• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

Diana’s Cameo, Continued

My Brief Career As A TV Actor (Part II)

part2-1Yes, I hear you saying. But what about the actual _acting_ part?

Well, good question. Outlander-world is HUGE, to start with. They made it from an enormous, ruined factory of some kind, and to walk through it and see how it’s been transformed is astonishing. I’ll tell you the details of our tour through it in a later post, though—I have very limited time, and do want to tell you about the acting. The point about the hugeness, though, is that the place includes two large sound stages—one of which has the set of the Great Hall at Leoch.

I spent much of the day today in the company of assorted interesting people, including some of the Starz publicists, one of whom said that it was OK for me to reveal (ta-dahh!) that I was indeed involved in a bit of filming for the Gathering.

They wanted me to come do this specific bit because a number of press/media people were invited—and they were invited now because of the spectacular nature of the Gathering: dozens of Supporting Actors (aka SA’s, aka Extras) in full (and glorious) costume, stunning set design, and lots of Interesting Stuff.

part2-2Now, originally, they’d asked if I’d like to be an extra, and I said sure, that might be fun, and the fans could play “Where’s Waldo?” when the show is released. But some weeks later, they (the production team) emailed me to say that they’d been thinking about this; if I were an extra, I’d have to stand essentially in the same place for three days (as you can’t be pulling extras out of carefully-composed crowd scenes and screwing up the painstaking configurations that the director and DOP (Director of Photography, and a person of Vital Importance; more about Neville shortly) have worked out). As the producer put it, “The novelty wears off quickly.”

They’d therefore come up with a better suggestion; Matt Roberts, the scriptwriter for this particular episode (and a lovely man he is, too, Guy Fawkes beard notwithstanding), would write a tiny scenelet for me. Just a couple of lines of dialogue. They could then film that pretty quickly on its own, and I’d then be released. “Great!” I said.

The lady in question is at the Gathering, and the scenelet in question takes place in one of the galleries over the Great Hall. I’m not supposed to post set photos or describe the sets in great detail—but hey, you’ve read the book; you know what it looks like.

It’s One Impressive Set, let’s put it that way. Among other things—quite a lot of things—it has torches and candles absolutely everywhere; massive chandeliers with three or four dozen fat wax candles (and they are real wax; Matt mentioned that hot wax not infrequently drips on people underneath—including one who yelped in response to being splattered, but was told it was better than being flogged), wall sconces with pairs of tapers, candelabra all over the horizontal surfaces…plus two large hearths roaring away (gas flames there and in the torches). LOTS of light—augmented by huge stage lights (which probably have a technical name, but I don’t know it) that, equipped with gels, can simulate anything from high noon to moonlight. Add in a thick squirt of the artificial fog/mist they call “Atmos” and you have Real Atmosphere.

The point here is that when _everything_ is lit, it’s bloody hot on that set. Add a few dozen people dressed in woolen clothing (all the costumes are using period-authentic fabrics, naturally) and the resultant mass body temperature contributes nearly as much heat as do the lights.

An important point of physics: Heat Rises.

So I’m standing in the gallery, wearing roughly ten pounds of wool and velvet, in the company of a dozen other people similarly attired. And Neville (Neville Kidd, and I encourage you to go look at his spectacular show-reel at nevillekidd.com ) sets the lights just _so_ for spectacular effect, and with the camera-operators, is setting up a Very Ambitious shot—a really long, looping shot that goes down the hall, up the stairs, through the gallery, and out the other end, requiring the use of a crane, an elevating platform and a Steadicam. (My husband, who watched all of the technical setting-up—which took hours in itself—told me that the Steadicam was actually the star of the entire episode: “After every run, they hang it up in its frame, pet it, powder its nose and get it a drink of water…”) The necessary equipment to operate this thing—run by a lovely guy named Ozzie with dark red hair (partial to gingers, you know…)—was in itself straight out of Bionic Pinups.

Possibly you see where I’m going with this, clever people that you are…

Yes, they really _do_ shout, “Action!” when a take begins, and “Cut!” when they stop it. Followed, usually, by “Do it again.” Even if a take works well, they do multiple takes of a scene for “coverage”—meaning they want enough raw material so that they can pick and choose the footage they want for the final edited cut. And yes, they do use clapper boards (an Immense one, for this particular run) with the relevant scene/take information.

