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, June 16, 2013


                                        What to Carry?

                                      "Be prepared."

                                       The Boy Scout motto

This blog generally stays away from the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the job, but a few questions have come in lately from readers wondering what tools I carry on set, and how I carry them – in my back pocket, a small belt pouch, or a full-bore tool belt?

The answer is always the same:  it depends on the job.

During the dozen or so years I worked as a gaffer, all I carried was a light meter, a small optical/digital frequency meter,* and a pair of gloves.  As a Best Boy, those same gloves dangled from my belt and a “Wiggy” lived in my back pocket.  The Wiggy (an earlier version of this model)  was a simple hand-held solenoid voltage tester that issued a mild vibration in contact with 120 volts AC, then buzzed like an angry rattlesnake when sniffing 240.  Although it was capable of reading up to 600 volts, I never had reason to get close to such high voltage.**  That basic meter (no batteries were needed) could also read DC, albeit crudely -- the readout was the same, but the unit didn't vibrate at all on direct current -- allowing me to determine at a glance whether the line was running 120 or 240 DC.

The beauty of this ugly little beast was its simplicity and durability – in a pinch, I occasionally used mine as a hammer with no apparent effect on its functionality.  It was common in those days to use concurrent generators capable of producing AC and DC at the same time -- 120 AC for wardrobe, makeup/ hair, craft service, and any small HMI’s or tungsten units, 240 AC for 6K HMIs (the largest HMI lamps available back then), and 120 volt DC for carbon arcs, the BFLs of that era.  This is where the ability of that Wiggy to quickly read the various cable runs for the right AC or DC power really paid off.  With the typically short cable runs used on commercial shoots, I could monitor the precise voltage using the generator's meters without fretting about line loss – and for longer runs, I kept a multi-tester in my work bag to read the end voltage at the set.

With three different voltages to worry about, a Wiggy was all I needed to make sure the proper power was run where it needed to go before plugging anything in. Of course, this depended on me doing everything right. In the over-caffeinated rush to get the first setup underway in the morning, mistakes were an ever-present danger -- and they could be expensive

In time, the big carbon arcs were supplanted by 12K, then 18K HMIs, and DC pretty much disappeared.  The new HMI lamps were more sensitive to voltage levels than those old arc lights, demanding more accurate voltage metering than my stone-age Wiggy could deliver -- but I still have one in the bottom of my work bag, just in case.  

So what do I carry on set as a juicer in these modern times?

The idea is to carry everything I’ll need, and nothing more.  The basic work bag goes with me on every job -- as the Mother Ship, it holds all my work equipment, allowing me to pick and choose what I’ll need to carry on my belt for each particular gig.  If I’m rigging, all I need are gloves, a crescent and T wrench (for hooking up lugs to bus bars on gennies, sleds, and spider boxes), and a knife or pair of dykes for cutting hanks of tie-off rope.  If the rig only involves cam-loc cable and distro, (meaning no lugs, bus bars, or spider boxes), the gloves and dykes are usually enough.  The same tools go along when wrapping a stage or location set.  For rigging and wrapping, I prefer Easy Fit gloves from Set Wear, which are made of a fabric strong enough to protect my fingers and hands, but thin enough to allow me to tie and untie sash cord without too much cursing.

When on location working with an HMI package, a good pair of sturdy leather gloves (definitely not Easy Fits) accompany a small but accurate volt meter, a 4-way screwdriver, a small razor knife, a T wrench, and small pair of channel locks.  That's the bare minimum.  If it's a night shoot or indoor location using a tungsten package, I add a flashlight, dykes (or "diagonal wire cutters," to use the politically-correct terminology) and a Bates pin-splitter.  On stage, a six inch adjustable crescent wrench (for stirrup and pipe hangers) comes along for the ride, as well as a small homemade power tester utilizing a tiny 4 watt incandescent bulb for sussing out power problems.  Those cute little neon testers will light up with "ghost voltage" even when a dimmer circuit is all the way down, rendering them useless on stage.  A resistance load is required when working with dimmer circuits, which that little 4 watt bulb provides.  I also carry a small continuity light/buzzer for testing tungsten lamps 2K and under (with Edison plugs) then add a short pigtail made of a quick-on plug and zip cord for testing lamps with Bates connections.***

I don't bother carrying a digital voltage tester when working on a sound stage, were electricity is supplied by the studio using city power.  Such a tester is rarely needed on stage, and if so, I've got one in my work bag.  Besides, that's the Best Boy's job -- and Jesus H. Christ, he has to do something besides hoovering up all the donuts at craft service and filling out the time cards once a week...

