There are plenty of musicals about movies — “Singin’ in the Rain” comes to mind — but few realize that for as visual a medium as film is, the sets are filled to the brim with the auditory stimulants of musical melodies. There are countless examples:
- Spike Jonze uses music on his sets to entertain crew
- Francis Ford Coppola used music during filming of The Conversation
- And anyone who straps a radio to a camera cart becomes a small set hero
The point is: filmmakers love music. Ever since the first films were produced, there was music set to them. It’s the silver screen’s partner in crime.
For crew, we love music too. I know I do at least. And whether I’m singing it, listening to it, or making it, I know it will always have a place for me on a film set…
90% More Fun Than Your Average Camera Department
There’s a director of photography (DP) I frequently work with who appreciates music much in the same way I do. Perhaps this is why we get along. It’s not uncommon for either of us to strike up a melody next to the camera and for the other to fill in with either lyrics or the beat — whichever is missing at the time.
Our songs aren’t always tasteful or really even good, but they bring a livliness to the set people appreciate. Producers, directors, and even actors will often chime in and join our freestyle rap group, barbershop quartet, or air instrument band depending on whatever genre we’re tackling at the time.
As a result, we like to inform directors that we’re “90% more fun than your average camera department” (the upper 10% is made up of the 2nd Assistant Camera (AC) from Inglourious Basterds, the camera crew from Van Diemen’s Land, and Timmy Rubensteiner and his AC Todd).
I have fond memories of singing with this DP and music is a large staple of our off-set relationship. While he listens to indie-rock music, I prefer old-school hip-hop. So when you put us together in a car with an iPod, the most eclectic mixtape begins to unspool itself.
1. Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler
Key Lyrics: Turn around, every now and then I get a little bit lonely…
This song is sung when you shoot one close-up in a scene and are going to shoot the close-up of the opposite character. It works especially well when the Assistant Director explicitly says to “turn around” and grab the shot.
2. The Final Countdown by Europe
Key Lyrics: It’s the final countdown! (Do-da-do-da)
Perhaps more sweet than all the other songs is “The Final Countdown,” which is best used when setting up the martini shot. But it can also be exploited quite well whenever you’re approaching any kind of deadline — batteries dying, film running out, the wrap party looming. There was a moment on Ghosts Don’t Exist when I took the last memory card of the shoot and ran towards the DIT station holding it above my head loudly singing this song.
The Legend of Johnny Boomstick
It’s hard for me now to separate music from the film set — it’s become an identity of how I like to work. That shouldn’t be a surprise because of my background, but I’m always amazed at how many other crew members connect to it.
A couple years ago, as a data manager on a feature film, I frequently found myself with a plethora of time. When you’re data loading and the crew is setting up at a new location, sometimes you have a solid 4 hours of doing nothing before you’re ever handed your first memory card. And even then, you sit on your ass at a computer and make sure all the bits and bytes go from here to there.
Out of this free time and access to a MacBook Pro was borne the legend of Johnny Boomstick — or at least his theme song.
One day in the middle of the shoot, I was particularly bored in a hotel room. I left to go see what kind of action was happening on set and was pleased to find not much at all. This meant I could talk with the 2nd AC and Camera PA without bothering anyone.
“You guys getting ready to shoot anytime soon?” I asked.
The 1st AC just shrugged from his post next to the camera.
“I’ve got so much time today I don’t know what to do with it,” I said.
“You should make a song,” the 2nd AC piped in. “That laptop has Garageband on it. Just make a song we can listen to at the end of the day.”
It seemed like a random suggestion, but only a few nights before I had told the camera crew over drinks about how, for my 21st birthday, I hosted a future themed party and made my own mini-album of “future songs.” On the drive home we listened to a few and they were delightfully entertained by my rapping abilities.
“Well, what should it be about?”
That’s when the 2nd AC pointed over to the boom operator. He was testing for shadows with his boom pole and you could plainly see a strip of bright green camera tape plastered on the side — it read “JOHNNY’S BOOMSTICK” — and was placed there by yours truly after a lot of teasing towards John, the boom op.
With something to do and someone to write about, I immediately went back to the hotel room and booted up Garageband. I quickly made what has to be one of the cheesiest rap beats in the world and set out to write some lyrics, coming back on occasion to ask the 2nd AC for ideas (one of his lyrics, “he’s got a pola pattern bigger than your ass,” was truly a gem).
It took me the entire day — I didn’t want to compromise the shoot for a song, obviously, and was given work to do eventually — but I was proud of it as I loaded it on my iPod and walked towards the set. Discreetly, in between various setups, I would slip crew members an ear bud and press play.
It was a true hit.
As we went out to the bars later that night, everyone in the camera van was yelling, “Play the Johnny Boomstick theme!” — even the DP, who chuckled throughout the song.
At the risk of embarrassing myself, I invite you to take a listen:
Be warned there is a lot of NSFW language in this song. Seriously, if you get offended by language, don’t listen to this song as it’s supposed to emulate hardcore hip-hop.
Music Makes the World Go Round
While I got into film because I love visuals and the aesthetic of seeing something beautiful, I am perpetually drawn back to music in various ways. Even in my work, music crawls under my skin and exposes itself in some silly ways whether that’s through on set karaoke or a theme song for a boom operator.
But, I don’t really care — it makes the long days bearable and the hard work easier. There’s a reason you “whistle while you work” and if I couldn’t have music on set — in whatever form — I’m not sure I would enjoy camera assisting as much as I do.
And, most importantly, it makes me 90% more fun than the average camera assistant.