While the main technical setup had all been done the day before (I didn’t see it, as I was being interviewed non-stop, but Doug told me all about it), it still takes a long time to reset a shot, especially if the lights need to be adjusted. And a particularly long or ambitious shot requires not only ideal lighting and camera operation—it means that everyone _in_ the shot has to do exactly the right thing at the right time. Or you do it again. And again. And again. With fairly long waits in between the “agains.” (As a well-known actress who shall be nameless was heard to remark, “Another take—another chance to f*ck it up.”

Heat _does_ rise. And by the time we’d been at it for three hours, it was about 102 F. in the gallery. (I kid you not; I live in Phoenix, Arizona. I know what 102 F. feels like.) Caitriona—who entered and left the gallery with each shot (I was in place throughout)—kindly lent me the fan she was carrying (which had been lent to her by one of the Costume people), and very welcome it was—particularly when one of the SA’s standing behind me collapsed from the heat and puddled down in the corner, red in the face and streaming sweat. I whipped the fan out of my sleeve and fanned her madly, though only for a few seconds before an alert minion came racing up to take her downstairs.

part2-3At this point, they cleared everyone out of the gallery and opened the doors to let the temperature drop while they reset the next shot. Brian Kelly, the director, came up too, and in passing, said something to me that I understood to be “stay there,” so I did. Evidently he’d actually been telling me to go downstairs, because at the door he looked over his shoulder at me, still standing there, and I heard him call to his AD (Assistant Director—the one who does the shouting), “Davey, come translate for me, will you?” Glaswegian accents are something special…

In the end, it took five hours to get that one shot (when we came back to the loft, fans had been brought up, as well as water, and things were a good bit more tolerable).

Oddly enough, I wasn’t really nervous about doing my lines. On Monday, I’d had a lovely meeting with Carol Ann Crawford, the dialect coach, who ran me through the quick version of “How to Speak With a Scottish Accent”—very helpful. And after I’d said it _once_, and got over the oddness of hearing it, I thought I probably wouldn’t be so bad as to ruin the shot, so didn’t worry about it. Besides, the physical discomfort of being baked to death while standing for hours in high-heeled shoes that throw all your weight onto the balls of your feet and being unable to twist your torso to relieve strain on your lower back kind of overshadowed anything minor like stage-fright.

(In all honesty, I didn’t have anything approaching stage-fright. For one thing, I’ve been talking out loud in front of hundreds of people for some years now , and for another, I was pretty sure that if I did anything horrible, it wouldn’t make it into public view.)

Now, when you’re filming, there are—as noted—long breaks between takes. It’s fascinating to watch what happens in these breaks, especially when there are a lot of actors involved. The instant the AD shouts “Cut! Do it again,” antlike streams of makeup/hair people come pouring in and scatter to their assigned actors, powder brushes, combs, and other implements at the ready. The director passes round, giving people instructions—and various specialists, such as the dialect coach and the Gaelic expert (this would be Adhamh O’Broin, whom you’ve seen in the “Speak Outlander” videos—a star in his own right. ) also zoom in to render aid and advice.

So every time there was a break, someone would pop up in front of me—sometimes two or three of them—to instigate repairs or say, “More of a “Nyee-EW, rather than “new,” and keep the force up all the way through the line.”

Really interesting; an extension of the being-passed-along-like-a-parcel feeling. You’re a basically inanimate object most of the time. And “they” (the production people) know exactly where you are at every moment of the day, on set or off, so they can find and produce you instantly. The operation is just too big and too complex to be held up while someone goes to find a missing actor. As one of the cast said to me this afternoon, “They know when you go to the restroom and exactly how long you’re in there.” I think this might get on my nerves after awhile, but for the two days I did it (I was in another brief shot the next day—that one only took a couple of hours to get, and there were no people downstairs and many fewer candles burning, so much cooler), the whole thing was a lot of fun.

That’s the thing about being a writer, though; you’ll do _anything_ once, just so you can write about it.


More about Diana’s cameo… including her lines and a video!
(Warning: SPOILER alert for those who haven’t seen the Outlander TV series yet.)

From Diana’s FaceBook page, first posted on February 8, 2014.

This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 2, 2014 at 8:11 a.m. (PST)