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, May 30, 2010

Little Power

“One volt won’t hurt, but one amp will kill.”

From the MPTP Safety Training Program

The unhappy truth is, there’s nothing “little” about the power set lighting crews deal with on a daily basis in the film and television industry. High voltage electricity is extremely dangerous and horrendously destructive when it gets loose, but the voltages we typically handle on set -- 120 to 240 AC -- will kill you just as dead. Over the course of my time in the biz, I’ve been hit by everything from a poorly-conducted 120 volt tingle to an eyeball-rattling high-voltage/low amperage jolt off a neon sign transformer. The most dangerous hit I ever took came as the result of a faulty generator -- a solid shot of 240 AC that blew right through my chest like a shotgun blast. It was over before I knew what happened, but left me seeing stars for a while.

I was lucky that time.

According to data provided by our Safety Pass Class V (an industry mandated safety program), 1 to 5 milliamps will cause a “painful sensation.” 5 to 15 milliamps “causes muscle contraction in most people.” 15 to 30 milliamps “causes breathing to become difficult, loss of consciousness possible.” 50 to 100 milliamps can bring about the “possibility of ventricular fibrillation,” while 100 to 200 milliamps will cause “certain ventricular fibrillation” and “likely death.”

If 200 milliamps -- roughly the power consumed by a 25 watt household globe plugged into a wall socket -– is sufficient to cause “certain ventricular fibrillation,” then consider what juicers deal with on set, where the lamps typically range from 200 watts up to 24,000. The relatively new Softsun units run as high as 100,000 watts. Given that even a very small lighting setup uses enough juice to put a person in the morgue several times over, there’s really no excuse for being sloppy in handling power on set.

Still, shit happens, usually thanks to human error. In these days of fully grounded power systems on stage and location, getting shocked while handling lamps is increasingly rare. Color coding makes it difficult to mistake a hot leg for the neutral, and with modern reverse-ground systems, a juicer has to go to some trouble to make the ground hot. But nothing is foolproof, especially when working with older, non-reversed grounding cable – and since the color-coding tends to fade on connectors that spend a long time in the sun, mistakes are easier to make. I learned this the hard way on a Revlon commercial starring Brooke Shields back in the late 90’s. Caught up in the early morning rush to lay the cable down and get the power up, I plugged a faded blue connector into a faded green receptacle (I have no valid defense -- in the dawn’s early light, that faded blue sure looked green to me...) and a couple of minutes later the genny shut down.

The best boy found and fixed the problem in a matter of minutes, then took me aside to explain what happened. Before I started beating myself up for being a complete idiot, he grinned and told me not to worry about it. The exact same thing had happened with one of their regular juicers (for whom I was filling in) two weeks before. Nothing was plugged in or turned on yet, so -- in his words -- “no harm, no foul.” Still, I felt bad enough to spend the rest of my down time that day with blue and green coding tape, marking every faded connector so this would not happen again.

Which, not to put too fine a point on it, the best boy really should have done after that first incident two weeks before...

Back in the good old/bad old days before grounded systems were universal, I once got lit up by a 200 watt Inky. While adjusting the lamp on a very low stand, my elbow brushed against the camera dolly and 120 volts shot from the lamp right through me. The dolly had been rigged with another Inky as an obie light above the lens, and apparently one (or both) of those lamps had an internal wiring problem. Lacking a ground to provide a safe path, the juice used my high-water content body as a conductive path. The result was a good jolt carrying more than 1500 milliamps -- well past the 200 milliamps deemed sufficient to induce "certain ventricular fibrillation and likely death" -- but it was glancing shot, and my involuntary muscle reactions knocked me away from the dolly before I took too big a hit.

Had I grabbed one of the dolly’s push bars for some reason, I could have gotten "hooked up," in which case somebody else might be telling this story.

Although ventricular fibrillation can be lethal, it’s not the only danger from electric shock. To quote the Safety Program: “The results of current flowing through body tissue or bone are extremely serious and require immediate medical attention. The heat from the current can cause tissue damage that is often irreversible, including hearing loss, brain damage, organ failure, internal hemorrhaging, and bone lesions.”*

A film set is a hands-on, hurry-up work environment where the equipment is -- in the classic Texas phrase – “rode hard and put away wet.” Most juicers are reasonably careful with the lamps, but job after job, year after year, the cable takes a beating. Every now and then you'll come across a roll of 4/0 with the insulation sliced right down the copper wire inside -- wire designed to run 400 amps of power. But the connectors on either end of the cable also take a lot of punishment, and that can come back to bite you when you least expect it.

