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, March 31, 2019

It's a Jungle Out There




                                                 "Nature red in tooth and claw..."


Los Angeles is an urban desert hopelessly overpopulated by people and their vehicles. If aliens from another world were to land now, they might well assume that cars are the dominant life form here, with pavement their natural habitat and human companion-animals to serve their needs. Once a dusty little backwater, the megalopolis of LA is bit like ancient Rome, now a highly artificial construct able to exist and thrive thanks only to water brought in from afar.*  

Still, vestiges of the natural world survive right under our noses amidst all this automotive and human chaos.  Despite us -- and in some cases, aided by us -- these animals go about their lives unnoticed by so many who remain oblivious to anything that doesn't light up the screen of a smart phone.   

But if you pull your head out of your digital ass, look around and pay attention, you'll see them -- skunks, possums, and raccoons checking out garbage cans for a meal, coyotes trotting back into the hills at dawn, and red tail hawks circling high above. Occasionally an LA homeowner will discover a bear in her swimming pool, and mountain lions are making their presence known.  Ever since an initiative banning the hunting of these lions was passed back in 1990, the big cats have expanded their range into the suburbs, with one -- the iconic P-22 -- now alive and well in hills of Griffith Park overlooking LA.

I never saw a bear or mountain lion during my forty years in LA, but working on location took our crews into the realm of other wild creatures. While working on a highly forgettable low budget feature early in my career, we were filming night scenes with Joseph Cotten in the deserts north of LA. There are few activities less natural and more artificial than making a movie, but reality intruded shortly after midnight when a chorus of high-pitched howls from a nearby pack of coyotes stopped all work for a few minutes -- not out of fear, since there was nothing to be afraid of, but from a sense of wonder. It was a hauntingly beautiful moment.  

Most of my encounters with the wild came in the form of birds. While filming a commercial in the wealthy neighborhood of Hancock Park, we were rehearsing a dolly shot by a backyard swimming pool when a little bird rocketed in out of the blue with a small hawk right on its tail, matching it move for move.  Around and around the pool they went, until the bird made a desperation dive straight at the camera where the operator, assistant, dolly grip, director, and AD stood, eyes wide. Seeing all those people, the hawk peeled off and vanished, the little bird safe for the moment. This quick, intense life-and-death drama caught the entire crew by surprise, and left us shaking our heads.

Another avian close encounter happened while filming at a park in Orange County, where I was manning a reflector one hot summer day when I saw a hawk fly in amidst the branches of a huge tree, then emerge a few seconds later with a baby bird in its claws.  The hawk landed twenty feet away, then proceeded to eat that doomed chick as the mother squawked in protest from above.  

Nature is a cruel mistress, allowing only the fittest - and luckiest - to survive.

The first Peregrine falcon I ever saw in the wild had nothing to do with filming or work, but was right outside my apartment in LA.  Heading out for a walk one afternoon, I noticed a pile of small feathers on the hood of my car, then saw more drifting down out of the sky.  Following that river of feathers back to their source, I spotted the Peregrin high up in big pine tree, picking apart the body of a hapless dove.

I got an up-close view of a Peregrin in downtown LA while we were filming another commercial nearly fifty floors up in a building still under construction.  During a lull in the action, I wandered over to a window to admire the view, and there on the ledge just a few feet away was a gorgeous falcon, surveying its realm -- and doubtless searching for a pigeon dinner -- from this man-made urban cliff five hundred feet in the air.  After a few minutes it spotted a target and took flight, dropping out of sight in seconds.

Later that night, I observed another form of urban wildlife in her decidedly unnatural habitat. Gazing up at what was then the tallest skyscraper in LA (more than twenty stories higher than my perch), I spotted a female executive in workout leotards, perfectly framed in a big picture window, grimly churning away on an elliptical trainer as she stared out at the cityscape below.  

It was an oddly voyeuristic moment.  Although she was much too far away for me to discern her features, I was watching unbeknownst to her -- or maybe she thought the entire city was watching, and fantasizing... and perhaps she liked that notion. It wasn't exactly a Citizen Kane, woman with a white parasol thing, but still, I've often wondered who she was and what became of her. Did she managed to claw her way all the way up the corporate ladder, or eventually hit the glass ceiling?  Did a husband and children interrupt her climb, and if so, does a small, never-to-be-confessed part of her regret that choice?

