Before the wild post-season of the millennial Mets, I had never been a sports fan. But that year, for an obscure set of reasons that may or may not become clear through the telling of this story, I came to love and appreciate baseball on a deeply personal level. It wasn’t the excitement of having two hometown teams face each other in the year 2000 Subway Series, but instead, what happened before it, early on in the playoffs: the quirks and reversals of the league division series, in which the St. Louis Cardinals faced the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants faced the wild card New York Mets.
I had been working as a motion picture camera assistant at that time, and in the precise rules, statistics and history of the game I found both respite from the daily grind and a kind of reinforcement of my career choices. My days were full of little decisions that could make or break a film having to do with focus, exposure and a million other tiny pitfalls. Baseball was a thinking person’s game, and in the cool concentration that ruled the game in its toughest, tensest moments, I found the will to persevere.
Film crews shared much with the army: they were rigidly hierarchical, full of inane rituals and people covered in tattoos and filled with bitter gallows humor. They were also almost always entirely male. This did not daunt me in my quest to join one.
The only way to “make it” as a camera assistant was to work your way up the ranks, so fresh out of the prestigious Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at New York University, I found myself deep in the farmlands of Pennsylvania, humping heavy cases through the cowshit for an abusive Frenchman named Pascal, the first assistant. The second assistant was a wiry black guy named Charles, whom we all called “the Marine” behind his back. It was Charles’s way to just suck it up and do the job.
I was only the “third” in a nominal sense, because there was no one ahead of me. The “camera PA” or “eediot” as the Frenchman normally called me, I wished I could be as stoic and emotionless as Charles. They didn’t trust me enough to have me loading film, the traditional role of the third, so Pascal and I were stuck like glue for the duration.
I remember this job as my trial by fire. I really believed in the technical precision of the role of a camera assistant. I liked the idea that it was something you could perfect through experience and attention, though each of my days on that job was an endless series of mistakes. I ate too much, I couldn’t understand Pascal’s accent when he said: “bring me zee hair” or the “aze filter,” I nearly ripped the top off the camera truck by driving under a rounded bridge. By the end I didn’t even know how to breathe correctly. I studied the Marine. He just did the job.
About the time we were stationed in an old abandoned movie theater in rural Pennsylvania, I hit rock bottom. Crying yourself to sleep at nine in the morning in a crappy motel seemed just shy of major magnitude desperation. And while I imagined the traces of meth addicts and prostitutes expiring right here, some kind of survival instinct flickered in me.
It was often difficult to retrieve that instinct. While pyrotechnic expert Drew Jiritano conducted a controlled burn of the drive-in, I ran around panicking, being yelled at, fighting back tears, which seems appropriate while flames are dancing all around you.
Finally, in order to keep the tears at bay, I made lists that helped me remember all the arcane steps that were part of the job:
1. Stack cases on handcart.
2. Clean lenses
3. Organize and label magazines
4. Break down cart.
I tried to carve out a space for myself that was beyond thought. I tried to empty my mind of everything but that list, because I couldn’t actually remember being good at anything.
But even then, there was a part of the day that was completely mine: rising before everyone else to drive the camera truck to set, one strong cup of Wawa coffee in hand, singing along with a truly twisted and wonderfully black Elvis Costello tune from “My Aim is True” as loud as I could:
Wave a white flag
Put away the pistol
If there’s nothing I can do to make amends, baby
I hope you don’t murder me
Those were fat times, the dot com boom, the age of Clerks and Slacker and of films being totally financed on credit cards. The dividing line between our scrappy world and the world of the blockbuster was clear. Size mattered and the steps on the way to paradise were measured in millimeters. Film school, indie film, you shot on 16mm. Hollywood was all 35mm. I had even worked on some of these big truck 35mm jobs, the non-union commercial and music videos at least, when someone got sick, as a “day player.” It was a true glimpse of how the better half lived—with union grips and breakfast burritos made to order. This is where I’ll be, I thought to myself, when I finally work my way up the ranks. Kenneth Branaugh shot Hamlet on 70mm—it hurt your eyes, I swear, that resolution. IMAX was shot on 70mm film stock, but it was lined up sideways, instead of vertically. It was my job, as a camera assistant, to stay on top of these things.
