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Sunday, November 23, 2008
Working in a Winter Wonderland
Early morning on location in Vermont, December 1987. We were still using the old DC cable on this movie, and this snow was all too real...
Not so long ago, I touched on the subject of working with artificial snow. Here, we wander a bit deeper into the powder...
Not being a native of the Southern California urban desert, I very much appreciate working on sound stages during the fierce heat waves that so often bring the hellish wrath of an Old Testament God down upon us during the spring, summer, and fall. The industrial strength air-conditioning units that cool these stages don’t come cheap, though, and few producers would dream of squandering company money simply to keep the crew from being miserable – in their eyes, we’re entirely expendable -- but rather to ensure that the actors stay as cool and happy as possible. It seems these sensitive creatures don’t like it hot.
Neither do I.
Sound stages exist to provide an artificial environment – in effect, a weather-proof bubble -- in which any desired cinematic reality can be created and maintained as long as necessary. Such artifice comes at the cost of cubic dollars for stage rental, equipment, and a small army of skilled workers to build, dress, and light the sets in preparation for filming. Much of that expense can be avoided by filming on a suitable location at the right time of year, but those savings are often held hostage (and then some) by the many complications that come with working out in the real world. Although the outside weather is immaterial when shooting on stage, it can become the crucial factor for location shoots -- especially television commercials. Although the production manager of a feature film can often divert the crew to an indoor "cover set", television commercials rarely have that option. A few days of unexpected rain can keep actors and crew of a commercial shoot in the hotel bar, blowing their per diem on Bud Lite, Tequila Shooters, and video games while the budget follows all that rainfall down the drain. Most productions carry some kind of weather insurance, but that only goes so far. This is one reason the fledgling film biz headed west in the early days of the Industry: with a guaranteed three hundred-plus sunny days a year (and snow only in the mountains), Southern California was an ideal place to make movies.
Modern satellite technology has made predicting the weather more reliable than in the past, but meteorology remains an imprecise science, and anytime time a producer has to make a weather-based decision, he or she is walking the high wire without a net.
When the script of a movie or television show calls for snow, a producer faces two choices: take the production company to the snow, or bring the snow to the production company. The former presents serious (and hugely expensive) physical challenges. Real snow usually means winter, when daylight hours are much shorter. If the script calls for lots of day exterior scenes, a longer schedule will be required to get the work done, and that means more money. Then there’s the matter of actually dealing with the cold: snow and ice are hard on film equipment, most of which is designed for use in temperate climes. Cameras and batteries don’t like sub-freezing temperatures, while generators, trucks, and picture vehicles can be balky and hard to start. The big HMI lamps we use to simulate and enhance daylight run the daily risk of catastrophic failure as their quartz bulbs go from below freezing to something like 3000 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes. Cable becomes stiff and unwieldy in cold weather, and as snow falls on warm electrical equipment, it can melt and seep through the cracks. Since mixing water and electricity is seldom a good idea, the juicers must cover everything well enough to keep the snow off, but not so tightly that the HMI ballasts overheat.
Working in the cold is hard on people, too. Although the snow was beautiful up there in Vermont, the harsh conditions made that job a particularly draining ordeal. I did another job (a Lexus commercial) that required us to spend three long days filming exteriors on the cold, slippery surface of an ice lake in the mountains of Colorado, during the depths of winter. It took a while to thaw out and recover from both of those jobs.
When a producer wants the look of snow without the expense, hassle, and inconvenience of shooting the real thing, it’s up to the special effects crew to fake it. My first experience with this came in the early 80’s, while working a commercial in the gritty warehouse district of downtown LA. The spot required us to create a Chicago street scene in mid-winter, complete with traffic jams and a small army of pedestrians bundled up in heavy clothing and rain/snow gear – and this, on a 100 + degree day in late July. The special effects crew sprayed the entire intersection with some kind of white soapy foam to simulate snowdrifts, then spent the rest of the day shoveling endless buckets of plastic “snow flakes” through huge wooden blades of Ritter fans to create the look and feel of a howling blizzard.
That no Chicago snowstorm would have a big bright sun beaming down through the clouds didn’t seem to bother anybody in “video village,” where the producer, director, agency and clients clustered under the shade. There was no such shade for us on the crew, of course, manning our big DC carbon-arc lights behind those “snowdrifts”, but at least we were clad in the standard summer work uniform of T shirts, shorts, and sunglasses. The poor actors suffered horribly, sweating their lives away under thick wool coats and rubber rain slickers in that broiling heat, their misery compounded by the nearly 14 hours of filmable daylight available in July. It was a long day for everybody, but while the crew’s main problem was avoiding sunburn, those actors had to labor under threat of heatstroke.
