Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Stage 16

                             The humble swivel-snap

Note: This is another in an occasional series about my days working with grips and as a grip early in my Hollywooden career -- before I saw the light (but wasn't smart enough to notice all that godawfully heavy cable) and turned to juicing.  If you missed the previous posts and want to catch up, start here.

Stage 16 at Warner Brothers was cavernous. A full sixty-five feet from the stage floor to the grid above, it was by far the biggest sound stage I'd ever seen.*  Sixty-five feet doesn’t sound like much when you’re on the ground -- walking at a brisk pace, most people can cover that distance in a dozen seconds -- but once you make the long climb up high, that stage floor looks to be a mile down.   
And that’s from the safe haven of the catwalks. Imagine how high it feels when you're standing out there on the perms -- a permanent grid of six-inch wooden beams laid out in a  four foot squares -- your eyes constantly racking focus from the tips of your work boots to the stage floor below...  
As a raw permit, I had no intention of going up high on Stage 16, but when things began dropping from up there -- big, sharp double-head 16-penny nails that hit the stage floor with a percussive crack -- I reconsidered. It wasn't clear if the grips up there were just fucking with us (harrassing permits was considered great sport) or if they really were that clumsy -- but either way, I had no desire to get hit in the head by one of those steel missiles, so I volunteered to go up high. There, I figured to learn something watching how the real grips went about their job.   
The very last thing I expected was to climb over the catwalk rail and walk out on one of those narrow wooden beams, then spend the next eight hours pulling steel hangars up from the floor, but that’s what happened. I didn't really want to, but at a certain point I understood that there would be no watching from the catwalks -- going up high as a grip meant working out  on the perms. My only alternative was to chicken-out and make the long, humiliating trip back down all those stairs to the stage floor, and that was unacceptable to me at the time. 

I took a deep breath and went over the rail -- and before I knew it, was fifteen feet from the safety of the catwalk holding nothing but a seventy-five foot hand-line with a swivel-snap tied to one end, the toes and heels of my size 12 work boots hanging over the edge of that wooden beam by three inches front and back. Not only did I have to keep my balance at all costs --  there were no safety harnesses or fall protection devices for grips to wear out on the perms in those days -- but I had to get the work done. To do that, I'd have to suck it up and keep my cool.

That was easier said than done, because I was scared shitless.  Those first few heart-pounding minutes out there felt like an eternity.

Hangers are steel frames formed in a block "U" shape, at right-angles on either side of the bottom and open at the top.  They're designed to be hung from the perms with chains -- one attached to the top of each vertical piece -- in pairs eight feet apart.  Once all the hangers have been hung and adjusted, the green beds are hoisted up with a "mule" and carefully set in place, one end of each bed slipping into fittings on the hangers. The green beds are then nailed together, wooden railings installed, and high-braces installed that connect each row of beds to the perms or catwalks up high. By the time the bracing is complete, the result is a very safe and stable walkway above the perimeter of the set walls, where lamps and flags can be set -- and where a boom operator from the sound department can work when necessary once filming begins.
(A good picture would be worth the proverbial thousand words here, but since green beds aren't used much anymore, such pictures are hard to come by. The best I can do is direct you to this post, with photos of fully assembled green beds  hung above sets for a show I rigged a few years back.)

Pulling up and adjusting the hangers is the first step in that process.  Working in pairs out on the perms, we'd each drop a half-inch hand line (with a swivel-snap tied on the end) to the floor crew below, who had already laid out and measured the chains, then fastened a "perm hook" -- a steel bracket designed to fit over the top of the beams -- to the end of each chain.  They'd then attach each swivel-snap to a perm hook and give the up-high boys a yell.  

Now it was time to learn the fine art of pulling hangers.  

A hanger with chains isn't particularly heavy, but must be hauled up steadily and evenly on both sides to keep the hanger from spinning and tangling the chains. Once the hooks were set onto the perms, the floor crew used a "story pole" -- usually a pair of long one-by-threes marked at the exact height the green beds were supposed to hang -- to measure each side of the hanger.  No matter how carefully the chains had been measured on the floor, one or both sides were usually a little bit off, requiring adjustment. The man with the story pole would call out how much higher or lower each side of the hanger had to go.  If the chain needed to go up just a small amount, the man up high could simply pull the perm hook up (having left the swivel-snap and rope attached), then spin it once or twice before resetting it on the perm. But sometimes the chain would have to go up or down by a full link or two -- and that was trickier. The swivel-snap had to be released from the perm hook, then attached to the chain just below the correct link, at which point the safety nail could be pulled from the perm hook to allow the chain to be lifted free and re-set on the proper link. Once that was done, the safety-nail would go back into the perm hook to prevent it from coming loose.  If we were lucky, the first time would be the charm, but if not, the process would be repeated until each side of the hanger was at the proper height.

