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, November 16, 2014

Such a Deal

  Two for the price of one is great when it comes to hot dogs, but TV shows?  Not so much

I was going to lead off today's post with a familiar photo of a blank billboard (if you've been around here long enough, you know the one I mean) signifying that I've got nothing… but then I got to thinking about the past five days, and that as much as I like the notion of getting two hot dogs for the price of one, I'm not so fond of having to make two television shows for the same deal.

The cable network I'm currently slaving for thought it was a great idea, though, and for good reason: they only had to pay for one episode this past week while we delivered two. The normal multi-camera show schedule is one episode every five days --  but even though we made two complete episodes in that same span of time, our paychecks next Thursday will reflect only five days of work.

Which means the network got the hot dogs while the crew got the shaft.

The new CEO of the network doubtless considers this a win/win -- a radical increase in "productivity" that will please the shareholders, who will then be more likely to let him keep his highly-paid job. For the crew, it was just another old fashioned ass-fucking worthy of the Bad Old Days before the advent of labor unions.  Unfortunately, there's nothing in any of our collective bargaining agreements to deal with this kind of situation.

Granted, we'll get paid for three 12 hour days instead of the usual two, so an additional four hours of overtime will pad my next paycheck, but the net savings to our corporate overlords amounts to forty hours of straight time plus four hours of overtime for each the full-time crew.*

Any way you look at it, that's one hell of a deal for the suits.

It wasn't so great for the writers, though, who had to deliver 44 minutes of scripted comedy by Friday rather than the usual 22 -- or the actors, who had to learn and perform the scripts for two complete shows rather than one.  As a result, many cue cards were employed, something I haven't seen on a sit-com for a very long time.

And here I thought having to make one-and-a-third episodes per week was bad…

We pretty much got our asses kicked, and although it's not particularly hard to kick my aging butt these days, the rest of the crew was feeling it too. There wasn't much time for anything but work and recovery from work, which is why I was thinking about using that blank billboard photo again today.

Still, the week wasn't all bad.  I received an e-mail notification that a revised version of an old post called Stunts has been accepted for publication by a small literary magazine up in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Not that anybody will mistake The West Marin Review for the much older and vastly more influential Paris Review, mind you, but I'm happy to strike some sparks beyond the hermetic hothouse of the film and television industry. Besides, it's one of only fifteen prose pieces selected from a hundred and twenty-five submissions, and that feels pretty good.

There's no money involved, of course.  It's just a pat on the head, which -- along with five bucks -- will buy me a small cup of Starbuck's finest, but that's better than the proverbial sharp stick in the eye. And after the beating meted out at work last week, I'll take any little ray of sunshine I can find.

*  Grip and electric.  Set dressing and props are full-time as well, but I have no idea what their usual hours/overtime/money situation is.  This week was good for camera and sound, who enjoyed three full days instead of their usual two, and God only knows what kind of deal the people in production got.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The View from Europe

                            "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
                            A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

A reader who goes by the moniker "McFrog" recently left a comment with the provocative heading, "Post this if you dare…"  

It's not my habit to respond to dares, but I thought the rest of you might be interested in what McFrog had to say. If you manage to plow through his post -- and my response --  feel free to toss your two cents into the comment pot. 

"As a European subjected to a daily onslaught of American entertainment output I have a few observations. While much of American output is good and ground breaking far too much of it is afflicted with some or all of the following traits:

The voices. Predominantly young women with high, strangled voices speaking too quickly. The words get chewed up somewhere between the larynx and the nasal passages making them sound unpleasant and unintelligible. Listen to the greats like Bette Davis, Helen Hunt, Meryl Streep and learn how to speak. It’s not difficult.

The scriptwriting. Lazy, unresearched and formulaic. The word ‘need’ constantly misused. You don’t ‘need’ this or that or the other. You would like, want, desire but not ‘need’ everything. Cars do not go out of control when the brakes fail. Take the foot off the accelerator, pull on the parking brake and you will stop – not go faster. Basic physics.

