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Sunday, June 24, 2012
Just Say Yes
"No flies on electric"
Looking back over three and a half decades working below-the-line, a few essential truths remain standing long after the ambient static and detritus has been washed away by the relentless flow of time. Of these, perhaps the most crucial is the value of doing your work in a manner that will make you and your boss look good -- which will then cause him or her to feel smart for hiring you in the first place. Building a reputation as someone who does things right (and thus makes the boss look good) might be the essential survival skill for a freelancer in any department. Those who don't understand this -- or worse, who find a way to make their boss look bad -- are a lot less likely to get a call for the next gig.
Never forget that there are plenty of really good up-and-coming crew people out there hungry for work and eager to have your job.
When I was just a pup, the gaffer who served as my mentor had a mantra: "No flies on electric."* That meant he expected his crew to do their work in a quiet, professional manner, drawing no unnecessary attention to themselves or the department. Cable runs were to be neat, out of the way, and long enough so the genny would cause no problems for the sound department on set. Lamps and accessories were to be staged close enough to minimize delays caused by running back to the truck, but not in a manner that would impede the rest of the crew.** Any issues with production or other departments were addressed and resolved before they could morph into a problem.
He understood that our job was to serve the needs of the DP, and thus the production as a whole, and that an efficient, smoothly-run set lighting crew would make the cameraman -- his boss -- look good.
This may sound like an obvious no-brainer, but I've seen crews who didn't (or couldn't) work that way -- usually because their department head was a jerk -- and having to share a set with them was no fun at all. One bad department can drag the whole show down, but when the entire crew adopts the right approach, the work days unfold with a minimum of drama. It takes extra effort, of course, but we're not there to stare like zombies into cell phones all day or flirt with cute extras; we're there to get the work done. Besides, running a tight ship makes the entire work day a much more pleasant and positive experience for everyone. Working on a crew with a solid work ethic just feels better, and more important, helps ensure that more work will keep rolling in. When the grip and electric crew handle the problems and challenges that inevitably arise throughout a day of filming without a lot of whining, carping, or undue flapping of elbows, they make their DP look good. When the DP's work goes smoothly, it makes the director's job easier and helps him/her look good. Veteran producers and UPMs understand the effort required to make a set run like a well-oiled machine, and most have worked with enough good and bad crews over the years to appreciate the difference. When your crew's default setting is to do things right, it will be noticed. But if you fall into the bad habit of slacking off – making a minimal effort just to get through each work day -- that too will be noted, and not in your favor.
During the twenty-odd years I was in a position to hire, I learned the hard way how important it was to have a crew whose primary concern was taking care of business on the job. Those crews made me -- and in the process, my boss -- look good. We all managed to have fun over the course of the day, but the work always came first.
It has to.
To my mind, another essential element is the importance of saying “yes.” Hollywood is famous for being a town that loves to say “no” – no to your brilliant script, no to that role you'd be perfect for, no to your simple desire to work hard and carve out a decent career. But if "no" is a standard reply above-the-line, our task below-the-line is to say yes. Unless a request from a Director, Producer, or UPM represents a serious violation of safety practices, union rules, or is just so stupid as to be counterproductive, our job is to find a way to say yes. Some creative thinking might be required, but that’s a good thing. Those who develop skill at thinking creatively and getting things done are sure to work again.
On my last show, the UPM or his production supervisor would occasionally point out some little thing he or she wanted done on stage: taping down an extension cord, fixing a non-functional work light (usually a job for Local 40), or maybe putting a scoop light in a dark corner or walkway on stage. When busy with departmental work -- lighting the set -- I’d pass these requests on to the Best Boy, but whenever possible I’d just take care of it myself. It didn't matter that whatever they were asking wasn't strictly necessary from a safety standpoint, but if responding to their perceived needs keeps production happy without negatively impacting my real job, why not do it? Our whole crew did that in our own ways, and in turn, production was more inclined to listen when we needed something.
I wasn't always so accommodating. When I first started working as a Best Boy on commercials and low-budget features, I took a hard line with production that often caused a minor misunderstanding to escalate into a me-versus-them confrontation. Coming up through the endlessly abusive world of low-budget, non-union productions left me with a chip on my shoulder, primed to punch back whenever I sensed that a producer, UPM, or coordinator was trying to take advantage of me or my crew. Indeed, there are times when a Best Boy does have to draw the line and throw some elbows, but a little of that goes a long way. Eventually I learned to be more judicious in choosing my battles -- to bend but not break -- and finally came to embrace the idea that working with production whenever possible can make life on the job a lot less stressful for everyone.***
Film and television is a group effort, and the more oars pulling in the same direction – moving the show foreword through the rough waters that inevitably buffet every production – the better. Anything you can do to make that journey less bruising for everyone involved is worth the effort.
* The late, great Jim Bogard
** This was before the advent of head carts, which make proper staging a lot easier.
*** You can't always say yes, of course. Sometimes you end up dealing with an insecure, myopic, bullying egomaniac whose endlessly unreasonable demands leave you no choice but to push back. That's okay -- life's too short to work for such clowns anyway...