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, October 11, 2015

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 28

                                           Courtesy of Movie Set Memes

The presence of our industry on social media -- particularly below-the-line -- has exploded in recent years. When I launched BS&T back in 2007, there were only a handful of industry blogs around, and few people over age 18 had even heard of Facebook. 

Times have changed. As feature film and television production expands across the country, the number of people working in the industry has grown rapidly, and so has our on-line presence.

I recently signed on with a FB group called "Movie Set Memes," which is fueled by the many indignities, absurdities, and idiocies suffered by those of us who work below-the-line.  Along the way, it reveals the creativity with which low-budget crews approach their job and solve problems on set.

Although I'm not sure I'd want to be the camera operator in the photo above (I can only assume they didn't have a 12 step ladder on the truck), I have to admire the ingenuity of that crew. Hey, we've all done what had to be done to get a shot at one time or another -- but I just hope nobody got hurt doing that one.

Sometimes the subject matter on MSM strays to producing:

                 image by Kate D'Hotman

Or this one…

                image by Kate D'Hotman

… which reminds me of an old post describing my own silliest job ever, which you might not have stumbled across if you weren't aware of BS&T back in 2010. 

It really was one uniquely crazy gig.

As with any forum supported by mass contributions, there's lots of repetitive chaff at Movie Set Memes, and it remains to be seen if the site can be kept clear of the usual internet flotsam and jetsam, but for now, the occasional nuggets make it worth a look.  


Speaking of social media, one of my on-set and FB friends* recently posted a link to a post titled How to Survive On Set: Tips to be the Best Worker Ever, which schools newbies on the reality of being on a film set, and how to do a good enough job to get called back for future gigs. Here's a paragraph describing the importance of giving your very best effort to every job, no matter how lame the production.

"Sometimes, film shoots are awful. Directors lose control; producers are scoundrels; people have bad ideas and worse communication skills. But it is a rookie mistake to think that this means it is not worth your best efforts. The production world is like a deck of cards, where everyone is reshuffled into different crews, over and over, a dozen times a year. Soon, that worthless director’s assistant may be in a position to tell her new boss not to hire you; five movies from now, that jerk of an electrician will stand in your way when you most need a favor. Don’t burn bridges."

It's a good post, packed with excellent advice to benefit any newbie on set -- or someone who's been struggling for a couple of years without making much progress.  Advancing in Hollywood is seldom easy, but sometimes there's a reason why you haven't managed to move beyond crummy, low-pay gigs -- and that reason just might be found in the mirror.  

"Know thyself," the wise men said.

That said, the post overstates a few things... like this overly-earnest passage under the heading "Throw away your Trash:

"A film set is a sacred place where creative people engage with one another and make art. Every bag of chips and empty coffee cup left behind is an act of disrespect to the art-making at hand. It is also a blemish on the film itself, as an errant water bottle, discovered too late, renders a great shot useless."

"A sacred place?  Art making??"  Dude, a film set is a workplace -- a factory floor where we grind out the cinematic sausage one messy, bloody chunk at a time -- not "a sacred place where creative people...make art."  Yes, there are many creative people on set, but the vast majority are working at their craft doing a job, not making "art." Of course you should always respect the workplace, your fellow crew, your craft, and the way you make a living, but only rarely do the efforts of a film crew blend with the quality of writing, directorial brilliance, and exceptional acting performances required to create art.

If and when that happy confluence of talent and sweat does occur, great.  Just don't hold your breath waiting for it, because let's face it -- not a lot of "art" comes out of Hollywood these days. Mind-boggling spectacle, yes.  Heart-stopping drama, yes.  Comedy that can make an audience pee their pants, sometimes... but art?  Not so much.  And that's okay, since  we're we're in show business, not art-business.  Our job is to create entertainment designed to take people's minds off the humdrum reality and often miserable ordeals of modern life.  Hollywood manufactures the cinematic opium our culture depends upon as a buffer from that reality, and in so doing, we help keep the fires of conspicuous consumption burning hot and bright.  For better or worse (mostly worse, methinks, in the long run), our economy depends on that fire.

I'm not particularly proud of this, but it is what it is -- and we all play our part.

That a production designer who goes by a name like "Brandon Tonner-Connolly" would conflate work and art should come as no surprise. No offense to Brandon, but -- regrettably for him -- such hyphenated three-word names just reek of pretentious pomposity. Still, he's got some serious credits, and is pretty much spot-on with everything else in his post -- and he's absolutely right that you should clean up your own (and your department's) trash.  

Respect the workplace and do the best job you can, even if you're working on some crappy show that will never get within a hundred miles of being considered "art."

The post also includes a link to a list of who does what on set, useful for any brand-newbies still dazed and confused by the apparent chaos of a stage or location set. 

That's all for this week.  Stay safe out there, kiddos…

* Thanks, Desi!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Winners and Losers

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

The opening line from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

The new offerings from the major broadcasting networks have now set sail upon the troubled waters of the Fall television season, each show carrying a heavy cargo of hope that it will manage to navigate stormy seas which -- thanks to modern technology -- are further roiled by an increasingly fickle and distracted viewing audience. These shows face an uncertain future in the weeks to come, much like the fragile wooden ships of the Old World that bravely ventured out beyond the range of reliable maps to a mysterious and terrifying realm where whirlpools, hideous sea monsters, and God only knew what else awaited to devour their unlucky crews.

