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, January 3, 2021

The New Year


                                        Just blow 2020 away ... please.

                                             Photo by Mike Murray 

 

Good riddance to the worst year we've been forced to endure in a long, long time: a true annus horribilis, twelve long months that took and took and took like a Black Hole, giving back nothing.  Some bean counter at the keyboard of a supercomputer could doubtless tally our individual and collective losses in 2020, but I can't -- all I know is that we've lost a lot, in every way, that we'll never get back. Yes, we'll crawl through this long dark tunnel eventually, and things will get better, but I don't think they -- or we -- will ever truly be the same.

Ten years ago, on Jan 2, 2011, my lead-off post for the New Year began like this:

"It’s New Year’s Eve as I sit here at the keyboard — yeah, I’m a real party animal, all right — at the end of another year, this one closing the books on our first decade of this brand new millennium. All in all, it has not been an auspicious start to the next thousand years: our country mired in two wars, grinding though an ugly and seemingly endless recession while split by an apparently unbridgeable political divide that has both sides screaming at each other across the widening chasm.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t see much light at the end of any of those tunnels.  These may not be the worst of times, but they sure as hell aren’t the best."

A few things have changed since then -- the stock market is way up while our participation in those wars has dialed down, but the bloodshed overseas continues, driving an outflow of refugees that has helped spark the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe. Our domestic political divide has only worsened, generating levels of vitriol our country hasn't experienced since the 1960s -- or maybe the 1860s, which is not an era we want to emulate. The rotten cherry atop this Shit Sundae was the arrival of Covid, the New Plague that has thus far killed nearly 350,000 Americans while turning life as we knew it upside-down and inside-out. Now, as ten years ago, there's a shocking number of unemployed and homeless people in America, ... so are these finally the worst of times?

I don't know, but let's hope so, because the only way to go will be up.  I sure as hell don't want things to get any worse.

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One of the last movies I saw in 2020 was Never Cry Wolf, which arrived in the mail courtesy of Netflix last week.  Being something of a Luddite, I still watch a lot on DVDs, although I stream as well - but the offerings on streaming services are limited, and I have zero interest in the last twenty years worth of Hollywood's tent-pole superhero movies. I'm not being critical here -- we like what we like, and to each his/her own -- but the only superhero offering I'm willing to watch is The Boys, on Amazon, which approaches the genre from a much more interesting perspective than all those $200 million Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Thor (among too many others) cinematic spectaculars. 

Never Cry Wolf was released in 1983, and could hardly be more different from the products of today's Hollywood. It's not a great film, but I liked it well enough, and Charles Martin Smith deserves credit for committing to a difficult role in a very big way.  His task wasn't quite so daunting as working on The Revenant, but running around the Alaskan tundra chasing caribou and wolves while wearing absolutely nothing but a pair of boots is not for the faint of heart, thespian or civilian. 

I was curious about this movie for one reason -- a grip I used to work with on commercials back in the day was a member of the first unit filming crew on Never Cry Wolf, and told me a story I never forgot.  While filming that caribou sequence, the wranglers were having a hard time controlling the herd as the lunch break approached. No matter what they tried, they just couldn't get the caribou into a corral built to hold the big animals during breaks in the filming, so they finally gave and joined the rest the crew at lunch. Meanwhile, a pair of young Inuit men were quietly watching from a distance, saying nothing, but when the wranglers and crew returned to set, they found every one of those caribou waiting patiently in the corral.  

Any number of lessons can be drawn from this story, but to me it underlines the importance of letting the real experts -- people who actually know what they're doing -- handle things rather than allowing outsiders to come in and flail away at great cost to all concerned.  It's a lesson that applies across the boards, from Hollywood to Washington DC.  

If only we'd learn it.

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I didn't see It's a Wonderful Life until I was in college, and it blew me away. Granted, I'm a sucker for what the industry wags back in the day called "Capra-corn," but it's undeniable that Frank Capra made some terrific movies.  IAWL was his first post-war effort, and although several of Capra's previous films were more popular -- and won Oscars -- none were better than the Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed Christmas classic. Here's a fascinating piece on the film by Kim Morgan, writing for the New Beverly Cinema website, dissecting the real horror at the center of the film, which turns out to be a lot more than just another feel-good holiday movie. But if the ending of IAWL leaves you uneasy because the evil Mr. Potter is never brought to justice, here's something to scratch that itch.

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The Covid plague continues to escalate, affecting production in Hollywood and beyond. Numerous studios, televisions shows, and feature films have had to halt production for days or weeks due to positive tests, and given the current surge of cases here in California (and particularly in LA), the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better. You've doubtless heard -- or heard about -- the instantly infamous outburst by Tom Cruise on the set of the latest Mission Impossible production, in which he minced no words.

Having worked for a few screamers over the years, I don't have much  patience for anybody who yells at the crew, especially actors.  I certainly didn't like it when a DP, Gaffer, or Best Boy yelled at me, but that happened within my department.  Sometimes you just have to roll with it and move on -- but if a juicer would be way out of line yelling at an actor (which would probably get that juicer fired), neither does an actor have any business yelling at the crew. Still, we're living through uniquely perilous times in personal and professional terms these days, so in this case, I'm okay with it. I don't like that Cruise yelled at those guys, but I like it even less that it seems he had to.

