Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Making it Work

                             You do whatever it takes to get the shot...
                                    (photo courtesy of Mike Murray)

Fresh out of college forty-plus years ago, I agreed to help a former classmate who was about to produce, direct, and edit a short film he hoped would win him entrance to the American Film Institute. As the premier post-graduate film school on the West Coast, a degree from the AFI was -- and probably still is -- a direct conduit to a Hollywood career.* 

A twenty minute drama filmed in 16 mm color with sync-sound and amateur actors is hard enough to make under the best of circumstances, but even harder if you have to plead for help and scramble for every penny. My friend needed all of his considerable ambition and drive, because he had to beg and borrow from many sources to get his film done -- but he pulled it off. When the editing was done, he paid for and supervised a thoroughly professional sound mix, struck a couple of prints, then held a public screening to thank all those who helped or contributed to his project in any way. He reimbursed the camera rental house for the 12-to-120mm zoom lens we dropped on the rocks of the Santa Cruz Harbor breakwater one very bad day, and eventually paid back those who lent him money to make his film.

He was indeed an honorable young man.

Unfortunately, ambition, drive and honor couldn't overcome our limited knowledge and lack of cinematic sophistication at the time. The end result of all his effort was a sincere but deeply flawed film that failed to punch his ticket to the AFI... but the experience of making it taught us all valuable lessons about the reality of filmmaking.** Although I didn't know it at the time, those two or three weeks of chaos, confusion and unfulfilled ambition would turn out to be excellent preparation for what awaited me in the SNAFU world of non-union, low budget feature films in Hollywood. 

More importantly, I learned that solving problems on the fly -- making it work with what you have -- is a blast.

My first lesson in this came while we were preparing to film a drive-by, panning with the picture car as it came down a road and rounded a corner -- a simple shot complicated by the car moving from full, hard sunlight into deep shade at its closest approach to the camera. Our film stock didn't have the latitude to deal with such a stark contrast, and with no big lights, generators, or reflectors, we had no means of brightening the shadows. We could expose for sunlight, then lose the car in the dark shade, or expose for shade and leave the beginning of the shot looking as if it had been filmed under the glare of a nuclear blast somewhere in the  barren wastelands of Death Valley. 

The other option was for the director to pick a different stretch of road, but he was reluctant to compromise.

Just as it seemed we'd reached yet another impasse, I had an idea: we could expose for hard sunlight, then try an "F-stop pull," opening the iris as the car entered the shadows and swept by the camera, which in theory could allow the film to be more-or-less properly exposed throughout the entire shot. But since none of us had tried it before, we had no idea if it would actually work -- and there was a good chance it would look really lame.

With no other choice, we gave it a try -- and being my idea, I got the task of handling the iris. We did two takes, and although both seemed to go pretty well, we wouldn't know for sure until the film had been processed and printed, so we just moved on to the next shot.  

The cast and crew gathered a few days later to screen the rushes in a darkened living room, where we held our collective breaths when that drive-by shot came up, watching as the car moved from sunlight into shadow... perfectly exposed. The F-stop pull worked like a dream, allowing the entire shot to look good. It was like magic -- and all these years later, I still remember the elation of that moment.

Hey, problem solving is fun.

I wasn't on the job with that 18K-on-a-dolly rig in the photo above, and don't know why the shot required such a big moving lamp or what lighting problem it addressed, but that doesn't matter. It's just another example of the fun aspect of working below-the-line in the film and television industry: coming up with a way to get the shot.

Problem solving -- making it work -- is very satisfying when you've got the budget to get whatever equipment you need. It's always great to have the proper gear, which allows you to get the desired shot faster and safer than might otherwise be possible. But we don't always enjoy working with a fat budget, and even when we do -- especially on a distant location -- directors have a way of coming up with a new idea for a shot that demands on-the-spot improvisation. 

Without the specialized equipment that would make it easy, the question becomes "Can we make it work with what we've got?"


Film crews get paid to say "Yes" -- to make it happen -- and that's where the Gaffer and Key Grip earn their money. It's also where they have fun, because making it work with whatever's at hand really scratches that creative itch. That's one reason I like Shitty Rigs, which demonstrates how crews from all over come up with improvisational solutions to on-set problems using whatever they could find. Granted, some of those solutions broach the line between sketchy and dangerous -- and you really do have to think twice before crossing that line -- but in a situation where there's no other way (and assuming everybody on the crew is fully aware of what's going on and kept clear of any danger), it's a case of no harm, no foul.  

Talk to any industry veteran for a while and you'll learn that creativity on set is not limited to the writers and directors. Our work below-the-line can be endlessly repetitious for very long hours, but situations arise that fully engage our collective resources and ability to think creatively in solving the problem.

 That's when it stops being "work" and starts being fun.

* And speaking of fun -- there doesn't seem to be much of that at the AFI nowadays

** Among those lessons, that truly bad acting will kill you every time.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Writing Game

       "Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."
              Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

People come to Hollywood to tilt at the windmills of the film and television industry for a variety of reasons: to act, direct, produce, or write. There are also those who come to carve out a career below-the-line (me among them), but that subject has already been covered here.

I make a point of asking the PAs on my shows what their goals are in this industry, and the vast majority respond that they want to write for movies and/or television.* That's no surprise. Writing requires very little physical exertion -- no heavy lifting, no toiling in the hot sun all day or freezing rain at night -- and if professional success is achieved, the money can be very good indeed. As an added plus, those who write for television get to work in a Writer's Room full of very smart, very clever, very funny people, and are fed pretty damned well every working day.  

What's not to like about that?

