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, July 1, 2012

On With the Show

                   "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss"                    
                           Won’t Get Fooled Again, by The Who 

                   Let 'em eat cake, on their hands and knees...

For the crew, every show starts out the same way: standing at the foot of a very steep and craggy mountain, looking straight up. The first two weeks are the worst -- an intense, sustained exertion of muscle and sweat aimed at turning an empty sound stage into a fully-functional television factory ready to crank out a brand new episode every five to eight days.*

It’s human nature to forget the miserable details of life's painful ordeals with the passage of time. The agony of childbirth, hemorrhoid surgery, or the morning-after spike-in-the-head following a champagne and cognac bender tends to fade in our memories as the years flow under that metaphorical bridge.  The same holds for starting a show.  Once everything is up and running, the exhausting ordeal of creating the physical infrastructure necessary for that show – assembling the actual television-making machine – is soon forgotten as the specific challenges of each subsequent show arise and are met.  It's a bit like the crew spending two weeks building a ship, then setting sail on a thirteen episode journey across stormy seas.

Fully in tune with my own human nature, I always seem to forget just how hard it really is to build that ship in the first place.

The first week provided a grueling reminder when -- after the usual shit-storm of Day One confusion -- we began sending several tons of cable up high and running out nearly eighty circuits (properly labeled on both ends of the cable, thankyouverymuch) from the waterfall on one side of the stage to dozens of power drops over the permanent and swing set areas.**  Meanwhile, two juicers on the core crew climbed into man-lifts and starting hanging the two hundred-plus lamps the first episode would require.

Although the process of rigging a show is pretty much the same every time, a prime variable for the set lighting crew is which studio and sound stage will be home for the show. The layout up-high varies from studio to studio, and even from stage to stage on the same lot, which can make a huge difference to the juicers running power. The last time I worked this show, it was shot on an ancient stage that marked ground-zero in the transition from the silent film era to sound early in the 20th Century, but historical cinematic resonance does necessarily translate into a user-friendly facility for set lighting.  Accordingly, we were all happy to learn that the producers had moved the show to a different lot for this season... until we went up high that first day and realized just what we’d be up against.*** Rather than one of the new stages built on this lot in the past few years, our stage is yet another ancient facility retrofitted with air-conditioning to meet the needs of a modern television show.

Given that working on a heavily-insulated sound stage with two hundred tungsten lights burning -- lamps that are in essence, giant toasters with lenses --  can feel a lot like marching through Death Valley in August, air conditioning is a true blessing.  Unfortunately, the sound stages of old Hollywood were constructed well before the advent of this simple-but-marvelous technology, and retrofitting means adding lots of very bulky ducting up high.   Even the most modern stages often require ducking under AC ducts up-high, but this stage is ridiculous, with four-foot diameter ducts running directly across all but one of the interlocking catwalks.  This forces the cable crew to crawl on hands and knees dozens of times every day while laying out and dropping the power feeds along one of the two main catwalks. The other catwalks offer a choice -- crawl under (your back scraping hard against the ducts) or scramble up and across a wooden ladder-and-bridge structure built over the ducting.  The first ten or fifteen trips over-or-under aren't so bad, but by noon your knees and back are aching, and nearing the end of a ten hour day, each duct-crossing represents one more insultingly painful straw laid upon the already overloaded (if highly metaphorical) camel’s back.

By Friday of Week One, I felt like I'd been broken in two, dog-tired with knees bruised inside and out, hands, arms, and thighs sore, and a back laced with shooting nerve pain.  One more day of that might have put me disability.  Thanks to their youth and resilience, the rest of the up-high crew was in better shape, but they too were hurting. 

The sheer stupidity of such an absurd situation was as frustrating as it was infuriating  Once again it's glaringly obvious that the studio people who signed off on this abomination don’t have a fucking clue what we do for a living, or simply don't care. Being that this particular show is another cheap-ass Disney production, it's a safe assumption that the executives above-the-line don’t give a shit either. What the hell, there's a recession on – we can pay those below-the-line suckers peanuts at cable-rate, then walk all over them in our shiny new golf shoes.

As Marie Antoinette apparently did not say, let 'em eat cake.

But I must not – will not -- descend into the dank swamp of bitterness. That way lies madness... and in a state where long-term unemployment continues to hover around twelve percent, a job is a job. Besides, those who follow the path of the juicer Hollywood have chosen a life of heavy lifting. Once that bed is made, there you shall sleep, with a full load of pain and suffering waiting to greet you every morning.

Fortunately for me, the holiday weekend allowed an extra day to recover before the second week of rigging and lighting, and now that the relentless flogging has abated -- the ship built and ready to sail -- we're all more than ready to leave dry land behind and begin the journey in earnest. 

The worst is over. On with the show.

* It takes more time to shoot a one hour episodic and a single camera or multi-camera comedy. 

 ** The "waterfall" is the first run of cable from the dimmer room up to the catwalks, which typically hangs in what resembles a black vertical curtain hanging down the wall at one end of the stage.

*** And I thought this was bad...

No comments: