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 15, 2012

Pilot Season: the Seeds of Hope

Hands and Knees

Welcome to my office...

Every now and then a photo pops up on Facebook from a fellow Industry Work-Bot on a location job, showing a stunning view of a lovely beach or other pastoral scene. These photos usually come with the tag "My office today." One good friend who now lives and works on film/television productions in Hawaii regularly posts photos and short video clips from his jobs on that island paradise -- and those images invariably make me weak in the knees with a palpable desire to be there rather than here.

After slogging back home through the urban dystopia of LA -- forty-five minutes of red lights, idiot drivers, and brain-dead pedestrians who apparently believe that talking on a cell phone somehow renders them exempt from the laws of Newtonian Physics -- a photo of a sandy beach, warm turquoise water, and puffy white clouds drifting in a clear blue sky can make a guy question some of his past decisions in life.

There isn't much time for such musing right now, though, with pilot season at a full boil in Hollywood. The photo above shows my "office" for the first day on a pilot -- a dirty, dusty crawl-space well over a hundred feet long, but only four feet wide and maybe forty inches high -- where I spent the bulk of my work day dragging Socapex cable from the waterfall towards the pipe grid, then attaching extension cables to feed power out over the set.

Standing was not an option. The only time I could get to my feet was after squeezing through a fourteen inch slot (over the steel bar or under, whichever hurt less) to access one of five short green beds extending out over the audience seating towards the pipe grid. Out there I could sit or stand while attaching and tying off each Socapex extension, then hand it to another juicer in a man-lift, who would maneuver his lift to drag the cable over the pipes to the appropriate spot on the set. But with dozens of such cables to be run, my relief at being able to stand didn't last long -- and back in that crawl space, it was hands and knees all the way.

Normally, dropping in cable is the responsibility of the dimmer operator. On a real sound stage, the dimmer op would climb the stairs to the catwalks up high, run out the cables, then drop them down where needed. It's no big deal -- on a normal stage -- but this pilot was to be shot in what amounts to a large shoebox with no stairway, perms, or catwalks up high. Nothing but a ladder leading to that god-awful crawl space.

Having been here before, I knew what was coming, and was foolish enough to send an elbow-to-the-ribs e-mail to our dimmer op the day before, razzing him that while he would spend Day One suffering in that nasty crawl space, my workday would take place in a nice clean man-lift.

This did not go unnoticed by the Gods of Karma. What I didn't know then was that the studio hadn't bothered to have their rigging crew install our dimmer packs downstairs, something that's normally done for all shows on the lot, pilots included. That left the job to our dimmer op... which in turn dealt me the short straw of running those cables.

So the joke was on me.

Truth be told, there's nothing remotely "normal" about pilot season, the annual rugby-scrum frenzy during which the usual modes of doing business fly out the window as producers desperately scramble to get their baby in the can. It's possible this stage came at the right price, or maybe it was the only space available during the mandated time frame -- but for whatever reason, this is what we've got, so we'll just have to make it work. Besides, the producers neither know nor care about such things. No other department has a reason to work up in that crawl space or on the green beds -- only set lighting must suffer that long torture chamber, and for the poor bastard who has to go up there, the work qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

That's how it goes in Hollywood, where you take the bad with the good and hope the next gig will be better.

For me, that was one long, hard day. By the end, 90% of the cable needed to power the two hundred-odd lamps this show would require was in place, leaving me dog-tired and coated head-to-toes in fine powdery sawdust from all the set construction over the previous week. If my knees weren't already so banged up, I might have crawled back to my car in the parking structure... and the next morning -- when the alarm went off in the pitch dark at 4:45 -- oh mother of god, everything hurt. It felt like I'd spent the previous day trapped inside a working cement mixer.

Yeah, this is a glamorous business all right...

Day One was just the beginning of our uphill journey. A pilot is all work, all the time, pushing the big rock a little further up the steep hill every day, but with the cable run, at least I was done crawling on hands-and-knees. For the next fourteen days the bulk of my labor would be done standing on the stage floor, climbing atop ladders, or working in a man-lift. A mountain of ceaseless toil lay ahead, but along the way would come three week's worth of paychecks -- and with a little luck in the pilot lottery, maybe a new show to provide a more steady income once July rolls around.

That's what pilot season is all about; working very hard to make a living right now while planting seeds of hope for the future.

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