The downside is they often end up working very late nights all season long to come up with two intertwining plot lines and a tag laden with laughs for each episode -- a new one every week -- all the while swimming upstream against an endless flow of "network notes" from non-writer network executives who often don't have a fucking clue.

That's no easy task. Believe me, those who write for television earn their money.

While I admire the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism that keeps the dream alive for so many young wannabes, I'm not sure they understand just how high the odds are against making it in Hollywood… and this is where that quote from Colson Whitehead at the top of this page comes in, because if those kids knew how steep and rocky the road to success as a writer really is, most would drop to their knees in despair.

Exhibit A -- the slush pile in the photo above, which displays a portion of the scripts a certain agency accepted for consideration, the overwhelming majority of which are doomed to wind up in the recycling bin. 

But none of that bothers the kids, thanks to an impenetrable bubble of youthful enthusiasm and ignorance that generates a state of bliss that makes all things seem possible. And really, why the hell not? After all, you'll never succeed at anything unless and until you try, and you're not going to do so if someone has convinced you that there's really no chance of success.  

That's one reason young people shouldn't listen to grumpy old geezers who delight in reciting a litany of things the kids can't do and shouldn't even try simply because it's too damned hard. Of course it's hard -- most of the things worth doing in life are hard. As the Anonymous Production Assistant pointed out in a recent post, a little ambition is a good thing in this town. Aim high and you just might hit your target, but even if the arrow falls short, something good is more likely to happen.

Still, those who actually nail the bullseye are a fortunate few. Wanting to be a paid professional writer in Hollywood is a lot like trying to become a major league baseball player -- thousands of superior athletes chase that elusive goal every year, but only a handful make it. Most would-be writers will be lucky to have any of their scripts land in one of those giant slush piles, never to be seen again. Then there are the writers who succeed at making a living writing and selling scripts that never get made into movies. I can only imagine the very special form of Zen mastery required to maintain one's internal guidance and emotional balance in that situation.

I know a few people who've been beating their heads against the brick wall of screenwriting for a while -- people smart enough to keep their industry day jobs, but talented enough that their scripts continue to open doors for meeting after meeting with serious network and feature development executives. Thus far -- and we're talking years, now -- none of those meetings has landed a sale.  

"Wonderful writing, love your script, we'll be in touch," the smiling faces say. Hands are shaken, backs are slapped, and then…nothing.  

I really feel for these people, who keep working at honing their scripts all the while enduring one disappointment after another. For whatever reason, they haven't yet managed to connect, but nor have they folded their tents. They're still trying. 

The fickle nature of Hollywood holds the tantalizing prospect that it could happen tomorrow, of course, which would turn this entire lugubrious narrative around on a dime -- and I really hope it does, because they sure as hell deserve some reward for all their hard work.

But that might never happen. Hollywood truly is a town without pity, one that has been crushing dreams for a hundred years now.  

Over the five seasons on my last good show, I made an effort to get to know some of the writers -- not from any desire to write scripts myself, but simply to find out who they were, what makes them tick, and how they made it.** Besides, I like writers, who tend to be smart, interesting people. A few resisted, suspicious as to why some  toolbelt-wearing Morlock was violating the unwritten upstairs/downstairs dynamic on set by chatting them up, but most were friendly and open, including one who eventually became the head writer. Our encounters were fleeting -- we on the crew usually come on stage to do our work as the writers are heading back to the Writer's Room to resume theirs -- but at a post-show party that final season, I finally got a chance to ask how she got started as a professional writer.

While still a struggling young wannabe, she managed to land a spot in a Warner Brothers program that put her in the Writer's Room of a multi-camera sitcom, where she was paid a modest stipend to work with the staff writers on the weekly scripts. At the end of the program, the show had an option to hire her or let her go... and they opted for the latter.

Still, the show runner said she could stay on for two more weeks -- absent the stipend -- to keep plugging away. That's what she did. The show then brought in a "punch-up" writer for some ungodly sum ($15,000/week, as I recall) to help the staffers juice up the script, and she noticed that most of his very expensive ideas were things she'd thought of earlier, but was reluctant to voice. With time running out on this precious opportunity, she shed that reticence, then unfolded her wings and began to fly, speaking up whenever she had an idea that might help the script.

Apparently she came up with a lot of good ideas, because at the end of her second and final week, she was hired as a staff writer.  

Like most feel-good success stories, this one comes with a lesson: don't be shy, don't make a half-assed effort, and never be afraid to show them all you've got. If you want to be a writer, go for it.  Holding back only cheats yourself. Whoever and whatever you're auditioning for, give 'em the Full Monty, and they just might buy it.

Or not. Let's face it, writing for money is a crapshoot all the way. If nothing else works, you can always follow Rob Long's advice from a recent Martini Shot commentary, which might cut way down on your workload at the keyboard. This cut-paste-and-reverse tactic worked (sort of***) for the writers of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, and was employed by the writers of Oceans Eight, which holds the promise of being yet another lamentably derivative, highly unoriginal, and creatively barren ripoff of Oceans Eleven -- itself a modern redo of an older film.

That's the way it is in this era of gazillion-dollar tentpole franchise features, where originality is scorned and the rare good idea invariably begets a series of progressively worse sequels. The feature world is for the most part a wasteland these days, each new putative "blockbuster" bigger, noisier, and flashier than the last -- movies that are, as The Bard wrote on a very different subject: "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

But hey, it's a living -- that much, I understand -- and the paychecks those writers collect are a lot bigger than mine.

So to all you wannabe screenwriters out there, nurture those "useful delusions" as long as you can. You'll need them.

