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, April 4, 2010

Pilot Season 2010

Spring training may be over for baseball now -- the major league rosters of both leagues all set for Opening Day – but television’s own version of spring training is just getting into full swing. In late winter and early spring, the broadcast and cable networks put a slate of promising new prospects through their production paces during pilot season to determine which shows have what it takes to make the regular season lineup -- and right now, pilot season is roaring full throttle through Hollywood. The studio I’ve considered my “home lot” since 2003 had nothing but tumbleweeds blowing past empty sound stages until three weeks ago, but it’s now humming with activity. After a long, cold and largely unemployed winter, this is a very welcome change indeed.

Spring didn’t come a day too soon.

The first week of any sit-com pilot is the toughest. I walked onto the sound stage early Monday morning into a fine mist of sawdust belching from a belt sander, the whine of power tools mingling with the strains of classic rock from battered old boom boxes scattered in every corner. The construction crew was still building, prepping, and painting the six main sets this pilot will require – and if (when...) the inevitable script re-writes call for it, they’ll rip out any of those suddenly unnecessary sets and build new ones to take their place -- overnight.

As construction winds down, the work of lighting the sets begins. Two hundred and fifty-odd lamps were lined up along the “rail,”* stacked three-high and ready to be deployed. By Friday afternoon -- just five days later -- all but a handful were hanging from the pipe grid or mounted directly atop the set walls, each powered, marked, and adjusted – the basic lighting roughed in – before we’d seen the first actor walk on set.

Much tweaking remains to be done, with each lamp requiring further adjustment as the rehearsals evolve over the following week leading up to shoot night. As we add more lamps to each set, finding room to work in the crowded airspace above those sets – already jammed with lamps, bulky Cronie Cones, and a complex tapestry of teasers and cutters -- will be the hardest job of all. After a certain point, it’s almost impossible to squeeze in there with a ladder or man lift without disrupting the existing rig. Invariably we end up having to walk the set walls or stand on the top rail of the man lift (both activities representing serious violations of the studio’s safety policy) to accomplish the task. This can be tricky and dangerous – you really do have to be careful up there -- but often there’s just no other way. Besides, juicers (and grips) are paid to get the job done however hard it may be, and there’s a certain pride at stake in doing whatever you have to do.

The best thing about that first week on a pilot is the social aspect, getting back in harness with the crew – in effect, your tribe. An added benefit this past week was running into so many familiar faces in the commissary at breakfast and lunch, a couple of dozen juicers and grips I hadn’t seen in months, all working on other crews doing pilots. It’s always great to see these people, everyone grinning at being employed again, but this doesn’t last long – next week we’ll shift from early morning to mid-afternoon calls as the director and actors begin on-set rehearsals. It’ll be nice to sleep in again (getting up at 5 a.m. is utterly hateful), but coming in later means no more meals in the commissary, as the pilot experience retreats from something of a group experience back to the insularity of each individual show.

Still, last week was fun, if exhausting. The image I’ll hang on to came mid-week after lunch, when several of us – old friends all from many different shows in the past – finished off our lunch hour sitting on the porch of one of the permanent sets on the studio’s “residential street” back lot. A casting session for a show was underway, and on this beautiful spring afternoon, a steady stream of stunning young women kept passing by going to and from, most of them wearing the shortest of short-shorts and halter tops, as if vying for a role in yet another remake of "Dukes of Hazard."

It was one of the perks of Industry life – relaxing on porch with good company, everyone back at work, sharing old stories and a quiet appreciation of the wonders of nature.

Ah, spring...

* Essentially a sturdy metal fence designed to keep the audience in the elevated grandstand close -- but not too close -- as the action unfolds on shoot night...


nahiyan said...

Good luck with the pilot, hope the rest of it goes well.

Frank Pina said...

Hi Michael,
I sent you an email about an article from the Village Voice. Thought you might find it an interesting topic to discuss.

Devon Ellington said...

I miss the tribal aspect of being on set, but not some of the hierarchy! Enjoy, and best wishes that the pilot's fun, it's picked up, and you get to stay with it, should you choose.