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, August 30, 2015

The Hammer of Lazarus

Another Week of Mondays...
 Ten hours sleep over two long work days, staring at a Sunday of toil...
                                (photo by Steve Morales)

Mondays are never fun, especially a Monday coming off a hiatus week. After nine straight days of freedom (five off-days bookended by two full weekends), my brain has managed to re-inflate after being steamrolled flatter than a stale tortilla by three straight weeks of hard labor. Once again I can appreciate good music, resume reading books, and chip away at the ever-growing logjam on my DVR. Outside I hear the birds sing, and watch big puffy thunderheads build up over the rugged San Gabriel mountains east of LA. I see the sun rise a little bit lower in the sky every morning as summer moves towards fall, the light shifting on that big white Hollywood sign high in the parched hills over the city that’s been my home-away-from-home these past four decades.  

By the end of nine days off, I've resumed human form and -- like Lazarus -- come back to life.

Then it’s Monday again, back at work, where I feel the weariness in my bones -- a dark, enervating fatigue that sinks deep into the marrow. Age and time have everything to do with this, as the sheer weight of all these years working on stage and location sets makes it feel as though I'm walking the surface of Jupiter.*  

In our Gold Room, I was greeted by the unwelcome news that after the usual five days of toil required to light, shoot, and wrap another episode, we’d get Saturday off, then report to location ten miles from the stage at 8 a.m. Sunday for a full 12 hour day filming pick-up scenes owed to a past episode. And that meant Saturday wouldn’t be a “day off” at all, but rather a day swallowed by the mundane-but-essential chores that allow an Industry Work-Bot to keep going. I’d sleep in, then stagger from bed to pay the week's accumulation of bills, hit the post office, laundromat, supermarket, and Trader Joes... and by the time that was all done, Saturday would be over, and the alarm clock set to go off at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning. 

This depressed the hell out of me -- more than it should have, really. It was only then that I realized just what a slog this job has been, and how thin the line is between being ready to go and feeling too goddamned tired all the time. The show is hard enough as it is -- after three days of lighting, we work long and hard over the Thursday and Friday shoot -- and now the company was taking one of our precious weekend days away. 

On a job like this, the crew needs a full two day weekend to recover. Not only would we lose that recovery time, but we'd be right back on stage the very next day -- Monday -- still feeling the effects of the previous week and that long, hot Sunday.

Thus my attitudinal flame-out. We were in for another week of Mondays.

I’ve been here before, of course -- enduring a week so chaotically fucked-up that every day feels like Monday -- and will doubtless be there again before calling a wrap on this Hollywooden career.  Multi-camera shows aren't supposed to routinely mete out such floggings each and every week. 

Seriously, who needs this shit?

Me, I guess, because I'm still here -- and as hard as the show is, I like to finish what I start. More to the point, I like this lighting crew, and there's a reasonable chance this show might be my last as a member of the core crew. The New Year may well bring nothing but an occasional day-playing gig.

More to the point, the shortage of multi-camera shows currently in production for the new Fall TV season means I’m lucky to be working at all. Most Industry Work-Bots in town are toiling much longer hours on single-camera shows that supplanted all those sit-coms. Once again, it seems a glut of crappy multi-cam shows has choked the Golden Goose. After years of assuming the viewing audience would swallow just about any crap the networks and cable outfits barfed up on the small screen, an entirely predictable audience backlash has come.

Last time this happened was when the ogre of “Reality TV” reared it’s cheap, ugly, exploitational head and drove multi-camera comedies into the hills, where the survivors scraped out a subsistence living by candle-light while dreaming of better times to come. the good times did return, but after a few reasonably fat years, multi-camera shows are once again sliding down the dark side of the "boom and bust" wave, and although they'll doubtless come back into industry fashion again, that future boom will not include me. By the time the multi-camera buffalo return, I'll be long gone from Hollywood.

Such is life.

Although the work-on-Sunday clusterfuck will mean a slightly fatter paycheck (an additional work day plus the sixth consecutive day the following Friday to be paid at a higher rate), much of the increase will be absorbed by the higher rates of tax withholding trigged by any increase in gross weekly pay. By the time we see our checks, the increase won't amount to much more than couple of hundred dollars -- which is better than a sharp stick in the eye, but I'm not sure the minimal monetary gain is worth the considerable pain inflicted by working eleven out of twelve days.  

So why do it? Our Best Boy was upfront in asking if anybody wanted to bail on Sunday and be replaced -- no hard feelings, no harm, no foul.  All I had to do was raise my hand to reclaim my precious weekend...but to quote an old song from my long-gone youth, "I didn't, and I wonder why."