And good luck, because you're going to need a lot of that too...  

* For what it's worth, here's a previous post about writers

** I like to write, and love to read good writing, but screenwriting has never interested me. Go figure.

*** "Worked" in that they got paid to write the script -- but since the movie bombed, they won't get paid to write any sequels, so maybe it didn't work so well after all...

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Last Tango in Hollywood

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need."
The Rolling Stones

After six weeks of gainful unemployment, the alarm at 4:30 in the morning comes as a rude awakening -- literally -- especially for somebody who absolutely hates to get up early.  

That would be me.

I'm fine once the sleep has drained from my head -- the world at that hour a dark, peaceful place quietly awaiting the dawn -- but transitioning from the dreamspace of O-Dark-Thirty to the physical realm is brutal. If I'm lucky, I'll awaken moments before that alarm blares, but more often it wrenches me from the warm embrace of Morpheus into a dizzy state of WTF? confusion.

With the long-awaited mid-summer frenzy to get the new fall TV season up and running finally upon us, arising before the crack of dawn is now my workaday reality. I was sure the big rush would start a couple of weeks earlier, and thus had begun to wonder if maybe I’d been “retired” without even knowing it -- which can happen in a town where the no-mans land separating temporary from permanent unemployment remains as unfathomably mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle. So long as you’re working or have a firm promise of work, you’re good, but when the phone just…won't…ring, a guy starts to wonder.*

Thus I was very glad to receive a call to help a new show get airborne back on my home lot, even if it meant setting the alarm for 4:30.** It’s just a temporary gig -- I’m not on the core crew -- but there’s a chance they’ll put me on as their regular "extra guy" as the show marches through their thirteen scheduled episodes on the road to Thanksgiving. That could mean anywhere from one to four days a week, depending on how many swing sets the writers decide they need to generate some laughs.

If this isn't exactly what I wanted, it just might be what I need for my Last Tango in Hollywood. But if I don't get that extra-man gig, or it turns out to be only one day a week… well, I'll drive off that bridge when I come to it. There are no rules for this tango, which means I'll dance as fast or slow as is necessary to make things work.

It was good to be back on the lot. There's an energy in a new season that feels a bit like spring training in baseball, when hope is in the air and anything seems possible -- each new show holding the potential to catch fire and run for a hundred episodes. Five-ton trucks were everywhere, offloading sets, set dressing, greens, cameras, peds, dollies, and sound gear. Forklifts buzzed back and forth, bringing heavy loads of lighting and grip equipment to the stages. The intermittent rumble of air compressors filled the air, punctuated by the staccato beat of nail-guns and the high-pitched scream of chop saws ripping through wood, all of it blending with ever-present reek of diesel exhaust to form a dense, chaotic sensory stew. Familiar faces were everywhere, all of them grinning, happy to be here.

Me too. It felt like coming home. 

The first week and a half on a show is a special time. With no actors, producers, or directors around yet -- just the construction crew, set dec department, grips and juicers -- the stage is ours.  We work through each day at our own pace, bobbing and weaving through the sets to the beat of several boom-boxes. The various departments continually bump into each other, everybody in each others way, but we make it work. Despite the crowding, everybody's still grinning.  

Given that we're working on an air-conditioned sound stage, getting paid full scale, and not getting our asses kicked, there isn't much not to like. The only thing better for me would be to sign on as a member of the core crew, but that's not in the cards this time around.

We go at it all week, hanging, powering, and adjusting lights, following the old familiar rhythms: two hours of work, then "coffee," followed by three hours of work before breaking for lunch, after which we're back at it until quitting time. Getting up so early every morning means going to bed early each night, and soon each day begins to blend into the next -- lather, rinse, repeat. Before I know it, Friday is here, my final day helping this crew get their show off the ground.

Towards the end of the day, the gaffer asked me to move a couple of big studio 5 Ks that had been hung and powered early in the week. Since then, the construction department moved a very large set piece at the request of the director/producer, so now both lamps were in the wrong place to do their job. Trouble is, many more lamps, meataxes, flags, and teasers had been rigged along those pipes before the set piece was moved, which made the job of getting up to those 5 Ks a real challenge. It took several minutes of very careful maneuvering -- inching the lift forward, then up, again and again -- to avoid banging into any set walls or lighting equipment while getting the bucket close enough to reach the first lamp. At that point I still had to stand up on the top rails of the lift to get the job done.*** With another steel pipe in the way, I couldn't just loosen the clamp and slide the lamp to it's new position -- instead, I'd have to "jump the pipe," which meant loosening the pipe clamp all the way, taking the fifty-plus pound lamp up and off the pipe, bringing it under the cross pipe, then lifting it back up and onto the correct pipe and sliding it into place.

If I had unfettered access to the lamp, this job would have been a breeze -- instead, I was perched on the top rail, leaning forward as far as possible in a decidedly precarious position.  A mistake here could drop and destroy that big lamp, seriously damaging the set in the process, which would make this the last day I'd ever work on the show.

Still, I was happy for this assignment. Doing a tricky job that demands total concentration feeds the beast within, scratching a psychological itch that would otherwise go unattended. When fully engaged in such a task, the rest of the world and its troubles vanishes -- all that matters is what's right in front of me: getting this job done right, with no drama. 

For reasons I can't really explain, that satisfies in a way nothing else can.

