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, December 1, 2019

Bon Voyage, Mr. Goodman





“Every time you think you’ve found your way, your life changes.”
Ursula LeGuin


As a longtime fan of Tim Goodman -- chief TV critic for my hometown San Francisco Chronicle for six or seven years before stepping up into a pair of much bigger shoes at The Hollywood Reporter for most of the past decade -- I've devoted a fair quantity of digital ink to his work in this space. With a savage wit and smart, take-no-prisoners prose, Goodman met the challenge of analyzing and deconstructing television in an era of rapid, unprecedented change. The "digital revolution" is just that -- a revolution -- and as such, grabbed television as we knew it by the ankles, turned it upside down, and shook hard. Very hard. Hollywood, and the industry as a whole, continue to reverberate from these tectonic changes.

I introduced Goodman to my then-miniscule audience here at BS&T in this post eleven short years ago, then reminded the slowly growing readership here a year later, and prodded them again in 2010.  A link to his THR reviews -- aptly named The Bastard Machine -- has lived over there on the right side of this page ever since. For those who'd rather cherry-pick from a distillation of Goodman's trenchant observations, there's this compendium of snarky quotes compiled by a crazy Irishman.

I love good movies and TV shows, but most of all I love good writing, which Tim Goodman delivered in spades. It was Goodman who gave me a shove to start this blog, first by commissioning my one and only paid writing gig* for the Chronicle, then encouraging me to write more about the underbelly of the film and television industry. All this came about after he'd fired a barrage of critical arrows into the soft white underbelly of Good Morning, Miamithe show I was then working on. Pissed at reading such a brutal review, I sent him a rather caustic e-mail response. Good Morning, Miami wasn't a great show, but it wasn't all that bad either -- it was just an average laugh-track sitcom. More to the point, it was my show, paying my rent, putting food on my table, so I took umbrage at a review that seemed hell-bent on getting it cancelled.  

Tim responded with good humor, which began a back and forth that continues, however sporadically, to this day. As time passed, he began a couple of blogs, started one of (if not the) first podcasts about television, and for the last few years has co-hosted a terrific podcast with Bay Area tech guru Jason Snell, discussing what's new on the Toob, and analyzing how the industry struggles to cope with the reality of internet streaming, the new (and soon to be dominant) mode of delivering/consuming television. The TV Talk Machine has been an  entertaining and informative listen for anyone curious about what's new in the industry. Among recent offerings,Tim detailed why he finally cut the cord in cancelling his cable service and going all-in on streaming, then explained exactly how to do it for those who remain dazed and confused by the rapidly evolving technology. 

Sadly, I must employ the past tense here. There's a reason I wrote the following line in the very first BS&T post back in 2007: "Nothing good seems to last very long on this thin strip of sun-baked earth trapped hard between the desert and the sea."  Alas, that still holds. Early in November, Tim announced the end of his storied career as a TV critic. Officially done with all that, he left the The Hollywood Reporter, and is now off on some mysterious new quest, the nature of which he has yet to reveal.  

Wow -- I sure as hell didn't see that coming. Granted, it's a show-biz axiom to "leave 'em wanting more," but how many actors, writers, directors -- or television critics -- ever manage to go out on top?  Most hang on until it's glaringly obvious that The Industry no longer requires or desires their services -- but not Mr. Goodman, who apparently heard the Song of the Sirens, then tore himself loose, jumped ship, and swam off into the mist to answer the call.  

You can tap into the TVTM archives -- there's a lot to choose from -- and as of three weeks ago, Tim promised Jason that he'd do a few more episodes to wrap things up... but after the New Year, it's anybody's guess what will become of it.  

Needless to say, this does not make me happy. Not only was I counting on Tim and Jason to keep me apprised of (and entertained by) the latest happenings in the world of television, I assumed he'd be writing -- and I'd be reading -- his THR reviews and columns on into the foreseeable future.  

Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

"The only constant is change," Heraclitus tells us, and as usual, the ancient Greeks nailed it. We don't have to like it to accept it, and although Tim's leap into the void is a rather bitter pill to swallow for those of us who enjoy his writing, such is life. I don't know how long -- or if -- THR will maintain his archive of reviews, so you might want to click on over to The Bastard Machine to read them while you can.

Meanwhile, all I can say is "So long, Tim -- it's been a blast."

That it has. 

Thanks for everything, and good luck on your new path.



* Which the Chron's editor butchered, BTW, cutting out a full third of the piece -- so don't hold the choppy nature of the result against me...


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 55

                                                       Intolerance, 1916

After a long absence, "D" put up a new post over at Dollygrippery a while back, discussing some of the problems created for first-unit filming crews by poor set design -- and if you haven't read it, you should.*  Although I know nothing about the intricacies of designing sets, I certainly share his frustration at the hurdles erected by too many set designers who go about their business never bothering to consider the needs of those who will eventually have to work on that set, whether it's a feature, episodic television show, or multi-camera sitcom.

To be clear, I'm talking about sets built on sound stages, not massive exterior sets like the one D.W. Griffith's crew built in the photo above.  Such outdoor sets are usually limited in size only by the  budget, while sets on a soundstage must be crammed into the confines of the four-foot fire lane around the circumference of that stage. In their efforts to cram twenty pounds of shit into a five pound bag, set designers often seem to forget that we actually have to light their set and the actors... or maybe they just don't care. I'd really rather not assume the latter, because it makes me want to pick up the nearest two-by-four and beat some sense into the next set designer I see.

Fortunately for them and me, those set designers are all four hundred miles away. Besides, I'm retired -- they can't hurt me anymore.

Designing a set that looks great and will allow a director to shoot everything he needs is no easy task, but that's the job of a set designer -- and why he/she gets the big bucks -- which means any set designer worth his/her salt (I was going to say "worth a shit," but I won't...) should understand and appreciate the issues a first unit crew comes up against when filming in that set.

I've often wished that each member of a film crew could spend a few days working in every other department, above and below the line, where they'd get a taste of what the rest of the crew has to deal with. Then, maybe a set designer wouldn't build his/her set right out to the four-foot line, where the grip/electric crew has to sweat bullets to put the lights in the proper place -- and dolly grips wouldn't have to contend a thick rug on a set... a rug that will never be seen by the camera.

