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 3, 2019

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 51

                                                    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...


Unknown said...

Back after a long illness.

A.J. over at "The Hills Are Burning" just got a post from an Indian (as in India) gambling site, and I noticed you did not.

One must raise their profile so that one can also get invites to spend all their money gambling online and not in the other Indian gambling spots.

Have a great St Paddy's day. I am in the final planning stages to 10 days in Dublin.

Peace Out

Michael Taylor said...

Ed --

Well, my profile has been sinking like the setting sunever since I retired and went to once-a-month posting rather than every Sunday. AJ's been working hard putting up posts, and deserves all the invitations from Indian gaming sites she gets -- hell, she might even have the money to spend. Me -- living on Social Security and an anemic Hollywood pension -- not so much. Glad you've recovered, and have fun in Dublin...

Unknown said...

Sorry my brain had a fart. Planning yes, Dublin in August for 10 days centered around the Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention).

I know the feeling. Credit rich but cash poor.