That's a Studio 5 K on the left -- the juicer's head provides an idea how big the lamp is

I moved the cable safeties so they couldn't impede the jump, but still offer some security if something went wrong.  After running a rope over the pipe, I tied it to the lamp, then dropped the other end to the Best Boy on the stage floor. When he was ready to take the weight, I loosened the pipe clamp, lifted the lamp off the pipe, pulled the lamp under, then -- with the help of the Best Boy and that rope -- raised it back up and onto the pipe. With the clamp still loose (but not so loose it could come off the pipe), I untied and released the rope, then slid the lamp to its new position and securely tightened the clamp with my C-wrench.  

One down, one to go.

The second lamp also had to be jumped, but was much easier to reach. Unfortunately, it had been rigged with a bad hook: a crappy pipe clamp that's flat instead of curved inside -- a toothed angle that keeps the lamp on the pipe until the clamp is securely tightened. A lamp this heavy should never be hung from a bad hook, but apparently somebody wasn't paying attention when they put it up.

There's no finger pointing -- I'm not throwing anybody under the bus -- but I let the Best Boy know that he should weed out those bad clamps and send them back to the lamp dock. He tossed me a good one, then I ran the rope over the pipe again and tied off the lamp. With the Best Boy gone off to put out a fire elsewhere on the stage, I tied the the rope off to the lift.

That's another official no-no from the Safety Patrol, but part of knowing the rules is understanding when and how to break them.

I climbed atop the rails again, loosened the clamp and lifted the lamp off, letting it dangle by the rope while I pulled the bad clamp off and installed the good one. With that done, I threw one arm over the pipe, and used both hands (and most of my strength) to lift the lamp back up to the correct side of the cross pipe. After sliding it into position, I tightened the clamp, then re-powered and aimed the lamp. The task accomplished, I untied the rope and brought the lift down, my part in helping get this show up and running officially over.

It's been fun, but exhausting, and I'm looking forward to sleeping in for a few days. The next time I walk onto this stage -- if I do -- it will be as an eight-hour day-player putting my shoulder to the wheel of a working show. And although that's not what I was hoping for, it's the best I can hope for under the circumstances.

I guess it'll just have to do.

* Not that there's any such thing as a "firm promise of work" in this town, of course -- such promises usually aren't worth the paper they're not printed on

** As luck would have it, back on the very same stage I helped wrap a six weeks ago -- and where I spent several seasons filming this show

*** Standing on the rails is strictly illegal at every major lot. This particular studio threatens to fire anybody caught doing so and ban them from working on the lot.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Summer Re-Runs

With several posts in the works, but none quite ready, today's offering is a re-run from 2013, slightly updated a bit to be more comprehensive.

Hey, it's summer, and those of you of a certain age might remember that summertime was when the three major networks had nothing new to offer, so they ran old shows from the previous season: re-runs. That meant we could pretty much ignore television from late spring until early fall, when the new season would commence.

Ours is a very different world these days, in which television refuses to be ignored. Cable and Internet networks are challenging the broadcast world in a big way, which is one reason the year 'round television season is with us now and forever. The sheer magnitude of production in this era of Peak Television is mind boggling, a tsunami of new shows hitting the beach at a frequency that has driven re-runs to the verge of extinction.

So let's just call this re-run an homage to the old days, motivated by a reader who wondered when I was going to do a post on the tools a juicer needs on set. It may not be of interest to anybody else, but what the hell. This one's for you, J.D.

                                        What to Carry?

                                      "Be prepared."

                                 The Boy Scout motto

This blog generally stays away from the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the job, but a few questions have come in lately from readers wondering what tools I carry on set, and how I carry them – in my back pocket, a small belt pouch, or a full-bore tool belt?

The answer is always the same:  it depends on the job.

During the dozen or so years I worked as a gaffer, all I carried was a light meter, a small optical/digital frequency meter,* and a pair of gloves.  As a Best Boy, those same gloves dangled from my belt and a “Wiggy” lived in my back pocket.  The Wiggy (an earlier version of this model)  was a simple hand-held solenoid voltage tester that issued a mild vibration in contact with 120 volts AC, then buzzed like an angry rattlesnake when contacting 240.  Although it was capable of reading up to 600 volts, I never had reason to get close to such high voltage.**  That basic meter (no batteries were needed) could also read DC, albeit crudely -- the readout was the same, but the unit didn't vibrate at all on direct current -- allowing me to determine at a glance whether the line was running 120 or 240 DC.

The beauty of this ugly little beast was its simplicity and durability – in a pinch, I occasionally used mine as a hammer with no apparent effect on its functionality.  It was common in those days to use concurrent generators capable of producing AC and DC at the same time -- 120 AC for wardrobe, makeup/ hair, craft service, and any small HMI’s or tungsten units, 240 AC for 6K HMIs (the largest HMI lamps available back then), and 120 volt DC for carbon arcs, the BFLs of that era.  This is where the ability of that Wiggy to quickly read the various cable runs for the right AC or DC power really paid off.  With the typically short cable runs used on commercial shoots, I could monitor the precise voltage using the generator's meters without fretting about line loss – and for longer runs, I kept a multi-tester in my work bag to read the end voltage at the set.

With three different voltages to worry about, a Wiggy was all I needed to make sure the proper power was run where it needed to go before plugging anything in. Of course, this depended on me doing everything right. In the over-caffeinated rush to get the first setup underway in the morning, mistakes were an ever-present danger -- and they could be expensive

In time, the big carbon arcs were supplanted by 12K, then 18K HMIs, and DC pretty much disappeared. The new HMI lamps were much more sensitive to voltage levels than those old arc lights, demanding more accurate metering than my stone-age Wiggy could deliver -- but I still have one in the bottom of my work bag, just in case.  

