Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Pot, meet Kettle...
Nothing blows the illusion of the Old West like a pioneer woman checking her cell phone…

I've been carping about the increasing ubiquity and abuse of cell phones on set ever since the earliest days of this blog. To label my struggle a losing battle would be a massive understatement -- truth is, I've been pissing into the wind of a technological and cultural hurricane all this time.

Which means my shoes are sopping wet at this point.  Time for a new pair.  

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" the saying goes, and having at long last joined Generation Wireless with my own smart phone, I'm forced into the decidedly uncomfortable position of viewing what once seemed like a clear-cut, black-and-white issue from the other side -- because in struggling to cope with the terminal tedium of my current brain-dead, soul-crushing show, I too find myself staring into that little glowing screen as the cameras roll, and roll, and roll.


I get it. The daily routine on set can be very boring, and it's nice to have a small device at hand that's capable of bringing the larger world in -- and as the pot who made such a big deal of calling the cell-phone kettle black for such a long time, it's my turn to eat a little crow while shaking hands with that very same kettle... to mix, mangle, and obliterate my metaphors in the conceptual cuisinart.  

The phone remains in my work bag during our three lighting days each week, which are when the really heavy lifting takes place, but come those two (or sometimes three) grindingly endless shoot days, the phone has a spot in my tool pouch, ready to whisk me off to Google, Facebook, Gmail, or one of my favorite sites, The Electric Typewriter, to help pass the time and ease the drip, drip, drip torture of slow brain death -- or what my gaffer (in a brilliant turn of phrase) refers to as "content poisoning."

And sometimes -- very rarely, and only when strictly necessary -- I'll even make a quick phone call at work. Imagine that.*

Although I see some of the younger juicers and grips losing themselves in on-line games of one sort or another with their phones, the appeal of this eludes me. But  hey, when it comes to dealing with tedium, to each his own. 

Still, I always keep one eye and ear tuned to whatever's happening on set, ready to jam that phone back in my tool pouch and answer the call. An old analog dog might be able to learn a new digital trick or two, but work habits forged over the decades die hard. If you want to call it "old school," fine -- that's not a bad thing in my world.**  However stupefyingly boring the action in front of the cameras can be (and oh Sweet Jesus, does this show put me to the test each and every week…), doing the job right means paying attention.  

And if you can't do that, you shouldn't be on set.


* Which leads me to another revelation -- I finally understand the massive popularity of texting.  Given that the audio quality of a $650 dollar smart phone is unbelievably crappy, it's no wonder people prefer to tap out a print message than deal with the frustration of a mutually unintelligible voice conversation.

** Or you can just call me old. There's no denying the truth anymore...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Bad Week for the World

                         Photo by Joel Saget, courtesy of Getty 

I had another post almost ready to go for this week, but given the events of Friday the 13th, it hardly seems appropriate. Besides, the final edit and polish for a Sunday post usually happens on Saturday, and that task just doesn't interest me today -- so it'll go up next Sunday.  

This was one bad week.  First, a terrible bombing in Beiruit -- a city once known as "the Paris of the Middle East" -- then Friday's horrific slaughter in Paris, France.  

A lot of innocent people died for no good reason in the past few days.

I've never been to Paris, and since I'll probably have to work right up to the day of retirement -- and given the financial realities that will rule the post-work era of my life -- I'll likely go to my grave never having strolled down the boulevards in the City of Light. Still, I fell in love with French films back in college, where the work of Louis Malle, Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Francois Truffaut, and Jean Luc Godard (among others) turned my head around to give me a whole new perspective on the power of movies. That was when I realized the Hollywood method of filmmaking isn't the only way, and that we had a lot to learn from the French when it comes to making movies about people navigating their way down the rocky path of life.*

Although nobody makes the kind of lush, earthy, romantic films the French have been producing since the dawn of cinema, Hollywood does manage to get it right every now and than. I don't think I've ever managed to remain stoic through many viewings of  Casablanca -- especially the scene where the band at Rick's Cafe American strikes up a stirring rendition of La Marseilles, the magnificent French national anthem. It gets me every time.

