USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Film’
Folk Beliefs
Myths
Narrative
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ghost Light

Background information:

My informant is a theatre major from New Jersey, now living and studying in Southern California. She has told me about many superstitions from the theatre and film world, and this particular one is about the ‘ghost light’ that must be on all sets. There are two reasons for having this light, a practical and a superstitious meaning. I have physically seen this light on one of the sound stages in Warner Brothers studios in Burbank, where the guide concurred with what my friend told me about ghost lights. She doesn’t believe in this superstition, and finds it a little creepy when working late at night when this is the only light on. She is signified in this conversation by the initials B.I.

Main piece:

B.I.: Basically ghost lights are a kind of bare bulb light, usually, which is left on all the time on a set or in a theatre. They’re a bare bulb lighting in a metal frame, in a tall stand. They serve two purposes. Practically, they’re for lighting up a stage or a sound stage out of hours as normally there would be no lights on if a person was working out of hours. The second reason is more superstitious. They say that the ghosts of the stories haunt the sound stages and the theatres, I don’t know if they’re literal ghosts or metaphorical ones, and that the light drives them out. It’s said that all theatres and sets have ghosts, and sometimes people say that having the one light on allows for the ghosts to perform on the stage out of hours, so they’re not unhappy with the living and leave the actual performances themselves alone.

 

Performance Context:

This piece of folklore was related to me in a larger conversation about film and theatre superstitions, in which she related to me the superstitions about “The Scottish Play.” I asked about this superstition in particular after seeing a ghost light on set on a tour of Warner Brother in Burbank.

 

My thoughts:

It seems that the entertainment industry is very focused on superstition. This seems to me to stem partly from the insecurity of success in film and theatre, and the ability to be famous one day and ruined the next. Whilst these are standard facets of the industry, these kinds of superstitions act as a kind of regulating influence, a way for humans to control both their personal fate, and in general the uncontrollable. Overall, one could see most forms of mythology and legend as ways of putting order on those things which are physically unknowable by humans. The idea here that it may be the ghost of a particular performance locates the tale very clearly in the film/theatre world, yet the practical usage of the light as a way for people working out of hours to see both legitimizes those working under the guise of needing light, but believing in the superstition, and actually allows them to get work done. As many sound stages sets in particular do not have overhead lighting, as light is normally moved around during the production, the presence of one stable light allows people to work out of hours without having to interfere with the set.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

“The Room”

“It is just a, you know, one screen theater, one screen thing, and so the entire theater is totally packed, mostly with young people, you know, people in their twenties and thirties. And it’s just like packed. And we sit behind this group of college kids who explain to us that there is certain things that you have to do when certain scenes come up or when certain things come on screen and that one of the most important things is that you throw spoons when there is this picture of a spoon like sitting on the mantle of one of the things in the apartment and so they actually gave us some spoons so that we could do that. So we all four were sitting there going like ‘okay. What have we gotten ourselves into?’ And the movie starts and it is just ridiculous. And we suddenly … it is kinda like Rocky Horror Picture Show, where everybody has their certain things that they say so like when there is water shown, you know the ocean or something like that, everybody in the room screams water. Or, there is a bunch of parts where two of the main characters are throwing a football around so they throw a football. There’s all sorts of stuff like that throughout the entire movie, which is ridiculous in and of itself, so by the end of the night, we realized that this is some sort of like phenomenon that we’ve happened upon that none of us really knew what we were getting into.”

The informant was explaining the first time she went to see “The Room,” but has since been ten or more times since.

Before her first time going to see it though, she had known nothing about it, except that it was a film that something called “Rifftrax” had done (it is a website that has three guys watching a movie and making fun of it on a track you can play alongside the film at home). When she was a sophomore at USC, she saw an ad for a screening of the “The Room” in Westwood Village and asked her roommate if she would go with her. However, the movie screening started at 12am, so they decided it would be better to get a bigger group and asked the two guys that lived across the hall from them.