All this was done while bending over on that six inch beam, trying not to fall or drop the rope while following instructions from the story-pole man on the floor:  "Take it up two links on the right, one link on the left," he'd yell, then check again. "Give me one twist on the right." **

Only when the hanger was perfect would we move on down the line another ten feet to drop our lines and pull up the next hanger.

And so it went, hanger after hanger, all day long. This was a serious gut-check for me, and  although I never got truly comfortable out there on the perms, the process got easier with each successive hanger. Still, I was utterly exhausted by the end of that eight hour day,  drained not so much from the physical exertion of the work as by the white-knuckle tension of controlling my fear while getting the job done.  

It was the longest eight hours of my life, but a day that taught me a lot about what it takes to be a grip -- and is one reason I have such great respect for the grips of that era.

By the time we climbed down to wash up and head home, all the hangers on that run were  in place -- and it was a beautiful sight: a perfectly straight row hanging high above the stage floor. I felt a real sense of pride at having been part of getting such a challenging job done right.  A producer, director, writer, actor, or any above-the-liner might walk on stage, look up, and think nothing of it… but having learned exactly what it took to make that happen, I now viewed that row of hangers with very different eyes.

The eyes of a young grip.

*  At nearly 32,000 square feet, Stage 16 is the biggest stage at Warner Brothers, but Stage 27 at Sony Studios is taller -- 80 feet to the perms.  I never got a chance to work on that stage, and at this point, probably never will.

**  The simple magic of the swivel-snap -- which secures the drop line to the perm hook and/or chain -- makes this possible.  As the name implies, once it's been snapped on, it can swivel as many times as needed, allowing a grip working up high to spin the perm hook and chains without twisting or knotting his drop line.

Next time: Landing the green beds

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Laugh Track

                                    It ain't so, folks…

Multi-camera shows have been the subject of posts at the Anonymous Production Assistant and Totally Unauthorized recently, as well as the comic above, by Dan Piraro. As it happens, I'd been  (slowly) working on this post ever since that comic appeared in the Sunday LA Times a few weeks ago, so now seems a good time to weigh in.

I've been reading Bizarro comics in the daily paper for many years now, because I appreciate Dan Piraro's playful, off-kilter sense of humor. More often than not, his cartoons absolutely nail it -- whatever the issue might be -- dead on target.

But not always, and given that this cartoon perpetuates popular myths concerning sit-coms in general and multi-camera shows in particular, I'd like to set the record straight. Over the last 18 years, I've worked on dozens of multi-camera shows of the sort depicted above, and never once has there been an "applause" sign to prompt an audience, much less any signage urging them to "whistle, laugh, giggle, sniff, gasp, hoot, sigh" or whatever that last one might be.

Such signs may well have been used back in the early days of television, but I've never seen one  in Hollywood.*

And since I'm in a rather pedantic, stick-up-my-ass, "say WHAT?" mood today... multi-camera shows use four cameras, not two, and the warm-up man works up in the audience grandstand, not on the stage floor.

But hey, it's just a cartoon, where such details don't really matter.

What does matter (and  the main thing this cartoon gets wrong), is the contention that "nothing the performers do will even remotely resemble comedy or entertainment of any kind."

That's simply not true, and tells me that for all his comedic artistic talent, Dan Piraro has never had a chance to sit among the audience watching the filming of a multi-camera show -- because with very few exceptions, those people have a blast.

This doesn't mean the completed episode as it appears on television will be funny, mind you. A lot can change between shoot night and the broadcast, and sometimes the comedy suffers in the editing process. Some sit-coms are really good, more are average, and many  are mediocre on their best days. Truth be told, although I work exclusively on multi-camera shows these days (and usually enjoy watching the live show unfold), I rarely watch them at home.  

It's just a matter of personal taste. When it comes to television, I'm more of a Breaking Bad, The Wire, and True Detectives kind of guy. For comedy, I prefer shows with some real bite -- Louie CK, Archer, or even The Comedians, the recently-concluded Billy Crystal/Josh Gadd effort on FX.

One thing I've never liked about watching multi-camera shows on the Toob is the ever-present laugh track, which has always seemed a bit insulting to me. Before I began working in the multi-cam world, I felt that if a show had to tell me when to laugh, then something was seriously wrong. "Canned laughter" seemed like a cheap trick designed to make me think I was enjoying a show simply because of the laughter bellowing from the speaker of my TV. 