I'm just a juicer in Hollywood, a tiny cog amidst many thousands who keep this enormous entertainment machine running. I have no real knowledge of what's going on in the Middle East beyond the litany of misery in the daily news.  All I know is that it's been a fucked-up mess over there ever since I can remember, starting with the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. The bloody violence has only gotten worse over the ensuing five decades as the fire spread farther and wider -- and is now burning hotter -- than ever seemed possible. I see no easy answers, and no end in sight to the carnage.

Whatever the initial spark, it's evident that nobody involved knows how to put these flames out. Fueled by a combustable blend of religious blood feuds, the iron-fist of repression, and the outside world's appetite for oil, the Middle East has come to resemble one of those humongous underground coal fires that once started, burn for thousands of years.

But this fire is burning up people, not coal.  

I don't have solutions, only questions without answers, but it seems likely things will get worse before they get better, and that the bloody horror of Friday the 13th in Paris may well happen again in other cities.  Living with such recurrent horrors may well be our "new normal," as the modern world struggles to find a way to deal with a nightmarish enemy right out of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie.

Unfortunately, this is no summer blockbuster -- it's all too real.

So weep for Paris, weep for the world, and pray for us all. I'm not much of a believer in Divine Intervention -- or divine anything, really -- but we're gonna need all the help we can get 

* If you've never seen Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heartdo so.  No matter how glowing the reviews, words can't do justice to this movie, which epitomizes the "french touch" in dealing with a highly-charged subject in a manner that would be impossible in Hollywood.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Then and Now

          The more things change, the more they stay the same…

The studio where my current show is being shot is unlike any I've ever seen.*  We have four permanent sets and three additional areas reserved for swing-sets, two of which are on an elevated section of the stage that can only be accessed by equipment carts and man-lifts via a 15 foot long, 4 foot high ramp that must be removed whenever we need to shoot on two of the permanent sets. After the grips move that ramp, anything on wheels stays up there until the ramp is back.

This was completely bizarre to me at first, but after four months of work it feels more or less normal… which just goes to show that you can get used to almost anything after a while.

What I haven't quite been able to get used to is the serious grind this show has become. It  was right from the start, of course, but fool-that-I-am, I assumed the rough patches would would have smoothed out by now, with the crew settling into a good working rhythm. In some ways that happened -- we know what to expect now, and are prepared to deal with it -- but if anything, the sheer idiocy behind so much of what we do each week is getting harder and harder to take. I can't be specific about this (for reasons that should be obvious…), but I can tell you that the subject matter of a show makes a big difference. It shouldn't, but it does -- and working on such a brain-dead children's show is very hard indeed.  The kid actors are great -- they work hard, hit their marks and deliver the lines -- but there's not enough lipstick in the world to pretty up this pig. My last show (which was Hamlet compared to this drivel) had its challenges, but was a lot of fun to work on.  The only fun this show offers comes from the bond forged by the shared misery we all shoulder together, a mutual appreciation for utter absurdity, and the resulting gallows humor that allows us to cope. But as powerful as that bond is, it only goes so far -- and  with five episodes left in this season, it'll be all I can do to belly-crawl through the finale just before Christmas.  

And right now I don't even want to think about the possibility of us being asked back for another season…  

We're all feeling it, as evidenced by the reaction of one of the grips when I asked him how it was going the other day. Leveling a dead-eyed stare at me, he pointed the index finger of his right hand at his head, then cocked his thumb and said: "Click, click, click…"  

It's that bad.

So now I'm praying that one more season of something deceit (please, Gods of Hollywood, not another fucking kid's show…) will materialize from the ether early next year.  I'd really like to close out my industry career with at least a few shreds of dignity.  

But that might not happen, in which case I'll do what I have to do, and then -- when the time comes -- exit stage left at a brisk pace with no regrets or second thoughts about calling a wrap on my own Hollywood adventure.  

