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)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mistaken Identity, Again...


Note:  due to another wave of hits from DVXUser.com, I've slightly re-written and am re-posting this, which originally went up back in 2011.














"Let me make one thing perfectly clear..."
(Photo courtesy of Flavorwire)

While perusing the user statistics for this blog, I noticed a recent series of hits from a site called “DVXUser.com, the online community for film making." Following the comment thread back to a question about building a pipe grid for lighting on stage led me to the source of those hits, a link from a DVX member named “Slondon” embellished with the following comment:

“This blog is a wonderful read and she has links to a bazillion photos she's taken, many inside studios and sound stages.”

Although I appreciate such kind words, particularly when coupled with a link to BS&T, it’s abundantly clear that they were not aimed at me. Yes, the URL is mine, but let me make one thing perfectly clear --  although I’ve been accused of many things over the long roller coaster ride of my Hollywooden career, being a “she” is not among them. I'm not particularly proud of being a guy (having been born that way, I had no say in the matter), but it is what it is and I am what I am.

And that, my fellow Americans, is a he.

Slondon seems to have confused this blog with that of the wonderful Peggy Archer over at Totally Unauthorized – a terrific writer/juicer who is most definitely a she, and does indeed “link to a bazillion photos... many inside studios and sound stages.”

Any DVXUser readers who follow Slondon's link here and are puzzled by what they find should click on over to Peggy's blog, where the writing and stories are as good as the photos.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 28


Loose Ends

                   Green beds with high braces

(Note: this week's JFTHOI ties up a couple of loose ends with items that hit my radar screen too late to make the previous posts)

While perusing the internal traffic statistics of this space a while back -- something I do when the blank screen paralyzes my brain -- I came across one reader's search titled "how to make a high-brace?"

As pointed out in a recent post describing my brief life as a grip back in the day, high-braces are used to stabilize green beds hung above sets on a sound stage. Absent those braces, the interconnected web of green beds would sway like a ship at sea everytime a juicer or grip climbed around up there trying to do some work.

From what I've seen, not much has changed since the early 80's when I was making and hanging high-braces at Warner Brothers. Back then, the ground crew would butt two 20 foot two-by-fours together, then lay another, shorter two-by-four (called a "scab") down to overlap  both 20 footers -- then they'd nail all three pieces together with 16 penny double-head nails. Two quarter-inch "belly-lines" were then tied to the center of the completed high brace.  A grip up high in the perms and another on the green beds dropped their hand lines, which the floor crew tied to opposite ends of the brace. 

A forty-year veteran of the grip life was kind enough to refresh my memory in explaining what happened next: 

"The high man pulled the entire high brace up into the perms by himself. Once it was up and against a perm, he would then signal the low man to pull his end of the brace to the green bed. If they both pulled the brace at the same time, the brace would get sqirrelly and make it unsafe for the man up in the perms." *

When both ends of the high-brace were securely nailed in place, the high man (or other grips up high) would toss out hand lines to pull up and tie off both of the belly-lines nice and tight -- one on either side -- where they kept the brace from bending under stress. After all the braces were in place and belly-lines tied off, the network of green beds over the set was  stable and safe, ready for use as a platform for lighting, grip, special effects, and sound.

Remember -- back then there were no safety harnesses or fall protection for grips. They worked out on the perms with no safety equipment whatsoever, where one serious mistake could result in a horrendous thirty to forty foot fall. During the time I worked as a studio rigging grip, full union scale was less than nine dollars an hour -- not a lot for risking your life every day.

But that was a very different time.


* Thanks, Kirk!  We used nails back in the day, and although it's possible grips nowadays use screw-guns instead, I doubt it.  Drywall screws are very brittle and break relatively easily under stress.  Under the same load, a double-head 16 nail might bend, but it won't break.

*************************************

                                   Peak Television?