For several reasons, I suppose, starting with my own sense of professional pride. I don't want to be the old guy on the crew who can't hack it when the going gets tough. Indeed, I need to prove to them and to myself that I can hack it -- that despite the gray hair and lines on my face, I still carry my weight every day on set.

There are other factors to consider. My opportunity to work with crews like this will disappear soon enough, and the bond forged in working and suffering together as a crew is unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere in life. Maybe my need to hang in there is just another iteration of the old cliche about “hitting yourself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good to stop,” or because deep down inside, I think it's better to work a little too hard for a little too long -- and thus be good and ready to bail when the time comes -- than to back off the throttle and coast across the finish line.

Whether working Sunday was the right call or not, the day came and went, and of course we sweated and suffered all day long. Before we knew it, here was Monday again, back on stage to begin this week's work -- which promised to be yet another week of Mondays.  

Only this time, there'll be six of them...

* Yes, I realize Jupiter is a gas giant with no real surface as we know it, but I'm exercising a little poetic license here to speak in figurative terms about the perceived increase of gravity...

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 26

                                       It's heeeeere...

With September just a week away, the 2015 edition of the The West Marin Review is now out and available to be purchased by mail or in a few bookstores.  

And why should this interest you?

No reason at all, truth be told, since it's exceedingly unlikely that any of you have ever heard of this small literary and arts review, which publishes a new edition every year. The 2015 edition marks a milestone of sorts for me, though, because up 'til now, my efforts to achieve publication (other than in the pages of this home-brewed blog) have met with what could charitably described as "limited success." But I can now carve one more notch on the writing belt, because one of my older posts made the cut to appear among the fifteen prose pieces showcased in this year's WMR. Although there's no money involved, I'll have the satisfaction of seeing at least one of my efforts in a print venue other than a newspaper or blog.  

That (and five bucks) will buy me a cup of Starbuck's finest.

There are two ways you can read the piece. The most obvious is to buy a copy of the WMR, which will the allow you enjoy the rest of the writers featured there, or you can simply follow this link to the original post, which many of you have already read.  It was massaged slightly to satisfy the editors of the review, but there's no substantial difference.

Either way, I'll get paid exactly the same -- nothing.

The choice is yours. 


I’m not a big fan of lists -- ten best or whatever -- and have little patience for those who insist on comparing different eras, whether in the realm of sports, television, movies, or whatever. No matter the subject, things were different way back then because it was a different time. Would Joe Louis have beaten Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier, or George Foreman in their prime?  Could Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio hit so well against modern pitching? Would Jim Brown run right through NFL defensive teams nowadays?  
Is “Modern Family” a better show now than “All in the Family” was way back when? 
Who knows -- and more to the point, who cares?  Such arguments are the hot air of idle speculation, and if there’s a place for that kind of blather on the bar-room stool, living room couch, or workplace lunchroom, it's just an exercise in mental cud-chewing along the lines of  pondering how many angels really can dance on the head of a pin.

That said, Tim Goodman -- the Hollywood Reporter’s Chief Television Critic  -- is not wrong in describing the current era of television as “the Platinum Age,” arguing that no previous “Golden Age” of TV can hold a candle to what’s on the small screen nowadays.  He’s not subtle about it, either.
“There hasn’t been a more competitive, cut-throat, quality-saturated era in television ever. Period.”
And even though I’d rather watch an old episode of “The Honeymooners” than any modern laugh-track sit-com, I think Goodman is right -- but this is not really good news for the broadcast, cable, or New Media networks. Although the current glut of quality works for the viewing audience (up to a point, anyway), the more good shows are on the Toob, the harder it is for your show to stand out from the herd and attract the viewers desired by advertisers. 

None of the corporate entities who put up the funds required to produce television do so with the aim of making an artistic success that fails to find an audience. They're in it to make money, and that means drawing enough viewers to keep the advertisers paying up -- or in the case of HBO, enough paying subscribers to keep the mother ship in the black.
Goodman’s dissection of the difficulties this glut has created for the industry was part of his reporting on the recently concluded Television Critics Association meetings here in LA, where (thanks to John Landgraf, CEO of FX) the concept of “Peak TV” was introduced to the modern media lexicon. For me, the salient quote in that piece is this:
The Platinum Age of Television. What a clusterfuck of possibilities within an impossible business environment that can't sustain it.”
It’s a good one, and well worth reading.  
There you’ll find links to the rest of Goodman's TCA reports, including this one lecturing the broadcast networks on their many sins over recent years, and this one offering his trademark cranky-pants advice, including the following nugget:
“Spare me the next "star vehicle" you make. They're almost always tar pits of ego.”
Well put, sir, and nicely played.
I’ve been reading Goodman ever since his television criticism appeared in the pages of my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. Indeed, it was Goodman who commissioned me to write a piece for the Chron ten years ago (for actual money!), which ultimately led to the birth of this blog back in 2007.  Goodman's columns are smart, funny, and take no prisoners.  He's a terrific writer, always worth reading.