I'll never know, but will always wonder. 

My last Peregrin sighting in LA came on a blustery spring afternoon while taking a walk around my neighborhood.  Halfway up the block, lost in thought, I was suddenly brought back into the moment when a falcon landed on the parkway grass ten feet ahead of me, a headless pigeon in its claws. The bird glared at me with fierce brown eyes, then flew into a nearby tree to wait for me to leave. I inspected the pigeon's remains, the head nowhere in sight, it's neck a jagged, bloody crown.  

Tennyson knew what he was talking about when he wrote the line, "Nature red in tooth and claw." 

So whether you're working on location or just out for a walk on the urban sidewalks, suburban boulevards, or rugged hills bordering LA, put the smart phone away and keep your eyes peeled. You never know when something wild will appear, animal or human. 

It really is a jungle out there.


* As the justifiably angry residents of the Owens Valley can attest, at great cost to the areas supplying that water...

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 51


                                                                 Wrong...
                                                    Photo by Matt Hawkins

Once, many years ago, I worked on a commercial at a stage in one of those crappy industrial park facilities (I refuse to dignify such bare-bones facilities with word "studio") out in West LA.  Rather than a real stage with wooden floors, thick sound insulation on the walls and elephant door, and with no catwalks up high, this was just a big empty room with a concrete floor and a minimal pipe grid overhead.  The only virtue of a stage like this is that it's relatively cheap, but you get what you pay for in life -- and that sword cuts both ways.

Anything beyond the most basic power distribution gear and a minimal tungsten package had to be ordered from an outside rental house, but this was a fairly simple job, so I didn't have to go off-lot. At a certain point in the rigging process, I was in need of another 100 amp to 100 amp Bates splitter. I don't recall the exact situation, but these splitters are typically used when you need to distribute power from a single 100 amp Bates feeder to many small lights that won't require individual dimmer control.

I called the stage manager for another splitter, which he dropped off a few minutes later, but there was something very wrong.  Rather than a male 100 amp Bates fixture wired to two female Bates fixtures, this one was compose of three males. I took it back to the stage manager and set it on his desk.

"Do you see anything wrong with this?" I asked.

"It's brand new," he said, a hint of pride in his voice.  "I made it yesterday."

"Okay," I nodded.  "So how would I use it?"

He gave me one of those looks, as if astonished that a gaffer being paid $500/day didn't even know how to use a simple splitter.  But he was polite, and began to patiently explain.

"You just patch it into your hundred amper, and then --"

He stopped mid-sentence as recognition dawned.

"Oh... wow.  Man, I'm sorry about that."

"No worries," I replied.  "Just get me another one, okay?"

I didn't give him a hard time, but just wanted the young man to see and understand the problem for himself, and thus learn the value of paying attention to the task at hand -- and the dangers of not doing so.

That might have been the single dumbest equipment blunder I witnessed during my years Hollywood, until the photo up top appeared up on the Local 728 Facebook page recently: the same brain-dead error applied to a Bates extension cable.  Whoever wired up this cable should be very grateful nobody plugged the damned thing into a hot circuit -- but more to the point, had that person been paying attention to what he/she was doing in the first place, it never would have happened. I've said it before and will probably say it again: when working with electricity you have to keep your eyes open, pay attention, inspect your equipment, and never make assumptions.

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

A grim statistic echoed in my head during the ten years before I retired: the average IATSE Local 728 retiree only collects 18 monthly pension checks. It didn't come from the report of any scientific studies, but was accepted as common wisdom among juicers on every set I worked on. The not so subtle implication was this happened because the average 728 retiree would be dead a year-and-a-half into retirement, thanks to a career spent inhaling toxic dust and smoke on sound stages, constant exposure to heavy doses of EMF radiation, and the bad habits of heavy smoking, drinking, and drug use that often tempt those who endure the relentless grind of working on set.

Granted, that statistic was based largely on the WW II generation of set lighting technicians -- the crusty old veterans who were still working when I broke in -- many of whom got hooked on cigarettes long before the lethal dangers of smoking became obvious. Much of the lighting gear they used was riddled with asbestos, which coated the retaining rings in lamps with fresnel lenses, cables inside the lamps (which had to resist extreme heat), and on the power feeders of strip lights. There might not have been enough floating asbestos from these sources to inflict a full blown case of mesothelioma, but once inhaled, those tiny fibers become permanently embedded in the lungs  Back in the day, all these factors combined to inflict the death of a thousand cuts, breaking the post-retirement health of many Local 728 retirees.

