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, December 7, 2014


               Warning label in a single-man lift

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Dick the Butcher, from Henry the Sixth, Part 2, Act 4, by William Shakespeare

Ever since the Sarah Jones tragedy earlier this year, a renewed sense of safety-consciousness rippled through the film/televsion industry in Hollywood and beyond.  That’s a good thing.  How long it will last is anybody’s guess, but we can only hope such a stupid, senseless tragedy will never again hit a film crew.

Yeah, I know --  call me a dreamer.

Still, there’s a difference between working safely on set (something most industry veterans are very familiar with) and the top-down “safety” mandates ordered by faceless corporate drones who wear suits and ties all day, don’t know what it means to get their hands dirty at work, and have no fucking clue what any of us -- grips, juicers, props, set dressers, sound or camera -- actually do to earn a living.  But whenever somebody on one of their shows stubs a toe on set, another legal hack up in the studio cube-farm responds with a new “safety” rule for everybody to follow.  Apparently they think those of us who do the heavy lifting on set are wide-eyed, slack-jawed droolers too stupid to avoid hurting ourselves at work without guidance and protection from above.

I’ve written about this kind of thing before, so if you’re tired of hearing it, just click on over to 

The Anonymous Production Assistant

Totally Unauthorized

The Hills are Burning


Shitty Rigs,

or any of the other informative and entertaining industry blogs on the right side of this page -- because it's a safe bet most of them are in a better mood that I am right now.*

For years I've heard horror stories from crews who work at up-tight, terminally constipated studios like Warner Brothers -- where you can't even ride a bicycle across the lot without applying for and receiving a permit (which can take a month to get), and where every worker using any sort of man-lift absolutely MUST wear a “safety” belt hooked to the lift itself. One reason I made a certain small studio in the Valley my “home lot” more than ten years ago was the refreshing absence of such top-down formality.  So long as I did my work in a timely manner without hurting myself or anybody else, breaking any equipment, or pissing in the sink, everything was fine. There have always been rules on my home lot, of course, but so long as I didn’t fuck up or make a public spectacle of flaunting them, I wasn't expected to follow the absolute letter of the law -- because my immediate superiors (people who actually know what they're doing on set) fully understood just how stupid those rules really were. 

I’ve been working on that lot ever since, doing whatever was necessary to get shows  powered and lit.  As a juicer, that's my job.  Only once did I get hurt -- just a flesh wound -- while wrapping a stage that would soon become the permanent home of the unfathomably popular "Big Brother.”  There wasn’t much head room up on the green beds, and after ten successful trips lugging cable from the waterfall to the drop zone, I stood a bit too tall and nailed one of the pizza-cutter sprinkler heads of the fire-suppression system. That little metal wheel sliced my scalp open like a razor blade, but a few stitches were all it took to plug the leak, and -- since it happened on the day before a major holiday weekend -- I was back on the job the following Monday.  

Other than that, nothing. Since then I’ve become comfortable working on the very top step of ten, twelve, and fourteen step ladders, using the middle and top rails of man-lifts as a work platform, and doing the occasional EVA  out onto the pipe grid when necessary.  I did -- and do -- none of that lightly, but remain focused on exactly what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, because at my age a fall from that height would in almost certainly end my career in a crumpled heap.  At worst, it could sentence me to a wheelchair for the duration.

I don't want any part of that.

As a short-timer now -- the clock ticking at under two years and counting -- I'm not about to do   anything that might ruin whatever years I have left once my tour of duty in Hollywood is over.  The Home Planet is calling, and I intend to return in one piece.  

But I also want to do my job the way I see fit, without being tied down like Gulliver by brain-dead corporate Lilliputians and their thousand-and-one stupid, suffocating rules dreamed up by nervous white-collar drones who live, work, and worry in a very different environment than mine.  With 36 years toiling on set under my belt, I know damned well how to do the job in a safe manner.  The way I go about it might look dangerous to the average stick-up-his-ass studio suit -- the kind of well-manicured tool whose idea of a serious physical challenge is teeing up a golf ball on Sunday -- but it isn't.  Not if you do it right.

I make a point of doing it right.  Given what's at stake -- my livelihood and future hanging in the balance -- why the hell wouldn't I?  