Yeah, I know -- dreaming is free.  

Anybody interested in set design would do well to click on over to Artdepartmental (a truly great name for a blog, BTW) and take a good look. There's a lot to see there, and it's well worth your time.

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I started out as a PA, albeit for a blessedly short span of time. After two low-budget movies, I bumped up to grip, then juicer, and never looked back. Still, I had first-hand experience in  the indignities of PA work, and read about many more over at The Anonymous Production Assistant's blog over the years... then I stumbled across this horror story from John August's blog, and my jaw dropped. Read it and weep if you're planning to start your career as a PA. If you've already moved past PA-dom, just be glad this wasn't you.

Who knew writers could be such assholes?

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Here's a rather bizarre tale that emerged during the making of James Cameron's Titanic. Working for Cameron is tough enough under normal circumstances, but doing so on PCP?  No thanks. 

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Next up, veteran writer/producer Rob Long explains why science fiction movies about aliens will never be the same again.  Apparently real-life UFOs aren't what they used to be... but then, what is?


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If you're looking for a long, loose, anything-goes podcast from the lower depths of the film industry food chain, check out Failing Hollywood.  They post very lively interviews, discussions, round-robins -- you name it -- with all kinds of industry pros, and if you've got the time, it can be very entertaining.  

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The legendary producer Robert Evans died this week. Here's his obit from the Hollywood Reporter, and a thirteen minute interview he did with Terry Gross that was re-broadcast on NPR, in which he tells some great stories. If you've never seen the documentary based on his book, The Kid Stays in the Picture, you really should -- it's terrific, and a real slice of Hollywood history.  I never met the man, never saw him, and never worked on any of his projects... but I did enjoy this post-wrap embrace with one of his many future ex-girlfriends, Melissa Prophet, the night we finished shooting "Van Nuys Boulevard," a low-budget feature in which she co-starred.



People who know say that Evans saved Paramount back when it really needed saving, and as the producer of The Godfather and Chinatown -- two of the late 20th century's true cinematic epics -- Robert Evans deserves a big gold plaque in the Hollywood Hall of Fame... if there was one. Hollywood owes him that much. I suppose I owe him something too, given that seeing Chinatown had a lot to do with me riding south to tilt at the windmills of Hollywood way back in 1977.

So thanks, Bob.  They really don't make 'em like you anymore.  Rest in Peace.


* "D" works mostly in the world of big features, with occasional sojourns into episodic television, both of which are all-consuming, and leave little time or energy for writing blog posts.  The sole reason I managed to publish so many posts here over the last ten years of my career is because I was working almost exclusively on multi-camera sitcoms by then -- and multi-cam shows don't abuse their crews like the Death March of single-camera shows.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Rule Number One



                                             The hard way IS the easy way...

During my forty years working first as a grip, then juicer, best boy, gaffer -- then juicer, again -- my daily motto was: "Make the boss look good." Once I strapped on my tool belt, everything I did on set until wrap was finally called flowed from that one central idea, because if I made my boss look good, he/she was a lot more likely to hire me on the next job.

In that sense, it was pure self-interest.

This didn't mean endlessly backslapping and flattering those above me on the crew food chain, or telling everybody else how great my immediate boss was -- hey, I worked for Best Boys, Gaffers, and Directors of Photography, not Donald Fucking Trump -- but it did mean doing every aspect of my job in a thorough, professional manner to make sure nothing could come back to bite me or my department on the ass. When I started out as a grip, sandbags were liberally and properly employed, as a juicer, loose connections were tightened, excess cable was tied up and out of the way, lamps that didn't work quite right were repaired or sent back and replaced with good ones. As a Best Boy, I kept a constant eye on the genny, diligently checking the frequency (there were no "flicker free" HMIs back then) and the amp load on each leg of the cable run. As a Gaffer, I took copious notes during location scouts, and more than once went back to a potentially tricky location on my own time just to make sure I understood exactly what we'd need for the job -- then I triple-checked my equipment orders before sending them in. All this was aimed at making sure nothing under my control would go wrong at a bad time -- and although there's no good time for something to go wrong when dealing with electricity, there certainly are worse times. You really don't want a lamp to fail or a loose connection to start smoldering, melt down, and catch fire when a big, expensive star is on set working in front of the cameras... or during a show being filmed in front of a live audience.*

Absolute perfection is unattainable, of course -- film and television being a human endeavor, things will go wrong from time to time -- but the idea is to minimize the chances of that happening. Although other departments might never notice when things go smoothly on your crew (they're busy dealing with their own challenges), a good, experienced director, producer, UPM, or AD certainly will, because they've all been on shows where that wasn't the case, and they understand how much care, effort, and professionalism is required to keep everything on a set running smoothly.

Shit will occasionally happen no matter how careful you are, though, and usually when you least expect it. So long as it's a rare occurrence, this shouldn't be a big deal, but if lamps failing and connections melting down becomes a regular thing, that will be noted -- and even though the direct fault may lie elsewhere, the Best Boy will come under scrutiny from the gaffer for hiring such a sloppy  crew, while the gaffer receives a raised eyebrow from the DP, and the DP suffers a skeptical glance from the Director, UPM, and Producer for the same reason.  Recurrent problems in any one department casts a negative light on everyone involved, and if not rectified quickly, heads will roll. A Gaffer or Best Boy who hires a lousy crew is putting his/her own job and career at risk.

That's why it's important to do things right, which means avoiding the quick-and-dirty easy way. Your reputation is built on doing a consistently good job, not simply getting it done as fast as possible, and having to backtrack to fix a screw-up means doing it twice -- once the wrong way, then again the right way. Not only does this double your work, but it leaves you feeling like an idiot. Most veterans of the industry have been there, including me, which is how I came to understand that very often, the hard way is the easy way.

This doesn't mean being stupid, of course. The idea is to work smart, not unnecessarily hard, and working smart means doing the job right the first time.

