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 21, 2007

What the Hell is a Best Boy?

As a rule, those of us who work in the Industry tend to linger during the credit roll after watching a movie. While the rest of the civilian audience (those who are neither employed by nor married into the Industry) shuffles up the aisles and out to the bathrooms, we sit there in the dark watching that long list of names ascend the screen. Few among us will recognize all or even most of the people listed up there – many movies are made far from the smoggy confines of Los Angeles these days -- but there’s often a familiar name or two, and sometimes a little surprise. It can be instructive to realize that a certain somebody you used to hire from time to time is now running a crew of his/her own. Learning of this now, while sitting in a darkened theater, means that your old buddy/acquaintance/employee somehow forgot to pick up the phone and offer you a job. Cycles of ups and downs are woven into the tapestry of Industry life. While riding high, I’ve had opportunities to employ people who had previously hired me, and when the tidal flow of Hollywood fortunes reversed our positions, many have been kind enough to return the favor. Still, there are always some with conveniently short memories when it comes to those they met on their way up -– yet another cliché come to life -- but they also forget how hard it is to keep secrets in this big little town of ours.

Or maybe they just don’t care. The contagion of hubris is endemic to Hollywood, even extending into the ranks below-the-line.

Although there’s no reason for civilians to sit through a seemingly endless credit-crawl packed with names of people they don’t know and will never meet, many have come to recognize and decipher a few more or less self-explanatory titles: a “director” directs the action on screen, a “producer” produces the show (although what that actually means is poorly understood, even in Hollywood), while a camera operator does indeed operate the camera. There's little confusion when it comes to hair and make-up, set dressers, the prop department, sound, or wardrobe people: in each case, the title provides at least a vague notion of what the job entails.

Still, some job titles remain shrouded in a fog so dense that it probably seems deliberate as far as the movie-going public is concerned. Key Grip and Gaffer rank high on that list. Civilians generally picture grips as big strong brutes who carry heavy things (a woefully incomplete if occasional accurate deduction), and thus assume the Key Grip to be the Biggest and Baddest of all the Grips. “Gaffer” is a more mysterious term, conjuring visions of a white-haired old coot carrying a stick with a hook on one end --a gaff. But at the very top of the List of Confusion is the term “Best Boy,” a job title that causes even the most unimaginative minds to ponder the lurid possibilities. Believe me, I understand -- before I entered the Industry, I too had no idea what to think upon reading the words “Best Boy.”

When out in the real world (particularly beyond the borders of LA), conversations with civilians eventually wind around to some aspect of Hollywood. Most people are at least mildly curious about what things really like on the other side of the silver screen. Once past the basics – what movies or TV shows have I worked on, and is so-and-so favorite actor/actress a nice person or a stuck-up asshole/bitch – comes the question that has been quietly licking at the back of their brains for a long time:

What the hell is a “Best Boy?”

The origins of the term remain murky, but one story often heard is that back in the depression era, men lined up outside the studio gates every morning hoping to get work. When help was needed, somebody inside would yell through the gate “I need your best boy,” presumably referring to the best worker. Although it may be true, this sepia-toned tale has always sounded a bit too quaint to be real. Another variation holds that back in the “old days” (and you’d be amazed how many industry stories begin with that phrase), the workers had yet to unionize, and thus the distinctions between grips and electricians were less rigorously observed. When a Gaffer or Key Grip needed extra help, he’d ask his counterpart to “lend me your best boy.” This rings slightly more true to my ears, but I wouldn’t bet my paycheck one way or the other. However the term came to be, it’s here to stay, and although the technically correct reply to the question is simple enough – the Best Boy is in charge of men and equipment -- the actual story is more complex. There’s nothing remotely sexy, glamorous, or inherently fascinating about the job itself, but a good Best Boy can make all the difference in the world to his crew and the show -- and bad Best Boy can be a disaster for everyone involved.*

To grasp the Best Boy’s place in the Order of Things, you have to understand the food chain of a film crew – and here I’m talking about camera, lighting, and grip only.** Immediately below the director on the flow chart of power is the Director of Photography (aka: the D.P., or cameraman), the person responsible for putting the images on film or digital tape. The D.P. hires the Gaffer and the Key Grip to be his figurative right and left hands in lighting the sets. As the head of set lighting, the Gaffer hires a Best Boy to run his crew of “juicers” (slang for set lighting technicians) and make sure they have whatever they need to properly illuminate the set. The Key Grip also has a Best Boy, who makes sure that his department has all the men the equipment required to do their work, and thus keep the DP happy.