While juicing on a commercial (with the same crew as on the Revlon spot, oddly enough...) on stage, I was told to take over for one of my fellow juicers who was testing a couple of dozen 6K Space Lights before sending them up high. The safe way to do this is to leave the breaker switch off while hooking up the power feeder, then then flip the switch to make sure all six bulbs work. If so, you flip the switch off, disconnect the power feeder, and repeat until all the lamps check out. But since the Space Lights had been dropped off a hundred feet from the closest distro box, he ran a length of soccapex cable from the box to the lamps**. Rather than walk back and forth for every lamp, he simply left breaker hot and jammed the female power connector into the male pins of each lamp for a test burn. It was a crude but quick method, although some arcing of the connectors was inevitable. Given the pressure we were under to get the lamps up and burning, I decided to follow his lead.

Bad idea.

Half way through the testing process, the connector sparked with a small "pop" when I pulled it off a lamp. I took a look -- the connector maybe a foot and a half from my face. It popped again with another spark, so I held it away at arms length, intending to set it down, then kill the breaker. But before I could make another move there was a third pop, followed by a conical blast of blue-white fire shooting out from the connector with a terrifying roar. That flame was a good fourteen inches long and eight inches in diameter, and looked for all the world like the exhaust from a rocket engine. I dropped the cable and backed away while one of my fellow juicers ran to hit the breaker, killing the flame.

Before that moment, I'd have bet money such a thing couldn't happen with soccapex -- and I don't even want to think about the eye and facial burns I might have suffered had that connector gone nuclear on the second pop rather than the third. Needless to say, I've been very careful while working with soccapex every since -- and I never plug those connectors in hot.

The lesson here lies in dangers of moving too fast, taking shortcuts, and making assumptions, all of which come under the heading of "being stupid." Things can go wildly haywire in an instant when working with electricity, and by the time you realize something's wrong, it's way too late. Just because something has yet to happen to you doesn't mean it can't – or won’t. And since being stupid can hurt you, there's a simple way to stay safe:

Don't be stupid.

* While hearing loss might render my Ipod useless, and brain damage could qualify me to serve as head of programming for NBC (at a huge raise in pay), organ failure and internal hemorrhaging would likely put me on -– or under -- the bench for keeps. I’m not exactly sure what “bone lesions” are, and am not at all interested in finding out the hard way...

** Soccapex cable has six separate circuits, thus allowing for total control of a multi-bulb lamp like a Space Light.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Riding the Thermals

It was nice while it lasted back on the home planet, where lush green meadows were sprinkled with wild purple irises standing tall above a blue mist of Forget-Me-Nots. The air came off the water and through the trees cool and crisp, laced with the intoxicating scent of pine and bay. A brief taste of a better world... but all too soon it was time to crawl back through the wormhole across the vast Central Valley, then up and over the Grapevine into the aptly-named LA Basin and the Doomed City of the Future.

As usual, it was hot, smoggy, crowded, and dirty. Hell-Lay indeed.

Anyone who’s been tuning in to this blog for a while knows I tend to use surfing metaphors to describe the life of a Hollywood free lancer: waiting for a wave (being unemployed), catching a wave (getting a job), and – one of these days, inshallah – catching a wave big enough to carry me all the way into the warm sunny beach of retirement. Translation: a hit multi-camera sit-com running eight or nine years.

That may never happen, but hope dies last in this bleak urban desert, where I keep my fingers crossed each and every day.

I’m not actually a surfer, mind you. Yeah, I did my share of body surfing down along the Mexican coast back in the day, and had a wobbly blast on borrowed long boards in Santa Cruz a couple of times, but never had time to fully plumb the surfing experience. I regret that, and really wish I’d found a way to make the time -- but looking back over the years, there are several things I’d like to have done differently. If you live long enough, you too may end up dragging an elephant train of regrets. This does no good, of course, but there it is just the same. But at least I got a taste of surfing -- managing to catch and briefly harness the immense power of even a relatively small ocean wave is a uniquely heady sensation, and something you don’t ever forget.

Thus the metaphors.

