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Rigging & Gaffer Whizkid

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At the age of five, Max Mullen was an above-the-line thespian acting in projects for Disney and doing commercials. But his heart lay elsewhere. “I was intrigued by how all the behind-the-scenes work was conducted, says Max, now 16, who would ask the crew exactly what they were doing while on set. Each passing year, as Max met various lighting design people at school plays, theater repertories and live-music events, he learned more and more about the bartering, sales and repairs of the endless widgets involved in light design. At age nine, he set up his own eBay account–buying used and new equipment, and selling repaired machines he came across. At 13 he became a protégé of longtime Local 728 veteran Peter Portizo, then chief lighting technician for The Drew Carey Show, who mentored him on set all the intricacies of lighting for television. During these years Max was also designing and building his own custom rigs, fog machines, lights and camera stands, at one point selling his entire main lighting inventory at a nice profit, then buying two broken PAL 1200s, fixing and reselling them for even more profit to start his own company, Hyperion Lighting. Max has also directed and done the lighting for his own film project, a music video set to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. “I conducted tremendous amounts of research prior to filming, and I constructed various apparatuses to expedite the filming process,” he says. “These included my own cost-effective versions of a gyroscopic camera mount, scrims, and an explosion box. For the filming I convinced my theater teacher to loan us the school’s Canon three-CCD camera.” Whether called a CTL, lighting designer or a gaffer, the head of the electrical department is responsible for the design and execution of a production’s lighting plan. Their work is crucial to the look and feel of a film, television show or live event. Ask cinematographer Gordon Willis, ASC, who has said in a Below the Line interview in July, 2004, “Grips and electricians have done more to help me shoot good movies than any other craft.” In the past, most gaffers learned on the job. But the field is becoming much more technical and competition for positions is getting tougher. At 16, Max is completing his sophomore year at Calabasas High, Calabasas, Calif. He will be entering the Las Vegas Academy of the Performing Arts this fall to pursue his education in the lighting design crafts. The key to his continued success is his enthusiasm. “Despite the amount of time I spend with lights, I still have fun with them,” he says. “Every Christmas, in front of my house, I maintain a lighting display that rivals the Griswold’s, and every Halloween, our house includes a full-fledged haunted mansion.” Max says he plans to join Local 728 in the near future, when he decides to work for an income. “It hasn’t been a problem in the past when I worked on union shows because I was always volunteering for the experience,” he explains. Asked about the type of equipment he finds himself using over and over, he singles out “miles and miles of Camloc cable,” the Mafer clamp and the china ball. “I mention china balls,” he adds, “because they are affordable and because they can always add a feeling of depth to your shot. The Mafer clamp is simply one of the handiest things I know. I find them to be a necessity for all of my films because I always find myself needing to rig onto the side of a building or a pre-existing structure.”Looking to the future, Max says he anticipates working more on features that in television because “I would be able to focus on the individual shots and make them look more the way I want them. I also enjoy the concept of being able to light a certain film with a certain style and then going to another film and lighting it entirely differently.”

Written by April MacIntyre

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