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, February 12, 2012

Week Three

Ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag

A front-lit cloth backing hung against the stage wall behind the four foot zone

If week two was bad, week three was worse. Much worse. Over the weekend, the construction crew began building two swing sets, a big interior and a much larger exterior that was quite literally a jungle, complete with rain forest backing and four hundred large potted plants. The jungle set wasn’t so bad -- in general, bigger wide-open sets are easier to light, enabling us to use larger lamps hung much further away. Not only does this work with (rather than against) the immutable laws of the Inverse Square, but hanging a few big lamps is usually a lot easier than hanging (and powering, adjusting, tweaking, and flagging...) twenty smaller units.*

Although the big jungle set turned out to be reasonably user-friendly, the interior swing set had been built atop three feet of steel deck to allow special effects enough room for their rigs under the floor -- and all that steel deck plus the extra elevation made the set a real pain in the ass to light. The man-lifts could only work the perimeter, leaving the bulk of the lighting to be done from ladders and an absurdly cumbersome construction lift light enough to avoid damaging the set floor, but still so heavy it required a forklift to get up on the set in the first place. Adding to the confusion, these two big swing sets took up all the remaining space on an already crowded stage. With very little room to store the yet-to-be deployed equipment, we were tripping over ourselves and everyone else all week. While threading his way through the mess, one of the grips stopped to survey the scene, then shook his head.

"It's ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag," he sighed.

Still, easy or difficult, our job is to light the set -- and at least there was a good reason for the way this interior swing set was built. This is not always the case... which brings me to a pet peeve of sorts, a sharp little stone that’s been festering in my shoe ever since I moved into the world of multi-camera shows. In twenty-plus years of working single camera productions, we rarely had a problem with the set designers, who made a point of factoring in the needs of every department when drawing up their blueprints. If only that held true in the multi-camera world, where far too many set designers (and set decorators) work in their own private cloister unencumbered by any concerns for the rest of the production. I don't expect them to figure out how the sets should be lit – that’s our job – but as the saying goes, "if you can't help us, at least don't hurt us."

An inexperienced set designer might be forgiven for not allowing enough room behind a set to properly light the backing -- once, anyway -- but the veterans are often no better.* When I questioned such a situation very early in my multi-camera journey, the reply was that many multi-cam designers are more concerned with creating big beautiful sets that make great pictures for their “book” – a portfolio used to get future work -- than in crafting a user-friendly set for the show. Trouble is, that books never reveals how little of the set actually ends up on screen for the show. Multi-camera sit-coms are all about the medium shot: two shots, three shots, over-the-shoulders and an occasional four shot, then punching in for close-ups to help a line or gag get the laugh. Sit-coms don't do car chases, big explosions, or long rock-'em-sock-'em fight scenes requiring huge sets or extremely wide shots. At most, a typical multi-camera show might use one semi-wide shot to open a scene at the beginning of a show, then move in with medium and close shots for the rest.

So why build sets with enormous bay windows that add nothing to the show, but cause endless reflections to bedevil all four cameras? Why build entrances and alcoves with low overhangs where lamps can’t be hung -- and once the set is finished, why do set decorators proceed to hang giant chandeliers (often the night before shoot day) in a living room and/or dining room set, invariably blocking the back-cross key lights that are the foundation of multi-camera lighting?

You know the answer as well as I do -- "Because that's the way we do it." To quote the question posed by a memorable Bud Light ad campaign back in the early 90’s: Why ask why?

Ample on-set real estate can allow an especially creative (ahem...) director lots of room to play without shooting off the set, but that's no excuse for needlessly complex and fussy set design that owes more to the designer’s professional ambition than the actual needs of the show. If the troublesome elements of a set are written into the script or otherwise help propel the story, fine -- but much of the time the problems we end up having to solve are caused by set designers blithely unaware that other departments also have work to do.

