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Like all good gaffers, McAdam values solid relationships with directors of photography that can translate into reputable and consistent work. On a set, he says, "There has to be some mutual understanding as to what the goal is. The DOP is the boss, and I'm there to facilitate what he needs. And hopefully he's able to put his trust in me and allow me to do my job. Because I'm there to further his vision.”
As the head of lighting on a set, McAdam is one of the most valuable crewmembers to the cinematographer. “The cinematographer communicates to his keys as to what he's looking for. The DP will say to me, ‘I want a source coming through the window,’ or, ‘I want a daylight effect,’ and we'll go from there. I make notes as to the best way to get what he's asking me for and I implement that.” Being in charge of the technical procedures necessary to achieve the desired lighting, gaffers use generators, lights and cables, as well as their assistants, known as best boys. Mastery of which colour gels to put on lights or windows to create effects is also a gaffer’s craft.
For McAdam, the highs of bringing his vision to a project may well outweigh the challenges of trying to land projects. "My position is a creative one as well as a technical one,” he says. “I still enjoy the challenge of going out and creating something in conjunction with a lot of different people. I still feel like I have creative input and can make any project I work on better. For example, if the DP decides he would like a morning look, sometimes you would decide what kind of gels to put on lights to get that morning effect. A lot of times the boss won't tell you what fixtures to put in the lights, you decide. So the translation between what he says to you and how it looks has a lot to do with you.” It's when he's doing things like shooting a scene at City Hall and trying to figure out how to light the round tables from over the top, "That's where you pull on your experiences," he says. "What’s the best light source to use and how are we going to do it?"
Just how much he can flex his creative muscle frequently correlates with his rapport with the DOP, McAdam says. "For example, I’ve worked with [former CSC Vice President] George Willis [csc, SASC] for 15 years, and we got to the point where we had an excellent relationship as far as my knowing what he was looking for. He didn't even have to say much, and I knew what he was thinking already." McAdam has a particularly high regard for Willis, who he says is deferential to his crew. "We've done docudramas, mini-films, usually two or three weeks long . And the experiences on those were very fulfilling for me because we worked together as a team. He didn't consider me an underling. I believe that to be a good DP, you have to lean heavily on your keys. The experiences I had with George would be the ones I remember the most."
Having worked in the industry for an extended period of time, McAdam remembers when lighting used to be a much more cumbersome business. “As technology has marched on,” he says, “the logistics of lighting have changed for the better for the technician. Everything has been scaled down as far as weight goes, and they’ve made lighting fixtures hundreds of times more powerful, more economical and efficient. So the logistics of lighting scenes are a lot easier because you’re able to get things higher, to string cables easier, lights don’t weigh as much. So you’re able to have more of everything. Having the right piece of equipment with you is an integral part of shooting film.”
In addition to docudramas and television films, McAdam says he has worked on a multitude of commercials, which is "good because you work with different people all the time. If you just work with one guy, you just learn his tricks, you learn how he works; it's a one-dimensional thing. [On commercials] you get to work with different DPs and see all their different styles and amalgamate their styles into yours. I find that very helpful," he says.
Even though McAdam has worked with many cinematographers, they have almost all imparted the same lesson, which is to never over-light. "A lot of times when a gaffer upgrades to a DP he becomes an over-lighter. In other words, he's afraid to take chances with lighting. There's light everywhere. There's no shadow," he says.
But the most important thing he's taken away from years of working on sets is, "You should treat people with respect," he says. Once again McAdam invokes Willis, saying the cinematographer always led by example. "The way I saw him treat the people who were working for him was a good lesson to learn. He would go up to each person on his crew and thank them for their hard work after a long day of shooting. You want to treat people the way you want to be treated."
That maxim is perhaps never more apparent for McAdam in situations where he has to stick to his guns against all odds. "There are times when you have to say it’s not safe. For example, I was doing a kids' show in the '90s," he recalls. "And it was a production company that hadn't really shot a lot of live action; they were more an animation team. So we're on location, and I've got lights on cranes, and a thunderstorm comes in, and immediately I know – and everybody who's ever worked a day on a set knows – that you cut the power until it blows over. And I had the production manager and producer almost insisting that we start shooting again right away. And at that point I said, 'No, you should get on the phone and talk to people about this. It’s a safety issue and we're not doing it.' Sometimes you've got to stick up for yourself and your crew, and that can be a challenge."
But the biggest challenge is always getting the job, McAdam reiterates. "To convince people that you'd be an asset to the production. That's the hardest thing. It's cracking into the inner circle of producers, production managers and out-of-town DPs."
It all becomes worth it, however, when he sees his work on screen. "Most satisfying is when you see the movie, and you see all the scenes that you help to light. There are so many things that you are responsible for. That's one of the main reasons I stayed in the business. I always got a lot of satisfaction watching my work on screen or television. It is a privilege to work in the film business and it is important not to take it for granted and to appreciate the people and projects you get to work on be they big or small,” he says.