Granted, I wasn't there, so all I know is what's been reported in the media, but unless they got it all wrong, Cruise berated two crew members for violating the Covid safety protocols, insisting that the livelihoods of so many people depend on that film and other shows currently in production. I'm not a big fan of Cruise, but he wasn't wrong. This industry really was locked down solid for six months by the virus, throwing many thousands out of work, and is only now beginning to come back to life.  Wearing masks and keeping your distance is the only way our business can continue until the vaccines are widely distributed, and that's not going to happen overnight. If backing up Tom Cruise in this one instance makes me an "I said it was wrong then, but now say it's okay" hypocrite, well, so be it -- go ahead and lob stones at this glass house of mine. None of us are perfect, nor is the world in which we live.


Meanwhile, here's a piece on how one show is dealing with the reality of filming during the plague, and another on how/why the industry will be doing so for a while.  But at least 2020 is now growing ever-smaller in our collective rear-view mirror, and for that we can all be grateful.  

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Despite -- or maybe because of -- this ugly year, I don't want to leave on a negative note. Some of you might recall the name J.R. Helton, author of Below the Line, the seminal film industry book first published twenty-five years ago. If you've never read it, you should definitely seek it out. Helton has published several more books since -- each very different, all of them good -- and is now rolling out a podcast one chapter at a time, called Man and Beast: A Love Story.  It's not about the film industry, but deals with the gritty reality of a life far from the glitz and grime of Hollywood.  I tuned in last week, and was riveted.  Helton has a great voice for podcasting, while the spare, lyrical production deftly matches the tone of his story.  It's all true, of course, with names changed to protect innocent and guilty alike, as J.R. continues to mine the ore of his own all-too interesting life, then refine it into literary gold. Anybody who's tried this knows how hard that really is, but like every true master of his craft, Helton makes it look easy.  The price is right (ahem: free), so check it out.

Taking a cue from Helton, I've been excavating my past in the form of the long-promised BS&T book, which is coming along.  I've re-written eighty or so of those old posts, and although much remains to be done, am determined to finish the damned thing in 2021. With any luck (assuming I survive the virus), it'll be ready to print by the end of this year, and sooner if possible.  Immersing myself in all this ancient personal history is a strange endeavor, attempting to move forward by reliving events that took place from five to forty years ago. In some ways it feels like all this happened just yesterday, but then I look in the mirror and am reminded otherwise ... which brings to mind one of the most famous lines in American literature:  

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."** 

Yep - that's me on that boat, rowing as hard as I can.

Finally, a few moments of zen in the form of Room Tone, courtesy of Evan Luzzi over at The Black and Blue.

I wish each and every one of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. 

 

* Wonderfully played by Lionel Barrymore.

** The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 62


                             The Searchers, directed by John Ford
                                        Bronson Canyon, of course - again.

Well, it's been an interesting month, hasn't it?  Other than the election -- and I think we've all heard quite enough about that by now -- the only actual news is that Hollywood was so busy in early November that my union was hiring permits, which means every able-bodied, dues-paying member of Local 728 was employed or for some reason unwilling to work.  Film and television production are not affected by the current Stay at Home Order in Los Angeles, since it's considered an "essential service."  I'm not so sure about that "essential" designation, but after six months of shutdown, people are very happy to be back on the job again, and although positive tests continue to pop up here and there (many of which shut down their shows for a while, then turned out to be false positives), the Covid safety protocols seem to be reasonably effective.  

There's always room for the absurd in Hollywood, of course, as reported by the O. G. Queen of Industry Bloggers, Ms. Peggy Archer. Although Totally Unauthorized has been quiet for a while, she's active on Twitter, where the following missive and photo recently posted:


"Apparently, a show in New Orleans had a party-related Covid outbreak, and the studio brass dressed all the producers down. Our department was issued 6 foot sticks."



Whether these sticks are to be used as weapons to fend off anti-masker Covid-deniers, to measure and maintain the requisite six feet between crew members, or simply to serve as (ahem) "pointed" reminders to keep your distance, is unclear. 


Producers. Can't live with 'em, and can't live without 'em. 


Meanwhile, the virus has brought new job classifications on set: the Covid Manager and Covid Compliance Officer, tasked with making sure the cast and crew are following proper safety protocols.  In this episode of KCRW's The Businessa production supervisor-turned-Covid Manager discusses the trials and tribulations of her new gig. Until listening to this, I'd only considered how Covid has impacted the lighting, grip, and camera departments, all of whom have to wear face shields and masks on set -- which is bad enough -- but she discusses how tough the protocols are on the hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments, whose extremely close contact with unprotected actors requires them to wear maximum coverage Covid suits.  Imagine doing that while working long day exterior shoots in the summer in Hollywood, Atlanta, New Orleans, or New York.  


No thanks. I tip my cap to those people, who can't be having much fun on set these days.


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Most of you who've been checking in here for a while now are familiar with this account of a stunt gone bad, but here's another story about a stuntman who made a big mistake when he jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge as a camera rolled. Although I grew up in the SF Bay Area, and returned in retirement, I'd never heard of this until very recently.  If there's a lesson here, I suppose it's that desperate people do desperate things -- and acts of desperation don't often end well.

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This hosting platform - Blogger - continues to find new ways to piss me off. As you've probably noticed, the formatting often changes without warning - double-spacing here, single-spacing there - and the font sizes can vary from paragraph to paragraph. Some of those flaws are fixable, others still mystify me. Blogger "upgraded" the site a few months ago, which led to weeks of confusion as I tried (and often failed) to re-learn how to do things that were accomplished with ease before the "upgrade." Why is it that these digital entities seem compelled to "fix" things that weren't broken, and in the process drive their customers up the fucking wall? 


