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 31, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 36

                             Ah, the good old days…

Just to be clear -- I am NOT in this photo, which was taken well before I was born -- but it shows Hollywood as it was back in the days when men were men, women were women, and cameras were really, really big.

Nobody was going hand-held with that monster...

To be fair, much of the bulk came from the blimp encasing the camera to keep it quiet enough for the then-new technology of sound. Life on set got a lot more complicated for everybody when sound came in, forcing the movies back to a very static, visually boring style until much smaller, lighter, quieter cameras were perfected.

I did get to work with heavy-head carbon arcs exactly like the two pictured here, though -- a link to the past I'm glad I was able to experience.

It's interesting to note that most of the men in this photo are working shirtless, but wearing long pants.  I don't know if there was an actual dress code for location work at the time, but nowadays, you rarely see guys go shirtless -- and almost never will you see a juicer or grip wearing long pants on a hot day.

It's all shorts and T shirts now.

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First up, another short commentary from Rob Long's Martini Shot, wherein he discusses the new generation's ongoing fascination -- and subsequent dissatisfaction -- with modern communications technology, and the frustration older people experience when dealing with a dismissive attitude from someone much younger who doesn't know nearly so much as he/she thinks he does.

It's a good one.

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

You might not see a connection between Mike Birbiglia (who I first discovered while listening to This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour) and the film/television industry. I didn't either, until hearing this interview, but it turns out he acted in a sitcom pilot long before turning to story-telling on The Moth. His stories there are terrific... which reminds me, if you've never tuned in to a Moth broadcast/podcast, you should. When it's good, it's great. Given that storytelling is the essence of television and movies -- and that so many young people want to get into an industry that's all about storytelling -- you just might learn something about the craft by listening to some really good stories.

Or maybe you just want to come to Hollywood for the money and "glamour," and in that case, good luck. You're gonna need it.

As it happens, Birbiglia has now directed a feature (his second, actually), and has a lot to say about the process -- among other things -- in the interview.  It's well worth your time.

Here's another good (and considerably shorter) interview with the late Garry Marshall. Although I drifted into the world of television much too late to work with Marshall, I've never heard a bad word about the man -- quite the opposite. Listen to that interview and you'll see why. Garry Marshall is happy to discuss his famous hit shows, but unlike most Hollywood legends, he's equally comfortable talking about his many flops -- thirteen, according to the man himself.

We've lost another good one.

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

Finally, the quote of the week -- this one from the keyboard of Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, in response to a reader's question about Dan Duryea:

"Dan Duryea (1907-1968) was one of the great noir actors, sleazy and slippery, opaque with self-satisfied malice and twinkling with inappropriate amusement. He's always a welcome addition -- slapping around Joan Bennett in "Scarlet Street," getting worked over by James Stewart in "Winchester '73"… and even playing a (sort of) good guy in the 1946 noir "Black Angel." Duryea was so good at being bad that he could only have been a nice person in real life, which they say he was."

Why that quote? For the wonderful first sentence, which absolutely nails the essence of Dan Duryea on screen.

That's it for this week.  Stay cool, my friends, as difficult as that is in the steamy cauldron of mid-summer…

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Parallax View


                    
     And now for a boring old-guy harangue you'll doubtless ignore...

While working a long day on my home studio rigging crew several years ago, the conversation eventually meandered around to subject of age. When one of the young kids on our crew heard I was nearly 60, he slapped my back, a broad grin on his face.  

"You're almost out!" he said gleefully. "That's great!"

Well, yeah… but no. Under normal circumstances, the union allows a member to retire at age 62, but there's no point in doing so if you haven't yet accumulated enough working hours over your career to generate a decent monthly pension check -- unless you happen to be a trust-fund baby or have another fat source of income, neither of which are likely to be found among the ranks below-the-line. Anyone forced to rely solely on the tender mercies of Social Security in retirement runs the risk of spending their so-called "Golden Years" in a cardboard condo along the concrete banks of the LA River. And since I hadn't been on speaking terms with IATSE during my first fifteen years in Hollywood, I was nowhere near to qualifying for the union's full monthly retirement benefit.