This being a time = money industry, we don't always have the luxury of doing everything by the book, which is where experience makes all the difference. When the DP needs it done ASAP, we sometimes have to resort to a fast bubble-gum-and-baling-wire rig -- and we've all dealt with that situation -- but this should be the exception rather than the rule. The key is knowing how to do a quick rig in a way that minimizes the chances of anything going sideways. Still, sometimes you'll just have to say "No. We need a few minutes to do this safely," and again, experience will be your best guide to making this decision. When that happens, be sure to emphasize the word "safety," which will usually silence a director, DP, or AD who's trying to rush things along. Big trouble awaits anyone in a position of authority on set who ignores a safety warning before something goes wrong.

Given the long hours we work, it can be easy to fall into bad habits, which is another reason to make doing it the right way your default setting. I've run across a few grips and juicers over the years who were lazy slugs, always looking for the easiest, quickest way to accomplish every task. You might get away with that approach for a while, but sooner or later it'll catch up to you -- and that will make your boss look bad. Keep it up and your phone will stop ringing. The Freelance Jungle is a Darwinian world in which only the reliably competent can survive and prosper.

Remember this once you rise to a position of hiring a crew: they can make or break you. A Best Boy or Gaffer is only as good as his/her crew, and hiring a sloppy crew is a good way to curtail your own future job prospects. When I first started gaffing, a veteran gaffer I'd BB'd for gave me a very good piece of advice: "Hire guys who are better than you."  At first -- being justifiably insecure in my new role as a Gaffer -- I wasn't quite sure what to make of this, but in time I understood. When I landed my one and only gig as a Lighting Director on a commercial (it was a total fluke that I got the job, but the rate was $200/day more than I'd been getting as a gaffer), I hired that same gaffer to run the crew. It was a sizable rig that had to be done right, with forty chicken coops hung above a huge silk, and a row of cyc-lights arrayed all around to illuminate a big white three-corner cyclorama. There were no sets, but the commercial featured three elephants, two adults and a baby, and the lighting had to be smooth and bright... which it was. With the crew's hard work (and a few key suggestions he quietly whispered in my ear), that Gaffer made me look good.

Hey, sometimes you really do have to fake it 'til you make it -- and that's when a really good crew can save your ass.

So do it once, do it right, and remember: always make your boss look good...


* Or rig these lamps that fell and nearly clobbered a future President and First Lady on national TV...



Sunday, September 1, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 54

                            "Bruce," the mechanical shark from Jaws, 1975


Even in those primitive days before the digital magic of CGI changed Hollywood forever, enough money -- and the right people -- could create almost anything a director wanted. When Steven Spielberg needed a mechanical Great White shark for Jaws, his FX crew built three, each named "Bruce." Forty-plus years later, it's easy to look back and sneer at how crude those mechanical sharks were, but they worked well enough to scare the crap out of me and several million other movie goers that summer. I don't know about you, but every time I dive into the ocean (or as Jacques Cousteau put it, "enter the food chain"), that film's ominous sound track is always running through my head.

Nowadays, computer-aided artistry really can create anything: dinosaurs, aliens, superheros able to perform impossible feats of strength and skill.  All it takes is time and money.

Student films are typically short on both, and are thus forced to improvise from start to finish. Back in school during the early 70's, I helped a classmate shoot a twenty minute dramatic short film on 16mm color film, which was an expensive undertaking in those days. We both learned a lot on that project (mostly how not to do things), but received at least one useful lesson on the value in -- when necessary -- ignoring the rules of playing nice and doing things by the book. Sometimes it's simply neither feasible nor affordable to obtain official permission and pay for permits, and when that happens, either you change your plans and shoot something else, or just go for it, fingers crossed, hoping for the best.

After a week of day/night filming in houses, around neighborhoods, and one long miserable day out on a cold, windy breakwater in Santa Cruz, we still needed a shot of the female lead on a train as it emerged from the darkness into the light. As it happened, San Francisco had its brand new Bay Area Rapid Transit system just 90 miles away, with a train that ran through a dark tunnel under the bay before rising up into the sunlight on dry land.

My friend approached the BART bureaucracy about doing this shot, but they were less than helpful. Sure, we could film on one of their trains, but only if we first purchased an insurance policy worth two million dollars.

Fat chance of that happening.

We made a couple of test runs to get the timing down and take light readings, then a few days later gathered at the BART station on Market Street in San Francisco with our actress, a sound man, and a camera tucked inside a canvas bag. We bought tickets, took our seats, and the train began to move, finally leaving the last station and descending under the bay.  At that point we unpacked the camera, convinced a few passengers to move so we could put our actress in the proper seat, then waited until the train began to head back up.  I framed the shot and turned the camera on, then a few seconds later we rose into the light as the director did a nice F-stop pull.

Either we had it or we didn't -- in those days, there was no way to know until the film was developed and printed -- so we packed up the camera and caught the next train back to San Francisco. A few days later we screened the dailies, and the shot was perfect: exactly what our intrepid director wanted. It looked great, and truth be told, might have been the best thing in an otherwise forgettable short film.

I was reminded of all this while listening to an interview on NPR with three young musicians who call themselves "Bandits on the Run," as they told how they'd shot their first (and thus far only) music video of song called Love in the Underground in a New York subway station. They went in late at night, guerrilla-style, and set up to shoot. An MTA official began flapping his elbows and squawking that they needed a permit, but when he left to call the cops, they went ahead and shot fast.  By the time the police arrived, they had the video in the can.

Nicely done.   

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Sometime back in 1968, I happened to be slumped in front of my family's ancient Cathode Ray Gun when the local PBS station ran a program of short student films. First up was a crude sort of music video filmed to Day in the Life, by The Beatles, shot in a cheeky, breezy style reminiscent of Richard Lester's A Hard Days Night. Really, it was just a few kids having fun with a camera, but it was clear they were having a blast -- and although I'd shot plenty of 8mm film of home-built rockets (as discussed in last month's post), it had never occurred to me that making a film might be fun.

Before I could ponder the import of this revelation, the next film rolled, a grimly futuristic science fiction drama made the year before by a student at USC. There was no dialog, just a stream of electronically altered voice-overs providing a disjointed but coherent narrative context to the images on screen, picture and sound conveying a simple but moving story. I'd never seen anything quite like it - it's safe to say that short film blew my mind - but I had no clue at the time that it marked the launch of a Hollywood legend, along with a multi-platform cinematic juggernaut that's still going strong fifty years later, having grossed somewhere in excess of sixty-five billion dollars. 

