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My Name is Keith

by on October 22, 2010
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Keith Jackson is a guest commentary writer for The Film Yap. He is a Ball State Student who is an executive producer of the on-campus entertainment show The Reel Deal and one of the hosts of And the Nominees Are, a film podcast devoted to reviewing every single Best Picture Nominee.

During the spring semester of my freshman year of college, an interesting opportunity was presented to me: I could work on the crew of a feature film being shot in Muncie, partially funded by Ball State University. As the university’s marketing and PR would say, it was an “immersive learning” opportunity. I didn’t know much about the project when I applied, just Ball State’s involvement, the title: My Name is Jerry, and the star–an alumnus who had gone on to work with Guillermo Del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films. It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years since that moment I submitted my application, and I can honestly say it’s been one of the most worthwhile experiences in my film production career so far.

Over the next couple months leading into the summer of 2008, more and more details were revealed that proved that this was going to be something different from anything else that’s been done at Ball State, or any college in the state for that matter. For once, a marketing buzzword was more than just that. I hate to sound like a shill for the university, but this was “immersive learning”, in that this project featured professionals in all departments making a film like they know how to, with students being part of the process. It was a great experience of not just watching from the sidelines, but actually being “in the game.” Odd for me to make a sports analogy, but that just happened.

On the cast side of things, of course there’s Doug Jones — possibly the nicest guy alive. The project was also able to attract such established actors as Catherine Hicks, from the television show 7th Heaven, Don Stark from That 70’s Show and Allison Scagliotti, who at that time had a small role in Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh. Several theatre actors from Chicago were getting their film debut in this film as well. An interesting thing with doing this film with those younger actors and actresses is seeing where they go afterwards. Scagliotti, for instance, has garnered much popularity for her role on Warehouse 13 and appearances in Party Down and Smallville. Steven Yeun, who plays Chaz in the film, is now a supporting actor on Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead series on AMC. So the film has gotten some retroactive credibility, in a way.

But anyway–my experience. I was hired on as a boom operator in the sound department. Nothing I really aimed to do, but it got me on the set “in the action”, as it were, and it actually takes a lot more skill than one would think. One of the best parts about it was who I was working with: Blair Scheller, a professional sound mixer and boom op. He’s most notably done work for Pirates of the Caribbean 3, as well as Stranger than Fiction, Public Enemies, and more. It was really fun to just pick his brain and learn about experiences he’s had, and he’s also got a really great since of humor. I learned so much about location audio from him, as well–more than I ever have since. Most of all, though, I learned how a film set is run: the structure, the formalities, the traditions, the jargon. Being on-set waiting for the camera to roll gave me many opportunities to simply observe, and I’m glad it worked out that way. I would have been disappointed if I was only able to one thing and one thing only, and not get a grasp of how things worked as a whole.

It’s really hard to think of specific events on the set–it all seems like one 21-day blur. We shot at a pretty good pace, but it consisted of some extremely long days. I think the longest day of the shoot was something like 18 hours, and the average was probably 12. Which, again, is no surprise for a film shoot–and they weren’t going to go easy on us because we were students. It’s also difficult to describe a “typical” day, because we were usually somewhere new every day, which brought its own challenges and obstacles. The sound department consisted of myself, another student and Blair. Every day before crew call, we would load the audio equipment at the production office. Blair had an impressive setup that was all on wheels: a mixer, several recorders, boom poles, microphones, cables, and more could all easily be transported. We would travel to the location and get set up, to be ready for the first shot of the day.

Audio is in a curious spot, since we’re obviously necessary (especially on a independent film where we don’t have the budget to bring actors in for looping), but we’re certainly expected to be out of the way until the very moment before the director calls “action”. A light stand takes precedence over a boom operator, so we couldn’t expect to settle somewhere and think we’ll be there long. And the director or DP may suddenly decide to change the framing, and we’d have to move to the complete opposite side of the room. Don’t mistake this for complaining–it’s simply the nature of a film set. I learned we should always be ready in any situation. The production should never be held up by the sound department.

It ended up that one of my favorite things about working on this film was meeting Doug Jones. I said earlier he’s quite possibly one of the nicest people alive, and that’s no exaggeration. Doug loved to interact with the crew members. I was able to have conversations over lunch a number of times, talking not only about his career, but my life as well and what I planned to do in the future. I find it remarkable that after two years and him undoubtedly meeting thousands of people through conventions and other films, he can still recall the boom operator  of a small film shot in Muncie. His nickname for me is “Mario”, so named after members of the cast and crew were discussing middle names for some reason during some downtime on-set. Doug was a bit further away from us, having some hair and makeup work done, I believe, and he misheard what I said as “Mario”, and the name has stuck since.

I recommend checking out the DVD, and I don’t say that just because I worked on the film. The film itself is very solid, with a great script and wonderful performances. And we were fortunate in having a documentary crew on-set, which made some interesting making-of features. Believe it or not, I even made it onto one of the features (“Behind the Scenes: Ball State University“) and in the b-roll of other features, so you’ll get to see me on there doing my thing.