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Sunday, March 15, 2009
Hurry Up and Wait
Nothing quite sells "tragedy" like blood on the snow...
“The waiting is the hardest part...”
From "The Waiting," by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Another day, another dead blonde. It was a young mother this time, stabbed and left to bleed to death in a snowdrift by our brooding psycho-killer. She was very attractive, of course, this being episodic television, where beauty is so often a fatal affliction. There she lay in her own backyard, next to a little snowman she'd helped her young son make.
That’s how it read in the script, anyway, but in reality, the art department built the snowman after special effects sprayed a mysteriously fine white powder all over the set, then brought in an industrial-strength chipper to blow nearly a foot of freshly chipped ice into the back yard. The resulting “snow” was cold, wet, and slippery, just like the real thing.
The “backyard” looked real too, but was actually just a wide driveway enclosed by a couple of fences built for the occasion, then dressed with patio furniture to compete the illusion. It all looked very convincing on camera, though; the lovely blonde lying there, eyes closed in the stillness of simulated death, her crimson movie blood staining the cold white snow.
Sometimes I wonder about this business, but working on a crime drama inevitably means depicting Bad Things happening to Good People. Still, there’s no denying it’s a bit weird to see all these dead bodies in the course of a day’s work.
At least they’re not real. If I’d somehow ended up an LA cop instead of a juicer (fat chance of that happening), I’d be dealing with seriously authentic bloody mayhem every week rather than the cruelty-free cinematic variety. I’d also have a much more lucrative retirement to look forward to, but I’m not sure the haunting memories of all that human carnage would be worth it.
There’s a reason cops suffer such a high rate of suicide.
We shot the snowy exteriors during the cool of the morning, then went inside. By the time we’d lit the tiny, cramped duplex, then shoehorned the camera, DP, camera crew, gaffer, first AD and the boom man inside – oh, and the actors – the only place left for a juicer to remain out of the shot (and ready to make any necessary adjustments to the lighting) was the bathroom shower.
I left that task for one of the core crew, escaping back outside to stay by two HMI par lights blowing in through the windows and front door. With no apple boxes handy, I turned one of the par's lens cases on its side (sitting on the handle is quite literally a pain in ass), and sat down to wait.
We do a lot of waiting in this business, but it’s not the tap-your-toe-and-sigh experience of standing in line the Post Office, DMV, or the Laundromat, wishing the spin cycle would wring the excess rinse water from your soggy wash a little faster. The clock doesn’t really matter in episodic television, where crews are doomed to work at least 12 hours every day no matter what -- and those are the short days. The longer days can stretch out from 14 to 18 hours, depending on the budget, the contract you happen to be working under, the director, and the actors. The only meaningful way to measure each day's progress is by the scheduled pages left on the call sheet, which means you don't allow yourself to get caught up in watching the seconds/minutes/hours tick away. That way lies madness. To cope with the long hours, I gear down into an odd sort of emotional four-wheel drive, an I'm-here-to-work-endurance mode that dulls the tedium of grinding out the day one shot at a time.
Never having been locked up, I can’t say for sure, but episodic television always feels a bit like serving a jail sentence – taking each day as it comes, and never allowing yourself to look too far ahead. The money and food are a lot better in Hollywood than in prison, though, and you don’t have to worry about getting raped on set – a real plus, that. Besides, if you really hate the job, you can always quit, an option not open to those in the Big House.
Working on first unit requires you to exist in a strange state of tense limbo, quietly vigilant between rapid bursts of highly-focused physical activity. As a juicer, I have to remain alert to anything involving electrical power or lighting the set. We keep an eye on the light cast by our lamps, looking for any flickering or inconsistency that might indicate a problem with the generator, ballast, or head. When we detect the distinctive reek of something “cooking”, we inspect all the cables and ballasts until the problem is identified, then decide whether this constitutes an emergency requiring immediate action (which means making the director and cast wait while we replace the damaged piece of equipment), or if the slowly melting cable or connector can last until that shot is done. All the while we’re monitoring the walkie-talkies, ready for any changes the gaffer or DP might suddenly demand. Some DP’s will shoot five takes, then decide to make a slight adjustment to a lamp – add a single, make it a double, take it up, drop it down, pan it right a hair, tilt it up or down an RCH -- then lock it off.
So I sit on that hard little lens case and wait, listening to the radio chatter. The sun is high now, beating down on all that gradually melting ice on the other side of the fence. As the resulting water seeps under the fence, a small but steadily-growing pool forms. After hour or so, it’s six feet long, three feet across, and four inches deep, the water tinged red from all that movie blood.
Whenever my civilian friends happen upon a film crew in public, they invariably report how boring it all looks. “Nothing was happening,” they complain. “Everybody just stood around doing nothing.”