When the four of them got to the screening, they immediately saw people dressed up as characters from the film and reanacting scenes from the film, making them realize that this screening was a much bigger thing than they had believed. They also learned it was screened there every first Saturday of the month. The theater was filled with people between in their thirties, but also a lot of college students because of it being near two huge universities. It became clear to the informant that a lot of the audience members had been going to this for some time. On top of everything, a Scandinavian news program was there interviewing people as to how they came to find it. The four of them realized this wasn’t even just local, but was also known internationally.

After their first experience, the group started taking anyone they could convince to go. The group continued to grow and soon became a regular thing, with their own traditions building along with it of getting desert at Diddy Reese in Westwood Village, then getting tickets and waiting in line.

In regards to the actual screening, the informant explained that what is being yelled or acted out is usually led by a few people who are the loudest, with the rest of the audience following along with them. There are certain things that are always said, but there is also a ton of room for variation. People are always yelling out something entirely of their own, which sometimes will build into the “routine” of sayings.

The informant feels as if she has been accepted into this sort of cult surreptitiously. She felt even more exclusively in the group when the star, director, producer of the movie, Tommy Wiseau, came to a screening to sign autographs and she got her “Room” t-shirt signed by him.

The informant relayed this story to me while driving us back to Los Angeles. This informant is a relative. The informant has also taken me to see “The Room.”

Having personally experienced “The Room,” I can say I also am part of “The Room” group. This is solidified after you go the first time because you definitely feel like an outsider not knowing what or when to say the specific things. I found it to be an extremely fun experience, but I believe that it is made fun because of the group that you create. Inside jokes and memories are made there others will never understand until experiencing it for themselves.

Legends
Narrative

Two Directors on a Tour

Folklore:

This participant performed this story as if he was on a college tour, since he learned it in his training to become a tour guide.  

“I don’t really know it that well, but I’ll try. So this right here is the School of the Cinematic Arts courtyard, and here you’ll see two buildings: the George Lucas building and the Steven Spielberg building. Now, does anyone know who actually went to USC? …  It was actually George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg was actually denied from USC, legend has it, not once, not twice, but three times. And um, so uh, the reason why the building is here, you’re probably wondering why this building is here when he didn’t go here. Well, legend has it that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had a bet a long time ago, when Lucas was working on the first Star Was. The bet was, whoever’s movie did worse in the box office would have to donate to a building, or at least a large sum, to the others’ alma mater. So they agreed to this bet, blah blah blah, time goes on, and guess who’s movie did better? George Lucas’ because it was the first Star Wars. So Steven Spielberg, unfortunately, had to donate this building to George Lucas’ alma mater, which is the University of Southern California. Now we have two buildings at the School of the Cinematic Arts, well many buildings, but two facing each other the George Lucas building and the Steven Spielberg building.”

 

Context

This legend is told on tours to prospective film students. The participant doesn’t know if it’s actually true, and prefaces the story on his tours by saying so. This would be told in the cinematic arts school, in the courtyard between the Spielberg and Lucas buildings. In my collection, it was performed while working in the office.

 

Background information

There are a lot of legends in the Tour Guide’s office, both that are brought up by the tour guides and brought up by guests. If you were to ask tour guides to tell you about the legend of the Lucas and Spielberg bet, you would probably hear 100 different versions.  Just like you might hear 100 different tours all together, each of us have nuanced performances of each of our informative tours.

 

Personal Analysis

This legend is interesting because of the dynamic between the tour guide and the guest. The guest comes to USC to get an informative experience that will aide them in their decision of what college to go to. While tour guides do not claim to know the true validity of this legend on their tours, it is still interesting in that it leaves an impression upon the student.

