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STICKY SAND

(Note; For those of you who have come from our Facebook page you can jump down to the text in yellow for the balance of the story)

Here is a short story that is not designed to glamorize the art of film design but rather point out the many ways the adage, “if it can go wrong it will”, is a daily part of the film designer’s life. In this case it seemed that nothing could go wrong that night as I sat in a San Diego restaurant having a lovely birthday dinner with wife and friends. We were on location filming Top Gun.

Cell phones were big and bulky in those days, ugly and large enough that you wouldn’t want to put one on the table, so we mostly communicated by pager. Mine buzzed in the middle of dinner to announce that there was a small problem at the volley ball court. We were creating one at the naval training center. The producers had brought in a world renowned volley ball trainer to prep Tom Cruise and company for the volley ball scene. Part of this process was that I had to sit through a 30 minute discussion on the texture, depth and moisture content of the sand; I must acquire to build the court. It could not be commercial sand but had to be beach sand.

This didn’t appear to be much of a challenge in that naval training center was only about 4 miles from good ocean beach sand. What could possibly go wrong with prepping a volley ball court when compared to managing up aircraft carriers and F14 Tom Cats?  The traffic was bad that day and the trucks didn’t make an appearance till late in the afternoon. Once I was satisfied that the sand had arrived I went off to my birthday dinner and left things in the capable hands of my construction crew. After the sand had been spread out to its proper depth my construction coordinator noticed something he thought might be a problem.  Nothing as frightening as sand fleas; no, it was simply excessive water content. The sand was terribly wet. This might not seem like a tragedy but the humidity level was high. It was clear that the sand could not dry out overnight. The scene was scheduled to shoot early the next morning.  

I had seen the boys practice at the hotel for over a week; they were all buffed up and sported heavily oiled torsos so their muscles would ripple and glimmer in the sun. I envisioned a not so pretty picture of them jumping up after their first dive, into the wet sand, and coming up looking like brown sugar coated cookie monsters. It was now about 10:00 pm. A phone call to our special effects man and the supply warrant officer brought out a dozen 400K high powered propane air heaters. These were placed at intervals around the court and turned on full blast. Then a crew of about 10 men with rakes and shovels started raking and turning over the wet sand.  These poor fellows worked all night (sweating profusely) while raking over 2000 cubic feet of heavy wet beach sand. I am sure each “raker” must have lost at least 5 pounds that night.

Like any good production designer I went home and crossed my fingers. I was there when the sun came up and let the sand trickle though my fingers. Well, it was a lot drier but still felt pretty damp, certainly not dry enough for hourglass duty.  Moments later the crew arrived and shortly thereafter the rehearsals began.  I found a bench at the far end of the field. Close enough to watch the action and yet far enough away to slip away under the bleachers if Tony Scott, the director, came running after me. And then it happened. The gruff volleyball trainer and my unit production manager headed straight for me. A list of his probable comments raced through my mind like, “were going to have to postpone the shooting till the sand is dry. That should only cost the company a hundred thousand dollars or so”, or the infamous “you’ll never work in this town again, and he wouldn’t have meant San Diego”. When he reached me he had a grim look on his face and then it burst into a broad smile. He said ‘”I just wanted to thank you. I have traveled the world and played on courts from Bombay to Geneva and never has the moisture content in the sand been so perfect. The footing is the best I have ever seen or played on.

I am not sure what the moral of this story is other than in film design, “if it can go wrong it will”. More importantly, even though we were on a Naval Base, I will always be true to my old Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus“ – be sure you are …“Always Ready” ….for  the unexpected.