Staring out at those rolling green hills back home, I watched big black turkey vultures rise into the air every morning, carving graceful circles through the powder blue sky all day long into the evening dusk. They were searching for carrion -- food in the form of dead skunks, raccoons, and the stiff, bloated carcasses of deer lying by the side of the road. Deer often cross the path of cars up there, and in these unhappy collisions, the deer tend to lose. But their loss is the vulture’s gain, as day by bloody day, nature ruthlessly recycles each and every living thing. Like it or not, life and death are joined at the hip, each walking in the shadow of the other as the great wheel keeps rolling along.

Those big birds (with wingspans up to seven feet) are fascinating to watch, gliding effortlessly through the air with hardly a flap of a wing. They know how to catch the warm currents of rising air – thermals – and use them as invisible elevators into the sky. When a thermal peters out, or the bird decides the altitude is right, it banks to one side and sails off wherever it desires, following the scent of ripe food on the ground hundreds of feet below. By riding the thermals, they’re in effect surfing the wind.

So here’s another metaphor to describe the freelance Hollywood life – riding the thermals of gainful employment until each one plays out, then gliding on in search of another.

But even the best metaphors only go so far, and I can live without eating those dead animals by the side of the road -- unless, of course, consuming rotting carrion is the metaphorical equivalent of working cable-rate jobs...


This space has been discussing power lately, so in a slightly different vein than last Sunday’s post, here’s a recent Rob Long commentary on the power of “no”.

In an altogether different direction, he then discusses the eternal – if unspoken – question of Hollywood: “Can I please have some money?"

The answer, needless to say, is usually no.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Big Power

Once upon a time, during a leisurely trip back to the home planet, the battery of my aging car died. I'd stopped for a burger in a little town on the Central Coast, and when I got back in the bug-splattered old Camaro and turned the key... nothing. It still had enough juice to run the radio, but that’s all.

No lights, no camera, no action.

Being a small town, there was a full-service gas station right around the corner.* The attendant on duty was a small man in his early forties, friendly, but with an oddly distant gaze, as if he’d witnessed something far bigger than most people could possibly imagine. Both his hands and arms were covered with terrible scars, leaving the skin withered and hard, like thick ropes of beef jerky. He moved with the cautious, deliberate manner of a man who had learned the hard way that moving too fast can be a terrible mistake.

I was curious about those scars, of course, but there are things you just don’t ask. We traded small talk as he went about pulling the dead battery, filling a new one with acid, then installing it. Eventually the small talk faded, and after a brief silence, he began to tell his story. I think he needed to. By then, everyone else in that little town had doubtless heard it ten times over, but I was a captive audience with a fresh pair of ears. It didn't take long to tell, and if some of the details have evaporated over the years, the central image remains branded in my memory. He’d been standing atop a gasoline tanker doing some kind of maintenance task with a long aluminum pole, unaware that the truck was parked directly beneath high tension power lines. For one reason or another, the pole came dangerously close to those lines -- and at that point, 17,000 volts of extremely big power screamed through the metal on its way to the ground.

For a brief, life-altering instant, this little man held the fire of the Gods in both hands.

That he wasn’t instantly fried like a mosquito in a bug-zapper by such a massive jolt is something of a miracle. In all likelihood, he survived only because he was not the primary path traveled by the high voltage surge as it headed for the ground. Had his body (rather than the metal pole) been the main transit route for all those electrons, this man would be nothing but a smoldering memory in that little town. As it was, he suffered horrible burns and god knows how much internal and neural damage. I have no idea what he’d been like before this incident, but there’s little doubt the course of his life had been radically changed in ways few of us can comprehend. We humans are bio-chemical machines that operate on minute micro-currents, and under the proper circumstances, a very small amount of electricity can kill. If the juice powering a household light-bulb can be lethal, imagine the damage 17,000 volts carrying a huge amp load could do. A shock of that magnitude would be something like dipping your head to sip from a drinking straw only to get blasted in the face by full steaming fury of Old Faithful.

After that – in the unlikely event you survived - you’d never look at a drinking straw quite the same way again.

But he here he was, still alive and working in the same gas station several years later. In a way, he was like some modern day Prometheus, punished by the Gods as a warning to respect the immense power of electricity. As one who handles the invisible juice on a daily basis in my working life (albeit much lower voltages), I took this warning to heart. Whenever I'm under pressure and trying to work fast with hot lines, I remember the little man with those big scars. That slows me down every time.

