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FIRST PERSON - Bringing Magic To Manila: A PGA Member Travels Across The Globe To Teach Locals The "Hollywood Way"

Posted By Jennifer A. Haire, Monday, June 10, 2019

You don’t have to be a performer to make a living on stage.

Soundstages are rather unimpressive from the outside—huge box buildings next to more huge box buildings. When empty, they are equally unimpressive from the inside. However, after skilled artisans work their magic, the stage becomes another world. Whether you’ve just stepped onto the Arctic Circle, a cabin in the woods or wall-to-wall green screen that will become the moon, it’s all contained inside those four walls. Pulling back the “curtain,” you’ll see that a whole network of support infrastructure exists. This intricate system is the lifeblood of the stage.  


The beauty of location, in a controlled environment

In March of 2016 I got a call from my friend and fellow PGA and FilmUSA committee member Jason Hariton. The MBS Group, which owns and operates studios in Manhattan Beach, California, had secured a consulting contract with the largest broadcast network in the Philippines. They were to advise them on the new construction of a massive, 12-stage, state-of-the art studio facility. These would be the first professional soundstages in the Philippines. This network produces more than 10,000 hours of content each year, yet the majority is shot on practical locations. The Philippines are home to some of the most scenic and beautiful places imaginable, so why wouldn’t you shoot on location? A six-month rainy season, stifling heat and traffic worse than Hollywood on Oscar Sunday pose daily challenges. A training component on how to use the soundstages was needed. I was intrigued by the challenge of creating a never-been-done-before program from scratch. As an indie UPM/Line Producer, I am an expert at shooting low-budget on practical locations. The logistics are always challenging, the location is usually a creative compromise and at the end of the day had the budget allowed, we probably would have shot on a soundstage. Even though I was coming off two back-to-back productions, I agreed to what was then a 10-month program timeline.


Assembling a full crew from scratch in five weeks

It started with an intensive management team crash course to introduce the potential scope of training. In five weeks I assembled 41 industry professionals to participate as instructors and guest speakers, helped design 40 “classes” plus nine field trips—all to take place over 15 days on a soundstage at the MBS Media Campus. I was the producer, First AD, Second AD, UPM, POC, accountant, payroll ... and since this was a training program, also the dean. That’s a lot of hats! By the last two days of the program, I had assembled almost a full below-the-line crew that had built, dressed and rigged a sitcom set. It was an immersive demonstration of the Hollywood, multi-camera style of shooting on a soundstage. The company wanted to shoot more content in less time, and this was the way to do it.  


Streamlining the process

Cut to August 2018: The first two soundstages are almost complete—only two-plus years behind schedule. After further assessment of the current production practices, we identified missing crew positions that would streamline their process. These recommendations would also support the network’s mandate to improve the work-life balance for their crews, who are accustomed to working 22-hour shifts. I sent a script supervisor, First AD, production safety/risk awareness expert, two television showrunners and one TV writer to Manila. Class sessions ranged from one to five days, with our mission being to teach the nuts and bolts of how we “do it Hollywood.” That is, 1) the integral role the script supervisor plays in the production and post-production process; 2) the system and support team used to keep the day on schedule; 3) how to recognize and report a hazardous work environment; 4) the vital role of the television showrunner; 5) the benefits of an efficient production workflow. The training always remained focused on how these methodologies translated to the soundstage.


Turning on the lights, literally

The program had now grown so large that I brought in help. For the next round, I hired Producer Dave Fraunces to come on board as the Manager of Production Training Programs. He prepped trainers in LA and eventually joined me in Manila to serve as production support. When 2019 began, the stages were officially complete and ready to be rigged. It was time to put them to work. However, for a vast majority of the Filipino crew, this was the first time they had ever seen a soundstage. Our team of professional lighting technicians and grips put the local crew through a rigorous, 22-day training to fully prepare a stage for production. It was important to start with basic technical operations such as proper handling and function of the lighting fixtures—how not to break the new toys.

