Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

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

Sunday, October 28, 2007

As the World Burns

A ring of fire encircles Southern California as I jot down a few quick notes for this post. Half a million people have thus far fled their homes before the advancing flames, while something like thirteen hundred houses were reduced to nothing more than ashes and tears. Newspaper and television coverage is extensive, featuring dramatic, heart-breaking images and stories of those stricken by this fiery holocaust. With temperatures hovering in the mid-90’s, and hot, dry Santa Ana winds whipping down through the canyons, it all feels rather biblical in a way – a bit like the end of the world – a feeling enhanced by the swarms of small black flies pestering all of us on the shooting crew. Unfortunately, that end-of-the-world feeling is nothing new here in LA.

Southern California may be going in up flames, but the show must go on – and at the moment I’m working with the set lighting crew filming “pick-ups” for “The L Word”, Showtime’s Sapphic soap opera now finishing up its fifth season. “The L Word” shoots in Vancouver, but since the storyline takes place in LA, they periodically pack up the cast and head south to film scenes in distinctive Southern California locations – the Sunset Strip, Malibu, the Hollywood Hills -- venues not so easily (read: cheaply) simulated in Canada. This morning, we started at a very modern glass and steel house perched high in the Hollywood Hills, and will later do a company move – all the equipment, trucks, cast, and crew – down to a café on Third Street in West Hollywood. Shooting pick-ups (individual shots or scenes needed to complete a film or episodic drama) is all about locations and moves. Lots of moves. I did two of these pick-up shoots for “The L Word” last year, the first of which shot seventeen separate locations in the first five days. That meant two or three full company moves every day, which is extremely demanding work. Arising at 4 a.m. to repeatedly unload, deploy, then re-load heavy lighting equipment over the course of 16 hours before dragging one's exhausted ass home is an unsustainable pace over the long haul. But the budget is sacred in television, so “The L Word” production has committed to a tight schedule for eight shooting days – the last three of which will be “splits” – half day followed by half night. We’ll be into the splits soon enough, which is where the going will really get tough. It’s a doable schedule, but the entire crew will be ground down to the raw, bloody bone by the time it’s over -- very likely early Thursday morning as the sun rises over Los Angeles. Lots of hours means fat paychecks, though, and with the looming writer’s strike (which could hit as early as November 1) threatening to torpedo the entire television season and cripple feature film production, everyone in Hollywood is working as hard as they possibly can right now. It feels a bit like we’re loading the ark in preparation for The Flood – only this flood, should it happen, will actually be a drought of a sort -- and in such a drought, everything burns.

Disasters of all kinds are an unavoidable part of the Southern California experience. If it’s not an earthquake, it’s a race riot. If not a riot, it’s the floods, and if not floods, we’re plagued by fire. Here’s my own take on LA life in an excerpt from “Brother’s Keeper”, a yet-to-be published novel.


"After that, nothing. Every morning I sat down at my desk, put on the happy voice, and worked the phone. It didn’t do any good. I was just another dog on a short chain, barking at the wind. July came and went, leaving a thin layer of dust and another pile of bills on the kitchen table, then August kicked in the door with a brutal heat wave made all the worse by a sudden influx of moist tropical air from a storm off the Mexican coast. All that humidity blended with the daily outpouring of automotive and industrial effluence to form a caustic atmospheric soup strong enough to sting my eyes. Southern Californians take a perverse sort of pride in their famously bad air, but even the leather-lunged natives were left reeling by this siege of smog, heat, and suffocating humidity. The only saving grace was the knowledge that this too would pass. Another couple of months would bring the Santa Ana Winds howling in from the desert, bone dry and fiercely hot, to blow all that smog out to sea. But every form of salvation has its price, and with the winds would come fire, great roaring walls of flame to char the arid hillsides and anything else in their way. And when the rains finally came, flooding and mud slides were sure to follow. It’s always something in this big, ugly mess of a city."

As so often happens during disasters, the current firestorm has at least one salutary function: bringing a badly-needed sense of balance to the typical navel-gazing Hollywood perspective. We in the Industry like to talk about how hard we often have to work, and it’s true – I once worked a 26 hour day on a shoot that left me so bruised and tired I could barely crawl home. But the hardest film job I’ve ever done wasn’t as tough as what those fire fighters (men and women) endure on a daily basis during their own busy season, when our world burns. Theirs is sweaty, exhausting, and dangerous work, breathing smoke and eating dust in an effort to save forests, houses, and lives. While the rest of us flee the intense heat, they walk right into the inferno, so if you’re still searching for heroes, don’t look to pampered movie actors or millionaire professional athletes -- look to the fire fighters.

But while they fight the flames, I sit here in shorts and a T shirt on the fender of a humming 750 amp generator that supplies power to the set, where the actresses stage another emotional cat-fight for the cameras. If the scenes we’ve been filming are to be believed, lesbian relationships are buffeted by more Sturm und Drang than those of the rest of us put together. Still, with Cybil Shepard, Jennifer Beals, and Wallace Shawn (he of “My Dinner With Andre” -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Dinner_with_Andre ) adding a touch of thespian class to the production, we’re making the best of it. If working on a lesbian soap opera as Southern California goes up in flames sounds a bit like fiddling while Rome burns, I suppose it is -- but I’m a juicer, not a firefighter. They do their job and I do mine. Ours is a very abstract world...

The cycles of destruction and renewal spin on in Southern California. Those who choose to work and live here either learn to take this in stride, move away, or slowly go insane – and sometimes, all of the above. The lucky ones find a way to nurture a fatalism allowing them to go with the flow and make the best of whatever happens, while the rest of us chew the worry rag and drink to forget the ticking time-bomb that will – as it has before – turn the world upside down with no warning whatsoever.

In the weeks following the devastating Northridge Earthquake in 1994(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1994_Northridge_Earthquake ), I worked a series of commercials in and around Los Angeles. While scouting locations in a van with the other department heads, the radio suddenly blared a warning of an aftershock, advising all vehicles to exit the freeways as quickly as possible. Since we were at that precise instant sailing across a very long, very high, and suddenly very vulnerable overpass, this was a decidedly uncomfortable moment. With nowhere to go but down, the only real question was how fast and controlled would be our descent -- and right then, I was anything but fatalistic about the immediate future. Burned into my brain was the indelible vision of so many elevated freeways and overpasses reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds... and I let out a profound sigh of relief that the van finally reached the relative safety of “solid” ground.

In that, I was not alone, and neither are the victims of this latest disaster, who for the most part will be made whole, in time -- just in time, perhaps, for the next tectonic, meteorologic, or man-made catastrophe. If not one thing, it'll be another. Southern California is what it is, and no amount of wishing can change that. We live and work here at our own peril, taking the good with the bad, and hoping against hope for the best.


Check this out...

