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25 February 2008 @ 10:52 pm
An Evening On The Set Of Angel  

An Evening On The Set Of Angel

Okay: this blog entry isn’t about Supernatural. Surprise! I’ve always enjoyed reading accounts written by others of watching shooting on films and TV shows, and I’ve sometimes mentioned the one and only night that I had the chance to spend several hours on the set of Angel back in November 2001. Enough people have expressed interest that I thought it was about time I wrote it up.


One of my neighbors kitty-corner across the alley back when I was growing up was an only child who was between my two older sisters in age. We all got on like gangbusters, and Brenda effectively became another sister to us. Years ago, she headed west to work in Hollywood, and I followed her career behind the scenes on TV shows and movies with great pleasure. Over time and with training, she worked her way up from production assistant to assistant director, working on everything from Simon & Simon to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and films including Paris Trout and Steel Magnolias. Knowing my tastes as many of you do, you can imagine my delight when I saw her name turning up on everything that Joss Whedon did, starting with Buffy, continuing with Angel, segueing into Firefly, and then returning to Angel again.

And so we come to 2001. I’m a senior career federal civil servant working in Washington, D.C. On 9/11, from my office in D.C., I watched the smoke rising from the Pentagon and F-16’s screaming air cover overhead. For the next few days, I looked at strangely empty blue skies and thought how wrong it was that no planes flew, and I made a resolution that at the earliest possible opportunity, I was going to make my own counter-terrorist statement by flying across the country. Flights returned, I put in for vacation leave, and I made my reservations to fly to L.A. My Mom, who was 77 then, asked if she could join me since we had relatives in southern California, and I made the arrangements. Studio tours, cousin visits, we planned it all. (For television and movie fans, by the way, I heartily recommend the behind-the-scenes tour at the Warner Brothers lot! I won’t talk about it here, but it was really worth the money.)

And I got in touch with Brenda, since seeing my “other sister” was definitely on the agenda. She was working on Angel at the time, and to my absolute, utter, and abiding delight, she invited us to visit her at work. Access to the Paramount lot was even more restricted than usual since the studios were concerned about possibly being terrorist targets, but she got us on the list to be able to enter and park on the lot, and told us the soundstage number. We were invited to show up around 4:00 pm, watch shooting, join the cast and crew for dinner, and watch some more.

What a thrill! Driving through the gates a little early, having the guard check our ID and match our names to his list, and then direct us on where to park, all felt like a dream, or as if I was watching my own little movie. Understand, I’ve been a fan for years, always fascinated with the nuts and bolts of how TV shows and films are made. I’ve read a lot about production, and seen many behind-the-scenes pictures and features from studios and shooting locations, soaking them up. And here I was on the Paramount lot, walking past doors and buildings that I recognized. (Roswell fans, do you remember the episode where Max went to Hollywood, and broke into a film storage facility? I walked past that door! It was right by the lot where we parked!)

Soundstages are massive warehouse-like buildings, featureless on the outside except for their number or letter designations and the red light outside each access door that starts flashing to warn people not to enter whenever filming is actually underway. I had a little map of the lot provided by the guard showing which soundstage we were heading for, which looked from the outside exactly like every other one. No one was around as we approached, and it felt very strange to just open the door and walk in, after ensuring that the red light wasn’t on, of course! (And yes, I laughed out loud watching Sam and Dean just mosey on into a soundstage during Hollywood Babylon, because based on my experience, that would have been entirely possible, once you got into the studio grounds!)

Angel used two cavernous soundstages, each separated into several parts. The one we visited held standing sets for the show, including the hotel lobby and Wesley’s office, Angel’s quarters, and a set that got redressed into multiple different hotel rooms. The hotel lobby was the active set for the night, and was a beehive of activity. The rest of the place was crammed with haphazard walls, furnishings, and props.

