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 17, 2013

Another One in the Can

Here we go again...

The end of January brought the curtain down on the show that has sustained me since last June, with 26 episodes of cable-rate Disney fluff that kept the rent paid and the wolf from my door.  We returned from the Christmas break to reel off four straight episodes – the finale a hellaciously ambitious effort that involved two dozen moving lights and a full array of rock-and-roll LED-effects lighting, along with the usual tungsten package to be hung, powered, and adjusted. Given that the last three episodes were directed by this clown, closing out with such a complex show would pose a real challenge under the best of circumstances, but when our DP went down for the count on Tuesday with a very nasty flu bug, we were in for trouble. 

And trouble it was, in the shape of the substitute DP. The groans from our Gold Room were audible as he  walked on stage.  Although I hadn't worked with him before, some of the crew had – and judging by the stories they told, we’d all need to strap on our track shoes for the rest of the week.  As it turned out, he wasn’t a bad guy, but just a terminally indecisive DP who didn't know when to say “when,” and could not resist the urge to keep lighting and re-lighting right up to the moment the cameras rolled – and sometimes beyond.  

Although lighting certainly isn’t easy, it’s neither brain science nor rocket surgery, and a good DP understands that once a shot is lit, it’s lit.  At that point, you don’t fuck with it anymore absent a compelling reason – or as our gaffer likes to say, “Don’t put your foot through a Rembrandt.”

In this situation,  the substitute DP's job is to keep a light hand on the wheel and make sure the producers don't freak out.  Our gaffer had been lighting this show's sets for the previous thirty-plus episodes, and pretty much has it wired.  All the substitute DP had to do was take a good look at each shot, suggest a tweak or two, then sign off and let the cameras roll. 

Needless to say, this did not happen.  Instead, he came in hard on Wednesday – the last day before two long days of filming – at full throttle, and immediately began to change all the lighting our DP had already established for the huge swing set.  On a day when we typically add three or four lamps, then tweak and polish the lighting until every set is camera-ready, he forced-marched us through a major re-light, shuffling around (and re-patching) most of the big, heavy moving lights way up high on the grid.  Six long, sweaty hours later, we finally got around to the tweaking and polishing, which took us right up to the point where we had to stop or else violate the next morning’s early call turnaround.

It’s bad enough going into two long shooting days with a hack director at the helm – by now, we were more or less accustomed to that indignity– but without our unflappable DP to keep the producers happy, this thing could get ugly.  And with the substitute DP lobbing a steady rain of metaphorical Molotov Cocktails on the equally metaphorical fire, "ugly" is exactly what happened.  We hustled and sprinted our way through nearly thirty hours over those two seemingly endless days, and the dust didn't settle until early Fraterday morning.

After all that running around at his behest, you’d think the sub-D.P. would at least make a point of thanking every member of the grip and electric crews for their effort – but once wrap was called, he vanished into the darkness.  

What a guy.

It was a rather sour note to end the show on, casting a shadow over what is always a bittersweet experience.  Emotions tend to collide when production ends -- everyone is tired after the long season, and ready for a break, but without another episode to crank out, the sudden lack of forward momentum is unsettling.  You never really know if a show will come back for another season, and even if it does -- particularly with these low-budget, cable-rate shows -- it's doubtful that all of the crew will return.  None of us likes to trade our sweat, labor, and hard-earned skills for the low-rent, sub-scale wages paid by so many cheap-ass cable outfits, which is why anyone who gets a chance to work another show for more money will take it every time.  Still, cable rate or not, a crew bonds through the ordeal of grinding out a season -- and as A.J. put it so well in a recent post

"...this is the last day of the show, and like all shows, it will come to an end. After they call wrap, each department will disappear, spreading to whichever corner of the world (or Hollywood) the wind takes them. You might see a camera person or a grip or two somewhere down the line, but never again will all of you be on the same set. It will never be like this again."

And it won't -- it'll be something different, maybe better, maybe worse.  You never know.  It's a crapshoot every time.  

