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)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Mother Ship

Just another day in Hollywood, shooting the “meat pipe.”

The manner in which employee parking is allocated on major studio lots reveals much about the class structure of the Industry. At CBS Radford, for instance, the VIP above-the-liners -- producers, directors, high level executives, and actors – usually have their names on parking spaces very near the sound stage where their show is made. Their lesser production brethren (who also end their work days with clean hands and clothes) are assigned parking on the first three levels of the six floor parking structure down by the great concrete ditch of the LA river. Everyone else – including those of us who grunt, sweat, and get dirty doing the heavy lifting – must park on a first-come, first-served basis on the 4th, 5th, and 6th floors. With their ungodly 4 to 5 a.m. calls, construction and set painters get the choice spots near the elevators, followed by rigging and episodic crews, who usually arrive between 6 and 7 a.m. Needless to say, there are very few cars on the first three levels at that hour, but as the sun rises in the East, the 4th floor up is jammed like a mall parking lot the day after Thanksgiving.

I guess those above-the-liners really do need their beauty sleep.

None of this applies to a juicer working on a sit-com, who enjoys a uniquely varying daily schedule -- but since I don’t have show right now, I join the rest of my fellow work-bots waking up in the dark, then squinting into that rising sun while driving in great elongated ellipses all the way up to the fifth or sixth floor of the parking structure. Such is the nature of life, where we must accept the bad with the good, even while hoping for more of the latter than the former. In that light, it’s useful to remember that things can always be worse: at the dusty, dank gulag of Paramount, for instance, riggers and crew members must pay for the privilege of parking in dark, cramped multi-tiered structures outside the studio gates, across heavily traveled streets on the Eastern and Western flanks of the lot. I've been there, done that, and don’t really want to go back.

I left my car on the fifth floor at Radford the other morning and took the open stairway down, enjoying a panoramic view of the studio. The parking structure elevators move at a geriatric pace, and although I’m in no real hurry to put on the work gloves, I avoid those elevators as much as possible. They’ve been known to get stuck between floors on occasion, and being trapped in an elevator full of extras freaked out about being late to the set – some of whom have driven a long way and will need to find a bathroom soon -- is not my idea of a good time.

Although many shows have gone down recently – the most senior of those being “According to Jim,” which ran more seasons than anyone thought possible before making its final exit to the great sit-com stage in the sky – some productions are still going strong, notably “CSI New York.” The shooting crew was back on the lot this particular morning, returning from four days filming on location – four days out/four days in being their usual routine. Five big 40-footers were parked outside the stage on the south side of the parking structure: the grip truck, electric, special effects, camera, and wardrobe, each being supplied with electricity via long black cables snaking out from the stage. A couple of dozen male and female extras in varying sizes, shapes, ages, and colors stood shivering in the morning chill at the tailgate of the wardrobe truck, waiting to receive their thespian garb du jour – uniforms of the cops, civilians, detectives, doctors, nurses, or forensic lab workers they would portray as “background action” for this particular episode. The alley beyond was bustling with activity, grips pushing carts laden with sandbags and C stands, while the juicers rolled several big Maxi Brutes mounted on Road Runner stands in through the big stage door. Teamsters were jockeying their stake-bed trucks into position, the carcinogenic stench of diesel exhaust mingling with the endlessly irritating beep-beep-beep of commercial vehicles backing up. Around the corner, away from the vortex of noise and confusion, sat the big catering truck, serving a stand-up breakfast to the cast and crew.

The Mother Ship was in.

I did the first season of “CSI-NY" working on the Insert Unit, which had a relatively easy schedule of two or three 12 hour days each week, filming on whatever stage was convenient while first unit was out on location. We worked with a small crew -- a gaffer, me, and couple of grips, along with a D.P., camera operator, camera assistant, prop man, and a two-man prosthetics crew. Occasionally one of the special effects guys would make an appearance to create bullet hits or explosions of one sort or another, but most of their crew was out on location, dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Our job was to shoot all the “insert shots” First Unit couldn’t get around to during their 12 to 14 hour work days. This usually meant doing abstract close-ups in the forensics lab, computer room, autopsy room (creepy, that) or other parts of the vast set. Much of what we did were what I called the “meat pipe” shots – the very odd P.O.V. (point of view) shots that remain the distinguishing feature of the CSI franchise. Since every episode dealt with a murder of some sort, our task was to create P.O.V. shots as the murder weapon passed into and through whatever internal human organs were destined to suffer the death-dealing trauma -- shot, stabbed, crushed, or burned -- in a given week’s episode. Sometimes the lens would chart a bullet’s course entering an abdomen, a knife slicing a throat, or for one particular show, the interior of a man’s chest cavity being crushed by an immense weight of a shipping container. The prosthetics crew created these filmable body parts by layering rubbery, flesh-toned plastic inside and outside a thin-walled piece of PVC tubing of the proper diameter -- a "meat pipe." Once an appropriate quantity of dark red movie blood was added, the results could be disturbingly realistic.