Set walls are basically just painted stage flats, supported from behind by wooden framing. Walking around and behind the set is a constant challenge, because the floor is covered by an ever-changing net of electrical cables powering the lights, cameras, monitors, and everything else, as well as cable connections feeding the camera images to the monitors, and the space is often cramped. The visible sets themselves, the places currently on-camera, are the only safe and clear spots; everywhere else, you have to be on the alert for tripping hazards and for things sticking out where you might run into them. Anything not currently being used is shoved out of the immediate way, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t fall over it or have it clonk you in the head. If I had ever wondered why studios are so very restrictive of outside visits to live sets, apart from just the disruption to very tightly scheduled work caused by hosting inexperienced guests, I got my definitive answer: the liability concerns would be a nightmare.

To my surprise, we walked into the soundstage without being challenged by anyone, and meandered through the deserted back part of the maze of currently unused sets and set dressing toward the sound of voices and activity. When we ran into people – grips, gaffers, and PA’s, judging from the activities in which they were engaged (moving physical things, handling electrical things, scurrying around looking harried), I started asking after Brenda, and we got pointed in the right direction. Before we found her, though, we wound up freezing in place for a few minutes when the bell went off and several voices in sequence – one of them Brenda’s – called out “Rolling!”  After “Cut!” got called, we kept moving, and found out where the action was.

And what action! They were shooting the teaser for the third season episode Dad, the scene in which Angel, Cordelia, Wesley, Fred, and Gunn bring Angel’s newborn son Connor into the hotel for the first time, to be joined by Lorne and then immediately attacked by a random demon. The entire principal cast was involved in the scene, so all of the actors were there. Mom and I got introduced as Brenda’s people, and were very warmly welcomed by everyone.

The actors took turns chatting with us during the shooting breaks. The conversations that most stick in my head were with Alexis Denisof (Wesley) and Andy Hallett (Lorne). Hearing that I worked for the EPA in DC, Alexis dove into environmental issues, talking about air and water pollution rule changes and asking for updates on Chesapeake Bay conservation efforts (he’s from Maryland!). It was funny to hear him speaking in his own voice, without Wesley’s British accent and affectations. Andy was a hoot when we caught him taking a nicotine break outside the soundstage (no smoking inside, of course) in full makeup and costume, except for his shoes; he was standing on the blacktop in his stockinged feet because his shoes were hurting him. You haven’t quite lived until you’ve stood in the Hollywood dark chatting with a horned, green-skinned demon in Vegas lounge lizard getup who’s dying for a cigarette and toeing off his shoes! He is truly as funny in real life as his character is on-screen, and seemed totally to forget that he was in demon guise, which somehow made everything all the more hilarious. The funniest thing of all was seeing Mom adjust, after her first glimpse of him, into also gradually forgetting the green skin and the horns. By the end of the evening, I think he had become her favorite!

Other actor impressions: David Boreanaz (Angel) was pleasant but a bit distant, mostly focused on what he needed to be doing. J. August Richards (Gunn) was very friendly and cheerful, happy to meet part of Brenda’s extended family, and he treated us as if we were part of the extended Angel family. I didn’t have much opportunity to speak with Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia) or Amy Acker (Fred), but they both made very definite impressions. Amy seemed as sweetly insecure in her own skin as her character Fred was, anxious for reassurance that she was doing well and positively blushing with embarrassment and blooming with relief when she was praised.

Charisma in particular impressed the socks off me with the way she constantly worked on adding to the actions she was doing while the scene progressed. Even when she wasn’t on camera, when she was going through the scene while the focus was on getting the coverage on someone else, she was experimenting with handling the available props and with moving within the scope of her blocking for the scene, always looking for the natural things to be doing that would make her character alive and real. Watching her constantly thinking and trying new bits, either adding them in or discarding them, was captivating. She inhabited the moment with small actions that weren’t written into the script, but that made Cordelia appear natural and right. It was that “magic actor thing” – I met her as Charisma, and watched her become and breathe life into Cordelia. I can’t describe it well, but it’s one of the things I most enjoy about watching gifted actors work: they bring the words to life, and you forget that they were written into a script and that you’ve already heard them eighteen times in a row, because they come out as if they were just being spoken spontaneously for the first time, and are reacted to the same way. It’s magic. Actor magic.