The tour guides also are taught these legends, either formally or informally, through their training to become a tour guide. So while the validity of the bet remains a mystery, its perpetuation year after year, through the teaching of new workers, gives the story credit in it of itself.

general
Humor

Lights off on Elm Street

Folk Piece

“The movie nightmare on Elm Street was filmed in my town, on Elm Street. One of the things that’s been a legend on elm street is that cars would be driving on Elm Street, like at night, and there would be a car behind them and they could see it and they could see it, and then all of a sudden it would just disappear. And suddenly someone would appear in front of their car. It was just like super freaky, and I don’t know, that’s just one of the stories that I’ve heard. So my friend tried to like fuck with people at night because he had an all black car that was really quiet. So he could like drive up right behind people and when there was nowhere to turn or anything he would turn off his lights and just roll on behind them and people would like pull over and freak out that he was like gone, but he was actually there the whole time”

 

Background information

The informant began by saying “Well, my town is boring, I don’t think we really have many cool stories or anything… Well, we did have Elm Street from that movie.” She had said that she’d never seen the movie, but that it had an impact on the way that people thought about the street. Especially kids her age, that weren’t born for another decade after the movies’ premiere, would tell stories of Elm Street, but not necessarily ones that originated from the movie.

 

Context

“No, it wasn’t just my friend, a lot more people did it. But, like, he just drove down it a lot and yeah, he did a few times.” She said that the prank itself was done by a lot of people, mostly older high schoolers, though. She had never witnessed it herself, but only heard about it.

 

Analysis

Pranks, or practical jokes, are performed for a variety of different reasons. In this circumstance, the prank is driven by a legend about a mysterious figure that would appear in front of people’s cars on the street where A Nightmare on Elm Street takes place. The legend is so widely known, that the exploitation of a plot point in the story can lead to drivers becoming very scared. It is interesting to note that A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t have a scene where there are cars driving down the road and the lights turn off. The original authored story transformed the street itself into somewhat of a legend, which in turn was exploited as a prank. This transition from authored material, to legend, to prank could be explored further with more data from other town members.

Also interesting is that older high schoolers are the one performing this prank. Presumably, these are drivers that had just acquired their license and are given some autonomy. That they take this new found freedom and also exploit it for humor and rebellion shows why this might be such a popular prank in this town.

general

Film Company Hazing

SS interned at a production company, and experienced occupational folklore in the form of hazing. When someone at her company messed up as bad as she did, they would be forced to coil cables indefinitely.

SS: Once upon a time when I was a wee lassie, young, naive, full of enthusiasm for the art of filmmakimg, I in my ignorance accepted an internship at a local prod. company in Tucson, Arizona. The production company was supposed to train me in grip and electric work on film sets in addition to giving me a better understanding of how film industry worked. one evening, the most useful work they could put their intern to do was to go through the email of the previous owner of the company. This owner never ever understood how technology worked. This man is a modern dinosaur. It was astounding he could even turn on the computer. So when I was given the task to clean out this guys email (had had it for 10+ years), tidy it up, and find contacts I knew it would be daunting, but never knew it would be impossible. As I ventured to the abyss of this inbox, I realized there were over 15,000 unopened emails in which I have to find any important filmmaking connections. So I’m going through and trying to set up a system. I learn this guy’s entire life, lots of personal details just by going through his email. My boss comes in and says ‘Hey if you find any pics, download those as well.” So sure enough I find a few emails with pictures and try to download. It doesn’t work. I keep clicking download, download download. The I realize the computer is frozen. Completely overloaded and overworked. Ok, just gonna take a step back and give it some time to breathe. An hour goes by. The little rainbow wheel of death is still spinning. The boss comes in and asks “Are you done yet?”

“Fuck no, also the computer’s frozen.”

“Turn it off and back on.”

I leave work at 5 o’ clock usually. Clock hits 5, gotta go, man. I think it might just need to figure itself out overnight. Later, I realized what I had done was download 6,000 copies of this picture to the desktop. The next Thursday, I get back to my internship. No one is speaking to me. This guy goes “Hey do you know what you did to the computer? Well, you completely destroyed that computer.” Whoa danger zone, unprotected. Long story short, they had to take computer into apple store, because it wouldn’t respond for 3 days. Took some cray diagnostic.