I don't know if other viewers feel the same way about laugh tracks -- vaguely insulted -- but it wasn't until I actually began working on multi-cam shows (after twenty years of single-camera life -- features, commercials, and music videos) that I understood why that laugh track exists in the first place. Although multi-camera shows had been around long before Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball came up with I Love Lucy, their show was the first multi-cam to shoot in front of a live audience.**  Short of looping every episode after filming (which would have been prohibitively expensive), there was no way to cut the audience laughter from the sound track -- so they made it part of the show. Eventually, someone came up with technology to "sweeten" laugh tracks for broadcast, and the practice was accepted by the viewing audience at home. Single camera comedies used canned laughter on their soundtracks for a while, but that faded away as the shows got better and the audience at home learned to laugh without any prompting. The more recent advent of "hybrid" multi-cam shows -- which are not shot in front of a live audience --  brought back the canned laughter. It's a bad idea, in my opinion, but the industry doesn't care what any of us who do the heavy lifting think. Until my current show (a ball-busting hybrid), every sit-com I've worked (including pilots) was shot before an audience of anywhere from two hundred to three hundred people. 

That audience was right there, with an up-close and personal view of the actors performing the show -- and they had a great time.

The truth is, any civilian who wants to have fun (and a lot of laughs) while observing the making of a television program would do well to attend the taping of a multi-camera show. Those who have never been on a working set may find this hard to believe, but even if they could manage to get on the set of their favorite single-camera comedy or drama -- no matter how good the show -- the experience wouldn't be nearly as entertaining as sitting with the audience of a multi-camera show.

Watching a single-camera show being made is a lot like watching paint dry -- especially for civilians, who expect to see shoot-outs, huge explosions, or maybe a high-speed car chase on set… but they won't.  What they will see is a large crew of people standing around and apparently doing nothing.  

It's the reality of our working lives on set.

One reason the audience of a multi-cam show has such a good time is the warm-up man, whose job is to keep the audience entertained during the inevitable lulls in the action on set.  Since a sit-com script runs only twenty-two minutes long, but takes three to four hours to shoot, there's a lot of down-time between takes and scenes. A good warm-up guy is worth his weight in gold, and the good ones are really good. Guys like Ron Pearson bring the archaic term "warm-up man" to a whole new level. I've seen Ron many times on several different shows, and never get tired of the kinetic dynamism of his very funny act. He's just amazing -- the best in the business, IMHO -- and if you're ever lucky enough to attend a taping that he's working, you're in for a real treat.***  

I'll never like the laugh track, but it exists for a reason, which I can accept.  And since I rarely watch sit-coms of any sort at home, the idiocy of being told exactly when to laugh doesn't bother me at all...

* I do like the arrow in the back of the cameraman on the right, though.  I've seen a few directors fire those arrows, and -- metaphors or not -- they had an impact…

** I Love Lucy was the monster hit of its time, a huge show.

*** Or one of his gigs on the corporate circuit, where Ron does quite well. Here he is appearing on Craig Fergusson's show a few years back.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Pay Attention

                   Unless you're reading this blog, of course…*

(Note: this post is not aimed at industry veterans -- who already know what it takes to succeed on set -- but at wannabes and newbies who still have much to learn.) 

