Dragon’s Cheeseball Rig

Dragon Lau on left, buying chestnuts from Shanghai street vendor, January 2010

A cheeseball rig is a setup where necessity spawns bizarre offspring, where crewmembers put the gear together in a new and odd way, often because of a missing item, which would have made life much simpler. Like the NASA guys ingeniously kluging together an improved air scrubber on Apollo 13, using only materials on hand … duct tape, baling wire, paper clips. Innovation in the face of adversity.

Most of all, it has to be funky.

At least four or five times – and twice in the last year – I’ve had the pleasure of working with a gaffer in China, a lighting professional from Hong Kong with the unlikely name of Dragon Lau.

Dragon and Andrew on Hitachi factory shoot, Shenzhen, China, December 2005

Dragon often works with Andrew Leung of Asia Films, a crackerjack producer who shepherds overseas crews through the Far East. In the past 8-10 years, we’ve hired crews and equipment through Andrew for shoots in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tokyo, and most recently in Shenyang, China. Most of the time he has brought Dragon along to head a local lighting crew.

Dragon’s English is pretty good (and my Chinese is mostly gustatorial). We usually communicate clearly about what lights to use in a situation and how to deploy them. When it comes to exact placement of the units or how to mount or rig them, I’ve learned to trust Dragon’s judgment, as with many skilled gaffers I’ve worked with all over the world.

On a shoot in Shanghai about a year ago, Dragon and I had disagreed over where to put a light stand, while setting up in an apartment living room, overcrowded with people, furniture, and a piano. He maintained that putting the stand on the right side wouldn’t push the light over far enough to open up a glint in the eyes of the old man and his teenage granddaughter at the piano. He gamely struggled with it my way, until it was obvious that I was wrong about the placement, then he quickly reset it his way and the eye gleam was perfect.

Dragon demonstrates fingertip control of the dolly

I’ve also learned that he thinks the best way to move a camera dolly slowly is to push directly with his fingers, while bent over. He often barks imperiously at his local lighting crewmembers, and he usually speaks in such a loud voice when he calls Beijing that we wonder if he’s actually using a cell phone.

On our most recent shoot in Shenyang last fall, the final setup centered on a CAT scan machine in the basement of a hospital. On our scout earlier, I had asked Dragon to provide (among other things) a 4-foot, 4-bank Kino-Flo, a lightweight color-correct fluorescent movie light, and to hang it directly over the control desk outside the procedure room, so we could turn off the ugly greenish house lights.

This Kino with its daylight tubes would put a strip of soft, pooly light on the doctor working under it, and match other daylight Flos and small HMI units we were setting up in the inner procedure room, visible through a window from the control area. The daylight color was also a close match to the many computer monitor screens. Since our client manufactured most of these high-tech systems, screen appearance was quite important to us.

In a perfect world, with a well-supplied lighting truck and two skilled grips, we could have hung the Kino from a single 12-foot pipe spanning two tall light stands in a few minutes. But in Shenyang that day, we didn’t have any pipe that long. As in many foreign rental situations I encounter, the lighting truck belonged to a large company and only contained the exact lighting and grip equipment I’d ordered.

Everything is a la carte. We had a small lighting package and a 6’x6’ pipe frame, but nothing bigger. No long pipe or lumber, unless bought and paid for, nothing extra we might discover we need and decide to rent on the spot, like most owner-operator grip trucks would carry in the Bay Area and other parts of the US.

Shenyang, China, October 2010: the rig starts with four C-stand arms

Dragon showed great ingenuity in cobbling together a solution: he joined four C-stand arms together, buttressed them with a folded light stand for rigidity, a couple of extra arms for triangulation, and several wraps of baling wire. No paper clips, but of course, his crew secured it all with gaffer tape. Kino-Flos are lightweight as lighting instruments go, but they’re still nothing you’d ever want to drop on a doctor. I always tell my students (wryly) that no shot or scene or film is worth an injury to anyone, even someone you don’t like. And I certainly had nothing against the doctor in the scene.

At first I watched this setup with chagrin – surely a cheeseball rig if there ever was one. But the scene of Dragon yelling at our five Shenyang crew guys was familiar, the skilled Hong Kong guy lording it over the locals. I’d seen it before. I left him to it and went into the procedure room to start shooting.

While I shoot the CAT scan ...
The lighting crew adds more pieces for rigidity and secures the rig with baling wire and gaffer tape

Soon the Kino-Flo was hung over the control area, a bit of 250 diffusion clipped on to soften it. We set up shots of the supervising doctor at the controls, sometimes seeing both him at the desk and the patient in the CAT Scan machine through the window. The light from the Kino was just right, in color, intensity, and softness.

... and adds diffusion to soften the light

We got the shot, despite (or perhaps because of) the cheeseball rig. Funky!

Bill and David shoot the doc
Dragon contemplates the rig

Here’s a snippet of iPhone video from the setup.

Click on this image:

Click to play: David directs, Andrew translates, Dragon lurks, and the Kino-Flo on the cheeseball rig lights the doctor.

At some point, we’ve all resorted to cheeseball rigs out of necessity, right?

Tell me about your favorite cheeseball rig.

Shenyang gang: data wrangler James, Dragon, engineer Jim Rolin, producer Laura Marks, Bill, director David Rathod.
Dragon helps Jim and Bill order lunch in Shanghai

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3 thoughts on “Dragon’s Cheeseball Rig”

  1. This was a very interesting article. There was lots of technical info in terms of a cheeseball rig but I especially liked it when you wrote: “Tell me about your favorite cheeseball rig.”

  2. Thanks for your great comment to dragon, I am sure, he’ll be very pleased to know your greatly appreciation…
    my pleasure as always, offer the best crew to your job.

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