For most of the night, I perched on a high director’s chair right behind the director and the script coordinator, watching the two monitors and following the script over their shoulders and looking up and beyond the monitors to watch the action live. For part of the time, our little direction enclave was in the main hotel set, tucked into the courtyard side, with our attention forward on the front door and the rest of the lobby to catch the main characters coming in and having their discussion. When all the angles had been gotten from that vantage, we were repositioned in Wesley’s office, with the cameras still in the lobby, looking and shooting toward the courtyard door (opposite from the front door). Late in the scene, a random demon/stuntman would enter through the courtyard door.

With all the characters involved, I saw that scene repeated lots and lots of times. The guest director for the episode, Fred Keller, was very much by-the-book in his approach, somewhat to the exasperation of the cast and crew. First, get the master shots, showing all the characters present in the room and their positions relative to each other throughout the entire scene. Then get the individual coverage on each one of the actors, filming them both speaking their lines and reacting to the lines spoken by others. Then go for some additional angles, including two-shots on characters standing near to each other, so you could see simultaneous but different reactions and both the delivery and simultaneous receipt of a line. They were shooting with two cameras simultaneously, getting somewhat different angles and with one typically focused in tighter than the other, but both cameras were capturing the same part of the action, and that methodical approach to shooting and the constant repetition of the scene had members of the crew rolling their eyes with impatience, especially when the director called for another take even after having expressed satisfaction with the previous one. That entire scene is only about five minutes long, but by the time we left, over five hours after we’d arrived, they hadn’t even gotten around to shooting the actual entrance of the stuntman/demon, although we’d seen everyone reacting to his appearance (and Gunn tossing that cleaver!) a dozen times or more.

What was most fascinating to me was watching the script coordinator marking the page with vertical lines to denote each piece of coverage they’d gotten, so that she could answer whether there was already printable footage of Wesley saying a line or reacting to one of Angel’s, for example. The nitpicky details she recorded in order to make a specific take easier to find when the show went to editing spoke to that woman having a very tidy and well organized mind! When we broke (late!) for dinner, one of the PA’s took Polaroids for continuity, to make certain that people’s costumes and props could be adjusted again to match their pre-dinner appearance.

Dinner was spectacular! Some time after we had arrived, the caterer had set up grills, ovens, and serving tents in the alley between the two soundstages, and long tables with cheap plastic chairs back in the portion of the main soundstage that they weren’t using. I’ve heard it said that you can tell the status of a show by the quality of the catering and craft services – the joke runs that as soon as word gets out that a show won’t be coming back, the quality of the food drops perceptibly! – and on that basis, Angel was obviously doing very well. Steak, fish, chicken, pasta, several different pasta and garden salads, a variety of veggies, bread and rolls, a whole assortment of desserts, coffee, tea, milk, soft drinks, water – it was a veritable cornucopia. Everyone got in line, browsed through the offerings, teased each other, and took what they wanted back into the soundstage to find a seat. Some of the principal actors didn’t eat with us, but the whole crew came out of the woodwork, and Mom was astonished to realize how many people are needed to make a television show; there were easily a hundred and twenty-some people there. The mood was very jovial, but conversations, no matter where they began, tended to come back to production-related issues pretty quickly. Everybody adopted us, sharing memories of nighttime location shoots in scary parts of town and laughs about the frequent need for cemeteries. (Did you know there’s a cemetery pretty much across the street from the back of the Paramount lot? It’s come in handy …) The time flew, and then folk tossed their plates and headed back to work, leaving the catering crew to pack everything up. It ran like clockwork on smoothly oiled gears.