A lot goes into making a competent, reliable worker on set, be it a juicer, grip, set decorator, camera assistant, or anyone else on the first unit shooting crew. You have to be on time, know your craft, understand when to speak up and when to keep your mouth shut, when walk and when to run -- and above all, you really have to pay attention.
The first is a no-brainer. The call time is when work starts (or as one AD I worked with put it "Call time is the word of God"), so set your alarm clock to kick you out of bed with enough time to get dressed, wade through traffic, find parking, and walk to the location or studio set.  Arriving fifteen or twenty minutes early allows you to grab some coffee and a bite at crafty before strapping on your tools, at which point you’ll be ready to work at the call time.  
If you’re one of those people who always strolls in right at call time, don’t be surprised by the looks you get from the rest of your crew, who will already be working while you're shoveling food onto a plate at crafty’s steam tables.  
We all have those mornings when nothing seems to go right:  you worked late the night before on another show, then spilled your wake-up coffee, dribbled Cheerios and milk down your shirt, dropped your car keys into a gutter filled with stinking, fetid water, then hit every goddamned red light on the way to work and barely managed to get there at call. Shit happens in life, and when the unfortunate/unpredictable/unavoidable occurs on the way to work -- a flat tire or accident ahead that ties traffic into a Gordian Knot -- that’s what cell phones are for. Call the Best Boy or department head and let him/her know what’s happening.  Everybody winds up running late on one point or another, but there's no excuse for not letting your crew know that you'll be delayed.  
On my last show, our dimmer op faced a horrendous daily drive on the tortuous 405 freeway here in LA -- the only viable route to the studio from his Westside apartment -- and one morning called to report that he was trapped in gridlocked traffic and would be very late... so via phone, he talked me through booting up the Ion board to bring up the set lights so the director, actors, and camera crew could get on with the block-and-shoot day.  
He handled the situation exactly right -- no harm, no foul, no hard feelings -- and when he arrived half an hour later, nobody but the DP and lighting crew the wiser.  
But the guy who wanders in a few minutes late on a regular basis without bothering to phone ahead will not be regarded so kindly, and sooner or later will be replaced on the crew by somebody who understands what the call time really means.  
Learning any craft takes time and experience. Some people are naturals at the job -- they pick it up quickly and rise through the ranks fast -- but everybody learns at their own pace.  Although rigging or working on a shooting set is neither brain science nor rocket surgery,  there's a lot to learn at first. That’s one reason it’s good to work for many different crews to learn various ways of dealing with the problems that crop up on every set. Good ideas come from everywhere, so keep your eyes open and take note of the more elegant solutions you come across. The knowledge you acquire there will serve you well in the future.
For newbies, it’s best to follow the ancient advice concerning children, who were "to be seen, but not heard.”  Should you have a question regarding the task at hand or see a safety hazard others missed, by all means speak up, but keep the idle chatter to a minimum until break times. Your thoughts and opinions may indeed be precious pearls of wisdom -- gifts to a world that will one day kneel before you in the deepest and most profound gratitude -- but a busy set is not the delivery platform to showcase your intellectual brilliance.
In other words, shut the fuck up and concentrate on your job.  
When to walk?  99% of the time. When to run?  The standard response is "never," but that's not realistic -- and besides, every rule was made to broken. You just have to know when the right time to break that rule.  Every now and then an emergency or other situation requiring urgent action will arise, and then we have to move fast.  Still, the adage that “haste makes waste” always applies on a crowded set, where moving too fast can end up injuring you or someone else. Stay calm and do what needs to be done with a minimum of noise and elbow-flapping. Believe me, that will be noticed and help build your reputation.
The last item -- paying attention -- is really the most important, because it underlines all the others.  Pay attention to your alarm clock and you won’t be late.  Pay attention to your craft and you’ll learn faster.  Pay attention to what matters on set -- the ongoing work -- and you’ll always know what’s happening. Not only will you be more useful to your department head and crew, you're less likely to be caught by surprise, and thus won't end up rushing to fix whatever problems arise. 
The genesis of this post came from reading a comment AJ (who runs things over at The Hills are Burning blog) left in response to a recent post at Dollygrippery, and the ensuing discussion on the breakdown of set protocol in the digital era. To me, it all boils down to a lack of on-set situational awareness, which happens when people aren't paying attention -- and one culprit here is the ubiquitous cell phone.  It's always bothered me to see the entire grip and electric crew staring into their cell phones on set, not paying attention to what’s going until the Key Grip or Gaffer shouts for something. Suddenly, up come the heads and down go the cell phones... and only then does the crew get off their asses to respond. Had they been paying attention to what was happening on set, they might have anticipated what would be needed and been ready to solve the problem without their department head having to yell. 
To that issue, AJ made a very good point.
"I think part of it may be that the "new kids" see the seasoned vets sitting at staging on their phones and think it's okay. What they don't realize is the guy who's been doing this for twenty years can stare at his phone because he's been doing this long enough to know when something's needed and is keeping an ear out. Meanwhile, the kid just sees the guy on his phone and so he does the same thing."

"There's been more than a few times when a co-worker is showing me a video or article on his phone when the Gaffer calls for something, and I'm the only one who hears it. You still have to be able to pay attention to set if you're going to dick around and sadly, not everyone realizes that."
She's absolutely right -- which brings us to the subject of “set ears.” On my second feature (working as a PA helping out grip and electric), I marveled at the ability of the grips and juicers to know what was going on at all times. I’d be engrossed in a conversation with one of them when suddenly he’d abruptly turn and head off to add a scrim to a lamp or get a flag, C stand and sandbag -- and this was back when walkie talkies were only used by those up in condor lifts, not the ground crew.  
How did they know? What did they hear that I couldn’t?
They were veterans who had good “set ears,” that’s how.  By keeping one ear tuned to the voices of the DP, Key Grip, and Gaffer, they were always ready to respond  to whatever situation arose. In time, I developed set ears too, which are important even now that the entire crew wears walkie-talkies. Often the director or DP will point something out to the Key Grip or Gaffer requiring action on the part of the crew -- and if you're paying attention, you'll notice and be ready to respond before the voice of your boss comes over the radio.  
I know all too well how boring the long hours on set can be,** where we’re usually waiting for another department to do their work before we can proceed with ours -- and having recently joined the herd of smart-phone owners, I understand the lure of that little glowing screen. But when I’m at work, my phone stays in my work bag or tool belt pouch until there's serious lull in the action or a break is called. Those with families or day-players with complicated work and/or social lives can’t necessarily afford to do that, but there’s a difference between exchanging quick text messages and staring into the screen playing Angry Birds on set. There's a right time for everything, so use discretion before pulling out your phone -- and when you do, always keep one ear tuned to what's happening on set.

