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)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Play it Hot

Because shit happens...

Each of us discovers the incredible power of electricity in our own ways: Ben Franklin dangled a key from a kite in a thunderstorm, Thomas Edison electrocuted live animals in public (cats, dogs, horses, and even an elephant), while Nikola Tesla came up with wireless radio (among other things), and developed electrical theories that formed the basis of a second Industrial Revolution.

My portal of discovery involved a bobby pin my sister had left lying around, and a wall socket -- those two parallel slots so mysterious and inviting. One moment I was sitting there, spreading that bobby pin apart just enough so it would slide into those two slots, and the next instant I was being shaken to pieces at 60 cycles per second, like a rat in the jaws of a terrier. For what seemed like an eternity -- but very likely lasted only a fraction of a second -- I felt as if the Devil himself had turned me into a human jackhammer.

This happened fifty years ago, but the intensity of that moment remains burned into my brain like it was yesterday. I didn’t say anything to my parents, of course – there was no need to be reminded that that I’d once again done Something Stupid, for which the punishment had already been forcefully meted out. And although I went on to do many more Stupid Things during the bruising process of growing up (starting fires, building and blowing up pipe bombs, spinning cars, crashing motorcycles...) I never – ever -- stuck a bobby pin in a wall socket again.

Lesson learned.*

That initial jolt of electricity I experienced there on my parent's living room floor was only the first of many. Back on the farm, we had an electric fence to keep the goats, cows, and our enormous pig (a waddling, grunting garbage disposal) from escaping into the world at large. The fence operated on a high voltage/low amperage scale designed to get a large animal's attention without doing any permanent harm. Small animals weren't so lucky. It wasn't unusual to find a bird hanging dead from that fence, its clawed feet still curled tight around the hot wire. Landing on the wire was fine -- without somewhere to go, electricity is harmless -- but leaning over to peck at something on the metal fence pole (thus completing the circuit between the wire and the ground) was the fatal mistake. That fence knocked me on my ass more than once, reinforcing my fascination and respect for the power of this demonic, invisible force. On windy days, I'd sit there and watch crackling blue sparks burn clean through the tall dry grass where it brushed against the electrified wire.

By then, I'd learned the dangers of completing an electrical circuit the wrong way, but I soon acquired rudimentary arc-welding skills, using an unbelievably fierce electric flame to melt and join steel right before my heavily protected eyes. I got burned from time to time by the sparks and splattering bits of molten metal, but that welder never shocked me – which allowed me to understand that when properly channeled and controlled, electricity could do truly amazing things.

Maybe that’s why I became a juicer...

The term “set lighting” sounds self-explanatory -- the craft of illuminating sets on stage or location, and the actors who perform on them – but as always, the Devil is in the details. Day exteriors can usually be filmed using natural sunlight reflected, diffused, and precisely controlled to meet the needs of each shot. Some degree of artificial light is often required to maintain the proper direction of the light from shot to shot, as well as the crucial balance of key, fill, and back light on the actors in relation to the background. A simple dialog scene involving two or three people outdoors might last only a couple of minutes up on screen, but can easily take from sunup to sundown to shoot -- and sometimes beyond. Using artificial light allows the cinematographer to control the lighting, keeping each individual shot in proper balance with all the others. When properly done, such artificially-aided lighting enables an editor to cut the scene any way he/she desires without worry that a viewing audience will notice the subtle (and not-so subtle) shift of lighting conditions as the day progresses from dawn ‘til dusk. Sometimes, artificial light can save a job from disaster. I’ve worked on many shoots plagued with logistical and/or scheduling problems that forced us to pull every lamp off the truck and "make daylight" long after the sun went down. When properly done (and within certain limits), the audience will never know that some of those cloudy-bright shots were actually filmed in the dark of night.

The job of a set lighting technician (juicer) entails handling live power, and although this is generally safe when the rules are followed, faulty equipment or being in too big a hurry can occasionally release that invisible beast from its cage. Once it’s out, things get ugly fast, which is why we take such care to keep the lethal juice under control. Whenever possible, cable hookups are done cold, with the circuit not energized. Cables are color-coded and/or coded with knots on the tie rope designating each hot leg from the neutral and ground. Only when everything has been hooked up and checked (technically the best boy’s job, but something we all keep an eye on) will the circuit be energized, at which point a voltage reading is taken to make sure there’s been no mistake.

That’s when the warning goes out, shouted across the set and via walkie talkies: “play it hot.”

You do what you can to minimize the danger – wearing gloves when handing cables, never allowing your knees touch the ground while dealing with live power, and always using the back of your hand** (or preferably a meter) to field-test a piece of equipment suspected of being "hot."

Despite our precautions, getting shocked comes with the turf of being a juicer, and sooner or later we all "get bit." At a glancing touch, 120 volts of alternating current will deliver a jolt sufficient to make you a lot more careful next time – but far more serious is “getting hit” from a solid connection or higher voltage shock. Most veteran juicers I know have gotten hit at least once, and it’s experience you don’t forget.