“We aren’t going to let you do anything on the computer today, instead we have a different assignment for you.” They’re obviously pissed.

Keep in mind, it’s a casual 100 degree day in Tucson, Arizona. My new job: go outside and recoil a bunch of massive cables that were coiled counterclockwise. I had to recoil them all over, in clockwise direction.

They told me that “we know you’re not really good at coiling cables, so we thought this would be good practice.”

It was ACTUALLY ABUSIVE I went home and listened to music people picked cotton to I felt like I could relate for the first time in my life to slaves. I couldn’t move for 2 days. It’s the heaviest cable that exists. Also, I still can’t coil cord.

Folk Beliefs

Avoiding Exclamation Marks in Film Titles

The informant is an 18-year-old Film Production Major, freshman.


 

According to the informant, there is a tradition in Hollywood filmmaking to avoid exclamation marks in movie titles, for they are considered bad luck to box office success. Under the tradition lies a paranoid tradition of film studios avoiding any decisions outside the norm, so as to not risk a poorer performance in profits. Therefore, this tradition is rooted in a likely statistic that films with an exclamation mark in the title make less money, whether by chance or a subliminal dislike of Americans towards exclamation marks. As a result, the informant claims he also avoids using exclamation marks in any films he produces in the School of Cinematic Arts, perpetuating a widespread habit among filmmakers.


 

Digital
Musical

STAR WARS “IMPERIAL MARCH” DJ BATTLE

ABOUT THE INFORMANT:

My informant is a senior graduating this semester from USC. He is a biomedical engineer, and is the oldest son of two immigrants from China.

EXAMPLE:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uw0v6kkasMk

DESCRIPTION:

“This is this weird video I found a while ago when I was searching through the bowels of the internet. I guess it’s this DJ {DJ Skratch Bastid} like scratching the Star Wars song on turntables. Not the like heroic one, the one that Darth Vader comes out to all the time. But it’s like during this head-to-head DJ battle, and he basically just plays this out of nowhere and shuts it down.

It’s just such a classic song, you know? It’s legendary. To pull that out so spontaneously, to mash it up that way, it’s really unique. Because, like, everyone knows that song and Star Wars and Darth Vader. It’s just a show stopper.”

ANALYSIS:

The setup here is that two DJ’s are battling back and forth, with each DJ allowed a certain amount of time to cut and scratch the records of his choosing. The idea is that from the music and sounds that someone else made, using the turntables, a person can make a new song or beat to it.

This is similar to mashup culture in general; in fact it is most likely the precursor to it, as this whole DJ culture of mixing and mashing records together has been popular for several decades.

The idea of mashups in general already create some grey area as to who the writer, owner, and author of the piece of music is, considering that it someone, the DJ, is using other previously authored, by the artist, pieces of music, which are owned by the record label, to create new music.

This version adds a new wrinkle to it, in that the new music created is in fact a cover of the “Imperial March” written by John Williams from the Star Wars films. This is therefore a mashup of previously recorded material. The folklore here has a few different dimensions to it.

The Star Wars films are unequivocally one of the most iconic film franchises of all time with its music being equally as recognizable. The song in question is the theme to the villain in the film, one of the most famous villains in all of cinema, and therefore carries a sort of clout and power with it. For someone to use the song in a head-to-head battle is almost like asserting your authority over them because of the context behind it.

Here, the song takes on a new power to it than it originally did when it was featured in the films because it contains all of the lore of the Star Wars films behind it.

Hear the original “Imperial March” in the Star Wars films.

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

How many…

Informant Bio/Context

The following series of jokes was told on the set of a USC student music video. My informant was helping out as a grip (crew member who works setting up lights and moving equipment).  She is currently a film student at USC and often works in the sound department, but like most USC film students she has held positions in other departments as well.

