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, July 10, 2016

Things to Come

              Do Android Juicers dream of Electric Sheep?
                   (With apologies to Phillip K. Dick)

A few years ago, a reader left a comment asking why television shows in general (and multi-camera sitcoms in particular) require such intensive work from week to week to properly light and shoot every episode. He proposed rigging a large array of lights over each set at the start of the season, allowing the crew to use whatever units were necessary to light and film each shot of every scene.

That's pretty much the way we do it on the permanent sets, where enough lamps are hung to cover each set in broad brush strokes. Additional lamps will be rigged throughout the season to meet the particular needs of each episode, but once those sets are dialed-in (which can take a month or so), the bulk of the lighting work is done on "swing sets" that come and go each week: a bowling alley, office, convenience store, bar, coffee shop, bank, gas station -- whatever the script calls for.  

Thanks to disruptions in the economic model that powered television for decades, and the proliferation of low budget cable networks -- relative newcomers like TV Land are so cheap they make the notoriously thrifty Disney look generous in comparison -- Hollywood has been on a relentless quest to cut expenses the past few years, which is why multi-cam shows are lit from pipe grids these days. Pipe grids are relatively cheap and easily modified to serve the ever-changing needs of those weekly swing sets -- but once the lighting has been roughed in, and the sets dressed, things get ugly. Changes in the blocking of a scene (which happen with metronomic regularity throughout the week) usually require several lamps to be adjusted accordingly, which means a juicer has to take a twelve-step ladder or a man lift onto the set to get up there and do the job -- followed by a grip to reset the flags, cutters, and/or teasers -- which in turn requires much of the set dressing to be moved out of the way, then put back. 

All of that takes time and effort, which is one reason this such a labor-intensive business.*

It's also why every show -- no matter how similar they may look on the Toob -- is actually a custom made item. The swing sets for each new episode vary in size, layout, and location on the sound stage from week to week, and with current technology, there's no way to effectively mechanize or automate the laborious process of lighting those swing sets.  

Still, the quest to cut costs is relentless. Thanks to the Digital Revolution, we rarely see dollies, dolly grips, or first assistants (focus pullers) on sitcoms anymore. On most multi-cam shows, all the camera work -- including moves, zooms, and focus adjustment -- is done on the fly by solo operators of four digital cameras mounted on peds.** Three assistants (or just two on certain cheaper shows) keep the cameras supplied with fresh data chips, wrangle the video cables trailing behind each ped, and handle the slate duties, but where it once took fourteen technicians to operate the cameras and dollies, only seven remain -- and the producers just love that.

With camera departments stripped to the bone, it's tempting to assume that no further reductions will be practical, but like rust, technology never sleeps -- and make no mistake, the robots are coming. Consumer robo-cams will soon be available, while more sophisticated versions are already replacing human operators in newsrooms (and in certain mega-churches), and are now poised to enter the sports world, where they may eventually displace some human camera operators. And if you're still feeling smug about the need for humans in the process, consider this astonishing technology, which could revolutionize the way car commercials are filmed -- and in the process, result in a lot less crew days shooting on location.

Translation: more technology = less work for humans.***

All of these are just baby steps, of course, because we're nowhere near the steep part of the digital/techno-curve yet -- the point where things will get really weird -- which means the already dizzying pace of change is destined to accelerate in the future.

If we've learned anything over the years, it's that the march of "labor-saving" technology (read: "save the producers from having to pay for labor") never stops -- so let's extrapolate a little, and assume that robotic cameras eventually do replace most human camera operators covering televised sports. Might similar, improved robo-cams eventually encroach upon the more formulaic television offerings -- variety shows, game shows, and multi-camera sitcoms?

I don't see why not. The Luddites couldn't stop the forward march of technology, and neither can we.

Still, robo-cams have a long way to go before they're ready for prime-time. A quick Google search will turn up numerous clips of these robots going rogue in the relatively benign confines of a television news studio, which is probably the least challenging environment for an automated camera system. I don't see robo-cams becoming sophisticated enough to supplant human operators in episodic television or features anytime soon -- if ever -- but with increasingly sophisticated green screen technology reducing the need for massive location shoots (and in many cases, replacing sets altogether), there may be less need for humans on set in the future. More and more of the physical work that was once done by people is now happening inside computers.