So what do I carry on set as a juicer in these modern times?

The idea is to carry everything I’ll need, and nothing more. The basic work bag goes with me on every job -- as the Mother Ship, it holds all my work equipment, allowing me to pick and choose what I’ll need to carry on my belt for each particular gig.  If I’m rigging, all I need are gloves, a crescent and T wrench (for hooking up lugs to bus bars on gennies, sleds, and spider boxes), and a knife or pair of dykes for cutting hanks of tie-off rope.  If the rig only involves cam-loc cable and distro, (meaning no lugs, bus bars, or spider boxes), the gloves and dykes are usually enough. If we'll be breaking down equipment for a stage wrap, I'll add a small pair of channel lock pliers to deal with cotter and hitch pins, and a six-inch crescent wrench to pull pipe clamps off the lamps. For all rigging and wrapping, I prefer Easy Fit gloves from Set Wear, which are made of a fabric strong enough to protect my fingers and hands, but thin enough to allow me to tie and untie sash cord without too much cursing.

They don't last too long -- a month of regular use, at most -- but they're cheap, so I usually buy three pairs at a time.

When on location working with an HMI package, a good pair of sturdy leather gloves (definitely not Easy Fits) accompany a small but accurate volt meter, a 4-way screwdriver, a small razor knife, a T wrench, and the channel locks.  That's the bare minimum.  If it's a night shoot or indoor location using a tungsten package, I add a flashlight, dykes (or "diagonal wire cutters," to use the politically-correct terminology) and a Bates pin-splitter.  On stage, a six inch adjustable crescent wrench (for stirrup and pipe hangers) comes along for the ride, as well as a small homemade power tester utilizing a tiny 4 watt incandescent bulb for sussing out power problems.  Those cute little neon testers will light up with "ghost voltage" even when a dimmer circuit is all the way down, rendering them useless on stage.  A resistance load is required when working with dimmer circuits, which that little 4 watt bulb provides.  I also carry a small continuity light/buzzer for testing tungsten lamps 2K and under (with Edison plugs) then add a short pigtail made of a quick-on plug and zip cord for testing lamps with Bates connections.***

When lighting on stage or with a tungsten package at night, I always carry a continuity tester -- with a buzzer --  to check bulbs and/or lamp switches if a light isn't working.  I don't bother carrying a digital voltage tester on stage, were electricity is supplied by the studio using city power. Such a tester is rarely necessary there, and when it is, I've got one in the work bag. Besides, that's the Best Boy's job -- and Jesus H. Christ, the BB has to do something other than hoover up all the donuts at crafty and fill out the time cards once a week…

Judging what tools to carry is a balancing act, and only experience can teach you what is truly necessary on your crew. The trick is to avoid loading yourself down like a pack mule, while carrying enough so you won't get caught at the top of a 12 step ladder or 20 feet up in a man-lift without the one tool you need to diagnose a problem. I've worked with juicers who festoon themselves with every tool they could conceivably need -- guys who clank around the set like some post-apocalyptic combination of the Tin Man and the Road Warrior. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the juicer who breezes in with only a pair of gloves and a big smile -- then proceeds to borrow everybody else's tools all day long.

As far as I'm concerned, that kind of juicer is himself a tool, and not the kind I want on set.

In their desire to lighten the load, many juicers carry a Leatherman multi-tool rather than a crescent wrench, channel locks, and screwdriver. Personally, I don't like the Leatherman for on-set work -- there's one in the glove box of my car, but not on my tool belt. The Leatherman is a jack-of-all-trades tool that can perform many tasks, but none of them particularly well. I'd rather have the right tool for the job -- a tool that works -- and if that means carrying a little extra weight on my belt, so be it. This is all a matter of personal taste, of course. If you'd rather travel light with a Leatherman, more power to you -- but those things aren't insulated, so be careful. And when you finally realize that your fancy Leatherman isn't really worth a damn for juicing, you can borrow my channel locks or crescent wrench once -- after that, you'd better show up on set with your own tools.

As for how to carry tools, that too depends on what you're doing. I generally wear the same pouch/toolbelt combo on every gig, adding or subtracting tools as needed.  Given that I use a pair of construction suspenders with this belt, production people sometimes mistake me for a carpenter at first, but this rig works for me. Given my stovepipe hips, I'd have to cinch a standard tool belt extremely tight to keep it where it belongs -- and as geezerly as those suspenders are, they distribute the weight pretty well, and are much more comfortable over the course of a long day on set than a belt alone.

Besides, I really have reached the age of geezerdom, so why try to hide it?

When rigging or wrapping, I'll bring the whole tool belt to the set or location, then leave it nearby while carrying a pair of dykes (and crescent + T wrench if needed) in my back pocket. You don't want to be wearing a bulky tool belt when slinging 4/0, five-wire banded, or 100 amp Bates cable all day long, especially up high on stage.

In the final analysis, every juicer has his/her own ideas what tools to carry on the job, and no doubt many veterans out there will disagree with my choices.  But they work for me, and that's the point -- it's an individual decision, so whatever best serves your purposes and working style is the way to go.

One last word: in a business where time is money, it's better to carry one tool too many than be short the one you need. The bottom line is to get the job done in an efficient manner, so make your choices accordingly.****

*  All we had were magnetic ballasts in those days, which were not flicker-free.  The genny's output had to be kept within 1/2 of a cycle -- meaning the frequency had to remain between 59.75 and 60.25 hertz during filming.  If it wandered below or above that, the dreaded "flicker" could occur, which would show up in dailies as if the camera assistant had been opening and closing the iris while the camera was running.  Flicker meant disaster for the DP and Gaffer, which is why I paid $450 in 1988 money for a small meter that could read the generator's frequency output by pointing it at a burning HMI.  A few years later, the advent of flicker-free solid state ballasts rendered that meter obsolete.