One way I deal with the frustrations of this show is to carve out a couple of minutes every day to take a good look at some of the many wonderful photos of old Hollywood hanging in the staircases, hallways, and bathrooms of the studio -- which serve as reminders that we on this crew are part of the long continuum of the film and television industry here in Hollywood. All those photos are good, each for a different reason, but one of my favorites leads off this post. I don't know who took it or who anybody in this photo might be -- not the actress or director, and certainly not the various technicians, who were among the nameless multitude of human cogs that kept the industry machine running back then.

Kind of like me, nowadays -- which is why I feel a certain kinship with them.

I like the way this photo captures all sides of the on-set equation; the actress smiling for the camera, the focused but studied indifference of the first assistant, the operator hidden behind that enormous blimped camera, and the intensity of the director issuing orders while standing atop a ladder.**

Those we've all seen before… but look at the right side of the frame, where down on the stage floor below are eight or nine technicians -- grips, juicers, prop men, and/or set decs, I imagine -- doing then what we still do now during a long day of filming: waiting for the wheel of production to turn so we can resume our work. In a very real way, I am those guys and they are me -- except the men in that photo are probably all dead by now, and although this show is doing its best to kill me, it hasn't succeeded yet.

The photo isn't labeled, so I don't know when it was taken or the name of the film being shot.  My guess sometime in the late 30's or early 40's -- but other than that absurdly humongous camera, things really aren't that much different on set nowadays. Cables and paper still litter the stage floor while the crew stands or sits, quietly fighting the endless boredom and fatigue while waiting, waiting, and waiting for the cry of "Cut!"  

The struggle to maintain one's focus and keep a good attitude on set over the course of a long day remains eternal, forming a through-line of continuity from the earliest days of the industry right up to today. The only real difference is the lack modern technology -- there were no walkie-talkies and cell phones back then, and although we've come to depend on such digital baubles, I'm not sure they've actually improved things on set. In Hollywood and elsewhere, change usually comes as a zero-sum equation, with whatever is gained coming at the cost of a loss somewhere else.

Looking at this photo, I can't help but wonder what the scene on set will be like forty or fifty years from now, when I'll be long dead and gone, just like the people in this photo.  

I'll never know -- that's for me to wonder, and you (the young ones, anyway) to find out.

Meanwhile, we soldier on, week by bloody week, marching towards Christmas...

* It's also in danger of being torn down sometime next year. The private equity company that owns the property plans to cash in on the construction boom that's currently turning much of Hollywood upside-down.  If and when that happens, we'll lose yet another link to our past.

**  You can bet OSHA and the Motion Picture Safety Passport people would not be pleased by that nowadays...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 29

Terminology -- a few more loose ends
                   Reminder note above the Best Boy's desk

(For reasons I don't quite understand, this post went up on the blog for a couple of hours, along with JFTHOI #28 -- undoubtedly due to an error on my part. Since it was then a work in progress -- a first draft, really -- I pulled it down to finish the damned thing before putting it up for real.)

The subject of industry terminology keeps popping up on my radar, the most recent sighting  being a book called Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde, which should prove useful for industry newbies befuddled by the on-set vernacular of Hollywood. Mind you, I haven't read the entire book, nor am I likely to -- after nearly four decades in the biz, I'm familiar with the lingo below-the-line -- but flipping through the preview pages on Amazon revealed a reasonably thorough (if rather glib) approach to defining the terms I've learned on set over the years, including a few I hadn't heard.*  The book was originally published in 2005, but it appears that Dave Knox updated the current edition. 

I have some quibbles with his definitions, though. Knox claims that a "blonde" is the same thing as a "mighty" -- and although the two lamps employ the same globe and are often used for the same purpose on set, that's where the similarities end.**  Early in my career, more than one DP yelled at me for bringing a blonde when he'd asked for a mighty, so it seems to me that if you're writing a book defining industry terminology, you'd better make sure your definitions are precise.    

Knox wanders into deeper water with an astonishingly lame definition of "auteur theory": 

"French film critics in the 1950s and 1960s, centered on the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, started studying a directors entire body of work and drawing conclusions on the person based on their findings. For instance, Spielberg... likes aliens but is afraid of sharks... something like that."