Don't bother trying to answer that rhetorical question. So it goes in modern life, where it -- whatever "it" may be -- just is what it is.


I thought I had things more or less sussed out, but now Blogger suddenly won't allow me to post the photo of a book here ... so fuck it -- I'll just send you to an NPR review of that book, which is probably just as well. Now I don't have to sit here for thirty minutes coming up with an apt description of a wonderfully entertaining book that if you haven't yet read, should definitely go on Santa's gift list to leave under your tree at Xmas.


My Lunches with Orson is an edited transcript from a series of lunchtime conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles in the last years of his life, during which they discussed a wide spectrum of subjects. Welles is rightly regarded as the great tragic genius of Hollywood, a man whose brilliance is unquestioned, but whose artistic temperament and refusal to crank out formulaic crowd-pleasers kept him at odds with the studios for most of his career. Citizen Kane is generally regarded as one of, if not the, greatest films ever made, and although I'm not a fan of such lists, I can't argue with that.  My own personal favorite of Welles has always been Lady from Shanghai, but that's just me. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.


I only saw Welles once, a fleeting glimpse while heading into the Hollywood office of the EDD to file for unemployment -- an experience described here.  In this interview, Welles discusses Touch of Evil, another of his classics, and if you still want more, here's a longer conversation with the man.


But seriously -- get your hands on a copy of My Lunches with Orson. You'll be glad you did.


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With the passing of Sean Connery, another cinematic icon of my youth has departed the earthly realm for whatever comes next.  You no doubt read/heard all about him in the past few weeks, but this obit from the BBC is a good one, and might be worth your time. Our modern movie stars are very popular, but they really don't make 'em like they used to, and for his type of roles, Sean Connery pretty much broke the mold.


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We take the Steadicam for granted these days, having forgotten what a truly revolutionary device it really was. For many of you, it's always been in the cinematic toolbox, but there were no Steadicams fifty years ago, and those of us with a few more years weighing down our shoulders remember the impact of Garret Brown's creation when it hit Hollywood. The first Steadicam footage I saw back in the day pretty much blew my mind, and here you can see some of the early tests of his prototype from 1974, which demonstrated what a quantum leap it represented. 


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From time to time I get requests to promote a product or service related to the film industry, and another such missive rolled in the other day. Having no way of knowing how legit these things are, I usually ignore them.  BS&T was started for the sole purpose of sharing my experiences and offering my perspective on the industry. I've refused every offer to "monetize" this website over the years, and am not about to start now, nor will I lead you astray by recommending a service I don't know anything about.  


With that caveat, The Mercury Report might be worth a look for those of you still trying to get your career in gear. In their words:


"The Mercury Production Report is a digital resource for actors, crew and vendors with a list of film, television or new media projects emailed weekly; projects are in hiring phases of production (pre-production or development), with most projects in the USA and each listed with contact information including hot links to email, websites or social media."


I asked for samples, so they sent me a few pages from the latest issue. It looks legit, with extensive listings of feature films about to begin production all over the country and beyond. It's packed with contact information (names and e-mail address) that you'd be hard pressed to uncover on your own. Given that department heads hire most of the crew on a show, and typically hire people they already know,  it seems unlikely that grips, juicers, props, set-dec, camera, hair/makeup people, and other union crew members can find work through The Mercury Report, but newbies and actors could. Some of the shows listed are non-union, which is where many of us got our start.  


At $55/month for the standard version, it's not cheap. Still, given how rough this year was on industry veterans well-connected with the job market, I can only imagine how tough it is on those still trying to get a foot in Hollywood's door. The  months leading up to November might well have some of you feeling like the protagonist of this very short film.


On that note, cheer up, kiddos. I know how ugly things look right now with Covid on the rise, the body count mounting higher with each passing day, and widespread distribution of vaccines several months away. Whatever the weather brings, we're in for a long, bleak winter, but our ancestors tell us that it's always darkest just before the dawn, and they're often right. With any luck, their wisdom will hold this time as well.  Be patient, wear your mask, stay healthy, and hang tough. 


And try have yourselves a Merry Little Christmas.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Arcs



    "Kansas" carbon arc lamp mounted on clickety-clacks, circa 1963
                        Photo courtesy of Earl R. Gilbert and Local 728


Carbon arcs running on direct current were the state of the art in BFL technology when I first walked onto a film set back in 1977.*  Although the first 4K HMI lamps had recently arrived in Hollywood from France, nothing could rival the output and quality of light produced by a carbon arc. It would be several years before reliable 12K HMIs were developed to challenge arcs, but most of the DPs I worked for -- as a juicer, Best Boy, and Gaffer -- preferred carbon arc lamps over HMIs all through the 1980's.**  

A carbon arc is essentially a giant arc welder in a can with a glass lens in front. The sheet metal, rivets, and worm gear engineering of arcs has always reminded me of steam locomotives, and the advanced industrial-age technology envisioned by Jules Verne in novels like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. You didn't just turn on an arc and walk away, but had to actually run the damned thing. There was an art to feathering the strike, adjusting the dancing electric flame through the little red safety-glass port, and "trimming" the arc -- removing the red-hot old carbons once they'd burned down to charred nubs and replacing them with fresh rods. 



                   For another video clip demonstrating an arc in action, click here.