Most movie lamps run on 120 to 240 volts AC, either of which can be lethal when things go wrong, but in general, higher voltages deliver a meaner punch. I related some of my experiences “getting bit” in a previous post, and have heard many more from other juicers over the years, but the scariest stories always seem to involve 480 volt AC power. Until recently, set lighting techs didn’t have to deal with 480** – we left that to licensed industrial electricians -- but even they sometimes have problems with this unruly beast, and given the unforgiving nature of 480, any trouble is a Big Trouble. I heard one grim story of a guy who walked into a dark electrical closet unaware that a co-worker had left some loose cables dangling near the live 480 bus bars. One or two cables hit the bars, and the result was an explosive fireball that inflicted fatal burns.

Here's the technical description of "arc flash," and why it's so lethal:

“An electrical explosion, or "arc flash", occurs when one or more high current arcs are created between energized electrical conductors or between an energized conductor and neutral ground. Once initiated, the resulting arc(s) can bridge significant distances even though the voltage is relatively low.

The energy dissipated within a power arc is limited only by the fault current capability of the upstream power source and the duration before protective hardware "clears" (interrupt) the short circuit. In many low voltage (480 - 600 volt) electrical power distribution systems, fault currents can exceed 70,000 amps. The thermal energy liberated within a high current arc can be many tens of megawatts - equivalent to several sticks of dynamite. The arc core may reach 35,000 degrees F (four times that of the surface of the sun!). As the arc "roots" vaporize portions of the copper bus bars, the copper vapor explosively expands to over 60,000 times its solid volume. The incandescent copper vapor then combines with oxygen in the atmosphere, forming dense clouds of cupric oxide, blackening the air and covering nearby objects with black "soot". Globules of molten copper are also violently ejected, showering the immediate vicinity with 2,000 degree droplets that can approach speeds of 700 miles per hour.

Magnetic forces also propel the arc along the bus, extending it in the process, and the huge magnetic forces may be sufficient to actually bend bus bars or rip them from their mountings, possibly creating additional shrapnel. An unprotected individual unlucky enough to be anywhere near this event would be seriously injured or killed. Because of the extreme danger, most countries now require electrical workers to wear protective clothing and headgear whenever working near energized high energy equipment.”

The text above is used with permission from Bert Hickman, of Stoneridge Engineering, at A retired electrical engineer who worked for Bell Labs and AT&T, Mr. Hickman knows what he’s talking about – and given that he refers to anything below 600 volts as “low voltage” power, it’s safe to assume he’s forgotten more about electricity than I will ever know. For some truly eye-opening examples of what big power can do, check out the Arcs and Sparks section of his website. One of his more astonishing video clips shows an entire substation shorting out and melting down. It’s scarily impressive stuff, and a reminder that big power is extremely serious business.

Me, I'll stick with 240 and under, thankyouverymuch...

* This was in the mid-80’s, when many gas stations still had a garage, hydraulic lifts, and a mechanic on duty to fix blowouts, mount and balance new tires, replace a broken fan belt, install a new water pump, or put in a fresh battery. Nowadays, most gas stations are nothing more than eight Serv-Ur-Self pumps and a kiosk selling newspapers, cigarettes, breath mints, and condoms.

** A new lamp called a SoftSun came into use during the past few years, a 320 pound monster that turns 480 volts of electricity into 100,000 watts of daylight. Properly hooked up and fed by a generator, it's perfectly safe to use, but personally, I'd be leery of energizing 480 for one of these lamps via step-down transformers connected to city power lines. Given the immense electrical capacity of high tension lines, the potential for trouble should something go wrong is scary.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Greetings from the Home Planet

My home entertainment center is wide screen, high-def, and the best 3-D on the market -- and running on one hundred percent biofuel, this baby is fully carbon neutral...

Yep, still on hiatus while enjoying the backwoods splendor of the Home Planet, where I do not trouble myself with thoughts of Hollywood, much less try to write about it. Once again I leave the heavy lifting to others -- in this case (and if I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here, so be it) the inimitable Tim Goodman, who in Friday's column explains the whole messy business of the network "upfronts," and how cable continues to force change on the television landscape. It's called "There's a Chaotic New World Order in TV Land," and you can read it here.

Like all Tim's work, it's good stuff: smart, pithy, and dead on target. I'm not exactly thrilled with his analysis or conclusions, since -- as I've pointed out repeatedly in this space -- the rise of cable at the expense of the broadcast networks is very bad news for those of us who toil in the trenches of television, but Goodman writes for the viewers, not for the workbots on the factory floor. With prose as sharp and entertaining as his, I almost don't mind reading the grim news.

