Have you ever shot in the desert? If you aren’t a road runner or cactus, I don’t recommend it. Especially the last few days in the Los Angeles area.1
It’s a dry heat, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a hundred and fuck degrees, and there’s no shade within 50 miles, save for the crafty tent, which everyone and their mother is trying to crowd under.
Except that’s not quite true. There are little pockets of shade dotted throughout the set, thanks to our friendly neighborhood grip department. They’ve set up courtesy flags.
For you newbies, this has nothing to do with semaphore. A courtesy flag is exactly the same as a normal grip flag,2 only it’s not used to flag the lights. It’s a flag that grips set for the crew who are unable to move into the shade themselves. Generally, camera operators and video village (if it doesn’t have its own tent), but it can be anybody, really.
This is one of those things that isn’t technically anyone’s job, but because film is a collaborative medium, and on a film set (ideally), people try to pull together however they can. I’m sure it all started one day, 80 years ago, some grip saw a cameraman3 baking in the sun, and thought, “I can solve this problem for him.”
And then it just became a regular part of a grip’s job.
As a PA, you’ll often be told to grab a courtesy flag. On a union show, this means, ask a grip to set a courtesy flag. Under no circumstances should you just grab a flag and c-stand off the truck. You might want to set it up yourself, but remember, you are not a grip. There might be a very good reason a grip would rather set the flag himself than hand it to you.
Now, on a low-budget production with a small crew, there may not be the manpower in the grip department to spare a guy setting up a flag the doesn’t, technically, affect the shot. You may have to set the flag yourself.
Here’s how to do it.
- Grab a c-stand, a sandbag, and a 4 by 4 floppy. This is a flag that is in a four foot by four foot frame, with an extra square fabric that is attached at one end. This can flop down, to make the flag essentially 4’X8′.
- Spread the C-stand legs out. You can turn the stand over, if this makes it easier, but do not rest the stand on its head. You’ll ruin it.
- Set the legs down on a flat surface, with the highest leg facing the direction the arm is going to stick out. This guarantees that, no matter what, the stand won’t fall in the same direction as the arm (which is generally also towards people).
- Drape the sand bag over the big leg. Remember, if the dirt is touching the ground, it’s not doing it’s job. It should be hanging slightly above the ground.4
- Rotate the head so that the knuckle is on the right, when you’re facing the same direction the arm is going.
- Loosen the knuckle, and rotate the arm until it’s more-or-less where you want it to be. Again, rotate it so the knuckle is on the right.5
- Slide the flag into the appropriately sized hole in the arm’s knuckle, and tighten.
- Pull the floppy down, and enjoy the satisfying ZZZZrrrrppp noise the velcro makes.
That’s it. It’s incredibly simple, which is why you’ll see a seasoned grip toss one up in about five seconds.
It’s also why other people fuck it up. They think, “Legs, arm, tighten, yeah yeah yeah.” Then they put the knuckles on the wrong side or face the legs the wrong way, and the whole thing collapses on the director’s head.
Guess who gets fired then?
- Not that I’m giving away where I’m shooting this week or anything…↩
- Black fabric stretched taught over a wire frame, with a handy little rod sticking out for attaching to c-stands, clamps, what have you.↩
- There weren’t a lot of camerawomen back then.↩
- Some people mistakenly think the big leg should face away from the arm, so the sandbag can act as a counterweight. This might make sense intuitively, but if you really think about it, the sandbag is too close to the main post of the stand to have any real leverage, and because of the triangle formation of the legs, your c-stand is now going to fall towards whoever you’re shading (see step 3).↩
- This is so the force of gravity actually tightens the knuckle. Do it the other way, and the weight of the flag will eventually loosen it, and everything will come crashing down.↩