In other news, a brouhaha (love that word) seems to have erupted among critics and observers of our culture's favorite visual medium as to whether or not we're currently enjoying a Second Golden Age of Television.  The case for "Peak Television" -- a concept floated by FX head John Landgraf at the recent Television Critics Association gathering here in LA, then repeated on KCRW's The Business recently -- was seconded by Tim Goodman, chief TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter. Goodman went even further, declaring that we're in a Platinum Age of television, and expressing his view that the current output of quality on the Toob has created expectations that can't possibly be sustained.  
LA Time's critic Mary McNamara then weighed in: 
"To be honest, much of the anxiety you feel is, I fear, being generated by those of us who write about television. That's right, this time, you can blame the media because we are most certainly freaking out. Too much TV? Hell, yes."

That makes sense when you consider that -- unlike those who make and/or simply watch television -- a TV critic's job is to watch as much television as possible, then write about it.  A critic has to see something of everything, then come up with a cogent, snappy review -- and that's not easy. It was a lot easier twenty years ago, when the kickoff of the new Fall season was the busy time for critics, as dozens of new and returning shows hit the airwaves all at once -- but after the September/October rush was over, a critic's life would settle back into a much more relaxed pace. In today's year-round television environment, new shows arriving from somewhere (Netflix, Amazon, several cable networks, and soon Apple) are pounding on the door every month, each demanding its fifteen minutes in the media's critical spotlight.  Unfortunately for TV critics, some of those shows are actually worth watching, and thus deserving of thoughtful, nuanced reviews.

Which means the job of a TV critic these days has come to resemble the labors of Sisyphus.
Enter Gavin Polone, one-time agent turned producer and occasional director, who threw down on all those critics with his argument that "Television's golden age is one big hallucination" -- that there really aren't more good shows now, but rather the same level of quality programming floating atop a vastly larger swamp of mediocre shows.* 
"Designating which shows are exceptional is subjective. But it is evident that the total number of outstanding shows on the air at one time hasn't increased in decades, while the quantity of mediocre and bad television has exploded. The reason for this is that the number of talented people who write, direct, produce and act on TV also has remained about the same. It's the nature of excellence: By definition, only very few from any category of endeavor are exceptional today, the best talent working in television is spread out more thinly over a larger number of shows, bringing down the overall average level of goodness."
Polone blames the huge increase in shows that began with the proliferation of cable networks, then accelerated with the entrance of Netflix, Amazon, and other media entities previously known for hardware and distribution of television rather than production. He maintains that a shakeout at some point is inevitable, after which the flood of good television will slow markedly.   
Polone isn't altogether wrong, but the examples he uses to compare eras seriously undercut his argument. I find it hard to believe that he -- or anyone, really -- could possibly consider "The Mod SquadThe WaltonsThe Brady BunchThe Partridge Family, and Room 222" to be comparable to "The Sopranos," "The Wire," or "Breaking Bad." Still, his conclusion that a shakeout is coming makes a certain sense. 
"The result will be fewer but better television series, more room on your DVR and less time wasted waiting to see if that show your friend recommended will get any better after episode four. Because with TV, often getting less will give you more."
On that much, at least, there seems to be agreement -- the current overloaded center cannot hold on either the production or consumption end of the deal, which means change is gonna come. Veteran writer/producer Rob Long added his voice to the cacophony, arguing that there's no reason to worry about any of this because it'll all work out over time.  
Hardly a profound thought, that, but he's probably right. Just as the balance between predators and prey holds over the long run in the natural world -- with wild swings involving maximum carnage from one year to the next  -- the current glut of good television isn't an actual problem. Hollywood is in California, a state that came to national prominence with the Gold Rush in the 19th Century, then enjoyed the post-World War Two boom of the aerospace industry, the Tech Bubble of the late 20th Century, and the current New Millennium digital gold rush, and thus has always ridden the wild horse of a boom-and-bust economy. It's the nature of the beast. The current boom in television will be followed by some kind of bust as surely as night follows day -- the only question is when and how what form that bust will take.  
For the rest of us -- those who do the heavy lifting required to actually make all these shows -- this argument is a bit like discussing how many angels really can dance on the head of a pin. Like tiny fleas riding the back of the industry elephant, we just have to take what comes, helpless to steer the great beast. All we can do is keep our eyes open, hope for the best, and be ready to scramble come what may.   
In other words, it's Hollywood -- same as it ever was -- Peak TV or not Peak TV.


