Hiding In Plain Sight

I was the B-camera/Steadicam operator on a big action movie in the mid-’90s. We were filming a shootout in the desert, and I had been assigned a telephoto shot over the shoulder of a baddie firing a machine gun at a car rigged with 250 bullet hits. The thick bundle of wires from the hits ran in front of my camera, so set dressers buried the cables and put a bright orange traffic cone on top so no one would step on them.

I sat with my camera, making sure there wasn’t anything in my shot that shouldn’t be there, but we couldn’t move the cone yet; there were still too many people walking around. I sat for a long time sweating in the heat.

At last we rolled cameras, the AD yelled, "Action!" and all hell broke loose. Guns blasted, empty shell casings flew, and the car shook as hits detonated all over its surface—and right there in the middle of everything, bright and obvious through my long lens, was the orange cone. My heart sank. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten the cone! I could feel my career evaporating. I would be fired, for sure. The noise stopped, the cameras cut, and a cloud of dust enveloped the car and hid the cone from view. I stood and walked to video village to face my fate.

The director, producer and DP watched the various cameras over and over, looking decidedly underwhelmed. There was too much dust. Not enough hits. Nobody mentioned the cone. They scratched their chins and pondered. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I pointed at the monitor that was repeatedly playing my shot. I put my finger on the cone and said, "And there’s that." Everyone stared. No one had noticed it, and now it was all they could see. I braced myself.

The director looked at me and said, "Well, there weren’t enough hits, and it was too dusty anyway. We’ll do it again later today, but with 2,500 hits." He paused and emphasized his next words carefully, "And no cones."

I wasn’t fired, but from time to time for the rest of the movie, I’d find orange traffic cones in the strangest places: on my dolly, on a desk in front of an actor’s close-up, right in front of my Steadicam stand. It took me until the end of the movie to discover it was the director who had been putting them there. Happily, I’ve worked with him several times since, but I’m extra-cautious, and perhaps a little twitchy, when there are orange cones around.

David Emmerichs, SOC, has worked for more than 20 years as a camera and Steadicam operator on such films as Real Steel, Avatar, Transformers and Se7en.