Thursday, November 13, 2014

I Was A Teenage Production Assistant: The Walkie Talkie!

This may seem like a weird sideline post - but the walkie talkie is a hugely important piece of equipment on set - and to put all the info about them into any one show post would inflate it considerably - so instead I'll give the walkie its own post.

One of my duties on some shows was to be in charge of the crew walkie talkies - which is a huge responsibility. A lot of the crew members carry a walkie talkie throughout the shoot. Production (assistant directors and production assistants) work off of channel 1 to run the set. (Rolls and cuts, calls for bells on stage, calls to basecamp to send an actor or all the actors to set, etc). Other departments like props and wardrobe might use walkies on channel 1 to monitor what's going on at the set. Transportation used channel 3 to coordinate movement of actors and basecamp and production trucks and trailers). The grips used channel 5. The electrics used channel 6.

Here's a good photographic overview. You can see the channel switch on
the upper right - the battery removed lower middle, and the transmit button
middle right.

On their own channels, this gives the grips and electrics communication across the wide ranges of sets and they distance to their crew equipment trucks. Sometimes lights were set on giant Condor cranes for night shoots - and an electric would have to go up with the lights and stay up there the whole shoot for any needed adjustments, and of course to bring the crane down at the end of the evening. So they would be communicated to through the walkie. They could also call for drinks or snacks from their crew mates - but they had to take it easy on the liquids - as they seldom had any ability to come down for a bathroom run. Of course, I realize they might well have been taking care of one of those needs right over the side - or into a bottle - and I'm sure that had to be a regular occurrence. But their only break was for lunch - they would douse their lights and bring the Condor down - eat - then right back up.

Internet pic of walkie talkies in use on set.

Channel 2 and channel 7 were left open. These would actually be used for long or private conversations. ("Craig, go to 2.") Of course, whenever that was heard, others would switch over to see if something juicy was being said or if one of the people was going to bawl out the other - so often there would be secret code phrases in certain groups that would send people in that group to channel 2, or 7 without others listening in. One thing that was tried now and again was to say "Go to 2" to your colleagues - but you would all really switch to 7 - or vice versa. The problem with that was you were still plainly announcing that a conversation was about to take place on another channel - so people would switch to the channel mentioned - then, when they didn't hear anyone talking there - they would sometimes jump over and check 7 and hear you - while you're thinking you're being clever. So it was better to use code phrases that didn't sound out of place on the air - "The elephants are purple" would be a little obvious as a code phrase - "Hey do you have two more call sheets I can have?" is a little more clandestine.

Here's me on set with my walkie - this is the Touched by an Angel pilot -
with one of my ultra faves - Roma Downey. *sigh* (That sigh will be
explained when I post about this show - and the reasons why Roma will
always be my favorite actress to have worked with will be clear.)

One thing that would happen sometimes is you would go to 2 and have a chat with someone - then forget you were on a different channel and go on about your business. So now you're hearing nothing on channel 1 - including any direct calls to you to do something. If someone was called a couple of times and didn't respond - others would check channel 2 to see if you were there. "Craig! Are you on 2?" "Oh, yeah!" "Well, get back to 1 - Barbara is calling for the actors!" D'oh!


It was always equally embarrassing to be bawled out on Channel 2 - because you knew others were listening. I got it good from one first AD on one show - he thought I'd responded in an insubordinate way (I had - he was an idiot) and called me to 2 to threaten my job if I ever spoke like that to him again. Later people like the medic - who of course had a walkie so she could be called to set on the run in the event of an accident or injury - said she was sorry he was so mean to me. I appreciated her support - but I would have appreciated her not switching over and listening in the first place. Others told me that they couldn't believe he'd been so harsh to me - even as I was marvelling at how nosy they were.

Walkies in a bank charger.