The same forces engineering these changes are turning their cold, bottom-line gaze towards the lighting department. There's now a "hot head" rig available from Arri that can pan, tilt, and adjust the spot/flood of a big lamp remotely -- very useful when a BFL has to go where a human lamp operator can't. These LRX lamps offer similar capabilities, with some able to be controlled via an iPhone app. Concert-style moving lights are very common in Hollywood these days (including some sit-coms, unfortunately…), and not just for the usual rock-and-roll "flash and trash" lighting. It's possible that certain types of shows will someday be lit with vastly more sophisticated versions of today's moving lights that could deliver any color, texture, and intensity of light the DP or Lighting Director desires -- and once rigged, a set like that might not need more than a dimmer operator/programmer working the board, along with a staff juicer to run stingers for the cell phone chargers of the two dozen "producers" slouched in their tall director's chairs.


Although the possibilities are endless, I don't see any truly momentous changes looming in the near future. LED lights continue to come on strong, with Mole Richardson now offering a 10 K equivalent fresnel lamp, but fully equipping a stage with the very best automated lighting technology currently available would be prohibitively expensive -- and until that changes, it won't happen. Whether or not such an approach will ever be truly cost-effective for television is another question, but given the rapid evolution of digital lighting technology, the days of a juicer showing up on set with just a tool belt, a strong back, and a good attitude are numbered. As in so many other industries, the in-demand workers will be those who stay abreast of the technology as it evolves, able to surf that digital wave wherever it leads.

What does the future hold for those who work below decks in Hollywood? I don't know, and neither does anyone else. In some ways, the Digital Revolution has generated more work for crews, but much of that employment takes place on the purely digital side of the fence. Technology hasn't eliminated the need for human involvement (thus far, anyway…), but it has rearranged the employment deck chairs on the good ship Hollywood. New jobs are created while old jobs -- and the people who did them -- are tossed overboard. That works fine for the fresh faces coming up the gangplank armed with new technology skills, but it's not so good for those who are left behind to swim for their lives.

The only real certainty is that change is here, and will keep on coming. From my personal perspective, at least one thing has become crystal clear: there's no place for a techno-dunce like me in this Brave New Digital World, which means I'll be heading out of Hollywood's back door to the sunny beach of retirement just in time...

* Back in the day, standard procedure was to rig a stage with an interlocking system of green beds hung just above the set walls. There was usually a 5K (five thousand watt lamp) in each corner, and a row of 2Ks in between, so that the set was literally ringed with lights.  Whatever was being filmed -- a wide master, two-shots, three-shots, over-the-shoulders, or close ups -- could be lit from those green beds by juicers who turned on and adjusted whichever lamps the Gaffer and DP needed.  Green beds are still used on sound stages for episodics and features, but very rarely on sit-coms. 

** There's at least one producer/director left with the clout to get four dollies with dolly grips and first assistants on his shows -- the legend himself, Jim Burrows...

*** There's room for debate about that, of course -- and a good place to start is this podcast from Freakanomics Radio, where the winners and losers in the process of "creative destruction" are discussed in an entertaining, informative, and somewhat spooky podcast.


Anonymous said...

Mike.. the FREAKANOMICS PODCAST was excellent.. a peek into the very near future and a glimpse of the past. The PAST is definitely way behind us and not coming back. Too bad for the millennials.. By the time most of them get into the industry, they will most likely never experience the excitement of working on a commercial or rigging and shooting unfriendly locations anywhere and everywhere. The experienced union members will have an even harder time racking up hours and finding enough work to choose from. the 70's 80's and 90's were a blast to work in the industry... we all learned so much and were able to rack up so many great memories and be a part of something special to the outsiders. News Rooms, Award Shows, Training Films.. and what classes will be left to offer at the AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE? k

cb said...

Andy Ackerman (also Cheers school), 4 dollies. Dollies are funnier, believe it or not...

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous K --

I don't know what will happen down the road, but it seems clear that many who rely on the existing structure of the industry to feed their their families, make house payments, and supply healthcare, will be squeezed between the rock of the producers quest to reduce costs and the hard place of emerging technology. You may be right about things being more fun back in the day, but with no frame of reference, the kids coming in to the biz these days have no way of knowing what they missed -- and you can't miss something you never knew about in the first place…

CB --

Glad to hear it. I've heard good things about Andy, but never had the chance to work one of his shows. There's no doubt dollies make for much smoother, more accurate camera moves -- although I've yet to meet a Ped operator who will admit that...