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 2, 2007

Will the Buffalo Return?

Disaster of a sort struck this afternoon when I attempted to access the file containing this week’s post – a rambling discussion of the dilemma facing below-the-line workers when we get sick and must decide whether or not to go to work. Like it or not – and I certainly don’t – working sick is a reality in the Industry, for reasons I went to great lengths to explain. But the file was missing – gone -- having vanished from my hard drive into the ether like the morning dew under a hot desert sun. It was there a couple of days ago, but now it’s not. A frantic search of every conceivable file and folder -- including my backup drive – turned up zilch, nada, bupkis, buca de beppo, nothing. Then I recalled how the wonderful (not!) Microsoft Word crashed on me several times last week, and eventually had to accept that my post had been a victim of one of these crashes – collateral damage indeed. Resistance was futile.

Why it’s not on the backup drive remains a profound, head-scratching, keyboard-pounding mystery. Where are Agents Scully and Mulder when you need them? But gone it is, and with six straight days of work starting early tomorrow morning (Strike? What strike?), it won’t be coming back anytime soon. I weep for my little lost post, wandering the wilds of cyber-space, trying to find it’s way back home...

In its place is the following, hastily adapted from an article that first appeared in the September 11, 2005 Sunday Calendar section of the San Francisco Chronicle. The revisions were mostly to acknowledge the present reality of the WGA strike.

Many who view Hollywood from afar have the idea that working in the film/television business (a.k.a. The Industry) must be a glamorous way to make a living. Lights, camera, action, right? Livin’ large and rollin’ with movie stars, limos, and champagne.

“What could be more glamorous than that?” they ask.

If you happen to be one of these innocent, well-meaning people, I have just one thing to say: Grasshopper, please assume the position.

My Webster’s defines glamour as “a magic spell or charm, seemingly mysterious and elusive fascination or allure, as of some person, object, or scene.” That’s all well and good while seated in the dark at the local Mega-Plex watching your favorite movie stars bill and coo while ducking explosions and machine gun fire, but rest assured the movie-screen magic fades all too quickly in the hard light of dawn. Maybe this is true of most things in life – that woman at the far end of the bar giving you the eye near closing time, the giant crystal vase you bid on in a drunken haze at the charity auction the night before, and just about anything bought at Wal Mart – but it’s certainly true of Hollywood: the closer you get, the uglier it looks.

The Industry has two basic tiers of employment: “Above the Line” and “Below the Line.” The former involve what Hollywood considers creative talent: actors, directors, producers, and writers. For all I know, these fortunate souls may indeed lead lives of ceaseless glamour, bathing in gleaming tubs forged from solid gold, sipping chilled Dom Perignon while nubile, scantily-clad slaves of the desired sex pop freshly peeled grapes into their waiting, open mouths.

This does not happen “Below the Line”, where I work, along with those who form the backbone of the Industry: grips, electricians, camera people, prop men, set dressers, carpenters, painters, drivers, make-up and hair artists, sound people, and legions of assistant directors, production managers, coordinators, location scouts, and production assistants. Visualize the Industry as an iceberg, with only the glistening white peak visible above the water – the “line.” The remaining seven-eighths lies submerged in the cold, murky depths below.

After 30 years working my way deep inside the belly of the beast – through its alimentary canal, so to speak -- I am part of the Hollywood Machine. I’ve worked on sound stages and locations all across the country, in sun and wind and rain and snow, all day and all night long, with more movie and television stars than I can remember. When I tell you it is not glamorous, I speak the hard-earned truth.

