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, April 17, 2011

Pilot Season: A Blast from the Past

The bonfires of pilot season are burning hot and bright this year, but it looks like I'll miss the whole thing. By the time we've shot our final episodes and wrapped the stage on my current show, the only thing left will be ashes -- and soon enough, those too will be gone with the wind.

That's okay by me. When you've got nothing, landing a pilot is manna from heaven, but the non-stop work of making the damned thing is a bruising uphill slog all the way. At the moment, I don't need the aggravation or the inevitable beat-down of suffering through another pilot.

But that's just for now -- if my show doesn't get picked up for a second season (and there are no guarantees in this business), then I'll be more than happy to take whatever I can find, pilots included.

I wrote a short series of posts on the pilot process a couple of years ago, describing a show that was to have been called "Madison Lumber," starring a newly-svelte Valerie Bertinelli. It was a good pilot -- lots of people liked it -- but turning it into a series was apparently beyond the budgetary reach of the cable network that green-lit the project in the first place, and no other takers came along to save the day. Like so many pilots before and since, "Madison Lumber" sank beneath the waters without a ripple. All that work, all that effort, for nothing.

Well, not literally "for nothing" -- after all, I got three paychecks out of the deal -- but the series we all wanted (and the steady work it would bring) did not come to pass. So it goes in Hollywood.

Although I'm a big fan of recycling in real life, I've managed to avoid the practice here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium -- but the past four work-weeks have been considerably longer and harder than usual. Thus short on time, energy, and inspiration, I've got nothing new ready to post... which is why I'm reaching back into the archives for this one. I have no way of knowing how many people actually bother to plow all the way through the list of "greatest hits" (cough...), and since the following reprint -- detailing the realities of working on a pilot -- lies near the very bottom of that list, it seems a timely choice.

If you are among the few who have read it, sorry about that. For something current, click on over to "Martini Shot" and listen to Rob Long's brief commentary on the creative insanity of pilot season. It's a good one.

I don't want to make a habit of recycling posts here, but this may not be the end of it. With the next couple of weeks scheduled to deliver yet more ass-kicking, I'll just have to go with the flow...

Gulliver's Travels: a Pilot Unfolds

Martian War Death Machine, or Sony Studios Watertower?

I've been posting a lot about television pilots lately, mostly concerning what happens before and after the pilot is made. In looking back over some of those posts, I realized that many of you have no way of knowing what it's actually like to work on such a pilot. With that in mind, the next two or three posts will take you through the messy, frustrating, and ultimately exhausting process of making a sit-com pilot -- the very pilot I wrote about in last week's post. I won't name the show (which didn't have a real name anyway -- just the "Untitled So-and-So Project") nor the star, for fear of jeopardizing my spot on the crew should it get picked up. Producers exercise tight control over any and all publicity for their shows, and most definitely do not appreciate anyone who talks out of school. To that end, we have to sign all sorts of non-disclosure agreements prior to starting work, which means I must be careful what I say.

Here in the house of the hangman, we do not speak of rope...

Day One: Wednesday

It's 6:45 on a Wednesday morning, and our sound stage at Sony Studios is a churning cauldron of chaos. Construction crews have been building and painting sets – working 12 hour shifts -- for several days now, and until today, had the stage to themselves. Not anymore. Today this pilot moves into the next phase as the grips and juicers arrive.

That the sets are nowhere near being finished doesn't seem to matter. Those who control the purse strings have decided it’s time to start lighting.

Sony rigging grips have already prepared the stage for us, hanging an interlocking grid of two-inch diameter steel pipes from chains running up to the “perms” – a immensely sturdy framework of heavy wooden beams thirty-five feet above the stage floor. The pipe grid is laid out in four distinct sections following the rough contours of each set, three to four feet above the set walls. Most of the lighting equipment -- our lamps and the grip's flags (deployed to cut and shape the light) -- will be hung from this grid. Rigging juicers ran enough power on stage to energize six big dimmer packs, each the size of a refrigerator, then put in “the waterfall” -- a thick black river of heavy cables running from the dimmer packs all the way up the perms. There, some of our crew will run those cables out along a network of catwalks and drop power down to the pipe grid as needed. By the time we’re ready to film, close to 250 lamps of all sizes will be hung and adjusted to light the four sets currently under construction, each lamp powered by an individual circuit controlled by one man at the dimmer console.

All this will unfold over the days to come – the mountain ahead is high and steep – but today is mostly about receiving equipment. Lots of equipment. Everything from 200 watt “Inkies” to 10,000 watt “Teners” will be delivered from the lamp dock (the studio warehouse where lamps and cable are stored) to the stage. Every studio has their own way of handling this, in what essentially remains an equipment rental business. At CBS Radford (which used to be Republic Studios), a teamster-driven forklift delivers the lamps to each stage in huge metal baskets. Paramount just shrugs its shoulders, spits on the sidewalk, then lights another cigarette while each show’s lighting crew pulls, tests, and loads every lamp from Paramount storage onto stakebed trucks driven to the stage by teamsters. Disney – never missing a chance to squander a dollar if it means saving a dime -- washed their hands of this equipment rental business a few years ago by closing their lamp dock and selling off the lighting equipment. I’ve done commercials at Universal, but we always brought in our own trucks and equipment -- I have no idea how well Uni supports television shows in the shadow of that big Black Tower on Lankershim Boulevard. Here at Sony, the lamp dock juicers themselves bring the equipment to stage neatly stacked on rolling carts, using an electric tugger that also functions as a forklift.