Paying attention isn't easy, especially when you're new to the biz and don't really understand what's going on, but learning to avoid distractions and remain focused on the job when nothing much seems to be happening is an essential skill for every industry professional. With time and experience, the rhythms of life on set will gradually become second nature, as will the not-so-simple act of paying attention.

It's a gradual process that you won't even be aware of until one day you notice a young newbie on the crew who's totally engrossed in watching a Utube video on his cell phone or blathering away on set, not paying attention. Only then will you understand how much you've learned and how far you've come -- and that you're now a pro.

And that he isn't.  Not yet.

*  Just kidding… but Blogger's stats indicate that many of you read this blog on cell phones rather than computers or tablets, and now that I've joined Generation Selfie, I notice that the standard view on a cell phone does not display the industry blog links (or any of the other links) on the right side of the page -- to see those, you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom and click "view web version." Only then will all those links appear, giving you instant access to many terrific industry blogs, podcasts, and other interesting websites. 

**  Hey, there's a reason this blog is titled "Blood, Sweat, and Tedium"...

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 24

Not a UFO, nor a giant flying yamaka, but a balloon light being rigged at dusk.

I don't recommend film industry gear or services very often, maybe because I've been working mostly on sound stages the past six years, and thus have been using much of the same equipment I first encountered more than three decades ago. When you don't work with  new technology, there isn't much reason to say anything about it one way or the other.*

My new show is so different from the last one that I'm not sure you can call both "multi-camera sit-coms" -- although that's what they are -- and this one is much harder on the lighting crew than anything I've done in a very long time.  At three weeks in, we'd already done one full day filming exteriors under a hot sun along with two night exteriors, one of which blew right through midnight into Fraterday. With the busy pace and full schedule causing the fatigue to accumulate week by week, our entire crew has begun to feel like we're working on a feature film.

This isn't quite what I had in mind when I wished for a show to come my way... but you take what you can get in this town, and right now this is it -- and it is what it is.  Still, it's always good to scrape the rust off old skills and learn some of the new tricks that have turned up since I last did exterior location shoots.

Balloon lights certainly aren't "new" -- they've been around for quite a while now -- but the technology has evolved over the years to the point where they've become an essential part of the equipment package for many night shoots.  For our first night exterior work on this show, we used the calm, capable, and supremely competent services of Brian Glassman and 1 Stop Lighting and Grip, who specialize in all aspects of balloon lighting and post-shoot helium recovery, which lowers the cost to the production company.

Brian was just great -- an industry veteran who knows what's what, but hasn't sunk into the  dismal swamp of despair that turns some of us into bitter old cranks.  He knows what he's doing and brings a great attitude to the job.  Once his balloon was up and lit, he helped our lighting crew place, move, power up, and adjust the tungsten lighting package until the AD finally called wrap. He didn't have to do any of that -- he could have concentrated on hoovering up all the snacks at craft service -- but he's not that kind of guy.  Whenever we needed an extra hand, he was there, and when the balloon had to be moved or adjusted, he got it done fast, with a minimum of fuss.

I was impressed, which is why I have no problem recommending Brian and 1 Stop to anybody who needs balloon lights for a night shoot -- and you'll notice a permanent link to 1 Stop now under the list of Industry Resources over on the right side of this page.**


Next up, here are 13 signs that you work in the film and television industry.  The bit about over-and-under only applies to sound and video people these days -- juicers wrap all cable clockwise, all the time -- but the other twelve hit the nail on the head.


Last, here's another pithy meditation on the industry and modern culture from veteran writer/producer Rob Long at Martini Shot.  It's a good one.

Those are your picks of the week -- so check 'em out...

* I have discussed LED lights a few times, but that technology is still climbing the steep part of the developmental curve.  With things changing so fast, there isn't much point in recommending or dissing the current offerings.