Experiencing the seasonally-surreal is standard operating procedure for Industry workers. Years ago, I did a series of “Murph 76” commercials featuring the granite-faced Richard Slattery, who seemed born for the role of a crusty-but-benign gas station owner named “Murph.”* With his youthful, mustachioed sidekick "Bobby," and a perky-and-pony-tailed female gas pump jockey named "Jill," they formed an ensemble along the lines of “All in the Family” (minus Edith), with “Murph” as the grumpy patriarch.
Most of those spots were filmed at a Union 76 gas station just beyond the parking lot at Dodger Stadium, always on a non-game day. Most were shot in daylight hours, but when it came time for the Christmas commercial, the agency came up with a Murph-as-Santa Claus spot – and that meant an all-night shoot. Since every night shoot begins the day before, we arrived in early afternoon to lay out the cable (4’0, naturally) and build six carbon arc lights on double parallels (a portable steel scaffold, in this case, about 12 feet high) arranged in a wide semi-circle around the front of the gas station. As twilight settled in, the special effects crew sprayed the gas station and surrounding area with lots of that soapy foam to simulate snow.
My job was to sit up on one of those parallels and operate my arc. This was considered sweet** duty, since you can’t just turn on a carbon arc and walk away. A carbon arc lamp is essentially a giant arc welder encased in a metal housing, with a lens at one end. Once the lamp has been "struck" -- the two 1/2 inch thick carbon rods brought together to start the flame, then pulled apart the proper distance to maintain it -- those rods are fed together by a motor-driven worm gear. The resulting electric flame must be constantly monitored and kept in proper adjustment to ensure a smooth, even light from the lamp. As those carbons burn down, they have to be replaced with fresh ones – a process called “trimming” – wherein the lamp is shut down and opened up, exposing the hot machinery and glowing red carbons. Installing new carbons isn’t particularly difficult, but handling any red-hot item demands one’s full attention. Operating an arc is a full-time job -- you can’t run off to work on the set, where all the yelling and screaming usually takes place. You just sit up there next to your big hot lamp and watch the circus of chaos unfold down below.
Like I said, sweet.
By the time darkness fell, the gas station really did look like a winter wonderland, deep in snow and glowing with Christmas lights. Something wasn’t right, though, because they kept fiddle-fucking around for hours before getting the first shot. Even then, the process seemed to take a lot longer than usual. It wasn’t until nearly 2:00 in the morning that “Murph” finally emerged from his motor home/dressing room, wearing a red and white suit stuffed with pillows, and the big white beard of Santa Claus. Whatever caused the delay, “Murph” had apparently filled those empty hours with a quantity of booze, and was now as well-lit as the gas station, his nose and cheeks glowing without the help of makeup.
I couldn’t really hear what was happening, but saw lots of arm waving and jaw flapping before the director finally was able to run “Murph” through his paces. Burned in my mind’s eye is the image of this drunken Santa Claus staggering around in the soapy snow under the glare of half a dozen arc lamps, with the enormous dark saucer of Dodger Stadium looming in the distance -- and beyond, the glass towers of downtown LA glittering in the pre-dawn gloom.
This moment crystallized for me the realization that I’d finally become a part of the Hollywood Machine, if only as a tiny cog among thousands in the vast array of spinning gears. Whether I truly belonged in this world of professional artifice (or would manage to carve out any sort of long-term future in the form of an Industry career) was very much unclear at the time, but I can still see that absurd scene as if it happened yesterday. In that single shining moment, I took one large metaphorical step back to view the distance I’d come: a kid who grew up milking goats in the chilly evenings of rural Northern California, now living and working in the shadow of that famous Hollywood sign.
I don't know if this was a true epiphany, or if I was just tired. Both, perhaps, but like most such moments of profound clarity, it didn’t last long. The night dragged on until the Eastern sky turned from black to gray. They cameras kept rolling until the sun finally came up – and then the director, actors and all but a couple of production people went home. It wasn't long before we juicers were the only ones left, with a single yawning production assistant watching us wrap several thousand pounds of wet, soapy, and very heavy cable under the heat of the slowly rising sun.
I didn't know it then, but I would re-live similar night-into-day scenes many times over in the years to come, with and without the phony snow. And although I really hate working nights, I have to admit that after suffering through the long hours of darkness, the coming of the dawn is truly magical.
Until it's time to start wrapping all that cable, anyway, at which point I'm just happy to be working in fake snow rather than the real thing.
*This was back in the days before self-serve gas, when we fueled up at a “service station” that had a mechanic on duty to perform whatever repairs a car might need to get back on the road. You can see some of those “Murph 76” ads here (although not the Xmas spot, unfortunately.)
** The modern equivalent of this is condor duty, but since condors go much higher than parallels or floaters, I find condor duty a rather isolating experience. Some juicers love this splendid isolation -- they yak on their cell phones, listen to Ipods, watch portable televisions, or just got to sleep up there, high over the set. To each his own, I suppose, but all things being equal (which they never are), I’d rather sit on a parallel, tending my old carbon arc...