The Irish Catholic. Always a favourite. Catholics make up fewer than 24% of the American population so how come in almost every film and television programme we get treated to the priest and a lot of people crossing themselves? Lazy scriptwriting.

And now for the biggy: every conflict, every situation is resolved by violence. Guns or better yet, an enormous black gun, is the problem solver. Mr. Freud might have a word or two to say on that subject. Is this how life really is in America? No. So why show it like that? Lazy scriptwriting with bad grammar, bad English and just plain old bad writing. And just so you lazy, unintelligent scriptwriters understand it, a human cannot outrun a bullet – ever. And, bullets do pass through car doors. Please stop writing this drivel.

Look at ‘House’, ‘As Good As It Gets’, ‘House of Cards’ and dozens of other products. Excellent examples of good scriptwriting, good production and great talent. It can be done.

What causes these ailments? American colleges and acting schools are failing the students of these schools. The training is poor in some areas and clearly woefully inadequate in others leaving students ill equipped to do the job. But worse, the decision makers are afraid of the money men. Whatever is fast, easy and cheap is the order of the day. Is that really how such an important part of the U.S. economy should be run?

America, before it is too late, get-your-house-in-order and stop the drivel. Please."

Oh, McFrog, where to begin?  You'd best settle into a nice comfortable chair, because this could take a while.
Yours is a howl of pain from the television wasteland.  Although I can’t speak to the vocal deficiencies of American actresses (I haven’t noticed a preponderance of “high strangled voices,” but apparently we’re not watching the same shows), I do have some thoughts on the other issues you raise.
That doesn’t mean I’m right about any of what follows, mind you, but trying to parse right from wrong is pointless when it comes to matters of opinion, because opinions really are like assholes: we’ve all got one. These are just my personal views -- your mileage may vary.

First, remember the old maxim that "90% of everything is crap." This holds true in much of life, and certainly describes the output of the American film and television industry. If anything, the percentage of crap is higher when it comes to Hollywood.
I have no idea what’s being piped into Europe from the New World these days, but I’ll bet the bulk of what appears on our televisions in the U.S. is considerably worse in all the aspects you mention... unless, of course, you too are subjected to crap like “Duck Dynasty,” “Storage Wars,” or anything involving the odious Kardashian clan. And that's in primetime -- daytime television in America has always been a barren desert devoid of intelligent life. 

American television suffers from the curse of the broadcast networks, which are owned lock, stock, and barrel by huge, soulless corporations that labor under tighter content restrictions than their more nimble free-range cable competition. Broadcast networks produce a vast quantity of mediocre programming designed to appeal to the widest possible viewer base, and thus maximize their advertising revenue. For that reason alone, expecting a broadcast network to produce something as brilliant as “Breaking Bad,” "The Wire," or "The Sopranos" is an exercise in futility.  

You may as pray for a chicken to give birth to a live elephant. 

Then again, broadcast network television (BNT) rarely comes up with anything so vile as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  If the very best of American television comes from cable networks these days, so does the very worst.  Meanwhile, BNT walks the middle road, rarely approaching the giddy highs or bottom-of-the-barrel lows routinely reached by cable networks. 
1)  Lazy, badly-written, formulaic screenplays?  Check.
2)  Cars going out of control on screen when the brakes fail?  Check.
3)  Humans able to outrun and/or dodge bullets? Check.
4)  Car doors that stop all forms of deadly ordinance -- including machine-gun fire -- thus protecting the humans crouched behind them? Check.
I’ve got a few more for you. Nearly everyone on a BNT show is ridiculously attractive -- the women stunningly sexy babes, the men ruggedly handsome (yet sensitive) hunks -- with an occasional skinny tech-nerd or fat schlub thrown in for comic relief.  Even the bad guys look the part, gleaming with the dark burnished glow of evil. And how about cars and helicopters that invariably explode when they crash?  On one of the many shows I did that involved a helicopter, the pilot stood up at the morning crew safety meeting to explain that real life is not like the movies, and if his chopper were to fall from the sky, the likelihood of any explosion was remote.
I found it interesting that he had to remind a crew of Hollywood professionals of this, but maybe we're all prisoners of our collective assumptions.