After a couple of years of toil, I had gotten to the point where I was almost exclusively a first assistant, though only on 16mm jobs. I had my own second assistant, and a backup, just in case. Guys who were older than me working as interns. I helped out those who were coming up the ranks. I was supportive, I called them over to sit in my chair beside the camera lens when the shot was simple and required no focus pulling, just as the guys who trained me had done. In turn, those guys, working on big commercials and music videos, would sometimes call me in as a second assistant. I was rapidly moving up.
So, at the end of a summer when I was learning about baseball, picking up the arcane rules, something happened that really got me hooked. In Game 1 of the Cards versus Braves series, a recently-brought-up-from-the-minors Rick Ankiel made his major league post-season debut. Top of the 3rd inning, Ankiel walked opposing pitcher Maddux and then commenced a jaw-dropping slide, a total loss of control. I watched, horrified, as pitch after pitch sailed over the head of the catcher—four wild pitches one after another. I couldn’t believe that the body and mind could diverge so sharply. I couldn’t believe someone who had so much training could just choke like that.
Not long after, I got a call about a film. I’m not sure how far down a list they had to go to get my number, but bottom line, someone was sick, someone was already booked, and I had been recommended for the first assistant job. The film would be shot on 35mm, meaning big money, and big stakes. It would be for two weeks, and only at night. The Director of Photography was from the Eastern Bloc, where, not to stereotype, all the DPs were uncompromising artistic geniuses who favored the flimsiest of depth of field. It would be my first time as the first camera assistant on a 35mm job.
Of course I said yes.
I was a twenty-four-year-old rookie with a good eye and lots of heart, and I was being called up to the big show.
Many times, I have asked myself, was I a masochist? What made me want to do a job so grueling and stressful?
The truth: I was a masochist. There was something in me that hungered to feel that the world was on my shoulders, the whole game riding on me, in order to feel alive. But I also think that there was no better place to be than right there, beside the camera lens, looking on. You never knew what the day would bring, or what you would see, moments of unheralded, exquisite beauty or gyrating hoochie mamas on a hip-hop video.
There was something amazing about being able to see the whole world without actually having to venture into it.
Every time you put down your tripod legs, or “sticks” as they’re called, you’ve created a setup. You break down a script: how many scenes, how many setups, how many shots? The permutations are endless. Early on in my career as a camera assistant, so early I was in fact still in film school, I had an epiphany about this. Out of the craziness of a chaotic shoot, I had set down the sticks on the rocks outside the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The DP was shooting actors rambling over the rocks in front of the East River with a long lens, surveillance style, and she pulled her own focus on the fly. I looked out into this beautiful, breathtaking sunset and reckoned with the idea that in the moment, when we all held our breath, this would never happen again. You could shoot and shoot and shoot and never set the legs of your tripod down in the same place.
I was hooked then, I was hungry to see how many setups I could accomplish. I could take everything in at a safe distance, and I became incredible student of humanity. I was always perched beside the camera, a perfect voyeur. And my theories weren’t always solid, but still, I cultivated them.
For one, I began to believe my boss Vanja on this big 35mm job might be a vampire. He was from a small, mysterious communist nation that had of late been written off the map, and he never ever raised his voice, in fact, every instruction he gave to me was in a seductively accented whisper. All of the shooting was done at night, and I had never seen Vanja during the day, that seemed like another reason.
But the main reason I thought this was because I spent the job in a perpetual state of semi-frozen terror. I was especially scared when he asked me to bring out “zee variable primes.” Variable primes were some kind of sadistic Eastern European invention that Vanja had ordered specially for this job. They had all the sharpness of prime lenses with the flexibility of a zoom. They also had a shallower depth of field than any lens I’d ever encountered, giving the director of photography a dreamy, crisp field of focus that was entirely dependant on the knack of his harried focus puller.
So maybe it’s understandable why days on this job teetered between boredom and terror. I would attempt to sleep until four or five o’clock in the afternoon, perhaps catch a bit of an early game, and then go up to set. Yes, it was not life and death. But there were a lot of optics and physics reasons that I could screw up the film completely.
“What is depth of field?” I would sometimes drill my camera intern.
“The area in front of the lens that is in focus,” the A+ students said.
“What determines depth of field?” I’d follow up.
“Film speed, aperture, and the diameter of lens,” they’d say.
This DP Vanja was fond of what we assistants would fearfully call “critical focus.” Most people don’t think a lot about focus in film because when it’s done well, you’ll never notice the changes. You will just be looking at the gorgeous visage of your favorite actress, the smooth lines on her face artfully softened by the powerful lighting, but her eyes so sharp you can see the emotion faintly glistening on the surface of her delineated irises.
