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, August 8, 2010

The Sweet Spot

What a Difference a Day Makes

You've gotta love the prop department...

With four episodes under our collective belts, my little cable rate sit-com has finally started to feel like a real show. The first week was the usual heads-down, shoulders-to-the-wheel uphill push to get the great beast rolling, roughing in the lighting and massaging the inevitable bugs from the dimmer system. Weeks two and three were a struggle to shoot the first two episodes while continuing to refine the lighting, a task complicated by having to re-shoot big chunks of the pilot along the way thanks to the presence of a new cast member who’d replaced one of the original actors. We got the job done, but each week felt rough and messy, never quite hitting the sweet spot.

Week Four promised to be more of the same – yet another re-shoot from the pilot (the last, we were promised), with the added burden of grinding out the usual five-day episode in only four days thanks to Monday being a national holiday. Tuesday was a full-tilt sprint – we came in at 3 p.m. after the director and actors completed their rehearsals and the usual full run-through of the show, then hit the ground running, doing the “two minute drill” on into the night.*

There was much to be done, and we were behind the eight-ball the entire way, still trying to catch up. At one point, our dimmer operator (who is new to the world of sit-coms) leveled a glare at me from atop a twelve step ladder.

"I thought you said this was gonna be easy," he frowned, shaking his head.

He was right -- we'd all been working our asses off (for cable rate...) in a television genre known for being much more user-friendly to the crew. Thus far, this show had been a lot harder than I'd expected.

"Things should smooth out soon," I replied, with a confidence built more on hope than anything else.

We came in the next afternoon girded for the usual elbow-flapping frenzy, but overnight the atmosphere on set had completely changed. What caused this metamorphosis remains the deepest of mysteries, but suddenly everything was smooth as silk. The producers, actors, director, and writers were relaxed now, allowing our DP to calm down, which in turn dropped the blood pressure of the grip and electric crews considerably. The tense, harried expressions gradually melted from the faces of the crew as we settled into an easy rhythm, like a big cat loping through the jungle. Overnight, the show began to feel a bit like home for all of us – a second home, to be sure -- but this sound-stage and all the sets has finally become a very comfortable place to be.

Something similar has happened on almost every movie or television show I've worked on over the years, even the really bad ones. Fueled on ambition, adrenaline, and confusion, every long-running production (as opposed to a two-day commercial or music video shoot) burns rubber for a while before gaining any solid traction. When the smoke finally clears, it really is a beautiful thing to experience -- each crew member secure in their role and working at peak efficiency. Like any other team of professionals (baseball, football, whatever), it takes some time and effort to smooth off the rough edges, then hit the full stride of mid-season form.

Week Five continued the relaxed, easy pace. The actors began unleashing some seriously funny ad-libs during camera rehearsals, further lightening the mood and strengthening their bond with the crew. It reminded me of a fellow juicer's response to a civilian several years ago when asked what it was like to work on a multi-camera show.

"It's great," he shrugged. “We stand around and laugh all day.” Although a gross oversimplification, his quip was a measure of the sweet spot we'd managed to hit on that particular show.

Then came Week Six, and a new director -- a very experienced hand with hundreds of multi-camera episodes on his resume. Still, he was brand new to our show, and a new director invariably alters the on-set chemistry. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it isn’t. If you’ve been saddled with an incompetent and/or uptight jerk (and such malign creatures do exist in the DGA), a new director can be just what the doctor ordered. The flip side of that coin is watching a good director leave. Just when you’ve gotten used to working with one personality -- in tune with his/her quirks and sense of humor (or lack thereof) – somebody new and very different waltzes in to take the helm. The crew reacted with a cautious professionalism, meaning Week Six was much quieter than the previous five. The show went fine – at this point, we’re a well-oiled machine – but the atmosphere was definitely subdued.

The same director will be back for Week Seven. Hopefully the man will loosen up a bit -- but if not, it doesn't really matter because yet another new director will be in the following week to take us for a spin around the block. Bring 'em on, I say. At this point, we're ready for anything and anybody.

We're hitting the sweet spot now.

* A term borrowed from pro football, where the offense goes all-out to move down the field during the final two minutes of a game. In Hollywood, this usually means working hard and fast for a lot longer than two minutes...

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