* Polone often comes across as a prickly, highly-opinionated guy, and thus easy to dismiss, but he won me over a few years back with his condemnation of the brutally long hours so many crews have to work on set.  I don't know that he's actually bothered to do anything about it -- and a producer often has that power -- but at least he was willing to publicly acknowledge the problem. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Brief Hiatus



                       Photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Partisan


It's that time of year again: the major league baseball playoffs.  Some people like to watch the brain-crushing, body-rending meat grinder of football, the syncopated, arhythmic gymnastics of basketball, or the endless running, kicking, and chasing the ball of soccer -- and many sports fans like all three.

Me, I like baseball, which makes this a very special time of year as the playoff elimination rounds build towards the World Series. It's baseball's time to shine in the spotlight.

So what does this have to do with the film and television industry, or life below-the-line?

Nothing, other than the unfortunate reality that work will prevent me from watching many of the more compelling playoff games. That's the trouble with toiling in the salt mines of television, where the season is going full steam by the time the baseball playoffs arrive.* So when at work, I'll be working -- and at home, I'll be glued to the TV or tuned to internet radio following the games… which won't leave much time for posting here. I might throw together an occasional JFTHOI post, but that's about it. Besides, it's been too fucking hot here in LA lately, and I can't work up much enthusiasm for sitting at this keyboard with sweat running down my face. 

So I won't.  

Given that my team is out of it this year, I'm pulling for the perennial-loser Chicago Cubs to finally get to -- and win -- the World Series. History weighs against this actually happening, of course, but carving out the future baseball history is what the playoffs are all about.

I'll be back in November once the issue has been decided, and a new team stands atop the baseball world -- and maybe by then we'll be done melting under high-90's temperatures here in LA.  

Meanwhile, go Cubs!  


* Next year at this time -- inshallah -- I'll be watching the 2016 playoffs back on the Home Planet, uninterrupted by the demands of work, my time in Hollywood just a memory...



Sunday, October 11, 2015

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 27


                                           Courtesy of Movie Set Memes


The presence of our industry on social media -- particularly below-the-line -- has exploded in recent years. When I launched BS&T back in 2007, there were only a handful of industry blogs around, and few people over age 18 had even heard of Facebook. 

Times have changed. As feature film and television production expands across the country, the number of people working in the industry has grown rapidly, and so has our on-line presence.

I recently signed on with a FB group called "Movie Set Memes," which is fueled by the many indignities, absurdities, and idiocies suffered by those of us who work below-the-line.  Along the way, it reveals the creativity with which low-budget crews approach their job and solve problems on set.

Although I'm not sure I'd want to be the camera operator in the photo above (I can only assume they didn't have a 12 step ladder on the truck), I have to admire the ingenuity of that crew. Hey, we've all done what had to be done to get a shot at one time or another -- but I just hope nobody got hurt doing that one.

Sometimes the subject matter on MSM strays to producing:


                 image by Kate D'Hotman

Or this one…


                image by Kate D'Hotman

… which reminds me of an old post describing my own silliest job ever, which you might not have stumbled across if you weren't aware of BS&T back in 2010. 

It really was one uniquely crazy gig.

As with any forum supported by mass contributions, there's lots of repetitive chaff at Movie Set Memes, and it remains to be seen if the site can be kept clear of the usual internet flotsam and jetsam, but for now, the occasional nuggets make it worth a look.  

*************************************************

Speaking of social media, one of my on-set and FB friends* recently posted a link to a post titled How to Survive On Set: Tips to be the Best Worker Ever, which schools newbies on the reality of being on a film set, and how to do a good enough job to get called back for future gigs. Here's a paragraph describing the importance of giving your very best effort to every job, no matter how lame the production.