Magical, perfect focus is all thanks to the efforts of a person known as a “focus puller,” who sits beside the camera and dials in distances on a small knob that’s geared to turn the focus ring of the lens. The dial is marked with different distances, and before any scene is shot, the camera assistant measures all of the landmarks and choreography of the scene in order to be ready to anticipate all the focus changes that are required. When the “depth” of field is large—let’s say an area of about three to five feet—following an actor around the room by eye is relatively easy. But when it comes to “critical focus,” all you’ve got are hail marys and a calm hand. The Wikipedia entry on “focus puller” (most likely written by a focus puller), explains the challenge thusly: “Since focus pullers do not look through the camera and thus cannot see the results of their focusing in real-time, this job is considered to be extremely technically difficult.” You have the camera operator’s eye to rely on in some cases, but when it’s dark, for a variety of other factors, there’s no way to know if you’ve nailed it until the film is blown up on the big screen, especially in 35mm.
When I wasn’t working I watched games. Mets vs. Giants Game 4 went a nail-biting thirteen innings before being decided by a Benny Agbayani home run. The next game was nerve-wracking for a different reason: the Mets’ Bobby Jones pitched perfectly into the fifth, setting down the side in order, and though one of the Giants’ batters managed to get a hit, Jones kept his cool and delivered a one-hit shut-out that was capped by a Barry Bonds fly out that devolved into a delirious Shea Stadium celebration.
Of course, the pitchers that I watched did know if they’d nailed it, but in every other way I felt like they were kindred spirits. Their jobs relied on just the right combination of training, mechanics, and intuition. Think too much and you might blow it. I liked to see their eyes before the windup, their cool concentration before that quick whipping movement. They understood what pressure was like. It seemed to me that they were the only ones who could understand what I was going through.
I not only studied the pitchers’ body language, the look of concentration on their faces, I began to believe I could intuit their personalities. I decided that Al Leiter would be the most fun to have a beer with. I liked the brooding, intense stare of Mike Mussina; for me he was surely the bad boy who would break your heart. I trusted Andy Pettite, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) the whole Jesus thing he was into. I perked up to the lovely, lumbering form of El Duque, in the best form of his career. In their idiosyncrasies I found the inspiration to go on, keep sleeping through the day and showing up for the night shift.
When the camera rolled I imagined myself relying on a sense of intuitiveness and training, just like those guys. I had all these depth of field tables in a book that told me exactly how much room for error I had. During these takes a lot was riding on me. Vanja needed me to tell him if everything had gone off right. I didn’t want to end up like Rick Ankiel or anything.
I appeared just before dusk at Bryant Park, where a couple of guys in a truck were unloading a giant crane. We did a few setups to capitalize on “magic hour” which is the otherworldly light exists in the brief period right after the sun sets.
The next shot Vanja wanted was one of those crazy Orson Welles-Greg Tolland-style tours de forces. Basically, we were going to start tight on a mitten that was lying on the sidewalk. When a delicate woman’s hand entered the frame, the crane would begin its graceful arc, pulling back to follow the woman as she walked away from camera and towards the opposite side of the park. Vanja and I, strapped to the end of the long crane arm, would then start our ascent, up to above the trees in Bryant Park, where I was to quickly rack focus the sharpen up the glowing Chrysler Building in the distance.
“Can you do?” asked Vanja. Never in my worst nightmare would I have dreamed of something like this.
I spent a few furrowed minutes taking measurements with the help of my second, trying to calculate the exact distance from the film plane to the mitten, gauging speed and depth of field with my little book. I was terrified of failure. I was sure that all of these people standing around, the high strung assistant director, the tattooed grips smoking cigarettes and cracking jokes, I was sure they could all see how much of a fraud I was. I thought, at least they won’t really know until later, and between then and now I can skip town and hide, whatever, how on earth can he really expect me to maintain focus on a shot that verges from a mitten microcosm to a classic skyscraper?
“It’s extremely important that neither of you try to get off the crane on your own,” the crane operator told us gravely when we were set up on the crane’s resting position. “This thing is perfectly balanced to your weight combined and if either one of you gets off, it will act as a giant catapult.” Both Vanja and I wore these tiny, flimsy seatbelts, and I could see how easy it would be to forget about them and just step off, and send the other person flying over 42nd St. I eyed my boss nervously.
