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Sunday, October 11, 2009
The Kids Are Alright
"Young men think old men are fools; but old men know young men are fools."
Having your show canceled – in effect, your horse shot out from under you -- is part of the deal here in Hollywood. Shit happens in this and every other industry town, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you happen to be so well connected that a phone call or two can result in a slot on another show (and such people do exist), then you’re one of the lucky few. If not (that would be me), its back to the hunter-gatherer life of the freelance juicer.
And that means day-playing.
Thanks to the miracle of Facebook, I was recently able to land gigs day-playing on three different episodics over the course of four days work -- a cable show in its second season, and two network dramas. Every member of these lighting crews was considerably younger than me (most by more than twenty years), which set up an unfamiliar and decidedly awkward dynamic. As the odd man out – a total stranger suddenly in their midst – it was me, the old guy, who had to prove himself rather than the other way around.
That’s not so easy when you walk on a stage for the first time. A sound stage is a cavernous enclosure crammed full to the point of absurdity with sets, set dressing, and all sorts of film equipment. There’s rarely enough room for a central storage area to keep the "floor package" (lamps on stands used to light each individual shot in a scene), or all the other ready-to-use lighting equipment, which means it gets temporarily stored in various spots all over the stage. Since the core crew is there day-to-day, they have a good idea where things are at any given moment, but a day-player comes in blind. In that situation, I take a slow walk all around the stage to locate the power drops, distro boxes, and equipment carts. This helps, but only to a certain degree. Many gaffers these days bring their own special lighting equipment to each job –- non-standard (often home-built) lamps they rent to the production company -- which makes it all the harder for the day-playing new/old guy to come up to speed on set.
The beginning of such a day is always humbling: while the rest of the crew darts around the stage setting up and adjusting lamps in a flash, the old guy stumbles around in the dark getting in the way and desperately trying to be useful. This isn't much fun, especially when you don’t know anybody on the crew, but if you pay attention and keep plugging away, it all begins to fall into place – and only then (once you’ve shown you’re not a complete waste of food), will the rest of the crew finally accept your presence.
The dues-paying in this business – proving yourself – is a continual process that morphs over time, but never ceases from the start of any career all the way to the finish line. The only factor that changes is which side of the equation you happen to be on at any given point.
Like most people of a certain age, I’ve done my share of head-shaking and tongue-clucking while eyeing the younger generation – their addictive worship of cell phones and all things digital, their blasé attitude towards using turn signals while driving, and of course, their music. Although I do hear the occasional Rap or Hip-Hop tune that gets my toes tapping, the appeal of these musical genres eludes me for the most part. There’s still good new music being made out there, but it’s getting harder for me to find.
That’s all as it should be: this is their generation’s music, not mine.
Older generations have always tended to dismiss those coming up on their heels as insubstantial lightweights unable to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. This happens in life (my dad made sure I was continually reminded of my own many shortcomings) and on the job, where the old guys invariably hold a skeptical view of the newbies.
“Hell, I had to walk twelve miles through the snow everyday to school – and it was uphill both ways! Kids today don’t know how easy they've got it.”
Most of you have heard something along those lines, and know exactly what I’m talking about...
Kids do things their own way, often ignoring the disciplines that shaped their elders while responding to the realities and culture of their own time. This irritates the old folks, who then find endless ways to piss off the kids by insisting on the Old Ways without bothering to explain why. "Just shut up and do it" isn't something anybody wants to hear. To a certain extent, this is the time-honored, high-friction process of the old grudgingly giving way to the new, with both sides right and wrong in roughly equal measures. The kids really do need to learn the rules of any craft so they'll know which of those rules they can ignore if necessary to solve a particularly tricky problem on set -- and learning the rules is extremely important for anyone whose job requires handling large quantities of electricity on a daily basis. But the older guys need to realize that changing times and the tsunami of new technology really have made this a New Day in the Industry. The kids are riding the crest of this digital revolution, and know how to make the new technology work in ways undreamed of ten years ago.
We have just as much to learn from them as they do from us.
By the end of those four days, I’d worked with something like 20 juicers who were new to me -- young men and women from all over the country (Boston, New York, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado, among other far-flung locales), along with a few native Angelenos. All in all, I was tremendously impressed. These kids knew their stuff, were very hard workers, and had a great sense of humor. We might not agree on every choice of music or political stance, but on the job, these young people were just terrific.
I have no idea what’s going to happen with the Industry in the years to come. The existing economic models that grew and sustained the film and television business for generations are crumbling under our feet, and nobody seems quite sure just what will take their place. In that sense, the future remains decidedly murky, but with such great young people coming up through the ranks, I have no doubt that whatever happens, the backbone of this Industry -- the people who do the heavy lifting -- remains strong.
With their hustle, enthusiasm, and good humor, these kids were a blast to work with. By the end of each day, I felt honored to have been a member of their crew, however briefly. Say what you will about the younger generation, but as far as I’m concerned, the kids are alright.*
* Truman Capote’s quote holds true in a general philosophical sense, but ignores the fact that from birth 'til death, life makes fools of us all, time and again.