Over on the right is a new additon to the link list: http://dollygrip.blogspot.com/,
an excellent blog from a veteran dolly grip who has been there and back. His more recent posts leaning toward the technical side of the craft will resonate with any Industry veteran -- I've gained an added appreciation for the often invisible art of pushing a dolly -- but he also dips into the Zen of the process. Civilian readers who find this too technical should check out many of his earlier posts discussing other aspects of the Industry experience. This is a thoughtful, well -written blog by a man with something to say. Check it out.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What the Hell is a Best Boy?

As a rule, those of us who work in the Industry tend to linger during the credit roll after watching a movie. While the rest of the civilian audience (those who are neither employed by nor married into the Industry) shuffles up the aisles and out to the bathrooms, we sit there in the dark watching that long list of names ascend the screen. Few among us will recognize all or even most of the people listed up there – many movies are made far from the smoggy confines of Los Angeles these days -- but there’s often a familiar name or two, and sometimes a little surprise. It can be instructive to realize that a certain somebody you used to hire from time to time is now running a crew of his/her own. Learning of this now, while sitting in a darkened theater, means that your old buddy/acquaintance/employee somehow forgot to pick up the phone and offer you a job. Cycles of ups and downs are woven into the tapestry of Industry life. While riding high, I’ve had opportunities to employ people who had previously hired me, and when the tidal flow of Hollywood fortunes reversed our positions, many have been kind enough to return the favor. Still, there are always some with conveniently short memories when it comes to those they met on their way up -– yet another cliché come to life -- but they also forget how hard it is to keep secrets in this big little town of ours.

Or maybe they just don’t care. The contagion of hubris is endemic to Hollywood, even extending into the ranks below-the-line.

Although there’s no reason for civilians to sit through a seemingly endless credit-crawl packed with names of people they don’t know and will never meet, many have come to recognize and decipher a few more or less self-explanatory titles: a “director” directs the action on screen, a “producer” produces the show (although what that actually means is poorly understood, even in Hollywood), while a camera operator does indeed operate the camera. There's little confusion when it comes to hair and make-up, set dressers, the prop department, sound, or wardrobe people: in each case, the title provides at least a vague notion of what the job entails.

Still, some job titles remain shrouded in a fog so dense that it probably seems deliberate as far as the movie-going public is concerned. Key Grip and Gaffer rank high on that list. Civilians generally picture grips as big strong brutes who carry heavy things (a woefully incomplete if occasional accurate deduction), and thus assume the Key Grip to be the Biggest and Baddest of all the Grips. “Gaffer” is a more mysterious term, conjuring visions of a white-haired old coot carrying a stick with a hook on one end --a gaff. But at the very top of the List of Confusion is the term “Best Boy,” a job title that causes even the most unimaginative minds to ponder the lurid possibilities. Believe me, I understand -- before I entered the Industry, I too had no idea what to think upon reading the words “Best Boy.”

When out in the real world (particularly beyond the borders of LA), conversations with civilians eventually wind around to some aspect of Hollywood. Most people are at least mildly curious about what things really like on the other side of the silver screen. Once past the basics – what movies or TV shows have I worked on, and is so-and-so favorite actor/actress a nice person or a stuck-up asshole/bitch – comes the question that has been quietly licking at the back of their brains for a long time:

What the hell is a “Best Boy?”

The origins of the term remain murky, but one story often heard is that back in the depression era, men lined up outside the studio gates every morning hoping to get work. When help was needed, somebody inside would yell through the gate “I need your best boy,” presumably referring to the best worker. Although it may be true, this sepia-toned tale has always sounded a bit too quaint to be real. Another variation holds that back in the “old days” (and you’d be amazed how many industry stories begin with that phrase), the workers had yet to unionize, and thus the distinctions between grips and electricians were less rigorously observed. When a Gaffer or Key Grip needed extra help, he’d ask his counterpart to “lend me your best boy.” This rings slightly more true to my ears, but I wouldn’t bet my paycheck one way or the other. However the term came to be, it’s here to stay, and although the technically correct reply to the question is simple enough – the Best Boy is in charge of men and equipment -- the actual story is more complex. There’s nothing remotely sexy, glamorous, or inherently fascinating about the job itself, but a good Best Boy can make all the difference in the world to his crew and the show -- and bad Best Boy can be a disaster for everyone involved.*

To grasp the Best Boy’s place in the Order of Things, you have to understand the food chain of a film crew – and here I’m talking about camera, lighting, and grip only.** Immediately below the director on the flow chart of power is the Director of Photography (aka: the D.P., or cameraman), the person responsible for putting the images on film or digital tape. The D.P. hires the Gaffer and the Key Grip to be his figurative right and left hands in lighting the sets. As the head of set lighting, the Gaffer hires a Best Boy to run his crew of “juicers” (slang for set lighting technicians) and make sure they have whatever they need to properly illuminate the set. The Key Grip also has a Best Boy, who makes sure that his department has all the men the equipment required to do their work, and thus keep the DP happy.

Being responsible for “men and equipment” means taking care of all the paperwork (deal memos, time cards, and equipment rental invoices), and hiring additional manpower when required, as well as making sure all the lighting equipment ordered is delivered and works. Lighting equipment is much too expensive for production companies to buy, maintain, and store between jobs, so the vast majority of shows rent a complete lighting package -- trucks, lights, cable, and generator -- for the duration of the production. Many Gaffers own lighting equipment they rent to whatever show they're working on (providing additional income for the gaffer and endless invoice headaches for the Best Boy), but wherever the equipment comes from, the Best Boy must make sure it's all properly accounted for and ready for use. Some scenes in a movie or television show require highly specialized (read: very expensive) lighting equipment rented only for the day it's needed, after which it is returned to the rental house. Since opportunities for human error and misunderstandings abound in such a fast-paced, pressure-cooker business, what arrives on set is not always what was ordered. The list of potential screw-ups is endless. Occasionally a Gaffer will change his mind on very short notice, and it's the Best Boy's job to make everything right so that the show can go on.

If keeping a close eye on the incoming and outgoing equipment isn’t enough, the Best Boy must also see to it that his gaffer doesn’t blow through the lighting budget too quickly. If there’s a problem – and budget problems are the rule, rather than the exception – the Best Boy will be the first to hear about it from an irate production manager.

A Best Boy’s task is particularly crazed at the outset of any project, when a thousand things are happening at once, each demanding his attention, consideration, and a decision that had better be right. On a location job, he’ll have to make sure the electrical cables are run properly from the generator to the set – not only to power the high intensity movie lamps, but (on some productions) for hair and make-up and their many power-hungry accessories, to wardrobe for their steamers and irons, and to the camera assistants for their battery chargers. There's also craft service waiting for electricity to toast the bagels and keep the coffee hot.

When another department needs electricity or light to do their work, the Best Boy makes it happen.