 

They learned how to create and execute a lighting design, including installing and powering a dimmer room, running power, data and dimming cable in the catwalk, prebuilding light boxes, and hanging various pipe grids, backings and light fixtures. This required a mastery of basic rigging techniques such as using aerial lifts, tying a knot and safe connection of power—how not to drop the heavy things on people or be electrocuted.

Safe work practices were continually reinforced. Select students received two days of advanced training in how to hang an aerial scaffold system—we know them as green beds—and to program lights and operate a lighting console. At the end of the class, the trainees and instructors were both so emotionally invested by what they had achieved, they parted ways with hugs and tears. Yes, grips were crying.


Top: Set Construction class in progress
Middle: Successful first hanging of aerial scaffolding on new stages
Bottom: Equipment Technical Operations class
 

Creating multiple “location looks”

The Hollywood art department is a world unto its own. The local crews already had experience in production design, so we introduced them to the efficiencies of the “art department machine.” From detailed, construction-ready set designs and production-friendly set layouts to key staff positions, we taught them how to keep the department on schedule and on budget. Trainees learned creative ways to achieve realistic, practical location looks on a stage. We closed out this round of training with basic Hollywood set construction, including building flats, creating realistic looks with paint and plaster, and construction management and budgeting. We demonstrated ways that sets can be reused and how to set up an efficient mill. Introducing pneumatic tools was a game changer.


Change—it’s like being forced to eat vegetables.

Creating an international program of this magnitude isn’t without challenges. We faced myriad hurdles, such as trying to locally secure specific expendables, tools and equipment needed for the job. Often we would be tripped up simply over different terms used to describe the same item. When I am shooting an indie movie on location, I sometimes have to source local equivalents because the support infrastructure doesn’t exist. That happened during the training. Picture our suitcases filled with double-headed nails, a Nicopress, colored rolls of electrical tape and pneumatic nailers. I had never considered what the standard manufacturer’s-cut length of lumber was ... until now. Twelve-foot boards versus 16-foot boards make a big difference. On an island nation, acquiring new materials, especially in bulk, is not a speedy process. We were also faced with cultural challenges, such as a hesitation to ask questions in a group setting. The local crews had a hard time embracing the size of a traditional Hollywood crew. Their crews are more student-film size.


If we all learn a little, that’s a lot.

Participation in the program is at the discretion of the network. The intent is to enhance their local crew base by ensuring that specific target learners master the professional skills needed to work on the soundstage. In addition, producers were encouraged to attend the classes. This was key, as their understanding of how to support this next level of production is essential to the success of the show. To date we’ve trained more than 900 local working crew members. The classes were extremely well received, and the crews were very eager to learn. They excelled at almost everything. For the majority, this was the only training they had ever had. These are practical trade skills—ones not offered in traditional film schools. The trainers became so invested in making sure trainees succeeded that they would spend extra time with them on breaks and before and after class. (I’m pretty sure they are all social media friends now too!) These seasoned Hollywood professionals were caring and genuine and truly grateful to be a part of something that would forever change the Filipino motion picture industry.

 

So now, in the middle of a small town outside of Manila, sit two fully operational, Hollywood-standard soundstages, ready for a production to give them life. The program continues to grow, and additional training is being developed. The experience has given me a much stronger understanding of how I can support my production teams to deliver their best work.  


Yesterday I received an excited text from one of our trainees. It was a photo from the set of Idol Philippines. For the first time ever, cameras were rolling on the new stages. We taught them Hollywood—now they are making history.


If you’re involved in a fascinating project outside your usual work demands, please let us know. We’d like to highlight your accomplishment. Just send an email about your passion, side job or venture with the topic “First Person” to producedbymag@producersguild.org.

 

  • Final photo: Jennifer Haire breaks down the production processes of single and multi-cam TV productions.

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