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, October 7, 2007

The Circle of Confusion

                        "Anything that can go wrong, will."
                         Murphy’s Law

While in college working on student films – my own, and those of fellow undergrads -- I often mused on how much better everything would be when I finally got to Hollywood, where Industry professionals had the knowledge and skills to crank out shot after carefully-crafted shot until the movie was “in the can.” Hollywood would be blissfully free of the muddled chaos that is student film making, where hope and ignorance join forces to careen head-on into Murphy’s Law a dozen times a day. All that frustration and wasted effort would be a thing of the past – no more frantic improvising, compromising of artistic vision, or settling for third-best. Perhaps Hollywood would turn out to be nothing more than a monstrous factory grinding out an endless stream of soulless assembly line Product, but at least it was the big leagues, run by pros who knew what the hell they were doing.

Hey, it was Hollywood...

Once I began working in the Industry, however, I was amazed to find so many productions plagued by confusion and communications breakdowns. As it turns out, Murphy’s Law bedevils the entire spectrum of film-making, amateur and professional alike. Thus it was with a double shot of hundred-proof irony that I realized the best preparation I’d received for working in Hollywood had been those endless hours toiling on hopelessly screwed-up student films – and that was long before I ever heard the term “Circle of Confusion.”

Technically speaking, “circle of confusion” is an optical term used to describe the spot created when a cone of light rays passing through a lens is unable to come to an absolute perfect focus. Since even the finest lenses are flawed to some degree, the circle of confusion must be factored in when calculating the depth of field for a given lens -- “depth of field” being the range of focus at a particular light level. This becomes important when a director decides he wants objects in the background of a shot to be in the same crisp focus as those in the foreground. If an actress facing the camera holds an apple in her hand at arm’s length, the proper lens and light levels must be used to keep both the apple and her lovely face in focus at the same time.

This kind of technical mumbo-jumbo remains the domain of camera assistants, the original techno-nerds of the Industry before computers came along. From my perspective (working alongside, but not in the camera department), “Circle of Confusion” has nothing to do with optics, but is instead an elegant description of the slow-motion, who’s-on-first chaos that so often rises up to seize a film production by the throat. When that happens, you find yourself wondering if anybody’s really in charge – anybody at all.

Early in my Hollywood journey, I spent the better part of a summer working on a feature film that took a more-or-less comedic approach to the werewolf genre in a low-budget drama set in and around a local high school. As low man on the set lighting crew – a juicer -- my main task was the grunt work: hauling heavy cables and lights from truck to the set, deploying and operating the equipment, then lugging it all back at the end of each day. This being a werewolf movie, much of the filming took place at night, which offered me the chance to run a couple of big lamps thirty-five feet off the ground in one of our two self-propelled hydraulic platforms known “scissor lifts.” To a young man working his first feature film as a juicer, driving and operating such a large mechanical beast was fun, with the added benefit that once those big lamps were up and burning, I had a catbird seat to watch and learn how a real movie gets made.

Every now and then, though, I’d be saddled with a task that took me deep into Absurdistan. While setting up for a scene on the football field late one morning, the director of photography – a notorious control freak who would become famous throughout the Industry as a “screamer” – started yelling about the scissor lifts, which we’d need to shoot a big scene after dark. Both lifts, it turned out, had been left at the previous night’s location, some 12 miles away. Since this was a low-budget, non-union production lacking teamsters or any sort of transportation department, the Screaming Cameraman assumed that if he didn’t take charge, those lifts would never get to the football field by nightfall. His concern was not entirely unwarranted – in this, our first week of filming, the production company had proved something less than a model of crisp efficiency – but making and acting upon such assumptions is the first fatal step into the Circle of Confusion. Rather than turn the problem over to the production manager (whose job is to solve such problems), the Screaming Cameraman ordered a production assistant to take me and another juicer to the scissor lifts, where we would then drive them back to the football field.

Being as green as a freshly sprouted blade of grass, I still clung to the belief that those in positions of responsibility knew what they were doing. As far as I was concerned, these were the Hollywood Pros, and I wasn’t about to question their judgment. So off we went, halfway across the San Fernando Valley to an empty field where the two big scissor lifts waited. As the production assistant disappeared back into traffic, my fellow juicer and I climbed aboard the lifts, fired up the engines, and headed out onto Victory Boulevard.