I guess I should talk about how a walkie works - in case you've never played around with one. You turn them on - and anyone pushing their button and speaking is heard by everyone on that channel with their walkie on. To respond, you push your button and reply. While your button is pushed - you cut off hearing anyone else talking. If two people tried to talk at the same time - neither would be aware - and everyone else would hear this weird garbled sound of the two signals clashing.

They were very expensive. Each walkie was listed on the rental agreement as a $700 or $800 item. That was the cost to production if one was lost or damaged beyond repair. As the guy in charge of them you never wanted to have to tell the production manager that you couldn't track them all down after the show's end. But there were almost always missing walkies. I think they often went home with people. Of course, sometimes one would be damaged or destroyed. That was still bad - but at least the production manager couldn't blame you if a crew member dropped their walkie off a moving vehicle and it got crushed under the wheels.

As a production assistant you always carried two or three spare batteries - so you could switch out any crew members whose batteries had drained out. This was done more often in my first couple of years on shows - as there was an older and heavier walkie in use then. Their batteries would drain out a couple of times a day - so you got extras in your rental package and kept spares charged up so they could be switched, then the empties would go on the chargers.

This is the older walkie - with the battery mounted on the bottom.

After that, the walkies became the newer models seen in the rest of the pics here - those batteries would usually last all day - so you would only need to do an overnight charge and not switch out the battery.

On some shows you were given a walkie in the morning, and you turned it in each night, getting another - probably different - radio the next morning. On other shows you were given a walkie at the start of the show and you kept it and took care of it, turning it back in at the end of the show. Usually a cloth like tape was used - a piece put on the front of the walkie with the user's name or position written on it in Sharpie. "Craig" "First AD" "Wardrobe" - etc. In scanning for some internet pics to use here - I have discovered the ID process has gotten a little more elaborate - and fun - in recent times.

Perfect for a four member team!

You could go with a naked walkie - no headset or handmike - or you could have one of those accessories attached. The headset was a one side earpiece and microphone on a small boom coming around your cheek. A handmike could be stretched up and clipped to your shoulder area - easy to grab to broadcast. The sound also came out there. I never used a handmike - but several first ADs I worked with did.

The headset.

I'm going to tell a few other walkie stories here - they may repeat when I post about the show in question. You can just read those parts with your eyes closed if you want.

The handmike. You could hear and broadcast from the mike itself,
which could be worn closer to the head and kept on a lower volume.

Walkies were pretty sturdy beasts - you could drop them on cement from your chest area and they'd usually be fine. But they had an archenemy - water. Because the battery clicked into place on the back, there was a big open seam all the way around the midsection of the walkie that would allow water in if immersed. So if we were working around water and a walkie went in - it was done. Dead. Sometimes an hour or so after they were pulled out you could take the battery off and see visible corrosion where the water had worked with the battery juice to cook the walkie.

Another fun labelling of the walkies.

Water could get you in other ways - on rainy days - your walkies were in dire danger. There was no way to get them under enough cover - eventually they were going to get moist. Sometimes you would actually lose a walkie to rain - but more often there was this other problem - Right where the headset plugged in to the walkie - the rain would soak in - and the effect it had? It turned the walkie broadcast on, even though the broadcast button was not being pushed. So you're bopping around with the walkie on your hip, clipped to your belt. And unknown to you, the rain you're walking around in has turned your walkie on - so you're solidly broadcasting every word you say to anyone. This has multiple effects. First off, you don't realize everyone is hearing you. Secondly, because your walkie is broadcasting - no one can call you to tell you. Thirdly, you're now blocking the airwaves for more important stuff - like the transfer of information to help get the show in the can. So, here you are talking about the casserole you made last night - and here comes someone RUNNING from the set - "Your walkie is stuck on!" You look down - and there's the telltale red light showing your status. You would have to turn it off, then get somewhere dry, pull the headset plug and try to get the thing dried off. Even if you got that done satisfactorily - there was no guarantee it wouldn't happen again 15 minutes later.