Although I didn't realize it then, those fifteen minutes altered the course of my life. It would be seven years before I actually headed to Hollywood, but the hook had been set by the young George Lucas with his terrific student film THX 1138 4EB

Four years later, Lucas expanded the story into his first feature, which doubtless seemed like a great (read: bankable) idea at the time - and to be fair, it managed to gross three times the budget, which means it probably broke even. That's light years from tentpole territory, but not bad for a director's very first feature film. Trouble is, a story he'd already told in fifteen lean minutes felt awfully thin when inflated to feature length. The end result was a tedious, bloated, lugubrious eighty-one minutes of my life that I'll never get back... but hey, everybody gets a mulligan, and Lucas scored a huge hit with his next feature, American Graffiti, then went on to secure a place among cinematic/marketing royalty with the first three Star Wars movies.  

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.  

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Now for some good listening.  First up, a New York Radio Hour interview with Emily Nussbaum -- TV critic for The New Yorker magazine -- followed by... another interview with her on Fresh Air.  She's a smart, articulate critic, and such people are always worth hearing. 

Another gem from Fresh Air is this interview with Bill Hader, co-creater, co-writer, and director of HBO's Barry. I recently plowed through Season One of Barry, and it's great -- funny in ways that made me squirm, with a surprisingly heavy emotional punch. The last episode of that season hit me hard, in every way. Hader began as a production assistant, worked his way up to being on Saturday Night Live, where he suffered on-air panic attacks, and finally got a deal with HBO... but had no idea what kind of show to make.

Needless to say, he figured it out.  Listen to that interview -- it's really good.

If you don't have time for any of that right now, click on over to the following short (three and four minutes, respectively) commentaries from veteran TV writer/producer Rob Long: Face-App, and Flywheel.  The former muses on how streaming is altering the long-established business model of television, and bringing older viewers back into focus, while the latter analyzes why success simply cannot be predicted in Hollywood. As usual, Long informs and entertains in equal measure.  

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Finally, some eye-candy.  A post a couple of months back profiled Louie Escobar, a grip who -- when not working on set -- is a terrific photographer. Today the BS&T spotlight turns to a DP I used to work for back in the day, first as a Best Boy, then as a Gaffer, a guy named Michael Duff.  As related here a while back, Mike had the good sense to fire me after I'd proven rather conclusively that I wasn't yet up to the task of being a gaffer. I won't deny that it hurt at the time, but that's how we learn here in the Joe Frazier School of Higher Education, where the bitch-slap of failure can help spur a drive to succeed. It did for me, anyway, and our friendship survived. Years later -- after I'd put in the effort to become a halfway decent gaffer -- we worked together again on several commercials, and it was great.

Mike has long since retired from the biz, and now devotes his creative energy to photography. He was always a gifted DP, and as you can see here, is just as good with a still camera.  

See -- there really is life after Hollywood...

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Apollo


                                       "Fickt nicht mit dem Raketemensch"                
                                      From Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Anyone not holed up in a dark, remote cave for the past few weeks has been reminded -- repeatedly -- of the first manned moon landing that took place fifty years ago. Some great documentaries were broadcast in the week leading up to this anniversary, most notably Chasing the Moon, a riveting six hour film produced by the team at American Experience for PBS.

This was a mesmerizing walk down memory lane for me, but I can understand how those who weren't around in the 60's might have a hard time understanding just how momentous the events of the late 60's really were. They've grown up with those grainy images of astronauts walking on the moon as part of the cultural background noise -- in essence, wallpaper -- along with the assassinations of JKF, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, the four students killed by National Guard troops at Kent State, race riots that torched large sections of many American cities, and of course, Woodstock.* Those were all major events in my world at the time, but I don't suppose any generation can fully grasp the tectonic impact of history that unfolded before they were born.**

The mid-to late 60's sure as hell weren't "a more innocent time," not with four hundred young Americans coming home in body bags every week from Vietnam. There was a very real sense of tumult in the air, of the old order being challenged by the new. In many ways it was a dark, chaotic, bloody era of societal, cultural, and political upheaval, but there was some good as well. Although the lows were gut-wrenching, the highs were spectacular, as best exemplified by the music and the space race.

Having come of age back then, I've always felt bad that the kids who followed didn't get to experience those moon landings first-hand. Sure, they had the space shuttle, a wonderful versatile  craft designed to help construct and support the International Space Station, but traveling to, landing on, and returning from the moon was something very different, especially with the relatively crude technology of the 60's. It was an astonishing, thrilling era to live through. Although it's become something of a cliché, the world really did feel different for a few days, with millions of people around the globe united by watching (on live television) the jaw-dropping spectacle of a human being -- one of us -- walking on the moon.

At the time, I had no inkling I was destined for Hollywood.  Inspired by the early days of the space race, I was fascinated by rockets, and soon began building my own -- not the safe-and-sane prefab model rockets that would later become available at hobby stores, but rockets made down in the basement from steel and aluminum tubes, powered by a variety of fuels.  Ever-hopeful that I might be on the road to becoming a scientist, my dad supported these projects, buying the chemicals I needed: powdered zinc, sulfur, and potassium nitrate, among others.  Some of those rockets were duds, while others blew up, but a glorious few flew straight and high into the sky, which was satisfying beyond words.  For several years I corresponded with rocket clubs all over the country via snail mail, exchanging photos and stories of our successes and failures. In some ways, that might have been the most exciting and creative period of my life.

So... you're probably wondering what the hell does any of this have to do with life in Hollywood or working on movies and television?  There's a connection, however oblique. While pouring over the few books on rocketry in my elementary school library, I came across accounts describing how UFA (one of the German production companies) hired rocket expert Hermann Oberth to help design of the moon rocket for Fritz Lang's film Frau im Mond (Woman on the Moon).


There's a history of rockets and space travel in the silent film era, offering futuristic (albeit highly fantastical) visions of how space flight might work. Later films would portray more sophisticated versions of space flight, and by the time 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in 1968 -- just one year before the first moon landing -- the space race had infused us with a sense of what was possible. The notion that humans might someday travel to other planets no longer felt like a Buck Rogers fantasy.

