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, November 21, 2010

The Cable Transplant














This is a 96 piece 4/0 run for the film "Deep Impact." I had nothing to do with the rig (thank God), but a friend who did sent me the photographic proof. No wonder his back still hurts all these years later...*


For a juicer, it always comes back to cable. It’s ugly stuff: black, dirty, and invariably heavy. On a new location, each work day begins with running cable from the generator to the set -- pulling those heavy coils off the truck or cart, loosening the ropes, tying the proper code knots, then stringing it out. Twelve to sixteen hours later (after the director, actors, producers, hair and makeup, camera and sound departments, set dressers, props, craft service, and all but one or two hapless PAs are long gone), all that cable has to be wrapped back into tight coils, tied up snugly, then loaded back on the truck.

The sheer dead weight of it -– particularly 4/0, the foundation of set lighting and bane of every juicer’s existence -– is almost shocking. When properly wrapped, a hundred feet of 4/0 forms a thick coil about the size of a car tire. At anywhere from 85 to 96 pounds (depending on the manufacturer and thickness of insulation), this is right at the limit of what the average juicer can heft and carry on his/her shoulder. Big studs can carry two pieces of 4/0 at once, but such muscular bravado is a fool’s game that eventually wreaks havoc on the back, knees, ankles, and feet. I weighed in around a hundred and fifty pounds when I first started juicing, and just couldn’t believe how absurdly heavy 4/0 really was. Now -- older, fatter, and three surgeries later -- I can still get a coil of 4/0 up to my shoulder and carry it when necessary, but my back always hates me for it the next morning.

Sometimes I wonder if we might be better off if it was even heavier. If 4/0 weighted 200 pounds per roll, nobody would expect us to lift and carry the stuff. OSHA regulations would mandate the design and use of mechanical lifts to do the heavy lifting, and powered carts to transport the cable. Then again, there’s always somewhere the power needs to go that such mechanical devices couldn’t – up a church steeple or an impossibly precipitous hillside, for instance. One way or another, we’d have to get the cable up there, so I guess it’s just as well 4/0 doesn’t weigh 200 pounds.

Yet...

Episodic television productions generally employ a rigging crew to lay the cable in before first unit shows up, then pick it up after they show boys are done filming.** Sit-coms – especially low budget cable shows – rarely go on location, so once the stage rig is in, most of the cable wrangling is over until the season wraps. Indeed, it took a veteran of the multi-camera wars to help me understand the advantages of working for cable rate. Yes, the money is 20% under union scale, he noted, but the strict budget ceiling of many cheapo cable shows means they never go on location or work excessive overtime –- both of which cost extra money.

If such cable shows won’t pay much, at least they don’t beat us up too often. Since I’ve pretty much given up on ever making any real money again in this business, I can settle for less back-breaking, blood-letting toil. Hey, everything in life is a compromise -- at a certain point you just take what you can get and make the best of things.

So with the new stage rigged and ready for the fifteen more episodes, we should be cruising, right?

Wrong -- the God of Hollywood always finds a way to make us pay. The wrinkle here was that at the time we made the big move from one stage to another, the studio was so busy that the lamp dock had run out of equipment, so they had to sub-rent all the cable and dimmer packs for our new stage. When we got picked up (with a few week’s hiatus before coming back to shoot the next fifteen episodes), upper management had the bright idea to send all the sub-rented equipment back to the vendors and replace it with brand new gear. Yes, that meant laying out major dollars to buy all that new equipment, but the rentals over the next five months would pay for most of it, if not the whole bundle. From the perspective of those shirt-and-tie warriors who stare at computer screens all morning while struggling with the weighty dilemma of where-oh-where to have lunch today, this was a win/win scenario.

For us it was yet another not-so-subtle blend of the good and the bad. Yes, we’d get five more days work out of the deal (and since work = money = life, that’s always a good thing), but that meant unhooking and dropping the cable we just put up high four weeks ago – all 180 pieces, 14,500 feet, and 10,000 pounds of it – then replacing it with brand new cable. This had to be done very carefully, marking each of the fifty drops from up high to the pipe grid so that the 300 individual lamps (each on their own dimmable channel) would remain in the proper order once the new cable was installed. By the time it was over, we ended up moving nearly six miles and ten tons of cable just to get back to where we’d started.

Talk about the labors of Sisyphus...

