Saturday, October 25, 2008

O For A Muse Of Fire

Same day, later that night.

Arnie's gone. Vanessa's gone. Now it's just the shots and stunts and effects.

As I said, we were shooting the movie teaser/trailer for Eraser. They need them now, so they can be in theatres for Thanksgiving movies, to build interest for next summer.

And the actual film hasn't gotten to these scenes, so we're cheating by filming them early. Ahead of the actual production, with a different director.

Our director for this is Mikhael Salomon. We just happen to be sitting on the sound stage on the Universal lot that's right across the fence from the Backdraft ride. Mikhael shot that movie as the Director of Photography for director Ron Howard.

This is important, because it demonstrates that Mikhael Salomon knows fire. And as it happens, we're filming a scene that involves a flame or two.

Being conscientious, I nonchalantly ask the stunt guys what they're going to do. Then I ask the EFX guys what they're going to do. Then I ask the ADs what we're going to do. Then I ask the fire marshal what we're going to do.

On a really nightmarish day, none of the stories match. No one is on the same sheet of music. It's going to be a train wreck, someone may get hurt, and someone might even die. No one wants to be on that show.

Fortuitously, everyone tells me the exact same thing, and answers all my questions.
"What about that giant refrigerator-sized full propane tank right next to the set?"
"Don't worry, it's not going to get that hot."
"What about that TV on the set? Won't the picture tube explode?"
"Picture tubes are vacuum tubes, so they implode, they don't explode. But don't worry, it's not going to burn that hot or that long."
Piece of cake; I can relax.

For those who didn't see the movie, in it, Arnie is a witness protection agent. In the scene we're doing, one of his relocatees has been discovered by the Mob. Mobsters have tied them up, and are going to burn them alive in their own house, as a warning to other snitches. Unfortunately, they didn't know Arnie was on the case.

He wipes the bad guys out, rescues his protectees, sneaks them out, and on the way out, throws a road flare into the house living room, to burn up the Mob guys, as he escapes with his protectees to find them a new life to hide in.

What could be simpler?

Arnie's gone. A stunt guy is going to toss a lit road flare into a carefully hidden (in the carpet) pool of rubber cement about 3' across in the middle of the room. More hidden trails of rubber cement lead outward to all 4 walls, which is how we make the fire go where we want it to on cue. All you have to do is hit the bullseye.

Let me explain more: This is a full-size bungalow house mock-up. It has a kitchen, living room, a practical (real) staircase, hallway, and back bedroom and door. The ceiling is canvas flats that are held with wires, but which swing away for overhead shots from above as necessary. The living room is on the front, and faces the cameras and "video village," where the director, script supervisor, producers, etc. all sit to watch the shots being filmed.

In this case, Video Village is maybe 25' from the open living room wall, against the wall, and next to that elephant door to the empty stage next door.

One of the EFX guys, a younger guy, has never done something this big. "Hey, Doc, could you film this for me with my camcorder?"
"Why sure!" says I. No problem. "Just show me the on/off switch, and I'll get it for ya!"

The 1st AD holds the safety meeting. We're going to get ready for the actual burn. We'll have three remote cameras, Left, Center, and Right. They'll be started, then the crews pull out. Stunt Man tosses the flare. House burns. We watch the burn for 30 seconds. Director will yell "Cut!" Six EFX guys, one at each corner and one at each door front and back, will jump in and blow fire out. Carpet is soaked in rubber cement. Walls have been sprayed with flame retardant. House is full of regular house props. Fire marshal has approved everything. Giant fan is standing by to suck smoke out of stage and vent to outside. There's even a charged live fire hose laying on the floor in front of the set, at the specific request of the two fire guys from the county fire station on the lot who've come by, just to watch the festivities. Just an extra precaution, of course. The fire marshal was asked by the production folks (and he refused) to have the overhead sprinklers turned off.

It's a big stunt, a full burn, inside a soundstage. This almost never happens. (Guess why.) The director and such are sitting around the monitors. There are about 5 people in chairs next to him. Closest to me, on the far right end, is the script supervisor. We know each other through a mutual friend. On my other side is the elephant door to freedom.