Then there's the use of music in the typical BNT one-hour drama, where the soundtrack is almost invariably too loud, overly intrusive, and all too often telegraphs whatever is about to happen on screen -- or worse, strives to manipulate our emotions about what we're watching at the moment, because the writing, dialog, acting, and visuals aren't doing the job. Producers use music as lipstick on a pig in their effort to fool the viewers into thinking they're watching something decent.  It never works.

A prime example is NBC's popular The Blacklist.  After reading positive reviews by critics I respect, I tuned in the pilot episode, and although it exhibited fewer of the standard BNT maladies, the thundering, ham-fisted soundtrack killed the show for me. James Spader was good, as usual, and the story was serviceable, but all those too-beautiful people and the godawful music ruined it.  I didn't go back for more.

BNT comes at the viewer like a sledgehammer, offering very little subtlety, sophistication or respect for the intelligence of the audience.  

You're dead right about the excessive violence in the American media. The usual excuse  trotted out is that our nearly four hundred year national history is so steeped in violence that we've developed a collective cultural taste for it -- and we do have a bloody past.  Having killed vast numbers of Native Americans to steal their land, our ancestors then started a war with Mexico to "liberate" the southwest and west coast, vastly increasing the territorial reach of the United States.  We then entered into the American Civil War and slaughtered more than six hundred thousand of our fellow countrymen. The legends of the Old West subsequently emerged during a rough-and-tumble era when competing groups -- sheepherders vs. cattlemen, outlaws vs. settlers, miners vs. claim-jumpers -- settled their differences with six-guns in the absence of strong law enforcement.   

The long and bloody expanse of American history gave rise to the myths that formed our modern cultural foundation, and those myths still feed directly into the echo chamber of movies and television. Now we're caught in a self-perpetuating cycle where the more violence we see on screen (movies, television, and video games), the more we accept it as normal behavior.  

Or so the argument goes, anyway.  Whether it actually holds water, I have no idea, but I'm not sure the "why" of our violent media even matters anymore.  What counts is that violence sells, so it's no surprise to find so much of it in our popular entertainment. 

What puzzles me is that the history of Europe is vastly longer and considerably more blood-soaked, but your cinematic offerings don't celebrate violence with anything like the orgiastic glee of American movies and television. Why?

I can't explain it. You tell me, McFrog.

Anyway... back to your litany of cinematic ailments.  American colleges and acting schools aren't “failing the students” (our elementary and high schools are, but that's another story), but the decisions in Hollywood are made by committees of money men: corporate drones who run the film and television industry with no clue as to what constitutes a truly good movie or television show. Their only goal is to make money for the shareholders -- succeed at that, and the corporate hack gets to keep his job. Fail, and he's out the door. Given that the upper echelon of Hollywood is a fear-based culture, it’s no wonder the industry mainstream remains pathalogically averse to taking creative chances.  
The wrong people are in charge, that's all -- thus the endless parade of formulaic dreck on television, and comic book/super-hero/“Transformers” crap in theaters.  
Is this any way to run such “an important part of the US economy?”  Probably not, but don’t hold your breath hoping the situation will change anytime soon.  Some critics are convinced that broadcast television as we know it is doomed to crumble any day now, but the ramifications remain unclear.  There's no reason to assume that the fragmentation or collapse of what once was a monopoly for the Big Three founding-father networks will result in better television.
Remember the words of the legendary promoter P.T. Barnum:  “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American Public.”  Proof of that can be found every night on the Toob in the form of "Reality Television."  Should the great ship of BNT hit the economic rocks and sink, don’t expect a sudden burst of cinematic creativity to bubble up from the wreckage.  Things could even get worse -- more live sports on the Toob, more “reality television,” more talk shows, and more garbage like “Big Brother.”  