                                              A pair of Mole Richardson nine light cyc strips

Whether that eighteen month death sentence statistic was real or apocryphal bullshit remains unclear to this day.  All I know is that many of those old asbestos-laden lamps were still in use during my early years as a juicer, and I've always wondered if that might catch up with me someday.

So it seemed rather ominous when a letter arrived last week from the Motion Picture Pension and Health office in Studio City, demanding I prove to them that I remain among the living, and have not yet been "promoted to glory" as the Salvation Army refers to it -- although I prefer William Shakespeare's description of death: "to shuffle off this mortal coil."  Failure to confirm that I'm still upright and breathing to the satisfaction of the MPPH would result in the cessation of my monthly pension.

And wouldn't you know it -- that letter came nineteen months after I received my first pension check.

Coincidence?  Who knows, but I dutifully presented the requisite forms along with my driver's license to a local notary public, who certified my continued existence as a carbon-based life form, and applied his official stamp.  It cost me $15 and first-class postage, but I suppose that's cheaper than the 850 mile round trip to Studio City.

So it goes...

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

Here's a good interview with legendary DP Caleb Deschanel, who made a somewhat roundabout journey into the film industry, starting in medical school, then to USC, then to the AFI in its very first year, on into world of commercials, and finally to his first feature film, The Black Stallion.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I "worked with" Deschanel only once -- and those quotes are there for a reason... which means maybe it's time for a little clarification here at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.  It's very common in Hollywood to say "I worked with (insert name of famous actor, athlete, or rock star here) on (insert movie, show,  commercial, or music video title here) and he/she was great/indifferent/awful."

I've used those very words more times than I can remember, and although technically true -- we did work on the same project -- the phrase has an elasticity that puts the superpowers of Reed Richards to shame.*  You can work on a film or television show starring a particular actor for months on end, but unless you were the director, camera operator, dolly grip, dialog coach, fellow thespian, make-up/hair artist, wardrobe fitter, or member of the sound department tasked with affixing lavaliere microphones to the star's wardrobe or body, then you didn't actually work with that actor.  I often chatted and joked with our actors, and sweated bullets to light them and the sets on which they appeared, but although I certainly worked above and all around them, I did not personally work with them.

Ahem.  Pardon the digression.  Just wanted to clear that up.

Anyway... I "worked with" Caleb Deschanel while rigging a stage for big studio movie just before the turn of the century.  It was a week's worth of labor preparing a set designed to duplicate the Chicago Tribune's office high up in one of the Windy City's tall skyscrapers. This was a big job, with something like 130 sky pans we had to hang on a long, curving truss, a rig designed to properly illuminate an enormous trans-light backing.  That was only one of our tasks, though.  We ran tons of cable (literally), then powered and installed tubes in what felt like hundreds of fluorescent fixtures -- and if there's one job I absolutely loathed during all my years under the Hollywood lash, it was anything dealing with fluorescent fixtures. Kino Flos were fine, but installing the proper color temperature tubes in those god-awful overhead office fixtures was a delicate, frustrating ordeal.

The rigging gaffer drove us like sled dogs in the Iditarod, but at least he was a decent guy who know the business backwards and forwards, and did his share of the work.  Around noon, the first unit gaffer showed up to have a look. I'd worked with him on a commercial many years before, but hadn't seen him since, and as sometimes happens, he'd changed a lot -- and not in a good way. He'd been a very pleasant guy on the commercial, but now he positively radiated arrogance, striding around the set in the imperious manner of a Roman senator, nose held high, ignoring the crew that was working so hard to light those sets.  Seldom before or since have I encountered a gaffer riding atop such a high horse,  apparently convinced of his own wonderfulness.  Only when Caleb Deschanel arrived to see how the rig was coming along did the gaffer descend from Bucephalus and adopt some measure of humility.  Together they walked the length of that big truss and around the set inside, then shook hands, and Caleb departed. He hadn't been there more than fifteen minutes.

So, do those quotes around "worked together" make sense now?