Above all, his primary job is to keep the Gaffer happy -- and that’s where things can get tricky. A good Gaffer confers with the D.P. on how to light the set, then clearly communicates the plan to the Best Boy so he can allocate manpower and equipment in an efficient manner to get the job done. Unfortunately, some Gaffers are burdened with authority issues or other mental illnesses leading to a compulsion for micro-managing every last detail. These guys simply can't resist telling the B.B. and the juicers exactly what to do and how to do it. Occasionally a gaffer suffers from an excess of personal insecurities resulting in an inability to make or stick to any decisions. First he wants this, then he wants that -- and once you think the issue is finally settled, he'll come in the next morning having had a “great idea” that more often than not means re-doing much of the previous day's work. Such fools drive everybody up the wall, but the Best Boy has to find a way to keep things moving forward.

The Best Boy often serves as something of a mother hen to his crew, making sure they are taken care of, not excessively abused by either the gaffer or “production” – the producers, production manager, and coordinator. A good Best Boy makes sure his crew is properly compensated when they’ve been working in particularly odious conditions: after wrestling hot cables and lights all night in a driving rain, for example. An experienced production manager knows this too – and as long as the B.B. doesn’t abuse the privilege, will usually send those slightly-padded time cards along to the payroll department without any argument. Sometimes a Best Boy must lend a sympathetic ear when one of his juicers has problems at home that need to be talked out – problems that have nothing at all to do with the work on set.

The Best Boy is a jack of all trades, doing whatever it takes to keep things running smoothly.

Through the whole ordeal of filming, the Best Boy has to remain a diplomat, maintaining a positive attitude in trying to keep a penny-pinching production manager from going ballistic, while at the same time steering an errant if well-intentioned gaffer away from impending disaster. He also must be willing and able to kick a little butt should it become necessary to keep the crew in line. When the Gaffer turns out to be a complete idiot and/or sadistic jerk (such people do exist as living proof that cream isn’t the only thing that floats), then the B.B. has to know when to draw the line in protecting his crew. Otherwise they’ll likely quit, and finding good replacement juicers willing to enter such a toxic work environment won't be easy. Sometimes a Best Boy has to take a stand at the risk of his own job, and if worse comes to worse, he just might have to walk away. All things being equal, life’s too short and the work too hard without also having to cater to the fickle whims of an abusive, incompetent fool. If all things are not equal (meaning the B.B. simply can’t afford to quit), then all he can do is put his head down and slog through the shit-rain until finally reaching dry land. The real beauty of the film business is that the vast majority of jobs are temporary: there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Three to six months on a bad movie -- or even nine months in the soul-crushing factory of episodic television -- is still better than taking a life sentence on the Cube Farm.

So the next time you’re at the movies or watching a film at home on DVD, and for some reason happen to sit through the end-credits, take a moment to tip your hat to the Best Boys. Without them, we’d all be sitting in the dark.



* I use the word “he” in referring to a Best Boy for the sake of convenience. Although set lighting has long been dominated by men, the term “Best Boy” is not gender-specific. I’ve worked with female grips, female Gaffers, and female juicers, and for some supremely competent female Best Boys, who have to be better than good to win acceptance in the man’s world of set lighting.

** I mean no disrespect to set dressers, painters, construction, transportation, props, sound, hair and makeup, script, craft service, the assistant directors and their many production assistants, location managers and scouts, or the vast and entirely under-appreciated army of production and post-production specialists without whom no film or tape project can be successfully completed. Having worked in set lighting for thirty years, those I know best are my fellow juicers, the grips, and the camera department, and thus my comments are limited to them.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Generation Wireless: Across the Great Divide

                This can be a very useful item, but it's also one hell of a distraction...

It was late afternoon in downtown Glendale, where we’d been filming a series of walk-and-talk scenes for an episodic television drama since the crack of dawn. After the usual early morning chaos, things had long since settled into a smooth working rhythm. For the set lighting crew, that meant moving, re-powering, and adjusting the lamps until the gaffer was satisfied, then cooling our heels while the actors performed like barking seals for the cameras. Once each shot was in the can, we’d repeat the frantic process for the next setup all over again.

Like most forms of factory work, episodic television is tedious, repetitive, and tiresome -- you just keep grinding away all day and into the night until the scheduled work is done. It’s a lot like toiling in a sausage factory, I suppose, except a sausage plant worker usually goes home after his eight hour shift. Not so in Hollywood, where it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings -– a lady who probably got so fat from eating all those sausages at the craft service table, come to think of it -- and she doesn’t even consider warming up her vocal chords until the crew has already worked a good 12 hours. Being an HBO production, this particular show was considerably worse: 14 hour work days were standard operating procedure.*

I sat on an apple box behind a big 18,000 watt light, keeping one eye on the burning lamp and the other on the set. The walkie-talkie suddenly crackled and hissed in my earphone, but no words came – somebody on our crew was inadvertently pressing the “send” button on his radio, making it impossible for any of us to hear or respond to the transmission. I looked around at two of my fellow juicers manning their own 18K’s thirty feet away, both young studs in their mid-twenties. As usual, they were yakking on their cell phones. One was leaning against a lamp post, the walkie-talkie on his belt pressed into the hard metal, thus causing our communications blackout. With the cameras still rolling, I couldn’t yell at him without blowing the take, so I picked up a pebble and threw it, hitting his leg. His head snapped around. I held up my radio and pointed at it. He nodded and turned his radio off, then went back to his conversation. The hiss abruptly ceased, and our ability to communicate via walkie-talkie returned. Not with him, of course – now that his radio was off, neither the gaffer nor anyone else on the crew could reach him until the shot was over, or he turned it back on. But he didn’t seem to care.

Hey, he was talking on the phone.

All I could do was shake my head in the weary, defeated gesture of an older generation throwing up its collective hands at the skewed priorities of the youngsters. This is nothing new -- the old silverbacks were doubtless irritated at the behavior of their apparently feckless progeny long before the ancestors of mankind descended from the trees, a primate tradition that will probably continue until the biological stain of humanity is finally erased from planet Earth.

The terms “Generation X” and “Generation Y” are often used to describe the crop of young adults between the ages of 18 and 40, and although a wide spectrum of attitudes and tastes certainly differentiate the two, there’s at least one overwhelming similarity transcending everything else: they’re all Generation Wireless. These kids grew up suckeling on cell phones in the crib, with cellular technology now inextricably woven into the fabric of their lives. To Gen W, the ability to communicate 24/7 is a divine mandate: Thou Shall Keep in Touch. Whatever else is going on, when that phone rings or buzzes, they drop everything to answer it – and in every spare moment of downtime, they’re punching in numbers to talk or text someone. Indeed, we seem to be raising an entire generation of thumb-talkiers.

Modern life is a complicated affair. It’s hard enough in the best of times to juggle a social life and/or family obligations while working in such an intractably demanding business as the film/television Industry. When life goes a bit sideways -– and none of us escapes the occasional shit-rain -- the only way to keep things from running completely off the rails can be staying in touch with the other people involved. We all need to make or take a call every now and then, but so many of these kids don’t seem to understand that there are times when it’s simply not appropriate to drop whatever you’re doing to answer the phone -– and one of those times is when while you’re actually working, where paying attention to what's going on is an integral part of the job.