A scissor lift is nothing more than a four-wheeled, self-propelled metal cage designed to lift a worker and a relatively small load of equipment into the air. Utterly lacking in creature comforts – no seats, windshield, lights, turn signals, bumpers, or license plates – scissor lifts are not made to be driven on city streets. Most have two speeds, indicated by the tortoise and hare icons on the control panel. With these two lifts, however, flipping to “rabbit” had no effect, limiting us to a maximum velocity of approximately one mile per hour. Thus stuck in tortoise mode, it took the two of us, driving nose-to-tail, three complete green/yellow/red traffic light cycles to make it all the way through each major street intersection. This did not amuse our fellow travelers on Victory Boulevard, one of many big four lane thoroughfares cutting through the smog-choked heart of the San Fernando Valley. Being young and dumb, I didn’t much care – as far as I was concerned, this was simply the latest in an apparently endless series of Hollywood adventures, with the added benefit of being a lot easier than humping heavy cable and lights back on set under the stern eye and verbal lash of the Screaming Cameraman.

Or so it seemed. Before long, the adrenal rush at participating in such a brazen act of absurdity began to fade under the relentless pounding of the hot summer sun. There was no shade along Victory Boulevard, nor did our snail’s pace generate anything like a cooling breeze. Crawling along this sweltering ribbon of pavement atop a noisy, ungainly machine under assault by swarming waves of angry, horn-honking traffic suddenly took on all the aspects of Work -- sweaty, unpleasant work. Playing hooky from the set (where snacks, cold drinks, and restrooms were never far away) wasn’t so much fun after all. We had crossed the invisible border separating adventure from ordeal, and were headed directly into the heart of the Circle of Confusion.

Six long hours later, we pulled into a gas station to check a map and assess the situation. It was already after four o’clock, but we were only half way to the set, which put our E.T.A. around ten p.m. If the lifts ran out of fuel, or we got stopped by the cops – and driving two enormous, unlicensed, decidedly non-roadworthy vehicles lacking headlights, tail lights, or brake lights on city streets at night is a sure way to attract police attention -- we wouldn’t make it at all.

I called the production company office from a pay phone. Fifteen minutes later, the same P.A. who’d dropped us off that morning gave us an air-conditioned ride back to the set, where we arrived tired, thirsty, and sunburned. Much to my surprise, the scissors lifts arrived minutes later, behind two enormous tow trucks.

We were not greeted with smiles. The Screaming Cameraman was unhappy, which meant the gaffer was also unhappy -- and best boy was the most unhappy of all, since he’d been saddled with all the grunt work in our absence. But here we were with the scissor lifts, well before dark, so what was the problem? It was only then that I began to see how the straightforward rules of logic are bent back on themselves into a Moebius Loop within the Circle of Confusion -- an upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland world where the solution to one problem has a way of creating two more.

As it turned out, the Screaming Cameraman had made another executive assumption. Hearing of my phone call, he decided the scissor lifts would never arrive in time, and so ordered the grips to mount the big lamps for the night scenes atop a couple of equipment trucks. The grips had plenty of work to do already, but orders from the Director of Photography cannot be ignored. No sooner had they completed this sweaty, thankless task when the scissor lifts appeared, as if by magic. And there is nothing – nothing – that drives a crew into the sullen depths of despair like being forced to do needless or redundant work.

Then came the kicker. Word rippled through the set that the production manager had a long-standing arrangement with the rental company to transport those two scissor lifts wherever they were needed up until four o’clock each afternoon – a service already included in the rental fee. But since the Screaming Cameraman’s first executive assumption of the day bypassed all the standard channels of communication, the production manager didn’t learn that we needed the lifts until I phoned in, at which point his only option was to call for an emergency tow that cost his ever- shrinking budget an additional three hundred dollars. Had the Screaming Cameraman behaved like a normal human being in the first place rather than acting like the deranged tin-pot dictator of some miserable steamy little banana republic, things would have worked out fine: no muss, no fuss, no needless flogging of the crew, and no unnecessary extra expense. But because he didn’t, they didn’t – and everybody on the crew knew it.