Still, I felt some resonance while listening to Deschanel's story in that interview.  He decided to become a cameraman, but when IA  Local 659 refused to let him in, he had to join an offshoot NABET local whose members primarily worked on commercials.**

Me too, Caleb -- I was just a few years behind you.  Even the success of The Black Stallion (which was filmed outside the U.S.) didn't help his case with 659, and it wasn't until Steven Spielberg intervened in a rather mysterious manner that Deschanel finally got his union card.  Lacking such powerful friends, I had to wait until NABET merged with IATSE in 1992 to get my own IA card, and even then the set lighting local refused to grant me roster status (effectively denying me the ability to work union jobs) for another three years, when I finally managed to get my 30 days on a TV movie that turned halfway through.

I don't know why I'm boring you with all this... well, yeah I do.  I'm pretty well immersed in the blog-book project these days, and it's a bit like taking a time machine waaay back and deep into my own origin story, reliving moments and unearthing dusty memories, along with a few radioactive resentments.  I'm not nursing grudges -- that's all over and done -- but have not forgotten the people and institutions who behaved in a less than generous manner.  

Just listen to that interview, especially you wet-behind-the-ears newbies who haven't yet learned how the film and television industry really works.  The salient message is this: don't be a dick. You have no way of knowing who among your peer group will be there to help advance your career down the road.  Deschanel might now be slogging to work every day as a proctologist had he not met a couple of key people during his pre-med studies, and it was friends he made later at USC and the AFI who helped engineer crucial turning points in what turned out to be a very successful career.***

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

So the Oscars have come and gone -- yawn -- amid more than the usual "sound and fury signifying nothing."  To host or not to host, that was the question, although it was impossible to care about the answer.  I pretty much had my say about the Oscars a long time ago, and my attitude about this annual glittering blabfest hasn't changed.  I've only seen one of the nominated films -- Roma -- and thus had no cinematic dogs in the fight, nor did I feel compelled to watch the spectacle.  Congrats to the winners and to the losers: and remember: you didn't really lose, you just didn't win. There's a difference.  I just hope you managed to get shit-faced on somebody else's champagne at the after-parties...

Here's a fascinating clip showing how Alphonso Cuaron's crew on Roma created a vintage street scene from scratch -- movie magic at it's finest.  While watching the film, I had no idea it wasn't the real thing.

And last but not least, a list of the nine greatest best picture winners over the years.  It's an impressive list, although your mileage may vary.

That's it for this month.  This has been one effing cold winter thus far -- I'm burning the wood stove from dawn 'til bedtime these days -- so let's all pray for the coming of spring...


* Otherwise known as "Mr. Fantastic" in the movie and comic book versions of The Fantastic Four.

**  That was then -- it's now Local 600.  NABET stands for National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, representing many who work in radio and television.

*** Yes, there are more than a few assholes in Hollywood as well, but as a DP, at least Caleb doesn't have to see dozens every single day...

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Industrials



                                Fun in the sky -- for some of us, anyway...

Back in the good old/bad old days, I’d take an occasional gig working on an industrial film -- essentially an infomercial done by or for a company to use in-house for employee education and training, or to promote its brand and product to potential customers at trade shows. 

As Wikipedia puts it: "An industrial video is a type of sponsored film (such as an educational film) which prioritizes pragmatism over artistic value." 

The focus on "pragmatism over artistic value" meant that these jobs were usually fairly  straightforward, with neither the time for glowing, painstakingly-lit product shots nor the money for famous celebrities to lend their star power to the project. They weren't exactly quick-and-dirty -- we made each shot look as good as circumstances allowed -- but with thin budgets and tight schedules, there was only so much to be done. The analog video technology of the time was relatively primitive, so most of the industrials I was involved with were shot on 16 mm film with a small crew: often just a gaffer, grip, and swing man to work with a DP/operator and camera assistant, a one or two person art department, a sound mixer and a handful of PAs, one of whom usually ended up holding the boom. Industrials didn't pay nearly so well as television commercials, but the jobs were low-key and casual, lacking the pressure and tension of big-dollar advertising jobs. There was often a lot more laughter too, which helped ease the sting of lower rates and the utterly pedestrian subject matter. There's nothing remotely interesting about filming a talking-head executive or manager in an office environment as he drones on about the mind-numbing details of manufacturing and distribution... but when no commercial jobs were available, I took what I could get. 

Such is the life of the Hollywood work-bot, a hunter-gatherer constantly on the lookout for his next meal in the freelance world of the celluloid veldt.

