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Sunday, November 22, 2009
This has never been a "how to" blog, and isn't about to start now. Although the following post discusses how I learned to perform electrical "tie-ins" -- successful and otherwise -- it is strictly for annectodal rather than instructional purposes. Whatever rules existed covering such tie-ins back then were rarely (if ever) enforced, but things are very different now. The only truly useful piece of advice I have about tying-in can be summed up in three words: Don't do it.
One way or another, artificial lighting requires electricity. On stage (where all light is man-made) power is usually supplied by the facility or studio. If more juice is needed than a stage is equipped to provide, cable can be run from another stage or a generator will be brought in. On location, standard procedure is to bring a generator to provide power, but sometimes circumstances (such as filming at the top of a 75 story building) preclude running cable, and call for “tying-in” to the building’s power. Nowadays, a production must get a permit to do a legal tie-in, which will then be done by a licensed, certified electrician.
Things were very different in the good old/bad old days of low budget, non-union productions where I got my start. We did tie-ins fairly often back then, and it it was the best boy's responsibility to get it done. When a generator was unavailable for whatever reason, tying-in was the only way to keep filming.*
Half the time these cheap-ass productions didn’t even have money for location permits, which meant we were already on the dark side of the law "stealing" the shots. Having a generator parked out on the street belching black diesel smoke and sprouting heavy cables running into the location isn't a great way to keep a low profile -- and in those cases, tying-in was the way to go. I've done more tie-ins than I care to admit over the years, and I hated doing every one of them. The last time was several years ago on a Fringe-Co job doing a low-budget commercial. The DP had scouted the location (the production company being too cheap to pay the gaffer for a scout day), so I didn't find out we'd be expected to tie-in until arriving on location with the rest of the crew at 7:00 in the morning -- and by then there wasn't much choice. I sincerely hope that was the last time I ever have to do a tie-in for the remainder of my rapidly fading career.
Whatever electrical box I faced, the procedure was the same: open it up and identify the hot, neutral, and ground legs with a "wiggy" (voltage tester). Then I'd determine if it was possible to tie in below the fuses, thus providing some measure of safety should things go sideways. With a fuse between the cable and the power, any resulting damage could be limited -- but there wasn't always room for that. Tying in above the fuses was a spooky business. If something went wrong during the hookup, a lot more power would cut loose, with potentially deadly consequences.
Once the decision was made, I would very carefully attach special heavy-duty clamps to the bars – first the ground, followed by the neutral, and then the hot legs. This is relatively easy in a roomy electrical box, but modern industrial boxes were not made with tie-ins or the free-lance juicer in mind. Tying-in to such a tight, narrow box was always a dodgy endeavor. If I made a mistake -- easy to do in such a small box -- the result would be a blinding flash and the terrifying buzz of metal vaporizing in the incredibly fierce heat of an A.C. arc. At best, that brilliant light can inflict retinal burns (there’s a reason arc welders wear those smoked-glass helmets), but anything's possible -- serious burns, electric shock, and if the dice come up all the way wrong, the Big Sleep itself. Although death is unlikely, a bad shock will send the victim to the hospital while the rest of his crew desperately resets the breaker, tries to find a replacement fuse for the blown one -- and thus restore power to the building -- or calls the fire department.
Assuming nothing bad happened during the hook-up, I would isolate the relatively fragile tie-in from any gravitational stresses – or more likely, the snowshoes of some idiot friend of the producer stumbling towards the set while trying to chat up the makeup girl. If one of these fools managed to trip on/over cables attached to the tie-in, the clamps would be jerked loose or cause a dead-short arc in the electrical box that could start a fire. By using a rope to tie the hook-up cables to something solid at the top of the electrical box -- a conduit worked fine -- such trouble could be prevented.
Once all was secure, my practice was to tape the hell out of that now-open electrical box to keep any idle hands out, then put a big “DANGER!” sign in front. Back in the day, we'd just plug in our pin cable and go, but now it's customary (and legally required, I believe) to install a fused bull-switch between the tie-in and the cable running to the set. Either way, once the cable run was safely completed to the appropriate distro box on set, the gaffer could start lighting.
At that point, I'd go wash the sweat off my face.