And if this is a harbinger of what might be coming to our television screens, prepare to run screaming into the night... 

Whatever happens, you can count on the drivel continuing to emerge from Hollywood into the foreseeable future.  There will be no getting our house in order.  The self-serving, myopic corporate roots of American TV will see to that.

But do not despair, McFrog. You can shield yourself from further viewing trauma by choosing with care.  When it comes to episodic dramas, keep an eye on the cable offerings and ignore anything produced by an American broadcast television network. There are occasional exceptions, but the last worthy broadcast network episodic I saw was a terrific LAPD drama called Southland.* Although NBC deserves kudos for green-lighting the show in the first place, then producing  a half-seasons worth of episodes before and after the WGA-strike shortened 2008 season, they freaked out and cancelled the show before it had a chance to win over an audience.**
But at least NBC had the good sense to sell the show cheap to TNT, which (operating on a much lower budget) kept the core cast together and completed a good run of five excellent seasons
It's possible BNT will come up with another decent show someday -- even a blind pig stumbles across an acorn from time to time --  but you can't go wrong sticking to cable networks when watching American dramas.***  And if for whatever reason you haven’t yet seen all of “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” or “Breaking Bad,” you’re in for a treat.  Yes, big black guns will appear in those shows from time to time, but always for a reason. 

I’ll say it again:  90% of everything is crap, and there's no reason to expect that will ever change.  If you're continually disappointed in what's on in theaters or on the Toob, turn the damned thing off and pick up a book.

You’ll be a better man for it.

* For more on the story of Southland, click here.

** This was back during the Jeff Zucker years, when he was busy running NBC into a ditch. 

*** Comedies are something else altogether.  With occasional exceptions (Monty Python being a prime example), drama tends to translate across cultural borders more easily than comedy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Thirteen