But now the smothering bureaucratic blanket of Total Control has descended upon my home lot.  The latest load of bullshit hit the fan a few weeks ago when a grip on some unnamed show fainted while in a scissor-lift, then -- because he hadn’t bothered to fasten the safety-chain across the entrance/exit gate -- he slipped out of the lift and fell ten feet to the stage floor.  He wasn’t badly hurt, but the incident had the effect of a fully-charged Taser dart fired straight into the dark, suppurating corporate amygdala of studio management.  Once their eternally paranoid hearts finally stopped fibrillating, the lawyers drafted a New Rule for All to Obey.

Namely, that everyone on the lot is now required to wear a bulky, restrictive, and utterly cumbersome "safety" belt whenever operating a man lift -- even while driving it across the stage floor before heading up. And the penalty for ignoring this edict from on high?  Lifetime banishment from the studio.  If that’s not enough, the studio brass have promised to fire any Best Boy who allows this “safety” rule to be broken.** 

What a ginormous steaming pile of cover-your-ass corporate crap. The studio couldn't simply require that everyone working in a scissor-lift fasten that safety chain across the gate -- which anybody smarter than a brick does as a matter of routine -- but they had to issue a blanket regulation that will fully shield the studio from any potential legal liability like an Ebola-proof Haz-Mat suit.

It’s hard for the uninitiated to fully grasp what a problem this poses.  The process of lighting a sit-com set requires making endless adjustments to accommodate changes in the blocking -- we have to move or add lights to keep the actors properly lit wherever they go on set -- and that’s not so easy after twenty-odd lamps plus the usual array of grip equipment (meat-axes, flags, and teasers) have been carefully rigged and adjusted.  At that point, there’s never enough open space for a man-lift to approach the pipe grid -- where any changes have to be made --  which is why I take the lift right up to the existing lamps and grip equipment, then climb up on the rails to reach the pipes and do my work.  Wearing that absurdly restrictive "safety" belt makes it impossible to climb beyond the middle rail of a man-lift, and even that is strictly against the rules.  Wearing the belt, my only choice is to move every lamp and piece of grip equipment in my way, then take the lift up to the pipe grid to complete my work, and THEN put everything back -- or rather, replace and re-adjust the lamps before turning the man-lift over to the the grips so they can re-set all of their equipment.  

And when the director changes the blocking, we have to do that all over again.

Following this new rule would cause us to burn through hours accomplishing work that could easily be  done in minutes, perfectly safely, by experienced technicians who know what they're doing. In a business where time really is money -- and especially with our new compressed schedule this season -- this kind of brain-dead bureaucratic stupidity is not only counter-productive, it's utterly infuriating.

Worse, although the “safety” belt might prevent me from falling out of a lift (along with preventing me from doing my job), being strapped securely into the bucket will certainly result in serious injury or death should the lift itself fall over.  Granted, that’s unlikely to happen, but if it does, your only hope is to jump free of the damned thing before it hits the floor -- and the “safety” belt won’t allow that.  

Stop for a moment to ponder the irony of being doomed to near-certain death by a “safety” device...

This is an impossible situation, leaving no reasonable way out.  So whenever the situation arises,  I look around to make sure the studio “safety” monitor isn’t on set, then unhitch the "safety" belt and climb up on the rails to do my job -- and hope for the best.

But wait, there's more.  Ever since the advent of small hand-held laser pointers, gaffers have used them to direct the placement of lamps on set.***  Not all gaffers are good at explaining exactly where a lamp needs to go -- they know what they want, but have trouble communicating the specifics to the crew. I can't count the times I've followed a gaffer's instructions to the letter, only to have him frown, shake his head, then explain that the lamp was supposed to go on the pipe behind or in front of where I hung it.  

Communication is a two-way street, and some of this confusion is doubtless my fault, but I do my best to pay close attention.  Still, if a picture is worth a thousand words, the hot little dot of a laser is worth at least a paragraph.  To avoid endless blather and needless confusion, the gaffer simply aims that dot exactly where he wants each lamp, and we go to work.  

We've been doing it this way for many years now with no problems, but a couple of weeks ago our gaffer received an e-mail edict from They Who Must Be Obeyed in the production company banning laser pointers from the set.

Why? No explanation was forthcoming, but I'm sure the parent company's paranoia about potential legal liability is behind their ceaseless efforts to baby-proof the workplace, taking yet another safe and efficient tool out of our hands and making our lives on set all the more difficult.  

