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28 December 2009 @ 01:33 am
Five weeks on the set of Alice in Wonderland  

Andrew hangs out with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton every day for 5 weeks.

Well ladies and gentlemen, it appears God had a purpose for making Andrew 5’9”, and that reason was to be the exact height of Johnny Depp. As the fates would have it, after a bit of luck and a few interviews, I landed the job of Johnny Depp’s stand-in for the filming of Alice in Wonderland. Now for those of you outside the film industry (aka, everyone I know, haha), a stand-in serves the purpose of pretending to be the principal actor on set any time the actor is not absolutely needed. A stand-in doesn’t need to look exactly like the actor, but they do need to be the same build and height, hair/eye color, and relative skin complexion and bone structure. Since there is an extensive amount of lighting and blocking required to set up each scene before filming, directors and cameramen will have a stand-in act on behalf of the actor. They will then set the cameras to match your eye-line, measure the light reflectance off your face to adjust lighting, mark the floor (blocking) at each spot you move to determine where you’ll be in relation to the cameras, etc. Then, once the scene is appropriately set up, the actor will swap in and perform the scene for principal photography. Now, having a stand-in for an actor is not because the actor is a big deal, but rather because if you’re shooting 10-15 hrs a day you can’t have the actor on set all day setting up shots when he should be rehearsing, memorizing lines, getting make-up and costumes, eating, resting, picking his nose, whatever. Although standing-in is basically at janitor level as far as status on set, standing-in for Johnny Depp on a $200 million film directed by Tim Burton is kinda like being a caddy for Tiger Woods……yeah, you’re someone’s bitch, and no you’re not the one swinging the clubs, but its still a pretty sweet gig, right?!

First things first, lets describe the film set. The film studio is basically exactly what you’d think of it from what you’ve seen on tv. There’s a gate to get on the studio lot with a guard, and I had a fancy pass I had to flash every day driving in. The studio could best be described as a series of stages (look like airplane hangars), interconnected with narrow streets in between and adjacent areas with the catering cars, trailers for the talent, costume and make-up trailers, etc. Each hangar is a “stage”, and we’re using about 8 or so of the 14 available stages on the lot for this shoot. The stages are roughly 120ft wide x 200ft long x 80ft high. The ceiling is littered with mazes of walkways and scaffolding for hanging apparatuses, lights, and electrical work above the stage (I plan on sneaking up there to explore before the end of the shoot…..but close to the end of the shoot in case I get caught and therefore fired). Adjoining stages are connected by “elephant doors” (again, think of an airplane hangar) which are about 40’x40’ doors to slide open to move equipment between stages. On any given day, we’ll film on as many as three stages, moving all the equipment back and forth as necessary. While we’re filming on one stage, prop and set design is going to town on another stage tearing down and building up the sets as needed. It’s amazing how quick they are. Just as an example, they built the castle and courtyard for the execution in less than 2 days. During filming, the stage is sealed off to the outside world, and a little red lightbulb resembling a silent police siren flashes outside every single door accessible to the stage so that no one enters (creating noise) during filming. Ironically, the first thing I thought of when I stepped on set for the first time was that it looked exactly like you’d picture it to look…..golf carts driving around from stage to stage, funny costumes and props sliding by on racks, people with walkie talkies moving props, the whole works. It’s just like you see on tv. This comes with one exception, everything is much more calculated. TV shows and things like Entourage make it look like a director walks on set with a megaphone, hollers “action”, a car explodes, someone jumps off a roof, and then he yells “cut” and high fives the actor and they’re done. It’s basically that, except there are about 75 people with $25 million of electronics equipment working together on it, and it takes a few hours. The principle photography (filming) probably only covers about 20% of the day I’d say, the rest is all preparation and organizing for the scene.

Another surprising aspect of the filming is how protective they are of the principle talent. I’m talking secret service on the president protective. Now I’m not talking protective in terms of guarding him, I’m talking protective as far as risks during filming. If that actor walks on an elevated plank that so much as squeaks, you bet your ass there are 7 grips on it in two seconds with a menagerie of screws, bolts, and supports to adjust it and make sure it is “safe”. I understand this is for obvious reasons (think what would happen if Johnny happened to break his ankle or get a black-eye, it would set back a production for a few weeks or months that costs several hundred thousand dollars a day to operate (according to production, operating costs on set are $806/minute)), but it still takes some getting used to. Before this, when I heard of “stunts” in movies, clips of Bruce Willis jumping out of an exploding helicopter in a Die Hard movie came to mind. While scenes like that are certainly the real stunts, “stunts” also include things like “tripping on a step” or “getting hit in the shoulder with a foam sword”…..seriously. Therefore, if I ever become a real actor, it looks like I’ll have to adjust my expectations for all the bad ass stuff I hope to do, haha.

I worked on the film for just over 5 weeks, but somewhere around the 3rd week I think Tim Burton started warming up to me. I only say this because he shot me in the ass with a nerf gun, and I’d like to think he’d only do that to someone he liked, haha. We were blocking the scene for the Mad Hatter’s beheading in the Red Queen’s castle courtyard and they were filming a reference shot, so the set was clear with the exception of me with my ass out and head down on the chopping block. All was silent and cameras were rolling, and Tim decided it would be a good time to exploit my vulnerability by walking out on stage in front of 75 crewmembers, lining up his nerf pistol, and shooting me directly in the ass.

In addition to being shot by Tim, the entire crew took the liberty of nicknaming me “Stan-drew”. One of the top set coordinators on the film was named Andrew, which led to some confusion given that the director and cameramen were calling to one or the other of us about 200 times a day on set, which caused mass confusion as we both came to attention when we heard “Andrew”. Therefore, since I was the “stand-in” for Johnny, I was dubbed “Stan-drew” to eliminate confusion, and it stuck quite well. Given that my nickname in college was “Sandrew”, I find the similarity quite amusing.
Paintings for Johnny and Tim

One last exciting aspect of my experience on the film was that I decided to paint two Alice in Wonderland themed paintings, giving one to Johnny Depp and one to Tim Burton once the movie finished. I painted the paintings with specific references to the film, which made them quite neat and personalized. Since Johnny was playing the Madhatter, I painted the fish to literally look like his top hat in the film (i.e. their old leather tone and patchwork on their sides). I also exaggerated the dorsal fin to look more like a top hat, and made the false eyespot above the tail include the silhouette of a top hat. Since Tim Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter, played the Red Queen in the film, I painted his painting with references to the Queen. This included shaping the fish like hearts, exaggerating the eye area to look like an upside heart teardrop, exaggerating the dorsal fin to include a small crown in the front, and painting different card suits (spades, diamonds, clubs, hearts) in the false eyespot above the tail. Besides pulling a few all-nighters to finish the paintings before Johnny wrapped filming, the paintings went well. The last night I painted all night and went straight to set the following morning to give him the painting. Johnny and Tim both loved their paintings, and Johnny said he’s planning to hang it in his house on his island in the Bahamas (yes, you heard correctly, on his island). Additionally, I made a small print of both pieces and had Tim and Johnny sign them for me to keep for myself…..pretty neat keepsake I think.



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