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(December 14, 2000, Gazette)

Lights, camera ...
Where’s the action?

By David Sorensen

David Sorensen and William Hurt
The author and William Hurt.

Lights, camera, action! Well, maybe a little short on the action, but a seven week stint as a stand-in for Oscar-winning actor William Hurt gave me plenty of opportunity to observe the real key to filmmaking – the lights and the camera.

Mr. Hurt was in St. John’s shooting Rare Birds, a big budget screen adaptation of local author Ed Riche’s 1997 novel. Because of a similar height, build and hair colour, I was approached about the job of Mr. Hurt’s stand-in. Thanks to the accommodation of my managers and co-workers at University Relations, I had the chance to observe first-hand how a major motion picture gets filmed.

Let’s get one thing straight – the job of a stand-in is anything but glamourous. My job was to observe the actor’s rehearsal and then mimic Mr. Hurt’s actions for the benefit of the director of photography, Jan Kiesser, to ensure his camera placements and lighting were perfect. This allowed Mr. Hurt and co-stars Andy Jones (Dr. Andy Jones to us. He received an honorary degree from Memorial earlier this year.) and Molly Parker to leave the set and prepare for their performance.

In the process, I learned in painstaking detail how major motion pictures are filmed. And painstaking it is. A typical day would consist of filming four or five scenes, each one from as many as nine camera locations, (three or four set-ups per scene was standard) with a new lighting set-up for each shot. Of course moving the camera means more than moving the lights, it means making room for the camera, which could be stationary or mobile. So if that means half a room must be emptied out, then it gets done. And if the next shot includes the missing half of the room, it must all come back in, in its previous spot.

Mr. Kiesser and director Sturla Gunnarsson, who collaborated on the 1998 film Such a Long Journey, were responsible for the look of the movie but a few days on the set made it clear that it was the cinematographer who made most of the decisions. He would slowly arrange the lights so that the subjects were highlighted, with balanced light and no glare in the lens. And the actors would not return to set until he was satisfied with the look of the setting.

While many of the top guns on the cast and crew came from Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax, the local film crew were first rate veterans of the local filmmaking community. Working on Rare Birds opened my eyes to the local talent – acting and technical – available in this province. With the much-anticipated Shipping News on again for the spring and several other movie projects on the horizon, the film industry appears set to meet the great expectations of its supporters.

Filming took place in Outer Cove, Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove, Cape Spear and St. John’s, including a half day at Memorial’s QE II Library. The film should be released some time in 2001 but, hey, what do I know. I’m just a stand-in.

*****

On a related note, in appreciation of the use of the QE II, the producers of Rare Birds have made a donation to Memorial’s scholarship fund.

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