                           To Live and Drive in LA

After a recent crew dinner (production feeds us before the audience show), I retired to the “smoking lounge” behind the stage for a while -- three chairs and an ashtray up against a wall just outside the back door.  It’s more than thirty years since I quit smoking, but the lounge is a nice place to relax and talk.  Besides, I don’t mind an occasional whiff of cigarette, cigar, or pipe smoke.  
Maybe it reminds me of my youth, long departed and never to be seen again as I plummet into the dark abyss of extremely late middle-age...
Eventually a familiar subject arose -- the daily commute -- and the carping began as we compared the relative difficulty of our respective drives to and from work.
Being that she lives way the fuck out in Palmdale -- a parched, scorpion-infested desert community north of Los  Angeles -- our Best Boy won the prize for the longest commute with a daily round-trip in excess of a hundred miles.  It's far enough that when we work late with an early call the next morning, she'll often spend the night in town rather than settle for a scant four of five hours of sleep at home.  The Gaffer resides in the Santa Clarita area -- half as far as Palmdale, but still a ways from the studio.  My fellow juicer lives well south and east of downtown Los Angeles, which means he never has a good day going to and from work. 
Compared to them, I have no complaints at all.  My apartment in Hollywood -- crappy little Hell-hole that it is -- is a mere six mile jaunt over Laurel Canyon to the studio. Rush hour slows things down a bit, but in all but the worst traffic, I'm rarely on the road more than twenty minutes either way.  
And that's in my car -- the ride is even quicker on the motorcycle.  
The dimmer operator lives in his own special commuter hell on the West Side of Los Angeles. Venice is lovely by the sea, and not particularly far from the studio -- maybe twelve miles as the crow flies -- but a crow has the gift of wings, and thus doesn’t have to climb in a car to traverse the infamous 405 (AKA: the  “San Diego Freeway”), one of the most crowded stretches of asphalt in the nation.  As so many thousands of miserable commuters can attest, rush hour on the 405 is a clusterfuck of terminal gridlock -- a slow-motion automotive nightmare from which there is no escape.  When we have an 8:00 a.m. call, then wrap at 5:30, our dimmer op has to grip the steering wheel for at least an hour and a half during that twenty mile drive... each way.
That’s three hours+ in a car just to get to work and back -- an ugly drive indeed.
As insane as this sounds, such commutes are fairly routine in Southern California.  Public transportation here is a cruel joke, and rarely works for those of us in the film industry who toil such irregular and unpredictable hours.  Besides, there are no train or subway routes between the Valley and the West Side, and if our dimmer op were to use LA's bus service, his commute time would double -- at least.  
At one point during this group bleat, he admitted that he'd seriously considered moving to the Valley just to cut that commute time.  
“But if I did that, this show will end and the next one would probably be at Sony,” he mused -- Sony Studios being a mere hop, skip, and jump from his apartment. 
That’s the way it usually works -- if there’s a studio down the block, you’ll rarely get a call there.  When your phone rings with a job call, you can bet it'll take you to the far side of town. 
Does our Gaffer ever get a job at the studios out near Santa Clarita? No. Does my fellow juicer get calls to work at Raliegh Studios in Manhattan Beach, which would be a nice easy drive for him?  Of course not.  I live less than three miles from Paramount, but it’s been more than ten years since I got a call to work there.*  The dimmer op did have a gig at Sony on a pilot we did five years ago -- but that was only a three week job, and he hasn't been back since.  Instead, he’s been making the brutal commute to and from the Valley, day after day, week after week, season after season.
The Gods of Hollywood are cruel deities indeed, taking great pleasure in testing us, pushing us, and making our lives ever more difficult.
It's not just below-the-liners who suffer, either.  As Rob Long noted in a recent Martini Shot commentary, there’s no winning this battle for anybody in the business, from grips to actors. The Gods of Hollywood can always find a way to make you pay -- and should you try to escape,  they'll come after you.
Resistance is futile
In other news, the votes are in. No, I’m not talking about yesterday’s dog-and-pony-show exercise in electoral futility politics, but the question posed in last weeks JFTHOI post: should the white-print-on-black-background color scheme be changed to something easier on the eyes?  
The electoral consensus:  “We like it this way, so leave it as is.”  Not that any pundit would call this a “wave election,” mind you -- the turnout being represented by five readers and one fellow industry blogger who took the time to respond (and I thank every one of you who made your voice heard) --  but with only one dissenting vote, the winner is clear.
For the time being, the blog will remain as it’s been.  
Which, truth be told, is a relief -- now I won’t have to spin my wheels trying to decide exactly how far to go in modifying the visual format.  I work hard on set and at this keyboard, but deep down I’m one lazy bastard when left to my own devices.  Besides, one of those six voters had a useful suggestion for anyone suffering eye-strain with the current layout.  As something of a digiliterate, I’d never heard of “Evernote,” but apparently it will convert whatever web page you’re viewing to a more user-friendly format. 
As the reader put it: “You can right-click the page, (then) click “clearly” and it gives you a nice clean sidebar and other distraction-free reader, with black and off-white text by default.”
Wikipedia has some information on Evernote, but you might as well go straight to the source.
Those who read this blog on their computers can cut-and-paste any of these posts into a word processing file (MS Word or Pages work equally well), which will convert the page back to the familiar black-text-on-white background.  I don't suppose that would help readers who visit here via smart phones, but maybe that's where something like Evernote would prove useful.
It's your choice -- and hey, aren't elections and Freedom of Choice what America is all about?

* I did land a cheap-ass Disney show a while back at what once was the old Zoetrope Studios  (now the Hollywood Center Studios) a mile-and-a-half from my apartment -- within easy bicycle range -- but this remains the proverbial exception that proves the rule...