Cell phones are so deeply embedded in the DNA of the Industry that its hard to imagine how the film business ever got along without them, but in fact, wireless is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I came to Hollywood in the late 70’s, everyone from producers to grips subscribed to answering services, regularly calling in via land-lines to retrieve messages from a live human being. The sudden flood of cheap answering machines drove those services into the weeds, after which pagers magically appeared as the next must-have personal communication technology. Before long, every crew member carried a pager, and had learned to perform what soon became a universal dance routine: pulling the pager out, checking the number to see who had called, then heading for the nearest phone. Early cell phones appeared on sets shortly thereafter, but being expensive, bulky, and not particularly effective, these were reserved for producers, actors, and other look-at-me-I’m-important types who breathe the rarified air high above-the-line.

Then came the day I was rigging on a huge stage for the film “Message in a Bottle.” While running cables along a big metal truss, I heard the soft chirp of cell phone. A young juicer working high above me stopped working, pulled a small phone from his tool belt and started talking. Five minutes later, he slipped the phone back on his belt and resumed working. I stared at him like one of those puzzled apes pondering the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The fact that he carried a cell phone on his tool belt -- right alongside the voltage tester, channel locks, wire cutters, and screwdriver – was my first inkling that somewhere in the vast expanse of cultural space, an immense and rusty door had just clanged shut, while a shiny new one quietly hissed wide open.

Change is here, and it’s not going away. Smart phones are now ubiquitous: everyone carries one with which to talk or stare at while driving, walking the dog, having coffee, or standing in line at the post office, bank, or grocery store. I’ve witnessed the purchase of entire shopping carts full of food via credit card without a single word exchanged during the entire transaction – the customer deeply involved in a conversation with someone miles away, utterly ignoring and thus dehumanizing the poor cashier. But as much as this sort of unthinkingly rude behavior bothers me (and yes, it is a sign The Apocalypse Is Near), at least these cell phone junkies aren’t at work -- they’re talking on their own time, and thus have the right to be as blithely and thoughtlessly rude as other people’s tolerance will allow.

But certain lines should not be crossed, and indulging in a steady stream of casual phone calls while at work is one of those bright red lines. Putting one’s co-workers in a position where they must pick up the slack while you chat on the phone is more than rude: it’s highly unprofessional behavior that makes the whole crew look bad. Unfortunately, this is now the norm. You can cajole, scold, and yell at these wireless junkies all day long, but the next time it rings, they’ll reach for that phone anyway. It’s an ingrained instinct now -- trying to get them to stop is like attempting to halt a tsunami with your bare hands. Wireless defines these kids, it’s who they are: I talk, therefore I am.

To be fair, we all work as daily hires in what is essentially a free-lance industry, and are thus guaranteed nothing beyond each day’s pay. Yes, the union can send you out on jobs, but the reality is most of us get the vast majority of our work from people we know, who call us when a job comes up. Cellular technology has changed the rules of that game. Back in the days of answering machines, those offering jobs would leave a message without expecting a reply for several hours. Pagers upped the ante considerably – you were expected to reply inside of an hour, or the job might be gone. But in today’s go-go-go, got-to-know, instant-everything world, you’d better pick up by the second ring (or at least call back within sixty seconds) or else somebody else has already been hired. If you’re slow on the draw, you lose.

I don’t mean to imply that Generation W are bad kids, because they're not. Truth be told, most of them are really good. When not blabbing on the phone, they work hard, have a great sense of humor, and suffer through the long, miserable days shoulder to shoulder with everybody else. They -- not graying dinosaurs like me -- are the future of this Industry. They pick up the new digital technology as easily as breathing. Old dogs like me do have trouble learning new tricks and keeping up with the rapid pace of technological and cultural change, but for this old dog, too many of these “tricks” cut against the grain of who I am, what I learned, and how I learned it on the long and rocky road from yesterday to tomorrow. Seeing all those hard-won lessons blithely ignored by the younger generation is tough to swallow, but I suppose it's the natural order of things for each new generation to run roughshod over the ways of the last. They'll learn in time, the same way we did -- maybe the only way anybody really learns anything: the hard way.

Same as it ever was.

The final insult, however mild, remains the term “wireless” itself. While I was growing up, that word was a dusty relic of the horse-and-buggy era when Marconi had just introduced radio waves to the world, thus displacing the telegraph as the most modern mode of long-distance communication. “Wireless” was a term used by character actors in ancient black-and-white movies, usually some old salt dressed in tattered union-suit long underwear with a button-flap rear end – the sort of geezer with more whiskers than teeth, who couldn’t quite wrap his brain around the then-modern term “radio.” But the past has been exhumed from the crypt, dusted off and polished to a glossy sheen, then transformed through the miracle of modern technology into a sexy little convenience-turned-necessity. The gleaming future has arrived on invisible high-tech wings, and its name is Wireless.

As the sun dropped lower over the leafy streets of Glendale, we finally finished the walk-and-talks and began to set up for a scene in a café window. Once the actors were in front of the cameras, we all sat down, saving our strength to get through the last few hours until wrap. Just as the director yelled “action”, I heard the distinctive ring tone of one of my fellow juicer’s cell phones, a tinny rendition of some god-awful hip-hop song. The kid pulled out his phone, flipped it open, then turned his back on the set.

I just shook my head and sighed.


* It's called "cable rate," and I hate it...

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Circle of Confusion

"Anything that can go wrong, will."

Murphy’s Law


While in college working on student films – my own, and those of fellow undergrads -- I often mused on how much better everything would be when I finally got to Hollywood, where Industry professionals had the knowledge and skills to crank out shot after carefully-crafted shot until the movie was “in the can.” Hollywood would be blissfully free of the muddled chaos that is student film making, where hope and ignorance join forces to careen head-on into Murphy’s Law a dozen times a day. All that frustration and wasted effort would be a thing of the past – no more frantic improvising, compromising of artistic vision, or settling for third-best. Perhaps Hollywood would turn out to be nothing more than a monstrous factory grinding out an endless stream of soulless assembly line Product, but at least it was the big leagues, run by pros who knew what the hell they were doing. Hey, it was Hollywood...

Once I began working in the Industry, however, I was amazed to find so many productions plagued by confusion and communications breakdowns. As it turns out, Murphy’s Law bedevils the entire spectrum of film-making, amateur and professional alike. Thus it was with a double shot of hundred-proof irony that I realized the best preparation I’d received for working in Hollywood had been those endless hours toiling on hopelessly screwed-up student films – and that was long before I ever heard the term “Circle of Confusion.”

Technically speaking, “circle of confusion” is an optical term used to describe the spot created when a cone of light rays passing through a lens is unable to come to an absolute perfect focus. Since even the finest lenses are flawed to some degree, the circle of confusion must be factored in when calculating the depth of field for a given lens -- “depth of field” being the range of focus at a particular light level. This becomes important when a director decides he wants objects in the background of a shot to be in the same crisp focus as those in the foreground. If an actress facing the camera holds an apple in her hand at arm’s length, the proper lens and light levels must be used to keep both the apple and her lovely face in focus at the same time.