Jokes

How many actors does it take to change a lightbulb? One – they change it and the world revolves around them.
How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Do we have to change it?
How many producers does it take to change a lightbulb? Does it have to be a lightbulb?
How many electrics does it take to change a lightbulb? It’s not a lightbulb, it’s a “globe.”

Analysis

This series of jokes is best heard all together as my informant told them because it makes clear the comparison between the departments. My informant liked them because she herself has functioned in each of the roles mentioned above on a film set, and has noticed that her perspective on a particular task or issue does change with each job.

The joke plays on stereotypes of each role, but also simply their function as part of the collaborative process of making the film. Actors are viewed as vain and egotistical, however it is also true that all of the work done on a film set “revolves around” them, as its their actions that drive the movie. Writers are portrayed as those whose visions are trampled on by the changes asked of them by directors and producers, but they are also here seen to be defensive of the integrity of their work. The implication about producers here is that they will always look for an easier, and more cost effective solution than what it written, and it always shows them to be people who think outside the box. Electrics (film crew in charge of all electrical equipment on a set, including lighting) are portrayed here to have a specific way of viewing their equipment, and special terms for it, that differs from most others’ perception. The joke says that electrics are an exclusive group on-set, welcoming only to those who understand their methods, equipment, and terminology.

My informant felt that these implications about each department, both positive and negative, were accurate. Because of her experiences in these departments she enjoyed that the jokes clearly separate each department from one another, showing that no one on a film set is going to look at something the same way as anyone else will, because every department is in charge of considering different things. With actors its the performance, writers the story, producers the money, and electrics the gear.

I think the jokes also show that each department views their interpretation of the object as the one that makes the most sense and is most important to the making of the film. The humor in the joke comes from this separation of points of view.

Folk speech
Humor

F*** Sound

Informant Bio/Context

My informant attends the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts’ film production program. She is primarily focused on camera and lighting work and works often as a director of photography (crew member in charge of lighting scenes and composing shots in the camera). On a recent student film set she told the following joke while waiting for the director to finish rehearsing with an actor. The camera was already set and ready to go, and she reflected that it was a good thing that on this project they didn’t need to worry about recording sound.

Transcript of Joke

So this actress comes to Hollywood, right, and she’s having trouble you know, um, getting in. So she decides to sleep with a sound guy. And afterwards everyone’s all like, why’d you sleep with a sound guy? You should sleep with the director. Sleep with the director. And she says, well everyone’s always saying, fuck sound! Fuck sound!

Analysis and Background

After telling the joke the informant told a brief anecdote about a set experience she had where the assistant director (set manager) needed to find the production mixer (crew member who records sound on the set) in order to shoot a shot because in between shots the production mixer had fallen asleep and was not responding to calls. The informant herself took the joke as a humorous comment on the fact that the sound department has a lot of down time on sets. Like the actors, they are really only needed just before and through the recording of takes. Much of the rest of the time spent on a set changing lighting and re-dressing set pieces is time during which the sound department has nothing to do which gives them, according to my informant, the appearance of having an easy job and being lazy workers.

My reading of this joke however is more focused on the gender and position of power of the subjects in the joke. The main character in the joke is an actress who is portrayed as naive and desperate for fame. The joke plays upon a general belief that sex will help one, especially a woman with little experience, to get ahead in the film industry. The joke assumes a “green-ness” to actresses in Hollywood. The laugh comes from the understanding by film crews of  the truth behind the statement that “everyone’s always saying, fuck sound” and that newcomers to Hollywood would not understand why that is and would misinterpret the meaning. The actress who is new to town can hardly be expected to know the perception of sound technicians with film crews.