I don't understand that attitude. While lighting a set, we consider how our lamps might affect sound (will a lamp cause boom shadows?), the grips (do they have enough room to effectively cut the light?), and camera -- will a given lamp impede any of the cameras or otherwise impinge on the shot? From what I've seen, it's a rare multi-camera set designer or decorator who gives any thought to how their work impacts anyone else.

I suppose I shouldn’t blame them – after all, we usually find a way to get the sets lit and looking good no matter what – but the consistent obliviousness of these people just pisses me off. So yeah, I do blame them.

All right, that's off my chest. End of rant.

Getting those two swing sets lit was a long struggle, but with help of some terrific day-players, we managed to get both swing sets lit despite the difficulties. The only truly good thing about week three – the final week of production – was that after a 14 hour Thursday and Friday night’s 15 hour day, we were able to walk away. With a full week to wrap the stage commencing the following Monday, our only responsibility was to “make it safe” – lower any lamps on stands, clear the four-foot zone around the perimeter of the stage, and plug in the man-lifts – then go on home.***

Which is exactly what we did -- and grateful though I am for these past three weeks of work, I’m really glad this one is over.

* While taking my first baby steps as a gaffer in Hollywood – leaving my then-comfortable role as Best Boy behind – I asked a veteran gaffer for advice. He did his best Clint Eastwood squint for a few seconds, then relaxed.

“A couple of things,” he nodded. “If you ever have to light a long alley for a night scene, alternate your light and dark areas all the way down, then put a light at the very end – and when lighting actors, use the biggest lamp you can for your key light, and put it as far away as possible.”

It was good advice. His first point described the fine art of chiaroscuro – often described as “the interplay of light and shadow” -- while the second was a reminder to pay attention to the law of the Inverse Square. The link in the post above will provide the scientific explanation, but for a more prosaic and entertaining demonstration, click here.

** Cloth backings, once the industry standard, are usually front lit, while trans-lights require back light, but many modern digital backings utilize both – front-lighting for day scenes, back-lighting for night.

*** Thanks Desi, Cole, and Dave. We couldn't have done it without you..


hazel motes said...

More and more, the single camera shows build ridiculously big sets, right up to the fire lane, rendering rigging gaffer/gaffer and crew's job more difficult than necessary. oh, may i add the ceiling pieces from end to end are no friend either.

Penny said...

Excellent rant, Mike!

I did a multi-camera sit-com with one unnecessary monster set, where all the actors basically sat in a bar on a couch -- an annoying (yet lovely!), LEATHER couch, where with every move of any single butt cheek, the squeaking noise infuriated the Audio Dept., who took it out on Second Team.

Also "brilliantly" chosen, were metal bar seats that resembled something a farmer sits in on a tractor. (And you know how cold the stages get!)

My current show has also PO'd the Audio Dept., as we've had a recurring Bistro set with all noisy wicker chairs. (Really???) And then Set Dec gets miffed when a three foot tall table lamp is removed because it's blocking one of the actors...? (Oh, FFS.)

All right, that's off my chest. Thanks for the vent, Mike!
It's nice to know I'm not alone!

Penny :)

k4kafka said...

Another great essay exposing the dirty under-arm of what we love to call "show" biz". Priceless in-the-trenches lore which...hopefully...someday will be bound into a book. Do it for the children,Mike.

k4kafka said...


Michael Taylor said...

Hazel --

I did thirteen episodes of a multi-camera show a few years back directed by a diminutive jerk suffering from a bad case of short-person disorder. That asshole had us put in a fourth wall AND ceiling piece several times during the live audience shows. Talk about unclear on the concept... but there's a lot of that going around.

Penny --

I've seen your set decorator in action, and she's a real piece of work. Apparently this really is her world, and the rest of us are just cluttering it up. So it goes, we all have our crosses to bear...

Kafka --

Thanks for the vote of confidence. My New Year's resolution was to get the book underway this year, but thus far I've been working too much to make any progress. All in good time, I suppose.

For the children... excellent!

Thanks for tuning in.