In the January of 1991 I was just a few months out of college. I had been working as an assistant for several different photographers in Los Angeles, and also getting the occasional gig as a production assistant (PA) on some tv commercials. A call came in to do a PA gig on a commercial that was going to be shooting out in Vasquez Rocks.
Though most people outside of LA and the film and tv industry won’t know Vasquez Rocks by name, I promise you have seen it. It is one of those iconic locations that has been used in literally thousands of film and tv productions. The huge monolithic rocks can be seen in all kinds of westerns, as well as classic episodes of Star Trek, The Outer Limits, and Bonanza. In more recent years episodes of Friends, The New Girl and The Big Bang Theory, have all been shot there.
So back to my story. I arrived at the location and the work that we were doing was to take these 8 foot by 8 foot plywood squares which were covered with black and white astroturf carpet, and assemble them into a giant chess board. I was instantly intrigued, and asked about what exactly this was for. I was told that this was going to be a recruiting commercial for the US Marine Corps. We were told that once the board was finished most of the PA’s would be cut loose, with only a couple kept on for the actual shoot. I knew that this was going to be a very interesting shoot, so I asked to talk to the producer.
When I finally got a chance to speak to him, I told the producer that it was really clear that this was going to be an amazing shoot, and that he should consider keeping me on to do production still photography. To my amazement he agreed, and I was booked to stay on til the end of the shoot. The lesson for me here was to ask directly for the job that I wanted to do. Over the next seven or eight days we would shoot from sunset until daybreak. I was doing double duty helping the cast get their costumes and armor on correctly, and shooting stills.
One night a huge wind swept across the rocks and toppled one of the towers. Fortunately no one was hurt.
Another incident happened during a shot where the white horse (Ace) was supposed to rear up on two legs. During one take the Stunt Rider (Dale Gibson) slipped or was thrown off and injured his ankle (it was broken as I recall). He literally got back on the horse and finished not just the day, but the whole production, without a cast, or a complaint.
After we finished the location portion, the production moved into a sound stage, and I got to witness the magic of working with blue screen. When we finally wrapped it was a 12 day shoot for a 60 second spot. It was a few months before I got to see the finished spot on tv. At the time the thrill of seeing something that I had played a small roll in was indescribable. The commercial went on to win all kinds of awards, and was recently named one of the 25 most epic ads of all time by AdFreak. Check it out on YouTube here:
All Photos ©1991 Steven Paul Whitsitt Photography
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