I followed all the moon missions: the second lunar landing with Apollo 12, the harrowing near-catastrophe of Apollo 13,  then Apollo 14, 15, and 16, during which NASA sent cars to the moon with the astronauts -- essentially, high tech dune buggies that vastly extended the range of their lunar explorations. Although imminently practical, this was also as purely American as you can get: flying a quarter million miles through space to land on another world, then hop out and drive around in a car.  Amidst all that, along came Alan Shepard and his infamous lunar golf shot.

With the Apollo program ending in 1975, and the first space shuttle launch not due until 1981, there were no more televised launches for a long while. Although two Viking spacecraft would successfully land on Mars in 1976 (I still recall seeing that newspaper headline), public attention moved on. I was busy too, finishing up my thesis film, chasing pretty girls around the sleepy little college town of Santa Cruz, and preparing to embark on a journey of my own -- one that would land me on the decidedly alien world of Hollywood.

You know the rest -- and if you don't, it'll all be in the book.

The Apollo 11 lunar landing was the most astonishing thing I ever witnessed. Maybe I'll live long enough to see people walk on Mars, and maybe not, but it will probably happen anyway, generating an unforgettable moment for the young generation of the day. Still, there's only one first time -- you can't catch the same magic twice. Landing on Mars will be something very special, but I doubt it will equal the global moment humanity shared when the first man set foot on the moon.


* Well, not so much Woodstock. We heard about it out here on the Left Coast, of course, but with no internet or instantaneous social media reporting at the time, none of us could fully appreciate that legendary happening until the documentary finally hit theaters. Instead, I went to Altamont, which was supposed to be a West Coast bookend to Woodstock, but ended up a very different experience...

** I touched on some of this in another post a few years ago, after the death of Neil Armstrong.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Hidden Talent: Part 2


                                             Downtown LA at dusk
                                                  Louie Escobar

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's a wealth of talent working below-the-line in Hollywood.  This is not to say there aren't creative people toiling in cube farms, big box stores, fast food franchises, and driving garbage trucks, but all I really know is the film and television industry, where the itinerant nature of free-lance life attracts many who pursue some aspect of the arts in their off time. Over my forty years in Hollywood, I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with more musicians, singers, writers, artists, and photographers than I can count.

Now that I no longer live and work in LA, I don't get to meet these talented people face to face, but social media helps fill the gap. It works even better in some ways, since they can share their work with the world -- like the photo above, by Louie Escobar, a hard-working Local 80 grip with a great eye for color, composition, and mood. Louie has managed to land several DP gigs over the years, shooting commercials, music videos and short films, and long ago put together a sizzle reel shot with then-current, now obsolete video technology. The image resolution doesn't compare to modern cameras, but it's abundantly clear that Louie knows what he's doing behind the eyepiece of a motion picture camera.

Getting your first paid DP gig is no easy task, thanks to the conundrum of Catch 22: you won't get hired without professional experience, but can't get professional experience until somebody hires you.  Saying "no" comes easy for those who do the hiring, because saying "yes" demands the balls to roll the dice on somebody new -- and most producers are loathe to take a chance. Even when you do manage to land that first DP gig, there's no guarantee you'll keep working enough to make a living.

An old saying from the world of baseball applies here: "Getting to the major leagues is one thing -- staying there is another." Every DP needs a web of contacts to keep working, and such a network doesn't materialize overnight... but while you're waiting for the next DP gig, the phone will keep ringing with offers to work at your old job -- gaffer, grip, whatever -- and the temptation to take those jobs can be overwhelming.  It's never easy to make a living in the freelance jungle below-the-line, where the Gods of Hollywood demand periodic sacrifices from us all, but none so much as those with ambitions to move up.  So long as you hedge your bets by taking gigs in your old, comfortable job, those Gods will not smile upon you.

It was easy enough for Alexander Bell to say "When one door closes, another opens," but it's a very different matter when you must consciously decide to close a door on a solid career path in the hopes that a more satisfying and lucrative door will open. Unless you're independently wealthy, the rent must still be paid and food put on the table, which is one more reason moving up is hard.

Still, people do it. During my last good run on a sitcom, our first AD had begun to do some directing on other shows. He wanted to direct full time, of course, but with a mortgage to pay and kids to put through college, he couldn't justify leaving a relatively steady job to test the uncertain waters of a new career. He straddled the line for a few years, until one day his agent sat him down to deliver this message: "If you want to be taken seriously as a director, you'll have to quit working as an AD."  So he did, leaving our show before the final season, and it worked out. He made the leap of faith, stuck the landing, and has enjoyed a very successful career as a director ever since.

Every career unfolds at its own pace, and success doesn't always come early.  When not gripping on features, episodics, and commercials, Louie Escobar has been doing volunteer work teaching art, photography, and still photography to young people at Inner City Arts in downtown LA. He's still pushing to become a full time DP, and if there's any justice in this world, will make that jump sooner rather than later. Some of the best DPs I worked with over the years began as grips or juicers, where they received an education that allows them to know exactly what's needed to get a job done without flogging the crew, working excessively long hours, or running the budget into the red. When Louie makes it -- and I think he will -- he'll be a very good DP.

Meanwhile, check out his website, where he's compiled a remarkable portfolio of terrific photographs. Unlike so many who toil below the line, this man's talent is anything but hidden.


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Getting Started Redux: Thoughts from a Long Time Reader


                               Bebee Nightlight working in San Francisco

Back when I was still working in Hollywood, an occasional post would strike a resonant chord and generate comments from readers. Nowadays, not so much, which is no surprise given that the readership here plummeted after I retired and went to posting once a month. Before that, a good post might attract a couple of thousand hits over the course of a few weeks, along with several comments -- a mere hiccup on the internet, but this has always been a niche blog aimed at a relatively small audience.  Nowadays a post might collect  a hundred hits, and what few comments arrive usually come from spam-bots hawking one website or another.

Those, I delete ASAP.