Back into the whirl of shooting, the fun was seeing them figuring out how to get the most out of baby-time. For most of the time we were on set, the role of baby Connor was played by a doll (and yes, there were occasional moments of hilarity in which David Boreanaz with a doll was prominent – Angel doing cootchey-coos and poncing about with a toy baby was a riot!). Throughout the doll-shooting, they took notes on which moments they would want to replay with the live baby who would get used in inserted close-up shots. Budgeting the time precisely was essential, because they would only be able to have the baby on set for a short time – less than two hours to get all of the kid’s coverage, if I’m remembering right. The strict time limits on baby and child actors explains why, if a baby turns up often in a show, they have multiple different babies playing the role. I cracked up listening to the commentary by Eric Kripke and David Nutter on the pilot episode of Supernatural, where they were laughing about playing “count the babies” while watching the opening scenes with baby Sammy in the Winchester family home, because it took me straight back to the set of Angel and the debates about whether they would really need a baby shot right then, and couldn’t they do it with fewer inserts?

We picked up shooting precisely where we’d left off, newly ensconced in Wesley's office, and I was in heaven, but as the evening progressed, Mom started dropping subtle (and some not-so-subtle!) hints about it being time to head back to the hotel and bed. Given my druthers, I’d have stayed all night (or anyway, until they broke around 3:00 in the morning!), but under the circumstances, we started to make our farewells. I think we got the biggest laugh of the night in our group farewell. My Mom (who was not a fan of the show, by the way; scary, dark, and violent aren’t really her speed, and I don’t think she ever actually watched an episode!) expressed her surprise at how many people it took to make the show, and how much more hard work and detail were involved in it than she had ever known. She observed that after this evening, though, at least she knew that when this scene came on, it would be okay for her to go to the kitchen for a snack because she wouldn’t miss anything, having already seen it so many times. I followed that by saying eagerly that I couldn’t wait to see the episode, and planned to record it so that I could go back through the scene frame by frame to figure out which specific takes they’d chosen to use, and why, and to see how they edited together all the footage I’d watched them shoot. The difference in our approaches and my transparent enthusiasm garnered a wave of chuckles, and that was our farewell.

So there’s my tale of an evening on the set of Angel. I was desperately concerned not to come off as a fannish nuisance both for my own sake and for Brenda’s, since she’d given us her countenance to come on set. Because of that, even though I had my camera with me, I took no pictures. I so didn’t want to impose! I regret that now in a way, because the only memories I have are the ones in my head, and I can share those only through imperfect words.

My fondest hope is that I’ll someday have the chance again to visit a live set and watch shooting on something I feel passionate about (Supernatural, anyone? I’d be over the moon …). If I do, I’ll grovel and beg for the chance to take just a photo or two, to warm me on future cold February days. And I’ll write it up to share it with others in fewer than six and a half years, although I promise faithfully not to spoil anyone for the episode!


Current Music: "Live Fast, Die Never" - the soundtrack to "Angel"
(Deleted comment)
bardicvoice: bardicvoice by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on February 26th, 2008 02:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks, and glad you had fun! It was such a great night, and I had my eyes and ears wide open and my brain locked on "record." After all I'd read, to see it for real - and with actors I appreciated on a show I loved, and with a dear friend in her element helping to call the shots - was simply fantastic.

I'll be eligible to retire in a few more years, and truth? I have a sneaking desire to apply for a job as a lowly dogsbody PA for a while, just for the chance to be a real part of the experience, not just an observer.
smantha32 on February 26th, 2008 06:24 am (UTC)
ah, I totally envy you! I'd love to be on set for anything of Joss Whedon's. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, thank you!
bardicvoice: bardicvoice by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on February 26th, 2008 02:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, and glad you had fun! It was definitely a dream for me!
starlet2367starlet2367 on February 26th, 2008 02:16 pm (UTC)
Hi there - we haven't met before but your post came up in my news feed for Charisma Carpenter this morning. This is such a wonderful account of your time on the set. I'm a huge fan of Angel and enjoyed hearing about the visit, from the behind-the-scenes stuff to the work the actors did in front of the camera. Thanks for posting! Do you mind if I link?
bardicvoice: bardicvoice by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on February 26th, 2008 02:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks for coming, and I'm glad you enjoyed it! Please, by all means, feel free to link; I don't belong to any of the online communities for Whedon-related fandom (just not enough hours in the day to chase all my interests!), so I have no way to spread this easily to folk who might enjoy reading it. But it was a really fun night, and I'm happy to share it, so link away!