** Those of you reading this on a cell phone will have to click "Web Version" at the bottom of your screen to see all those links.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Moment of Truth

The New Show, Week Two
                           Day One of filming.  This is NOT your average sit-com

“Dude, what’d you over the weekend, rebuild your house?”
It was Monday, back on stage after a grueling rig week that left me more-or-less comatose by Friday, and one of the new (to me) grips was apparently trying to say “hello.”
“Say what?”
“You look beat already, and it’s only Monday.”
I stared long and hard into his unlined, youthful countenance -- the face of a man still happily skipping though his 40’s -- then shook my head.
“At this point, just crawling out of bed in the morning is enough to wear me out,” I replied, trying to put a sardonic spin on an otherwise grim reality. 
“You close to retirement?”
“Another year or so.”
“I wouldn’t wait too long,” he cautioned.  “You don’t wanta die before you start collectin’ social security.”
“Gee, thanks for the advice, punk,” I thought -- but refrained from saying. I don’t know these grips well enough to start barking at them just yet.  All in good time.
Unable to come up with a polite reply, I just shrugged and moved on.  
Still, he had a point, because feeling tired is one thing, but looking tired is something else altogether. Here in Hollywood -- in front of and behind the cameras -- perception is accepted as reality, and I can't afford to be seen as the broken-down old juicer limping along behind the rest of the crew. It hasn’t come to that yet (not even on this job, where -- with one notable exception -- I’ve managed to shoulder my share of the load), but after two punishing weeks, I am starting to wonder if the load will ever lighten up on this show.
“Be careful what you wish for,” a wise man once said, and there’s a lot of truth in those six words.  I wanted a show and I got one, but after two brutal weeks I’m beginning to question the wisdom of having that generic wish granted in this particular way. 
Which is to say, this show has been a real bitch thus far.  
Two Fridays in a row now, I’ve staggered home having had my ass thoroughly kicked and handed to me on the way out the stage door.  At the end of each week, I could not have worked one more day with any real effectiveness or enthusiasm whatsoever.  I was one whipped puppy.
The first week was all rigging, all the time, much of it up high in the narrow labyrinthine catwalks of soundstage that’s nearly eighty years old and showing every one of those hard years. The depression-era dinner theater was converted to a television stage back in the 80's, but it’s unclear if any serious upgrades were made up high.  From the looks of it, my guess is “no.”
And on that first day up high, I encountered a moment of truth -- one I knew was coming someday, but hadn’t yet experienced.  Faced with five 100-foot coils of 4/0 (the really heavy stuff, with very thick insulation), I took a deep breath, bent my knees, then grasped a coil with both hands and attempted the classic clean-and-jerk maneuver to heft it to my shoulder.
But I couldn’t do it.  I got that monster up to my chest, but no further... so I duck-walked it across those god-awful catwalks to where it had to go.  My fellow juicer -- a considerably younger guy -- took note of this, and without a word proceeded to bring the other four coils over.  I let him do it without any argument.
That was a first, and not the kind I like. Not one little bit.
The rest, I could do.  Pulling each cable around the corner, then running it out straight and snapping it tight on that over-crowded catwalk wasn’t a problem -- and once we had all five cables neatly lined up and ready to feed over the side down to the stage floor (there to run outside and thus double the capacity of the existing exterior power), the really hard part of that particular task was done.  
But that moment was humbling for me. I can still do everything a juicer is responsible for on set, but will have to leave carrying 4/0 on my shoulder to the younger juicers from now on. Otherwise I might end up rolling out of Hollywood in a wheelchair when the time comes.
It's abundantly clear that this show is not your average multi-camera sit-com.  We won’t film in front of an audience at all, but will instead be shooting lots of day and night exteriors in addition to our stage work. Indeed, our first day of filming was on a football field from dawn 'til dusk, wrangling  two 20-by-20 condor-mounted fly-swatters, two 12 by 12 ultra-bounce frames, two18Ks, two 6K HMI pars, and all the requisite support gear. Granted, a package this size wouldn't impress the crew of any episodic (not even a second-unit crew), but it's six years since I last worked a location job using this kind of equipment.  
With four juicers to handle the load, it wasn't a problem, but spending an entire day under the harsh Southern California sun (an unseasonably warm 87 degrees) made it something of an ordeal for this aging juicer. By the end of that day, I was hurting.*
Fortunately, the next day's filming was in the air-conditioned comfort on stage -- quite a relief, that, even if I was still dog-tired.  Running up ten-step ladders and climbing atop set walls to adjust lamps is still right in my wheelhouse, and it felt good to be back on familiar ground.
But with a ton of location work coming our way, this job will either beat me into some kind of shape, or pound me right into the ground -- and at the moment, I have no idea which way that will go.
We shall see...

* Yeah, I know -- all y'all twenty-something studs filming day exteriors in Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida will sneer at this, and for good reason. I've done features down South in the summertime, and know exactly how rough that is.  But it's all relative, and once you've become accustomed to working almost exclusively on stage, suddenly being thrust out into the real world comes as a rude awakening.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Day Player Chronicles -- Part Two

                                       True, that...

The first thing a day-player needs to know is that he/she only gets a call when a crew needs help. Either one of the core crew is unavailable for some reason (out sick, or having taken a more lucrative temporary gig), or else the crew is facing an unusually heavy work load.

