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.
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Sunday, March 19, 2017
In the end, it was the matchbooks that got me. After the painful process of sorting through the vast quantities of detritus accumulated over the course of forty years in Hollywood -- half a dozen arc carbons (positives, of course), dozens of cube taps (mostly the old ones -- the good ones), male and female quick-ons, zip cord, porcelain fixtures, too many tubes of gel and white diffusion, a weathered threefer from back in the pin-cable days, boxes of old-fashioned 250 watt and 500 watt flashbulbs, an analog multi-tester, a battered old red Wiggy, my spotmeter, Minolta Auto 3 light meter, and a nifty little hand-held digital frequency meter that saved my Best Boy and Gaffer ass more times than I can count back in the days before flicker-free HMI's came on the scene, and hundreds of business cards from juicers, Best Boys, Gaffers, and grips I'd worked with (and forgotten) over the years.
There was more -- a lot more -- but you get the drift.
What I couldn't give away, I tossed. It was hard at first, but got easier as the deadline approached: when push came to shove, whatever I couldn't use or pass along went overboard. At that point, there really wasn't any choice.
At long last I thought I was done... but around midnight of my final night in LA -- after shredding the last of the dusty, irrelevant tax records -- I opened a forgotten kitchen drawer and found a cache of matchbooks from adventures around LA and on distant location shoots doing commercials, music videos, and features... and that's when I finally sank knee-deep into the deep, soft sands of memory. Every one of those matchbooks was a visual trigger that unleashed vivid memories of a place, a time, and the people I'd worked with way back when -- the Viva Las Vegas ZZ Top video we shot in Sin City, a video for a female hip-hop protege of Prince (whose name I've long since forgotten) in St. Paul, Minnesota, a Weber BBQ commercial in Kansas City, the Lexus commercial we filmed on an ice lake high in the mountains Colorado over the course of three long, freezing days, a Chevy spot shot at night down on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, a Miller Beer commercial in Lone Pine, California -- where my big mouth got me fired from my first real job as a gaffer -- and a Memorial Day weekend of extreme excess in New Orleans after we'd wrapped a feature in nearby Thibodaux -- where I saw a big, fat bearded man sing Cajun French in an impenetrably thick accent for the first time.
And of course, some of those matchbooks were from my days and nights chasing pretty young women all over LA...the stuff dreams -- and memories -- are made of.
That was a month ago, and I still haven't managed to empty all the boxes or distribute their contents in the house. There have been extenuating circumstances and unavoidable delays, of course, but still... I never thought it would take this long.
One of those delays was dealing with the paperwork that comes with retirement. I absolutely hate paperwork -- filling out forms of any kind makes me feel like I'm choking -- so I avoid and put it off as long as possible. Hell, if I could tolerate paperwork, I might never have quit being a Best Boy... but with a deadline looming, it was time to stop unpacking and sit down with all those forms -- and that was no fun. After a lot of sweating, more than a little cursing, and several long distance phone calls to LA and the MPPH to clear the clouds of confusion, I got it done and in the mail.*
So now I face the annual ordeal of taxes, which promises to be infinitely more hellish than those pension forms. It seems I can leave Hollywood behind, but there's no escaping the paperwork, and only when that's finally done can I can get back to the dispiriting task of unpacking.
Out of the frying pan, into the fryer -- retirement is a lot harder than I ever thought it could be.
But filling out all those forms (and paying the retiree dues) hammered home the fact that it really is all over -- I'm not a juicer anymore, and that jar of matchbooks is all I have left to show for so many years of hard work.** It's gone with the wind, memories blowing away with time like all that gold dust at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of Hollywood's all-time classics.
So what's next? I'll keep the fire in the wood stove burning -- hey, it's still damp and chilly up here -- and at some point in the not-too-distant-future will resume work on the blog-book, which was shoved to the back burner three years ago when it turned out I couldn't work for a living, maintain the blog, and put together a book at the same time. That shouldn't be an issue now, so I'll get to it once things settle down, and will continue to post here as inspiration strikes.
Like I said last time -- stay tuned...
* Motion Picture Pension and Health.
** Well, that and a bad back, of course -- the bane of juicers the world over...