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, February 7, 2016


The Tether

                          Order to chaos, and back again...
                          (photo by Lee Johnson)

In the free-lance world of itinerant film workers -- "carneys with dental plans," as one veteran put it -- landing a core-crew slot on a show provides a psychic tether that functions as a kind of artificial gravity. In addition to the very tangible benefit of a weekly paycheck, a show gives you somewhere to be five days a week, where there's work to be done, people to greet, and craft service to eat. The rest of the crew depends on you to shoulder your share of the burden, just as you depend upon them. Although the hard reality is that juicers are mere cogs in a machine -- easily replaceable -- a good crew melds into a team after a while. Through some mysterious human alchemy, the whole morphs into something greater than the sum of its parts. 

That tether -- the psychic gravity -- grows in importance as the show grinds on. Through good times and bad (and my last show had plenty of the latter), It helps us keep it together emotionally, as individuals and as a crew.

But if working a show is one thing -- exhausting, tedious, frustrating, and occasionally exhilarating -- wrapping that show after the seasons end is very different. Rather than the usual start-stop/ostrich-walk of production, wrap is all work all the time.  

And there's a lot of work to do.

I've written about this before, and doubtless will again before Hollywood is done with me, but just as no two shows are quite the same, so does each wrap march to the beat of its own unique rhythm. We start early and work at a steady pace all…day…long for eight to ten hours before going home. You know, just like a real job -- which is a radical change for those of us who ran away to join the Hollywood circus rather than sink into the quicksand of living death chained to a desk under the pale fluorescent glow of a cube farm.  With the show over -- the cameras, sound crew, actors, extras, and a small army of production personnel gone (and no more craft service to graze on), wrap represents the monotonous tedium of physical toil.

But that's okay.  After all the red-light shushing by the AD crew and hurry-up-and-wait drama of production, it's kind of nice to settle into a brain-dead groove for a change... except for the getting up at five in the morning, of course.  I hate that.  I've always hated that.

The grips, props, set dec, and wardrobe departments wrapped alongside us for a few days, as the construction crew busily (and noisily) de-constructed all those painstakingly built, dressed, propped, and lit sets.  By the second week, it was just us and the set-dec crew, them doing an exhaustive inventory of the sort that would drive me insane, while we wrapped cable and lights until there was nothing left to wrap.

At this point, I'm ready for some time off. Seven months of hard work and long hours on a ridiculously demanding show takes a toll, and I'm fried.  The rest of my crew seems ready to go back to work, but not me -- doubtless because I'm the oldest.*  Right now I just want to sleep for a week or three to allow everything  -- my neck, shoulders, forearms, hands, back, thighs, knees, ankles, and feet -- to stop hurting.  This show beat the crap out of me. 

We got two full weeks to of wrap, the longest of my career by far -- but we needed all that time. With the second season starting soon after the first season ended, nothing had been wrapped, leaving us to deal with the accumulated lighting detritus of two full seasons. The initial rig might have been clean, but layer upon layer  of lights (and cable) was added over the course of forty episodes to meet the unique lighting needs of each weekly script -- and by the time we went up high to wrap the cable, it was a nightmare.  

And the end of the very last wrap day -- when a show is at long last over -- the tether that bound us all for so long finally snaps, and suddenly free of that artificially gravity, we all spin off on our separate ways. It's become a cliche to label this moment "bittersweet," but that doesn't make it any less true. Shakespeare wasn't kidding when he wrote "parting is such sweet sorrow," because that final goodbye comes laden with equal measures relief and melancholy.   

It's just the nature of the beast.

After I've recovered physically and mentally, I'll once again feel the tug of work. This newfound freedom is great right now, but drifting in space exacts a toll of its own, during which my bank account tends to evaporate like gasoline spilled on hot pavement.  Once again I'll go in search of another employment tether -- one last show, and the temporary gravity it will provide.  Whether I'll find it or not is an open question, a mystery that can only be resolved by the Gods of Hollywood as this brand new year unfolds.

Wish me luck. I think I'm gonna need it.

* On my crew, anyway.  Technically, the camera coordinator -- or "Associate Director" (ahem…) -- was three months older than me, but the heaviest item he had to lift every week was a Number Two pencil, while I wrangled 4/0, 2/0, five-wire banded, 10Ks, 5Ks, 2Ks, along with a pair of 18 K HMI's and two 6K HMI Pars, all season long...


JD said...

Your team didn't actually neatly coil and tie every stinger? Didn't just sort of roll them up and toss them in the general direction of the first cable hamper, like I've seen many "experienced" sparks do? The pigs in the crew always amaze me. Somehow despite their lack of work ethics, they keep getting hired on.

Michael Taylor said...

JD --

Oh yeah, every stinger had the tape removed, then was coiled, tied, and laid out neat little piles for the rental company to count and load. The mess depicted in this photo was very early in the process. But I hear you -- some guys just don't give a damn, and they keep working anyway.

What drives me nuts is those who let the male end of Bates stingers fly from the pipe grid during wrap -- whacking the pins against set walls or the stage floor and bending the hell out of them. Then they complain when the pins break or burn out...

JD said...

Another week...another week of seeing guys carry a pile of coiled (but not tied) stingers toward a waiting hamper. Why coil them at all if you don't intend to tie them? When you drop your arm load chest high into the hamper they just explode into a tangled mess. Then you look furtively left and right and scamper away.