Being responsible for “men and equipment” means taking care of all the paperwork (deal memos, time cards, and equipment rental invoices), and hiring additional manpower when required, as well as making sure all the lighting equipment ordered is delivered and works. Lighting equipment is much too expensive for production companies to buy, maintain, and store between jobs, so the vast majority of shows rent a complete lighting package -- trucks, lights, cable, and generator -- for the duration of the production. Many Gaffers own lighting equipment they rent to whatever show they're working on (providing additional income for the gaffer and endless invoice headaches for the Best Boy), but wherever the equipment comes from, the Best Boy must make sure it's all properly accounted for and ready for use. Some scenes in a movie or television show require highly specialized (read: very expensive) lighting equipment rented only for the day it's needed, after which it is returned to the rental house. Since opportunities for human error and misunderstandings abound in such a fast-paced, pressure-cooker business, what arrives on set is not always what was ordered. The list of potential screw-ups is endless. Occasionally a Gaffer will change his mind on very short notice, and it's the Best Boy's job to make everything right so that the show can go on.

If keeping a close eye on the incoming and outgoing equipment isn’t enough, the Best Boy must also see to it that his gaffer doesn’t blow through the lighting budget too quickly. If there’s a problem – and budget problems are the rule, rather than the exception – the Best Boy will be the first to hear about it from an irate production manager.

A Best Boy’s task is particularly crazed at the outset of any project, when a thousand things are happening at once, each demanding his attention, consideration, and a decision that had better be right. On a location job, he’ll have to make sure the electrical cables are run properly from the generator to the set – not only to power the high intensity movie lamps, but (on some productions) for hair and make-up and their many power-hungry accessories, to wardrobe for their steamers and irons, and to the camera assistants for their battery chargers. There's also craft service waiting for electricity to toast the bagels and keep the coffee hot.

When another department needs electricity or light to do their work, the Best Boy makes it happen.

Above all, his primary job is to keep the Gaffer happy -- and that’s where things can get tricky. A good Gaffer confers with the D.P. on how to light the set, then clearly communicates the plan to the Best Boy so he can allocate manpower and equipment in an efficient manner to get the job done. Unfortunately, some Gaffers are burdened with authority issues or other mental illnesses leading to a compulsion for micro-managing every last detail. These guys simply can't resist telling the B.B. and the juicers exactly what to do and how to do it. Occasionally a gaffer suffers from an excess of personal insecurities resulting in an inability to make or stick to any decisions. First he wants this, then he wants that -- and once you think the issue is finally settled, he'll come in the next morning having had a “great idea” that more often than not means re-doing much of the previous day's work. Such fools drive everybody up the wall, but the Best Boy has to find a way to keep things moving forward.

The Best Boy often serves as something of a mother hen to his crew, making sure they are taken care of, not excessively abused by either the gaffer or “production” – the producers, production manager, and coordinator. A good Best Boy makes sure his crew is properly compensated when they’ve been working in particularly odious conditions: after wrestling hot cables and lights all night in a driving rain, for example. An experienced production manager knows this too – and as long as the B.B. doesn’t abuse the privilege, will usually send those slightly-padded time cards along to the payroll department without any argument. Sometimes a Best Boy must lend a sympathetic ear when one of his juicers has problems at home that need to be talked out – problems that have nothing at all to do with the work on set.

The Best Boy is a jack of all trades, doing whatever it takes to keep things running smoothly.