You might think this would prove a blessing in disguise: a lesson learned and sage wisdom acquired by the humbling of arrogant impulsiveness. Ours would be a better world were that the case -- but it is not. Having made a fool of himself in front of the entire crew, the Screaming Cameraman’s typically caustic mood took a darker turn as night fell. His slashing sarcasm cut deeper, while his screams, more barbed than usual, stung like the lash of a whip. That was one long and ugly night we spent mired in the Circle of Confusion...

* * * *

Fast-forward ten years. In the early 90’s, I worked as gaffer on a television commercial to be filmed in the desert north of Los Angeles, a one day shoot for a small HMO somewhere on the east coast. The concept developed by the add agency centered on the familiar image of an ostrich burying its head in the sand, a vision that was doubtless greeted as a stroke of genius during the client/agency meetings. What better visual metaphor to convince potential customers it was high-time they stopped wallowing in denial and signed up with Docs ‘R Us?

Concept is king in the advertising world, but like a beautiful hothouse flower, the creative brilliance of the conference room often fades when exposed to the harsh light of reality. Had they bothered to do a little research, these agency geniuses might have learned that the whole ostrich-head-in-sand thing is pure myth. Common sense should have warned them that a species of large flightless birds – agile creatures capable of sprinting over 40 miles per hour -- could never have survived countless eons of tooth-and-claw predation by rendering themselves blind, immobile, and helpless against legions of hungry carnivores. In the real world, such behavior would result in the rapid extinction of the species -- and you don’t have to be an ad agency genius to understand that “extinction” might not be the most helpful term to associate with a Health Maintenance Organization.

Modern computer wizardly can create any desired reality, but back then, most special effects techniques took the time-tested, bubble gum and bailing wire approach to getting the “money shot.” In this case, that meant an ostrich would literally have to stick its head into a hole while the camera rolled. Two holes were dug, one big enough to put the camera lens right at ground level, the other just deep enough to hide the big bird’s head. The plan was to put food pellets in the small hole, so that when the ostrich bent its long neck down to eat, its head would seem to burrow underground from the camera’s perspective. True, the great bird would not actually bury its head in the sand, but the illusion would be close enough to sell the concept.

The cameraman lined up the shot. I adjusted the lights. The ostrich was maneuvered into place, the blinders removed from its eyes. The wrangler showed it a handful of pellets, then tossed the food in the hole. Nothing. The big bird – a full six feet of feathers, claws, and leathery sinew – just stood there blinking its huge eyes at the lights, the camera, the assembled film crew, production personnel, and half a dozen ad agency drones waiting expectantly in the early morning sun. The wrangler tried again, gradually winning the bird’s confidence with small handfuls of food, luring its big head ever lower and closer to the hole. Eventually, the enormous bird finally recognized the food at its feet, and strained to reach it, legs teetering on the edge of balance, tendons quivering with the effort – but reality would not yield to myth in fulfilling the agency’s beautiful dream. Frustrated and confused at being unable to perform an entirely unnatural act, the big birds head came up fast, beak snapping.

“We better give him a break,” the head wrangler said. “You don’t want to get him mad.”

I recalled the pre-shoot safety meeting, where the wrangler cautioned us all to stay well away from his ostrich. “One kick can kill a lion,” he warned. “Those claws'll rip your stomach open like it was tissue paper.”

I stayed behind the lights until the wrangler led that feathered demon away.

The director frowned. The agency exchanged worried glances, then went into a huddle like a flock of nervous chickens, each secretly plotting who to blame should the smoke we’d all begun to smell suddenly flare into a raging, “Oh, the humanity!” Hindenburg of flaming disaster. What none of them realized was that it was too late: we were already knee-deep in the Circle of Confusion.

Having painted themselves so deeply into a corner, the agency no longer had the option to reconceptualize the spot. With the metaphoric thrust of their entire campaign hinging on the image of an ostrich burying its head in the sand, we’d have to “cheat the shot.” The grips dug the hole deeper to alter the camera angle. The wranglers brought the ostrich back. I readjusted the lights... but the ostrich went hungry. And so it went through the long morning, digging an ever deeper hole for the camera, carefully building up a gently ramped berm to hide the big bird’s head, each attempt bringing us closer to capturing an undeniably compromised, but still acceptable version of the shot. The ostrich grew increasingly frustrated with the situation, its tiny feathered brain concerned only with the food it wanted, but could not reach.