We're all ready.
Stunts? Check. EFX? Check. A Camera? B Camera? C Camera? Check.

Stunt Man misses the circle.
"Cut!" "Going again. Take 2."

Flare lands on lit end, pops loudly and goes out.

"Cut! Replace film magazines. Going again. Take 3."

Stunt Man bullseyes the circle.
Flames shoot to the four walls.
Room is fully, gloriously aflame.
Flames send thrity-five foot tongues of flames spiralling up staircase.
Waitwaitwait...Thirty-five foot flames??
Oh yeah.
Towards the sound stage ceiling and roof, which are at about 40', and made of timber probably put in place when silent movies were all the rage. No, really, like in the 1920s. And comensurately dry as a bone.

Flames build and crackle. Script supervisor turns to me, as I'm standing on my folding metal chair, and filming everything. I'm a total pro. I'm panning. I zoom in slowly and smoothly. I pull back and catch the flame spiral 35' tall. Like a tornado of flame trying to get out the roof.
"This is really exciting, isn't it?" she asks.
"If you don't ABSOLUTELY need to be here now, I'd consider getting out now." I reply.
I go back to filming, my eye locked in the viewfinder.

Five seconds later, I look at her. Except she's not there. In fact, no one is there anymore. Everyone, director, producers, cats, dogs, have quickly and near instantly passed right by me. I look to my right. There they all are, safely on the other stage, and all peering at the flaming tableau through the gaping elephant door. There is now almost no one left on the stage we're working on.

Miraculously, only thirty seconds are almost up. It seems much longer. (Near death experiences will do that to you.) The flames feel a little warm on my face. Kind of like a blast furnace in Hell. Fires, by the way, are louder than a freight train. The 1st AD yells into his megaphone "Cut! Blow it out!"
And then he's out the door like a shot too, to the safety of the next door stage.

On cue, six EFX guys pop in, and dump their extinguishers on the roaring inferno.
The fire burps, laughs, and continues to burn.
The fire is melting overhead wires holding the ceiling sections up. The living room prop TV melts as the tube implodes.
From the fire that wasn't "going to get that hot".
On cue, extinguishers exhausted, six EFX guys pop out, and depart for regions unknown.
At this point, with me still filming every second, the two L.A. County firemen standing about 4' in front of me, the station chief and his engineer, in just their street clothes, look at each other. Then both shrug their shoulders as if on cue, bend over, and pick up the fire hose. No helmets, no turnouts, just two guys with a firehose.

The flames have become so hot, one of the overhead sprinklers bursts. The alarm bell rings.
And these two guys walk into the fire, and they kick its ass.

I film all this too. I figure if, God forbid, something collapses on them, I'm the last guy left to drag them out, so I can't really leave. Besides, the door to safety is only one step to my right.
They swing the hose back and forth, and blow Hell incarnate out in about 60 seconds.
The outside door is opened, and the giant fan starts sucking a huge mountainous column of thick black smoke straight up and out and up into the clear night sky.

Just as the KNBC-4 TV telecopter is swinging in towards their Burbank studio for a landing prior to the nightly late news, as it happens.

Meanwhile, up on top of the hill at the studio, when the sprinkler on the stage opens up, the other firemen in the station hear the fire alarm, jump into turnout coats, and prepare to respond.
"Where's the alarm?"
"Stage 24."
"Hey, where's the Captain? And the chief engineer? And the other fire engine?"
"STAGE 24!!"
"Holy crap, let's get there pronto!"

As the overhead sprinkler continues to pour water on the smouldering remains of our little sacrifical house, keeping it mercifully small, the head electrician goes splashing across a stage through ankle-deep water to pull power to the lights, with all the live power cables sitting on the floor, underwater.

Fire now out, the captain and engineer turn off the hose, and lay it down. I shut off the video camera I'm holding, and step down off my metal folding chair.

The director and 1st AD venture back onto our stage.
"Where's playback?"
"Last seen heading towards the parking structure at a high rate of speed, sir."
"How about camera?"
"They were just behind playback, sir."