This kind of technical mumbo-jumbo remains the domain of camera assistants, the original techno-nerds of the Industry before computers came along. From my perspective (working alongside, but not in the camera department), “Circle of Confusion” has nothing to do with optics, but is instead an elegant description of the slow-motion, who’s-on-first chaos that so often rises up to seize a film production by the throat. When that happens, you find yourself wondering if anybody’s really in charge – anybody at all.

Early in my Hollywood journey, I spent the better part of a summer working on a feature film that took a more-or-less comedic approach to the werewolf genre in a low-budget drama set in and around a local high school. As low man on the set lighting crew – a juicer -- my main task was the grunt work: hauling heavy cables and lights from truck to the set, deploying and operating the equipment, then lugging it all back at the end of each day. This being a werewolf movie, much of the filming took place at night, which offered me the chance to run a couple of big lamps thirty-five feet off the ground in one of our two self-propelled hydraulic platforms known “scissor lifts.” To a young man working his first feature film as a juicer, driving and operating such a large mechanical beast was fun, with the added benefit that once those big lamps were up and burning, I had a catbird seat to watch and learn how a real movie gets made.

Every now and then, though, I’d be saddled with a task that took me deep into Absurdistan. While setting up for a scene on the football field late one morning, the director of photography – a notorious control freak who would become famous throughout the Industry as a “screamer” – started yelling about the scissor lifts, which we’d need to shoot a big scene after dark. Both lifts, it turned out, had been left at the previous night’s location, some 12 miles away. Since this was a low-budget, non-union production lacking teamsters or any sort of transportation department, the Screaming Cameraman assumed that if he didn’t take charge, those lifts would never get to the football field by nightfall. His concern was not entirely unwarranted – in this, our first week of filming, the production company had proved something less than a model of crisp efficiency – but making and acting upon such assumptions is the first fatal step into the Circle of Confusion. Rather than turn the problem over to the production manager (whose job is to solve such problems), the Screaming Cameraman ordered a production assistant to take me and another juicer to the scissor lifts, where we would then drive them back to the football field.

Being as green as a freshly sprouted blade of grass, I still clung to the belief that those in positions of responsibility knew what they were doing. As far as I was concerned, these were the Hollywood Pros, and I wasn’t about to question their judgment. So off we went, halfway across the San Fernando Valley to an empty field where the two big scissor lifts waited. As the production assistant disappeared back into traffic, my fellow juicer and I climbed aboard the lifts, fired up the engines, and headed out onto Victory Boulevard.

A scissor lift is nothing more than a four-wheeled, self-propelled metal cage designed to lift a worker and a relatively small load of equipment into the air. Utterly lacking in creature comforts – no seats, windshield, lights, turn signals, bumpers, or license plates – scissor lifts are not made to be driven on city streets. Most have two speeds, indicated by the tortoise and hare icons on the control panel. With these two lifts, however, flipping to “rabbit” had no effect, limiting us to a maximum velocity of approximately one mile per hour. Thus stuck in tortoise mode, it took the two of us, driving nose-to-tail, three complete green/yellow/red traffic light cycles to make it all the way through each major street intersection. This did not amuse our fellow travelers on Victory Boulevard, one of many big four lane thoroughfares cutting through the smog-choked heart of the San Fernando Valley. Being young and dumb, I didn’t much care – as far as I was concerned, this was simply the latest in an apparently endless series of Hollywood adventures, with the added benefit of being a lot easier than humping heavy cable and lights back on set under the stern eye and verbal lash of the Screaming Cameraman.

Or so it seemed. Before long, the adrenal rush at participating in such a brazen act of absurdity began to fade under the relentless pounding of the hot summer sun. There was no shade along Victory Boulevard, nor did our snail’s pace generate anything like a cooling breeze. Crawling along this sweltering ribbon of pavement atop a noisy, ungainly machine under assault by swarming waves of angry, horn-honking traffic suddenly took on all the aspects of Work -- sweaty, unpleasant work. Playing hooky from the set (where snacks, cold drinks, and restrooms were never far away) wasn’t so much fun after all. We had crossed the invisible border separating adventure from ordeal, and were headed directly into the heart of the Circle of Confusion.

Six long hours later, we pulled into a gas station to check a map and assess the situation. It was already after four o’clock, but we were only half way to the set, which put our E.T.A. around ten p.m. If the lifts ran out of fuel, or we got stopped by the cops – and driving two enormous, unlicensed, decidedly non-roadworthy vehicles lacking headlights, tail lights, or brake lights on city streets at night is a sure way to attract police attention -- we wouldn’t make it at all.

I called the production company office from a pay phone. Fifteen minutes later, the same P.A. who’d dropped us off that morning gave us an air-conditioned ride back to the set, where we arrived tired, thirsty, and sunburned. Much to my surprise, the scissors lifts arrived minutes later, behind two enormous tow trucks.

We were not greeted with smiles. The Screaming Cameraman was unhappy, which meant the gaffer was also unhappy -- and best boy was the most unhappy of all, since he’d been saddled with all the grunt work in our absence. But here we were with the scissor lifts, well before dark, so what was the problem? It was only then that I began to see how the straightforward rules of logic are bent back on themselves into a Moebius Loop within the Circle of Confusion -- an upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland world where the solution to one problem has a way of creating two more.

As it turned out, the Screaming Cameraman had made another executive assumption. Hearing of my phone call, he decided the scissor lifts would never arrive in time, and so ordered the grips to mount the big lamps for the night scenes atop a couple of equipment trucks. The grips had plenty of work to do already, but orders from the Director of Photography cannot be ignored. No sooner had they completed this sweaty, thankless task when the scissor lifts appeared, as if by magic. And there is nothing – nothing – that drives a crew into the sullen depths of despair like being forced to do needless or redundant work.

Then came the kicker. Word rippled through the set that the production manager had a long-standing arrangement with the rental company to transport those two scissor lifts wherever they were needed up until four o’clock each afternoon – a service already included in the rental fee. But since the Screaming Cameraman’s first executive assumption of the day bypassed all the standard channels of communication, the production manager didn’t learn that we needed the lifts until I phoned in, at which point his only option was to call for an emergency tow that cost his ever- shrinking budget an additional three hundred dollars. Had the Screaming Cameraman behaved like a normal human being in the first place rather than acting like the deranged tin-pot dictator of some miserable steamy little banana republic, things would have worked out fine: no muss, no fuss, no needless flogging of the crew, and no unnecessary extra expense. But because he didn’t, they didn’t – and everybody on the crew knew it.