Judging what tools to carry is always a balancing act, and only experience can teach you what is truly necessary.  The trick is to avoid loading yourself down like a pack mule, while carrying enough so you won't get caught at the top of a 12 step ladder or 20 feet up in a man-lift without the one tool you need to diagnose and solve a problem.  I've worked with juicers who festoon themselves with every tool that could conceivably be needed -- guys who clank around the set like some post-apocalyptic combination of the Tin Man and the Road Warrior.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the juicer who breezes on set with only a pair of gloves and a big smile -- then proceeds to borrow everybody else's tools all day long.  As far as I'm concerned, that kind of juicer is himself a tool, and not the kind I want on set.

In their totally understandable desire to lighten the load, many juicers carry a Leatherman multi-tool.  Personally, I don't like the Leatherman for on-set work.  I keep one in the glove box of my car, but not on my tool belt.  The Leatherman is a jack-of-all-trades tool that can perform many tasks, but doesn't do anything particularly well.  I'd rather have the right tool for the job -- a tool that works -- and if that means carrying a little extra weight on my belt, so be it. This is all a matter of personal taste, of course. If you'd rather travel light with a Leatherman, that's your call -- but those things are not insulated, so you'd better not use one to hook up lugs to a hot spider box.  And when you finally realize that your fancy Leatherman really isn't worth a damn for juicing, you can borrow my channel locks or crescent wrench once -- after that, you'd better show up on set with your own tools.

As for how to carry tools, that too depends on what you're doing.  I generally wear the same pouch/toolbelt combo on every gig, adding or subtracting tools as needed.  Given that I use a pair of construction suspenders with this belt, production people sometimes mistake me for a carpenter at first, but this rig works for me.  Given my stovepipe hips, I'd have to cinch the tool belt extremely tight to keep it where it belongs -- and as geezerly as those suspenders are, they distribute the weight pretty well, and are thus much more comfortable over the course of a long day on set than a belt alone.

Besides, I really have reached the age of geezerdom, so why try to hide it?

When rigging or wrapping, I'll bring the whole tool belt to the set or location, then leave it nearby while carrying a pair of dykes (and crescent + T wrench if needed) in my back pocket.  You don't want to be wearing a bulky tool belt when slinging 4/0, five-wire banded, or 100 amp Bates cable all day long, especially if you're up high on stage.

In the final analysis, every juicer has his/her own ideas what tools to carry on the job, and no doubt many veterans out there will disagree with my choices.  But they work for me, and that's the point -- it's an individual decision, so whatever works for you is the way to go.

One last word:  in a business where time is money, it's better to carry one tool too many on set than be short the one you need.  Getting the job done is the bottom line, so make your choices accordingly.****

*  All we had were magnetic ballasts in those days, which were not flicker-free.  The genny's output had to be kept within 1/2 of a cycle -- meaning the frequency had to remain between 59.75 and 60.25 hertz during filming.  If it wandered below or above that, the dreaded "flicker" could occur, which would show up in dailies as if the camera assistant had been opening and closing the iris while the camera was running.  Flicker meant disaster for the DP and Gaffer, which is why I paid $450 in 1988 money for a small meter that could read the generator's frequency output by pointing it at a burning HMI.  A few years later, the advent of flicker-free solid state ballasts rendered that meter useless.

**  This was decades before the big Softsun lamps arrived, the first lights I saw that required a 480 volt input.

***  If tasked with hooking up a few dozen practical fixtures, you might want to add a pair of wire strippers to your tool pouch.

****  I discovered a new (to me) and very useful tool last year -- a small telescoping cable puller made by Greenlee that has made my life much easier when working in a man-lift hanging and powering lamps on a pipe grid.  With the soccapex breakouts often just out of reach, this nifty little tool allows me to hook up the lamps without moving the man-lift again, and again, and again, thus saving me endless aggravation while lighting.  

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