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, September 6, 2015

Condor Duty

A juicer's view from the condor bucket 80 feet straight up...
                                    (Photo by Kevin Brown)

I had a chance to go up in a condor recently (an articulating lift something like this) for my current show, and the experience reminded me of many a past night spent up in the bucket. There's something, well, elevating -- in every sense of the word -- about rising up into the night sky. It was fun, but that's mostly because I didn't have to go over thirty feet, and the lift was a brand new, with solid hydraulics. 

But once I get up over forty feet, it's not so much fun anymore.

The fear of falling is one of our most primal terrors, and for good reason. Early humans may have lived in the trees before descending to walk upright on land, but thin air remains the natural realm of birds, not people. Before modern medicine, even a relatively short fall could injure one of our early hominid ancestors to the point where he or she could no longer keep up with their hunter-gatherer tribe, or remain one step ahead of the big, hungry predators of the time. Modern technology has made flight a routine experience for us, and modern medicine can indeed work wonders, but we still have a healthy fear of falling. 

Working on set as a juicer or grip requires dealing with that fear on a regular basis. On stage, we do much of our work atop ten and twelve step ladders, and utilize man-lifts that go up twenty feet -- and when we have to climb atop the rails of that lift to get the job done, we do so in blatant but unavoidable violation of our official industry safety rules.

But when a production goes outside to film at night, it often involves lighting from condor lifts, which go much higher -- anywhere from 40 to 180 feet.*

Some juicers really enjoy condor duty. Once the bucket of the lift has been rigged with a BFL or two, then fully pimped-out with a chair, bottles of water (as the water is consumed, the empty bottles then serve as a portable honey wagon), furniture pads and/or a sheet of Visqueen to cut the wind and keep the lamp operator warm, he-or-she is set for the night. All that juicer has to do is take the bucket up high, turn on and adjust the lights, then relax until fresh instructions crackle over the walkie-talkie.**  

With a smart phone, iPad, or a good book to ease the boredom of waiting, the juicer shouldn't break a sweat until wrap is called, and even then he'll barely get his shirt dirty.  That's one reason condor duty is considered by many to be such a sweet deal -- you sit up there in relative comfort watching the ground crew down below scurry around busting their asses all night -- but there's one sticking point. Condor duty is only good if you don't have a problem with heights, because condors these days can go really high. The sheer height is bad enough, but what can make being up in that bucket a white-knuckle experience is the lack of stability. Every time you move the arm or bucket, things begin to move around a lot -- and the higher you go, the more it moves, which triggers our ancient reptilian brain and the fear of falling.

I've never had a real problem with heights on stage, because the catwalks and perms don't move -- they're as stable as solid ground -- but in a swaying bucket, 60 feet up suddenly feels like 100 feet... and I really don't like that feeling anymore.

While working on my first real movie (as a PA drafted to work with grip and electric), I went up almost every night in a scissor lift or a big forklift hefting a steel basket rigged with two 10K lamps. This freed up one of the real juicers to work on set while giving me a bird's eye view of what was happening on set down below. I loved it, and later enjoyed going up much higher in condors when I finally became a real juicer. I was young back then, with a young man's optimistic faith in technology and misplaced sense of immortality. Granted, there was always a certain pucker-factor when going up full-stick, but the perceived danger was part of the appeal. Now that I'm a lot older (and have considerably less faith in beat-up, oft-used rental equipment), I don't do serious condor work anymore. I'm happy to go up thirty or forty feet, but much beyond that gets a bit squirrely. Plus, you can't move very much in a condor -- the lamp operator has to sit still so the light hitting the set from his BFLs won't bounce around -- and at this stage of life, my aging back gets very stiff after sitting still for any length of time. Then at wrap, down comes the condor and suddenly there's a frenzy of work to do... and invariably I'll tweak something in my cold, stiff back. Once that happens, I'm pretty much limited to wrangling stingers for the rest of the night.

All in all, it works out better for everybody if I stay on the ground and work up a sweat while the young people head up into the night sky. I've done my time in condors, now it's their turn.

Besides, there's no way in hell I'm going up full-stick in a 120 footer, much less that 180 foot monster. I'll leave that to the fearless youngbloods, thankyouverymuch…

* I don't know if anybody has put lights in a 180 footer and used it on a shoot yet, but 80 to 120 foot condors are commonly used for filming.

**  I have no idea how female juicers deal with the inevitable problem of bladder relief when up high in a condor. If you really want to know, ask Peggy Archer or A.J....


Anonymous said...

Actually i would NOT drink coffee and only sip water. But it was a comedy act watching me drive, position and level that damn thing. On the other hand.. I worked my ass off running cable and getting equipment out of the truck and to the shooting site.. The real truth mike is most best boys like their hardest workers on the ground. But those that knew their short comings on the ground excelled at flying that condor and were quite content at the trade off, extreme heights and all. And BTW at night, when that basket is flying high up there you see bugs most people never knew existed... k

JD said...

"...bottles of water (as the water is consumed, the empty bottles then serve as a portable honey wagon),..."

Never did Condor duty and never thought about the very real call of nature until your post. Very eye opening. I think I'll pass.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

I enjoyed most of my time in a condor bucket -- being up high provides a unique perspective on the film set below and the surrounding environment. But you're absolutley right about those bugs, some of which appear to be from outer space...

JD --

Condor duty can be a fun adventure when you're young and still enjoy the Vampire Life of working all night -- and it provides a serious gut check from time to time -- but I don't even like working past midnight anymore. Still, if you haven't spent a night in a condor bucket, you've missed out on an experience very different from the usual on-set work. I recommend it… while you're young, anyway.