If you ask any writer, director, producer (or recently-graduated film student) in Hollywood why he-or-she chose to enter the film and television industry, odds are they'll give the same basic answer: 

"I just want to tell good stories."

Maybe… but I think the truth is most of them just didn't want to spend their lives working a mind-numbing, soul-crushing  nine-to-five job -- which I totally understand, since neither did I.  Like me, they thought working in the film and television industry would be fun -- and  sometimes it is.  

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that their primary goal really is to tell good stories -- so where does that come from?  I think it comes from seeing, reading, and hearing good stories. After you've experienced the power of a good story, it's hard not to want to try telling stories of your own.  

That's one reason I created the "Essential Listening" list over on the right side of the page, where you'll find links to websites and podcasts that feature compelling human stories of all kinds.*  The latest addition to that list is Snap Judgement, a radio show with a full slate of listen-when-you-want podcasts on its website.  Last week's episode -- titled Crash and Burn -- is one hell of a listen.  

It's a great show.  Check it out -- I think you'll be glad you did...

And in case you hadn't noticed, this JFTHOI post went up on a Sunday, not a Wednesday.  The demands of my current show are such that I can't put out something worth reading more than once a week (if that…), so for the time being, those mid-week posts have gone the way of the Dodo Bird, Passenger Pigeon, and rarest of the rare, the Honest Politician -- all, sadly, extinct.

To quote a much better writer than I'll ever be, "So it goes…"

* Anybody reading this on a smart phone should immediately scroll to the very bottom of the page and click the "Web View" link, which will reveal all seventy-some links -- from "Industry Blogs" to "Industry Resources" and others, including the seventeen websites listed under "Essential Listening."

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Terminology -- Words Matter

                         Behold: the Five Pecker Billygoat…

Every industry creates a unique subculture complete with arcane terminology incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the internal contours of that world. The film industry is no exception -- indeed, it might lead the pack with terminology that remains as baffling to brand-newbies as it is to outsiders. This was nicely illustrated by a one-minute spot  the LA Times ran in movie theaters way back in the last century, that soon become known by its tag line: The Best Boy needs a spinner.

A liberal dose of poetic license rendered that spot more than a bit campy, but the essential truth is right on. Phrases like "get me a four-banger on a turtle and a zip on a beaver-board" are uttered every day in Hollywood and beyond.* As with every language, there are regional dialects as well -- which any industry work-bot will realize as he-or-she travels between the East Coast, Southeast, and Los Angeles for work.

Learning the terminology of the industry is a crucial step on the road to becoming a professional below-the-line, and a steep hill to climb for the young man or woman just entering the industry. That's why -- when asked -- my recommendation for newbies with no solid industry contacts is to work at a rental house for a year or two, where they'll become familiar with lighting and grip equipment. They won't learn how to use that equipment until they actually get on set, of course, but it's a lot easier to teach a newbie juicer who already knows the difference between a suicide pin and a spider box.

Indeed, learning the proper terminology might be half the battle.

I haven't found a truly good on-line Film Industry-to-English glossary yet.  The New York Film Academy has one that seems designed for brand new film students who don't know anything  at all -- which is to say it's very basic.  The glossary put out by AMC isn't much of an improvement, nor is the one from the IMDB.  This one isn't great either.   

Maybe you'll just have to starting working in the biz if you really want to learn what's what below-the-line.

God knows where the slang term came from to describe that 100 amp Bates-to-five-plug-edison adaptor pictured above, and although rather crude, it fits. Still, it's right on the borderline of what might be considered acceptable language in our modern and oh-so-fractious age.  
Once upon a time, set lighting was strictly a man's world, with terminology that evolved in a rude and crude testosterone-soaked environment. When I first started juicing, the command to make a tiny adjustment to a lamp usually went like this: "Tilt up and pan right an RCH" -- short for "red cunt hair" -- which was presumably extremely thin compared to pubic hair of a darker hue. Having no first-hand knowledge of that, I took it on faith as part of the biz.