Welcome to Hollywood, where something’s always happening, even if the untrained civilian eye can’t detect it. In a way, a film crew is like a football team, except where each gridiron club has two basic units within the team – offense and defense – a film crew has several. Long before first unit arrives, the set decorators show up with truckloads of furniture to turn the location into whatever it’s supposed to be for the given show – a doctor’s office, body shop, strip club, whatever. If we’re filming in someone’s home, a layout board guy/crew will come in to put down a protective layer of heavy cardboard over the hardwood floors and rugs.
First on location is usually the location manager or his/her assistant, followed by an armada of teamsters driving the equipment trucks. At this point, the actors are usually dressed in the appropriate wardrobe and sitting in the hair/makeup chairs, being buffed, puffed, and teased to a state of cinematic perfection. Meanwhile, the grip and electric crews are unloading and staging their equipment for the first shot of the day.
With any luck (and a fat enough budget), a set-lighting rigging crew has already put in the main cable run from the location set to the power source – usually a generator that may or may not have arrived yet. If the production won’t spring for a rigging crew, the first-unit juicers have to lay the cable, raising the first serious sweat of the day.
It won’t be the last.
The camera crew is now assembling their cameras for whatever mode is needed: a steadicam, dolly, crane, sticks, or hand-held. Second assistants load film into the appropriate magazines (thousand footers, generally, or 400 foot mags for steadicam or hand-held use) – and if the production has left the 20th Century chemical-based world of film to go digital, they’re busy patching together the hi-def cameras and running thick cables from each cameras back to the digi-tech tent, where the $20,000+ high-def monitor will live.
Meanwhile, the director is on set planning exactly how he wants to shoot the scene so he can block and rehearse the first shot. Once he's happy, we light the shot using stand-ins, as the grips follow along with the appropriate diffusion and flags to soften and cut the light.
Finally, the call goes out for “last looks” – making sure the actors are perfectly coiffed, costumed, and propped for the scene – and only then are we ready to shoot. A small army of people has done a lot of fast, precise work to reach this moment of readiness, when the director can finally call “action.”
Civilians rarely see any of this. They generally come along in late morning or early afternoon, well after the great frenzy of getting The Machine up and rolling is over and done -- and at that point, we're deep into hurry-up-and wait mode. On this day, we'll do dozens of shots from dawn until well after dark. To make it work, and stay on schedule, each “team” – set decorators, grips, electric, camera, wardrobe, makeup, hair, and production -- has to stay a step or two ahead of the game, always preparing for the next shot.
Until this particular shot is in the can, I have to stick close to my lamps. Much as I dislike wearing a walkie-talkie, it does allow me to wander as far as the craft service table around the back of the duplex. When Nature calls and I need to visit the “honeywagon” (a three minute walk down the street), I announce a “ten-one" on the radio (short for "10-100") and wait for a response – that way, the rest of the outside crew will know to cover me should one of my lamps need adjusting. Once I hear an acknowledgement, it's on them to cover me -- and meanwhile, I’ve covered my own ass.
Much of this business comes down to just that: covering your ass – not as a bureaucratic maneuver to shift the blame on someone else, but simply to make sure our crew's responsibilities are carried out in a prompt and efficient manner. Were I to head for the honeywagon without informing the rest of the crew, the gaffer would look bad inside when his orders to adjust the aim of a lamp didn’t get an immediate response. If the gaffer looks bad, the rest of us look bad -- and that is definitely not good.
To keep our gaffer – and thus the rest of the crew – looking good, we always make sure our collective ass is covered. This constant vigilance on the part of each department is the grease that keeps the wheels of The Machine running smoothly.
And so it goes, cranking out shot after shot until mid-afternoon, when we finally break for lunch, nearly two hours late. After lunch, we start prepping for the night exterior scene, pulling all the tungsten lamps off the truck and deploying them around the front yard and out into the street. It’s not a complicated sequence, but at night, it's up to us to supply all the illumination, and that takes just about every tungsten lamp we’ve got.
It’s the old bitter joke about “shooting available light,” which normally refers to filming with daylight only, using no movie lamps at all -- but in this case, it means shooting with every light available.
In other words, empty the truck.
We finally get it all done sometime after ten, then wrap as fast as possible, piling into the last van back to base camp around 11:30. It’s been a long two days, but at least I’ll get to sleep in. The company will shoot on stage the following day, and won’t need any extra hands until Friday. That’s the good news: I’ll get a day to rest up, then one more work day this week to pad my paycheck. The bad news is that Friday is a night shoot -- movies-‘til dawn -- way down at one of those big theme parks on Beach Boulevard, deep behind the Orange Curtain.
That’ll be fun.