Behind the Scenes of a Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer

January 27, 2013

Ever wonder how some actors can have a career-making year in which they seem to appear in every blockbuster. You wonder how they could have worked on so many projects at once. Well, they didn’t do it all in the year before, it can take years between filming and distribution. About two and a half years ago, I was approached by representatives from the National Academy of Sciences to be included in an online profile of scientists and engineers. They sent a camera crew to follow me for a week in order to produce a day in the life of a civil engineer. The video has just recently been posted on the NAS website.



In the weeks leading up to filming, the producer emailed often to find out about my hobbies and to encouraged me to schedule exciting site visits. He provided for example the profile that had been produced for Mechanical Engineer Nate Ball. I had actually met Nate some years prior while auditioning to be host of the PBS Kids program Design Squad. Nate was the obvious choice. He’s fit, photogenic, knows how to beat box, and invented a retractable grappling hook a la Batman. Just check out his Design Squad profile page. I knew I couldn’t compete with Nate, but I was determined to make a good showing for civil engineers everywhere.

Day one of the shoot began as any other. I was in the office at my normal time and worked on my backlog of projects until the receptionist called to announce I had guests. The crew comprised just three people: producer, cameraman and sound technician. They were real professionals. Although they tended to work as independent contractors, there was real harmony in how they worked together. The job of the cameraman and sound tech is pretty much as expected, but the producer had the job of playing quarterback for the production. He carried a portable screen that displayed a direct feed from the cameraman. The producer used this tool to visualize how the scene would look on screen.

We began the film shoot in the office. The producer wanted to start with some obligatory canned shots, like coming through the main door and saying hi to the receptionist and walking down the hallway. I really felt like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever as they filmed my confident gate down the hallway. I decided against any dance moves however. To get a smooth shot, they actually had the cameraman sit on a swivel chair pulled by the sound technician in front of me. We were quite the sight.

Other than the staged strutting, most of the office shots are pretty authentic. In a couple of scenes however, the producer re-seated some of my colleagues to emphasize for the camera the diversity of our office. I never realized how many meetings and conversations I have in a typical day. Most of the dialogue between my colleagues and me is real, although I may have articulated more thoughts than normal.

The last big shoot in the office was the interview. Again, the background was staged to provide something more visually interesting. I borrowed all the wind tunnel models I could find in the office and arranged them in the library to look like a hot shot designer. We filmed the interview in about 90 minutes, stopping only a couple of times for loud conversations elsewhere in the office. Although my comments come through as deliberate, I answered most questions off the top of my head.



We spent the next day finding any reason to leave the office and film me standing in front of cool buildings. Since there was only one camera, the producer frequently made us repeat activities, like getting out of a cab, so he could capture multiple angles. One particular trip to the Rookery building for a site visit involved circling the building three times to get all the right angles for a heroic arrival on site. The producer was really disappointed when the property manager forbid the camera crew to enter. We made do with some still photos to tell the story of our investigation of the historic structure’s roof. One of those photos was selected as the cover photo for my video on the website.

On one afternoon, we just walked through the Chicago loop district while I pointed out buildings that I had worked on. This included a few boat rides on the water taxi – the first and only time I taken that mode of transportation. My involvement in Chicago’s historic structures was typically just to provide engineering for new tenant build-outs, but pointing out all the buildings made for a good story line. That’s actually the reason I chose civil engineering in the first place, I wanted to be able to walk down the street and point to my work.

The producer immediately recognized the best photo-ops. He had me stand in the rotunda of Union Station and describe the unrealized plans to build a high-rise extension on top of the historic art deco structure. I was actually situated just a few feet from the base of the steps famously featured in the Kevin Costner version of The Untouchables. None of that history was lost on the camera crew.

On the final day of our shoot, I took the crew to the rooftop of 540 West Madison. This site offered the most dramatic vistas of the City. However, the strong winds at that elevation and the lack of a pedestrian handrail made the conditions a little dangerous. While the cameraman was focused through his lens, the sound guy held a loop on the cameraman’s backpack to guide him around tripping hazards. The wind also made it impossible to get decent audio, so a conversation between the building manager and me was cut from the final video.

We wrapped up filming looking for the fun, quirky hobbies that would show me as real person. They filmed me playing soccer and walking along the lakeshore path, but in the end, the producers highlighted my occasional interest in rollerblading to work as my cool out-of-office activity. The video repeatedly features a canned jaunt across the State Street Bridge, which is decidedly out of the way for my commute.

That introduction set the stage, however, for the real star of the video, Chicago and its infrastructure. That’s probably how it should be for a civil engineer.

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1 Comment
  • It’s good to see civil engineers getting some TV time. This should be more normal with how much work we do. How could they pick rollerblading over soccer?

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