Plate on the side of each arc, demonstrating the proper gap between positive and negative carbons

Everything about arcs was big.  Many of the classic Brute Arc "heavy-heads" were fitted with two folding handles on each side, one for each of the four juicers required to safely mount the lamp on an equally robust molevator stand. We could get away with using 2/0 cable when running just one arc, but powering two or more meant 4/0 -- at nearly a hundred pounds per hundred foot roll, the back-breaking bane of juicers the world over. When filming at the beach, we'd pull the wheels off each molevator, then mount it on a set of miniature tank tracks called "clickety-clacks" before heading-up the arc and tying the grid to the back two legs of the stand.  The resulting rig looked like some kind of ray-guy weapon from a futuristic sci-fi movie, but clickety-clacks made our lives so much easier when working on sand. 

Heavy-heads ran like a train so long as they were properly maintained and lubricated, but as the name implied, they were heavy, and a good sized crew was required to work with them.  This wasn't an issue on big union features, but the commercials I worked on at the time had smaller crews, so we rented lightweight arc heads, which opened from the rear rather than the side. Along with running 4/0 from the genny, our morning ritual included lubing the worm gears that maintained the gap between positive and negative carbons with generous blend of kerosene and powdered graphite.  For whatever reason  -- improper maintenance, perhaps, exacerbated by the intense heat of a 225 ampere flame -- these lightweight arcs would sometimes run rough after hours of sustained use. I made a habit of opening the back of each arc between setups to allow the element to cool, and soon learned to carry spare arc elements on every job.***

                         Lightweight arc with element access from rear of lamp


Despite such issues, I really liked arcs, which could match daylight or tungsten lighting simply by switching carbons -- white for daylight, yellow for tungsten -- with no loss of light. Try that with an 18K HMI.  An arc produces a very clean light requiring minimal color correction -- most of the time we'd add a frame of Y-1, a pale yellow gel, to bring the color temperature down to 5400 Kelvin without adding any reddish tint -- and unlike modern lamps using bulbs, the point-source of an arc throws a crisp, sharp shadow. Yes, they use a lot of power and thus are not nearly as efficient as modern lamps, but carbon arcs are cool, sexy beasts in ways no HMI or LED will ever be. 

                        The King of Cool, Steve McQueen, posing with a carbon arc

The first generation of modern arcs was the 170, which used 150 amps of D.C. power, after which the need for more light brought the Brute Arc into production, burning 225 amps.  Mole Richardson eventually came out with the Titan, which reportedly consumed 350 amps, but I'm told they didn't catch on for a number of reasons. I never a saw a Titan arc on set or anywhere else.  

 In the early 80's, I worked a series of Murph 76 commercials shot on location in and around a Union 76 gas station at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. Most were daytime shoots using arcs as key and/or fill lights, but we did an all-nighter late one summer to shoot a Christmas spot using six arcs, each mounted on a set of two-high parallels.  That meant six arc operators, one for each light. Once everything was rigged and ready for filming, I sat up there running my arc all night long. 

With the gas station sprayed in a thick coat of soap bubble "snow," and bathed in cold blue light from our arcs, it was quite a sight. In the background, out of the camera's view, lay the dark outline of Dodger Stadium, silhouetted against the glittering lights of downtown LA.  It was well after midnight by the time "Murph" (the gruff, crusty Richard Slattery) finally emerged from his motor home in a stuffed red Santa suit, then staggered around that sloppy mess barking his lines. The rumor on set was that he'd been hitting the bottle pretty hard that night, but who knows? All I do know is that once dawn broke, we had to pull those big, heavy arc heads and all-steel molevators down from the parallels, lug them to the truck, then wrap what felt like miles of dirty, wet, soapy 4/0 as the hot Indian Summer sun rose in the east, beating down on us like a sledge hammer.  With our gloves, shirts, pants, and boots thoroughly soaked and utterly filthy, we then went our separate ways back home through the rush hour gridlock of LA traffic. It was an ugly end to one very long night.


                         Carbon arcs working on The Magnificent Seven, 1960

Things changed when 12K HMIs finally became reliable. We still had to run plenty of cable, but once adjusted for a given shot, a 12K could be left alone until the next setup, with no delays to "trim" an arc -- remove the burned carbons and install fresh ones.  The early LTM 12ks used 120 volt magnetic ballasts that weighed nearly three hundred pounds and were no fun at all to wrangle, but the advent of smaller, lighter ballasts powered by 208 volt (three phase) or 240 volt (single phase) A.C. brought the 12K HMIs into the mainstream of production.  Still, we needed to carefully monitor the frequency of the generator, which had to remain between 59.75 and 60.25 hertz  to avoid the dreaded "HMI flicker," which would cause the projected film to appear as though a demented camera assistant had been frantically opening and closing the iris during a shot.  In the early days of HMIs, we'd rent a plug-in digital "freak-meter" to monitor the frequency on set, but when small hand-held optical meters became available, a Best Boy or Gaffer could accurately read the frequency simply by pointing the meter at the lens of a burning HMI.  During my decade gaffing commercials, I always carried an optical freak-meter the size and weight of a pager on every job, but after a few years, flicker-free electronic ballasts came into use, turning my $400 dollar meter into a relic. 

So it goes - the only constant is change.

18K HMIs eventually became the industry's go-to BFL, putting out more light than a 12K with no real penalty in weight.  By the time 24Ks were introduced,  I was working on multi-camera sitcoms that rarely left a sound stage, so I never had a chance to work with one of these mega-BFLs.  My younger friends in Hollywood tell me that 24Ks have a relatively short bulb life, and suffered from lens-cracking issues early on, similar to those that plagued some of the first 12Ks.  If a truly massive source of light is required nowadays, the 100K or 200K SoftSun units will do the job, but for most filming needs, standard 18Ks or the 18K Arrimax -- with no fresnel lens, essentially a giant PAR lamp putting out a lot of light -- seem to be the industry standard BFL for film and television.**** 

Although carbon arcs can still be rented in Hollywood, I hadn't heard of them being used in recent years except as props in movies about movies, but as you can see in this photo, there's a big feature currently in production using several arcs and shooting on 35 mm film.  Terry Meadows at Cinepower and Light  has a number of pristine Brute arcs in stock and ready to rent, so it seems the legendary carbon arc has come full circle from set lighting workhorse to show-horse and back again.  