**  This was decades before the big Softsun lamps arrived, the first lights I saw that required a 480 volt input.

***  If tasked with hooking up a few dozen practical fixtures, you might want to add a pair of wire strippers to your tool pouch.

****  I discovered a new (to me) and very useful tool last year -- a small telescoping cable puller that has made my life much easier when working in a man-lift hanging and powering lamps on a pipe grid.  With the soccapex breakouts often just out of reach, this nifty little tool allows me to hook up the lamps without moving the man-lift closer -- which is often impossible due to the sets being in the way -- and has thus spared me endless aggravation while lighting.  

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 36

                             Ah, the good old days…

Just to be clear -- I am NOT in this photo, which was taken well before I was born -- but it shows Hollywood as it was back in the days when men were men, women were women, and cameras were really, really big.

Nobody was going hand-held with that monster...

To be fair, much of the bulk came from the blimp encasing the camera to keep it quiet enough for the then-new technology of sound. Life on set got a lot more complicated for everybody when sound came in, forcing the movies back to a very static, visually boring style until much smaller, lighter, quieter cameras were perfected.

I did get to work with heavy-head carbon arcs exactly like the two pictured here, though -- a link to the past I'm glad I was able to experience.

It's interesting to note that most of the men in this photo are working shirtless, but wearing long pants.  I don't know if there was an actual dress code for location work at the time, but nowadays, you rarely see guys go shirtless -- and almost never will you see a juicer or grip wearing long pants on a hot day.

It's all shorts and T shirts now.


First up, another short commentary from Rob Long's Martini Shot, wherein he discusses the new generation's ongoing fascination -- and subsequent dissatisfaction -- with modern communications technology, and the frustration older people experience when dealing with a dismissive attitude from someone much younger who doesn't know nearly so much as he/she thinks he does.

It's a good one.


You might not see a connection between Mike Birbiglia (who I first discovered while listening to This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour) and the film/television industry. I didn't either, until hearing this interview, but it turns out he acted in a sitcom pilot long before turning to story-telling on The Moth. His stories there are terrific... which reminds me, if you've never tuned in to a Moth broadcast/podcast, you should. When it's good, it's great. Given that storytelling is the essence of television and movies -- and that so many young people want to get into an industry that's all about storytelling -- you just might learn something about the craft by listening to some really good stories.

Or maybe you just want to come to Hollywood for the money and "glamour," and in that case, good luck. You're gonna need it.

As it happens, Birbiglia has now directed a feature (his second, actually), and has a lot to say about the process -- among other things -- in the interview.  It's well worth your time.

Here's another good (and considerably shorter) interview with the late Garry Marshall. Although I drifted into the world of television much too late to work with Marshall, I've never heard a bad word about the man -- quite the opposite. Listen to that interview and you'll see why. Garry Marshall is happy to discuss his famous hit shows, but unlike most Hollywood legends, he's equally comfortable talking about his many flops -- thirteen, according to the man himself.

We've lost another good one.


Finally, the quote of the week -- this one from the keyboard of Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, in response to a reader's question about Dan Duryea:

"Dan Duryea (1907-1968) was one of the great noir actors, sleazy and slippery, opaque with self-satisfied malice and twinkling with inappropriate amusement. He's always a welcome addition -- slapping around Joan Bennett in "Scarlet Street," getting worked over by James Stewart in "Winchester '73"… and even playing a (sort of) good guy in the 1946 noir "Black Angel." Duryea was so good at being bad that he could only have been a nice person in real life, which they say he was."

Why that quote? For the wonderful first sentence, which absolutely nails the essence of Dan Duryea on screen.

That's it for this week.  Stay cool, my friends, as difficult as that is in the steamy cauldron of mid-summer…

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Parallax View

     And now for a boring old-guy harangue you'll doubtless ignore...

While working a long day on my home studio rigging crew several years ago, the conversation eventually meandered around to subject of age. When one of the young kids on our crew heard I was nearly 60, he slapped my back, a broad grin on his face.  

"You're almost out!" he said gleefully. "That's great!"

Well, yeah… but no. Under normal circumstances, the union allows a member to retire at age 62, but there's no point in doing so if you haven't yet accumulated enough working hours over your career to generate a decent monthly pension check -- unless you happen to be a trust-fund baby or have another fat source of income, neither of which are likely to be found among the ranks below-the-line. Anyone forced to rely solely on the tender mercies of Social Security in retirement runs the risk of spending their so-called "Golden Years" in a cardboard condo along the concrete banks of the LA River. And since I hadn't been on speaking terms with IATSE during my first fifteen years in Hollywood, I was nowhere near to qualifying for the union's full monthly retirement benefit.

I'm still not. That conversation took place more than five years ago, and although I've worked fairly steadily since then, I'd have to toil at that pace for seventeen more years to qualify for the maximum pension check -- and that, ladies and gentlemen, is out of the question.*

There comes a point of diminishing returns in every endeavor, and I'm almost there. 

That young juicer was a nice kid who meant well, but he got his union card at an early age with the help of his father, and already seemed to have assimilated his dad's attitude that reaching the end of a career is the true goal of every worker. 

I don't see it that way. Neither did Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: "Life is a journey, not a destination," and as Hallmark-Cards corny as that sounds, I think the same is true of a working career. The adventure -- the fun -- is in slogging through the rough and tumble joys and horrors of the daily grind with your co-workers, even if that can take a while to understand.  