Wow. I suppose that's meant to be humorous, but it falls flatter than stale tortilla. Humor only works if it's actually funny -- and for that "definition" to have any shot at being funny, the reader would have to know something about auteur theory in the first place… which Dave Knox clearly does not. That makes this passage a lazy effort unworthy of a book meant to serve as a guide through the labyrinth of industry jargon. The saving grace here is that "auteur theory" has no real meaning beyond the over-caffeinated world of film school and the grim academic dungeon of serious film criticism -- and has nothing whatsoever to do with working on set -- so I guess it's a case of no harm, no foul. 

Still, Knox would have done better -- and produced a more useful book -- by sticking to what he actually knows, and failing that, should have done more thorough research before committing his work to a finished book. Google really isn't that hard to find.

From what I saw of the Amazon preview, his book offers a breezy, informative read for anybody new to the film and television industry, or who's thinking about making a career below-the-line. Learning the language of the industry is all part of becoming a pro, and if Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde is an imperfect guide, it's a lot better than nothing for the newbie desperate to find his/her footing in the biz.

For what it's worth, here's the official blurb:

"Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a gaffer and a grip? Or what makes the best boy so great? In Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde,* Dave Knox, a top camera operator and longtime veteran of the film industry, gives you the inside story on the lingo and slang heard on the set. This is an A-to-Z guide to making a movie: the equipment, the crew, and the sometimes hilarious terminology—everything you need to know to sound like a seasoned pro.”

That last line overstates the case. Although knowing the jargon is a good first step, we've all met newbies who could talk the talk but not walk the walk -- and they weren't fooling anybody. Sounding "like a seasoned pro" won't mean anything unless and until you know what the equipment is and how it should be used.  Only then will you be taken seriously on set.

I don't mean to be harsh on Dave Knox or Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde, which looks like a useful book for any industry newbie or wannabe. Just remember to take it with a grain of salt, and not as the final-word gospel truth.

* Every region -- from Hollywood to New York and the Southeast nexus of New Orleans, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida -- has it's own local variations on industry vernacular. 

** A Blonde is a rather flimsy open-face 2000 watt lamp made by Ianero in Italy, while a "Mighty" refers to the Mole Richardson Mighty Mole, a similar, but much sturdier lamp. Not even a blind person could mistake one for the other.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mistaken Identity, Again...

Note:  due to another wave of hits from, I've slightly re-written and am re-posting this, which originally went up back in 2011.

"Let me make one thing perfectly clear..."
(Photo courtesy of Flavorwire)

While perusing the user statistics for this blog, I noticed a recent series of hits from a site called “, the online community for film making." Following the comment thread back to a question about building a pipe grid for lighting on stage led me to the source of those hits, a link from a DVX member named “Slondon” embellished with the following comment:

“This blog is a wonderful read and she has links to a bazillion photos she's taken, many inside studios and sound stages.”

Although I appreciate such kind words, particularly when coupled with a link to BS&T, it’s abundantly clear that they were not aimed at me. Yes, the URL is mine, but let me make one thing perfectly clear --  although I’ve been accused of many things over the long roller coaster ride of my Hollywooden career, being a “she” is not among them. I'm not particularly proud of being a guy (having been born that way, I had no say in the matter), but it is what it is and I am what I am.

And that, my fellow Americans, is a he.

Slondon seems to have confused this blog with that of the wonderful Peggy Archer over at Totally Unauthorized – a terrific writer/juicer who is most definitely a she, and does indeed “link to a bazillion photos... many inside studios and sound stages.”

Any DVXUser readers who follow Slondon's link here and are puzzled by what they find should click on over to Peggy's blog, where the writing and stories are as good as the photos.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 28

Loose Ends

                   Green beds with high braces

(Note: this week's JFTHOI ties up a couple of loose ends with items that hit my radar screen too late to make the previous posts)

While perusing the internal traffic statistics of this space a while back -- something I do when the blank screen paralyzes my brain -- I came across one reader's search titled "how to make a high-brace?"

As pointed out in a recent post describing my brief life as a grip back in the day, high-braces are used to stabilize green beds hung above sets on a sound stage. Absent those braces, the interconnected web of green beds would sway like a ship at sea everytime a juicer or grip climbed around up there trying to do some work.

