W.C. Fields always cautioned to steer clear of kids and animals. But Tim Harris says both pale when compared to being a 1st AD on tabletop food commercials. "I'd take a group of infants over a tray of deli meats any day of the week," Harris laughs. "Time is always your enemy. You have to coordinate precisely between each department because if the food stylist brings out the 'talent,' as it were, four hours before camera or grip is ready, your goal of making that roast beef platter look impossibly pretty isn't going to work. People stare at me when I say there's a right and wrong way to AD beer. But it's true! Tabletop is unlike any other area of the industry."
Harris' feelings about food commercials are tinted with some irony, given that he grew up a butcher's son on Chicago's South Side and was sawing away at pork chops when his friends were out playing. But his love for all things Chicago has resulted in a professional shorthand with his longtime peers. Whether it's creating timelines for a three-camera film shoot of a stand-up routine at the Second City Theatre, or putting a Big 10 Conference flag on the back of a production assistant's motorcycle and racing through Chinatown, Harris says he never has a problem asking Chicago-based crews to "go out on the craziest of limbs" just to get the job done.
When network TV season rolls around, Harris puts on his 2nd AD hat for ER, which comes to Chicago four to five times a year to capture the city's most iconic–and busiest–exterior locations. "As a second, I'm typically setting backgrounds," says Harris. "That's very challenging when you're talking about positioning more than 60 extras in high-traffic areas like the Lakefront and it's snowing." Harris recalls one season-ending shoot on Lower Whacker Drive, where several Chrysler 300s were sent tumbling into the Chicago River on a frigid, windy night. "They've done bigger shoots here, but to me, none more challenging nor quintessentially Chicago. The entire AD staff had to ensure everything was done safely and yet in a timely manner. Nobody moves faster than an episodic television crew on location, just like no one moves slower than a tabletop team setting up a motion-control shot on a stage. In the same week, I will get both those extremes, so flexibility is the biggest key to this job."