So you can imagine my surprise at finding a series of five long, detailed comments on Getting Started, all from a long-time reader who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Austin first started reading this blog while still in high school, and has since made the bruising journey from young wannabe to industry pro carrying an IA card.  Having learned a lot over the last seven years, he wanted to pass on some of that hard-earned knowledge, and put some real thought into his comments. Given the reduced readership around here nowadays, it seems likely that most people have already read that post, and thus won't see those comments.  Since I agree with most of what he said, I'm publishing what he had to say as a guest post.

I did a bit of editing, of course -- at this point, I can't help myself -- but tried to keep a light hand, aiming only to smooth out the narrative flow without diminishing Austin's distinctive voice in the following paragraphs.


Almost 7 years ago (yikes) I was the "anonymous" commenter that inspired this post

I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write that post way back then, and I thank your blog for preparing me for the realities of life while working below the line in the film industry. Heck, you could even call me stupid for going through with it! It hasn’t been easy and there have been many unexpected challenges. I can’t say that I’ve ended up where I thought I would (new member of IATSE Local 695) and I don’t know what will happen next.  Still, while there certainly are easier and more stable ways to make a living, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else, and in the meantime I’ll keep trying my best.

I won’t go into my own long-winded story, but want to share some of what I’ve learned since I began taking permit grip and electric calls in the San Francisco Bay Area a few summers ago, in the hope that other young grips/electricians may find it useful.

First off, work very hard, even when you think nobody is watching. 

Have a good attitude, and don’t complain. Don’t get discouraged even if you’re working harder than you every imagined.

Be respectful and nice to everybody —  above the liners/cast (if and when you interact with them), department heads, fellow crew, PA’s, drivers, the caterers & crafty, extras, the public, etc. Just because you work on a Big Show doesn’t mean you should have an inflated ego. Nobody is below you. As they say, the PA you were a total dick to yesterday might well be a producer tomorrow, and will never forget what you said.

Pay attention, always. I can’t stand it when people say film sets are boring. There is always something to learn. By keeping an eye on the gaffer (when you can), you not only learn how to light a set, but you also learn to anticipate what they need when and why, which can be very gratifying.

Put your damn phone away: I made a point of leaving my phone in my pocket at all times when I started getting the opportunity to work on big sets - and the Best Boy noticed, as other folks sat at the carts glued to their screens.  In time, I learned when it was appropriate to take a peek to see if anyone was offering me more work or if a loved one was in distress.

There’s always work to be done. Sweep the truck. Organize carts. Cut and label gels. Small repairs. It’s work nobody wants to do, but if you show yourself as someone willing to do the dirty work, they will want to have you around. THERE’S NEVER AN EXCUSE TO SIT ON YOUR ASS AT THE CARTS, especially as the new guy/gal.

If you really don’t have anything to do, are on stage, and the set is lit for a 6 page dialogue scene, go over and start LEARNING as much as you can about those fancy LED lights — go through the menus, settings, etc.

When starting out as a day player, you’re there as an extra hand not to be one of the main grips or juicers on-set.  Know your place — don’t try to be the hero or step on one of the core crew’s toes. Once they get to know you, maybe you’ll get the chance to be the gaffer/key’s “pocket” on-set person for a bit. If it’s your first time working with that crew, take time to learn their workflow and how they work with each other when lighting the set.

Don’t act like you know everything already (even if you think you do). It’s an easy default to try to fit in and “act like you belong,” but by doing so, you shut yourself off from learning and accepting help from more experienced veteran electricians and grips who would probably be more than happy to teach you the technical skills and tricks of the trade. Even if they try to teach you basic stuff, smile and thank them - they’ll like you more and WON’T THINK YOU’RE A DICK! 

Watch other people’s backs and they’ll hopefully watch yours. Don’t be afraid to ask, or offer, help.

Have a sense of humor. I took a lot of shit from the other guys when I started out, and made sure to laugh my ass off and have a good attitude about it. As it turned out they were testing me.

Show up early (I try 45 mins before call) and don’t seem like you’re in such a rush to leave.

Thank the best boy at the end of the day for bring you out. If they like you they will call you again.

Get Condor/Aerial Work Platform certified! When a Best Boy calls the hall for 3 additional condor certified electricians for that big Friday night exterior, this will increase your chances!

Don’t be afraid to ask for people’s contact info!  Although I’ve never been a fan of social networks, and am not on them, there’s no denying how much easier it is to network and stay in contact with various people you meet on shoots if you follow them on facebook or instagram afterwards. 

Another key piece of advice, perhaps the most serious: below the line work, especially grip and electric, is very physical work.One thing I loved about being a Set Electrician was that it offered the perfect combination of excitement in working on a big set, understanding the artistic side of cinematography, technical skill, working as a team, and working with my hands -- well, mostly with my back.4/0, Bates cable, 5 wire banded, 18Ks and camera dollies are all seriously heavy. Your most important tool for a long fruitful career doing this work is your body, so take it seriously. If you have time/money, go to a gym, get a personal trainer and get strong. Learn how to take care of your back, knees, and shoulders, and how to lift things properly: back straight, knees bent, lifting with your legs.  Have good posture.  Use wheels whenever possible when moving gear and heavy loads over long distances or across the stage.  Ask for help when you need it, don't try to be a hero.  If extra hands are available, use five people instead of three to head up that 18K. Also, watch the older workers on set to learn to work smarter, not harder -- rig to wrap, avoid handling the same gear twice.  Work in a way that will enable you to last. If you have time/money, go to a gym, hire a personal trainer, and get strong.  Learn how to take care of your back, knees, and shoulders and how to lift heavy objects properly: back straight, knees bent, lifting with your legs. Maintain good posture. Use wheels whenever possible when moving gear and heavy loads over long distances or across the stage.  Ask for help when you need it, and don't try to be a hero.  If extra hands are available, use five people instead of three to head up that 18K.  Watch the older workers on set to learn how they work smarter, not harder.  Rig to wrap, avoid handling the same gear twice when possible, and work in ways that will enable you to last.

