I don’t mean for this space to morph into a “how to” blog, but given the recent emphasis here (and other Industry blogs) on the hazards of electricity on set, there are a few more things I'd like to get off my chest. Mostly this means confessing my own screw-ups over the years – and since I’ve done more than my share of stupid things on the job, maybe these posts are more in the nature of “how NOT to do." I run my dirty underwear up the public flagpole in the hopes that others can learn from the mistakes I made, in which case this blog might be worth the paper it’s not printed on...
There’s a reason the set lighting crews and studio electricians are in charge of electric power on and around the set – it’s dangerous. When non-pros start plugging stuff in, things can get ugly fast. This was particularly true back in the good old/bad old days before HMI's took over, when the carbon arc lamp ruled the film world and lighting on stage or location done using D.C. power. On commercials and smaller shoots, we often used a single “concurrent” generator capable of producing limited quantities of AC along with the usual DC feeding the lamps. When working on location, my habit was to run the DC first – outside for the arcs, then inside for the tungsten lamps -- before laying in the AC power for production, wardrobe, and makeup/hair.* Following my usual routine early in the morning on a one-day commercial shoot, I ran the DC outside and in, then plugged in a couple of gang boxes near the room where wardrobe was setting up. Before heading outside for more equipment, I warned the wardrobe girl not to plug anything in. “That’s DC,” I told her. “Either plug into the wall or wait for the AC – it’s coming soon.”
She nodded, and I went back to work, but a few minutes later a PA found me and said the producer needed to see me ASAP. I found him standing with the wardrobe girl, who held an electric iron in each hand. She was very upset. “Look at this!” she cried, holding both irons out for me to see. The flat smooth underside of each had melted into a mottled “U” shape, as if both irons had just been kicked by the Devil’s own horses from Hell.
I wasn’t sure what this had to do with me until the producer explained that when the wardrobe girl tried to iron one of her absurdly expensive blouses ($800) for the lead actress, it scorched a sleeve beyond repair. Assuming the iron was defective, she plugged in her back-up iron, which promptly melted down and ruined the second (and equally expensive) blouse.
Then it hit me: ignoring my pointed warning, the wardrobe girl had plugged her irons into one of those hot D.C. gang boxes -- and no good can come of that.
“But I told you not to plug in to the DC,” I protested.
“You did not!” she lied, pointing the Finger of Blame squarely at me.
I experienced a brief moment of blinding rage, accompanied by a powerful urge to grab the bitch by her throat and squeeze very hard for a long, long time...
The ensuing “Did so/Did not!” argument was embarrassingly juvenile, and a credit to neither of us – we were like a couple of five year old brats yelling at each other. The producer finally waved me off, then did what producers get paid to do while I went back to work, cursing under my breath. Presumably those two ruined blouses ($800 back then would roughly equal $1600 today) were covered by insurance, and although the producer doubtless ended up buying two new replacement irons to placate his wardrobe girl, this was small changed in the big budgetary picture. From that day on, though, that particular wardrobe girl was dead to me – in my eyes, she’d revealed herself as a snake in the grass willing to say or do anything to cover her worthless ass, and thus she was not to be trusted. On the many jobs we did in the future, I made sure that she got electricity well after every other department.
Lesson Number One: If your department needs electricity to function, do not fuck with the juicers. Treat us with a little human respect and we’ll return the favor – and more often than not, you’ll have power waiting for you before you even ask for it. But if you treat us like brainless subhuman Morlocks, we won't forget.
It was only later – after much grudging reflection – that I realized this little incident wasn’t the wardrobe girl’s fault at all. Yes, she plugged both irons into a hot D.C. box after being expressly warned not to, but if I’d done my job properly, that never would have been an option. Making the D.C. run hot was okay, but installing those gang boxes without clearly labeling them was my mistake, and a big one. I'd made an unconscious assumption that she was actually paying attention and would thus heed my warning, but in the early morning crush, she had a lot of other things on her mind. It’s possible she didn’t even hear my words, much less understand them. Being a wardrobe girl (and not a juicer), she probably had no idea what D.C. was in the first place. In all the ways that really mattered, this incident was my fault.
She was still a bitch, though.
Lesson Number Two: Always assume the worst. Indeed, that’s the only safe assumption you can make -- that no matter how likable everybody else on set might (or might not) be, they're all children when it comes to electricity. This is nothing personal, but strictly business. If you allow non-juicers the option of doing Something Stupid with electricity, you’ve opened the door for “the worst” to happen. By ensuring that nobody can make a simple human mistake with the power you’ve supplied, you’ll go a long way towards preventing bad things from becoming reality.
D.C. is a thing of the past nowadays, and upgrades in cable connectors and power distribution systems over the last two decades have made on-set power much safer in general. Opportunities to screw-up have been minimized, but the potential for error (and trouble) cannot be eliminated from any human endeavor. If the equipment is safer, it’s also being pushed a lot harder than in the past – and no matter how seemingly fail-safe our equipment might be, there’s no substitute for good judgment on set. For one thing, D.C. was infinitely safer in the rain, and the universal use of A.C. power on set now means being that much more careful in wet conditions. Despite all our new, sophisticated equipment, the old truths still apply: if you work sloppy and stupid -- and make assumptions -- sooner or later you'll pay the price.
* My first priority, of course, was to run an AC stinger from the genny to craft service before anything else...