My turn came one morning while filming a commercial at the Park Plaza Hotel just west of downtown LA. Having run the cable, fired up the genny, and tested the voltage, everything seemed fine. Once the lamps were burning inside, I left the set to check on the generator, a 750 amp A.C. plant parked out on the street. While talking with the driver -- and leaning with one hand against a parking meter -- I reached down to pick up a coiled extension cord lying on the genny's fender. The instant the back of my hand grazed the metal, an overpowering blast of electricity shot right through me, coursing from one hand across my chest and out the other hand to the parking meter.

I staggered back, dazed, not comprehending what had just happened. Once my wits returned, I measured the voltage between the genny and that parking meter at 220 volts -- a serious shock indeed. If for some reason I'd grabbed the genny's fender instead of simply brushing the metal, I could easily have gotten hooked-up and been in deep trouble.***

These days, I'd be sent to the medic after receiving such a shock, checked out, and possibly taken to the nearest hospital for observation. Back then, if you were still breathing after getting hit, you just kept working. I wrapped half a roll of rubber matting around that damned parking meter to prevent any more shocks, and we got through the rest of the day without further problems.

Not everything was better in the good old days...

Electricity remains a profound mystery. You can’t see it, smell it or taste it, and by the time you do feel it, things have already gone way bad. It's always there, though, lurking behind the insulation of those big copper cables -- a lethal monster in chains ready to break loose and put a careless/unlucky juicer in the morgue. The only safe way to work with electricity is to follow the rules, and always assume the worst.

Play it hot.

* That Ben Franklin and I both survived our initial brush with electricity was more a testament to good luck than anything else – and in that, we fared a lot better than Edison’s poor doomed elephant. Edison's most egregious sins were committed during his struggle to prevent Nikola Tesla's alternating current from gaining a toehold in the marketplace. It was this competition that led to the public electrocutions of animals, and Edison's role in the development of the electric chair.

** Never use the front of your fingers or open hand to test if something's hot. If you do (and it turns out to be hot) the muscles of your hand will instantly and uncontrollably contract. You will then be "hooked up" -- receiving a continuous shock until someone is able to knock you free or kill the power. By that time you can be very dead.

*** I still haven't figured this one out. Normally, a 220 volt hot leg will register 110 volts when metered to a ground -- you only get a full 220 volt reading between two hot legs. While taking one of the Industry safety classes a few years ago, I told the instructor this story, and it baffled him. The only thing he could think of was that the parking meter must have been hot itself, from another source of power -- possibly due to leaking voltage from underground lines feeding the Park Plaza Hotel.


A.J. said...

I've heard countless grips say this, and I completely agree with them: Electricity scares the shit out of me.

Joel said...

I just got bit for the first time a couple days ago, so I was happy to see this as your latest topic of discussion!

dk said...

once again, reading your blog i feel like i'm reading a pro's latest essay in posh magazine. i thank you for the hard work you expend to share your thoughts with the public.

haven't been bit (except when i was very young and performed a similar feat of wall outlet noodling) but did arc a hot pin against the side of a distro box once which resulting in some spectacular unintended welding.

oh respect that alternating current as you would a sleeping lion or an alligator sunning on the shore of a river.

Anonymous said...

Did the hair pin thing in high school many years ago...Insulated it with rubber and would short sockets out as I wondered around the school on a hall pass...There is nothing more dangerous or destructive than a bored teenager. I'm truly sorry for the trouble I probably caused the maintenance people.

I got bit by an exit sign at one point...Not fun, but only 110.

Perhaps I'm lazy, but post production can be a comfortable thing :)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
D said...

I leaned years ago when I blackwrapped a lamp and got bit that electricity was something I wanted nothing to do with (other than flipping a switch and a light coming on). You juicers have my ultimate respect. Even if you do pee in the sink.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ -- We're all scared of electricity, and that fear keeps us alive.

Joel -- Glad to hear you got the first one under your belt. Getting bit every now and then can be a useful reminder -- like a dog getting its tail run over by a car -- that it's best to look both ways before crossing that particular street.

DK -- Thanks for your very kind words. There's nothing like a little inadvertent, unprotected welding to remind one of the power of that sleeping beast.

Anonymous -- If you've got the temperament for it, post-production is great. I once did three months as a very junior assistant editor, and that miserably claustrophobic experience convinced me I just wasn't cut out for the PP life. True, the editor was a real dick, but still...

D -- Peeing in the sink... dude, isn't that what it's for?

Joe Movick said...

This is one of the real scary things about places like Colorado where we have a much more open structure to 'learning'.

I started getting work as a gaffer on corporate and industrial work right around 19, not because of any knowledge of electricity whatsoever but because I could make places pretty with lights.

Extreme luck and an absolute fear of the blue lightning save me and many crews from disaster. Because of my age, I think, I was generally able to let me off the hook in some situations with a simple "I'm not comfortable doing that."

Needless to say the more information that gets out there about being careful the more relaxed I feel.