To light these shots, we’d pound the biggest, hottest lamps we had at very close range into the designated meat pipe, trying to get the shot before the whole thing melted, using special thin tubular lenses that could be inserted deep into any cavity. The whole process was rather disgusting at first, but soon became routine – and as you can imagine, the resulting black humor from all involved was as funny as it was unprintable. As countless generations of cops, hospital workers, and soldiers have learned, laughter really can help get you through a long, gory day.

It wasn’t a bad job, really. Three 12 hour days a week weren’t enough to grow fat on, but the job kept my bills paid while leaving me with a four day weekend. Although we always seemed to face an endless list of insert shots for various episodes, the work proceeded at a reasonable pace without all the self-important huffing, puffing, and shushing of the first unit shooting crew. Isolated from their high-pressure anxiety, we didn’t get ground into the dirt.

When the Mother Ship was in, though, things weren’t quite so relaxed. As the mere Insert Unit, our schedule was of no importance. First Unit had priority over all three stages, so if we happened to be set up where they wanted to shoot, we’d have to scurry out of their way like cockroaches spooked by the kitchen light, dragging our equipment carts, lamps, and props off to another stage. Much of the time that meant shooting on a stage where more sets for future episodes were under construction, working amidst the primal screams of wood being ripped apart and devoured by power tools. This was not so much fun -- breathing clouds of fine sawdust and paint fumes all day tends to make me very cranky.

But in tune with the cosmic order of the universe, it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and the Mother Ship was accompanied by support vehicles -- namely a craft service truck laden with tasty treats -- along with a caterer providing hot meals, which allowed us to avoid paying for breakfast and lunch at the studio commissary. It’s easy to blow twenty dollars a day in that commissary, which adds up after a while. As for the work itself, the only real advantage to having the Mother Ship close was being able to borrow a couple of BFL's from the electric truck when necessary. Not much of a perk, that, but you take what you can get.

Best of all, once we’d logged our 12 hours – and the production manager had very strict rules about the lowly Insert Crew costing him money by going into double-time – we were done for the day, heading home while First Unit slogged on into the dark night. It’s not that I wished ill upon our brothers and sisters on the shooting crew, mind you, but there’s always something a little bit sweeter in being released from bondage while others continue to suffer.

Human nature is a nasty little beast.

My tenure on CSINY ended after Season One. Wholesale crew turnover is common in episodic television, especially in the early, grueling years of any show, and this was no exception. The new Insert Unit DP brought his own crew along, so I did the Hollywood freelance shuffle, moving on to other opportunities. Industry veterans know what this is all about, but for any of you who might suffer delusions that the freelance life sounds somehow cinematically romantic (like a cowboy strapping his bedroll to the saddle, then mounting up and riding into the setting sun), it’s not. We’re more like itinerant farm workers, really – braceros -- going from crop to crop as the harvest rolls in. And that’s in good times -- in not so good times (like now), a more accurate comparison might be with dumpster divers, foraging for food and whatever else we can find amid the stinking alleys deep in the shadows of that big white sign in the Hollywood Hills.

But such is the Faustian bargain we all struck when first embarking on an Industry life – and having made that particular bed, here we must sleep.


Nathan said...

In case you don't read Ken Levine's blog, here's a somewhat on-topic post.

And if you're not reading it, you should be.

D said...

Interestingly, I noticed a couple of weeks ago that the writer/ associate producer of my show's current episode is parking in the structure (at The Lot) on the 4th floor with me. I then noticed that the two main leads are parking in the structure one floor below me. It's almost like we're a family!

Unknown said...

Does "BFL" stand for what I think it does? "Big [expletive deleted] Light?"

Michael Taylor said...

Nathan -- We should all be reading Ken Levine's blog -- he's been there and back, and has the stories to prove it.

D -- I hate that parking structure at "The Lot" -- narrow, cramped, and hard to get into/out of without hitting somebody or their car. But hey, at least production picks up the tab. Hope you're back on a warm, dry stage these days rather than out in the rain...

Anonymous --You guessed it. "BFL" is slang, of course, not something you'll find in the Mole Richardson catalog.

Nathan said...


I could be wrong, but I could have sworn that William F. White (Canada) used to call their version of the Musco, the BFL (for real).