Early Monday morning, bleary-eyed and yawning, we all gathered on stage once again – still tired from the month-long flogging – to begin wrapping the lamps and cable, tearing down something that had taken the past six months to build.  As the saying goes, “It comes down a lot quicker than it goes up,” but only after what feels like an endless uphill slog.  The five day wrap turned into three days for me, when I had to bail early to start a new job with my old crew at another studio across town.  There, on Thursday morning, we'd begin hanging, powering, and adjusting the two to three hundred lamps the new show would need.    

We put the lamps up, we take the lamps down, then we do it all over again.  Our work is never done here on the Mobius Highway of Hollywood until we drop dead or retire, which makes this job feel a lot like the endless labors of Sisyphus.  

And so I threw a weary leg over my bicycle and pedaled on home one last time.*  Another show in the can, and another brick on the road that will eventually lead me out of Hollywood.  There's a way to go yet -- another four years, assuming I can make it -- and if the Gods of Hollywood are with me,  a few more rigs and wraps lie ahead.  But the end is now in sight.  

For better or worse...

* Yes, you heard right -- for the first time in 35 years, I landed a show within bike range of my apartment, and for every one of those 26 episodes, five days a week, rain or shine, early morning and late at night, I commuted to and from work via pedal power.  It felt good, too -- all 390 miles -- but the next show is over the hill in The Valley, so I'll be back in the car...


Anonymous said...

I've adopted your ".... sudden lack of forward momentum" as the replacement for what I've always called "Post production blues".
This is that feeling that you're certain that you should be somewhere, but since you didn't get a call sheet you don't know where it is or what time to arrive. It's tough when you've bonded with your ersatz family that now has been thrown into the diaspora, and other than the occasional meeting (accidental or planned) at Baja Fresh or wherever, they're never seen again.
When or if that time arrives in that four years you've referred to, I suggest that you take your substantial writing skills and knock out the great American Novel about the biz that was hinted at years ago in "S.O.B.".

Penny said...

Hi Michael,

I admit that I too, am going through the "DTs" (if you will) of the end (???) of my last show - and I think this a terrific post, as well as an excellent comment by boskolives.

I actually popped over here to ask you a question, but I think you kind of answered it. Are all DPs whack-a-doodle??? My Queen for a Day Network show had a nut-job at the helm. I thought Curious G was unique, but wow...

Have fun back at the lot for me!

dstarz said...

Gotta say that they should have let your gaffer fill in for your ailing DP. Can't understand someone who would come in for two days and flog and flog and flog, to prove...what, exactly? Sounds kinda sucky. Sorry for you guys.

Michael Taylor said...

Bosko --

Whatever you call it, the sense of sudden disconnection that comes with the end of a show usually puts me into a tailspin. And you're right -- some of those suddenly ex-crew mates really do vanish into the ether...

Penny --

In word -- "yes.' Granted, we do run into the occasional nice, normal, competent DP, but most of them are whack-jobs, one way or another. The DP who got sick on this show is one of those rare good ones - the guy who replaced him is whack-city, all the way. Curious G is indeed a piece of work, though -- uniquely crazy in his own special way...

Dstarz --

The company could have done just that -- kept the sick DP on the payroll while letting the gaffer call the shots -- and had the final episode been a normal show rather than such an absurdly ambitious visual extravaganza, that probably would have happened. But it was the big finale for which they were spending a lot of money, and the producers needed someone to pat the idiot director on the head and tell him everything was going to be all right.

A good substitute DP understands that his role is to let the gaffer and lighting crew -- who know the show very well -- do their job while he presides over the unfolding circus, addressing whatever minor issues arise and keeping the producers reassured. The guy we got stuck with is famous for his intrusive, meddling ways -- he's a hopelessly neurotic hack who doesn't know when to stop, which is doubtless one reason he was available on such short notice. He can't land a good steady gig on a decent show of his own because he's another whack-job.

Unknown said...

What do you mean by "eventually lead me out of Hollywood."? Do you plan on leaving?

Michael Taylor said...

Victor --

Once I finally belly-crawl across the finish line of retirement, I shall indeed put the Hollywood sign in my rear view mirror and head back to the Home Planet for good. At that point -- assuming I make it -- I'll have been in Hollywood a tick under forty years, and methinks four decades of breathing SoCal smog and cursing LA traffic is enough...

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