Also notice the use of the term sound “guy.” Rarely in the film industry does one refer to a crew member using a female pronoun – often the word “person” is substituted for “guy” or “man” if one is attempting to be politically correct, or even to refer to a female crew member. The gender dynamics of this joke indicate that it is young, naive girls who seek fame and fortune in a male-dominated work environment, where sex appeal is their only power. The desperation of the actress to break into the film business also hints at the brief shelf life of actresses, who seem to age quicker (and lose that sex appeal) in the public eye than male actors. This reveals not so much a gender bias among film workers as a tradition of acceptance of the fact that many roles in the film industry have historically been filled by men – particularly skilled crew roles.

The fact that the gender dynamics of the joke held even when being told by a female director of photography reveals that while the dynamics of film crews and the business itself may change, a stereotypical image of the film industry planted in the 1920s still holds in the public consciousness, and is source of ironic amusement even to modern film workers.

Customs
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Animation Christmas Tradition/Pinata/Effigy – American

“We in, at my animation school every year we decide to – we make a piñata based on a recent…so Polar Express made it one year. We made a piñata of Tom Hanks in Polar Express and uh, we were gonna beat the crap out of it but unfortunately they made it out of duct tape so…boy it was a long, everybody got a swing. I thought they – then ended up having to tear it down and stomp on it and then it – ah, why duct tape! It’s like that’s not even fun! Actually no, it was fun. But I’ll tell you what it took us an hour then we were like something’s wrong. [Laughs.] This is, this is a – and we had a metal bat. We’re like, okay, something is up about this piñata. This piñata is really resilient! Okay. So finally we tore enough away that we realized, I was like, “Who made it out of duct tape!? What the heck!?” “Well, I don’t know we wanted to make sure that everybody – ” because the previous year, you know it was like bam bam done. [Makes grumbling noises.]”

The informant is a 25-year-old Story Board Artist and animator who works in television. She is originally from Denver, Colorado and moved to Los Angeles for college and work.

This particular incident took place during the California Institute of the Art’s (CalArts) Character Animation department Christmas party. Before describing this installment of the beating-of-the-animation-pinata tradition she told me she was unhappy when Polar Express came out because “It was gross, because the people didn’t move and animators are starving thanks to motion capture.” The informant, is an animator, though “not a starving one” but she does “have starving friends thanks to motion capture.”  She also was opposed to motion capture on a technical level:

“The effect is similar to mascots walking around Disneyland with giant hats. They move natural but it doesn’t make any sense with the character shape because you have to – if the character has a giant head and is a penguin or something they should not move like a human being! But they do and motion capture looks really gross.”

She then repeated that “animators are starving” because of motion capture.

The year before the pinata was “the bee from Bee Movie,” though it was not motion capture it was just a bad silly movie. “Besides everyone likes killing bees. They’re an endangered species.” “You cannot hit bees in real life so we make piñata bees,” the informant told me.

I think this is pretty clearly a cathartic tradition. The animators are frustrated that they are getting put out of the job by this, as they consider it, second rate technology. They cannot take any direct action against the inventor and users of motion capture, but they can make a pinata that represents all of that and beat it with a metal bat.

I would argue that this example of a holiday tradition is an interesting twist on the practice of beating or burning effigies of political figures in order to protest their policies or actions. The same day the informant was telling me about her Polar Express pinata, protesters in Pakistan were burning an effigy of American President Barack Obama as well as the American flag to express their anger regarding the recent US attacks on tribal Pakistani areas (Rodriguez). The anger toward the figure-in-effigy in both cases is clearly there. The bitterness in the informant’s voice as she talked about her friends that couldn’t get a job because of the widespread use of motion capture tells us that her mental state in beating the Polar Express pinata was more akin to that of the Pakistani protesters than a child having fun at a birthday party. Seen in this light, this tradition is surprisingly political.

Works Cited:

Rodriguez, Alex. “U.S. drone attack kills 25 in Pakistan.” Los Angeles Times 23 April 2011. Accessed online: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-pakistan-drone-attack-20110423,0,5711991.story?track=rss.

[geolocation]