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Sunday, October 10, 2010
The Big Move
Getting picked up for an additional four episodes on our little cable-rate sit-com was very welcome news for the cast, production office, and on-set crew. But good news rarely comes to the dance alone, and this time she walked in holding hands with Something Ugly: upon finishing our originally scheduled ten episodes, we would immediately proceed to move everything across the studio lot to another sound stage to shoot the final four. One of last spring’s surprise cable hits had already booked our stage for their twenty episode pick-up under the assumption we’d be long gone by now, so the studio found us another stage to use for the next five weeks.
Moving an entire show already under production is no small thing. Even with an extra juicer helping, it took us a full week of ten hour days to tear down the 200+ lamps, cable, and rigging equipment, then move it all to the new stage for another solid week of hanging, powering, and adjusting those very same lamps over the newly reconstituted sets.
It was like doing the pilot all over again -- and pilots are hard.
I’ve never been on a show that had to make a move like this. In some ways it felt like being a slave back in ancient Egypt, ordered to dismantle the huge pyramid we’d just built, then haul every last chunk of finely-cut stone across the Nile and put the whole thing back together again on a fresh patch of sand more to the Pharaoh’s liking.
After two long weeks of very physical toil, I figured it would be a relief to get back to making shows. Over the course of those first ten episodes, we'd managed to ease into a smooth working rhythm that rolled right over the rough spots that inevitably pop up during the process of making any television show. It just felt so easy coming down the stretch, so there was no logical reason to assume we wouldn’t fall right back into that comfortable groove after making the move.
Unfortunately, the operating system of real life doesn’t function on logic alone. Just as a baseball team that’s been on fire heading into the All Star Break so often loses their momentum and their groove once the season resumes, our first week back in production rapidly morphed into a chaotic ordeal. With nothing but problems that proved endlessly difficult to fix, it was clear that we’d well and truly lost our mojo. Our DP – famous for his endless tweaking of the lighting right on through the live show* -- stalked the floor barking orders like a man possessed. We put scrims in, we pulled scrims out. We moved the lamps from one pipe to another, then panned them right and panned them left. We tilted them up and tilted them down. Nothing seemed to satisfy this man, but the DP is the boss, so we followed orders while trying to keep the inevitable eyeball-rolling and grousing down to a low rumble.
Our rough passage extended right on through the blocking and pre-shoots, normally a day that entails a little tweaking here and there, but nothing more. Not this time – we were running hard all day long and into the evening. At times it wasn’t clear whether we were actually solving any problems or simply creating new ones.
Chaos was the rule, order the exception.
At last – mercifully -- we came to the final pre-shoot of the day, an extended dialog scene between one of our principals and this week’s guest star. Everybody behind the lights and cameras was tired, but ready for one more push to finish our day. The rehearsal was way over the top, as the guest star caught us all by surprise with her extremely dynamic performance. After plodding through so much rote blocking since morning, this unexpected burst of comedic energy abruptly reversed the tide of a long, enervating day. The entire crew perked up, on our toes now, wide awake.
The first take wasn’t great -- the principal flubbed a line while the guest star dialed it down a bit too much. The second take was much better, the timing crisp, the line readings spot-on. The third take was pure magic, all the elements blending together in a fusion that sparkled like good champagne. When done right, comedy can be very funny stuff, and even though we’d heard the same jokes three times already, the entire crew was laughing hard – real laughter from the gut, not the polite, white-gloved variety typical of blocking day. The producers and director beamed as the AD called a wrap, and our day was finally done. After being pissed off to one degree or another for the better part of 12 hours, I dropped my tool belt in the set lighting room, grabbed my bike, and pedaled back to the parking structure feeling great.
Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t – but when it does, all the hassles and frustrating complications melt away like snow under the hot sun. The pain is suddenly forgotten, replaced by the warm glow that comes when you finally get something just right. Not only did the good vibe carry over into the following day's audience shoot, but it helped send us into the weekend feeling a lot better about everything.
And maybe -- just maybe -- we're a step closer to getting our groove back on.
* This rarely happens on multi-camera shows, where -- as a rule -- producers don’t like to see the crew out there in front of the audience climbing ladders and making adjustments on show night. During the show, the gaffer and dimmer operator are busy (and quietly) making sure the lighting cues are right for each scene, while the juicers stand by in case something critical goes wrong – like a key light burning out a globe. We had just such an emergency when a big studio 5K melted down during a recent shoot night. It was the heaviest and most difficult lamp to reach on the entire stage, naturally, but with the juicers and grips working together like the Marines on Mt. Suribachi, we got the bad head down and a new one up (and burning) in a matter of minutes.
As always, the show must go on...