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, January 11, 2015

Generators -- Part One


                                            Oops...

                                 photo by Mike Murray


Now in the twilight of a long career -- with muscles that ache, bones that creak, and shoulders that feel the full weight of all those years -- I do most of my work in the comfort of a sound stage, where the sun can’t shine, the wind won’t blow, and the rain doesn’t fall unless someone from Special Effects makes it happen. A multi-camera show will occasionally venture outside for a day to shoot scenes that would be too difficult or expensive to create on stage, but as much as I enjoy the fresh air and blue sky, one day working in the elements is quite enough -- and if I never again have to work outside in the rain at night, that will be just fine with me.
Working on location for weeks on end was an absolute blast when I was younger -- I loved it -- but those days are long gone. 
One of the benefits of working on a real sound stage* is that the electrical power is right there, indoors, waiting to be unleashed from big fused “cans” -- large metal cases fed by municipal power. The rig still has to be put in, and although running cable from the dimmers up-over-and-down to the sets on stage is real work, you only do it once. When the rig is finished on stage, it's ready for the season. The dimmer operator has to re-allocate power to meet the needs of weekly swing sets, but that task rarely takes him-or-her more than an hour, if that.  The daily work of lighting a multi-camera show is a lot easier than pulling 30 hundred-foot coils of 4/0 from the belly of a 40-footer in the pre-dawn dark at a beach location, then laying it out in a five-piece run through six hundred feet of deep sand first thing in the morning... then, after twelve-to-fourteen hours of working out in the elements, wrapping all that cable back to the truck.  

And doing it again at another location the following day, and the next, and the next, and the next...
Location shoots generally require us to supply our own power.  The only alternative is to tie-in, which is fine if you have the permits and a properly licensed electrician to do the job, but a tie-in can only happen if there’s a nearby source of municipal power from a building or utility pole. When filming in a remote location -- out in the woods, the desert, at the beach -- or shooting multiple locations over the course of a day in urban areas, the only practical solution is to bring a generator.  
I’ve worked with gennies ranging in output from 100 to 2500 amps, but bigger units are available. The location productions I used to work typically utilized a 750 to 1200 amp generator towed behind one of the equipment trucks, while larger union jobs were powered by one or both of the twin 1200 to 1400 amp generators mounted behind the cab of a semi-truck that hauled a 40 foot trailer full of lamps, cable, and power distribution gear to the location.**
Episodic television shows and feature films generally have rigging crews to run cable from where the genny will be to the set well before the first unit crew arrives. On most of the location jobs I did over the years --  commercials, music videos, and low-budget features -- the lighting crew was the rigging crew, which meant we started work early and finished late.  
That’s a tough way to make a living.  Working long hours over the course of several days compounds the fatigue, and mistakes can happen when people get tired -- and when a genny is involved, those mistakes can be very dangerous indeed.
The photo above demonstrates what can happen when a tow-plant breaks loose from a truck on the road -- a terrifying and potentially lethal event. These generators weigh a good ten thousand pounds, and although the military-style pintle hitchsafety chains, and chain-operated emergency brakes reduce the chances of a tow plant coming loose or going very far if it does, such safety measures are only as good as the driver who hooks them up before hitting the road -- and accidents can happen even when everything is done right.  
I don’t know exactly what caused the genny in this photo above to break loose.  The accident happened before I came on as a day-player to that show, and by the time I started asking questions, nobody was particularly eager to discuss the details.  Apparently the driver was heading back to the barn through heavy freeway traffic when he had to hit the brakes, then felt the truck lurch and a few seconds later he saw the genny pass him on the right.  All he could do was watch as five tons of steel-on-wheels careened off the freeway and down a slope onto a residential street full of parked cars.
Imagine how the poor bastard felt at that moment...
I have no idea how many cars the runaway genny struck before coming to a rest, but judging by the photo, it did enough damage to give the production company's insurance company a heart attack. 
A similar accident happened on a commercial shoot for which I was the gaffer, a three day job that ended well after dark out at the Santa Monica airport. The production company had insisted on using their driver rather than my usual guy, and as he drove home after wrap, the genny came loose to go on Mr. Toads Wild Ride.  
Luck was with both of those drivers in that nobody was hurt or killed -- a minor miracle -- but despite all the heavy-duty hitches, safety chains and emergency brakes, tow-plant generators break loose more often than you’d think.  

And how would I know?  

Because once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, it happened to me when I was behind  the steering wheel.

Next: Part Two


 * A "real sound stage" is built for the express purpose of housing film and television productions, with thick insulated walls to minimize noisy intrusions from the outside world.  A stage cobbled together on the cheap from an empty building in an industrial park (like this one) without such insulation isn’t a “sound stage” at all -- it’s just a big room with a pipe grid. You can shoot music videos or other MOS/fix-it-in-post projects on such a bare-bones stage, but recording usable sound will likely prove problematic.
**  A van gennie is just that: a generator built inside a heavy-duty van insulated to be as quiet as a tow plant.  The advantage of a van gennie is that it can be driven right up to the set -- or as close as the sound mixer will allow -- which can be a real time and labor saver on those multiple location days.  As a gaffer, I loved to use van genies because they saved my crew from breaking their backs hauling cable, speeding up the rigging/wrapping process considerably. The only downside was cost -- since most van gennies came with a driver/gennie operator as part of the deal, the production company had to pay more than for a tow plant.  But on a busy day, that was money well spent.  

1 comment:

D said...

Great post. Although my eyes often glaze over when talking about electricity (I just can't grasp it, all these watts and volts and amps) I try to. A genny coming loose on the highway though. That's a good story.