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Twelve

“Of course, the only people who think that practicals are important are the DP and the gaffer.  Everyone else just sees them as crap that’s making the toolbelt people have to get in their way.”
That quote is from another fine post at Totally Unauthorized, where the terse, punchy prose of Peggy Archer describes the morning panic that invariably ensues when an executive producer, production designer, director, the writing staff, or someone else high up the food chain on a sit-com has the brilliant idea to significantly alter the layout of a set the night before Shoot Day.
It doesn't matter why such a decision is made, only that it's happened.  And when it does,  this fucks the set dressers in a big way, forcing them to scramble and then -- as surely as an avalanche of shit rolling downhill -- it fucks the set lighting crew, forcing us to work up a serious morning sweat as we scramble to accommodate the sudden changes.  
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is hoovering up all the good stuff at the craft service breakfast buffet.
I’ve been on the wrong end of that equation more times than I care to recall, and it pisses me off each and every time -- but such is life on a sit-com, where our job is to shout “how high?” when Those Who Must Be Obeyed conspire to make us jump.
It’s a good post, so check it out.
The photo above is a distinctly odd example of a "practical fixture" in that it's not actually on the set, but mounted on the unpainted wooden stairs backstage from which actors enter and exit the kitchen set.  But with a patio set on the other side of those curtains (which cover a window-to-nowhere built into the set wall), the lamp was put there by the Set Decorator back in Season One, and there it remains -- a very abstract light in the window that I doubt anybody in the viewing audience has ever noticed.  
Or ever will.
I'm not sure I've seen a practical like this before -- one that we powered up and burns in every show, but isn't actually on set.  I've inadvertently kicked the damned thing a dozen times over the past four years while traipsing up and down those stairs during our lighting days.  
But still it burns, like an eternal incandescent flame, impossible to snuff out


And now a question for you, the readers.  An e-mail recently came in from a someone who stumbled across this blog while searching the wilds of cyberspace for something else -- and as luck would have it, he liked what he found enough to start skimming though the posts from the very beginning.  

That much is good, but this reader reports that the white-print-on-black-background design is very hard on the eyes, and turns reading more than a quick post or two into an ordeal. This is something I wondered about back in 2007 when the blog came into being, but I liked the visual drama of those tattered gloves emerging from the surrounding black void. Besides, it never occurred to me that this effort could last longer than a few months at most. Since nobody would be reading it, I'd eventually get bored with shouting into the infinite void and that would be that.  

But it didn't go down that way, and seven years later, there's a lot white print on that black background.  I've considered changing the layout to a more traditional black print on white background format in the past, but never followed through.  It didn't seem to be an issue, and being an old stick-in-the-mud, I rarely embrace change simply for the sake of doing something new.  

This being an election season, I'm asking for some feedback here. If you have any feelings on this, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail at the link above.  Cast your vote as  you see fit.  Although BS&T is hardly a democracy, I remain a benign and benevolent dictator here, and will take your thoughts into consideration. 

Over at The Hills are Burning, AJ recently abandoned the black background for a more eyeball-friendly format, and it looks good. Maybe it's time for a change here as well, just to shake things up.

Or maybe not -- you tell me.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Eleven

                         "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth"
                                Albert Camus
Every week seems to bring a good or bad news here in Hollywood, and this week it’s the latter: after two seasons, FX has decided to pull the plug on The Bridge.  Although I’ve had mixed feelings about The Bridge -- which walks through some very dark and bloody dramatic territory -- it was a terrific show.  
From a strictly-business POV, FX’s decision makes a certain sense.  I haven’t seen any figures, but “The Bridge” looked like an expensive show to produce, and with a relatively small audience, investing in another season apparently didn’t pencil out.  In a way, it’s a miracle FX was willing to fund two seasons of such a troubling show.
That’s real a shame, because The Bridge had the courage to deal honestly with the human costs of an incredibly lucrative cross-border drug trade -- an industry driven by the seemingly insatiable demand for drugs here in the U.S. -- that has turned so much of Mexico into an abattoir.  Where HBO’s The Wire detailed the corrosive effects on our society at the receiving end of those drugs, The Bridge performed a similar service in portraying the damage done at the supply end of the pipeline.
It’s all too easy to block out or ignore the daily news headlines screaming at us from newspapers, television, and the internet.  No matter how horrifying raw statistical data might be, the wagging finger of the news media seldom carries the impact of a sophisticated drama telling the story of people directly involved. Through fictional drama, The Bridge conveyed an ugly, brutal message that we as a society needed to hear -- and still do.
The production company is looking for another network to sponsor Season Three, and I hope they find it.  Although The Bridge can be hard to watch at times (depending on one’s personal tolerance for bloody violence on screen), it performed a useful service.  At its best, television can provide a mirror of our society, and sometimes we really do have to look deep into that mirror to confront the reality within.