                                          Photo by Tommy Dangcil

Arcs will still be rare -- you won't see them on many shoots -- but they're back in use, and if that's not a great Hollywood story, I don't know what is. 


(Many thanks to Terry Meadows, Tommy Dangcil, and so many others on the 728 FB site who helped fill in the gaps of my arc knowledge.) 

 
* Do I really have to explain what "BFL" stands for?

** Some of the early 12K bulbs had a tendency to explode like a bomb, with no warning at all. This scared the crap out of everyone nearby, and caused a delay while we cleaned out the head to install a new globe -- but sometimes the fresnel lens would shatter as well, which meant replacing the entire lamp. In a business where time=money, this was not good, and is one reason many DPs and Gaffers stuck with arcs long after 12K HMIs were introduced.  

*** As this old post discussed, proper maintenance of carbon arcs was crucial.

****  I had a chance to work with an Arrimax before retiring, a day described here.  

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 61

 

Photo by Lindha Narvaez 

I'm not a fan of awards shows. Yes, I used to watch the Oscars back in the early days of my Hollywood adventure -- particularly the year a film I worked on won -- but it wasn't long before the appeal of staring at the Toob for long hours of lugubrious, blubbering tedium faded to black. As for the Emmys, Golden Globes, and Grammys ... no. Whatever respect I might have held for the Grammys (not much, I admit) vanished like an Etch-a-Sketch turned upside-down and shaken hard when the fraudster pair known as Milli Vanilli won.

Having been there once, I totally understand why those who worked on the shows up for consideration pay close attention.  For veteran actors, an Oscar, Golden Globe, or Emmy can be the capstone on a great career, while younger thespians who grab a trophy will find themselves catapulted into the limelight, for better or worse.  I remain mystified that a large viewing audience with no direct connection to the actors, artists, or shows in contention cares enough about who wins and loses to watch any of these broadcasts, but the list of things I don't understand about Hollywood and the entertainment industry grows longer every year.  

Still, some of the writing about and reporting on these awards shows can be very good, and this year's pick comes from LA Times television critic Robert Lloyd.

The World is on Fire: Why Should We Care About the Emmys?

Here's a taste:

"This is not a normal year. The West Coast is on fire. A thousand Americans a day die from a disease much of the rest of the industrialized world has been able to keep relatively in check. There is fighting in the streets.  A television-personality politician is attempting to stay in office by creating exactly the sort of drama on which television thrives, and we are at war over things we should agree on -- like science and racism -- as we sit before our multiple screens and try to process or ignore what might be the end of democracy, locally, and of the world as we know it, globally. Screaming through one's waking hours, and even in one's sleep, does not seem in inappropriate response."

Robert Lloyd is always worth reading, but this one is particularly on point. Check it out.

The popularity of the Emmys is fading, though, and sank to new lows this year.  Some of this was doubtless due to Covid restrictions that turned what has always been a big, glittering spectacle into a glorified Zoom session, but maybe the viewing public is finally growing weary of these orgies of self-congratulation.  

Or not. Who knows?  Certainly not this rapidly aging ex-juicer.

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After several months of effort, the unions and producers in Hollywood finally managed to agree on how to handle the Covid crisis as the industry gets back to work and production resumes in earnest.  The IA seems to be serious about crews following the safety protocols, so maybe it'll work.  It won't all be smooth sailing, of course, but hopefully no more than a few bumps in the road. 

Up here in the woods, I've had a habit of calling one or another of my industry friends every Thursday, when I saddle up and ride twenty miles to a weekly Farmer's Market to load up on fresh corn, sweet ripe tomatoes, and whatever else looks good -- and where my cell phone gets four bars instead of none.  Life amid the trees is good, but there are disadvantages.  Until last week, I usually able to reach somebody in LA, because they were all at home wondering when the work bell would ring.  Now my calls go straight to voice mail, and I have a one-way conversation with a digital robot. Ah well, bad for me, good for them, and such is life.  I just hope they all manage to stay safe and healthy.

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Unlike many, if not most, of my former co-workers, I've never been much of a football fan.  Sure, I hopped on the bandwagon of my home planet Raiders and 49ers during their championship years -- both teams were fun to watch back in those seemingly innocent pre-CTE days -- but as each team eventually faltered, so did my interest. Nowadays, I tune in the Super Bowl every year (hey, it's my duty as an American) but that's about it. Still, I was aware of Gale Sayers, the astonishing slippery running back of the Chicago Bears, who once scored six touchdowns in a game against the 49ers. 

I mention this because Sayers  -- who died last week -- was portrayed in Brian's Song, a weepy 1971 television movie that I never saw. Being in my early twenties at the time, I had other things to do that were more compelling than watching TV movies, most of which sucked thanks to low budgets, punishingly fast shooting schedules, and scripts that were neutered and dumbed-down to meet the middle-of-the-road demands of the broadcast networks. 