The first industrial I worked was as a grip on a one-day shoot for Silhouette Romance Novels (emo-porn for those with a predilection for bodice rippers), a short film meant to induce orders from buyers for the big and small bookstore chains of the day.* Unlike most such projects, this one splurged for an actual celebrity: Ricardo Montalblan, who had achieved widespread fame on the television show Fantasy Island.  After filming shots of the new lineup of Silhouette's literary offerings, we pre-lit the big wicker chair in preparation for our star. 


And finally out he came, resplendent in his trademark white suit: the living, breathing Mr. Roarke himself.  Despite myself, I was impressed. Although I considered Fantasy Island to be ridiculous schlock, Ricardo Montalblan was the biggest star I'd seen up close at the time, and he did not disappoint. Dapper, classy, and dignified, he was a real pro, nailing every line in a precise, exotic accent -- especially the finale, which he crooned with a knowing smile, a glint in his eyes, and a lilt in his voice:

"Romance the way it once was... and profits the way they can be again!"

If that didn't warm the hearts and quicken the pulse of those book-sellers, nothing would.

We worked sixteen hours-plus that day on a flat rate, but I didn't care. Every day on set was a blast back then -- I was just happy to be there... and getting paid. 


Cut to a slow summer ten years later, when a call came to gaff an industrial shoot for Piper Aircraft. We'd be filming MOS, with no sound department to slow us down or demand "QUIET!" on set -- just a producer/director, two cameramen, one camera assistant, a grip, gaffer, and a single PA. The crew gathered at John Wayne Airport early one morning, where I found the grip in the bar sipping mineral water while reading a worn paperback copy of “The Federalist Papers.”

This was a very different sort of Key Grip than I was accustomed to working with. Not only did he consider himself something of an intellectual tough guy, he was also a vocal vegetarian determined to dispel any and all stereotypes that haunt those who follow the meatless path.

“I’m strong,” he assured me — not that I'd asked, mind you.

While the producer/director, one cameraman, and assistant climbed into a Piper Cub with a camera mounted in the space where a side door had been, the rest off us piled into the Piper Aerostar picture plane, a twin-engined aerial hot rod capable of speeds over 250 mph. The two planes took off and headed east over the San Gabriel mountains, where the camera plane filmed suitably picturesque shots of the Aerostar in flight. We landed at the airport in Lake Arrowhead to shoot takeoffs and landings against the spectacular mountainous background, then headed back into the sky. A minutes later we were high over the Southern California desert when our pilot -- an ex- Naval aviator who had flown fighter jets off aircraft carriers for twenty years -- turned around with a grin.

“Hang on,” he said, then snapped the Aerostar ninety degrees on its axis, wings suddenly vertical.I turned my head to look straight down out at the desert floor ten thousand feet below as the plane launched into a vertiginous attack dive, swooping down before flipping back to horizontal, then zooming up and under the camera plane until just a few feet separated us: two aircraft flying so close together that a miscue by either pilot could send us all spiraling into eternity.

Riding an aerobatic roller coaster in the sky like this was a thrill I'd always wanted to experience, and being young and immortal, I was having way too much fun to be scared. My faith in the skill of our pilot freed me from any real worry, and besides, this was all out of my control. If Something Bad happened here, there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, hope for the best, and enjoy the ride.

We were all having a giddy blast… except for the Key Grip in the back seat, who had suddenly turned green, his countenance a pale verdant hue unlike that of any person I’d ever seen. Physically strong he might be, but this guy was on the verge of blowing vegetarian chunks as we careened through the high desert air -- and no good could come of that.** Alerted to the imminent danger, the pilot eased off the throttle and back into calm air. The grip's stomach gradually backed down from Defcon One, and we got on with our day.

It went well. We spent the next few hours touching down at a series of rural airports out in the desert, whereupon we'd disembark to crank out a few more shots as the pilot took the locals up for a high-speed aerobatic spin. When the producer/director was finally happy, we flew back to the airport, our work day over.

This was the best day on an industrial I ever had -- the most fun by far, even if our Key Grip might not agree. 

Hey, you can't please everybody...


* This was twenty years before Amazon crawled out of the digital sea like Godzilla to crush the life out of Crown Books, Borders Books, and Barnes & Noble.

** It's no joke -- here's an excellent tale of the stomach-churning hazards that come with aerial filming.