The end of a working life is just that -- the end -- and will come soon enough. It also marks the beginning of your post-work life, of course, but being old enough to retire means being old, and from what I've experienced thus far, that pretty much sucks. Still, it's the only game still dealing me in, so I'll just have to play those cards as best I can until the Grim Reaper finally rakes in the chips and turns out the lights.

So why am I blathering on about all this, boring the crap out of anybody still reading -- and who hasn't yet clicked over to see the latest at Shitty Rigs?

To provide some perspective, that's all, a parallax view for those of you still on the upward climb of your Hollywood journey, along with a word of advice. 

Don't get overly obsessed with your goals. Goals are just a way to measure your progress as you march down the road of life.  So long as you keep trying, you'll probably achieve some of them over the course of time -- but if and when you do grasp that brass ring, there will likely be another dangling out there just beyond your reach. And should you manage to grab that one, yet another will materialize in the ether, shiny and gleaming in the golden light of the dying day.**  

There's no end to it… until the end. Then what? 

It's all too easy to succumb to career obsession in this fear-based freelance Hollywood life of perpetual insecurity. Striving to achieve your goals is an essential part of that equation, but it can't be the only thing. Don't forget to smell the proverbial roses along the way, because the people you meet, the friends you make, and the problems you solve together at work are all part of the tapestry of your life. They're some of the blessings enjoyed by those of us who work in the film and television industry.

Pursue your goals, get better at your job, make more money, and bask in the warm glow of whatever success comes your way... but be careful not to slide into the quicksand of being dissatisfied and unhappy unless and until you've achieved those goals. Nobody can afford to ignore the future, but you don't want to dwell on the not-yet at the expense of the here-and-now.  Take a good look around every now and then to appreciate all you have and how far you've come. Enjoy the journey as it unfolds, because before you know it, everything you take for granted -- the entire backdrop against which your life has unfolded -- will begin to slip away and vanish, including the people.

And once gone, they're gone for good.

Don't worry about it if none of this makes sense to you -- it probably wouldn't have made any sense to me  when I was in my twenties, either. Since the beginning of time, the old have tried to warn the young about what's coming, but it's the nature of the the young not to listen. I certainly didn't when the oldsters wagged their bony old fingers at me back in the day... but now I see it from the other side. 

Maybe that's just how it is, how it's supposed to be -- each generation learning the hard lessons their own way, at their own pace. 

All I can add is this: time is a deceptively slippery commodity. The years pile up at an alarming rate, and one of these days in that distant-but-closer-than-you-think future, you just might find a smiling young person congratulating you on being "almost out" -- at which point you may feel the urge to warn him or her to enjoy the journey, not the destination. 

Maybe that young person will listen, maybe not -- and maybe it doesn't matter one way or the other.  

I've been gradually coming to terms with the reality that the end of my own Hollywood journey is finally in sight, and am more or less at peace with it. I'll take one more lap -- whether for another full season or just the next few weeks helping get a few new shows up and running for the Fall TV season -- then wave goodbye.  

That is all -- end of harangue. Now I'll just grab my walker, hobble to the front door, and yell at those damned kids to get off my lawn…   

*  Fuck it.  I'll get by one way or another, even if it means a diet of Ritz crackers, Alpo, and Two Buck Chuck.

** I had this post locked, loaded, and ready to go before listening to an interview with Danny McBride, who (much to my surprise) speaks rather eloquently to this very point.  It's a great interview, in which -- among other things -- McBride goes into detail discussing the process of writing his new HBO series Vice Principals...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Fifty-Five Steps

   "Exit the Kill Zone!"

I make the climb one slow step at a time, trailing behind my two fellow juicers. They're both younger than me, of course -- one by eleven years, the other by twenty -- and I'm in no rush. Still, I'm breathing hard by the time I join them up high, where we pause for a minute to catch our breath.

Seven in the morning feels way too early to climb fifty-five steps.

The show we're about to wrap enjoyed a full season run of 22 episodes, after which the producers -- confident of a second season pick-up -- agreed to pay for a "fold and hold," whereupon the show crew cleaned up any loose ends that might present a hazard, then gathered their personal gear and walked away, fully expecting they'd be back for Season Two.

This industry seldom rewards such optimism. I've been down that dark road before, when my then-new show's first ten-episode season went so well that the "star" boldly predicted we'd have a five-year run -- and I was dumb enough to believe him. As I heard the story later, that cocky little bastard then handed the network a list of demands which included (among other things) a huge raise for himself and bringing his mother onto the show as a cast regular for the following season.* Suddenly realizing what a pocket full of trouble this little rooster really was, the network dumped our show like a hot potato, which is how a one-month fold-and-hold -- along with our "five year run" -- turned into a three-day wrap followed by a phone call to the California State Unemployment Department.**

So it goes.

It's a given that this town views any display of giddy optimism as hubris -- one of the Seven Deadly Sins -- which is why the Gods of Hollywood take such pleasure in punishing anyone so rash as to assume they're entitled to success. Unfortunately, the ensuing thunderbolt from above often results in massive collateral damage, laying waste to guilty and innocent alike. But one man's loss is another's gain in the zero-sum game of Hollywood, which is why the original crew of this show was long gone and we were about to clean up their stage.

So here we stood in the catwalks, surveying the mess they'd left -- and it was ugly.

                                 The center aisle

"I hate cable," sighed one of my fellow juicers.

I just nodded. There was no need to say anything else, because he spoke for us all.