And thank you!
oceantriana: 2 hugsoceantriana on February 26th, 2008 03:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for sharing! It sounds like you had a wonderful time and now have some wonderful memories.
bardicvoice: worth it by <lj user=galathea_snb>bardicvoice on February 28th, 2008 02:50 am (UTC)
Thanks, Ocean! I've been very lucky that way ... my life is made of memories. :)
shadow_of_doubt: Angel and Spikeshadow_of_doubt on February 26th, 2008 03:15 pm (UTC)
Oh man, I am so jealous! I am a huge fan of Angel and one of my dreams was to be able to visit the hotel set. Thank you for sharing this. It is truly wonderful.
bardicvoice: BardicImpala by <lj user=janglyjewels>bardicvoice on February 28th, 2008 02:49 am (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it! I know I certainly did ... and believe me, I was VERY conscious of the luck and the honor!
raputathebuta: EmoSamraputathebuta on February 26th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
Oh Mary...what a wonderful tale! What a great experience for you & your mom to share. I love Angel & Lorne is one of my favorites.

"Imperfect words" my ass!

So what's your friend Brenda working on these days? Maybe you could give her a nudge towards Vancouver?!
bardicvoice: still dark by <lj user=galathea_snb>bardicvoice on February 28th, 2008 02:47 am (UTC)
Thanks, Rap!

Brenda was working on Girlfriends for the last several years, and had hoped to stick with the easier life of a half-hour sitcom until retirement knocked. Alas, the writers' strike did for Girlfriends, since they'd already been figuring that this would likely be the last season, so she'll be hunting for work again. Hollywood is such a gypsy existence ... and alas for me, at this point in her career, she's not likely to be interested in moving to Vancouver, especially since she has a lovely place in Cali! Just have to find my way onto that set my own self, I guess ... *wry grin*
whimsywinx: AngelSpikeOldMenwhimsywinx on February 26th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC)
*squees uncontrollably for a few minutes*

I am so glad you posted this, Mary! I'm so happy you got to do this, too. I'm particularly impressed by your description of Charisma Carpenter working. I had no idea she put so much work into it, especially after playing Cordy for so long at that point. She made it look so effortless.

I've been watching my Angel s2 DVDs lately, and I miss the show so much! Gotta read those comics now.

(x-posted at TVG)

Edited at 2008-02-26 07:27 pm (UTC)
bardicvoice: JohnThinker by <lj user=Cakehole_Cat>bardicvoice on February 28th, 2008 02:42 am (UTC)
Thanks, Whimsy!

Mind you, all of the actors were pros, but Charisma in particular was fascinating to watch because she spent virtually the entire time on, if you take my meaning. Even when she knew the camera wasn't paying any attention to her, she was experimenting with doing different things with the grocery and baby props. Watching her sample, select, and reject - and then incorporate the winning bits when the camera was on her again - was just ... "this is an actor at work."
Simonsimonf on February 27th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)
I found this via Google Blog search and really enjoyed it. Would you mind if I linked to it at Whedonesque? (I'm one of the admins there).
bardicvoice: worth it by <lj user=galathea_snb>bardicvoice on February 27th, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
I would be positively delighted if you linked this at Whedonesque! Thank you, Simon!

My only problem is that there simply aren't enough hours in the day to be able to follow all of my interests everywhere and belong to everything, so I'm very happy you found this, enjoyed it, and asked to spread it. I had a great time on the set, and am more than happy to share that experience with others who would find vicarious joy through it!
(no subject) - simonf on February 27th, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bardicvoice on February 28th, 2008 02:38 am (UTC) (Expand)
technopagan hippie chickgeminilove_ca on February 27th, 2008 11:15 pm (UTC)
I found this via the Whedonesque feed...

What a great memory. I have a few experiences like that - where I wanted to take pictures, but felt at the time that it wasn't appropriate. Still, I found the "imperfect words" to be perfect enough to make me feel like I was there with you on more than one occasion.

