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, November 10, 2013

Here We Go Again


                                           Is this progress?

Getting a multi-camera show up and running from a dead-start -- a cinematic barn-raising that begins amid clouds of sawdust, paint fumes, and constant yelling -- doesn’t really end until the first one-week hiatus arrives, usually after the third episode is in the can. By then the lighting on the permanent sets is pretty much dialed-in, and the bulk of our work from that point on involves a bit of tweaking to meet the needs of each new episode, hanging an occasional “special,” and the usual routine of rigging, lighting, and wrapping the swing-sets.*   

That's the good part of a show -- once the really hard work is done -- but getting there is a bitch.  With the construction crew, grip, electric, and set-dressing all trying to work on top of each other at the same time in the same limited space, that initial week on stage is a study in chaotic, propulsive confusion.  

These early, very physical days of pushing the big rock up the steep hill are the most dangerous in the course of any show.  Constantly bumping elbows with the other crews (each of us getting in everybody else’s way) is bad enough, but having to do so amid the scream of chop saws, the mind-numbing drone of sanders, the percussive blat of nail guns, and the reptilian hiss of paint sprayers joined by at least three boom-boxes blaring radically different music at maximum volume --  a cacophonous din that rules out any communication short of shouting -- is a draining ordeal for everyone involved.   

But somehow, in spite of all the noise and confusion, the work gets done.

No doubt the carpenters and painters don’t relish sharing their work space any more than we do -- all of us forced into the same Procrustean Bed where time-equals-money -- but since that primal equation rules in Hollywood, everyone must suffer.  To make sure the work proceeds as safely as possible, each of us has to work carefully and pay real attention to what we’re doing.  It's important to remain fully aware of whats going on all around, and stay within yourself by pausing to think twice before doing anything with the potential of causing damage... which is just about everything we do when lighting sets. 

It’s been nearly a year since I last helped get a show off the ground, and this time was a lot harder than I remembered.  In the midst of it, I recalled a rather pointed -- and suddenly very relevant -- paragraph from a recent review of Robert Redford’s new film, All is Lost.

“Redford's age is integral to the film's effectiveness. He is 77, probably 76 at the time of filming, and though he is by no means your grandfather's 76, he can't be mistaken for a young man. And so all the physical things he must do - drag himself through water, climb, pull things up, lift himself out - are an effort. What a 30-year-old might do spontaneously, he must think about, and position himself properly, and consciously apply his strength with precision and no wasted effort. Thus, we feel his strain, and our involvement becomes much more intense than if we were watching, say, Channing Tatum.”

I’m a long way from Redford’s age, but that underlined sentence resonated deep within, accurately describing the mental and physical process I go through prior to each and every action when hanging and powering lamps up on the pipe grid... and never so much as on this rig.  That caused me to wonder -- did the work actually get harder since the last time around, or am I simply wearing down to the point where it just feels that way?  
There’s no good answer. "Yes" or "no," either way casts a shadow on my chances of crawling across the finish line of retirement a thousand days from now.

Still, there was an X factor on this rig: forty brand new LED BriteShot lamps to replace the 5Ks and many of the 2K tungsten heads we used last season.  The LED units are more compact than the old Studio 5K’s, but as usual in Hollywood, appearances are deceptive.  At around 40 pounds each (about as much as a five gallon bottle of water), these are heavy units to wrangle up in a man-lift.  Getting those pigs hung and powered was only half the battle -- at that point we had to daisy-chain DMX cables connecting the lamps back to opti-splitters linked to the dimmer system, then individually address each head using a keypad mounted on the back of the lamp. 
I shit you not -- a fucking keypad on the back of a motion picture lamp...  The old guys I came up under are no doubt spinning in their graves at this.  Me, I get dizzy just thinking about it.

Thanks to our unfamiliarity with this new technology and the short-but-steep learning curve in mastering their set-up, we were still behind the by the time the first block-and-shoot day rolled around.  It was a bit of a scramble to patch everything together and get through that day of filming, but since then the new LEDs have worked fine.  If they continue to perform as advertised, they’ll be a big improvement over the ancient toaster-with-a-lens tungsten technology, starting with their much lower power consumption (3.5 amps vs. 17 amps for a 2 K and 45 amps for a 5 K) and being fully dimmable without affecting the color temperature. That alone represents a huge bonus, given that our DP is legendary for having the juicers add or pull scrims for the same lights all day long during filming.  

We put the single in, take the single out, then five minutes later, put it back in again... which is how he earned the nickname "the O.C.D.P." a long time ago.**

If nothing else, these LEDs should focus his scrim-crazy indecisiveness on that many fewer lamps, which will make our job as juicers easier.  And if this shifts more of the load to our dimmer operator, well, that’s why he gets the big bucks with his sweet 54 hour weekly guarantee -- but believe me, the poor bastard earns every penny.

We managed to get through the first episode without any disasters, and then -- miracle of miracles -- one of our lead actors pulled my five dollar bill from the pot in the post-show Dollar Day drawing, netting me a cool $120 after tipping the PA who runs the weekly drawing.   Although I'm still deep in the red after so many years of losing these drawings, I'll accept this as an auspicious beginning to the new season -- and maybe a sign that after slogging most of the way through a year that has been so ugly in so many ways, things might finally be turning around.

I hope so.  That would be progress indeed.


* A "special" is a lamp set to illuminate a particular actor in a very specific position on set for a given scene in that week's show -- a light that may or may not be used again over the rest of the season.  "Swing sets" are sets put in for a new episode, then taken out after filming is complete. 

**  A "single" is a circular metal scrim used to reduce the output of a lamp by half a stop.  A double scrim cuts the light by a full stop.

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