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)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Wrap

Order from Chaos

It comes down a lot quicker than it goes up...

The last day was the hardest. Not the longest or most tedious, but in terms of sheer physicality, definitely the toughest. During the initial rig, nearly three tons of cable had been laid in up high – a network of wooden catwalks thirty feet above the stage floor -- to power and light the pilot, and now it all had to come down. On the final day of the wrap, there were only three of us still on payroll, which meant two men up high and one down below.

Over the previous three days, we’d pulled at least two hundred and fifty lamps down from the pipe grid and set walls, dumped out the scrims, removed and stacked the barndoors, then wrapped the tail of each light back to the head and tied it off. As they came down, each lamp was stacked in neat ever-growing rows – 650 watt Tweenies, 1000 watt Babies, 1K and 2K Zips (soft lights), 2K Juniors, 5K Seniors, and a couple of big 10,000 watt Teners. Each lamp was “beeped out” with a continuity tester (to make sure the bulb was still good), then read with a bar code scanner and carefully loaded with the others into big steel baskets for return to the lamp dock. We worked at a steady pace, breaking once for coffee and again for lunch, making the most of each eight hour day. By the end of day three, every lamp, barn-door, scrim, feeder, stirrup hanger, pipe clamp, grumpy, offset arm, baby plate, splitter, adapter, gang box and stinger -- well over a thousand individual pieces of equipment altogether -- had been counted, crated, stacked, and trucked back to the lamp dock.

It's a lot of work.

Production's budget for extra help ran dry at that point, leaving just the three of us to handle the cable. Our task was to get all that cable down, wrapped, tied, and stacked in big plastic tubs for return to the lamp dock. The first order of business were the cables already dangling over the side – the easy ones. Those were lowered by tying a rope to the high end of each cable, then slowly lowering it as the floor man coiled it up. Less than a quarter of the cable could be dropped this way, leaving the rest to be wrapped up on the catwalks, then tied into compact black doughnuts the size of a car tire before being lowered with a hand line.

This is simple enough, in theory. Actually doing the work is something else, invariably turning into the sort of back-breaking ordeal that generates internal second-guessing along the lines of “I went to college for this?”

Well, no -- I went to college for the girls, the booze, and the drugs (a regimen I thought of as "Enculturation, Part Three"), and because young people on the home planet were expected to go to college at that point in life. But while skipping my merry way down the hedonistic highway of tertiary education, I was seduced by the magic of film: The Movies called and I answered, which is the short version of how I finally ended up in Hollywood.

What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Reaching the top of the wooden stairs at 7:05 in the morning, the task ahead appeared monumental for just two people. There was cable everywhere, a swollen black river of heavy, inch-thick, hundred foot long cables snaking from the “waterfall” (the initial cable run from the dimmer packs down below) all over the catwalks. It was so thick in places I couldn’t even see the wooden planks beneath all that coal-black insulation.

Working a day like this forces a certain recalibration of one’s personal pain/pleasure spectrum. While nothing about a cable day will induce a giddy sense of euphoria, there are certain satisfactions to be had. These are not of the intellectual variety, but primal and physical -- the tired inner glow that comes from getting an onerous task done: a cluttered garage finally cleaned out, an overgrown yard trimmed and mowed, a field weeded, plowed, and made ready for planting.

On the relative scale of the misery/joy continuum, wrapping the cable occupies the low end, while dropping can be kind of fun. Using a three-quarter inch poly line (and wearing gloves, of course), one man “takes a wrap” – looping the rope once all the way around the catwalk rail – before the other man (or woman) ties the load on, then kicks it over the side. Taking a wrap allows for a speedy but easily controllable drop. Sending the fifty-to-seventy pound cables down two at a time, that rope whirs around the wooden rail fast enough to expel a puff of dust from within. The sharp scent of singed wood accompanies every drop, as the energy expended in sending those cables up high two weeks before is suddenly recovered in the form of heat via the magic of friction. As you warm up and get into a smooth working rhythm, it feels good to watch those tubs down below fill up with cable -- and as each tub is filled, another empty takes its place.

At the end of what felt like a very long day, the catwalks were clear and clean, while down below, half a dozen of those big tubs were brimming with tightly wrapped coils of cable. It really does come down a lot quicker than it goes up: what took us two weeks to load in and deploy for one night of filming had been fully wrapped in four busy days -- order once again salvaged from chaos.

That felt good, as though we'd actually accomplished something.

