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
And so we come to 2001. I’m a senior career federal civil servant working in
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
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
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
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
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!