Some of those new shows -- poorly-conceived, badly written, mis-cast, or simply unable to find their on-screen sea legs quickly enough -- will sink within weeks, cancelled by nervous studio executives anxious to cover their high-salaried asses. Others will catch a favorable breeze and sail through those perilous waters over the next six months to the promised land of a second season... and maybe more. Meanwhile, there will be drama ahoy amid the ranks of producers, writers, actors, and the crews below decks who signed on for the voyage. Tears of woe will be shed amid the inevitable wreckage, while champagne flows freely aboard the shows that survive.

In the boom-and-bust world of Hollywood, these is the best of times and the worst of times.

All the viewing public will know about it is that a number of new shows came and went, leaving the hardy survivors to remain on the Toob until next March, when the regular season fades to black, then settles in to wait for the spring rains of pilot season to bring yet another new crop of television. Unseen by those viewers at home will be dramas that played out behind the scenes between the frenzied rugby-scrum of pilot season and the Fall season launch, a seemingly quiet stretch when many of the lucky winners -- pilots picked up to series -- are forced to make some very cruel adjustments designed to bolster their chances of surviving the first crucial weeks of the regular season. As I've learned the hard way, this can be a dicey time for actors and crew alike, as roles are re-cast and new blood brought in to help ensure success. For the winners, it’s great -- but for the losers, this process can be brutal. 

One minute you have a job, then suddenly you don't.

Which just goes to underscore another fact of Hollywood Life: no matter what promises you've been told, you can’t count on anything until you get an official call time for your first day of work.

While staring into the fire on the Home Planet recently, my mind wandered back five years to a pilot I did that was picked up, then -- much to everyone’s surprise -- survived to run for over a hundred episodes. Although people on the writing staff and crew came and went over the years, it was a great run for us all -- producers, writers, directors, actors, and crew.

All except for one actress, that is, a young woman who was cast in the core role of a teenage girl for the pilot. Tracey Fairaway did a good enough job for the show to be picked up, but due to reasons best known to the mysterious powers above-the-line, her part was recast with another young actress by the time the season began. Tracey had a job, then she didn’t after which she had to watch from afar as the show -- her show -- went from a 10 episode pick-up to 100+ episode syndication, propelling the other young actress to a solid career that, given the right role in the right project, just might light up the skies over Hollywood and beyond.  

        Taylor Sprietler, photo courtesy of Afterglow Magazine

Our new actress -- Taylor Sprietler -- was just terrific, and there’s no doubt her considerable acting skills and audience appeal helped the show remain on the air as long as it did. For that, I’m grateful, because our little show kept my rent and bills paid for four years. Still, I’ve always felt bad for Tracey Fairaway. It's one thing to have a pilot go nowhere -- that's pretty much par for the course in this town -- but to have your pilot picked up, then dump you (and only you) before launching a 100+ episode run that's got to hurt.  

Sooner or later, one way or another -- often time and again -- it happens to us all, and when it does, there's nothing to be done but pick up the pieces and move on.  As traumatic as the experience must have been, it wasn't a total disaster for Tracey, who went on to build a successful acting career. And if she hasn't yet landed anything like a 100 episode show, you never know what will happen in this town.  The phone might ring tomorrow with a role that turns her into the next Jennifer Lawrence,

Similar dramas have doubtless played out for dozens of actors over past few months as the pilots that were picked up re-tooled for the new season launch -- actors who thought their ship had finally come in only to have have their dreams torpedoed by a money-making machine that can't afford to have a heart.*  Such is life in the cruel world of Hollywood, where the zero-sum game so often bestows a golden glow of success to one person at the cost of someone else’s dismal, oh-so-personal and soul-crushing failure.

So when you turn on the Toob to see what’s new this season, remember -- maybe you didn’t hear the screams of pain, much less the weeping and wailing, but the long knives have been working overtime these past few weeks, spilling plenty of blood on the cutting room floors.

Have a little compassion for the actors who suffered through it, because while this is certainly the best of times for some, it's also the worst of times for others.

Same as it ever was...

* Which is just one more reason actors have the hardest job on set

Sunday, September 13, 2015

I'll Be Back...

Once more into the breach on the subject of the Five Pecker Billygoat…

In response to a recent post, a reader asked why I would choose to use a 100 amp Billygoat -- with its five non-fused, un-breakered edison plugs -- over a 100 amp Lunch Box, which has five circuits (with two plugs each) protected by circuit breakers.

The simple answer is, I wouldn't -- I prefer to use a Lunch Box most of the time. But as a mere juicer on the crew, I have to work with what's on hand. The decisions as to what equipment we use comes from higher up the departmental food chain, and are subject to budgetary, time, and availability issues.
We often make do with what we've got on set, and so long as the gaffer isn't asking me me to power five 2Ks through a Billy Goat, it's no big deal.

