Poor Man’s Pile-Up

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Poor Man's Pile-Up

One day, during the first season of the Aaron Spelling television series “Savannah“, we found ourselves faced with shooting a scene between the characters Dean (David Gail) and Lane (Robyn Lively). The scene was set at night and featured our two actors sitting in a parked pickup truck beside a moderately busy highway. The problem was, it was in the middle of the day and we were inside the old lumber warehouse that had been converted into our ersatz stage.

We were going to have to fake it.

To simulate a busy highway in the out-of-focus background, it was decided that we’d use a clumsy bastardized offshoot of the time-honored film technique called Poor Man’s Process.

Now, by “we” I of course mean “they”, and by “they” I mean “the electric department”, because it’s always the grips and electrics who control this funny bit of magic. Being a prop guy I was not normally involved in these sorts of things, but in this case they needed some extra hands to make the trick work.

The electrics turned the lights off in the stage and began lighting the actors inside the truck while our Dolly Grip Scotty Leftridge wheeled the dolly up beside the driver’s window of the truck. Our camera operator, Ed Meyers lined up on the actors sitting on the truck – the background of his shot was the shadowy depths of our darkened stage…. exactly the place where they wanted to have car headlights passing in the background.

Meanwhile, the grips and electrics had been busy rigging some headlight rigs into the beds of a couple of empty sandbag carts. The idea being that they would wheel the carts through the background of the shot, parallel to the truck, moving from the right to the left (from Point A to Point B as shown on the diagram above).

So you’ll know what a sandbag cart looks like, here’s a photo of one which was sent to me by Propmaster Elliott Boswell, straight from the set of a film currently in production in the Atlanta area.

Sandbag Cart

Now, the real trick to making these carts look like an endless stream of cars was to keep them moving constantly through the background from right to left with their lights on, then moving them back to their original positions (from the left to the right) while completely blacked out, starting the process all over again once they’d returned to Point A.

Sounds easy, right?

To make this bit of theatre work, each of the two carts needed a Cart Pusher and a Cable Wrangler. Meanwhile, there would be a Light Operator stationed at Point A, ready to control each of the carts’ lights. That’s five people.

I definitely remember Dale Fowler and Dan Cornwall being involved with this silliness because they laughed the loudest. Besides myself, the other people who played a part in this were either Gary Oldknow, Stephen Crowley and/or Joe Connolly… maybe Dale and Dan can remember the other guys for me.

As each cart would roll away from Point A its Cable Wrangler would pay out enough line to let the Cart Pusher get all the way over to Point B, at which point the Light Operator would switch the lamp OFF, allowing the Cart Pusher to begin rolling silently backwards in the dark, headed back to Point A to begin the entire routine all over again… which meant that (in an ideal world) the cable had to be taken back up, hand over hand, into a coil.

The problem was, we weren’t in an ideal world, and we Cable Wranglers (meaning myself) were having a hard time keeping up with the pace. I mean, it was hard to coil those big fat power cables quickly… and they kept wanting us to go faster and faster, to simulate a higher volume of traffic on the road.

About every third pass I would miss taking up one or two loops of cable and my Cart Pusher, Dale Fowler, would end up dragging the wheels of his cart over those missed coils of cable, causing his cart emit a thunderous metallic roar… which was incredibly embarrassing for film techs who are trained to be silent around set, yet this whole situation was so bizarre that we began giggling as the guys ran their fake cars back and forth in the background of the scene.

And it only got funnier…  it was like a 2nd Grade school dance recital gone hysterically wrong.

Our Light Operator, Dan Cornwall, was controlling the lights for both cart teams and at some point, in the midst of all the giggling, he began to get confused about which cart was which and suddenly Dale found himself pulling his cart backwards from Point B to Point A with the lights on… meaning that to the camera our simulated car was going backwards down the highway, from left to right….

…and of course this made us giggle even more, meaning that I would miss the loops in my cable take-up, meaning that Dale would run the cart of the cable yet again (BA-BLAM!!). We were hissing and pointing and hunching over and giggling and kicking cable and it was one of the funniest things I ever did on a show.

Somewhere, in a box, I have a stack of VHS tapes I recorded of almost every episode of Savannah. Maybe one day I’ll pull them out and watch them to see if I can spot Dale Fowler driving his sandbag cart backwards through that scene.

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