The sometimes inherent connotation of "2nd unit" as an afterthought or supplemental team on films and television shows — those gag guys on the fringes with the cars, guns and inserts — was up for center-stage duty October 4 during the DGA AD/UPM/TC Mentor Committee's seminar "2nd Unit: What You Need to Know Today to Get It Done!"
And the key word, repeated often that Saturday morning, was "Communication" — as in between the 2nd unit director, his first assistant director and director of photography but, more importantly, between this trio and the people holding the same posts on the 1st unit as well as the unit production manager and stunt coordinator.
Panelist Charlie Picerni — who, as a 2nd unit guru and/or stunt boss has shot, pulverized or exploded a few depots worth of ordnance and several well-stocked car lots through the years in the name of Hollywood's lenses — emphatically reiterated to the gathering of more than 100 ADs, UPMs, stunt coordinators and 2nd unit directors: "Communication. Communication. Communication!"
Among the panel's main concerns, according to UPM Randy Turrow, who organized the seminar, was industry-wide maintenance of 2nd unit work as an integral part of any crew. As well, Turrow said, 2nd unit personnel have to be more acutely aware of their role in facilitating computer graphics to be added later, particularly the suddenly popular gravity-defying, three-dimensional CGI work employed on The Matrix films.
Also discussed were scheduling and budgeting, safety and aerial work, using main actors in 2nd unit work, cost efficiency and calling off stunts that are too dangerous. "Nothing in this business is worth the loss of life or limb," said panel moderator and UPM Cleve Landsberg.
2nd unit director Jeff Jenson, who also is a stunt man and coordinator, explained how to avoid a few of the pitfalls that tarnish 2nd unit status. "Communication is first," Jensen said. "And being involved on the project as early as you can is equally important, starting with storyboards and locations. Issues can come up at locations. I've been on pictures in which the 2nd unit was bigger than the 1st unit, and all the 2nd unit stuff was storyboarded so that the storyboard artist was directing the film. From my experience, it's crucial to know exactly what the director wants and what the 1st unit is doing, so that the 2nd unit can't be accused of shooting its own movie. You have to study the 1st unit. The footage you shoot has to be integrated with what the 1st unit is doing. You can shoot a lot of good-looking footage, but it has to fit seamlessly into the film."
Fellow panelist Kees Von Oostrum, whose more than 50 DP credits include the Civil War epics Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, agreed, stressing that it's vital for the units to gain the trust of each other. "Shoot what they ask for first," he said. "If the director says, 'I need these three cuts' [from the 2nd unit], get those three cuts. Don't put them off until the end of the day so that you might return with only one of them. Get his three cuts first and establish the relationship."
Panelist D. Scott Easton, an AD and UPM, explained that carving the script into 1st and 2nd unit work usually involves splitting out what scenes contain dialogue and those that do not. "That's dictated by the script," he said. "But, sometimes, the script will go on, and there, down on an eighth of a page, will be the notation: 'World War II continues.' You have to determine the size of the special effects and the size of the stunts. Then you have to determine whether you're going to do matte work or CGI to complement the stunts."
This can be a trial-and-error process that eats the budget. Landsberg recalled a scene from Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey was supposed to go over Niagra Falls while he interviewed a man in a barrel. How to accomplish this was debated from pre-production on into production.
"The director, AD, DP, 2nd unit, park personnel, FAA, New York State Film Commission, pre-viz people, helicopter pilots — we all debated the pros and cons of how to do it," he said. "We finally decided to use helicopters using a stunt guy in a barrel with a hook." Then, it was decided that it was too expensive, even for a $90 million production. So, we shot background plates and built everything we needed in front of a green screen at Universal Pictures."
The knowledge of what CGI can do for you has increasingly become a money saver for filmmakers. "On The One the 1st unit was falling behind for a scene in which the cops were after Jet Li," said UPM and visual effects supervisor Susan Zwerman. "They fell three days behind. But then we saved those three days by shooting it with CGI. We used the storyboard for guidelines."
Discussions of safety produced war stories, including a few close calls with helicopters during which communications were a problem. The panel members emphasized that all 2nd units check out the references on all pilots, stunt coordinators and stunt people. Jensen emphasized that if productions are shooting abroad, the safest way to rig and pull off gags is not with locals, but with experienced Hollywood pros. "If I'm working overseas," Jensen said, "I usually bring a small team with me. I like to bring experienced people, especially to do the rigging.