This was a full cable transplant, the first I’ve ever had occasion to do on an up-and-running show, which made for a busy, sweaty, and bruising week. The studio rigging crew pulled out the big dimmer packs, each roughly the size and weight of a refrigerator jam-packed with beer, while another show took our high-tech dimmer board as a back-up for their live shoots. Essentially, this whole operation was like doing a complete heart, brain, and blood vessel transplant for our show. At this point, the new blood vessels are in -– all that cable -- but the dimmers have yet to arrive or be installed, and we’ll still need a new dimmer board.

Our last act before locking up the stage was to test each of those 300 circuits to make sure they worked, using hot, non-dimmed power –- and after replacing one bad piece of cable, all were good. Now we just have to plug in the new dimmer packs and board to be made whole once again.

This should all work fine, in theory -– but the God of Hollywood is a fickle mistress with a cruel sense of humor and no mercy whatsoever. I’ve got a feeling she's not quite done with us yet.


* Thanks, Danny...


** Riggers get no relief whatsoever. For them it’s all cable, all the time...

7 comments:

Niall said...

Reminds me of a double pump set up a juicer friend of mine showed me from "Extraordinary Measures" Stage set up.

I remember my first 4/0 experience. The older guys let me coil it like you would the smaller 2/0 and banded. Then hand carry it the two hundred feet back to the three ton we were using to fairy gear back to 48' truck. It took another two trips for the older guys to fill me in on the better way to coil 4/0. I still never gauged how long it took them to notice my youthful ignorance then how long they let me suffer for it.

The Grip Works said...

90 pounds is an awful lot to carry over one shoulder. I've carried a lot of really heavy stuff, but anything that weighs 90 pounds should be divided so it does not twist your spine in one direction only. Maybe a backpack system of some sort? I made one to carry crane weights in the mountains.

JD said...

Wouldn't you be "figure 8'ing" the 4/0? Why can we have have some sort of winding/coiling system like the one they use for rope on a fishing boat? Basically a motor driven tire, pressed against a capstan the cable is fed through. It would spool it into a barrel with a hinged side to remove the finished coil.

A.J. said...

I always hate it when a show does something like that. You spend all this time and sweat to put in the initial rig, putting in extra effort to make it all pretty and neat, only to take it all out again to do the exact... same... thing...

It's definitely a Sisyphus thing and it seems like nothing deflates the spirit more.

But congrats on the pick up!

Michael Taylor said...

Niall --

Few of us bother to learn -- really learn -- much of anything until we have good reason to. There's nothing quite like handling badly wrapped 4/0 or carrying it long distances to make one appreciate doing it the right way -- and the value of cable carts.

And that's how we learn...

But tell me, what's a "double pump set up?" I'm not familiar with the term.


Sanjay --

The problem with 4/0 isn't just the weight, but the odd distribution of that wieght in a big coil of cable. I'm sure it's possible to rig up some ergonomically correct form of cable back-pack, but then someone else would have to load it on the carrier's back. Still, in the right circumstances, that would probably work pretty well. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that somewhere, somehow, this has already been done.

JD --

In my experience, we figure-8 cable when the run needs to be kept intact, but ready to deploy in a hurry. When wrapping to the truck after the day's work is done, each length of cable is individually wrapped into a tight coil. Figure-8ing a five piece 4/0 run is an enormous pain in the ass, since every hundred feet of that run weights nearly 500 pounds.

That doesn't mean we don't do it, though...

I've seen motorized cable wrapping devices, but not for a long time. I'm not sure what the problem is, but they haven't caught on in the Industry. Maybe you could come up with one that really works, and in addition to earning the gratitude of juicers worldwide, make enough money so that you'd never have to wrap 4/0 again...

AJ --

You're dead right. The only consolation is reminding myself that such gross inefficiency on the part of production/management -- however painful -- invariably means more money in my pocket. It's usually blood money, of course, but such is life below decks. If this business was run in a truly streamlined, perfectly efficient manner, half the grips and juicers in Hollywood would remain permanantly unemployed...

Niall said...

Double pump is what he called a 480 volt 3 phase generator system, that's passed through a transformer converted down to two separate 220 volt 3 phase lines; then goes to where it needs to. In the case of that show it went into the dimmer truck then to set.

I think they had three or four legs of 480 down to six (30 sticks of 4/0) or eight (40 sticks of 4/0) legs of 220 to the dimmer pack truck.

He has a picture on facebook of the whole river of cable. They had every stick of 4/0 the local rental house could get. I look at it some tines in aw and horror.

D said...

And that... is why I'm not a juicer. (And I'm also afraid of electricity).