I never thought much about the movie or the story of Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, but after reading Mary McNamara's excellent piece in the LA Times this week, maybe I should have.  It might be locked behind a paywall, so here's a link she included that tells how the film came to be made in the first place -- how relative unknown Jimmy Caan landed the role of Brian Piccolo instead of major movie star Burt Reynolds, how Billy Dee Williams got the role of Gale Sayers instead of Lou Gossett, and how a simple bit of voice-over turned a rough-cut disaster into a classic that apparently still brings out the handkerchiefs fifty years later.  It's just a few minutes long, but quite a story, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

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Time for a reality check.  While scrolling through a FB group where crew people tell their stories, I came across a post asking if anybody has nightmares stemming from bad experiences on set.  As you might expect, this sparked a rash of horror stories describing film job misery -- and we've all got a few of those stories. They were entertaining to read, but this is the one that stopped me.

"My job was six straight years in Iraq and Afghanistan before I came home and stumbled into the movies. Yes, there have been moments when I got frustrated and angry, but they were short-lived and inconsequential.  A bad day on set is better than a good day over here."

The film and television industry can drive you crazy with top-down incompetence, egos on steroids, and a blithe disregard for basic human decency, but as the saying goes, "We're not curing cancer here" -- nor are we killing people, except on a really bad day.  As frustrating and exhausting as a tough day/week/month on set can be, it's better than being run like a greyhound in an Amazon distribution center, or chained to a desk under the fluorescent glow of some soulless cube farm, or toiling in the fields under a blistering sun picking crops for day wages --  and it sure as hell beats living and fighting in an active war zone, where every day on the job might be your last. The Covid restrictions and safety protocols add another dimension to the burdens of working on set, but humans are infinitely adaptable, and it'll all become part of the routine before long.*

So when things go sideways on the job, and you start wondering why the hell you got into this business in the first place, remember these words: "A bad day on set is better than a good day over there."   

Stay safe, everybody.


* Yeah, I know -- that's easy for me to say, given that I don't have to work on set anymore, but I did my time in the trenches. Your turn now.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 60



                        Where were these when I needed them?

While working my first feature as a juicer -- after doing two low-budget movies as a grip -- one of my tasks was to bring drinks to the Gaffer on set: and by "drinks," I don't mean water or soda.  At over six feet tall and close to 300 pounds, the Gaffer was an immense Falstaffean character who had a prodigious appetite for beer, and the ability to continue working unfazed by the effects of alcohol.* 

He was also one of the smartest, funniest, and most well-read people I've ever met, and thus a living, breathing reminder not to judge a book by its cover.

Every day as we neared the 10 hour point, with no end in sight, he'd tell me to bring him a "Coke-a-Lobe." I'd head for the truck, dig an ice-cold Michelobe from the cooler, then carefully pour the beer into an empty, well-rinsed Coke can.  Thus camouflaged well enough to make the captain of a Q ship proud, the gaffer could sip beer on set without raising any eyebrows. 

A small funnel would have made my task easier and kept the floor of the truck free of spilled beer, but something like this would have simplified everything. 

Ah well, those were simpler times -- and a lot more fun.  

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Speaking of fun (and how much not-fun working on set will be in the Age of Covid), I've been hearing from a few people who've gone back to work on set in Hollywood and beyond. Those reports are all over the map -- some safety protocols are doable, if onerous, but don't have much of a back-up plan if  crew people start getting sick. Unless a production has a few crew members paid to sit "on the bench" -- who have been tested, isolated, and are ready to step in if somebody of first unit comes down with Covid -- any show that suffers infection will probably have to shut down for a while. Other protocols sound like a joke right from the start, with untrained PAs serving as "Covid Safety Monitors" to enforce poorly thought-out rules and sloppy procedures that undercut the whole concept of set safety  in the first place.  The latter are doubtless the work of producers just trying to cover their legal asses when things go wrong, which will happen.  Plans built on a foundation of hope alone aren't going to work.  Everything will have to go right if the film industry is to fully succeed in going back to work, with crews and actors following all the rules and continuing to test negative. Human nature being what it is, positive tests  -- and worse -- will happen sooner or later, so the question remains: what then?

We'll find out.  

At least one major production is already underway in England  (another chapter in the apparently endless series of Jurassic Park sequels), from which the industry will doubtless learn much about the realities of working in the midst of this pandemic.  More are gearing up in Hollywood, Atlanta, and beyond. Where there's a will -- and money to be made -- there's a way, so production will resume on a larger scale, but it won't be easy, nor will it be much fun. 

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Anybody who's occupied a bar stool here at BS&T for more than a few years knows how I feel about stunts.  I admire their work, and have total respect for stunt people, but after witnessing a stunt man fall to his death early in my career, watching stunts has been a hold-my-breath proposition ever since.  Still, the inventiveness and creativity of stunt coordinators never fails to blow me away.  After re-watching William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA recently, I checked out the special features, where Buddy Joe Hooker (the stunt coordinator) discussed how they filmed the epic car chase in that movie, which took nearly a month of work to put a few minutes up on screen. It's worth your time to watch the entire twenty minute interview on the DVD, but meanwhile, here's a teaser from UTube.

And if you like that, you might like this, which shows how big stunts were done before the current era of CGI magic, but to me that makes it all the more impressive.

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This is a fascinating piece, complete with jaw-dropping clips that demonstrate some astonishing advances in the digital realm that have revolutionized the visual arena of the gaming world, and are now moving into the realm of film and television. Much of the jargon and technology discussed here is over my head, but it's clear that another dimension in the digital revolution is well underway.  The author posits that this was all in the digital pipeline, but the new realities of the Covid crisis accelerated their use in mainstream Hollywood, and will have ramifications that could shake the foundations of the industry as we've known it. Ready or not, a new and very different world is on the way, so those of you young enough to have another twenty or thirty years of industry work ahead might want to take a look at what's coming.  Revolutions generate a lot of collateral damage, and whatever your chosen craft, you'll need to keep your eyes open to avoid ending up roadkill rotting alongside the digital highway.

