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Sunday, June 5, 2011
The Elephant Door
Big enough for, well, you know...
One of the more distinctive aspects of a real sound stage* is the big elephant door -- so called, I presume, because such doors are more than large enough to allow the entry of an adult pachyderm. I'm not sure there's any particular dimensional standard for such doors, but although they are seldom called upon to admit real live elephants these days, they must be large enough to allow 14 foot high set walls to pass through.**
These doors are massive -- six to eight inches thick (for soundproofing) and extremely heavy. Nowadays, most of them use electric motors to slowly open and close, but at the studio where I first started, many of those doors were operated manually -- shoved open or shut by the strong backs of the crew. Gravity provided the locking mechanism, with a wheel or chains employed to engage a mechanism to raise or lower the door as required. The strangest elephant door I ever saw was at the back of Stage 32 at Paramount (the "haunted" stage where -- I was told -- the original Star Trek television show was filmed), which was opened and closed using water power. How this actually worked remains the deepest of mysteries to me, but halfway through the season something went wrong, and that door stayed shut from then on.
Electric and gravity doors have their own strengths and weaknesses. When an electric door has a problem (and it happens more often than you'd think), it usually ends up stuck open, bringing production to a screeching halt. This does not make the producers happy, which means the studio has to kick into high gear to get the damned thing fixed ASAP. Although gravity doors don't have that problem, they're not immune from the perils of Newtonian Physics. Early in my career, I slammed a gravity door shut with enough momentum to bounce it off the track -- and for a briefly horrifying moment, I thought the whole thing was about to topple inward, crushing me and several other hapless innocents whom fate had brought to the fatal crossroads of The Wrong Place and The Wrong Time. Fortunately, this stab of raw panic proved groundless -- that big door was solidly frozen in place and going nowhere.
My problems weren't over, though. Still trying to earn my spurs and build a reputation as a useful, reliable griptrician in town, I'd instead demonstrated poor judgment in a manner that was impeding the production -- so I was greatly relieved when the stage manager appeared with a forklift a few minutes later to lift the big door back on its track, thus taking me off the hook.
Another bullet dodged.
During winter, the elephant door keeps the cold and rain on the outside and the heat on the inside. In the fierce San Fernando Vally summers, massive air conditioning units maintain a comfortable working temperature on stage while the rest of LA broils in 100 degree heat. When walking or riding a bicycle down the alleys between stages in that suffocating summer heat, a deliciously cool wave of refrigerated air flows out from the occasional open elephant door -- one of those slow-motion sense memories I'll take with me to my grave.
Without those big stage doors, those of us who do the heavy lifting in Hollywood would be a lot more miserable.
In many ways, the elephant door defines a sound stage, sealing it off from the outside world and setting the tone for what goes on inside. When wide open, filming stops. Lots of other things can be going on -- rigging, wrapping, building/tearing down sets, or simply a break in the action -- but actors are rarely performing for the cameras when that big door is open.*** Everything is more relaxed then, as crew members grab a quick smoke, make a phone call, or simply stare up at the blue sky and the great outdoors. But when that door slowly glides shut, the outside world of sunshine and sky vanishes as we return -- like Morlocks -- to a world of darkness, artificial light, and make-believe.
Then it's time to get back to work, and the business of Hollywood.
* As opposed to one of the many insert stages found in industrial areas all over the LA Basin -- which typically consist of a thin, decidedly non-soundproof shell with a pipe grid hung from the rafters. Insert stages have their uses, but I'll take a real sound stage every-time...
** Just once, during my brief career as an LD (Lighting Director -- basically a glorified gaffer making a much fatter daily rate -- did I see an elephant walk through one of those big doors. Three elephants, actually, two adults and a baby, on Stage 5 at Raleigh Hollywood. That was impressive... and shades of D.W. Griffith's Hollywood.
*** There are always exceptions to every rule. The crew of Samantha Who? often built their sets right out the open elephant door and into the alley. That was one very expensive half hour comedy, which led to the show's premature demise. As I heard it, the network demanded a cut in production costs of $500,000 per week if the show was to return for a third season. When the producers balked, the axe came down.