You might think this would prove a blessing in disguise: a lesson learned and sage wisdom acquired by the humbling of arrogant impulsiveness. Ours would be a better world were that the case -- but it is not. Having made a fool of himself in front of the entire crew, the Screaming Cameraman’s typically caustic mood took a darker turn as night fell. His slashing sarcasm cut deeper, while his screams, more barbed than usual, stung like the lash of a whip. That was one long and ugly night we spent mired in the Circle of Confusion...

* * * *


Fast-forward ten years. In the early 90’s, I worked as gaffer on a television commercial to be filmed in the desert north of Los Angeles, a one day shoot for a small HMO somewhere on the east coast. The concept developed by the add agency centered on the familiar image of an ostrich burying its head in the sand, a vision that was doubtless greeted as a stroke of genius during the client/agency meetings. What better visual metaphor to convince potential customers it was high-time they stopped wallowing in denial and signed up with Docs ‘R Us?

Concept is king in the advertising world, but like a beautiful hothouse flower, the creative brilliance of the conference room often fades when exposed to the harsh light of reality. Had they bothered to do a little research, these agency geniuses might have learned that the whole ostrich-head-in-sand thing is pure myth. Common sense should have warned them that a species of large flightless birds – agile creatures capable of sprinting over 40 miles per hour -- could never have survived countless eons of tooth-and-claw predation by rendering themselves blind, immobile, and helpless against legions of hungry carnivores. In the real world, such behavior would result in the rapid extinction of the species -- and you don’t have to be an ad agency genius to understand that “extinction” might not be the most helpful term to associate with a Health Maintenance Organization.

Modern computer wizardly can create any desired reality, but back then, most special effects techniques took the time-tested, bubble gum and bailing wire approach to getting the “money shot.” In this case, that meant an ostrich would literally have to stick its head into a hole while the camera rolled. Two holes were dug, one big enough to put the camera lens right at ground level, the other just deep enough to hide the big bird’s head. The plan was to put food pellets in the small hole, so that when the ostrich bent its long neck down to eat, its head would seem to burrow underground from the camera’s perspective. True, the great bird would not actually bury its head in the sand, but the illusion would be close enough to sell the concept.

The cameraman lined up the shot. I adjusted the lights. The ostrich was maneuvered into place, the blinders removed from its eyes. The wrangler showed it a handful of pellets, then tossed the food in the hole. Nothing. The big bird – a full six feet of feathers, claws, and leathery sinew – just stood there blinking its huge eyes at the lights, the camera, the assembled film crew, production personnel, and half a dozen ad agency drones waiting expectantly in the early morning sun. The wrangler tried again, gradually winning the bird’s confidence with small handfuls of food, luring its big head ever lower and closer to the hole. Eventually, the enormous bird finally recognized the food at its feet, and strained to reach it, legs teetering on the edge of balance, tendons quivering with the effort – but reality would not yield to myth in fulfilling the agency’s beautiful dream. Frustrated and confused at being unable to perform an entirely unnatural act, the big birds head came up fast, beak snapping.

“We better give him a break,” the head wrangler said. “You don’t want to get him mad.”

I recalled the pre-shoot safety meeting, where the wrangler cautioned us all to stay well away from his ostrich. “One kick can kill a lion,” he warned. “Those claws'll rip your stomach open like it was tissue paper.”

I stayed behind the lights until the wrangler led that feathered demon away.

The director frowned. The agency exchanged worried glances, then went into a huddle like a flock of nervous chickens, each secretly plotting who to blame should the smoke we’d all begun to smell suddenly flare into a raging, “Oh, the humanity!” Hindenburg of flaming disaster. What none of them realized was that it was too late: we were already knee-deep in the Circle of Confusion.

Having painted themselves so deeply into a corner, the agency no longer had the option to reconceptualize the spot. With the metaphoric thrust of their entire campaign hinging on the image of an ostrich burying its head in the sand, we’d have to “cheat the shot.” The grips dug the hole deeper to alter the camera angle. The wranglers brought the ostrich back. I readjusted the lights... but the ostrich went hungry. And so it went through the long morning, digging an ever deeper hole for the camera, carefully building up a gently ramped berm to hide the big bird’s head, each attempt bringing us closer to capturing an undeniably compromised, but still acceptable version of the shot. The ostrich grew increasingly frustrated with the situation, its tiny feathered brain concerned only with the food it wanted, but could not reach.

We made another try just before noon. With the camera rolling, the ostrich dipped earthward, once again straining hard to reach the food – and for the briefest moment its head finally appeared to plunge below the ground. The director nodded and smiled. Big mistake. Like the poor slob in a war movie who laughs at the wrong moment, thus sealing his doom in the next reel, he had unwittingly taunted the Gods of Hollywood. Right on cue, the big bird bolted upright, flapped its vestigial wings and was gone, blowing through the grasping arms of the wranglers and sprinting towards freedom on the wide open plains of the high desert.

The director's smile vanished as he watched the ostrich streak into the distance, pursued by half a dozen shouting wranglers.

“That’s lunch,” he sighed.

And so we sat there eating our catered lunch at a cloth-covered table under the pale blue sky, watching the wranglers chase that giant bird hither and yon, all over the desert. It went on for a good twenty minutes, looking for all the world like a Road Runner cartoon come to life, lacking only Wile E. Coyote to join the pursuit on a pair of Rocket-Powered Roller Skates from the Acme Company.

Eventually the wranglers caught their ostrich. With the exhausted bird unable to offer further resistance, we managed to finish filming the rest of the spot just before the sun went down.

Two months later, my check hadn’t come, nor had the grips or camera department been paid. I called the producer at his office back east.

“How’d that HMO spot come out?” I asked. “The one with the ostrich.”

“Oh, it turned out great,” he gushed. “Just great. You guys did a terrrific job."

“Great,” I agreed. “So when do we get paid?”

Silence.

“You didn’t get your checks?”

“Not yet.”

“Give me a minute.”

It took him five minutes to come back on the line with a profuse apology.

“I must have forgotten to send them out,” he said. “They’ll be in the mail today.”

My check arrived a few days later, as did those of the rest of the crew. Maybe he was trying to stiff us in a low-key, easily deniable manner, hoping we might forget about a little one-day job, seeing as how we were such busy Hollywood guys. But we did get paid, so I’ll have to give him the benefit of the doubt in assuming he too was just another innocent victim caught in the Circle of Confusion.

* * * *


I spent a few weeks on the rigging crew of an episodic television show last year, rigging stage and location sets for a white-haired Best Boy who’d spent thirty years working as a free-lance commercial gaffer before returning to the comfortable embrace of studio life. During a coffee break, he told us about an airline commercial he’d done several years before -- a classic example of how the Circle of Confusion can wreak havoc on the best laid plans of any production, be it a low budget or big money job.