In some circumstances -- as pictured above -- a Billygoat is faster and easier to rig than the heavier, bulkier Lunch Box. This one is being used to power five 1K par lights hung on a pipe that serve as the front bounce-fill for one of our swing sets.  The paper load of fifty amps (ten per plug) is easily handled by the Billygoat, so that's what we used.  In a business where time is money -- and swing sets come and go -- you do what works and move on to the next task.

As summer morphs into fall -- although it's still hotter than the proverbial hinges of Hell in LA -- I'm taking a couple of weeks off from the Blood, Sweat and Tedium of my Hollywood life.  

And so is the blog.

We'll be back...

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Condor Duty

A juicer's view from the condor bucket 80 feet straight up...
                                    (Photo by Kevin Brown)

I had a chance to go up in a condor recently (an articulating lift something like this) for my current show, and the experience reminded me of many a past night spent up in the bucket. There's something, well, elevating -- in every sense of the word -- about rising up into the night sky. It was fun, but that's mostly because I didn't have to go over thirty feet, and the lift was a brand new, with solid hydraulics. 

But once I get up over forty feet, it's not so much fun anymore.

The fear of falling is one of our most primal terrors, and for good reason. Early humans may have lived in the trees before descending to walk upright on land, but thin air remains the natural realm of birds, not people. Before modern medicine, even a relatively short fall could injure one of our early hominid ancestors to the point where he or she could no longer keep up with their hunter-gatherer tribe, or remain one step ahead of the big, hungry predators of the time. Modern technology has made flight a routine experience for us, and modern medicine can indeed work wonders, but we still have a healthy fear of falling. 

Working on set as a juicer or grip requires dealing with that fear on a regular basis. On stage, we do much of our work atop ten and twelve step ladders, and utilize man-lifts that go up twenty feet -- and when we have to climb atop the rails of that lift to get the job done, we do so in blatant but unavoidable violation of our official industry safety rules.

But when a production goes outside to film at night, it often involves lighting from condor lifts, which go much higher -- anywhere from 40 to 180 feet.*

Some juicers really enjoy condor duty. Once the bucket of the lift has been rigged with a BFL or two, then fully pimped-out with a chair, bottles of water (as the water is consumed, the empty bottles then serve as a portable honey wagon), furniture pads and/or a sheet of Visqueen to cut the wind and keep the lamp operator warm, he-or-she is set for the night. All that juicer has to do is take the bucket up high, turn on and adjust the lights, then relax until fresh instructions crackle over the walkie-talkie.**  

With a smart phone, iPad, or a good book to ease the boredom of waiting, the juicer shouldn't break a sweat until wrap is called, and even then he'll barely get his shirt dirty.  That's one reason condor duty is considered by many to be such a sweet deal -- you sit up there in relative comfort watching the ground crew down below scurry around busting their asses all night -- but there's one sticking point. Condor duty is only good if you don't have a problem with heights, because condors these days can go really high. The sheer height is bad enough, but what can make being up in that bucket a white-knuckle experience is the lack of stability. Every time you move the arm or bucket, things begin to move around a lot -- and the higher you go, the more it moves, which triggers our ancient reptilian brain and the fear of falling.

I've never had a real problem with heights on stage, because the catwalks and perms don't move -- they're as stable as solid ground -- but in a swaying bucket, 60 feet up suddenly feels like 100 feet... and I really don't like that feeling anymore.

While working on my first real movie (as a PA drafted to work with grip and electric), I went up almost every night in a scissor lift or a big forklift hefting a steel basket rigged with two 10K lamps. This freed up one of the real juicers to work on set while giving me a bird's eye view of what was happening on set down below. I loved it, and later enjoyed going up much higher in condors when I finally became a real juicer. I was young back then, with a young man's optimistic faith in technology and misplaced sense of immortality. Granted, there was always a certain pucker-factor when going up full-stick, but the perceived danger was part of the appeal. Now that I'm a lot older (and have considerably less faith in beat-up, oft-used rental equipment), I don't do serious condor work anymore. I'm happy to go up thirty or forty feet, but much beyond that gets a bit squirrely. Plus, you can't move very much in a condor -- the lamp operator has to sit still so the light hitting the set from his BFLs won't bounce around -- and at this stage of life, my aging back gets very stiff after sitting still for any length of time. Then at wrap, down comes the condor and suddenly there's a frenzy of work to do... and invariably I'll tweak something in my cold, stiff back. Once that happens, I'm pretty much limited to wrangling stingers for the rest of the night.

All in all, it works out better for everybody if I stay on the ground and work up a sweat while the young people head up into the night sky. I've done my time in condors, now it's their turn.

Besides, there's no way in hell I'm going up full-stick in a 120 footer, much less that 180 foot monster. I'll leave that to the fearless youngbloods, thankyouverymuch…

* I don't know if anybody has put lights in a 180 footer and used it on a shoot yet, but 80 to 120 foot condors are commonly used for filming.

**  I have no idea how female juicers deal with the inevitable problem of bladder relief when up high in a condor. If you really want to know, ask Peggy Archer or A.J....

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.