Under ideal circumstances, the process went fine -- all that worrying made me very careful when tying-in -- but the low-budget world seldom presented "ideal circumstances." Every now and then, shit would happen. While working on a cheap non-union horror film, we made a location move one dark and misty night to shoot a quick scene outside a suburban home in the San Fernando Valley. I was a grip on that show, but since the best boy electric was a good friend (and his one-man juicer crew had very little experience), I went along to help. His idea was to climb on the roof, scrape the insulation from the three wires feeding the house from the power pole – two hots and a neutral -- then clamp on to that newly-bared copper. In theory, this is safe – so long as he didn’t touch any of the other wires (or anything connected to the ground) at the same time, he should be okay. But all that conductive mist in the air gave me a bad feeling, so I suggested a technique I’d used before. We opened the electrical main outside the house to investigate, and although it was a narrow box, found just enough room inside to jam three screwdrivers into the connections of the appropriate bars. Once that was done, we could fasten the tie-in clamps onto the metal shaft of each screwdriver, and be in business.**
My friend looked at the box, nodding slowly. He really didn't want to go up on that roof either, but seemed reluctant to try the screwdriver method. When I offered to do it, he shook his head -- as the best boy electric, he felt (rightly so) that it was his responsibility. While I held a flashlight, he very carefully jammed the first screwdriver (his) in place, then the second (mine), and finally shoved the third, belonging to the juicer. The rig looked solid, but (and there's always a "but" in these stories...) just as he was about to attach the tie-in clamps, he hesitated.
“Lemme check one thing,” he said.
I held the flashlight again as he leaned into that last screwdriver, just to be sure it wouldn't come loose – and this last little bit of force brought it into contact with the back of the metal box.
The world erupted in a brilliant, blinding flash, instantly (if temporarily) rendering us both unable to see a damned thing. We'd gone in above the fuses, and with nothing to stop that white-hot arc, the entire box -- on the side of a wooden house, mind you -- burst into a ball of flame. The key grip came running with a two-by-four and began swinging wildly at the screwdrivers, eventually knocking them out of the box. That stopped the arcing while somebody else emptied a fire extinguisher into that flaming box to douse the flames.
With that, the excitement was over -- but having caused enough trouble at that point, I morphed back into a grip and left the electricians alone. The last thing image I recall from that night was the juicer holding his brand-new-but-now-melted Salvador Dali screwdriver in a gloved hand, slowly shaking his head.
If that was the most spectacular tie-in screw-up I was involved with, it wasn't the most dangerous -- that one came during a driving rainstorm on a run-and-gun location shoot in a little strip mall somewhere south of San Clemente. With very little time to get the scene lit and shot (some immutable deadline loomed over our heads), I had to tie-in to a small box behind the shop that served as our location. Being outside, the box was exposed to the weather, which meant I had to do the tie-in while standing in three inches of water, in a drenching rain, wearing soaking wet gloves. All that water turned me into an excellent conductor of electricity, thus exposing me to intermittent zaps of 120 volt AC the entire time it took to tie-in. I must have gotten bit more than half a dozen times before getting those cables attached.
Thinking back, it's hard to believe I was stupid enough to do such a thing -- but it's all too easy to get caught up in the "show must go on" spirit of the moment, figuring that dumb luck will pull you through one more time. It did -- barely -- but I wouldn't dream of doing something like that now.
I’ve heard stories of much worse tie-in mishaps. One crew of a television comedy no longer in production shorted out a hot leg in power mains of a nice Westside hotel while tying-in, cutting power to the kitchen’s refrigeration units long enough to render all the food unusable -- an awkward and very expensive error at the beginning of three long days of filming. Another guy I spoke to -- a veteran gaffer with more than 40 years and some very impressive credits on his resume -- got knocked off a power pole in Chicago by an unexpected jolt of electricity while tying-in, and lived to tell the tale. He was lucky.
These days, there's really no percentage in doing a non-permitted, illegal tie-in yourself. I don't know the exact letter of the law, but juicers currently working in the low budget, non-union world tell me nobody does such tie-ins anymore -- instead, the gaffer tells the producer to get a permit and hire a licensed electrician to do the job. That wasn't an option back in the day, when a refusal to do a tie-in would have had a serious negative impact on my own employment future, but it's a different world today.
Anyone who attempts an illegal tie-in these days is asking for trouble. The process is simple enough in theory, and if done carefully, will probably work out just fine -- until it doesn't. If that person is you, at that point you'll be in a very bad place with nowhere to hide. When a producer pleads that there isn't money for a generator, then tell him to pony up for the permit and a legal, professional tie-in. Nine times out of ten, that'll convince him he can afford a genny after all. You have to remember that producers always have more money than they let on, but if one insists otherwise and asks you to take the risk, tell them "no." Think about it -- if that producer can't afford a legal tie-in or generator, then he can't afford your hospital bills if something goes wrong. You don't want to work for a clown like that anyway.
When it comes to tying-in, I'll say it again: Just don't do it.
* On a feature in Vermont one cold winter morning, our genny refused to start, so I had to do a quick tie-in at the base of a power pole at an old ball park. It wasn’t a particularly difficult tie-in, and since our producers were honorable people (for a change), they insisted that I note the settings on the power meter before and after filming so the power company could properly bill us for the juice we'd used.
** This was before running a ground leg was common or legally required. We'd just run two hots and a neutral, and be in business.