I'm still not. That conversation took place more than five years ago, and although I've worked fairly steadily since then, I'd have to toil at that pace for seventeen more years to qualify for the maximum pension check -- and that, ladies and gentlemen, is out of the question.*

There comes a point of diminishing returns in every endeavor, and I'm almost there. 

That young juicer was a nice kid who meant well, but he got his union card at an early age with the help of his father, and already seemed to have assimilated his dad's attitude that reaching the end of a career is the true goal of every worker. 

I don't see it that way. Neither did Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: "Life is a journey, not a destination," and as Hallmark-Cards corny as that sounds, I think the same is true of a working career. The adventure -- the fun -- is in slogging through the rough and tumble joys and horrors of the daily grind with your co-workers, even if that can take a while to understand.  

The end of a working life is just that -- the end -- and will come soon enough. It also marks the beginning of your post-work life, of course, but being old enough to retire means being old, and from what I've experienced thus far, that pretty much sucks. Still, it's the only game still dealing me in, so I'll just have to play those cards as best I can until the Grim Reaper finally rakes in the chips and turns out the lights.

So why am I blathering on about all this, boring the crap out of anybody still reading -- and who hasn't yet clicked over to see the latest at Shitty Rigs?

To provide some perspective, that's all, a parallax view for those of you still on the upward climb of your Hollywood journey, along with a word of advice. 

Don't get overly obsessed with your goals. Goals are just a way to measure your progress as you march down the road of life.  So long as you keep trying, you'll probably achieve some of them over the course of time -- but if and when you do grasp that brass ring, there will likely be another dangling out there just beyond your reach. And should you manage to grab that one, yet another will materialize in the ether, shiny and gleaming in the golden light of the dying day.**  

There's no end to it… until the end. Then what? 

It's all too easy to succumb to career obsession in this fear-based freelance Hollywood life of perpetual insecurity. Striving to achieve your goals is an essential part of that equation, but it can't be the only thing. Don't forget to smell the proverbial roses along the way, because the people you meet, the friends you make, and the problems you solve together at work are all part of the tapestry of your life. They're some of the blessings enjoyed by those of us who work in the film and television industry.

Pursue your goals, get better at your job, make more money, and bask in the warm glow of whatever success comes your way... but be careful not to slide into the quicksand of being dissatisfied and unhappy unless and until you've achieved those goals. Nobody can afford to ignore the future, but you don't want to dwell on the not-yet at the expense of the here-and-now.  Take a good look around every now and then to appreciate all you have and how far you've come. Enjoy the journey as it unfolds, because before you know it, everything you take for granted -- the entire backdrop against which your life has unfolded -- will begin to slip away and vanish, including the people.

And once gone, they're gone for good.

Don't worry about it if none of this makes sense to you -- it probably wouldn't have made any sense to me  when I was in my twenties, either. Since the beginning of time, the old have tried to warn the young about what's coming, but it's the nature of the the young not to listen. I certainly didn't when the oldsters wagged their bony old fingers at me back in the day... but now I see it from the other side. 

Maybe that's just how it is, how it's supposed to be -- each generation learning the hard lessons their own way, at their own pace. 

All I can add is this: time is a deceptively slippery commodity. The years pile up at an alarming rate, and one of these days in that distant-but-closer-than-you-think future, you just might find a smiling young person congratulating you on being "almost out" -- at which point you may feel the urge to warn him or her to enjoy the journey, not the destination. 

Maybe that young person will listen, maybe not -- and maybe it doesn't matter one way or the other.  

I've been gradually coming to terms with the reality that the end of my own Hollywood journey is finally in sight, and am more or less at peace with it. I'll take one more lap -- whether for another full season or just the next few weeks helping get a few new shows up and running for the Fall TV season -- then wave goodbye.  

