Spotlight on gaffer Erik Messerschmidt

Hailing from a small town outside of Portland, Maine, Erik Messerschmidt is an established gaffer who has worked on the hit show BONES since 2006. When not working in episodic television, Messerschmidt works on features – most recently with LOVELACE, a biopic starring Amanda Seyfried. In this interview, he tells us a little about himself and what his tools of choice are.

Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been doing this work? What inspired you to get into filmmaking?

EM: I’m originally from a little town outside Portland, Maine where I started my career working as a PA at a local ABC television affiliate during the summer in high school. That was a great job as I was exposed to so many different types of production. We did live studio work and small regional commercials, industrials, and documentaries. I was often involved in the lighting on those projects so I was exposed to the equipment very early. After high school I studied film production at Emerson College in Boston. While in film school, I shot lots of student films and had the opportunity to work in Boston’s thriving independent film community as an electrician and grip. I joined the IATSE Local in Boston while I was in college and worked on commercials and features full time in the summers as a electrician, best boy and sometimes gaffer on smaller projects. It was a great way to start out. After Emerson, I moved to LA and continued to work as a gaffer on low budget movies and commercials and eventually got in the union here. I’ve always been inspired by the problem-solving aspects of filmmaking and love a good challenge. My favorite thing about this job is when you get a bunch of talented people in the room they come up with great solutions to otherwise hopeless problems.

What is your favorite movie?

EM:
My favorite movie is CHINATOWN. I saw it as a young teenager and it’s the first time I remember noticing a film’s visual style. It left a tremendous impression on me.

Favorite project that you’ve worked on?

EM:
I shot a documentary called IN A DREAM for a director whom I went to school with. We made the movie over seven years between projects and on the weekends. Much of the film was shot on 35 mm, which is rare these days for docs. We ultimately took the film to several festivals including the Camerimage cinematography film festival in Poland. I’m really proud of that project.

You work on a really diverse slate of projects, from TV to indie and blockbuster studio films. What lights do you depend on?

EM:
I recently bought the whole line of incandescent True Blue Fresnels from ARRI and couldn’t be happier. They’ve been unbelievable workhorses. Every DP I work with remarks how clean they look in comparison to some of the older equipment we’re used to working with. It’s not only their color consistency, but also the flood/spot range and brightness are unprecedented improvements over other lights of similar wattage. LOVELACE was the first film in a while where I haven’t carried any 20Ks. I have two ARRI T12’s that I think we used almost every day in some capacity. I love those lights. I don’t think it gets much better in terms of light quality, brightness, and design. They’re my favorite on the truck.

Other lights that we use a lot of are, of course, the M18 and ARRIMAX. Both of which are must-haves. We used our M18s every day where we used to use 4Ks and 6Ks. We couldn’t believe the output we were getting out of that little light.

It’s not only their color consistency, but also the flood/spot range and brightness are unprecedented improvements over other lights of similar wattage.

On LOVELACE, how would you describe the lighting style? With the subject matter you are dealing with, I imagine there was a lot of nudity or simulated nudity. How was it lighting with this in mind?

EM:
We had a very ambitious schedule on LOVELACE with some tough locations. DP Eric Edwards shot 16 mm on LOVELACE and we rated the film at 250 ASA, which was a challenge on some of our night exteriors for the lower budget level. We tried to give the camera as much freedom as possible and often integrated as much lighting in frame as we could. The art department was fantastic in helping us with practicals and street lamps, which did a lot of the work for us on some of our night exteriors. Much of the film was shot on location in small hotel rooms and real 1950’s era homes with short ceilings, so we were often limited in where we could put our lights. While there was quite a bit of nudity and some tough subject matter on LOVELACE, the cast was so professional and accommodating that it never felt like we needed to address the lighting any different. We just lit the scene as best we could to give them the space they needed to work.

Can you describe a scene that you were especially pleased with? What did you like about it?

EM:
We shot a scene on LOVELACE in a theater where Hugh Hefner (James Franco) is screening DEEPTHROAT. Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) comes out for a bow after the screening and is greeted by tremendous applause. The production couldn’t fill the theater with extras due to costs, but we still had to show the expanse of the theater. DP Eric Edwards came up with the solution of putting Source 4s in the back of the house rimming the audience heads in the first few rows. When we added smoke, the empty seats in the background disappeared. It was a great effect as the point sources showed how big the theater was without showing the absence of audience members. It was very clever.

You’ve done over 100 episodes of the TV series BONES. In terms of your work, what did you enjoy about being able to do on this production?

EM:
Television is a great place to develop your management skills. In TV you get to reflect on your mistakes and make subtle corrections until it’s a fine running machine. That can be a fun process, especially on a bigger budget show like BONES where we were given the resources we needed to make things efficient. The studio still expects feature-quality images on a fast schedule. On any given episode we might be in a mineshaft, or airplane, or prepping a last minute night exterior so you really have to be on your toes to survive.

I’m fortunate to have what I think to be the finest crew of electricians and support staff in Hollywood. Andrew Korner has been my best boy for much of my career. He and I have a great working relationship. I rely on him a lot to keep things running smoothly.

You’ve been working on film and digital productions, do you find yourself lighting differently according to the format?

EM:
I don’t find the method is much different when working digitally, but we often light more with less, if that makes sense. Where we used to work at 100 foot-candles on the set it was easy to make subtle changes to the lighting as 50 FC was a stop less. Managing a fall-off or exposure difference of five or 10 foot candles is not a big deal in that situation.

These days with digital, we may be keying at five foot-candles or less, where only two FC is a stop under so you have to be much more careful in low light situations. It can be tough to work at that light level in that sense. You really have to retrain your eye.

On a personal taste note, is there a style of lighting that you really enjoy working in?

EM:
I love to work with big sources. It’s a little old school these days, but I still think it creates the most natural lighting. It’s great to turn on a big light and bounce it through a window and around the room until you get something great. That’s a fun way to start lighting, and then you can work through the shot and see what else it needs.

Do you have a smart phone? If so, are there any production apps that you like?

EM:
I’m addicted to my iPhone and find I’m using Sun Seeker on every scout now. I also use Techscout Touch developed by Litegear to put orders together. It’s especially useful. I use it on every job.