Fly on the Wall (Part One)

Learning the Job

Before I qualified for membership in the acting unions, I had a manager who (for 15%) would send me out on non-union jobs for films and TV that might offer some opportunity for networking. I hadn’t ever been on a film from beginning to end, and though I had taken film production classes in college there’s a lot that has to be experienced in person in order to fully comprehend the production process.  I got a job as one of three stand-ins on a moderately-budgeted detective movie entitled “Number One With a Bullet”.  I got the job because I was the same size and had the same color hair as one of the stars of the movie, Robert Carradine.  Since Carradine was in scenes every day, I got to work for the entire nine weeks of shooting.

A stand-in’s job is to be a human photo target.  They dress in costume similar to what the actor wears, and watch any rehearsals.  When the director and the actors have finished deciding how a scene will be shot, what marks to hit etc. the First Assistant Director will call “SECOND TEAM!”  The actors and director retire from the set, the stand-ins come in where they were, and the camera and lighting crew light the scene and practice camera moves and set focus and/or try different lenses.  Even a fast crew will take at least an hour doing this, the point being that when “FIRST TEAM” is called back, they can immediately shoot the scene.  The actors remain fresh and energized, and they’ve had time to work on their lines or have them altered in conference with the director and writers, if any are on set.  The camera crew has been able to work out solutions to any problems before filming takes place.

Usually stand-ins do not look like the actors.  They are just the same size and coloring.  In fortunate instances, if the stand-in happens to look a lot like the actor, they may become a DOUBLE.  Insuring actors during a production is expensive.  It costs less if the production company can guarantee a level of lowered risk.  Therefore, doubles are used whenever feasible for stunt scenes or anything remotely involving an element of risk.  You don’t want to put an actor anywhere near an explosion.  You don’t want to make them run on an unsafe surface or work too near a place they could fall from.  On this picture they wouldn’t even let the actors take off or land in small aircraft.  Even though I didn’t look enough like Robert Carradine to be his double, parts of me still ended up on-camera.  My hand closes the door to a helicopter, and I pantomimed shooting from the helicopter in long shots while it was airborne.

Sometimes special shots require several hours to set up, such as ones where there’s a lot of gunfire or explosions planned.  An on-set specialist called a pyrotechnician installs tiny explosive caps called “squibs” in all the places where bullet hits will occur.  The squibs can be set off by charges sent through tiny wires, or exploded wirelessly by sending a certain frequency from a transmitter.  The “pyro” crew also sets up any larger charges or smoke effects.  The helicopter I was strapped into for the dogfight scene was rigged with a canister to release smoke when desired, to simulate having been hit by gunfire.  One day the scene called for a car to explode and burst into flames.  Preparation for that shot took all afternoon, and it was filmed after dark.  During the afternoon in another area of the location, the actors were filmed running past a fence.  Bullet ‘hits” were timed and spaced to go off just after they ran past.  The sounds are added in post-production.  If you are mechanically inclined, here’s a basic tutorial:

Even though the second team spends more time preparing with the crew than the actors do filming, there are many times where everyone waits while the Director and the Cinematographer (usually called “DP” for Director of Photography) make choices about camera and light placement.  At these times, sometimes actors want to chat.  It depends on the person.  Some actors are sociable.  Some prefer to remain in their trailers.  It is ordinary, however, for people at the same job level to become friendly during a production.  I spent a lot of time hanging out with the other two stand-ins.  One was a young woman, who stood in for both Valerie Bertinelli (who played Carradine’s ex-wife) and Doris Roberts (who played his mother).  The biggest star on the film was Billy Dee Williams, who played Carradine’s partner on the police force.  His stand-in was his son Corey, a talented musician who also had an onscreen part in a club scene.  Corey Dee Williams and I talked about music a great deal, but also about women (we were both unmarried) or acting or practically any subject.  He was easy to talk to, friendly, funny and open.  Corey had been in the original Star Wars films, and had played various Lectroids in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.  I had seen and liked Buckaroo Bonzai, and we would quote silly lines from the film to each other when things were tense on set.  Today, Corey is a successful Fitness Lifestyle Coach, and DVDs of his methods and programs can be purchased from

Coming Up in Part Two – The Workman


Filed under Cinema, Technology

4 responses to “Fly on the Wall (Part One)

  1. Your blog is so informative … keep up the good work!!!!

  2. lianamerlo

    You always teach me something new when I read your posts. I didn’t know they used stand-ins, but it makes a lot of sense.

  3. And they don’t use them on films where the budget is really low. Maybe that’s why actors in indie films look so tired. I’m kidding, but I have noticed that. It really can take hours to set up a shot. Tricky ones may involve 10-20 different lights, not to mention camera moves, laying track for the dolly, special fx etc.

    Here’s some factoids you may not know. TV “soaps” shoot 30 pages a day. Comedies with a live audience 26 pages twice in one day, but after four days of rehearsals and changes. Filmed dramatic and scripted shows, 8-10 pages a day, plus pickups. Movies rarely shoot more than three in a day. It’s all the differences in complexity of set-ups.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s