Rome may be burning, but that doesn't mean I can't warm my hands -- or feet -- by the fire...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stop Me Before I Kill Again...

Hollywood Grave Robbers Gone Wild!

For anyone who follows the world of television – whether from inside the Hollywood machine or simply as a viewer – Tim Goodman (of the San Francisco Chronicle) is always worth reading. In a column this week, Tim wields his pointed wit to dissect the disturbing, disheartening, and utterly brain-dead trend towards remakes on broadcast television.

And guess who's leading the charge to exhume and reanimate the past? That's right, Jeff Zucker -- as current captain of the Titanic, er, NBC, a one-man wrecking crew and poster-child for Really Bad Ideas in television programming. The man is a living, breathing example of the Peter Principle in action.

Seriously -- his idea of a creating fresh new show to capture the imagination of America is to remake "The Rockford Files."

Unbelievable. What a maroon...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hiatus Week #726

It's more like number six or seven, actually, which means this hiatus week is long overdue. Besides, here it is Sunday morning already and me with nothing to say. Well, there's plenty to say, but I'm just not feeling the "juice" required to put words on the computer screen right now.

A juicer with no juice -- must be my own personal energy crisis.

It's been a while since I took a week off here... a long while, actually... and I aim to rectify that situation. Call it Spring Break or whatever, but I'll be back once the current resumes flowing with sufficient juice to move my fingers across the keyboard.

Until then, remember: absinthe may not make the heart grow fonder, but it will rot your brain...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Christmas? Already?

And a Merry Frickin' Christmas in April to you too...

Didn't we just have Christmas four months ago? Aren't we supposed to have the rest of Spring, Summer, and Fall to enjoy before once again wading into the orgy of personal guilt and compensatory commercial excess our society collectively celebrates as "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year??"

Isn’t it way too early to cue up the Johnny Mathis???

Indeed, but the Gods of Television move in mysterious ways, which is how I recently found myself on a sit-com stage that a hard-working art department had spent hours dressing for Christmas. Each set -- and there were many -- was jammed with fully decked-out Christmas trees and plastic snow on the windows, along with tinsel and strings of Xmas lights everywhere. It was the Christmas episode, to state the obvious. I can't tell you what show, of course -- as the non-disclosure agreements I had to sign (and those lame "No BRATS" posters plastered all around the sound stage) will attest, I cannot name, identify, or otherwise describe this particular show at peril of having corporate legal thugs kick down my door and drag me off to blogger's prison. Thus my sqishy vagueness here, because even though this job paid the odious cable rate, 2010 remains a year of begging rather than choosing. A job’s a job, and if the best boy needs an extra hand down the line, I’d like to remain on the short list so I can return for more punishment.

Such is the lot of a free-lance juicer in these troubled times.

Oh, and remember what I said about how the no-doubletime-'til-14-hours provision under cable-rate doesn't really hurt sit-com crews since multi-camera shows almost never shoot that long? Wrong again. We went all 14 of those hours, right up 'til the magic moment when the producers would have had to start paying us fifty-six blood-money dollars per hour for our trouble, whereupon the schedule (and the fact that we hadn’t come close to "making our day") suddenly didn't matter anymore. That’s all folks -- turn out the lights and go home.

They didn’t have to tell me twice. I pulled that damned walkie-talkie out of my ear, dropped my tool belt, and was gone, baby, gone...

Given the lead-time required in television, doing Christmas shows in July or August is normal, but April? That’s a new one on me. Making this long day all the more trying was a young guest star I’d barely heard of, who -- it seems -- is huge among the tweener set. There were two bodyguards standing by during every scene to make sure all those screeching little fans in our live studio audience didn’t jump the rail in a human tsunami of over-amped tween hormones. And oh did they screech... Remember those old black and white tapes of The Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, playing in front of an audience jammed with screaming young girls?* Trust me, the combined shrieking of several hundred tweens is a lot louder in person. I gained a world of sympathy for Mr. Ed (may he rest in peace), and in the end, resorted to using an earplug in my non-walkie-talkie ear to salvage both my hearing and my sanity.

But like I said, work is work, and this year we take what we can get.

* I saw this legendary performance at the time it was first televised in glorious black and white, not decades later on tape. Yes, it was a long time ago...