We have a few fandoms in common. Mind if I friend your journal?
bardicvoice: wonderful life by <lj user=galathea_snb>bardicvoice on February 28th, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)
Thank you very much, and feel free to friend! I hope you find more here to enjoy ...
clau019clau019 on February 28th, 2008 12:26 am (UTC)
Hi, I found this at Whedonesque too. First of all, thank you for sharing with us! I bet a lot of people envy you right now, LOL.
And second, AD interested about environmental issues? I'm so smitten.
bardicvoice: All need is love by <lj user=chal>bardicvoice on February 28th, 2008 02:37 am (UTC)
Thanks for visiting and commenting, and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Yep - Alexis was seriously into the green, which was very fun for me given my career, although my primary job is risk management on industrial/commercial chemicals rather than ecosystem-specific conservation and protection. At least I was able to give him something, if not as much directly on point as I could have wished!
(no subject) - clau019 on February 28th, 2008 10:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
robininseoul on February 28th, 2008 01:18 am (UTC)
Wow. Awesome story! An experience to remember, for sure. Thanks!
bardicvoice: worth it by <lj user=galathea_snb>bardicvoice on February 28th, 2008 02:48 am (UTC)
Thanks for stopping by, and letting me know you enjoyed it!
yourlibrarianyourlibrarian on February 28th, 2008 03:47 am (UTC)
I can just imagine your delight, what a great experience! I was particularly interested in what you said about the director. Reminds me of some of the SPN commentary about quick and efficient shooting, and why they prefer working with directors connected to the show.
bardicvoicebardicvoice on February 29th, 2008 01:28 am (UTC)
My funny is that, having lived my night on the set, I flashed back to it immediately hearing the boys talking directors, and particularly how much they respect Kim Manners' style and skill, and his ability to get dual coverage! I watch shows with different eyes than I had before.

I think Fred Keller did four or five episodes of Angel. This one, Dad, wasn't his first, so his habits and idiosyncrasies were already known, and a little frustrating.
labseraphlabseraph on February 28th, 2008 09:22 am (UTC)
What a lovely experience. I have never watched Angel but love to hear about people's close encounter of the TV kind. You must have taken some time to come down from the cloud you were walking on from your trip *g*.

Thanks for sharing with us. And all the best on getting on the Supernatural set! Be sure to take loads of pictures!
bardicvoice: worth it by <lj user=galathea_snb>bardicvoice on February 29th, 2008 01:30 am (UTC)
I don't think I ever quite came down ... *grin*

And if I ever get a shot at Supernatural, I'll be orbital!
tijnattijnat on February 29th, 2008 03:15 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing this - I came from Whedonesque as well. ;) I always enjoy hearing about all the little things people notice about actors or other 'larger-than-life' personalities that make them seem more real.

I haven't been on the Supernatural sound stages, but I have been on Stargate:SG1 and Atlantis during their Hallowe'en charity weekend a couple of times. No principal actors around, of course, but we could take pictures of the Gate! Nothing compared to your visit, though. Sounds like a wonderful memory.
bardicvoice: Pats You anibardicvoice on March 6th, 2008 11:28 pm (UTC)
Sorry this took so long ... Glad you enjoyed my little account. The whole process of making television and films fascinates me, and I can't seem to absorb enough about it. I love reading people's accounts of set visits and listening to commentary tracks describing events.

I'm jealous about your Stargate set visits, even if they weren't during shooting! I've enjoyed both series, and I would love someday to meet Martin Wood. Not only is he a marvelous director, but he provides great explanations in his commentary tracks and director's feature bits - watching and listening to him is like going to film school!

Hmm - gotta try entering the latest "Get in the Gate" sweepstakes ... *grin*
christine61 on February 29th, 2008 04:07 am (UTC)
An Evening On The Set Of Angel
I'm a big fan. Sounds like a wonderful experience! Thanks for sharing.
bardicvoicebardicvoice on March 6th, 2008 11:29 pm (UTC)
Re: An Evening On The Set Of Angel
Thanks for coming by, and I'm glad you enjoyed it! I've loved everything that Joss has done ... looking forward to Dollhouse now.