The second thing a day-player has to understand is that he's there to fill the gaps and serve the needs of others. The core members already have their established roles on set, and although they'll do whatever's required to keep the machine moving forward, their first responsibilities are the priority tasks -- whatever the gaffer needs done right NOW.  The day player may join them on the front lines as needed, but his/her job is usually to do everything else: help the Best Boy wrap and return equipment, run and drop cable from up high with the dimmer operator, power up the practical fixtures on set, or work as the "floor man" preparing lights, stirrup hangars, and other equipment for the core crew hanging lamps up in their man-lifts.

Having become accustomed to working as a member of the core crew for so long -- a front-line juicer going up the ladder or jumping into the man-lift first -- shifting to the mindset of a day player required an adjustment.

As I was recently reminded, call times aren't always friendly to a day-player.  The show I worked on a few weeks ago brought me in again to work their first day back from hiatus (all the Best Boy could promise was one day), because that week's episode was big enough that their three core juicers needed some help. Their usual call time on Mondays is usually around 3 p.m, and they rarely work much past 9*, but our call for this very busy day was 6 p.m., with the promise of working well past midnight.  Had I booked another job with an  early morning call the following day, I'd be looking at very little sleep.

There was no other job, since things are slow in town right now, but this illustrates the curse of the day-player, who toils at the whim of forces that are beyond his control and utterly unconcerned that he might have to report for work on another show the following morning on only three or four hours sleep.  I've been in that position too many times over the course of my career, and don't plan to do it again. It's just not worth the money. That's one reason I view day-playing as a last resort, and much prefer to be a member of the core crew.

But beggars can't be choosers, so we do what we have to do.**

As it turned out, the BB got the okay to bring me in the next day (and a blessedly short day it was), so all was well.  The check for two days is a lot more satisfying than one solitary day, and the gaffer assured me that I'd be back in a couple of weeks.

But a funny thing happened on the way to assuming my new role in Hollywood as a day-player (and my plans to write a series of posts chronicling that transition) -- the phone did ring after all, and I'm no longer day-playing.  A gaffer I've known for very long time called to say he was starting a cable sit-com show very soon, and would I like a slot on his crew?

Is the Bear a Catholic?  Does a pope shit in the woods?

We've been rigging the stage and exterior sets for a week now, pushing the very big rock up the very steep hill at (miracle of miracles) full union scale. It was one ass-kicker of a week for me, but I managed to get through the worst of it without embarrassing myself. The next few weeks won't be easy -- working on a very crowded stage (the proverbial ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag) with an entirely new crew will require yet another adjustment. It never ceases to amaze me how in a town where everybody seems to know everybody else, I can still -- after all these years -- run into a crew of total strangers. But such is Hollywood, where the intense nature of the work means they won't remain strangers for long.

The only downside thus far are that it's a kid's show (the scripts for which tend to be mind-numbingly simplistic), we'll be doing a fair amount of night exteriors (never fun, those), and none of the episodes will shoot in front of a live audience. We'll follow the usual three lighting days/two filming days schedule, but rather than a block-and-pre-shoot day followed by the audience shoot, we'll just grind out the sit-com sausage shot-by-shot over the course of two full days. This schedule falls somewhere between a standard audience-shoot sit-com and a"hybrid" multi-cam -- which rehearse and light for two days, then shoots for three days with no audience.

Hybrid shows have become more common in the past few years, especially for shows that require a fair amount of location filming or employ more time-consuming special effects than a normal sit-com, and although this isn't a true hybrid, I'll miss those audience shows for a number of reasons.  But if this show is less than ideal, it sure as hell beats unemployment, which is to say I will not look this gift horse in the mouth.

Hey, I'm lucky to have a job at all, and besides, nothing's perfect in this veil of tears we call life.  All I have to do is show up on time and do the work to the best of my ability -- which is pretty much my default setting at this point. I don't know how to work any other way. The silver lining is that we'll have three juicers on the core crew, where most of the crews I've worked on only had two. We should be able to spread the work load so that none of us suffer undue abuse.

That's the plan, anyway.  It remains to be seen what will happen when "the plan" meets reality, because it may well turn out there's a reason we have three juicers.  And in that case, I'll doubtless have plenty to bitch about -- the stuff of future blog posts.

Stay tuned...

* And that, my little droogies, is one of the many reasons I work in the multi-camera world.

** Except for episodics -- no way am I going back to those...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Day Player Chronicles -- Part One

The Fountain of Youth
                              Ah, to be young again…

At this point, eight days of work as a day-player takes a toll, even with a weekend in the middle. That's not enough to wear down a young, strong twenty-something juicer, but pile forty more years on his back and he’ll feel like he’s already run a marathon long before those eight days are over.

I sure as hell did.