Don't give up. Seriously.  Even if you think you're down and out, if you really want it, stick to your guns and take advantage of any opportunity you can. If there's a local rental house in your area that offers gear demos, go and learn.  If you keep trying, good things will happen for you! There's probably other stuff I'll think of later, but those are the things I'd tell any young person who's interested in joining the union and working on big shows, whether in LA, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, or New Mexico.  One more thing: learn and observe good walkie-etiquette so you can communicate clearly and succinctly. I blabbed like an idiot on the walkie my first night, and the gaffer was pretty annoyed.  Thankfully, I was given a second chance.*

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

There's much wisdom here for young people who hope to enter the industry. Getting started and making progress is difficult, but it certainly isn't rocket science -- there's no real mystery to the process anymore -- but it won't happen unless you're committed to making a serious, sustained effort.

As Austin said: "Work very hard, even when you think nobody is watching."

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

WTF?

                        


Any of you who long ago signed up to have new posts of this blog delivered into your e-mail box might have received a surprise earlier this week. Blogger (the host of this and many other blogs) offered the service as part of the package, which seemed like a good idea... and for a while, it worked.  I even signed up just to make sure those posts were delivered as promised every week, and they were -- until they weren't.  I don't recall exactly when that happened, but at some point three or so years ago, the posts stopped coming.  Oh, I kept writing and posting them, but Blogger no longer delivered.  By then I was too busy winding up the last few months of my career and making an exit from Hollywood, so I didn't inquire as to why this happened or how to fix it... and once I left LA, then went to once-a-month posting, it didn't seem to matter anymore.

So imagine my surprise when the latest post arrived in my e-mail on Monday morning, along with links to the last two years worth of posts, as if Rip Van Blogger had awakened from a years-long slumber, realized his mistake, and was trying to make up for lost time.

WTF, Blogger???

Anyway, I just want you to know that I had nothing to do with this surprise package.  Most of the blunders here at BS&T over the years have been my doing, but this one's on Blogger.

All right, then -- onward...

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Getting Started


Update: Since this post went up four days ago, Local 728 in LA announced a class that will run on July 7, designed to teach wannabe set lighting technicians how to join the union.  Information on that class is here.  Oh, how things have changed since I first tried to get into 728 back in the late 70's.  I walked in and found a fat slob wearing a wife-beater siting behind the desk - and when I told him I wanted to join, he proceeded to laugh me right out of the office. It's a different world now...

Whether you arrive in Hollywood with ambitions to jump-start a career above-the-line, or are more interested in doing the heavy lifting on set, getting started in the film and television industry will not be easy -- it wasn't when I first knocked on Hollywood's door forty-plus years ago, and isn't now.  Those with ambitions to be writers, directors, producers, or actors will have to look elsewhere for guidance, but down below decks in Grip and Electric, the basic equation hasn't changed that much. One way or another, you'll have find a way to get thirty days of IA work over the course of a year, at which point you'll be eligible to join the union. Once you've passed muster with Contract Services and paid a stiff initiation fee (plus your first quarter dues) to get your card, the rest is simple: work hard, pay attention, maintain a good attitude, and don't be a dick.

Do that, and you'll be fine.

I could bore you with a long-winded account of how I finally got my Local 728 card... but I won't. There's no point, because that's all ancient history now, pretty much irrelevant to what newbies need to know today.* Although you still have to get your thirty days -- some things are eternal -- the quantum leap in digital communications technology over the past twenty years has permanently altered the way wannabe grips and juicers get work in Hollywood.

Example: when I was working as a young non-union griptrician, the standard ritual on every job was to hand out business cards with two phone numbers: my home phone and an answering service. There were no phone machines back then, so I paid a monthly fee for a service to handle incoming calls when I was out of the apartment.  I'd check in with the service from a pay phone (which were everywhere back in the day), then respond to any work calls. The world spun a lot slower in those days, so even if I didn't call back for several hours, I still had a decent shot at the job.  The advent of cheap phone machines put the answering services out of business, then pagers came along to kill off phone machines, then cell phones arrived to make pagers redundant, and then smart phones and texting came into being, which pretty much rendered talking on the phone obsolete. Nowadays, a Best Boy who needs manpower typically sends out a mass text to everyone on his work contact list, and the first to respond gets the job.

It's a different world now -- remaining glued to your smart phone and having a quick pair of thumbs is crucial these days -- which is why I turned to a couple of young below-the-liners to share their respective journeys from non-union newbies to union members. Their experiences will be a lot more relevant to newbies than the dusty ruminations of a burned-out ex-juicer like me.

First we hear from "Mike," who not so long ago was struggling to find film work in Hollywood, but is now a card-holding member of IATSE Local 80.

"I did a brief stint working in the industry when I was 24, than had to go back home for personal reasons, but constantly thought about making my way to Hollywood.  A year and a half later I booked a one-way ticket for LA with no real plan on how to fulfill the dream.  I had no contacts and nowhere to live, but all that could be figured out when I got there." 

"After a few days scrolling through Craigslist, sending resumes to anyone and everyone looking for grips or electricians, a director of photography emailed me back. She needed a crew for her thesis film at AFI.  I signed on as an electrician, but later she asked if I'd be willing to work as the key grip on another thesis film she'd be gaffing for a friend.  One thing led to another, and I met a lot of people who became close friends during my year of working freebies, and all whom have since managed to join Local 80, 728, or 600." **


"The downside of volunteering on every thesis film is that neither I nor my growing list of contacts were getting paid, so I had to find a flexible part-time job to pay the rent. I wound up at a Shake Shack, where I'd out in my 12 hours on set before going to work as a line cook for up to 8 hours, then do another 12 on set. I got my first paid job thanks to a recommendation from a DP I'd met at AFI.  Production was looking for someone from the school willing to work for $100/day for a three day job, and I got the call.  I was able to bring along a friend to help out at the same rate, and we both thought we were rich when we got our $300 checks at the end of the shoot." 

The gaffer from that short film turned out to be a well-known gaffer in Local 728, and he hired the two of us to work on a few non-union music videos.  I was still checking Craigslist and working at the burger shop a couple of days a week, but then I discovered Facebook groups for job postings and grip/electric discussions.  I was itching to quit that part time job and start working my way up, but first had to meet the right people."


"One of those first jobs I got from Facebook landed me a spot working with a grip crew that helped start a chain reaction leading to where I am now.  The first was a four day short that paid more than I'd make in a month at the Shake Shack, then the key asked me to cover him on a different short film the next week that paid even more.  I knew this was the moment I'd been waiting for, so I quit flipping burgers and dove straight in. The key from that second short film would later offer me my first three days of work on a union set a few months later."


