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, April 5, 2015


                              Prometheus unchained…
                (photo by Ellsworth Chou -- lightning scissors by Don Tomich)

Civilians, film students, Hollywood newbies, and any juicers who entered the business during the last fifteen years can be forgiven for wondering what the hell is going on in this photo -- a man clad in shorts and a T shirt (standard uniform for electric and grip here in LA) wearing a welding helmet while operating some crude-but-infernally bright device hidden behind that reflector board. This juicer looks like he's channeling the power of the sun in the dark of night. 

Prometheus indeed -- on steroids -- because what you're looking at here is the creation of simulated lightning on set, old-school style.

Along with earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, lightning is one of Mother Nature's most spectacular and dangerous phenomena. Watching a lightning strike from afar is impressive, but experiencing one up close is something you’ll never forget.  During a round-the-country motorcycle trip in my pre-Hollywood years (it was the summer of 1970, a year after “Easy Rider” came out, and I couldn’t resist), I took shelter from a sudden downpour under an overpass in New Orleans moments before a blast of lightning struck very nearby. I use the word “blast” on purpose, because at that moment I really thought a bomb had gone off -- the blinding flash and end-of-the-world-thunder-clap were simultaneous, meaning it probably hit within a hundred feet of where I stood. 

This was nothing at all like the lightning I’d seen from a distance back home in California, and it was utterly terrifying. I'd had no clue that an electrical bomb of such incredible force was about to go off. 

I gained a massive respect for Mother Nature’s electricity that day.

Lightning has played a big role in movies since the early days of Hollywood, from the putative life-giving properties of sparks from the sky in Jame’s Whale’s “Frankenstein” to malevolent aliens riding lightning bolts beneath the earth in the most recent cinematic incarnation of “War of the Worlds.”

For many years, there was only one way to create state-of-the-art lightning effects on set -- using a crude device called "lightning scissors," comprised of two six-foot long two-by-fours joined in the middle by a single metal bolt like a pair of giant wooden scissors.  At the business end (hidden by the reflector board in the photo) were two tightly-bound bundles of seven positive arc carbons -- one bundle wired to each board so they could be brought together by working the handles at the other end.*  Heavy electrical cables (4/0, if I recall correctly) ran to each bundle of carbons, one positive leg and one negative, feeding back to a D.C. generator.  Given the enormous and sudden demand created by lightning scissors --which essentially created a controlled dead-short in the circuit), we had to rent a second generator strictly for the lightning effect.  If we'd tried to use the same genny that powered the set lighting lamps, the whole set would likely have gone dark. 

When those carbons were brought together, an enormous flaming spark would erupt, allowing an experienced operator (and it had to be done right) to create a convincing illusion of lightning.  The instant that spark flared, the genny would start rocking violently from side to side as it the Devil himself was in there, desperate to get out. The flame was like that of a giant arc welder, and looking at it with unprotected eyes would do serious damage to any viewer -- thus the welding helmet for the operator, and the reflector boards placed to save the retinas of crew and bystanders.

During my Best Boy and Gaffing days, my source for Lightning Scissors was the Paramount Pictures lamp dock.  While ordering a set for a commercial one day, I asked the head man at the dock what would happen if I hooked it up to A.C. instead of D.C. power.  

There was a slight pause.

"Do you own a house?" he asked.


I was about to ask what that had to do with anything when the old phrase "D.C. burns, but A.C. kills" came back to me -- and his point sank home.  "Don't do it," he was warning, because the legal liability if something went wrong would rest squarely on my shoulders.  

And if I owned a house, I might well lose it in the subsequent legal shit-storm.

But once on set, I tried it anyway, taking hold of the scissors myself after making sure all my crew were well out of the way.  I won't deny that I was a bit nervous… but the results were both anti-climactic and disappointing.  Nothing blew up, but the A.C. spark between those carbons didn't provide anything like the effect of D.C. -- it was more like a giant 4th of July sparkler rather than a lightning effect -- so we went back to D.C. to film the scene.

Another company eventually came up with a more sophisticated D.C. rig involving a spring-loaded plunger inside a big plexiglass box, which was more contained, safer, and less likely  to blind hapless innocents on set... but it wasn't nearly as much fun to operate.