Very self-contained, very civilized, very Japanese.

The equipment won’t show up for another hour, though, so we sit down to fill out our "start forms": deal memos, I-9 citizenship forms, time cards, and W-2 forms, along with the usual battery of sexual harassment and safety bulletins. It's all boilerplate stuff we've filled out a thousand tedious times before -- but in the dense, stilted prose of that last document is the following statement:

“Make sure you get the right help when lifting or moving heavy or awkward objects. Avoid lifting them whenever possible.”

This gets a belly laugh from the entire crew.

Earth to Safety Dude -- lifting and moving heavy, awkward objects, often without any help, pretty much defines the job of a juicer during these first frantic days on a pilot. Once the lamps are up, we can do the more delicate work of adjusting and fine-tuning them to properly light the set, but until then, lifting and moving heavy objects is what we do...

Shortly after we all finish scrawling our names, social security number, address, and signature a dozen times on half a dozen different forms, a train of big carts arrives from the lamp dock, each heavily laden with lamps. The first load contains a hundred and twenty "Studio Juniors” – 2000 watt incandescent lamps about the size of a five gallon water bottle. Subsequent loads will bring a a couple of "teners", a dozen “seniors” (5000 watt lamps), sixty “babies” (1000 watt lamps), forty “tweenies” (650 watt lamps), along with forty “inkies” and “midgets” (200 watt lamps). We'll also get a load of "skypans" and "pony pans", lamps shaped a like Chinese cooking pans, used to light scenic backings behind the sets.

All in all, it's enough equipment to keep us very busy for the next couple of weeks.

The real work of lighting won't start until tomorrow: today, our job is to hump all those lamps onto the stage and stack them in compact rows beneath the audience grandstand and out onto the stage floor. Carrying and stacking is mindless, sweaty toil, but at least this sort of work has a well-defined objective. The hard part will be hanging them over two biggest sets, one of which – at two stories -- is exceptionally tall for a sit-com set. The real work lies ahead. In all the ways that matter, this is the easiest day we’ll have for a long time.

There’s just one big fat fly buzzing in the ointment: the construction crew and painters. Carpenters are everywhere, turning raw lumber into sets, building and installing stairways, cabinets, and bookshelves.. Power saws, sanders, drills, impact drivers, and poorly-functioning vacuum rigs run full blast all day long, filling the air with the screams of tortured wood. Finely powdered sawdust drifts everywhere, thanks to those crappy vacuum rigs. Three boom boxes blare at maximum volume, each tuned to a different station, blending with the intermittent shrieks of power tools to create a deafening cacophony.

Meanwhile, the painters are busily painting everything in sight – brushing, rolling, and spraying -- filling the air with toxic fumes. Many wear respirators to protect their lungs and sinuses, and at least half have their ears plugged in to Ipods. Thus insulated from the noisy, stinking environment, they live and work in their own little music-video world.

In a way, I envy them.

The capper, though – and Exhibit A in The Sheer Idiocy of Sit-Com Pilots – is that some fool high up the food chain decided to have the floors installed today. That means a crew clad in industrial-strength kneepads is busy measuring, cutting, and installing hardwood veneer, carpet, and some kind of ersatz linoleum flooring on the various sets. These poor guys are trying to do their job in an extremely user-unfriendly environment – not only are the carpenters and painters all over the place, but now grips and juicers have been added to the mix. With so many different crews working at odds and in each other's way, life has been made infinitely harder for everyone. It's really a bitch for us juicers, who need to use 2500 pound manlifts and scissor lifts to hang most of our lamps. Turning the wheels of a manlift on this freshly installed faux flooring can carve big holes in it, which means we have to put down 4-by-8foot sheets of layout board (thick cardboard) to protect the flooring. Not only is this a time-consuming pain in the ass, but it doesn’t really work. The scissor lifts do okay on layout board, but the small manlifts -- essential for working in smaller sets and maneuvering in tight quarters -- are designed to operate on smooth warehouse floors, not over an uneven surface. When the layout board bends and folds – as it always does – the manlift suddenly refuses to go up at all. This built-in (and utterly infuriating) "safety feature" ends up making our work much more difficult, and occasionally more dangerous. We'll do our best to use the layout board whenever possible, but in the days to come, the flooring of each set will be damaged to one degree or another. Some of those floors will require extensive repairs before the filming can begin.

This is nothing new -- it happens every time. After paying for such do-it-again floor repairs in pilot after pilot, you’d think Somebody Important might understand that it makes dollars-and-sense to wait until the grips and juicers have finished the heavy lighting chores before having those floors installed. You’d be wrong. That kind of logic doesn't seem to apply in Hollywood, where they do what they do for reasons all their own -- and if you let it, the sheer stupidity of all this can drive you crazy. The difficulty of making a pilot isn't so much doing your job – although that’s hard enough, it’s only half the battle – but in all the additional maddeningly stupid little tasks one must perform simply to reach point where you can actually do your job.

It’s all part of the unique madness that is a pilot.

Truth be told, it’s a fucking zoo on that stage. Merely contemplating all that must be done – and how hard it will be to do -- is daunting. Trying to work in such a chaotic atmosphere is an exercise in terminal frustration. In a way, I feel a bit like the hapless Gulliver, tied down by a thousand tiny threads until he is finally rendered immobile. On Day One of this pilot, it seems impossible that any real order can ever emerge from all this.

Great reserves of patient persistence will be required from every member of the crew if any such order is to emerge -- but emerge it must.

And emerge it will.

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