven Ups”, which is a straight-up, barrelhouse through the streets of upper Manhattan. There's NO blue-screen work. No cheap-ass “Fast And The Furious” in-studio trickery—just some balls-to-the-wall, macadam-ripping, street-illegal motoring. My daughter saw the clip, and as she and I have an odd penchant for crazy-ass action movies, she just ate it up. A few years ago, I'd gotten the DVD of Steve McQueen's chase-classic ”Bullitt” and she loved the infamous San Fran rubber-peeling drive. The “Seven-Ups” chase she loved even more as she actually recognized streets from it. It was then that she mentioned “Fast And The Furious” and how its crazy stunts didn't seem as exciting.

I told her that it may have something to do with the obvious fakery—how one tended to laugh at the shenanigans because the “TheFandTF's” scenes weren't rooted in reality. The surroundings weren't gritty or familiar. You got no impression of the “effort” involved in the work of driving like madmen because at no point is anyone on-camera really pushing themselves because of all the antiseptic CGI work.

There's just...very little real there.

The conversation moved on to the daughter's upcoming dance recital where she and her dance class co-horts would be a tip-tap-tapping' the night away in a tap segment. She was groaning about how boring that portion was going to be, so I figured I'd inspire her with a clip of some classic tappin'—the classy, stunning, and inventive “Fascinatin' Rhythm” routine by the amazing Eleanor Powell from 1941's “Lady be Good”.

It's a magnificent bit of dancing...and a magnificent bit of film-making too. The daughter noticed in the scene above that much of it is one long, wondrous continuous take—two minutes and forty uninterrupted seconds as the camera swings about and as the set seems to come apart around Powell.

“Ohmigod Daddy! How many times did she have to do that?”, my daughter asked incredulously. “Look at the pianos move around her! How did they do that?”

“No computers involved, honey. They didn't have any. They just had TO DO IT.”

It's “The Real Deal”, as Sara so perfectly coined it here last month.

To prove how real a deal it was, here's the same clip again, but split screened with a very rare “super master shot” (encompassing the entire scene, including crew and the close-up camera in action).

Note that in the continuous take section, the soundstage crew actually does dismantle the set around her in real time—lugging those mammoth risers weighed down with grand pianos out of frame as Powell never skips a beat, hitting her mark every time, and moving EXACTLY where she needs to in an uninterrupted bit of tap-dancing excellence and killer professionalism from the behind-the-scenes crew.

The Real Deal. Old-school Hollywood style.

It got me to thinking more about the business, and I sort of hung up on a sad thought—that of the recent anniversary of a mentor of mine's having passed away. One Mr. Mark Warren, a TV and film director who I learned so much about comedy from that it's not funny. This past January was the ninth anniversary of his passing and this generous man—a “Real Deal” if ever there was one, let me pick his brain for the few years I had access to him and taught me everything he knew about framing, timing, multi-camera cutting, and how to stage a scene—Directing 101, He was also a historic figure, being the first African American to win an Emmy for television directing for his work in 1971 on “Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In”. He was a genuine, giving and stupendously talented man, having directed many episodes of “Sanford & Son”, “What's Happenin'?”, and “Barney Miller” to boot. He was also a raconteur—dapper and old-school suave. He reminded me very much of my father with those ways and I guess that I sort of made him a surrogate father as mine had passed away not long before meeting him. Mark rolled with a helluva pack in his day. His main running buddy was arguably “The World's Greatest Entertainer”, Sammy Davis Jr., of whom Mark said “Sammy was his own damn special effect.

I've been lucky to come across some wonderfully real people while dealing in the fantasy-land that is the entertainment industry. Folks like the no-nonsense Scheider, and of course my dear teacher and friend Mark Warren. I always asked him about what it was like to hang with Sammy and he told me some things that made me fall out of my chair. But I always remember something he said about Sammy. He spoke of who Sammy said he looked at as “The Real Deal”—namely the fantastic Nicholas Brothers, perhaps the finest dancing tandem that ever drew breath. This fascinated me as I've always had a major jones for dance performances in musicals. (Just don't ask, kiddies—and I won't tell...) I'd actually met Fayard Nicholas when he came as a guest speaker to an elective class I was taking in college years before, and now I was hearing that this wee, little man who had “never mind the best feet, but the best hands in the business” (according to Fred Astaire) was idolized by Sammy Davis Jr—“a man I was being told ”was his own damn special effect”.

If you've never sen The Nicholas Brothers strut their stuff—watch this final clip.

There's no wires. No trampolines or accelerators. No pulleys or rear projection. Just a couple of brothers keepin' it so real that it almost hurts. You just know they were sore afterward.

It gets no realer than that. They just flat-out give it up for the sake of the performance—because that's how they rolled.

And that's what made them great.

In this world where so much of what we deem “art” is so cheap, and soulless, and utterly fake, when you get a chance to see an artist really doing it, or when you have the chance to learn from a real master, or even find out what makes a stone, cold pro really tick—what turns him on, you celebrate it. Because it's damned inspirational. It fires you up and makes you better at what you do.

That's “The Real Deal 2.0”—not necessarily tangible things that work for you, but rather, intangible things—people and practices that are real and inspire you. A lesson. A thing you saw. A truth and soul-filled behavior, performance or act that makes you better and pushes you to “keep it real”.

These are a few of mine.

You got any?