Photo by Sketch Pasinski
The nature of television production dictates that we shoot episodes linked to specific holidays or other cultural touchstones far in advance. That's why the Halloween episode (which airs this coming week) was the very first show we cranked out at the start of our final season well over a month ago. Last week's episode was the Christmas show, and thus the pair of snow rollers hung above the front porch set (with another pair over the living room set windows), each loaded with fluffy white plastic flakes that look very much like real falling snow once those rollers start moving.
And let's face it -- nothing says "Hollywood" quite like plastic snow drifting down upon plastic trees and plastic grass in an air-conditioned sound stage, while the fierce SoCal sun pounds the world outside like a thermonuclear sledgehammer.
The illusion is convincing on screen, but on set that plastic snow had half the crew -- including me -- sneezing our heads off as if in the full grip of flu season. Meanwhile, we had to carefully shroud every lamp in the path of the "snowfall" with black-wrap to prevent them from becoming coated in melted plastic by the end of the day.
This show was something of a beast, really, with yet another swing-set-within-an-existing set for one scene (our recurring Russian Nesting Dolls nightmare), and a second much larger swing set of a "great room," complete with phony forest outside the porch and windows, and a big translight backing. Size isn't necessarily a bad thing -- one big set can be less hassle to light than three or four smaller ones -- but the degree of difficulty rises considerably when the script calls for day AND night scenes in each swing set. That meant we had to double up on all the exterior lights, hitting both sides of the backing (warm back-light for day, blue front-light for night) in addition to day/night lamps to illuminate all those trees and beam through the windows.
Naturally, the goddamned trees were dragged on stage very early in the week -- and with no place to store the fucking things, they ended up in our way at every turn. The work is hard enough without having to fight through Birnam Wood every step of the way, but such is the lot of a sit-com juicer.*
The whole week was a bitch. We worked pretty much non-stop each of the three lighting days to get ready for the block-and-shoot and audience-shoot days, but when the entire crew arrived to begin pre-shooting, it all looked great, the set and actors dolled-up in 19th Century period garb.
It looked so good, in fact, that the director interrupted the first rehearsal on our audience shoot day to announce what a great job the set construction, set dressing, wardrobe and hair departments had done, and to acknowledge the hard work by the stand-ins, who ran every scene repeatedly for the cameras the day before, all the while speaking endless pages of dialog in heavy southern accents. The crew -- all of us -- responded with a standing ovation for those hard-working departments.
The director was absolutely right -- all those people he mentioned did a fantastic job…but so did grip and electric, working under difficult circumstances, and did our esteemed director think to mention that?
Of course not. Grip and electric are the Rodney Dangerfields of the multi-camera world, taken for granted like wallpaper until something falls over or catches fire -- then all of a sudden the director and producers know exactly who we are. The single hardest thing for me to get used to after I left the single-camera world -- where the grip and electric departments are respected and given a prominent place at the table -- was having to accept just how far down the pecking order of production priorities set lighting really is in multi-camera sit-coms. In commercials and feature films, the cameras don't roll until we've got the lighting just right. In sit-coms, it's just the opposite -- we're expected to be lit and ready for anything and everything whenever the director and producers want to shoot, even when they change their minds at the last second and radically change the shot.
And of course, we have to perform these weekly miracles while remaining within the bounds of an increasingly lean and mean budget. Our poor Best Boy gets called on the carpet every couple of weeks by one of the producers to explain in great detail exactly why she ordered so many lights.**
Still, the pre-shoots looked great, and the audience loved the show on shoot-night. After the curtain call, our lead actor took the microphone from the warm-up man to thank the entire crew in front of the audience, department by department, including grip and electric.
Then again, he does that after every show… but hey, sometimes you just have to take what you can get, whether they mean it or not.
* Peggy Archer discussed this eternal on-set problem in a recent post over at Totally Unauthorized.
** The answer, of course, is to properly illuminate the swing sets so they'll look great on camera -- and the more swing sets we have, the more lights we need. For reasons I'll never understand, producers always seem to think we order all that equipment just for the fun of it… which is one more reason I avoid Best Boy gigs like the plague.