The worst time this ever happened to me - and it was a goodie - was on Dawson's Creek. I have no idea which episode it was (so it may not be repeated when I post about that show) but I was in basecamp near the actor trailers. It was raining. I went into the crew men's room on the honeywagon to take care of a little personal business. The honeywagon always had music in the restrooms from a local radio station. So as I'm standing there I'm listening to Britney Spears' "You Drive Me Crazy." I think you might see where this is going. Yes, I started singing along with the song (don't you judge me!) and walked out of the men's room singing away like there was no tomorrow.

Yes, the walkie had gotten wet and was blasting my impromptu concert to the set - and preventing a camera roll. I hadn't much more than gotten down the honeywagon steps when one of my PA colleagues comes sprinting up to me. As soon as I saw him and the panicked look on his face my spider-sense went off and I just knew - he didn't have to say anything. I looked down - the red light was on. My face immediately matched its redness. I flipped the walkie off and looked up at my workmate - "I was singing while it was on, wasn't I?" He gave me a sympathetic nod, but couldn't help laughing at my horrified reaction. I turned the walkie back on - it was working properly - and I heard my boss on set say "Okay, now that we've been properly serenaded - let's roll cameras!" I could hear the smile on his face - so I faced no punishment other than my own mortification.

When I first started working on shows I used a naked walkie. These were older, heavier models. I would carry it and only clip it sometimes when I needed both hands for something. I didn't have to worry about my open mike causing sound issues because I was stationed far from camera. If I did go near camera I would turn my walkie all the way down or off - a safe move since you're close to the people who would otherwise be calling you on the walkie. Then when you went back out - I'd turn it back up or on.

Well, further in to my career - I had started some new duties - and on this one show I was working with getting actors to set. I had the naked walkie on. A certain actor was called for. He told me he needed something - maybe a look by hair - so he'd be a minute. I passed that along to the set. The first AD - not realizing I had an open walkie right next to the actor - said something unflattering about the actor - who heard it and was promptly very angry and very ready to get to set - to chew out the first AD. Oh boy. I caught a lot of flak about that later in the day - when the first AD had a moment to step away from the set for some chewing of his own.

It happened again a few months later on a different show - with a different first AD - but almost the exact same set of events. Called for actress - needs a couple of minutes - delay communicated to the set - first AD complains about the diva actress - who now blazes to set to yell at the first AD. This time - I was laying low - and one of my colleagues shows up holding a headset. "The first AD says you better plug this in and use it from now on, or else."

I wore a headset every other day I ever worked on productions. Later when I did a couple of smaller shows as first AD - I would not let any of my production staff go with a naked walkie or handmike - if you were working for me you were wearing a headset. Period.

Practicing what I preach. This is from the TV series American Gothic.
That's the lovely and talented Veronica Cartwright from Alien and
The Birds. I loved this coat and this setup - that walkie was perfectly
positioned for ease of use - and gave me lots of slack for my headset cable.

That's it for my long wided nattering on the walkie talkie. Next up for this department will be what I teased last time - getting to work on a reboot of a classic TV show - featuring an Oscar winner and my first meeting with an actor I'd later spend months working with.

Until next post, you Can Poke Me With A Walkie Talkie, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. I always get a kick out of these.

    From what I've seen, it looks like the industry standard nowadays (on teevee shows, at least) is a little bitty secret-service style earpiece, and one of those tiny cell phone type microphones. I do see an occasional old-timer with the more bulky setup, though, so they are still out there...

    1. I'm pleased all signs of my work in the biz haven't gone the way of the dinosaur...

  2. I had no idea walkie-talkies were so important! I also never knew how hard it was to use one.

    1. They can challenge you in ways you never expected!

  3. Cool stuff Craig. I love this behind the scenes stuff.

  4. like Maurice Mitchell said, I had absolutely no idea about the importance of Walkie Talkies in filmmaking. I've been to two movie shoots and as far as I remember, none of the crew used any WTs. Guess nowadays they all use Smartphones and shit?