From what I've seen, not much has changed since the early 80's when I was making and hanging high-braces at Warner Brothers. Back then, the ground crew would butt two 20 foot two-by-fours together, then lay another, shorter two-by-four (called a "scab") down to overlap  both 20 footers -- then they'd nail all three pieces together with 16 penny double-head nails. Two quarter-inch "belly-lines" were then tied to the center of the completed high brace.  A grip up high in the perms and another on the green beds dropped their hand lines, which the floor crew tied to opposite ends of the brace. 

A forty-year veteran of the grip life was kind enough to refresh my memory in explaining what happened next: 

"The high man pulled the entire high brace up into the perms by himself. Once it was up and against a perm, he would then signal the low man to pull his end of the brace to the green bed. If they both pulled the brace at the same time, the brace would get sqirrelly and make it unsafe for the man up in the perms." *

When both ends of the high-brace were securely nailed in place, the high man (or other grips up high) would toss out hand lines to pull up and tie off both of the belly-lines nice and tight -- one on either side -- where they kept the brace from bending under stress. After all the braces were in place and belly-lines tied off, the network of green beds over the set was  stable and safe, ready for use as a platform for lighting, grip, special effects, and sound.

Remember -- back then there were no safety harnesses or fall protection for grips. They worked out on the perms with no safety equipment whatsoever, where one serious mistake could result in a horrendous thirty to forty foot fall. During the time I worked as a studio rigging grip, full union scale was less than nine dollars an hour -- not a lot for risking your life every day.

But that was a very different time.

* Thanks, Kirk!  We used nails back in the day, and although it's possible grips nowadays use screw-guns instead, I doubt it.  Drywall screws are very brittle and break relatively easily under stress.  Under the same load, a double-head 16 nail might bend, but it won't break.


                                   Peak Television?

In other news, a brouhaha (love that word) seems to have erupted among critics and observers of our culture's favorite visual medium as to whether or not we're currently enjoying a Second Golden Age of Television.  The case for "Peak Television" -- a concept floated by FX head John Landgraf at the recent Television Critics Association gathering here in LA, then repeated on KCRW's The Business recently -- was seconded by Tim Goodman, chief TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter. Goodman went even further, declaring that we're in a Platinum Age of television, and expressing his view that the current output of quality on the Toob has created expectations that can't possibly be sustained.  
LA Time's critic Mary McNamara then weighed in: 
"To be honest, much of the anxiety you feel is, I fear, being generated by those of us who write about television. That's right, this time, you can blame the media because we are most certainly freaking out. Too much TV? Hell, yes."

That makes sense when you consider that -- unlike those who make and/or simply watch television -- a TV critic's job is to watch as much television as possible, then write about it.  A critic has to see something of everything, then come up with a cogent, snappy review -- and that's not easy. It was a lot easier twenty years ago, when the kickoff of the new Fall season was the busy time for critics, as dozens of new and returning shows hit the airwaves all at once -- but after the September/October rush was over, a critic's life would settle back into a much more relaxed pace. In today's year-round television environment, new shows arriving from somewhere (Netflix, Amazon, several cable networks, and soon Apple) are pounding on the door every month, each demanding its fifteen minutes in the media's critical spotlight.  Unfortunately for TV critics, some of those shows are actually worth watching, and thus deserving of thoughtful, nuanced reviews.