That is all -- end of harangue. Now I'll just grab my walker, hobble to the front door, and yell at those damned kids to get off my lawn…   


*  Fuck it.  I'll get by one way or another, even if it means a diet of Ritz crackers, Alpo, and Two Buck Chuck.

** I had this post locked, loaded, and ready to go before listening to an interview with Danny McBride, who (much to my surprise) speaks rather eloquently to this very point.  It's a great interview, in which -- among other things -- McBride goes into detail discussing the process of writing his new HBO series Vice Principals...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Fifty-Five Steps

   "Exit the Kill Zone!"

                              
I make the climb one slow step at a time, trailing behind my two fellow juicers. They're both younger than me, of course -- one by eleven years, the other by twenty -- and I'm in no rush. Still, I'm breathing hard by the time I join them up high, where we pause for a minute to catch our breath.

Seven in the morning feels way too early to climb fifty-five steps.

The show we're about to wrap enjoyed a full season run of 22 episodes, after which the producers -- confident of a second season pick-up -- agreed to pay for a "fold and hold," whereupon the show crew cleaned up any loose ends that might present a hazard, then gathered their personal gear and walked away, fully expecting they'd be back for Season Two.

This industry seldom rewards such optimism. I've been down that dark road before, when my then-new show's first ten-episode season went so well that the "star" boldly predicted we'd have a five-year run -- and I was dumb enough to believe him. As I heard the story later, that cocky little bastard then handed the network a list of demands which included (among other things) a huge raise for himself and bringing his mother onto the show as a cast regular for the following season.* Suddenly realizing what a pocket full of trouble this little rooster really was, the network dumped our show like a hot potato, which is how a one-month fold-and-hold -- along with our "five year run" -- turned into a three-day wrap followed by a phone call to the California State Unemployment Department.**

So it goes.

It's a given that this town views any display of giddy optimism as hubris -- one of the Seven Deadly Sins -- which is why the Gods of Hollywood take such pleasure in punishing anyone so rash as to assume they're entitled to success. Unfortunately, the ensuing thunderbolt from above often results in massive collateral damage, laying waste to guilty and innocent alike. But one man's loss is another's gain in the zero-sum game of Hollywood, which is why the original crew of this show was long gone and we were about to clean up their stage.

So here we stood in the catwalks, surveying the mess they'd left -- and it was ugly.

                                 The center aisle

"I hate cable," sighed one of my fellow juicers.

I just nodded. There was no need to say anything else, because he spoke for us all.

As the mechanism that conveys electricity -- the essential juice -- to our lamps, cable is both the foundation of our livelihood and the bane of every juicer: a back-breaking, shoulder-destroying, knee-grinding, ankle-crushing necessary evil. Once in place and properly hooked up, it channels the immense quantities of power we use to light our stage and location sets, but wrangling all that cable during the rig, then wrapping it later, is a bitch, especially for those of us who aren't quite as young as we used to be.

Cable is the single worst thing about being a juicer. Manhandling BFLs is no big deal -- nobody expects you to put an 18K on a stand all by yourself -- but a juicer often has to wrangle hundred pound rolls of cable alone. Anybody can plug in a stinger to charge a producer's IPhone, but to run, power, then wrap such heavy cable takes a real juicer, and that exacts a toll. The longer you do it, the higher the price.

In the long-ago words of the late, great Jimbo: "I'm mining my body."***

He wasn't kidding.

Finally running out of reasons to procrastinate, we got to work. As always, the early stages were slow, but after a while we caught our second wind and got into a good rhythm, which is when the work really gets done.  While my two younger compadres attacked the Gordian Knot in the center aisle, I had the easier task of dealing with the danglers -- fifty and hundred-foot cables rigged over the side of the catwalks to reach the set below. I'd detach the end of each cable from the waterfall (the main power run coming up from the dimmer room), then tie it to my hand-line and slowly lower the loose cable to a juicer on the stage floor, who coiled it nice and tight as it came down. When he had it all, he'd release my rope, then snugly tie the cable wait for the next one.  Once all the danglers were down, I joined in on the center catwalk, where we freed up the cables, then wrapped them to an empty catwalk, leaving a long row to be lowered later.

