The Fifth Element
Twenty-odd years ago, while gaffing a Kawasaki commercial on location in the rugged mountains outside of Seattle, I got a call from an old friend who used to work as a juicer on my crew. He was BB'ing a feature back in LA, shooting visual effects for The Fifth Element, and needed another juicer to lend a hand. The rate was $350/10 hours -- reasonably good money at the time*-- and the gig would last for three months.
It had been a slow summer, so I took the job, even though working five days a week didn't appeal to me at all. Yeah, I was spoiled. As a commercial gaffer, I'd become accustomed to working a hundred or so days a year while earning between fifty and sixty thousand dollars -- which was was more than enough to pay my bills and left me lots of free time for other things.
If that sounds disgracefully unambitious, hey, welcome to my world. I was never interested in becoming the richest gaffer in Hollywood, nor did I ever have any desire to work three hundred days a year. Any way you look at it, toiling an average of two days a week to make the modern day, inflation-adjusted equivalent of eighty to ninety-five thousand dollars a year is nice work if you can get it.
Back then, I could. Little did I know how good I had it at the time, or that my sweet little magic carpet ride was destined to crash and burn just a few years later.
I reported for duty at Digital Domain out in Venice, just a stone's throw from Roger Corman's infamous low-budget studio at the old Hammond Lumber Yard, and thus began my introduction to the strange world of visual effects. For the next three months, we shot an endless variety of spaceships, flying cars, and the 600 story, forced-perspective set of a very futuristic New York City on those computer-driven cameras.
It was tedious work, but not particularly hard. Each pass would take around twenty minutes to complete, as the computer drove the camera oh-so-slowly down the track, making several passes for each composite shot, sometimes against a black background, a green screen, white screen, or orange screen -- the latter using ultraviolet Kino Flos to light the spaceships, which meant wearing protective goggles until the lighting and camera pass was done.
The DP was a very nice guy who took pains to explain the "why" behind all of this to me, but I've long since forgotten the details.
It was a very strange gig, totally unlike any other film work I've done before or since, and once those three months were over, I never did another VFX job. Three years later, as all my commercial accounts migrated to Canada in the ceaseless pursuit of the bottom line, my gaffing career sputtered, stalled, then nose-dived onto the hard rocks of the new tax-subsidy reality... and that, my little droogies, is when I stumbled into the equally strange but very different world of multi-camera sitcoms.
I traded in my light meter for a pair of gloves, and you know the rest -- assuming you've been reading BS&T for a while, anyway. Although I never had the desire to do more VFX work (it was just a bit too tedious for me), I'm glad I did took that gig, which kept me employed all summer long while introducing me to a realm I knew very little about. Besides, The Fifth Element is far and away the best feature I ever worked on -- one of the few I can watch now without cringing inside.
I was reminded of all this while listening to a terrific podcast from Freakenomics Radio a couple of weeks ago, a detailed and fascinating post-mortem analysis of the birth, life, and near-death of the visual effects industry in Los Angeles. Back then, Digital Domain, Rhythm and Hues, Industrial Light and Magic, and other VFX pioneers were flying high on the cutting edge of the CGI revolution, and their future seemed very bright indeed. But as Icarus learned the hard way, those who fly too high are in for a precipitous fall, and that's exactly what happened to the VFX industry in LA, largely due to the highly competitive nature of the business itself, and lucrative tax subsidies that undercut the LA firms while luring their work to Canada and England.**
Such is life amid the creative destruction of our race-to-the-bottom, boom-and-bust world -- in other words, same as it ever was. One way or another -- and sooner or later -- it happens to us all.
Check that podcast out -- it's a good one.
* That would be over $550 in modern money.
* The bid-then-deliver structure of the very labor-intensive VFX process inevitably led to those companies taking a beating on one project, then trying to make it up on the next -- and playing catch-up is rarely a sustainable business model.