Needless to say, nobody uses "RCH" on set anymore…

I had no problem abandoning that one, but when word filtered down through the industry grapevine a few years back that we should no longer utter the word "dikes" at work, the wave of politically correct speechifying washed a bit too far up on the hard-packed sand of reality. From now on we were to use the term "diagonal wire cutters" in order to avoid the remote possibility of offending anyone.

                       A pair of dikes is not a pair of dykes…

This was just too absurdly ridiculous to stick. Everyone I know still uses the term "dikes" on set simply because it has nothing to do with that other slang term.**

Still, the New Reality causes me to think before I speak, especially when working with new people. That's not a big issue on my current show. Although we hadn't worked together for a couple of years, I knew everyone on the electric crew -- all except the Best Boy, who was a holdover from the first season. I didn't know her at all, so was very careful about what I said and how I said it.

Maybe too careful, but you never know… and besides, she turned out to be a very quiet person. I've worked for several female Best Boys over the years, and all were outgoing, competent, gregarious women with a good sense of humor, quick to laugh and crack a joke. Not this one -- she didn't smile at all, nor did she engage in small talk. She was all business, all the time, and very thorough.  

This was understandable, given the circumstances. The Gaffer had wanted to use his regular Best Boy going into this job, but the DP insisted on keeping the Best Boy he'd worked with and come to trust during the previous season. Rather than start off on the wrong foot with a new DP, the Gaffer asked his regular BB to step down and work as a juicer. 

This could have been a very awkward situation. Our new Best Boy was all too aware of that, and seemed determined to keep her professional guard up at all times. That too was understandable, because some crews might then find ways to make her look bad, thus providing their Gaffer with an excuse to fire her -- but what she didn't know is that we're not that kind of crew. For one thing, most of us are too old for such bullshit, and the one youngster among us has a highly developed sense of fair play.  Besides, getting the work done right is hard enough without generating needless strife and drama within the crew.  So long as this Best Boy did her job well, we'd be good.

But she didn't know that yet, and thus kept her cards very close to the vest.

A week and a half in, I was wondering if she'd ever loosen up. I'd seen her smile once or twice in conversation with the gaffer and other juicers, but whenever we talked, it was strictly business. My efforts to to bridge the gap kept missing the mark, sparking no reaction, and I began to wonder if I should just surrender to the apparent reality of the situation. Sometimes it is what it is, and there's no point in beating your head against a brick wall trying to change things.  

Then, of course, there was the male/female dynamic to complicate things -- not in terms of anything irregular (I'm older than Methuselah and she's a young, happily married mother of two), but simply because I'd never before had a problem breaking the ice with a female member on any crew.  But here, every time I tried to connect on a level beyond the immediate task at hand, I failed. I like to have a good time with the entire crew at work -- to work hard but have fun doing it, because otherwise it's just work. I hated to think that some chilly wall of formality would remain between me and this Best Boy for the next six months. The rest of the crew seemed to be getting along with her, so why not me?

If the ice didn't melt, this was going to be one long, brutal slog all the way to Christmas.

Then a day came a couple of weeks in when I needed a hundred amp Bates to-five-Edison plug adaptor, but couldn't find one. Our stage is large and split on two levels, but very crowded with sets and equipment stored in every nook and cranny. I spent half my time walking around looking for whatever it was I needed to complete every task -- and right now I needed one of those big Bates to Edison adaptors.

Then the Best Boy appeared, so I asked her where I could find a Billy Goat.

She gave me a long, deliberate look.

"You mean a Five Pecker Billygoat?" 

 I nodded.

"Then why didn't you say so?"

"I'm not sure I know you well enough to use that term," I shrugged.

"Well you do," she said… and finally, there was the smile I'd been waiting for, like the sun coming out on a cold and cloudy day.

"Okay," I grinned, "that's good."

She pointed me toward the Five Pecker Billy Goats, and I got on with the job.

That's the moment she won me over, and from then on everything has been fine on our crew -- other than getting the crap beat out of us shooting long days of exteriors under the hot LA sun, and equally long Friday nights that inevitably morph into Fraturday -- but at least we all understand and take care of each other now. We're working as a team rather than a group of individuals, which makes each work day proceed much more smoothly.  And equally important, we're all laughing together now and having fun making the best of a difficult situation. It turns out this Best Boy is very funny indeed, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor.  

What a relief.

Looks like we might make it to Christmas after all.