We made another try just before noon. With the camera rolling, the ostrich dipped earthward, once again straining hard to reach the food – and for the briefest moment its head finally appeared to plunge below the ground. The director nodded and smiled. Big mistake. Like the poor slob in a war movie who laughs at the wrong moment, thus sealing his doom in the next reel, he had unwittingly taunted the Gods of Hollywood. Right on cue, the big bird bolted upright, flapped its vestigial wings and was gone, blowing through the grasping arms of the wranglers and sprinting towards freedom on the wide open plains of the high desert.

The director's smile vanished as he watched the ostrich streak into the distance, pursued by half a dozen shouting wranglers.

“That’s lunch,” he sighed.

And so we sat there eating our catered lunch at a cloth-covered table under the pale blue sky, watching the wranglers chase that giant bird hither and yon, all over the desert. It went on for a good twenty minutes, looking for all the world like a Road Runner cartoon come to life, lacking only Wile E. Coyote to join the pursuit on a pair of Rocket-Powered Roller Skates from the Acme Company.

Eventually the wranglers caught their ostrich. With the exhausted bird unable to offer further resistance, we managed to finish filming the rest of the spot just before the sun went down.

Two months later, my check hadn’t come, nor had the grips or camera department been paid. I called the producer at his office back east.

“How’d that HMO spot come out?” I asked. “The one with the ostrich.”

“Oh, it turned out great,” he gushed. “Just great. You guys did a terrrific job."

“Great,” I agreed. “So when do we get paid?”


“You didn’t get your checks?”

“Not yet.”

“Give me a minute.”

It took him five minutes to come back on the line with a profuse apology.

“I must have forgotten to send them out,” he said. “They’ll be in the mail today.”

My check arrived a few days later, as did those of the rest of the crew. Maybe he was trying to stiff us in a low-key, easily deniable manner, hoping we might forget about a little one-day job, seeing as how we were such busy Hollywood guys. But we did get paid, so I’ll have to give him the benefit of the doubt in assuming he too was just another innocent victim caught in the Circle of Confusion.

* * * *

I spent a few weeks on the rigging crew of an episodic television show last year, rigging stage and location sets for a white-haired Best Boy who’d spent thirty years working as a free-lance commercial gaffer before returning to the comfortable embrace of studio life. During a coffee break, he told us about an airline commercial he’d done several years before -- a classic example of how the Circle of Confusion can wreak havoc on the best laid plans of any production, be it a low budget or big money job.

The airline flew a brand new DC-10 into LAX for this spot, with the understanding that it was now part of the fleet, its maiden voyage as a passenger plane scheduled to take off from Los Angeles the following morning. The production company would thus have one night to shoot the commercial, leaving no room for error. Lighting something the size of an airliner at night is a big undertaking, and doing it quickly required a Musco light, the largest and most versatile lighting unit then available. Developed to illuminate huge football stadiums for television broadcasts, the Musco is a self-contained unit consisting of fifteen remotely-controllable 6000 watt lamps mounted on a hydraulic arm able to position the entire array a hundred and fifty feet in the air. Such a specialized piece of equipment doesn’t come cheap – back then, the going rate was around $4,000 per day – but the huge light can be up in the air and burning in less than an hour, focusing 90,000 watts of daylight exactly where its needed for the shot. In a line of work where time really is money, on a job where every second counts, any tool that can shave hours off the clock is worth the expense.

The filming took place on an unused section of runway where ground personnel could easily move the plane as necessary to accommodate the filming. The lighting crew arrived in late afternoon to get everything rigged, setting up and powering an array of 18,000 watt lamps (known as BFLs, for Big Fucking Lights) to illuminate the front and side of the jet, then running power cables in through the back door for dozens of smaller lamps placed inside the passenger cabin. While that work was underway, the Musco driver set up his rig well behind the plane, taking the huge array of lamps all the way up to provide a high, broad wash of backlight over the entire airplane. Once the lamps were set, there was nothing to do but wait for dark.