We rehearsed the shot. My intense concentration kept me from thinking about how I was basically sitting in a chair above the treeline in Bryant Park. The crane was simply a thing to behold, an exquisitely calibrated piece of machinery. Never before or since have I felt so weightless, floating through the air on a crisp October night.
A world beyond thought. That was the world I wanted to reach. I had this book called “Zen and the Art of Focus Pulling” and the writer, a camera assistant, talked a lot about using body memory to accomplish difficult shots. Your body knows what your mind mucks up. Pitchers must have known this intuitively. I wanted to believe.
I took deep breaths and put everything I had into it: the mitten, the woman, the tree, the skyscraper in the distance, each time that sense of exhilaration when we hit the top of our arc and I whipped that focus dial to the thin black line I had inscribed on it. At that moment, like so many others in my career as a camera assistant, I was the only person with eyes on what was actually happening. It was an extraordinary feeling.
“Check the gate!” called the assistant director at the end of the shot. This is the final step before a shot is officially “in the can.” The camera assistant takes off the lens and uses a flashlight to examine the film plane to make extra sure that nothing physical—hair or a piece of dust—could have wrecked the shot.
It was therefore the perfect place for assistant bet-hedging, conscious or no. I reviewed the specifics of the shot while performing the operation. I thought about all the marks and whether I had hit them. It was the perfect moment for self-reflection, too, if you didn’t want to get crazy about it. While everyone stood there waiting, I wondered if anything could be worth this kind of pressure.
I was out of time. “Gate’s good,” I called, and it was all over.
At some point on the job, through my furious concentration, I had become a superb judge of distances, a virtual machine. On set, I guessed the distance before I measured it, and oftentimes, I was correct down to the very inch. When slumped over on the subway going home from another sixteen hour overnight, I didn’t need my tape, I knew: pole five feet six inches away. Corner of seat: two foot three.
If this was some kind of metaphor for the life I lived then, moving through the city’s grid, at home in my six by eight foot box, I was too focused on work and baseball to register it. At home I rested on the floor, which was 36 inches from the loft bed, and almost exactly four feet from the television, on which I watched Mike Hampton take the mound in the definitive Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
The Mets needed a win to clinch the series and avoid going back to St. Louis for a Game 6. Hampton later said: “I was looking to pitch the game of my life,” and to this day, I bet he’d say it was. A complete game shut-out, with only three hits and one walk, this performance was intense, excruciating and inspiring.
Once I finished the job, the sense of disorientation was slow to recede. I held onto my absurd grasp of distances and screened my calls, knowing that the production team would soon see dailies. I prepared myself for the news that I had blown it; the whole film was underexposed or overexposed or marked up with scratches because of my inattention, or worst of all, it was soft, because I just couldn’t handle the pressure.
What would it mean to fail? Surely not destitution. I made too little money for there not to be plenty of other career options. Further, while I hadn’t seen everything, I had seen a lot. From farmlands in Pennsylvania where the soundman rigged up speakers to play “Harvest Moon” while the crew set up when it literally was a harvest moon to “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” coming on the radio when I singing along with a van full of Germans heading over the Manhattan bridge. Shooting Commerce Street for London and Chinatown for Beijing. Crew members and their various pipe dreams, like the guy who was going to buy an ice cream truck and outfit it with gaffer tape, hand warmers and hot chocolate and drive it around to all the sets in town, where he’d become a hero to film crews everywhere. Bizarre hazing rituals. People who were fluent in an arcane lingo, who knew the difference between an “inky” and a “tweenie.”
Finally, I got a voicemail from Vanja. I knew he was as nervous about everything as I was. “Amoonduh, zee film ees beautiful. Sank you, sank you, zee dalies look perfect. I will call you for other films.”
After hearing that, I felt bigger than life. At least for a while.
The next thing I did may seem counterintuitive. I stopped working as a camera assistant.
Baseball commentators were always framing events as once in a lifetime: this combination of strikes, walks and hits. The set of circumstances that had conspired to put these men on base. Not since1925 has a twelve inning game been played on a drizzly day East of the Mississippi. This, I felt, was the beauty of the sport, its infinite permutations in the way things lined up. You had to be patient to see these things. You had to have a good eye.
My performance on this job was never to be repeated. I could look back on every anxious shot as a series of moments in which I’d stared down the barrel at my destiny and correctly judged the distance, done what I needed to do in order to throw stone-cold strikes right down the center of the plate.
It was my perfect game. And how could I want to look back on anything but that?