The director sees me. Sees the camera in my hand.

"YOU! Did you get that?!?"
"Uhhh, yeah..."

I know a direct order when I hear one.
I rewind my masterpiece. I flip out the 3 inch screen. I hit "play."
I am Michael-frickin'-angelo.

I got it all. With sound. The action. The flames. The cut. The save.
The director is in ecstasy. The 1st AD is all smiles. The producers are glowing.
"Hey, d'ya think I can get into the Camera union local now?" I asked jokingly.
I get looks from the director, his DP, the 1st AD, and 3 producers that feel colder than the last winter I spent in Korea near the DMZ. Colder than the wind whistling through a penguin's knees. Colder than Siberia on a dark and stormy night.

With catlike reflexes, I shut up so fast and freeze so completely I almost believe I have achieved invisibility.

We play it a couple of more times, and the smiles return.

Four firemen come pounding into the stage, with axes, extiguishers, hoses, like a SWAT team in turnout coats.
"Where's the Captain?"
"Where's the Captain?"

"He and your engineer put out the fire. Everything's cool." I tell them.
Immediately, the four fireman slow to a saunter, every one of them pull Kodak instamatics out of their turnouts, and they all start snapping pictures of the near catastrophe like a group of tourists on the tram tour. Swear to Buddha, just that fast.

One by one, the EFX guys re-appear from parts unknown. I return the camera to the owner. "Hey, I got great shots of everything. Can you make me a copy?"
"Sure. Thanks for filming it for me."
He's all smiles.

A Producer comes up. "Hey, can you make me a copy of that video." "Uh, sure."
The Fire Captain comes up. "Hey, can you make me a copy of that video." "Uh, sure."
The Fire Marshall comes over. "Hey, can you make me a copy of that video." "Uh, sure."
Realizing that the video is now more "evidence" than "memento," the new look on the EFX guy's face tells me that this video will be erased by noon tomorrow, and we'll never see it again.

The fire captain calls a huddle.

"Mr. Director, congratulations, because you got your shot.
Mr. Asst. Director, congratulations, no one got hurt.
Mr. Producer, your insurance is probably going to be buying a new floor for this stage.
Mr. EFX guy, I think you can plan on not working on this lot anytime soon, probably for a few years. And Mr. Fire Marshall, after I talk to downtown, and the other two shift captains, I think I can say that the only way there'll ever be a permit for another full burn inside a sound stage on this or any lot will be over my dead body."

I congratulated him and his partner for their heroic moves, noting I'd seen their mutual shrug.

"What else were we going to do? The thing was going to get away from us completely in about one more minute, and we'd have lost this entire stage and the one next door, plus millions of dollars in already built sets, which would have probabaly killed the movie too, or set it back weeks.
By the time we got more than my lone engine company on the fire, we'd probably have lost half the stages on the front lot. And we just lost the back lot a couple of years ago. With me and my engineer watching, even though it wasn't any of our job to be here, it probably would have ended up being our fault. So we had to do it."

I never got a copy of the video.

Epilogue 1:"In other local news, a small fire occured last night at the Universal Studios BACKDRAFT ride after hours, and was put out quickly, with no injuries. The ride was re-opened today without further incident. Next up, Sports..."
It's always nice to see that in a company town, the local affiliate knows where its bread is buttered.

Epilogue 2: About 4 years later, two friends of mine were attending a seminar for fire departments around California, called "How To Inspect/Monitor motion picture and TV productions." Given to distant fire departments by the State fire marshal, and some inspectors from Los Angeles city and county. At the end of the seminar, the fire chief/lecturer from Sacramento said, "Here's a video of what happens when things go sideways..."

My friends' ears perk up. Having heard this story from me, they watch rapt as they see living proof of the uncorroborated story I told them years earlier. After the lecture, they approach the head guy, and told him my side of the making of the video.
"Thanks for the insight. I appreciate the additional information."
"So, d'ya think we can get a copy of that video for our friend who shot it?"
"Sorry, this incident never happened, it doesn't officially exist, I'm not supposed to have the tape, and if I gave it to you, I'd have to kill you."

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