Through the whole ordeal of filming, the Best Boy has to remain a diplomat, maintaining a positive attitude in trying to keep a penny-pinching production manager from going ballistic, while at the same time steering an errant if well-intentioned gaffer away from impending disaster. He also must be willing and able to kick a little butt should it become necessary to keep the crew in line. When the Gaffer turns out to be a complete idiot and/or sadistic jerk (such people do exist as living proof that cream isn’t the only thing that floats), then the B.B. has to know when to draw the line in protecting his crew. Otherwise they’ll likely quit, and finding good replacement juicers willing to enter such a toxic work environment won't be easy. Sometimes a Best Boy has to take a stand at the risk of his own job, and if worse comes to worse, he just might have to walk away. All things being equal, life’s too short and the work too hard without also having to cater to the fickle whims of an abusive, incompetent fool. If all things are not equal (meaning the B.B. simply can’t afford to quit), then all he can do is put his head down and slog through the shit-rain until finally reaching dry land. The real beauty of the film business is that the vast majority of jobs are temporary: there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Three to six months on a bad movie -- or even nine months in the soul-crushing factory of episodic television -- is still better than taking a life sentence on the Cube Farm.

So the next time you’re at the movies or watching a film at home on DVD, and for some reason happen to sit through the end-credits, take a moment to tip your hat to the Best Boys. Without them, we’d all be sitting in the dark.

* I use the word “he” in referring to a Best Boy for the sake of convenience. Although set lighting has long been dominated by men, the term “Best Boy” is not gender-specific. I’ve worked with female grips, female Gaffers, and female juicers, and for some supremely competent female Best Boys, who have to be better than good to win acceptance in the man’s world of set lighting.

** I mean no disrespect to set dressers, painters, construction, transportation, props, sound, hair and makeup, script, craft service, the assistant directors and their many production assistants, location managers and scouts, or the vast and entirely under-appreciated army of production and post-production specialists without whom no film or tape project can be successfully completed. Having worked in set lighting for thirty years, those I know best are my fellow juicers, the grips, and the camera department, and thus my comments are limited to them.


Burbanked said...

Not sure if Blogger registers these kinds of trackback links, but I’ve featured your post today at the top of my sidebar (in the "From the brains of the bloggers" box). This is a bit in which I choose a particularly good sentence and link it - wildly removed from its context - back to your post.

I LOVE film production sites like this - great job and I look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

Having lived in San Francisco, away from the industrial heart, I am often the only one left in the theater reading everything up on the screen long after the main action has finished. Even my acquaintances, who have no knowledge of my celluloid past, wait for me near the rest rooms.

You have described the special joys and occasional jealousies of credit reading.

I don't understand how the guilds have let television screenings squeeze the end credits into unreadable oblivion. Then again, Time Marches On.

- Arye Michael Bender -

lseerveld said...

Heard someone mention your blogspot on KQED's Forum this morning. Nice to see well spoken crew folks out there leaving a trail of what we do behind the scenes.

Unknown said...

Mike, I'm a friend of Monty McMillan's and I just want to say your blog is solid.

I'm a traveling musician and have worked the odd TV and movie shoot, so I can relate to some of this.

A.J. said...

"I’ve worked with female grips, female Gaffers, and female juicers, and for some supremely competent female Best Boys, who have to be better than good to win acceptance in the man’s world of set lighting."

THANK YOU for being one of the few man enough to realize this. I hope I get the pleasure of working with you one day.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.

Lenny G

Michael Taylor said...

Glad to see you dropped by, Lenny. I really hope to see you back on set this next season. Thanks for tuning in.

JB Bruno said...

I know this is an old post, but I'm just catching up. We are kindred souls, and I love this: "Three to six months on a bad movie -- or even nine months in the soul-crushing factory of episodic television -- is still better than taking a life sentence on the Cube Farm." My own explanation as to why we do this job we seem to complain so much about comes from "The Misfits." When Eli Wallach is asked why cowboys do what they do if the money and conditions are so bad, he replies "It's better than wages." You either get that phrase or you don't, but I love your "life sentence on the Cube Farm." Brilliant.