The gaffer is the electrician, the lighting guy. The techiest techy on set. Ours was a genius, Jeff Walker. One of the more interesting people you’ll ever meet. Here’s what we talked about:
Sue: Jeff, how did we meet?
Jeff: Tracy Schott asked me to work on a project of the heart called Princess Dancer written by her friend Sue Lange. I was intrigued by Sue’s concepts and loved the group that came out to make this teaser of the story. So Sue and I met while I was running around trying to literally keep the production plugged in to an antiquated electrical system and she was excitedly watching her story come to life.
Sue: Omigod! That was the story of that shoot. I remember the incident well. I was panicking and blathering on about alternatives and nonsensical solutions and how we only had these two days and how could the electricity go out and this building is so old there’s no way it’s just a breaker and what are we going to do and, and, and… Kevin [Hackenberg, the director] finally took me aside and said, “Sue, just give Jeff a little space. Just for a minute.” Kevin knew his people because you cogitated for a second, got out your plethora of electrical tape in every size, shape, and color, and the next thing we knew the electricity was back and the lights were working and the smoke machine was cooperating. The dang thing actually got done. I. love. you!
So speaking of electrical disasters, what’s the worst problem you’ve ever had to deal with? I mean, besides forgetting the crane thing on the FilmFEST shoot.
Jeff: Televising of a gymnastics meet at Albright, a pre-olympic star Mary Lou Retton competing. So much light rigged in the ceiling to cover each of the many competition areas that I had to put the distribution boxes up on blocks with fans to keep them from melting. A lot of heat. A lot of sweat; from the competitors who were maybe a little over lit but looking really good, from me just hoping the fuses would hold.
Having to wrangle power is always a distraction from painting the environment that you are trying to stage. It is the engineering vs. the art; how you are going to juice it and rig it before you finally get to the quality of the light, how it wraps your subject and captures the eye of your viewer.
Sue: That’s a great story about Mary Lou Retton. My landlord was her coach during the Olympics. She has a real Reading, PA connection, apparently. Do you carry fans with you for that sort of thing, or did you have to go out and buy them?
Jeff: Fortunately since I was at a school there were a number of industrial fans around. My lesson from all of that was I should try to not do that again. If I had room to carry a fan it would be for blowing leaves and the hair of lanky models.
Sue: You always seem to be calm on the shoots. It’s hard to imagine you sweating. Do you get ulcers from internalizing? Maybe nothing is a big deal to you after the Albright gig.
Jeff: I find production exciting and frequently stressful. Only occasionally have I found fretting or screaming to be a solution to the inevitable problems. So while I am internally a boiling soup of angst and concern, externally I am projecting a hopefully contagious air of calm. Creative options and solutions are often available from a crew given a calm moment to consider it. There are also significant savings in time and effort that can be claimed by seeing the problems coming. A little forethought to the strewing around of equipment cases, props or craft services can give you the time to finish the shoot gracefully that day or not.
While there is a physically destructive component to production caused by both physical and mental stresses, I cannot think of anything more exciting and rewarding to do and there is a great buoyancy from that energy.
The Albright shoot was actually filed in the Successful Shoots folder along with a few hairs from my chiny chin chin.
Sue: How did you learn lighting?
Jeff: I was always interested in tech for theatre, video and film. I had a sensitivity to light. A room with a single bare bulb in the ceiling made me nervous and crazy, I’d have to leave. Lighting became a real career focus when I worked at WITF in Hershey. Video required a lot of light back then and we did studio and remote work in the Mid-Atlantic region with a tractor trailer full of lighting and another tractor trailer for camera, tape, switching and engineering. I was hired then to WITFs film crew doing both lighting and audio on documentaries for a couple of years. A local producer saw my work and started hiring me to do freelance film lighting. I continued doing that along with renting and selling lighting, film and theatrical equipment. During all of that I worked as a union stage hand in Hershey at the theatre, park, stadium and arena. Lots of touring Broadway shows and Rock & Roll. A fair amount of interesting lighting and rigging equipment to play with there!
There was a period of 8 or 10 years when I did a lot of theatre with OpenStage in Harrisburg and Seventh Sister in Lancaster. I worked mostly as Lighting Designer but also sometimes as Scenic Designer or Tech Director. That allowed me a free hand to study many styles of lighting and textures with an even broader range of lighting instruments than I had been using.
I continue today to work as both a freelance Gaffer for a number of Producers (and the occasional Script Writer) and as a Video DP/Producer for Jeff Walker Studio.
Sue: What is WITF?
Jeff: WITF is the Public television station previously in Hershey but now in Harrisburg, Channel 33.
Sue: I had no idea you did stage work too. I had forgotten about sound. So many different areas of expertise. What do you like to do best, and why?
Jeff: Light is my first passion — it is paint on the digital canvas. But as you say I have been around and worked in many areas so I now have a nice, comprehensive understanding of how the story is tying together, what many of the techniques are that each department is using. I started Jeff Walker Studio to collect equipment from a few of those departments and to help focus my work on using that accumulated knowledge. I am excited by any challenges that overlap multiple areas of my interests, and I have a lot of interests.
I guess it is one of the joys (and the devilments) of working in a small town; it is hard to focus on one thing and be completely occupied.So other things that I had opportunity to do:
– Five years as Stage Manager and Lighting Designer for the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, a school that is local but works on an international level.
– I designed, built and operated a cel animation stand while at WITF.
– Rewired and reprogramed a talking cow that was part of the Chocolate World dark ride.
– Spent 10 years building sets and displays for clients like Chocolate World, HersheyPark and the Antique Auto Museum
– Designed and built the Most Popular Cow in Harrisburg’s Cow Parade.
– Designed and built several Rube Goldberg style machines for a Sauder’s Eggs Commercial.
– Was Production Designer for Limelight Film’s marionette film pilot — El Trato.
– Graphic design and layout of the 100 plus panels in the Museum of Bus Transportation’s bus history timeline, now published.
I continue to play with animation of various kinds, experimenting with live action and clay. I am building a small Motion Control rig that lets me do multiple passes of Pan/Tilt /Dolly that are computer matched. That means you can layer up things in the image that could not otherwise be together. I have shot a number of short pieces that show me interacting with between one and five other images of me, all apparently in the same room. I have had some success, using the same system, combining live action with time lapse shots. I’m just starting to scratch the surface on this one.
I guess what I like doing best is never the same thing.
Sue: My god, man, is there anything you can’t do?
Jeff: I never got good grades in grammar.
Sue: Ha! Well, before we wrap up, do you have any stories you want to relate about the work on A Perfect You?
Jeff: I still feel bad about ruining your movie.
Sue: I have no idea what you’re talking about. The lighting is fabulous. Thanks a million for your expertise and wisecracks.