The airline flew a brand new DC-10 into LAX for this spot, with the understanding that it was now part of the fleet, its maiden voyage as a passenger plane scheduled to take off from Los Angeles the following morning. The production company would thus have one night to shoot the commercial, leaving no room for error. Lighting something the size of an airliner at night is a big undertaking, and doing it quickly required a Musco light, the largest and most versatile lighting unit then available. Developed to illuminate huge football stadiums for television broadcasts, the Musco is a self-contained unit consisting of fifteen remotely-controllable 6000 watt lamps mounted on a hydraulic arm able to position the entire array a hundred and fifty feet in the air. Such a specialized piece of equipment doesn’t come cheap – back then, the going rate was around $4,000 per day – but the huge light can be up in the air and burning in less than an hour, focusing 90,000 watts of daylight exactly where its needed for the shot. In a line of work where time really is money, on a job where every second counts, any tool that can shave hours off the clock is worth the expense.

The filming took place on an unused section of runway where ground personnel could easily move the plane as necessary to accommodate the filming. The lighting crew arrived in late afternoon to get everything rigged, setting up and powering an array of 18,000 watt lamps (known as BFLs, for Big Fucking Lights) to illuminate the front and side of the jet, then running power cables in through the back door for dozens of smaller lamps placed inside the passenger cabin. While that work was underway, the Musco driver set up his rig well behind the plane, taking the huge array of lamps all the way up to provide a high, broad wash of backlight over the entire airplane. Once the lamps were set, there was nothing to do but wait for dark.

Most film shoots begin and end each day in a frenzy of activity, but the actual filming remains a meticulous process of tweaking the action and lighting until each shot is exactly right. This is particularly true of commercials, where the “look” must be letter-perfect before the camera rolls. Maintaining one’s concentration while working at such a deliberate pace isn’t easy, particularly on a night shoot. At first, everyone’s wide awake and hustling to get things done, but as the night grinds on, people get tired. Past midnight, attention tends to wander. By three in the morning, everybody on that runway was feeling the effect of tedium and fatigue: grips, juicers, prop men, camera assistants, and the production crew. With nothing to do but sit and wait, the airport’s ground crew had long since nodded off, along with their lone compatriot in the cockpit – who, it turned out, had been helping himself to a generous selection of tiny liquor bottles stocked in the galley.

It was then that the director decided something was wrong with the composition of his shot. There are two ways to fix a problem in composition: move the camera, or move the objects in front of the camera. For reasons that remain shrouded by mystery, the director decided to move the plane rather than adjust the camera position. Stirring to life, the yawning ground crew hooked the airliner’s front wheel to their tractor and dragged the plane into place, then cut it loose at the director’s signal. In their groggy haste, they neglected to block the wheel – which wouldn’t have mattered had their man in the cockpit not been sound asleep. As it turns out, airport runways are built on a slight grade to prevent the buildup of water during rainstorms, which is why ground crews always block the wheels of airplanes in case the internal brakes fail. But with the brakeman asleep at the wheel, there was nothing to prevent a the enormous airliner from rolling backwards. And so it did, almost imperceptibly at first, but in adherence to Newton’s immutable laws of gravity, steadily picking up speed.

There’s often an oddly frozen moment at the instant things start to go wrong in a really big way: a split-second that seems to last forever, during which everyone sees the shit plunging towards the whirling blades of the fan, but can’t quite grasp what’s actually happening. The enormity of the unfolding disaster seems to paralyze the collective mind until someone breaks the spell with a loud scream -- and then all hell breaks loose. There was shouting and screaming and frantic walkie-talkie calls to the man inside, still deep asleep and blissfully unaware of the impending calamity. With no way for ground crew to restrain a quarter million pounds of suddenly free-rolling airliner, the big plane ripped loose from the power cables running inside the passenger cabin, picking up speed as it headed directly for the Musco light. One of the rear wings struck the fully-extended hydraulic arm of the Musco like the blade of a guillotine, decapitating the huge light and sending the entire array of blazing lamps crashing onto the tarmac. The impact awakened the man inside, who managed to hit the brakes just as the plane crashed into the fence along the edge of the runway – which is all that kept that DC-10 from rolling out onto the four-lane expressway.

Needless to say, that was a wrap on one very expensive night. The Musco light was demolished – and with these big units in such high demand, its loss resulted in a ripple effect on countless other productions for weeks down the line. The no-longer shiny new DC-10 would require extensive repairs before being cleared to fly, upending the immediate travel plans of several hundred passengers while forcibly rearranging the airline’s schedule. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the guy who had to call corporate headquarters and explain what happened -- but he probably got off easier than that poor slob who fell asleep inside the plane.

A lot of money doubtless changed hands by the time the lawyers were done, but at least nobody got hurt. Given the forces set in motion that night, disaster avoided morphing into catastrophe by a very narrow margin. In the end, maybe that’s the best any of us can say after stumbling inside the Circle of Confusion: it could have been worse -- because things can always be worse.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Stunts























We spent the afternoon running power cables and placing lights around the Bronson Caves, a dry, dusty canyon carved deep into the hills of Griffith Park. It was late summer of 1981, four years into my career as a lighting technician in Hollywood. My phone rang the day before with an offer to “day play” (work for a day) as a “juicer” (lighting technician) on a low-budget feature film called The Sword and the Sorcerer. They’d be shooting a big night-exterior scene, and night work always means lots of lights and cable. At the time, I was still making the transition from the grind of low-budget features to the world of making television commercials, where the pay was much better and the work considerably less time-consuming. But I wasn’t there yet, and day-playing on features allowed me to work with old friends and make a little money. This promised to be a long one – all night and into the dawn -- but the beauty of day-playing is that it’s very much a temporary gig. You can put up with almost anything if it’s only for a day.

Besides, making movies was still fun back then.

As the sun dropped below the canyon rim, we took a break from laying cable to watch the filming of a stunt designed to simulate a man being thrown off a cliff to his death -- a murder that would spark one of the central dramatic conflicts in the story. Long an integral part of the cinematic experience, stunts represent the distilled essence of movie-making: using skill and artifice to create a convincing illusion. Watching a well-executed stunt is an education in itself, an experience drawn into very clear focus by the element of danger accompanied by an undeniable frisson of excitement. Early on, one of the fun things about working on feature films was getting to see a wide variety of stunts performed right before my eyes. It was a bit like going to the circus as a kid, watching the high-wire and trapeze artists toy with gravity under the big top – only now, I no longer had to buy a ticket.

Despite their rough-and-ready reputation, stunt men aren’t wide-eyed fools nursing a death wish: they’re professionals who want to get the job done and drive home in one piece at the end of the day, just like everyone else. The nature of their livelihood entails skating along the thin edge of disaster, but they work hard to minimize the risks. Every aspect of a stunt is meticulously planned and rehearsed until the actual performance becomes almost automatic. Very little is left to chance. But if the element of risk can be minimized with such thorough preparation, it cannot be eliminated altogether. Proper execution of the stunt is crucial. When the cameras finally roll, the stuntman and his team must do everything exactly right to avoid serious injury, or worse.