Another eye-opener is this smart, fascinating analysis of how creativity and originality have worked together throughout human history -- Everything is a Remix is definitely worth your time. 

This excellent piece from NPR discusses how Hollywood and the film industry changed in the wake of the atomic bombs used to end WW II.  You can listen for eight minutes, or read the text -- your choice.

In this typically thoughtful commentary, LA Times television critic Robert Lloyd discusses the good and bad about TV in the age of Covid, suggesting that Hollywood might want to hang on to some of the former rather than plunge headlong back into pre-pandemic modes of production -- if and when a vaccine allows. He adds a cautionary note on the dangers of any such prognostication:  

"Of course, these days it doesn't profit a futurist, or any moderately sensitive soul, to look more than a week ahead; I wouldn't dare to actually predict what television in 2021 will look like. We may be all too busy fighting in the streets to watch it anyway."**

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Although the heat (and a truly god-awful fire season) will continue to haunt us here on the West Coast for another two or three months, the arrival of September signals that the summer is coming to an end. With the Covid Autumn looming, and what promises to be a grim winter of modern discontent, it seems fitting to close this post with one of the greatest scenes Steven Spielberg ever put on film. Why, you might ask?  Hey, I just love this scene, that's all -- and that's enough.




* A year or two later, while working on a Chuckwagon dog food commercial, we took a one hour walkaway lunch, heading to a liquor store for a six pack of Heineken, then a nearby Astro Burger.  In the time it took me to eat my burger and drink half a beer, he knocked back the other five bottles without any apparent effect.

** This piece may be entombed behind a paywall, so if the Times won't allow you to read it, shoot me an e-mail at the link under the gloves and I'll send it to you.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

We're All in this Alone


                   ICU nurse after working a six-day, sixty-five hour week

Pardon me while I wander off the reservation here and climb atop the soap box. Okay, it's really an apple box, but you get the point. Take a good look at the face of this nurse, who's just finished working the kind of long, grueling week all of us in the film and television industry can relate to. We know what it's like to work those hours, but instead of dealing with endless problems on set thanks to the indecisiveness of certain directors (and others) with more ego than talent, this nurse struggled all week in an ICU ward to keep an endless stream of Covid-stricken people alive while trying to prevent herself from becoming the next victim.  To remain relatively safe, she wore tight, restrictive, uncomfortable safety gear that made it hard to do anything, and as each day wore on, was more and more painful. Look at the bruising on her face, the strain and exhaustion, the thousand-yard stare.

This nurse is one of many soldiers fighting on the front lines of a war that's killed 150,000 Americans thus far, and will claim countless more before it's over.  People like her are all that stand between the rest of us and a lingering, painfully miserable death from the virus, but as we in the film and television industry know all too well, working such long hours takes a heavy toll. Although the exact numbers are unclear, somewhere between five hundred and a thousand medical workers -- EMTs, nurses, physician's assistants, and doctors -- have been killed by Covid thus far, and more will fall.

Things have gone from bad to worse over the past month. Infections are spiking in hotspots all over the country as basic common sense is ignored, challenged, and politicized by short-sighted, self-serving "leaders" at the national and state level who are pursuing an agenda that ignores science, decency, and the public safety of our communities, states, and the country as a whole.

What the actual fuck is going on?  How the hell did a simple, elemental safety measure like wearing a cloth mask in public to help prevent the spread of a highly-infectious lethal virus become a red/blue, clenched-fist, brain-dead "don't-tread-on-me" issue?  I've seen a lot of stupid things happen in the name of politics over the past six decades, but this absolutely takes the cake.

Our doctors, nurses, and medical support people can't keep working at this pace indefinitely, facing a tsunami of misery and death every day -- nobody can.  Sooner or later they'll break down emotionally and physically, and will no longer be able to report for work at our ICUs and hospitals.  Our entire medical system is at risk of being strained to the breaking point, and if it crumbles, what then?

We'll be fucked, that's what. For all the havoc Covid has created, people still need urgent medical care from other causes. They get hurt in accidents, have heart attacks and strokes, are suddenly stricken with appendicitis, tonsillitis, broken arms, legs, hips, necks, and backs, all of which require treatment in hospitals. So when some over-caffeinated asshole runs a red light because he/she was yakking on his/her goddamned phone, then smashes into your little Toyota/Honda/whatever in his/her giant fucking Range Rover, an ambulance will take your broken and bleeding self to the nearest Emergency Room, which these days is likely to be overflowing with Covid patients. There, doctors and/or surgeons will do their level best to take care of you, but even if they manage to patch you up, every minute you remain in that hospital raises your risk of contracting the virus -- and once on a ventilator, your chances of surviving shrink to the coin flip of slim-to-none.

You don't want that. None of us does, so for fuck's sake, wear a goddamned mask.  This is not a political issue, it's not a mark of red or blue, conservative or liberal -- it's a matter of survival, for all of us. Things will not return to anything like "normal" until Covid is no longer a major threat, and the only way we civilians can help in that struggle is to avoid getting the virus.  Yes, washing hands, disinfecting, and social distancing are part of it, but the primary mode of protection is to wear a mask in public.