This is heavy labor, but time passes quickly when you're working at a steady pace, and soon it was time for breakfast (or "coffee," as this union-mandated break is called), so down those fifty-five steps we went -- and after twenty minutes in the commissary, it was back up high to continue the battle.

Loading up on coffee and/or orange juice at breakfast has consequences. Sooner or later you've got to pee, but that means yet another 110 steps… unless you can find an empty water bottle (with a cap, of course) up high to serve as a mini-honey wagon.  Unwilling to make any more of those down-and-up round trips than strictly necessary, that's exactly what I did -- very carefully, I might add.

Hey, you do what you've gotta do to get through a cable day.

Once we'd restored some semblance of order to the center catwalk, it was time to start dropping all those fifty and hundred foot coils of cable, which weigh somewhere around 40 to 80 pounds each. The procedure isn't difficult, but you have to do it right, because getting careless and moving too fast can send one of those car-tire sized coils plummeting to the stage floor.  If somebody down there isn't able to get out of the way, that person's entire day -- entire life, really -- will be ruined in a big way.

I wrap a 5/8th inch line all the way around the top rail once, then feed the end below the knee-rail to the catwalk, where the juicer I'm working with loops it through the coil (or two, if they're fifty-footers), and ties it securely with a clove hitch or bowline -- his choice.

"All clear?" he asks.

Before nodding,  I scan the floor below to make sure nobody is wandering into the danger area, then yell "Exit the kill zone!" in a loud voice. With a construction crew slowly -- and noisily -- tearing the sets apart while we work, it's crucial to shout

Over the side the cable goes, and the weight hits hard, but I keep a light two-handed grip on the rope -- that full wrap around the rail makes all the difference -- and with a buzzing whir, the rope carves a shallow groove in the soft rail as the cable drops towards the deck. Friction absorbs this sudden release of energy, converting it to heat, raising the acrid sent of scorched wood from the rail. Watching the cable, I tighten my gloved grip at the last possible instant, bringing the coil to an abrupt halt. It dangles there, four feet off the stage floor, until a cable cart is rolled underneath. Then I ease my grip, allowing the floor juicer to guide it into the cart. He loosens the knot, frees the rope, then yells "Hollywood!" to let me know I can pull it back up. We'll repeat this process, periodically switching roles, until all those coils of cable up high are on the floor.

But that'll take a while, and now it's time for lunch, so back down those fifty-five steps we go.

                            
After a relaxing hour, during which we eat, then retire to a shaded porch on the studios "Residential Street" back lot to chew the fat about politics, the continuing insult of cable-rate (and the cheap-ass networks who love it), and the cynical lament of all aging workers that their business (whatever it may be), is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket.

In other words, same as it ever was.

Then it's back we go, up those fifty-five steps again, which have just about killed my thigh muscles at this point in the day.  Three hours later, we're done -- the cable wrapped, dropped, and sent back to the lamp dock. The construction crew is still dismantling the sets, but our work here is over. Once the sets have been torn apart, the rigging grips will take down the network of green beds, and the stage will then be ready for the next show to come in.  When that day comes, the process will start all over, rendering order from chaos, chaos from order, and back again. We make an idiot-check up high to be sure everything's done, then make one last trip down those steps.

This day has been a serious workout, and I know my back (along with everything else) will pay the price tomorrow morning, but right now it feels good -- the pleasant sense of physical weariness that comes from a tough job done well.  What comes next is uncertain.  This was the last show to be wrapped here at my home lot, and the ramp-up for the new TV season has yet to hit.

That's just as well, because I can use a few days off to recover.  And when the check for this day arrives in the mail, I'll know at least one thing: we all earned our money today.


* She'd appeared in the final episode of the first (and only) season.

** The last I saw of that "star" was his mug shot in the newspaper after he landed in jail upon getting nailed for his third DUI. Some people never learn...

*** The Gaffer who long ago taught me what it means to be a professional in this industry.

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.

Ahem...

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.