As the mechanism that conveys electricity -- the essential juice -- to our lamps, cable is both the foundation of our livelihood and the bane of every juicer: a back-breaking, shoulder-destroying, knee-grinding, ankle-crushing necessary evil. Once in place and properly hooked up, it channels the immense quantities of power we use to light our stage and location sets, but wrangling all that cable during the rig, then wrapping it later, is a bitch, especially for those of us who aren't quite as young as we used to be.

Cable is the single worst thing about being a juicer. Manhandling BFLs is no big deal -- nobody expects you to put an 18K on a stand all by yourself -- but a juicer often has to wrangle hundred pound rolls of cable alone. Anybody can plug in a stinger to charge a producer's IPhone, but to run, power, then wrap such heavy cable takes a real juicer, and that exacts a toll. The longer you do it, the higher the price.

In the long-ago words of the late, great Jimbo: "I'm mining my body."***

He wasn't kidding.

Finally running out of reasons to procrastinate, we got to work. As always, the early stages were slow, but after a while we caught our second wind and got into a good rhythm, which is when the work really gets done.  While my two younger compadres attacked the Gordian Knot in the center aisle, I had the easier task of dealing with the danglers -- fifty and hundred-foot cables rigged over the side of the catwalks to reach the set below. I'd detach the end of each cable from the waterfall (the main power run coming up from the dimmer room), then tie it to my hand-line and slowly lower the loose cable to a juicer on the stage floor, who coiled it nice and tight as it came down. When he had it all, he'd release my rope, then snugly tie the cable wait for the next one.  Once all the danglers were down, I joined in on the center catwalk, where we freed up the cables, then wrapped them to an empty catwalk, leaving a long row to be lowered later.

This is heavy labor, but time passes quickly when you're working at a steady pace, and soon it was time for breakfast (or "coffee," as this union-mandated break is called), so down those fifty-five steps we went -- and after twenty minutes in the commissary, it was back up high to continue the battle.

Loading up on coffee and/or orange juice at breakfast has consequences. Sooner or later you've got to pee, but that means yet another 110 steps… unless you can find an empty water bottle (with a cap, of course) up high to serve as a mini-honey wagon.  Unwilling to make any more of those down-and-up round trips than strictly necessary, that's exactly what I did -- very carefully, I might add.

Hey, you do what you've gotta do to get through a cable day.

Once we'd restored some semblance of order to the center catwalk, it was time to start dropping all those fifty and hundred foot coils of cable, which weigh somewhere around 40 to 80 pounds each. The procedure isn't difficult, but you have to do it right, because getting careless and moving too fast can send one of those car-tire sized coils plummeting to the stage floor.  If somebody down there isn't able to get out of the way, that person's entire day -- entire life, really -- will be ruined in a big way.

I wrap a 5/8th inch line all the way around the top rail once, then feed the end below the knee-rail to the catwalk, where the juicer I'm working with loops it through the coil (or two, if they're fifty-footers), and ties it securely with a clove hitch or bowline -- his choice.

"All clear?" he asks.

Before nodding,  I scan the floor below to make sure nobody is wandering into the danger area, then yell "Exit the kill zone!" in a loud voice. With a construction crew slowly -- and noisily -- tearing the sets apart while we work, it's crucial to shout

Over the side the cable goes, and the weight hits hard, but I keep a light two-handed grip on the rope -- that full wrap around the rail makes all the difference -- and with a buzzing whir, the rope carves a shallow groove in the soft rail as the cable drops towards the deck. Friction absorbs this sudden release of energy, converting it to heat, raising the acrid sent of scorched wood from the rail. Watching the cable, I tighten my gloved grip at the last possible instant, bringing the coil to an abrupt halt. It dangles there, four feet off the stage floor, until a cable cart is rolled underneath. Then I ease my grip, allowing the floor juicer to guide it into the cart. He loosens the knot, frees the rope, then yells "Hollywood!" to let me know I can pull it back up. We'll repeat this process, periodically switching roles, until all those coils of cable up high are on the floor.

But that'll take a while, and now it's time for lunch, so back down those fifty-five steps we go.

After a relaxing hour, during which we eat, then retire to a shaded porch on the studios "Residential Street" back lot to chew the fat about politics, the continuing insult of cable-rate (and the cheap-ass networks who love it), and the cynical lament of all aging workers that their business (whatever it may be), is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket.

In other words, same as it ever was.

Then it's back we go, up those fifty-five steps again, which have just about killed my thigh muscles at this point in the day.  Three hours later, we're done -- the cable wrapped, dropped, and sent back to the lamp dock. The construction crew is still dismantling the sets, but our work here is over. Once the sets have been torn apart, the rigging grips will take down the network of green beds, and the stage will then be ready for the next show to come in.  When that day comes, the process will start all over, rendering order from chaos, chaos from order, and back again. We make an idiot-check up high to be sure everything's done, then make one last trip down those steps.

This day has been a serious workout, and I know my back (along with everything else) will pay the price tomorrow morning, but right now it feels good -- the pleasant sense of physical weariness that comes from a tough job done well.  What comes next is uncertain.  This was the last show to be wrapped here at my home lot, and the ramp-up for the new TV season has yet to hit.

That's just as well, because I can use a few days off to recover.  And when the check for this day arrives in the mail, I'll know at least one thing: we all earned our money today.

* She'd appeared in the final episode of the first (and only) season.

** The last I saw of that "star" was his mug shot in the newspaper after he landed in jail upon getting nailed for his third DUI. Some people never learn...

*** The Gaffer who long ago taught me what it means to be a professional in this industry.