This kind of fear-based micro-managing bullshit drives me up the wall. The corporate Scrooges and their lawyers persist in trying impose a top-down grid pattern on an industry that makes custom-made products in a hands-on, time consuming process that can't be reduced to the dull and predictable rote of an assembly-line. Paying close attention to safety is a good thing -- a lot of people would be in a much better place today if the Midnight Rider producers had given just a little thought to keeping their crew safe -- but attempting to idiot-proof every last thing we do on set is as impractical as it is impossible. The best way to keep everybody on a production safe is to hire good, experienced people who know what they're doing, then let them do their jobs.  But since the lawyers don't understand anything about the down-and-dirty process of making film and television, they instead try to construct a legal Maginot Line of suffocating rules and regulations designed to keep their clients safe from liability.  

It won't work.  If they want to idiot-proof their sets, they'll just have to be careful not to hire idiots.  It's that simple.

Where's Dick the Butcher when we really need him?

There's only one positive thing about all this -- it'll make it a lot easier for me to hang up the gloves for good when the time comes.  

Nineteen months to go, now.  The clock is ticking...

* Unless, of course, you're reading this on a smart phone, in which case (or so I'm told, since I have yet to join the smart phone army), you won't find a blogroll on this page.  Listen, people, using a smart phone to read a blog is like taking a sponge bath instead of a shower -- it'll get the job done, more or less, but the experience isn't nearly as fulfilling.

**  At my home lot, Best Boys are employees of -- and paid by -- the studio, not the production company.

*** On sound stages, for the most part. I haven't found as much use for laser pointers on location jobs.


JB Bruno said...

As someone who doesn't have to do the heavy lifting, all of this still sounds insanely frustrating. If they wanted some legal cover while actually making the job safer, they might consider some sort of "safety council" that included union reps from each of the locals. I know, I know - this still sounds like Big Brother - and agree unnecessary, but if that had to do SOMETHING, then at least include the people who know what they're doing.

Of course, since these rules seem to have little concern for actual safety and maximum ooncern for CYA, I assume it's unlikely to happen.

Niall said...

I thought Harnesses where not required by OSHA for the very reason that a persons weight was enough to pull over a scissor lift. How could their legal department require that when they're leaving them selves open to more legal troubles. Fucking dumb, but it's either that or the wild west that is the indie/Tier contract world.

Michael Taylor said...

JB --

Frustrating it is -- in spades. Your idea is good, but as you point out, it's unlikely to happen. Personally, I'd be happy to sign a waiver absolving the studio of any and all liability concerning man-lifts just so I can do my job, but that's not going to happen. There is an industry "Safety Passport Program" already in force requiring below-the-liners to attend a wide spectrum of classes. I've taken at least a dozen of these classes in the past few years, but they didn't teach me much I really needed to know. Again, the main purpose of that program is to shift liability from the producers to us as individuals. Still, those classes probably do some good for newbies who haven't had a chance to learn those lessons on set.

The writing is on the wall. With the continuing corporatization of the industry, there will soon be no place for me in this business. Like I said, it's nineteen months and counting -- if I don't get fired and/or banned from the studio first...

Niall --

I'm not really sure what the OSHA rules are regarding harnesses in man-lifts, scissor-lifts, and condors. As for the studio, given that their management lackeys and lawyers have no understanding of what we do on set or why we do it, it won't surprise me if their actions lead to bigger legal problems down the road. And it'll serve them right...

k4kafka said...

And what were all those safety classes for ? In an ideal world, Michael...this is where your union rep steps in to discuss the least that's what would have happened when unions still held some power in this town.

Anonymous said...

Let me share something from a height adjusted, wrist rest protected keyboard of the cubicle farms.

It's no different in the cubicle farms - I've been trained on how to hand someone a piece of paper safely as part of our injury prevention program, as well as many other brain dead moron safety matters.

But I've also handled workers comp claims, and it is absolutely eye opening. In 2013, workers comp costs were $18+ billion in one year, in California alone.

I'll spare you the details, but a 10 foot fall is ABSOLUTELY a taser to the brain of the corporate entity.

And I love the man lift and ladder and keyboard and mouse and every other warning label out there, each of which specifies all the things you need to do your job as prohibited. I bet a manlift has ridden over many a bump in the floor, and many keyboards are used for extended periods of time etc etc.

Michael Taylor said...

Kafka --

The safety classes are mostly a joke -- a tedious formality the producers hope will protect them from legal liability. I did learn one or two things from the dozen or so classes I've taken, but the truly useful information could easily have been condensed into a single one-hour class rather than a seemingly endless series of two and three hour snooze-a-thons. You're right about the union reps, though… and their current lack of power.