I found a spot across the canyon floor with a clear view. High on the cliff above the caves stood a man dressed in a medieval costume, playing a character about to be thrown to his cinematic death by the henchmen of an evil tyrant. The stuntman stood there, staring down at his target 65 feet below, a fully inflated airbag surrounded by boulders. He stared for a very long time. The crew waited, cameras ready, watching that lonely figure up there on the cliff. As the tension mounted, a nervous quiet settled in over the set. At last, the stuntman signaled a thumbs-up and stepped back from the edge, out of sight. An Assistant Director ordered the cameras to roll. When all were all up to speed, the director yelled “action!” Nothing happened for a long moment, the tense silence broken only by the mechanical whir of film rolling through cameras.

Suddenly, there he was. I stared upward, forgetting to breathe, watching that man run off the cliff into thin air.

I’d seen high falls before, the stuntman diving, arms extended to either side, feet slightly apart, in a graceful arc designed to plant him flat on his back in the center of the airbag. When properly executed, such a stunt ends with a loud “whump!” as the airbag absorbs and dissipates the enormous amount of energy his body picked up during the fall. The stuntman then leaps off the bag with a huge, adrenaline-fueled grin, shaking hands with everyone in sight. It's quite a sight when everything goes right. But if something goes wrong -- if he should land head or feet first, or off to one side of the bag -- that's trouble.

This fall looked all wrong. Instead of a smooth dive, the stuntman came off the cliff at a forty-five degree angle, head down, his arms and legs dog-paddling furiously. The thought flashed through my mind how realistic this seemed, as though it really was a man falling to his death rather than a carefully planned illusion. A heartbeat later, he hit with a sound I’ll never forget – a muted, crunching thump, as his legs hit the airbag while his entire upper body smashed onto the boulders.

A paralytic silence gripped the set, none of us quite able to believe what we’d just seen. A man on the special-effects crew ran to the crumpled body to attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was a futile gesture. Later, he told me the stunt man’s head, cradled in his hands, felt like a bag full of broken glass. A moment before he’d been alive, but now he was dead: I’d just watched a man throw himself off a cliff into eternity.

Someone laid a blanket over the body until the ambulance arrived. The rest of us milled around the set, unsure what to do. Some of the women sat down and cried, while the men stood stiff-legged in a stony, impenetrable silence, each of us trying to process what we’d just witnessed. Occasionally someone would look over at those bloody rocks, then shake their head. As twilight slipped into darkness, one of the producers emerged from the motor home and called a wrap. We were done filming at Bronson Caves, he said. We wouldn’t be coming back.

There was nothing left to do but begin the grim task of wrapping the heavy equipment and carrying it back to the trucks. One of the young grips, a kid barely into his twenties, tripped and dropped an armload of C- stands. Close to tears, he unleashed a gushing torrent of profanity. By the time the trucks were packed, only the grips and juicers were left, along with the two drivers. A case of beer appeared. Somebody passed the hat, taking up a collection for the wife and baby of the dead stuntman. His name, I learned, was Jack Tyree. We sat there in a darkness lit by the glow of cigarettes, drinking beer and talking deep into the night.

I wish I could report that some sort of epiphany came out of this -- a profound realization to make sense of it all and put Jack Tyree’s death in perspective. Like everybody else on the crew, he’d gotten up that morning and gone to work to earn a paycheck – in his case, $1200, so I heard. That was a healthy chunk of change back in 1981, but hardly worth dying for. While the rest of us drove home to bed and a restless night, Jack Tyree was already there, in the words of Raymond Chandler, sleeping “the big sleep.”

My phone rang much too early the next morning. It was the Best Boy, asking me to come back and work on “The Sword and the Sorcerer” for another day, filming on a soundstage that served as the production company’s home base for the duration of the shoot. This was the very last thing I wanted to do, but turning down work is considered a cardinal sin in the freelance world, where one dares not risk angering the fickle Gods of Hollywood. Besides, the crew needed help -- and in a way, I was still looking for some kind of closure on that awful night before. I got dressed and drove to the stage a couple of miles west of downtown Los Angeles, then worked with the set lighting crew until we all broke for lunch. As we headed back on stage afterwards, the Best Boy called me into his “office” – a tiny desk with a chair in the lighting truck.

“You’re going back to Bronson Canyon,” he said. “We need a couple of guys to hang lights inside the cave.”

“The same lights we wrapped last night?”

"That's right," he sighed, with a weary shrug.

And so I found myself back at the scene of the crime, hanging and powering lights inside the cave at a location the producer had solemnly promised, not 24 hours before, we’d never see again. This wasn’t the epiphany I’d been seeking, much less closure, but rather a crude, that’s-the-way-it-is affirmation of the oldest cliché in show biz: the show must go on.

Haul away the wounded, bury the dead, and get back to work...

Hollywood movies are highly contrived dramas designed to hook and hold our interest for a couple of hours. People go to the movies expecting to see a seamlessly executed illusion: a good story well told, featuring interesting characters who face and overcome situations more starkly dramatic than anything most of us ever encounter in real life. A good movie casts a spell allowing us to forget our own problems for a little while. In those movies, characters often suffer horrible, graphic deaths, but no matter how convincing the illusion, the audience knows deep down that it’s all make-believe. Other than the occasional bent and bloodthirsty sociopath lurking in the dark, nobody goes to a movie hoping to see actual injury or death up there on the screen, but it happens more often than most civilians realize. Unless a well-known actor is involved, the outside world rarely hears about these accidents, but film industry workers are injured or killed on the job every year.* Dozens have died on sets over the thirty years I’ve been in Hollywood. A camera operator and a stunt woman I’d worked with early in my career were later killed while filming other projects – he in a helicopter crash during the filming of a music video, she when what was supposed to be a controlled fall from the roof of a two-story house went terribly wrong. The Industry throws a thick blanket over news of such accidents, keeping them under cover with the rest of Hollywood’s dirty little secrets.

“The Sword and the Sorcerer” was released in the Spring of 1982, and went on to gross nearly forty million dollars -- not bad for an independent film that cost in the neighborhood of two million dollars to make. The producers honored Jack Tyree in the credits, and I can only hope they steered some portion of those considerable profits to his widow and child. Despite Hollywood’s long tradition of paying little more than lip service to worthy causes or those in need, there really are decent people sprinkled throughout this industry who quietly go about their business doing good things -- but I have no idea if the producers of “The Sword and the Sorcerer” are among them.

It’s been nearly thirty years since I watched Jack Tyree plunge to his death, but the image remains burned into my brain. We'll never know why that stunt went so wrong. Some of the veteran crew members told me they’d never seen a stunt man stare down at his airbag for such a long time before performing a high fall. Maybe he psyched himself out. Maybe he tripped, or his feet somehow got tangled in that final instant before he plunged into the void. Maybe all of the above. All I know is that in the thousands of days I’ve worked since that grim evening – on feature films, television shows, commercials, and music videos -- I haven’t had to watch anyone else die, and for that I’m grateful.

But one thing changed in a big way for me on that ugly day: I don’t like to watch stunts anymore.


* Vic Morrow, R.I.P.