"Sometimes, film shoots are awful. Directors lose control; producers are scoundrels; people have bad ideas and worse communication skills. But it is a rookie mistake to think that this means it is not worth your best efforts. The production world is like a deck of cards, where everyone is reshuffled into different crews, over and over, a dozen times a year. Soon, that worthless director’s assistant may be in a position to tell her new boss not to hire you; five movies from now, that jerk of an electrician will stand in your way when you most need a favor. Don’t burn bridges."

It's a good post, packed with excellent advice to benefit any newbie on set -- or someone who's been struggling for a couple of years without making much progress.  Advancing in Hollywood is seldom easy, but sometimes there's a reason why you haven't managed to move beyond crummy, low-pay gigs -- and that reason just might be found in the mirror.  

"Know thyself," the wise men said.

That said, the post overstates a few things... like this overly-earnest passage under the heading "Throw away your Trash:

"A film set is a sacred place where creative people engage with one another and make art. Every bag of chips and empty coffee cup left behind is an act of disrespect to the art-making at hand. It is also a blemish on the film itself, as an errant water bottle, discovered too late, renders a great shot useless."

"A sacred place?  Art making??"  Dude, a film set is a workplace -- a factory floor where we grind out the cinematic sausage one messy, bloody chunk at a time -- not "a sacred place where creative people...make art."  Yes, there are many creative people on set, but the vast majority are working at their craft doing a job, not making "art." Of course you should always respect the workplace, your fellow crew, your craft, and the way you make a living, but only rarely do the efforts of a film crew blend with the quality of writing, directorial brilliance, and exceptional acting performances required to create art.

If and when that happy confluence of talent and sweat does occur, great.  Just don't hold your breath waiting for it, because let's face it -- not a lot of "art" comes out of Hollywood these days. Mind-boggling spectacle, yes.  Heart-stopping drama, yes.  Comedy that can make an audience pee their pants, sometimes... but art?  Not so much.  And that's okay, since  we're we're in show business, not art-business.  Our job is to create entertainment designed to take people's minds off the humdrum reality and often miserable ordeals of modern life.  Hollywood manufactures the cinematic opium our culture depends upon as a buffer from that reality, and in so doing, we help keep the fires of conspicuous consumption burning hot and bright.  For better or worse (mostly worse, methinks, in the long run), our economy depends on that fire.

I'm not particularly proud of this, but it is what it is -- and we all play our part.

That a production designer who goes by a name like "Brandon Tonner-Connolly" would conflate work and art should come as no surprise. No offense to Brandon, but -- regrettably for him -- such hyphenated three-word names just reek of pretentious pomposity. Still, he's got some serious credits, and is pretty much spot-on with everything else in his post -- and he's absolutely right that you should clean up your own (and your department's) trash.  

Respect the workplace and do the best job you can, even if you're working on some crappy show that will never get within a hundred miles of being considered "art."

The post also includes a link to a list of who does what on set, useful for any brand-newbies still dazed and confused by the apparent chaos of a stage or location set. 

That's all for this week.  Stay safe out there, kiddos…



* Thanks, Desi!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Winners and Losers

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

The opening line from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens



The new offerings from the major broadcasting networks have now set sail upon the troubled waters of the Fall television season, each show carrying a heavy cargo of hope that it will manage to navigate stormy seas which -- thanks to modern technology -- are further roiled by an increasingly fickle and distracted viewing audience. These shows face an uncertain future in the weeks to come, much like the fragile wooden ships of the Old World that bravely ventured out beyond the range of reliable maps to a mysterious and terrifying realm where whirlpools, hideous sea monsters, and God only knew what else awaited to devour their unlucky crews.