Anonymous --

Wow -- "how to hand someone a piece of paper safely as part of our injury prevention program." Words fail me. And I thought WE had it bad…

No doubt Workman's Comp is a fiscal black hole, but I'd be interested in seeing the facts/ figures as to what sectors of the economy are the prime offenders here, and learning where the film/TV biz lands on that spectrum. Film and television is a very hands-on business, and people do get hurt every now and then, mostly because they weren't paying attention to what they're doing, and an occasional abysmal ignorance of basic Newtonian physics.

As luck would have it, I ran into one of the many veteran grips on the lot today -- a guy who has worked at that studio MUCH longer than I have -- and he'd heard a different story about that scissor lift incident. The grip involved fainted, all right (something of an act of God, IMHO), but the lift was not up in the air. That means his fall was four feet at most, and the damage done resulted from his head hitting the metal ladder of that lift as he slipped through the entrance gate. Had he fastened the safety chain across that gate, it's highly unlikely he'd have fallen from the lift in the first place -- which means this was an entirely preventable accident precipitated by a very unusual occurrence and the individual's failure to follow a basic, common-sense safety protocol.

In 36 years of working in the business, this is the first I've ever heard of a grip or juicer fainting on the job. That doesn't mean it won't happen again tomorrow, but there are some things in life we just can't control. So what's next? Will the studio require that we wear hard hats equipped with lightning rods in the event that a thunderstorm erupts overhead to protect us from a deadly bolt from above?

I understand why the studio would issue a rule in reaction to an accident -- one might call that a form of intellectual evolution -- but such a rule should be just strong enough to prevent that accident from happening again without interfering with the job functions of the crew. This guy fell out because he didn't fasten the safety chain all scissor lifts are equipped with -- so make a rule that a worker in such a lift has to be sure to fasten that chain. Instead, the studio over-reacted and put us all in a collective straight-jacket.

And just for the record, I wouldn't dream of putting a ladder in the bucket of a man-lift. Which isn't to say I haven't THOUGHT about it from time to time, but only in the way I occasionally ponder propositioning a particularly attractive female guest-star on our show -- strictly the stuff of fantasies.

The UPM/Producer saw me get in a lift today without strapping on that belt, and warned me to do it. I ignored him. We'll see what happens...

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't underestimate this type of thing...

Remember, that if they want safety and demand it, if you comply, the loss of productivity is on them. Don't make their profits your issue.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

I hear what you're saying -- and on paper, you're right -- but at a certain point it becomes impossible to go along with the absurdity and "work stupid." I'm not really concerned with the network's profits one way another, except to hope they make enough money to stay in business and thus keep making shows. But it takes a long time to fully absorb the on-the-job lessons that teach us the right way to work, and having reached the point of understanding how to solve many of the problems that come our way on set, it cuts hard against the grain to regress and work like an automaton in response to top-down idiocy. Call if pride or whatever you want, but throwing all that accumulated knowledge and experience out the window simply to obey brain-dead Orders From Above is very hard to do.

So I'll play the game. I'll make a show of strapping on that belt when the VIPs are around, then take it off whenever I have to do some real work.

Same as it ever was...

A.J. said...

This whole safety rule thing is a fine line. We bitch when no precautions are taken (RIP, Sarah) and we bitch when there are. The rule requiring harnesses in every lift may be a bit much, but maybe with all their harping on it, people will at the very least will remember to attach that damn chain across the back.

It may have taken you 36 years before ever hearing of a grip or juicer fainting on the job, but it's something I've already witnessed with well less than a decade of experience under my belt. You never know what's going to happen and I'd rather be safe than sorry. In that sense, I'd have to agree with Anonymous. I'll play by their stupid rules if they want me to. After all, it's not my money that's burning. I figure I should cover my ass as much as they're covering theirs.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

I don't know too many people -- other than the occasional crank who complains about everything -- who bitch about reasonable safety precautions. But this "wear the belt no matter what or else" edict is hardly reasonable, and is the typical reaction of ass-covering corporate functionaries whose only concern is to limit their liability. They have no idea what we do on set or why we do it, and thus have no business telling us how to do our jobs.

This incident was caused because the grip failed to fasten the lift's safety chain, so a reasonable reaction would be a rule insisting that anybody in a scissor lift always fasten that chain. I would have no problem with such a rule, but the studio went way beyond that, to the point where they're actually getting in the way of me doing my job in a safe and efficient manner. It's not about the money -- their money or mine -- but about being allowed to do the job right.

I understand your position on this, and more power to you, but I'm a short-timer now -- 568 days according to the countdown clock I received as an Xmas gift -- and the question has become whether I can manage to avoid getting fired before that clock hits "zero."

We'll see...