* A "four-banger"refers to a small 4000 watt soft light, a "turtle" is a very low light stand that puts the lamp almost on the ground while retaining the ability to tilt and pan, and the "zip" in question is a small 2000 watt soft light, which (for the purposes of that LA Times spot) is mounted on a "beaver-board" -- a baby-plate nailed or screwed into a pancake.  A "baby plate" is a flat metal rectangle with a cylinder welded to it at a 90 degree angle, used to attach small lamps to set walls -- or in this case, the thinnest of the apple box family, a half-inch thick slab of wood known as a pancake.  Once the baby plate has been attached, it is then known as a "beaver board."  

But I've never -- ever -- heard of a coffee stirrer referred to as "a spinner"...  

**  For a short but interesting back-and-forth on that issue, check out this Q&A.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Just for the Hell of it -- Episode 25

                       The worst night backing ever…

Not only was my now dead-and-gone-forever show more fun to work on than my current tie-me-to-the-whipping-post death-march of a show (I prefer adult humor to the drivel cranked out by the writers of kid's shows), but it was much easier on the lighting crew --  two reasons I miss that show a lot.  But the reality of working in Hollywood is that shows come and go, and Melissa and Joey now lives on in the Hollywood Heaven known as syndication, which means the cast and myriad producers (including writer/producers) will be getting checks in the mail from that show for a long sweet time to come.  

But it's all just a memory for the rest of us, gone with the Hollywood wind.

One thing I don't miss is the scenic backing pictured above -- one of the worst examples of a night backing I've ever seen. I couldn't get a good angle and didn't have a wide enough lens to fully display the poor quality of this backing, but some things are obvious. The lighting is terrible, as if the photographer set up some BFLs with no thought at all, then made no effort to control or shape the light. He (or she) doubtless used strobes rather than big movie lights, but the effect is the same -- a light-blasted "night" on a suburban street that looks like nothing any human has ever seen in real life.  

A suburban neighborhood at night is generally dark, lit by pools of light from street lamps (cold or warm light, depending on the type of globes in those lamps), with a warm glow coming from the windows and porch lights of the houses.  Maybe you'd see a few warm or multi-color accent lights shining up under the trees, but not much else.  The house and trees in this abomination look to be lit by the nocturnal airburst of a nuclear bomb twenty miles away. It's just a god-awful backing.  In this small photo, you can't see the orange stingers running across the lawn, presumably to power the strobes -- but they were clearly visible to us on set.  The photographer couldn't be bothered to use black stingers, which would have been nearly invisible, or fix it in post by photoshopping the orange cords out of the picture.

Clearly a bargain-basement job.

I'm sure the production company got a good deal on it, but I wonder how much all the phony trees cost -- trees they had to rent (or buy) that we used every week to hide the glaring flaws in that lousy backing -- along with the additional rental of lamps we then used to illuminate those trees.  Sometimes a "bargain" isn't such a good deal after all.

BTW -- that's a grip on the left and a stand-in on the right, both good people who had the misfortune of being in the way when I snapped this pic...


Now a question for the more digitally-conversant among you. This blog has experienced a surge of traffic over the past six weeks, very little of which emmenates from the usual sources. A Sunday post typically gets anywhere from a hundred to two hundred hits over a two or three week period, but the recent tally has topped a thousand per post, with one garnering fifteen hundred hits (and climbing) thus far. In the past, that kind of increase only happened when Reddit or The Anonymous Production Assistant shared a link to the blog, but neither has happened lately. Instead, "referring URLs" readout displays more than nine hundred hits per week from Google UK.  But as you can see, clicking that link took me to a dead end. 

I'm happy to (apparently) have more readers stopping by, but don't know what to make of it.  Given that all these referring hits are apparently coming from the U.K., the "traffic sources" statistics from Great Britain should be way up -- but they're not.  I'm getting the usual twenty to thirty hits per week from England.  I'd assume that some kind of spam-bots have targeted the blog, but I'm not seeing any spam.

So my question to the more digitally-literate, internet-savvy readers is this: what's going on here? This old analog dog is scratching his head…


A couple of years ago, a filmmaker named David Sandberg finally finished and launched on Utube a trailer for a movie he wanted to make called Kung Fury -- this after spending two years making that trailer at home, with very little help. The story of how it led to a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and an invitation to Cannes is a good one -- a tribute to what can happen when someone is bold (or crazy) enough to follow a dream.*  

The story and podcast come to you from the good people at Studio 360 (a great weekly radio show), and includes Sandbergs's giddily over-the-top trailer, so check it out.

I think you'll be glad you did.

* Of course, he could just have easily ended up broke, having wasted two years of his life… but this time the magic worked.

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"...