Some of those new shows -- poorly-conceived, badly written, mis-cast, or simply unable to find their on-screen sea legs quickly enough -- will sink within weeks, cancelled by nervous studio executives anxious to cover their high-salaried asses. Others will catch a favorable breeze and sail through those perilous waters over the next six months to the promised land of a second season... and maybe more. Meanwhile, there will be drama ahoy amid the ranks of producers, writers, actors, and the crews below decks who signed on for the voyage. Tears of woe will be shed amid the inevitable wreckage, while champagne flows freely aboard the shows that survive.

In the boom-and-bust world of Hollywood, these is the best of times and the worst of times.

All the viewing public will know about it is that a number of new shows came and went, leaving the hardy survivors to remain on the Toob until next March, when the regular season fades to black, then settles in to wait for the spring rains of pilot season to bring yet another new crop of television. Unseen by those viewers at home will be dramas that played out behind the scenes between the frenzied rugby-scrum of pilot season and the Fall season launch, a seemingly quiet stretch when many of the lucky winners -- pilots picked up to series -- are forced to make some very cruel adjustments designed to bolster their chances of surviving the first crucial weeks of the regular season. As I've learned the hard way, this can be a dicey time for actors and crew alike, as roles are re-cast and new blood brought in to help ensure success. For the winners, it’s great -- but for the losers, this process can be brutal. 

One minute you have a job, then suddenly you don't.

Which just goes to underscore another fact of Hollywood Life: no matter what promises you've been told, you can’t count on anything until you get an official call time for your first day of work.

While staring into the fire on the Home Planet recently, my mind wandered back five years to a pilot I did that was picked up, then -- much to everyone’s surprise -- survived to run for over a hundred episodes. Although people on the writing staff and crew came and went over the years, it was a great run for us all -- producers, writers, directors, actors, and crew.

All except for one actress, that is, a young woman who was cast in the core role of a teenage girl for the pilot. Tracey Fairaway did a good enough job for the show to be picked up, but due to reasons best known to the mysterious powers above-the-line, her part was recast with another young actress by the time the season began. Tracey had a job, then she didn’t after which she had to watch from afar as the show -- her show -- went from a 10 episode pick-up to 100+ episode syndication, propelling the other young actress to a solid career that, given the right role in the right project, just might light up the skies over Hollywood and beyond.  

        Taylor Sprietler, photo courtesy of Afterglow Magazine

Our new actress -- Taylor Sprietler -- was just terrific, and there’s no doubt her considerable acting skills and audience appeal helped the show remain on the air as long as it did. For that, I’m grateful, because our little show kept my rent and bills paid for four years. Still, I’ve always felt bad for Tracey Fairaway. It's one thing to have a pilot go nowhere -- that's pretty much par for the course in this town -- but to have your pilot picked up, then dump you (and only you) before launching a 100+ episode run that's got to hurt.  

Sooner or later, one way or another -- often time and again -- it happens to us all, and when it does, there's nothing to be done but pick up the pieces and move on.  As traumatic as the experience must have been, it wasn't a total disaster for Tracey, who went on to build a successful acting career. And if she hasn't yet landed anything like a 100 episode show, you never know what will happen in this town.  The phone might ring tomorrow with a role that turns her into the next Jennifer Lawrence,

Similar dramas have doubtless played out for dozens of actors over past few months as the pilots that were picked up re-tooled for the new season launch -- actors who thought their ship had finally come in only to have have their dreams torpedoed by a money-making machine that can't afford to have a heart.*  Such is life in the cruel world of Hollywood, where the zero-sum game so often bestows a golden glow of success to one person at the cost of someone else’s dismal, oh-so-personal and soul-crushing failure.

So when you turn on the Toob to see what’s new this season, remember -- maybe you didn’t hear the screams of pain, much less the weeping and wailing, but the long knives have been working overtime these past few weeks, spilling plenty of blood on the cutting room floors.

Have a little compassion for the actors who suffered through it, because while this is certainly the best of times for some, it's also the worst of times for others.

Same as it ever was...

* Which is just one more reason actors have the hardest job on set