"We're all in this together" has been the operative cliché since this virus hit, and that's essentially true. We all want this to be over so everybody can go back to work again -- and to bars, restaurants, clubs,  movie theaters, and the beach. We want to shake hands and hug our family and friends, then sit around a table for a meal together.  The current situation sucks hugely, in different ways, for all of us, young and old -- but shit happens in life that we just have to accept and deal with. We have no choice.  Sticking our heads in the sand to wish the Covid virus away is not an option. Turning the tide in this war will ultimately hinge on the ability of medical science and Big Pharma to develop, manufacture, and distribute effective vaccines to immunize us in the future, but that will be then, and this is now.  Until that happy day, our only defense is to avoid getting sick in the first place, and the simplest way to do that is to wear a mask in public.  That means each and every one of us putting on a mask whenever we leave home and enter the public space. You and me as individuals, each making the decision to do the right thing for good of everybody: we're all in this alone ... together.

So follow the Nike mantra: just do it.




Okay, climbing down off the soap/apple box. After an extended shutdown, a few productions are underway these days, as the industry cautiously dips its toes into the chilly waters of our dark new reality.  In this series of posts, Evan Luzi (who runs the excellent camera blog The Black and Blue) offers a vivid, thorough description of his experiences working several relatively small jobs under the Covid safety protocols, and is definitely worth your attention.

The following are a few observations from an anonymous crew member on what it's like working a larger shoot, reprinted here with permission from (and thanks to) Crew Stories, on Facebook, a member-only group where industry veterans share stories about shows and shoots they've worked.  This one was a two day gig on a sound stage in Hollywood, filming with a cast and crew of fifty people.

              Photo courtesy of anonymous - not the person who wrote the following.

It's crazy not seeing people's faces. You have to smile with your eyes and eyebrows. While getting tested, I was next to a friend I've known for seventeen years, but we didn't notice each other 'til we hear each other's voices.

Staggered call times. Morning foot bumps or tapping elbows when greeting. Blood test requiring a forty minutes wait in the parking lot. After stepping on stage and looking around, one of the actors backed out at the last minute due to Covid concerns.

Every face mask is different, so ask other crew members how they like the ones they're using. If you have a beard, you'll go through a cheap mask by lunch, so you may as well invest in a quality mask in the first place. Wearing a mask for fifteen hours really sucks. I commend every essential worker, public servant, and medical worker who has been doing this for the last four months.  If you're working outside and wear shades or glasses, they really fog up. The only good thing about wearing a mask is that you become acutely aware just how bad your own breath smells.  

Communicating effectively really tests your patience. It's hard to communicate with ten people around you if you don't recognize everyone's voice -- eye contact only goes so far, and a lot of communication has to be repeated.  Tensions ran high throughout the day. Two crew members started getting spicy about proper mask etiquette.  

Anxiety all day about touching anything and everything, and cleaning stuff that someone else just touched gets exhausting. Gloves was a weird one -- some kept their work gloves on all day, while others complained, saying that only spreads more germs and Covid. I heard a grip bring up the issue of fall protection harnesses in aerial lifts being worn by six other people. One more thing to worry about.

You don't have to do that fake ass smile anymore when you walk by unknown crew members. I drank every bottle of water straight through for fear of it getting mixed up. Instead of coughing to cover up a fart, I farted to cover up a cough.

Crafty was the regular setup, but with tables creating a barrier between you and the food -- you tell the craft service person what you want, then they put it in a basket and hand it to you.

Lunch time was staggered, like French hours: each of us peeled off when we could, then took a half hour to eat. but then the whole company broke for a half, with a catered lunch from one of the regular motion picture catering companies that set up under a pop-up tent in the parking lot, with a sheet of clear vinyl in front. You walk up to a little window with the menu, pick what you want, and they box it up, like ordering from a roach coach. Drinks are all pre-packaged.  At lunch, everybody was extremely excited to talk to strangers.

All in all, it was the most anxiety I've ever felt on set, but at the same time, it felt like home -- and for the first time in my life, I went into a bathroom stall to take a deep breath, with that mask finally off.


None of this brave new Covid world on set sounds like fun, but humans are infinitely adaptable, and I suspect that working under these safety protocols will eventually become more-or-less routine.  With any luck, medical science will be successful in coming up with a good vaccine, and all this will eventually be a distant memory of a very bad time rather than the new baseline reality of working in the film and television industry. But until then, to quote Hill Street Blues: "Let's be careful out there."

Wear the mask.  As Wilford Brimley used to growl: "It's the right thing to do!"

On that note, Brimley went to his reward yesterday, as the saying goes, and if his ultimate destination is Thespian Heaven, I suspect a few directors he tormented would gladly punch his ticket to the Other Place. I only worked with him once, on a Quaker Oats commercial back in the 80's.  We spent three hours rigging and lighting the set on a small stage in Hollywood, then the famously grumpy Brimley walked on stage in full wardrobe and makeup, ready to go. He stood on his mark and delivered the trademark line "It's the right thing to do!" reasonably well in the first take, but it wasn't great, so we shot the second of what I assumed would be a dozen takes.

"Perfect!" the director said. "Let's do it again."

Brimley glared at him.

"You said it was perfect," he snarled.  "What's the point of doing another?

The director's mouth opened for a few seconds, but no sound came out, whereupon Brimley walked off the set and was gone. We wrapped the lights and cable, signed our timecards, and I was home by noon.  From that day on, I've had a soft spot in my heart for Wilford Brimley.  They really don't make 'em like that anymore.

RIP, Wilford.