A day on the set of a Dutch/Belgian tvseries

[Update: I wrote this in pre-corona days. I have no idea when the series will be aired. But I thought I’d share this with you anyhow.]

A year ago I had the opportunity to help on a horror movie set. Recently it happened again, this time I was on the set of a Dutch/Belgium tvseries called “Commando’s”.

By the time you read this, this will all have happened months ago, in October 2019 to be exact.

Compared to my previous experience on the horror set, this time it was clear this was no “rock&roll” shooting where everything had to be wrapped up in 2 days. The series consists of 10 episodes of 50 minutes each and took several months to be shot , including shooting in South Africa. If all goes well, the series should air sometimes soon (update: though I guess there might be a ‘Corona-delay’).

What I did

Saskia Verreycken created a very life-like heart that was needed to film an open-heart surgery with one of the actors. The heart needed to pump, squirt blood and basically had to look as real as possible. She couldn’t do all these things at the same time when the cameras rolled, so in comes me: a “professional” heart-pumper.

Because it was very difficult to “operate” the heart while staying out-of-frame, it was decided that we simply had to be part of the on-screen medical staff. As a result, we were donned a surgeon-outfit and could do our thing without having to hide awkwardly behind or under actors or machinery.

Me and Saskia, surrounded by real nurses from the hospital who co-starred during the surgery.

How it went

Everything went very smooth and almost robot-like. The whole afternoon we basically trained with the (real) medical personnel to perform the operation, but except for some people from the props, makeup and costume department, we didn’t see the director, cameramen, etc. In other words, we had no idea what they actually expected from us. A real heart surgeon gave us tips, and even started calling a Dutch colleague to check if certain terms were the same in Holland (otherwise 20 heart surgeons in the Netherlands might send angry letters to production afterwards :p ).

The heart in early beta-stage without blood and other nasty stuff. The final heart was extremely realistic, as confirmed by the nurses and surgeon 🙂

At a certain point a nurse was showing a device that was used to close arteries by sending a current through the flesh -basically melting the wound close. Some people thought the puffs of smoke escaping from the heart cavity would be a great , yet simply effect (spoiler: it was!). However, we couldn’t burn the actors real flesh (and the device only worked on real flesh so the fake heart was out for this). The consulting surgeon explained that roast beef would be the perfect replacement. One of the nurses dashed away and reappeared a few minutes later, proudly holding a fresh piece of roast beef she acquired from the hospital restaurant. We rapidly wrapped some small tendrils of the flesh around the rubber tubing from which the blood would squirt giving the tubes an even more artery-like look. The fake surgeon/actor during shooting then simply could apply the device to the correct tube and smoke would rise up.

Just like on the horror movie set, it’s these little “MacGyver”-like, on-the-fly problem solving that I really like doing as an “assistant special makeup effects” .

Learning the ropes from a real heart surgeon (in front) who admires the fake heart (that, when shooting commences, will be placed on top of the wounded actor).

Then, suddenly, around seven in the evening, many new faces invaded the small operation theatre. Everyone went in second gear while (two) big cameras were hastily installed, a few directions were given “just do an operation as it happens in real life” and then: “ACTION!”. In about 20 minutes the whole scene was filmed, everyone shook hands, some pictures were taken, the room was cleaned and that was that. I had no clue who was who and only when a beat-up man entered I knew who our ‘patient’ was going to be.

This crew clearly knew what needed to be done. The scene itself will only take a minute or so of actual screentime in the final product but I can only how diligent longer scenes would take to be shot.

The only drawback? After the first take was done, the director shouted (from the corridor because the operating theatre was too small) “keep the surgery going”. However, I had to keep the heart beating at 160 beats per minutes by pumping on two rubber balloons (because that’s what hearts do when they are being operated on). When the take was done, my lower arms were swollen and I really could use the short break. But no, if the director yells “jump!’, you jump. And so I kept pumping (albeit more slowly until the next take was being shot) while my fellow’ actors (the nurses) also kept pretending to be doing a life-or-death surgery.

What I really liked was how the medical staff acted throughout all this. Right up until the filming started, they were all nervous and didn’t really know what to do and expect. Neither did we, but I felt it was my responsibility to at least pretend to be an experienced “movie maker” so they wouldn’t be too nervous. However, the moment the cameras rolled, the nurses seemed to forget they were on a set -thanks to the very lifelike heart, blood and the very convincingly make-up’d dying actor- and, like real professionals, they started functioning the way they always do in an operating theatre (I think).

Party

Afterwards when we’d cleaned and packed our prosthetic heart, fake blood, etc. we joined the crew on the parking lot for an “end of week” party. Each week, another department (camera and lightning, art, sound, etc.) had to organise a little party containing food, some drinks and music.

Everyone chatted amicably and it was clear that these people had been on the road for several weeks already (some of them looked alarmingly exhausted). We ate some sandwiches and Chinese rice, said our goodbyes and that was that.

To conclude

Another day I’ll never forget. This time I saw how a bigger production (compared to the 2 days horror-short) works in which we were but a small -but for a scene of 1 or 2 minutes an important- cog. Everyone had very clear orders what was expected of them and we simply did what was told (this sounds surprisingly boring from the outside, which it honestly wasn’t!).

Time to update my IMDB profile 😀 . Hope you enjoy the surgery-scene!

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