"I set up my phone to get every notification from one of those Facebook pages, so when someone posted anything at all, I knew about it.  A union best boy grip put up a post looking for a rigging grip, and permits were okay.  I sent him a message within 20 seconds of that post going up, and two minutes later was hired. Thanks to that Facebook page, I was then able to get the additional twenty seven days I needed to join the union." 


"Right now I'm finishing wrapping up a TV show with the same grips. Since I started working with these guys, we've done three TV shows, one feature film, promo spots, music videos and commercials.  My buddy that helped me on the initial $100-for-12 hours short was the first one in our group of friends to make it into the union. He landed a full-time spot on a network show and was able to get me on as a regular dayplayer.  The key grip that gave me the two short films that enabled me to quit the Shake Shack job has come out to push dolly for me on a movie, but he's also traveled the world pushing dolly since making it out of the freebie days -- and he got his 30 days on a Facebook movie (for their streaming service) that flipped." ***


Now we hear the story of "Sam," who was trying hard to get his thirty days a year ago, but hadn't had much luck -- then the tide turned, and he's now a member of 728.


"I started my crazy Hollywood journey in January, 2016, fresh out of film school and eager to get on set. During my last semester, I had an internship where I met a couple of Production Coordinators, and after graduation, they hired/recommended me for jobs as a PA.  On set, I  kept an eye on the the grips and electrics, watching what they did and how they did it.  When they weren't busy, I'd ask them how they got into the industry, and if they had any advice for someone just starting out. Occasionally I'd get a call to work as a grip or juicer on a non-union shoot with some of my ex- classmates who'd made it to LA a year or two before me.  I also tried Craigslist and Mandy.com, but didn't have much success, as most of the sites wanted me to pay just to reply to job offers."

"A year and a half of working as a PA/Grip/Electric taught me a lot, and along the way I'd met quite a few grips and juicers.  I kept in touch with many of them, as well maintaining contact with my ex-classmates as they moved up the ranks on set.  I'd also begun to take full advantage of some useful set-related Facebook groups that were always looking for G&E help.  After a while I decided to shed the label of being a PA, and from then on took only G&E jobs, even if that meant gigs as a swing man on crappy music videos that paid only $150/12.  As time went by, I honed my skills as an electric and focused on making a career as a juicer.  I kept meeting more and more people, and before I knew it, was working consistently on music videos and non-union commercials." 


"Fast-forward to the summer of 2018, when it was so busy that both local 728 and 80 were into permits. A close friend of mine (who I'd met when I was a PA) was working as an office PA on a union commercial, so when the Best Boy Electric couldn't find an available 728 member, she gave him my name (via the Production Manager), and I got hired for two days as a permit juicer.  I busted my ass on that job, trying to impress him with what I'd learned over my years of non-union work.  After that job, he passed my name along to other 728 members, and a month later I got a call from a Best Boy working on a Tier 1 feature, where I got twenty-five permit days of union work.  I was still three days short of my thirty, and didn't get those until the end of March in 2019 on another job, thanks to someone I'd met years before." 


"I'd say it was 60% luck and 40% hard work that got me where I am today: a dues-paying member of Local 728.  Although I hustled hard to make it, I might never have gotten my union card without some luck and the help of other people when I really needed it." 


Sam then added these words of advice:


"Don't get discouraged if you don't join the union with X amount of years -- sometimes it takes people ten years to get those thirty days.  Just keep grinding and good things will happen.  Save your money whenever you can, because you'll need it, and try not to burn bridges.  The business may seem big, but it's much smaller than you think, and word travels fast.  And to all wannabe 728 members: learn DMX/wireless technology. It's the future."


Mike and Sam took different routes to their union cards, and so will you -- everybody has to blaze their own path through the Hollywood jungle -- but there are distinct parallels in their respective stories. Both had the drive to do whatever was necessary to survive the most challenging phase of every Hollywood journey: getting started. Mike flipped burgers to pay the rent and worked a year of freebies for the AFI, while Sam toiled as a PA to scratch out a minimal living and gain experience on set. They asked questions, learned from the on-set pros, reached out to make contacts and keep in touch with those people, and made the most of whatever opportunities arose, working hard to gain acceptance and credibility.


That's how you do it.

Both also received a little help from other people at crucial moments, just as I did four decades ago -- and that might be the most important thing to take from this post: nobody makes it on their own. Working your ass off is a given, but you'll also have to be the kind of person other people are willing to help.  Although I've never met Mike or Sam, it's evident from our e-mail communications that they're good guys, not me-first assholes. If they weren't good, hard-working people, others would not have dropped their names in the right ears when it really counted.  

The lesson here is at the end of the first paragraph of this post: Don't be a dick.

Although the modes they employed to find work were different from mine more than four decades ago -- there was no Facebook, Craigslist, or internet back then, and the AFI was a shadow of what it would become -- the rest is very similar to how I got started. 

There's a reason I'm publishing this post in mid-June rather than waiting for July.  The broadcast network sitcoms and episodics will soon begin gearing up for the new Fall season, and with the streaming networks in full swing, a movie or two shooting in town, and commercials going strong, Hollywood should be very busy in the latter half of July. There's a good chance the unions will run out of available grips and juicers, at which point permits can be hired -- and that will be the opportunity for any newbie grips or juicers to get some union days, meet pros on set, and make more contacts. Call the locals to see if you can get on a list of permits, scour the Facebook links below, and call the grip and/or electric departments of all the major studios at least once a week. Be polite but persistent -- make sure they know your name. A one-day permit call at a studio can turn into three weeks of work, and sooner or later you'll get your thirty days. Mike did it, Sam did it, and so did I -- which means you can do it too.

Good luck!

Grip and Electric LA

Grip and Electric East Coast

TV/Film crew Availability

Production 911



* Besides, that story will be in the BS&T book, which -- yes -- I'm still working on... and will be for a while.

** Local 80 are grips, 728 are juicers (set lighting technicians), and Local 600 is camera.

*** "Flipped" means that the movie started as a non-union production, then at some point the producers decided to sign a union contract, allowing the crew to accrue union days.