I first saw "lightning shutters" in the late-80's -- a frame mounted on the front of a lamp with a row of sturdy metal "venetian-blinds" that could be rapidly flipped open and closed to create a lightning effect.  Most of the shutters I used were hand-operated, which invariably created difficulties when more than one had to be used in a shot.  Given that most juicers march to their very own drummers, getting two or three of us to operate our shutters in unison was always problematic. To solve that, somebody came up with an elaborate system of shutters operated by electric motors, thus allowing multiple units to operate in sync without fallible humans getting in the way.  This seemed like a great idea until we actually tried to use it on set.  

Like all lightning shutters, these worked like a charm at room temperature, but when mounted on a big hot lamp, the metal in those shutters would heat up fast -- especially when in the closed position, where they had to be during the beginning of a shot.  If they remained closed for more than thirty seconds, they'd usually stick and jam in a half-open position. All we could do then was turn the lamp off, open the shutters,  and wait for them to cool before trying again.

An imperfect technology for a highly imperfect world.

All these devices -- lightning scissors, plungers, and shutters -- are gone now, joining so many other good-ideas-at-the-time on the ash-heap of Hollywood history, and all because of one man.  In the early 90's, David Pringle started making the rounds with a brand new lamp he called Lightning Strikes. Developed in China, these high-output A.C. bulbs could emit a tremendous blast of light in a much more contained and controllable manner than the crude D.C. methods, and they only needed a 100 amp power supply.  No separate (and expensive) genny was required.  In the early days, David would bring the Lightning Strikes unit to the set personally, then wait until we'd finished -- not because he thought we'd steal the technology, but because those bulbs had a habit of burning out, and he kept a supply of spares in the trunk of his car.  Eventually the bugs were worked out, and the technology applied to a wide spectrum of lamps to meet the needs of large and small budget productions.  

Lightning Strikes works wonderfully well, and has been the state of the art in simulated lightning for many years now, but the last time we needed to create lightning on set, we employed an RGB LED lamp, and it worked fine. I'm not sure LED technology is ready to supplant Lightning Strikes in all applications just yet, but that day is probably coming soon… at which point there will be one more addition to the pile of discarded lightning technology.

And although I've had my fun over the years using Lightning Strikes units, there was nothing quite like operating those old D.C. lightning scissors.**

That was a blast...

 A picture would be worth a thousand words here, but I couldn't find one on the internet.  If any of you can, please send it along so I can amend this post -- and I'll give you credit

** Yeah, the post this link takes you to is called "Grips: Part One" -- but trust me, it contains a story about the wildest time I ever had using Lightning Strikes.


Anonymous said...

Once again you reminded many of us with a small blast from the past. I hadnt thought about that in years. Thanks for bringing us back for a short moment in time. You are right.. it was an exciting time, and we did have a blast having to think on our feet on the fly. k

Jesse M. said...

I took a bunch of film classes in college, but it was the stagecraft class I took on a whim that actually introduced me to the "nuts and bolts" of production. Although technically part of the theater department, it was here - not the cinema department - that I learned everything from set construction to types of lights.

I remember specifically being told about the electronically operated "shutters" - though to this day I've never seen one. Maybe this only pertains to the theater world, but I was told to refer to them as "dousers."

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

I'm sure the kids on set today are having fun in their own way -- when they're not mesmerized by their cell phone, at least -- but there's always something special about the early bubble-gum-and-baling wire days in any up-and-coming industry. And once those days are gone, they're gone for good.

Thanks for tuning in…


My knowledge of theater is minimal, but my impression is that "dousers" are used to kill the lamp at the proper moment in a play for dramatic purposes. I don't know if theatrical lamp dousers could do a lightning effect -- but maybe it's possible.

You make a good point about so many "cinema" classes, which cover everything from Eisenstein's ground-breaking editing techniques to Hitchcock's use of object-dominence in framing shots, but teach very little that's useful on set. There's nothing wrong with film study and theory classes - they're great, actually -- but you have to choose your curriculum carefully if you want to learn about the physical craft of filmmaking.

D said...

Great post. I came on the scene about the time that the shutters did. I'd give anything to see the scissors. I remember the first time lightening strikes came out. Although I haven't seen them in a while, I remember the ADs having safety meetings about never looking at them and counting down before they activated.

Ed (Sloweddi) said...


I am now remembering how we use to run the old carbon arc projectors... fun