Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Alan Alda on movie jargon

Early this month I saw a September 5, 2017 post by Nick Morgan on his Public Words blog titled Alan Alda on improv, empathy, and his new book. That book is titled If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face (My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating). I got it from my friendly local public library, and have been enjoying reading it.

Chapter 20 is titled Jargon and the Curse of Knowledge. On pages 188 and 189 Alan says:

“There are actually some nice things to say about jargon. First, of course, we have to recognize that there probably isn’t a line of work that hasn’t developed its own jargon. If you walked onto a movie set and someone asked you to ‘go get the gobo on the Century over there, and while you’re at it bring back a half apple and a kook – and hurry up, this is the Martini shot,’ you might be a little puzzled. Among other things, you’re being asked to get a couple of things that cast shadows, The gobo casts a hard shadow and is attached to a Century stand, manufactured by the Century Company and bearing its name. The kook or cucoloris, is a board with a patterned cut-out for casting feathery shadows. A half apple is a small platform about the size of half an apple box. Cameras, lights, and height-challenged actors can be placed on them. And the Martini Shot is the last shot of the day, after which everyone goes home and has a martini.

The point of running through all this arcane etymology is that, although jargon often proceeds from misty origins, it usually has a specific and useful meaning. Sometimes one word can stand for five pages in plain English. If people in the same field share a knowledge of that meaning, they’re not going to use five pages if one word will do, and they shouldn’t be expected to. Speaking jargon to the right person can save time and also lead to fewer errors. ‘Bring me the gobo’ is probably less prone to error than ‘Bring me the black fuzzy thing over there.’

But the other person does need to define the jargon in the same way you do. I heard about a meeting in Washington where a group of nanoscientists were being brought together with a group of neuroscientists in the hope they could collaborate on new ways to study the brain. Before they could even get started, they wasted hours in a cloud of confusion because they couldn’t agree on the meaning of one word: the word probe.”

When I looked up Apple Box on Wikipedia I found another level of movie jargon. As shown above, a full apple box is 20” wide by 12” deep by 8” high. When something in a set will be placed on an apple box, the crew needs to specify an orientation for it. The lowest height (8”) sometimes is called LA, the middle height (12”) is called Texas (or Chicago), and the tallest (skyscraper) height (20”) is called New York. But there are regional variations, so they might also be called Queens/Brooklyn/Manhattan.    

The word gobo has two other meanings along with the one Alan mentioned. A related one, shown above, is a movable partition used in a recording studio for blocking sound (rather than light).

But in an Oriental grocery store gobo means a vegetable - burdock root (Articum lappa), as shown above.

From May 31, 2017 there is a 7-1/2 minute YouTube Video in which Alan discusses Good communication 101: Mirroring, Jargon, Highfaluting Words.

Images of an apple box, a sound gobo, and a burdock root came from Wikimedia Commons.

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