Although the hours on multi-camera shows are nothing like the grueling torture suffered by crews on episodics, those three lighting days each week are all work, all the time -- and during the much longer block-and-shoot and audience shoot days, I was on my feet almost the entire day.  It's not easy to stand and wait on a chilly sound stage, hour after hour, one ear tuned to the radio chatter between the gaffer and dimmer op, the other listening to the A.D. and director -- all the while ready to grab a ladder or jump in a man-lift to replace a burned-out bulb or make whatever lighting adjustments are necessary to keep the sit-com machine moving forward. It's a bit like sitting at a very long red light in traffic, one foot on the brake pedal and the other on throttle, ready to burn rubber the instant that light flashes green.

But we have to do it, because sooner or later something will happen that requires our immediate and full attention…  and on the last block-and-shoot day, that something was a fire up in the green beds -- not a huge, blazing conflagration, but very real flames licking up from a charred 100 amp Bates connecter atop the old, extremely dry wood of the green beds.

This particular show doesn't make use of those green beds, a double-wide row running nearly the length of the stage above the camera aisle. Once upon a time, the sound department would install six Fisher booms up there, where the operators could work the microphones out of everybody else’s way down on the floor.  But under the constant pressure to lower costs, there are now just two Fisher booms on stage, each mounted on a massive perambulator. Together, those two monsters -- with a boom operator, pusher, and utility person -- take up as much floor space as all four cameras combined, and with each camera and sound rig trailing a very long, thick cable, moving the whole menagerie from one set to another becomes a tedious exercise in cable-wrangling logistics.  

The more I work on the new shows, the more I miss the old days...

Because this show wasn't using (and thus didn't have to pay rent on) those green beds, there was no ladder installed for us to get up there, which meant the grips -- working by the dim stage emergency lights after our dimmer operator killed the power -- had to deploy a double-sided twelve step so we could climb onto the greens and deal with the situation.  

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew -- camera operators, assistants, the sound department, props, set dressing, hair and makeup, PAs and actors -- evacuated the stage.

Once up there, it was no big deal. The heat source that sparked the fire cooled when the power was cut, so the Best Boy was able to extinguish the flames with a few slaps of his gloves. There was a lot of very nasty smoke, though, so we opened the elephant door and all four stage doors to air the stage out for a while before the rest of the crew came back to resume work.  We replaced the burned-out cable and "five-pecker billygoat"), then checked every other connection up there.* One was a bit warm, so we installed a new stinger (extension cord) and called for the dimmer op to bring the lights back up.

It was only then that I noticed that I wasn’t the least bit tired anymore.  Before the stage-clearing excitement, I’d been feeling stiff, creaky, and old, but all that -- along with a good thirty years --  vanished the instant someone yelled “fire!” 

To mangle the famous quote of the late, great Rick James, “Adrenaline is one hell of a drug.”

A similar thing happened the following night after the audience show and curtain-call, when -- after eleven hours of mostly watchful-waiting, we had to kick into gear and wrap the lamps from all the swing sets as fast as possible. It was up the ladder, unbolt the lamp, lower the lamp, unbolt the stirrup hanger, carry it down the ladder, then move the ladder and repeat for the next hour or so -- and once again the accumulated fatigue of the week just disappeared. 

In the grip of that adrenal-fueled glow, I felt like that grinning twenty-eight year fool in the photo above, absent the lovely actress, unfortunately.**

Waking up the next day, of course, I was once again a hundred years old. Rather than crawl from bed to face the day, I just lay there doing a slow inventory of all the parts that hurt -- and while in deep contemplation of the ceiling, pondered the power of adrenaline… which is when it occurred to me that there really is a Fountain of Youth, in the very last place I’d expect to look: at work.

I won’t go as far to say “work shall set you free” (there are way too many negative associations with that little phrase) but under the right circumstances, work really does melt the years away. Granted, this is only an adrenaline-spiked illusion -- and like every drug-high, all too temporary -- but shedding those decades truly is a wonderful thing, however brief the respite from reality.  At this point in life, I'll settle for that. Not that I have much choice, mind you. Besides, having worked in an industry of illusion for so long, the line between what's real and what isn't grows ever more tenuous by every year.  And that's not a bad thing. 


Still, if reality exists only in the moment -- and that moment happens to involve a truck load of 4/0 -- all bets are off, because this ungodly nightmare is nothing less than the Fountain of Death.

Never again, indeed

* I couldn't find a stand-alone link to image of what we call a "five-pecker billygoat," but if you click here, then scroll down to page 24 of Mole Richardson's power distribution catalog, you'll find a picture of what Mole calls a "100 amp Male Bates to 5 - house plugs" adaptor. 

** Your humble juicer (working as a grip, actually) with the lovely Melissa Prophet the night we wrapped the not-so-epic Van Nuys Boulevard back in the late 1970's.