Most film shoots begin and end each day in a frenzy of activity, but the actual filming remains a meticulous process of tweaking the action and lighting until each shot is exactly right. This is particularly true of commercials, where the “look” must be letter-perfect before the camera rolls. Maintaining one’s concentration while working at such a deliberate pace isn’t easy, particularly on a night shoot. At first, everyone’s wide awake and hustling to get things done, but as the night grinds on, people get tired. Past midnight, attention tends to wander. By three in the morning, everybody on that runway was feeling the effect of tedium and fatigue: grips, juicers, prop men, camera assistants, and the production crew. With nothing to do but sit and wait, the airport’s ground crew had long since nodded off, along with their lone compatriot in the cockpit – who, it turned out, had been helping himself to a generous selection of tiny liquor bottles stocked in the galley.

It was then that the director decided something was wrong with the composition of his shot. There are two ways to fix a problem in composition: move the camera, or move the objects in front of the camera. For reasons that remain shrouded by mystery, the director decided to move the plane rather than adjust the camera position. Stirring to life, the yawning ground crew hooked the airliner’s front wheel to their tractor and dragged the plane into place, then cut it loose at the director’s signal. In their groggy haste, they neglected to block the wheel – which wouldn’t have mattered had their man in the cockpit not been sound asleep. As it turns out, airport runways are built on a slight grade to prevent the buildup of water during rainstorms, which is why ground crews always block the wheels of airplanes in case the internal brakes fail. But with the brakeman asleep at the wheel, there was nothing to prevent a the enormous airliner from rolling backwards. And so it did, almost imperceptibly at first, but in adherence to Newton’s immutable laws of gravity, steadily picking up speed.

There’s often an oddly frozen moment at the instant things start to go wrong in a really big way: a split-second that seems to last forever, during which everyone sees the shit plunging towards the whirling blades of the fan, but can’t quite grasp what’s actually happening. The enormity of the unfolding disaster seems to paralyze the collective mind until someone breaks the spell with a loud scream -- and then all hell breaks loose. There was shouting and screaming and frantic walkie-talkie calls to the man inside, still deep asleep and blissfully unaware of the impending calamity. With no way for ground crew to restrain a quarter million pounds of suddenly free-rolling airliner, the big plane ripped loose from the power cables running inside the passenger cabin, picking up speed as it headed directly for the Musco light. One of the rear wings struck the fully-extended hydraulic arm of the Musco like the blade of a guillotine, decapitating the huge light and sending the entire array of blazing lamps crashing onto the tarmac. The impact awakened the man inside, who managed to hit the brakes just as the plane crashed into the fence along the edge of the runway – which is all that kept that DC-10 from rolling out onto the four-lane expressway.

Needless to say, that was a wrap on one very expensive night. The Musco light was demolished – and with these big units in such high demand, its loss resulted in a ripple effect on countless other productions for weeks down the line. The no-longer shiny new DC-10 would require extensive repairs before being cleared to fly, upending the immediate travel plans of several hundred passengers while forcibly rearranging the airline’s schedule. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the guy who had to call corporate headquarters and explain what happened -- but he probably got off easier than that poor slob who fell asleep inside the plane.

A lot of money doubtless changed hands by the time the lawyers were done, but at least nobody got hurt. Given the forces set in motion that night, disaster avoided morphing into catastrophe by a very narrow margin. In the end, maybe that’s the best any of us can say after stumbling inside the Circle of Confusion: it could have been worse -- because things can always be worse.


JASON GUNN said...

"circle of confusion is brilliant,mike taylor is one of the brightest up-and-coming blogstars today,i laughed i cried i'm more depressed than ever,but i know why." seriously though,it's great to see some articulation of our hidden playground where reality is an old timer once told me, "remember kid, nothin here is real."

TVworms said...

great read would love to hear more of these stories

D said...

Great post, Mike. I also often thought, while paying my dues in the chaotic world of low-budget, non-union epics, that once I got on a "real movie" things would be different. We would never do double work, I would be rolling in money and having drinks with some smitten young p.a. How surprised and dismayed I was to learn that the only real difference is the size of the actors' paychecks.

JB Bruno said...

This is not a great post, it is a classic post, and one need not be in the biz to get it. The writing has the perfect combination of whimsy, sarcasm, and the folly of innocence. Michael, I literally cried laughing, and you did what comedy does at its best, which is build upon the previous item. I thought each of the incidents could not get worse - but they did. Bravo!