"The Bridge" forced us to do just that by shining a bright light on a very dark subject.  With   FX bowing out, I wonder who -- if anyone -- will step up to fill that role?
Note:  With the World Series now underway -- and my hometown team back in the mix -- I'm putting the blog to bed for the duration.  There will be no post next Sunday. I'll be back once that drama has fully played out, bringing the baseball season to an end while ushering in the dank gloom of winter.
Go Giants!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Christmas Show

No Respect

                                                Snow Rollers in action
                                                Photo by Sketch Pasinski

The nature of television production dictates that we shoot episodes linked to specific holidays or other cultural touchstones far in advance.  That's why the Halloween episode (which airs this coming week) was the very first show we cranked out at the start of our final season well over a month ago.  Last week's episode was the Christmas show, and thus the pair of snow rollers hung above the front porch set (with another pair over the living room set windows), each loaded with fluffy white plastic flakes that look very much like real falling snow once those rollers start moving.

And let's face it -- nothing says "Hollywood" quite like plastic snow drifting down upon plastic trees and plastic grass in an air-conditioned sound stage, while the fierce SoCal sun pounds the world outside like a thermonuclear sledgehammer.

The illusion is convincing on screen, but on set that plastic snow had half the crew -- including me -- sneezing our heads off as if in the full grip of flu season.  Meanwhile, we had to carefully shroud every lamp in the path of the "snowfall" with black-wrap to prevent them from becoming coated in melted plastic by the end of the day.

This show was something of a beast, really, with yet another swing-set-within-an-existing set for one scene (our recurring Russian Nesting Dolls nightmare), and a second much larger swing set of a "great room," complete with phony forest outside the porch and windows, and a big translight backing.  Size isn't necessarily a bad thing -- one big set can be less hassle to light than three or four smaller ones -- but the degree of difficulty rises considerably when the script calls for day AND night scenes in each swing set.  That meant we had to double up on all the exterior lights, hitting both sides of the backing (warm back-light for day, blue front-light for night) in addition to day/night lamps to illuminate all those trees and beam through the windows.

Naturally, the goddamned trees were dragged on stage very early in the week -- and with no place to store the fucking things, they ended up in our way at every turn.  The work is hard enough without having to fight through Birnam Wood every step of the way, but such is the lot of a sit-com juicer.*

The whole week was a bitch.  We worked pretty much non-stop each of the three lighting days to get ready for the block-and-shoot and audience-shoot days, but when the entire crew arrived to begin pre-shooting, it all looked great, the set and actors dolled-up in 19th Century period garb.

It looked so good, in fact, that the director interrupted the first rehearsal on our audience shoot day to announce what a great job the set construction, set dressing, wardrobe and hair departments had done, and to acknowledge the hard work by the stand-ins, who ran every scene repeatedly for the cameras the day before, all the while speaking endless pages of dialog in heavy southern accents.  The crew -- all of us -- responded with a standing ovation for those hard-working departments.

The director was absolutely right -- all those people he mentioned did a fantastic job…but so did grip and electric, working under difficult circumstances, and did our esteemed director think to mention that?

