Josh Vs. Mystery Diagnosis

I just worked on my first ever professional set!

I was an unpaid Production Assistant for Discovery Channel’s “Mystery Diagnosis” – a show that is basically a non-fiction House without witty repartee. I was helping to shoot the re-enactment portions of an episode about some lady from Wilmington who was the victim of some crazy type of cancer that’s really hard to diagnose. It was a two-day shoot.


Thomas Jefferson Medical Center, Philadelphia
Call Time: 8:45 am

I show up ten minutes early and find nothing but a confused actor (Doctor #1) with a day job to get to in an hour. After waiting thirty minutes, we were joined by the hospital’s P.R. manager and his assistant, who told us we weren’t supposed to be there yet. The crew didn’t show up until 9:45, effectively shattering my fears of rigid professionalism.

The thing that really blew my mind was how many of them there were: Three. I was expecting a full crew like we had in school, but this was a bare-bones guerilla-style crew.
They were Kaitlin the Producer, Joe the Associate Producer, and Tom the D.P.
I was their fourth man.

I worked right under Tom, an awesome guy, and apparently impressed. The equipment was mostly stuff I was very familiar with, and any of my camera crew from SCAD would know very well: Camera – Sony Z7U with a Manfrotto tripod and a hi-hat; Lights – Arrilite 300, 650, Kinoflo Diva, and Photofloods with a China Ball; Grip – K-stands, no gobos, and a small selection of clamps and road-rags; no sound equipment; no slate.

My first job was to operate a wheelchair dolly. In fact, half of the stuff we did would have gotten us in trouble at SCAD. Craft Services was some chips, some water, and lunch was take-out sandwiches. The whole day we were running behind, dropping shots and entire scenes as we went, but we seemed to get everything the producer wanted anyway. The lead actors were the victim of the disease, her family, and her doctor. The other actors were non-professionals who replied to Craigslist postings. Continuity was usually ignored, and no logs were taken.

I almost felt over-trained by SCAD.

It was great.

Since there were only two people on the camera crew, the D.P. and myself, I got real direct training on how to light scenes with one or two lights, and definitely caught up on lighting stuff that I saw people do at SCAD but hadn’t done myself. The only real confusions were usually in how things were referred to. For instance, he called C-47s “clothespins” and when striking a light he would say “I’m turning on this light, watch your eyes.” How strange.
(he later told me it’s for the benefit of the non-professional actors on set, and that narrative sets would refer to C-47s as “bullets” and lights as “guns.” Bad-ass.

The crew were all freelance people focused on reality television, and were not guild members. The most interesting story about reality production was how they do “WifeSwap” – they turn up the heat, underfeed the families, and tell them outrageous lies about what other people say in interviews, just to get them to yell and cry. It’s pretty sick. The A.P. was saying those are the absolute worst to produce, and that shows like Mystery Diagnosis are pretty cushy, despite tight shooting schedules and low budgets.

Now, I don’t know how much of this is just because this was a documentary show with a lot of room for slack in the re-enactments, but it was definitely not on the professional level of a senior film at SCAD. At all.


Some house in Wilmington

I get there at about 7:50 and, of course, wait about 30 minutes for the crew. When they get there, the first thing we do is remove the equipment from the house I believed to be our shooting location.

The A.P. pulls me aside.
“This is awkward…”
What’s awkward? Are they firing me?
“The family wants us to shoot here, but they don’t have air conditioning and their house is tiny.”
Are those problems? That sounds usual.
“So we’re shooting at the daughter’s house. They’re not happy.”

So they have to explain the situation to the family who don’t really understand (*sniff* “This is the house where it happened” “The audience don’t know that” “My friends will wonder why it’s not this house”) (30 min), program the GPS (like 20 minutes, I don’t know why), and get there (should be 10 minutes, was 20; they drove like they were trying to lose their tail, except I was their tail).

When we got there I understood why the mother was reluctant to shoot here. It’s the worst of the soulless yuppie houses, and it looks like no one ever lived there. There are also small children. I don’t know how you can both have an empty perfectly clean yuppie house and small children, but they managed some how.

Anyway, we get to work, and at this point I’m setting up scenes almost single-handedly. He actually handed the lighting over to me for a scene, and liked what I did, which completely blew my mind. I felt like a real D.P.

At one point I took notes on something the D.P. said about the lights, and he was so surprised that he turned into a fount of film knowledge and advice. It was pretty crazy. Pretty soon, he was asking me my favorite filmmakers, shooting style, etc. Dude even gave me his card.

We wrapped two and a half hours late and parted ways, and they were all very thankful. Since I couldn’t join them for the drinks they’d been promising me, the D.P. slipped me 40 bucks, which I have decided turns it into a paid gig.

So at the end, I have $40, connections in New York, professional work on my resume, more experience, and confidence that a SCAD degree more than prepares you for the professional world. I’d say that’s well worth two 15-hour days of hard work.


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