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, July 11, 2010


Resistance is futile...

More than a few of my posts have started out with a link and a nod to one of AJ’s recent offerings over at The Hills Are Burning. There's a good reason why I've responded to so much of her work -- thirty years ago, I was pretty much where she is now. Like so many others before and since, I came to Hollywood from a very different world, and had to find a way to crack the seemingly impenetrable walls of the Industry, then claw my way up through the non-union ranks until finally getting my union card. While we're separated by the vast gulf of three long decades -- my Hollywood journey nearing an end, hers just beginning -- many of the dilemmas and conundrums she describes in her current work life resonate with me in a big way.

I’ve been there.

So why not just reply to her posts in the comments section of her blog? I do – quite often, actually -- but sometimes there’s more to say than will comfortably fit in the form of a comment. So in the unlikely event that you haven’t yet read Just One More Time, you might want to, or the following won’t make much sense.


While working on my first sit-com in the late 90’s -- roughing in the lighting on a swing set for that week’s episode – one of my fellow juicers (who had vastly more experience in the multi-camera world) gave me some very good advice. Using man-lifts and ladders, we were hanging lamps over a set with unpainted walls, bare floors, and no set dressing whatsoever. With the sets still unfinished, the director hadn’t yet rehearsed the actors, so nobody knew who would stand where or how the blocking would evolve for the show.

We were “lighting air” -- Industry slang for what has always been a highly abstract endeavor.

Lacking any solid information, all we could do was lay down a basic lighting scheme common to most multi-camera shows. We hung a couple of back lights, several back-cross keys, then added the front bounce-fill and moved on to the next unfinished set. As the week unfolded, rehearsals (and script re-writes) would tell us (then change) everything we needed to know. We'd then move and adjust every lamp accordingly while adding others (sometimes including a "special" or two -- lights meant to illuminate a particular area or actor at a specific moment in the scene) to render the set ready for prime time.

Twelve years later, this process feels completely normal, but back then I was a refugee fresh from twenty years in the single-camera world, and had no familiarity with these strange new ways. For a long time, I kept fretting over exactly where to hang the lamps on Day One.

“Don't worry about it,” my fellow juicer said, shaking his head with a weary, patient smile. “No matter what we do, it’s all gonna change.”

Over the next few years, I learned exactly how right he was. By now, I can’t count the times we’ve all but completed lighting a set only to have the UPM walk in and tell us to tear it all down because that scene had just been written out of the show. In an instant, three or four hours of hard, concentrated work by the entire crew was rendered useless – and even now, it’s very frustrating to turn right around and start taking all those lamps down after just putting them up. Worse, this usually means that a new set will be coming in that night – a set we'll then have to light the following day along with the rest of our already scheduled work.

Change is the nature of the Hollywood beast, and cannot be avoided. Ours is a creative medium, not a factory assembly line for widgets, and if you can’t embrace that – or at least accept it -- then you might be better off finding another line of work.

The same lesson applies to each of us throughout our Industry careers. No matter where you are at the moment, or how comfortable things might be, it’s all going to change sooner than you think. In fact, the change is usually already underway -- you just haven’t figured it out yet. To expect anything else from such an inherently unstable business (for which the metaphor of the geologically shaky ground beneath our feet remains a perfect fit) is to indulge in deep denial. It’s almost as though an elemental law of social physics is at work – seeking some semblance of stability in a chaotic world, we bond quickly, forming alliances that morph over time, then disintegrate even as new bonds are being made. In such an upwardly mobile, ambition-driven business, people are always on the move. Nobody comes to Hollywood just to sit in a corner stacking boxes for the rest of their lives.

One way or another, it's all going to change.

During my Hollywood experience, I’ve often found myself in places very similar to where AJ is now. Having worked hard to establish myself and put my name in circulation, the phone would ring with enough jobs from different sources to keep me going. I knew who my friends were, who my competition was, and where I stood in my own little corner of Hollywood -- and thus I felt as secure as one can in such an inherently unpredictable Industry.

Then something would happen to blow the whole thing apart – an unexpected falling out, an opportunity to move up, or another source of work beyond what I was accustomed to – and suddenly I’d have to leave my comfortable old world to struggle for a toehold in the new one. Each time this happened, I looked back thinking I could always return to the old routine if the shiny new one didn’t work out, but nothing stands still in Hollywood. As I was outgrowing my comfortable little world, so was everyone else who’d been there with me, each individual moving on in his/her own way. In reality, there was no going back, nothing to return to -- that comfortable old world simply didn’t exist anymore.

I went from non-union everything – juicing and Best Boy work on features, commercials, music videos, and industrials – to union commercials under the aegis of NABET, then dipped back into low budget features before becoming a gaffer for commercials and music videos, working with many different people from job to job, year in and year out. Each of these transitions was stressful, leaving a relatively comfortable situation working with people I knew, liked, and trusted, for something new, exciting, and a little bit scary – because each new situation held the distinct possibility of failure. Whenever I thought I’d finally arrived at a place that really did feel secure, it turned out to be another smiling illusion, like everything else in Hollywood. Just as an earthquake suddenly turns solid ground into Jell-O, external forces over which you have no control can turn your professional world upside-down. What I assumed was a sustainable, reasonably lucrative work situation good for the long run turned out to have been the quiet calm before the shit-storm.

So as always, I moved on to the next thing, in this case television. There I had to adapt to a very different set of realities and rhythms that rule this corner of the Industry, learning new skills, meeting new people, and forming new bonds. As I see it now, this is a process that will never really cease until I’m done, retired, or dead -- and even then, it will only stop for me. The Hollywood river keeps flowing towards the ocean, which means everyone in that water will have to keep swimming – and swimming hard -- or be swept out to sea.

Bear in mind that most of the transformations I’ve had to go through occurred before the current (and ongoing) digital revolution. Back then, the basic economic and technical foundations of the Industry seemed relatively stable, evolving steadily but slowly. Now, it's all up for grabs. The economic structure of the biz is in turmoil, while technological progress continues at a breathtaking pace, bringing new cameras and lighting equipment to sets on location and sound stages all over the world. How this will affect the way we work remains unclear, but being flexible, adaptable, and able to make the most of these changes as they come will be a crucial survival skill in an Industry that is no longer what it once was, nor what it will someday become.

If you work in the Industry (or increasingly, anywhere at all), change is always on the way. There are no comfortable safe havens anymore, nor is there any going back. The sooner you accept this, and use it to your advantage, the better off you'll be.

The old cliche holds true now more than ever before: the only constant is change.


A.J. said...

Speaking as someone who feels like they're just getting started in this industry, I know that things are changing rapidly and relentlessly, but at the same time, it feels kind of normal to me. I came into this business at a time where there was a new "it" camera (and format) every other year and new ways to view content every week, so while the economics of Hollywood may be changing, an economically changing Hollywood is the only one I know.

As for the personal/professional transformations, I agree that (whether by choice or not) you have to keep evolving if you want to survive in this business. The hard part is knowing when you have to leave your comfortable little world for the next thing.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

True, that -- timing can be everything, and knowing exactly when to make a leap of faith is the tricky part. Not being one who readily embraces change, I've always waited until circumstances forced my hand to chart a new course. That wasn't such a bad strategy in the older, slower moving Hollywood, but nowadays it might be smarter to stay ahead of the curve whenever possible.

Unfortunately, there's no way to know if a move is really right until after the dust has settled, and even then any true clarity is often hard to come by. You just have to trust your own good instincts -- and from here, it seems they've served you pretty thus far.

I suppose the most important thing as you're moving up is to be ready when opportunity knocks.

And it will...