Which means the job of a TV critic these days has come to resemble the labors of Sisyphus.
Enter Gavin Polone, one-time agent turned producer and occasional director, who threw down on all those critics with his argument that "Television's golden age is one big hallucination" -- that there really aren't more good shows now, but rather the same level of quality programming floating atop a vastly larger swamp of mediocre shows.* 
"Designating which shows are exceptional is subjective. But it is evident that the total number of outstanding shows on the air at one time hasn't increased in decades, while the quantity of mediocre and bad television has exploded. The reason for this is that the number of talented people who write, direct, produce and act on TV also has remained about the same. It's the nature of excellence: By definition, only very few from any category of endeavor are exceptional today, the best talent working in television is spread out more thinly over a larger number of shows, bringing down the overall average level of goodness."
Polone blames the huge increase in shows that began with the proliferation of cable networks, then accelerated with the entrance of Netflix, Amazon, and other media entities previously known for hardware and distribution of television rather than production. He maintains that a shakeout at some point is inevitable, after which the flood of good television will slow markedly.   
Polone isn't altogether wrong, but the examples he uses to compare eras seriously undercut his argument. I find it hard to believe that he -- or anyone, really -- could possibly consider "The Mod SquadThe WaltonsThe Brady BunchThe Partridge Family, and Room 222" to be comparable to "The Sopranos," "The Wire," or "Breaking Bad." Still, his conclusion that a shakeout is coming makes a certain sense. 
"The result will be fewer but better television series, more room on your DVR and less time wasted waiting to see if that show your friend recommended will get any better after episode four. Because with TV, often getting less will give you more."
On that much, at least, there seems to be agreement -- the current overloaded center cannot hold on either the production or consumption end of the deal, which means change is gonna come. Veteran writer/producer Rob Long added his voice to the cacophony, arguing that there's no reason to worry about any of this because it'll all work out over time.  
Hardly a profound thought, that, but he's probably right. Just as the balance between predators and prey holds over the long run in the natural world -- with wild swings involving maximum carnage from one year to the next  -- the current glut of good television isn't an actual problem. Hollywood is in California, a state that came to national prominence with the Gold Rush in the 19th Century, then enjoyed the post-World War Two boom of the aerospace industry, the Tech Bubble of the late 20th Century, and the current New Millennium digital gold rush, and thus has always ridden the wild horse of a boom-and-bust economy. It's the nature of the beast. The current boom in television will be followed by some kind of bust as surely as night follows day -- the only question is when and how what form that bust will take.  
For the rest of us -- those who do the heavy lifting required to actually make all these shows -- this argument is a bit like discussing how many angels really can dance on the head of a pin. Like tiny fleas riding the back of the industry elephant, we just have to take what comes, helpless to steer the great beast. All we can do is keep our eyes open, hope for the best, and be ready to scramble come what may.   
In other words, it's Hollywood -- same as it ever was -- Peak TV or not Peak TV.

* Polone often comes across as a prickly, highly-opinionated guy, and thus easy to dismiss, but he won me over a few years back with his condemnation of the brutally long hours so many crews have to work on set.  I don't know that he's actually bothered to do anything about it -- and a producer often has that power -- but at least he was willing to publicly acknowledge the problem. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Brief Hiatus

                       Photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Partisan

It's that time of year again: the major league baseball playoffs.  Some people like to watch the brain-crushing, body-rending meat grinder of football, the syncopated, arhythmic gymnastics of basketball, or the endless running, kicking, and chasing the ball of soccer -- and many sports fans like all three.

Me, I like baseball, which makes this a very special time of year as the playoff elimination rounds build towards the World Series. It's baseball's time to shine in the spotlight.

So what does this have to do with the film and television industry, or life below-the-line?

Nothing, other than the unfortunate reality that work will prevent me from watching many of the more compelling playoff games. That's the trouble with toiling in the salt mines of television, where the season is going full steam by the time the baseball playoffs arrive.* So when at work, I'll be working -- and at home, I'll be glued to the TV or tuned to internet radio following the games… which won't leave much time for posting here. I might throw together an occasional JFTHOI post, but that's about it. Besides, it's been too fucking hot here in LA lately, and I can't work up much enthusiasm for sitting at this keyboard with sweat running down my face. 

So I won't.  

Given that my team is out of it this year, I'm pulling for the perennial-loser Chicago Cubs to finally get to -- and win -- the World Series. History weighs against this actually happening, of course, but carving out the future baseball history is what the playoffs are all about.

I'll be back in November once the issue has been decided, and a new team stands atop the baseball world -- and maybe by then we'll be done melting under high-90's temperatures here in LA.  

Meanwhile, go Cubs!  

* Next year at this time -- inshallah -- I'll be watching the 2016 playoffs back on the Home Planet, uninterrupted by the demands of work, my time in Hollywood just a memory...