In a way, the pilot process is a bit like building and furnishing a home just to throw a kick-ass house warming party, then tearing the whole thing down, leaving only a bare concrete slab on the suddenly barren lot. The sheer physical labor that goes into every pilot is immense. The process is a sweaty, bruising, frustrating experience every time, but it’s also a team effort with lots of laughs along the way. All that work culminates in the creation of a show – a few hours of glimmering magic and laughter that may or may not prove good enough (or lucky enough) to be picked up. But the next morning, all that bubbling, buoyant energy is gone, dissipated into the ether along with the cameras and craft service table. Only the sets, furniture, and lighting equipment remain, silent and cold. Bit by bit, truckload by truckload, that too disappears, and in the end, the cavernous sound stage again stands empty.

Wrapping a show or pilot is always a bittersweet experience, and this was no exception. In a way, the whole thing seemed a bit unreal -- with all the sets, equipment, and people gone, it was almost as if none of it had actually happened at all. But there was nothing unreal about the aches in my back, neck, arms, and legs as I shouldered my bag and headed for the parking structure. Thoroughly whipped, I felt as though I’d just spent four days undergoing “enhanced interrogation” at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. The next morning would be stiff and sore, but easing the pain (with the help of Advil) was the knowledge that my work was now done for a while. The holidays loomed, then a brand new year -- and hopefully, another pilot or two.


Devon Ellington said...

I feel the same way when we load out a B'way show. Bittersweet,whether it's been a long run or a short one. And a very good kind of tired and sore when you see the clean space and the full trucks.

Of course, loading out on tour, you're just happy to get the hell out! ;)

A.J. said...

Excellent post. After slaving away to fill a studio with light, it's an awesome feeling to stand back and look at what you've created out of nothing. Then, when it's time to take it all down, taking a look at the once filled, but now empty space is somewhat of a humbling, yet satisfying, experience.

It's definitely a bittersweet process.

Anonymous said...

I've often wondered this while reading about your adventures - is each show really so different that there can't be permanent wiring on the sound stage? I did a fair amount of theater in my youth, and even on the shows with 400+ lights, we always seemed to manage with the house circuits. It was rare that we needed to run any extra cable, let alone 100' cable for every light. What's so different about TV?

Btw, I've always wanted to thank you for your stories - I look forward to each posting like a rare treat. Thank you for sharing, and continuing to share!

Michael Taylor said...

Blogger Michael Taylor said...

Devon --

Nice to hear from you. Theater, film, or TV, it's all the same show-biz hustle. Hope your full-time writing gig is working out.

AJ --

Yeah, it's primal stuff in a way: dig the hole, fill the hole -- repeat as necessary. I think one of the things that has us fucked-up as a society and culture is the abstract nature of so much of the work so many people do -- sitting in cube farms staring into computer monitors eight hours a day. We're just naked apes, really, barely down from the trees. Too many of us have lost any connection with the real physical world -- the thing that keeps us sane.

But there's nothing remotely abstract about a cable day...

Anonymous --

In theater, every show uses the same wide-but-narrow stage, so the power drops can stay right where they are year after year, feeding every new show. Movie and television sound stages are much, much bigger,and every show very different, with each dimmer operator using his/her own preferred method of laying out the cable and organizing the power flow. Each TV show, be it an episodic or multi-cam sit-com, has a few permanent sets (as much as anything can be "permanent" in this highly temporary business), then adds "swing sets" to meet the needs of each episode. Maybe this week's show has scenes in a hotel lobby and a convenience store -- so those are the swing sets for that week. Movies do the same thing, building and shooting out sets as needed, then tearing them down to build and shoot another set. Each set is unique, so the power drops have to be customized to make everything work.

A sound stage might be home to a broadcast network episodic during the regular TV season, then during the summer, be turned over to a feature film, cable drama, or sit-com, each of which will have it's own specific power and lighting needs.

The waterfall -- the basic power run from the dimmer packs up high to the catwalks -- usually stays put. With each new show, dimmers are brought in and hooked up, then the cable runs up high will be laid out to meet the requirements of that particular show.

In a way, each movie or TV show is a hand-made product -- and thus this remains a very labor intensive business...

Thanks for tuning in -- it's always gratifying to hear that people out there are still reading, and more important, enjoying the blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply - that makes perfect sense, yet I'm still stunned by how much of a manual process it must be. Amazing that you get it done, each day, every day.

Will always be here to tune in as long as you will be here to write. Thanks to Tim Goodman for pointing out the way - sure has been enjoyable. Cheers from the Home Planet!