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Sunday, November 29, 2015
The End of an Era
The great post-recession building boom continues here in LA, which means you can't turn a corner these days without running into another massive construction project. The "Manhattanization" of Los Angeles proceeds at a break-neck pace -- I've never seen anything like it since I first rode into LA back in 1977 -- and as a result, real estate on which to build is in very high demand. In turn, that has spurred another loss for Hollywood, as Mole-Richardson -- which revolutionized motion picture lighting back in the late 1920's, then became an iconic presence supplying lighting and power distribution equipment to the industry -- has now abandoned the town it helped make so famous.
On the way to work recently, I stopped in at Mole's Studio Depot expendable store to pick up a new pair of work gloves, and saw the old familiar presence at 937 North Sycamore -- the Mole Mother Ship -- now just an empty shell, another Hollywood memory joining so many drifting down the river of time towards the Big Waterfall of eternity.
As I was about to resume my journey to the studio, I stopped dead at the sight of this -- an old lightweight carbon arc being rolled out of a building to be loaded on a stake-bed truck bound for the new Mole Richardson facility.
I talked to the two young men doing the moving, who had never seen an arc in action, of course (to them, this lamp was the equivalent of an old steam-powered locomotive), and they paused long enough for me to take a few pictures.
This might sound silly, but the sight of that old carbon arc and the shuttered Mole-Richardson building put a lump in throat. Mole is a user-friendly company that always treated me with respect from my early days as a greener-than-green newbie juicer on through my Best Boy and Gaffer years. Time and again, they went the extra mile to help me solve power and lighting problems on set.
While prepping a ten-day location shoot heading into the mountains of Colorado for a car commercial back in the 80's, I was concerned about the two carbon arcs we were taking along. As the Best Boy, it was on me to make sure those lamps kept working through the entire shoot, and back then, lightweight arcs could be troublesome creatures. I don't know why -- maybe the lightweight head didn't disperse heat as well as the bigger heavy head arcs -- but the worm gear mechanism inside tended to get sticky after ten or twelve hours of use, which is why we always brought one spare element per lamp along on every job. No matter how much we lubed the gear mechanism before and during the day, we'd usually end up having to install the spare elements before wrap was called. During one nightmare job (scheduled to run twelve hours, but went twenty-five hours), we were reduced to force-feeding the positive carbon by hand after our last spare element jammed up.
Not a fun day, that.
Although I ordered two spare elements for the Colorado job -- one for each head -- I worried that we'd run into the kind of arc trouble I couldn't fix on a distant location. Being so far from Hollywood, I'd be up Shit Creek without the proverbial paddle.
A week before the job, I went down to Mole-Richardson and found the shop in back where the rental equipment was maintained. Someone pointed me to a stocky man wearing a filthy shop apron and heavy gloves. I explained my concerns, then asked if he might impart some wisdom on how to make sure those two arcs ran smoothly for the entire shoot.
"Just keep 'em clean and lubed," he said. "That oughtta do it."
This was not the response I'd hoped for. Although I always kept the arcs clean and lubed, they still gave us trouble on almost every shoot. But the man had nothing more to say, so I crossed my fingers and caught the flight to Colorado.
The next nine days days were tough, running 4/0 and wrangling those arcs in the thin air above 7000 feet, filming at multiple locations per day. Still, the scenery was spectacular up in Wolf Creek Pass and all around Silverton, which is one of the things that made working distant locations so much fun -- and what made those nine days a lot more fun was that my two arcs ran smooth and trouble-free the entire time, giving me no problems whatsoever. We never touched either of the spare arc elements.
That was a first.
Maybe it was the altitude, or maybe we just got lucky... but I think that guy in Mole's maintenance shop went through those arcs with extra special care to make sure they'd run properly. He wasn't willing to share any of his trade secrets, but saw to it that our arcs left his shop fully prepared to go the distance.*
Years later, I landed job as a Lighting Director for a shoot filming the then-new intro and logo for PBS. It was a big deal for me at the time, and my crew worked hard on the pre-light day to make sure things went well. For a back-light, we used one of Mole's then brand-new 18K HMI lamps, which worked fine all day… until the next morning on the shoot, when it abruptly shut off and refused to re-strike.
The producer-director -- a real asshole, truth be told -- was on my back in an instant, demanding to know what was wrong and when it would be fixed.
Feeling very much under the gun, I called Mole, and in minutes Mike Parker himself (one of the owners) arrived with one of Mole's HMI technicians. Thirty minutes of work on their part got the light working properly, but just as they were leaving, the production company's camera whiz came over to me, and -- in an oh-by-the-way manner -- said that he wanted to shoot at 9 frames a second… something he hadn't bothered to mention during the pre-pro meetings or entire pre-light day.
There were no "flicker-free" HMIs in service back then, which meant the camera could only operate in frame-rates divisible by 12 -- 12 fps, 24, 48, 96, and so on. Otherwise, the dreaded "flicker" could show up in dailies, as if the camera assistant was opening and closing the iris -- which meant there was no way we could use that 18 K.
I caught Mike Parker at the stage door and -- after profuse apologies -- explained the situation and asked him to bring me a carbon arc to replace the 18 K. He got right on it, and we had that arc up and burning half an hour later. Thanks to his patience and quick work, the shoot went just fine, and I managed to get through another job without looking like a complete idiot.
Mole Richardson saved my ass from a difficult situation then -- and many other times -- because of their work ethic and approach to business… and because their facilities were located right in Hollywood, ten minutes from dozens of sound stages. But now Mole is way the hell out in East Bumfuck (otherwise known as Pacoima), a long way from Hollywood.
The world has changed a lot since I first rolled into town on the back of the proverbial turnip truck. Then, Mole Richardson was the lighting equipment company in Hollywood, having eclipsed Bardwell McCallister as the go-to supplier of incandescent and carbon arc lamps. I worked for a a gaffer or two who used cheaper foreign lamps, but many of those were crappy lights, poorly designed and awkward to use on set. With a few notable exceptions, Mole Richardson's lamps have served as the lighting workhorses on sound stages all over Hollywood and beyond.**
Still, change is the only constant in this business, and never so much as nowadays. I'm not sure there's much I'll recognize in Hollywood by the time I pack up and leave, but such is life. All I can say is that Mole Richardson's departure from Hollywood truly does mark the end of an era.
The old days are gone for good, heading down the river heading towards that Big Waterfall -- and they're taking me along. The roar of those falls, once so distant, grows louder every day.
Next -- (and by "next," I mean at some undetermined point in the future) -- I'll delve deeper into the subject of carbon arcs.
* Of course, this raises an inevitable, uncomfortable, and unanswerable question: why didn't every lightweight arc leave Mole's shop in such tip-top condition? That would have made my life as a Best Boy a lot easier back in those days.
* I don't like Mole's 200 watt Inky at all, and although the Tweenie is a good lamp, it has problems with corrosion on the posts of the 650 watt FRK globes, which seriously shortens their useful life. Thicker posts and a more robust receptacle might fix this problem, but that would require Mole and all the bulb manufacturers to change their manufacturing process -- and I don't see that happening anytime soon.