There’s above the line and below the line and then there’s the 1st AD, who is the line.” So says Artist Wynn Robinson, a longtime practitioner of the craft. “We balance the needs of the crew with the director, actors, and department heads and walk a political tightrope every single day.”
Robinson, who has worked for directors such as John Carpenter, John Woo and Ang Lee in his 25-year career, says that “line” was never more stretched than on HBO’s 8-hour period epic John Adams.
“I came on after having just done three features in a row,” recalls Robinson. “My very first night I was charged with the Boston Massacre and running a crew of 700. When we left Richmond and moved to Hungary, all the other department heads except me had already scouted each location and I was leading the production.”
Ensuring that 2,000 extras got through period make-up and were camera-ready by 7 a.m. was just one of the many logistical challenges on John Adams. Keeping out the “alien forms” (i.e. voltage lines, airplanes), as Robinson calls them, was also tough. “Even in a town like Colonial Williamsburg, where everything is period correct, you can have light kicking off a stop sign 200 yards away. Everything in John Adams’ time was lit by candlelight, so hard light coming in from a streetlamp had to be taken out.”
Safety was another key concern. Robinson held meetings before many large scenes, which called for moving cannons in the rain with children and animals, and numerous battlefield explosions. “Even after each safety meeting, I would do a walkthrough with the stunt and VFX coordinators without the director and DP present,” he explains. “We had to establish clear visuals about exactly what was happening because it can get very dangerous out there.”
Robinson learned about taking precautions shooting Rambo III in the Arizona desert, where mortar explosions were buried deep in the sand. Blue flags were raised for dirt bombs and red flags for gasoline bombs. “We had to pull the flags out of the ground right before we rolled camera, and all you could see was desert,” he remembers. “People are screaming to keep things going, and as an AD you have to fight for your ‘final moment’ to make sure the set is truly safe.”
Juggling safety and high-pressure situations is a skill Robinson picked up in his first career in restaurant management. His first movie job was as a PA on Perfect in 1985. “I served breakfast and lunch to Gordon Willis for 109 days, and thought, ‘Wow, I got out of restaurant management to become a waiter in the movie business.’”
But the easygoing Texan didn’t hang around craft services long, transitioning to a Key 2nd and 1st AD within a few years. Even with success, though, he didn’t change his unusual first name. “As a kid growing up in Texas, I could not understand why my mother did that to me,” he drawls. “Then I came out to Hollywood and it actually was a good thing. Everybody remembers me by one name, like Madonna.”