production stories recalled

Our Trip to the Top

~

as recalled by

Kerry Rasikas

[ 5 min. read ]

It's 1979

                                       give or take

I’m plying trade as a cinematographer. We’d formed a small production company after leaving a large media company and brought along one client: the largest utility company in Michigan.

This utility has an appetite for films to feed their  educational program that they freely distribute to schools. Of course, almost every film espoused the importance of reliable energy. To its credit, the utility company’s messaging in the well-regarded ed program included energy conservation, environmental stewardship, safety and more. These 16mm films were projected in classrooms all over the state and were watched by tens of thousands of future customers disguised as bored students.

Heading UP

The film we’re working on is to include scenes of the upper peninsula’s industry and scenics. Road trip. My partner, John Douglas, would stay to produce from our world headquarters in Grand Rapids. Scott Graham, a top-notch camera assistant and good friend, would join me for the road trip to film all things UP, eh.

Our optimistic shoot schedule would count on the early August weather and the long days of Michigan’s summer. We pack light, but back then a basic location package includes our 16mm Arri SB camera package with two 400’ mags, film stock, batteries, a French zoom lens with a hard-to-pronounce name and a small light kit. The gear is packed into my Ford Fairmont wagon and we’re off to our first location.

The Mighty Mac

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. It spans five miles across the Straits of Mackinac to connect Michigan’s lower peninsula with its upper, where Lake Michigan merges with Lake Huron.

It was completed in 1957 and during the three-and-a-half year construction five workers perished.

 To this day, one myth has it that a welder fell into newly-poured cement in one of the enormous caissons and was never recovered.

The bridge will periodically close due to weather events. In 1989, a Yugo car and its driver are blown off the bridge while crossing during high winds.

We’re going to the top.

Arrival

Shortly after we arrive at the bridge’s offices, the Bridge Authority Director excuses himself to go manage something with the painting crew. Painting the bridge is a never-ending process. Once finished, it starts again.

Turns out one of the painters fell several stories off the bridge into the water. He just needed permission to go home and quickly change out of his drenched clothes so he could get back to painting. “Yeah, just slipped, happens now and then,” says the Director.

Soon we’re inside one of the cement caverns under the bridge that anchor each end. Massive cabling angles through and down around pulleys the size of a house. It’s an eerily dark space that our Kodak film stock would never see.  So, we jump into the official Bridge Authority truck and head over to the south tower.

To the Top

From the outside, we squeeze ourselves and our gear through the small door-hatched portal at the base. Bridge traffic whizzes by. Inside, there’s an elevator the size of a phone booth.  With three adult males and 80 lbs. of gear, this will take several trips.

Wind, waves and traffic sounds bounce off thick, riveted steel plates as the rickety elevator slowly moves up inside the 51-story tower while we take turns with the gear. (Of course, today’s drones and 4K pocket cameras would make this much easier.)

Where the elevator ends isn’t the top. We’re at that part we were told about beforehand over the phone that we’d shrugged off. Standing hunched and crammed somewhere inside the tower, we now have to climb several more stories on metal ladder rungs inside the tower tube.

As you climb, the portals below frame the raging distant current of the Straits of Mackinac far, far down – holes that you could fall through as you and your gear careen off the plate steel on the way down to your imminent death.

Our guide says those portals are the white-knuckle climb down if the elevator stops working.

I wonder if I paid my life insurance bill.

 

 

Smartly, Scott had requisitioned a rope to pull our gear up through the portals. We get to the top and stand victoriously on the safer, wide crossbeam feeling all macho in conquering the vertical Tube of Death.

The view is incredible.

 It’s not too windy. Still, there’s a slight sway.

We go to work filming all the obvious things.

 

Soon, we’re shooting right down one of the long suspension cables from the very top – 552 feet high, next to the aviation light. Cool shot. Don’t fall. On the ground glass through the eyepiece of our trusty Arri, I see something moving way down on the cable.  What the? Several minutes later reveal that it’s a guy walking along the 2 foot-wide suspension cable! Towards us! A guy. Walking on the cable! He is surrounded by nothing but sky and the Straits below. And there’s another on the opposite cable!

We motion the cable walker to hop right over our camera for us. Sweet! Check the gate. (We never use it in the edit.)

Turns out they’re bridge inspectors. Safety harnessed, they inspect welds, bolts and other extremely important items as they walk the entire span. Takes them hours. They do this “on bridges all over the world,” one says.  “Yeah, it can get windy,” says the other, nonchalantly.

Our heroic ascent up the tower seems so inconsequential.

Epilogue

We go on to film all over the Upper Penninsula for two weeks: waterfalls, a copper mine, massive freighters in enormous locks, a mountain lake, forestry and more. This is work?

There would be more road trips: a uranium mine shoot that culminated in a four-hour car ride with a backseat fugitive, the depths of a nuclear plant where our guide loses his shoe in radioactive water, and that ink-dark night on a desolate Kentucky mountain road coming upon a car completely engulfed in fire.

But that’s another story.

Photos
~

Scott Graham
Mackinac Bridge Authority
Kerry Rasikas

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