Of course not.  Grip and electric are the Rodney Dangerfields of the multi-camera world, taken for granted like wallpaper until something falls over or catches fire -- then all of a sudden the director and producers know exactly who we are.  The single hardest thing for me to get used to after I left the single-camera world -- where the grip and electric departments are respected and given a prominent place at the table -- was having to accept just how far down the pecking order of production priorities set lighting really is in multi-camera sit-coms.  In commercials and feature films, the cameras don't roll  until we've got the lighting just right. In sit-coms, it's just the opposite -- we're expected to be lit and ready for anything and everything whenever the director and producers want to shoot, even when they change their minds at the last second and radically change the shot.

And of course, we have to perform these weekly miracles while remaining within the bounds of an increasingly lean and mean budget. Our poor Best Boy gets called on the carpet every couple of weeks by one of the producers to explain in great detail exactly why she ordered so many lights.**

No respect.

Still, the pre-shoots looked great, and the audience loved the show on shoot-night.  After the curtain call, our lead actor took the microphone from the warm-up man to thank the entire crew in front of the audience, department by department, including grip and electric.

Then again, he does that after every show… but hey, sometimes you just have to take what you can get, whether they mean it or not.

* Peggy Archer discussed this eternal on-set problem in a recent post over at Totally Unauthorized.

** The answer, of course, is to properly illuminate the swing sets so they'll look great on camera -- and the more swing sets we have, the more lights we need.  For reasons I'll never understand,  producers always seem to think we order all that equipment just for the fun of it… which is one more reason I avoid Best Boy gigs like the plague.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode Ten

                         Have you heard the good news?

Well I’ll be damned.  In a world battered by wave after wave of increasingly terrible news --  the medieval beheadings of ISIS, the infectious nightmare of Ebola, the looming election season -- comes a ray of light to pierce the darkness.  The network that brought us three of the finest shows on television over the past decade -- Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead -- has decided to dump the bulk of its so-called “reality programming."  Only Comic Book Men and Talking Dead (the post-Walking Dead discussion/call-in show) will survive the purge.
The quote from AMC, via the Hollywood Reporter:
“We are proud of our efforts in unscripted programming and the unique worlds we have been able to introduce, but in an environment of exploding content options for viewers, we have decided to make scripted programming our priority.”  
Although I seriously doubt AMC has anything to be proud of in their stabs at "unscripted programming" (the Industry's lipstick-on-a-pig term for un-reality television), this announcement is music to my ears.
You can read the entire article here, but I offer you my own biased translation:  
“We weren’t making enough money trying to shove all this “reality” bilge down the throats of our viewers -- who apparently are a lot smarter than we thought -- so we’re flushing that steaming pile of unscripted crap down the toilet, where it belongs.”
For anyone who appreciates quality television, this is very good news. AMC seemed to be leaning toward the dark path blazed by A&E (which lost what little credibility that network still had with their recent cancellation of Longmire) in descending back down the cultural/evolutionary ladder into the fetid swamps that spawned the likes of Duck Dynasty.*
“Reality TV” is nothing but a carny act, a modern shuck-and-jive wherein a group of carefully selected “regular people” are put in front of cameras, then poked with a sharp stick to see what happens.  What felt like a fresh take on innocent televised fun back in the days of Candid Camera  eventually mutated into into something infinitely more cynical, manipulative, and ugly.  

I'm glad to see it go, if only from the programming schedule of a single cable network. One step at a time, people, one step at a time. 

Well done, AMC.  I can only hope the rest of the networks follow your lead.

* If you're a fan of this show, relax. It doesn't matter to me what you watch on television -- that's your business, not mine -- so don't take it personally if I don't share your taste in viewing material.  And much as I hate to barf up the hoary old cliche of "Wouldn't it be boring if we all liked the same things?", there's some truth to it. Besides, "different strokes for different folks" pretty much makes the world go 'round -- and you might well laugh long and hard at my own choices of television viewing…