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, December 11, 2011

The Best Boy Hat

Back to juicing with "Mels Muff Ball" (don't ask...) on shoot night.

Note: This will likely be my final post until the New Year -- with the holiday crunch on, we've all got better things to do than read (or write) blogs as the clock winds down on 2011. I might put up something quick if inspiration strikes, but don't hold your breath. Meanwhile, thanks for tuning in and for all your comments over this past year. May the holidays be good to you, and the New Year bring a bright new day to us all.

Merry Christmas.

Returning to LA and work from a brief visit to the Home Planet was a little different this time. With my show’s Best Boy out of town on an extended holiday for a few more days, I drew the short straw to fill in until his return, assuming a role that once upon a time – twenty-odd years ago -- felt as comfortable as an old shoe.

Given a choice, I prefer the clean, simple dance with Newtonian physics of juicing to the logistical hassles and paperwork that define the job of a Best Boy, but you take what comes in this business. Last season I filled in for the Gaffer for a week while he was gone, so this season I strap on the Best Boy hat for a few days. Given that I’ve been around long enough to be somewhat more useful than the average hall-call, stepping up when necessary seems to be my role on this crew.*

I certainly appreciated the bump in hourly pay and ten-hour guarantee a Best Boy receives, which added another three hundred dollars and change to my weekly paycheck. In this era of myriad cable rates and the Balkanization of union scale, every extra dollar makes a difference. To quote the immortal Humphrey Bogart as he poured a glass of champagne in the film classic Casablanca: “This sure takes the sting out of being occupied.”

Another bonus -- paperwork and dealing with equipment is a hassle, but it’s considerably less physical than juicing, so I didn’t take the usual beating meted out by each episode: no cuts, bruises, metal splinters or low-impact (but painful) head-bashing that comes with the job of hanging and powering lamps up among those unforgiving steel pipes. Truth be told, I didn’t raise so much as a bead of sweat during those three days... but the downside was having to stay on the floor while the juicers did all the work. I’ve never been good at standing and watching other people work, and every now and then just couldn’t help myself: I’d hop up on a ladder to rig a light and keep things moving.

But not for long; a Best Boy can’t afford the luxury of getting distracted by the ongoing flow of work. He (or she) has to keep track of and support the working crew while taking care of all the other Best Boy duties on a television show -- and for me, it’s that constant racking of mental focus that takes the most effort.

Once upon a time I was happy being a Best Boy. Back in the good old/bad old days of low-budget location features, the Best Boy gig meant I didn’t have to spend all night in a condor or endure the endless tedium of doing “coverage” on set – all the little shots from every angle the director wants (and the editor needs) after the master is in the can. Once my presence was no longer required, I’d head back to the truck to prepare equipment and/or run any cable needed for the next scene, and perform routine maintenance on the genny.** If there was nothing pressing to be done, I’d sit down and write a postcard to whatever girl was waiting for me (or not) back in Hollywood at the time.

Those were primitive days, kids -- no internet or cell phones back then.

I enjoyed a degree of autonomy the juicers and gaffer lacked – while they were stuck on set grinding out the cinematic sausage, I could come and go. So long as I made sure the gaffer and crew had the proper equipment ready to go when and where they needed it, I was pretty much on my own. If that meant getting a PA to drive me sixty miles into town to burn an entire morning checking out the equipment from a local rental house (and seeing a lot of the countryside along the way), so much the better. This was one of the few perks available in that low budget world.

Things are very different now, especially in the strange little cloister of multi-camera sit-coms. The Best Boy on our show pretty much sits at his desk in the “Gold Room” all day – the cramped set lighting office our crew shares on stage – ordering and returning equipment, keeping the paperwork straight, and fighting with the UPM about what equipment the budget will or won't allow. Meanwhile, the television flickers all day long with sports and trash TV... That kind of job is definitely not for me. As long as I can still climb a twelve step ladder and perform the gymnastics that come with getting the job done in a man-lift, I’ll stick to juicing. If the day comes when I can no longer do that safely, then maybe I’ll have to transition back to being a Best Boy.

But not until then -- not if I can help it.

I needed all three days to once again feel truly comfortable in the Best Boy role, and by then it was over. It had been different and kind of fun, but I was happy to have our regular Best Boy return in time to fill out the weekly time cards -- a task I’ve always hated. Off came the Best Boy hat and on went the tool belt for the blocking and shoot days.

And that was just fine with me.

* A “hall call” is a warm body sent out by the union when a Best Boy is unable to fill a slot with someone he knows. Hall calls can be surprisingly good, so-so, or really bad. Because of that uncertainty – and you never know who or what you’ll get -- calling the hall is usually a last resort for most Best Boys.

** On some of those low-budget shows, I was the rigging crew -- and with no real transpo department, it was often up to me to install fresh fuel filters and do periodic oil/filter changes on our genny as time permitted.


Jason said...

Just remember, when you're being Best-Boy, it's your TV. You can turn that fox shit off and watch Casablanca till your heart's content!

Ed (sloweddi) said...

Interesting note: When you Google "Mels Muff Ball" guess what the first choice that comes up is ??

Have a Happy Holiday and a prosperous New Year

JRH said...

i've had the best and worst luck with hall calls - even had 728 apologize for the guys they sent once.