I’m a juicer, industry slang for “set lighting technician” or “lamp operator”. Juicers typically work in two-to-six man (or woman) crews running cables through which electricity – juice – flows to power the high intensity lamps that turn a location or sound stage set into a glowing proscenium ready for actors and cameras. If that sounds glamorous, consider that the cable we use most frequently weighs nearly a pound per foot, and we usually start with hundred foot lengths. Most cable runs utilize five such cables, and since the power source or generator is often several hundred feet from the set, we typically unload and deploy a couple of tons of cable before pulling a single lamp off the truck. Once upon a time we used carbon arc lamps for filming in daylight – essentially a gigantic arc welder projected through an enormous lens -- but technology now gives us big 18,000 watt lamps that weigh over a hundred and fifty pounds apiece, each requiring a heavy rolling stand, a ballast, and at least another fifty feet of cable to feed power to the bulb. Once the cable run is finished, we roll the lamps to the set, then place, power, and adjust each one until the gaffer – “Chief Lighting Technician”, and our immediate boss -- is satisfied. After the first shot has been filmed (usually a “master” shot in which the entire scene is played out to completion), we shuffle the lamps around to meet the specific lighting requirements for each individual shot – a variety of medium shots and close ups -- that will in the end be edited together into the complete scene. This is called “coverage,” and once we’ve shot the master, coverage is the name of the game.

On big features or television shows with a fat budget, there’s usually a rigging crew to lay down the cable runs before the shooting crew arrives. All they do, day in and day out, is travel from location to location “picking it up and laying it down” – wrapping and deploying heavy cable and power distribution boxes. This makes life easier for the shooting crew, who will nevertheless work twelve to fourteen hour days, week after week. Whether you’re a rigger or a lamp operator –a “show boy” – the work is always heavy, the hours long. This is a tedious, punishing business. It is anything but glamorous.

“But working with actors and actresses, that must be glamorous,” you say.

Think again. A good actor is an amazingly skilled creature who can literally make you laugh one minute and cry the next. I’ve worked with some wonderfully warm and friendly actors – Alan Alda and Suzanne Pleshette come to mind – talented veterans who treat every member of the crew with the same generous respect. This is not always the case. If it’s true that each of us is haunted by something dark and shrunken at the core of our being -- some hideous, shameful fear or insecurity hounding us through life -- then actors have it worse. Much worse. Maybe that’s what drives them to become actors in the first place. They’re a lot like race horses, exotic thoroughbred beauties that are joy to watch in action -- but they can also be nervous, flighty, and unpredictable. Like everybody else, their personal boundaries vary wildly from day to day. Wander inside the paddock at the wrong moment and you just might get kicked. It’s important to remember that the only indispensable elements of any show are the principle actors, especially if the filming has gone on for several weeks. At that point, everyone else -- from the lowest production assistant to the director -- can be replaced, so if one of these actors should decide that your presence somehow interferes with his or her ability to perform, you will disappear. Quickly. One soon learns to make no assumptions, keep a certain distance and be careful about making eye contact -- and always smile. Always. Does that sound glamorous?

That’s okay. I didn’t get into this business for any supposed glamour or to bask in the reflected glow of movie stars, but because I’d seen films like “The French Connection” and “Chinatown”, movies that spoke to me as nothing else had. Film classes in college introduced me to older classics that sparked my imagination: “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Lady from Shanghai”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and “The Big Sleep”. After graduation, I wanted to be a part of a business that made movies like that. I had to give Hollywood a shot.

Unfortunately, this was the late 70’s, which meant I was too late -- the Industry didn’t make movies like that anymore, nor would it fling its doors open for the naive young rube fresh off the turnip truck. Without serious connections – like being born into the business – one must crawl rung-by-slippery-rung up the slime-stained ladder of success. I took my place in line as an unpaid production assistant (read: slave) on a lowest-of-the-low-budget feature, then graduated to a movie that paid me $25 a night. Since most of the story took place after dark, we worked from late afternoon until well after sunup, six nights a week. Eventually I learned enough to get work as a grip, and then as a juicer. For the next twenty years, I toiled on commercials, feature films, an occasional stint of episodic television, and music videos – dear God, far too many music videos. If you want to enter a very special portal of Hell, try working an eighteen hour day on a Shaquille O’Neil rap video, wherein the “song” is played at ear-splitting volume ten or fifteen times an hour while Shaq’s sixty-strong posse dressed like wannabe ho’s and gang bangers clogs every aisle, always in the way when it’s time to move a hot, heavy lamp. I’m sure these were nice enough kids the rest of the week, but on that night, drawn like moths to the ephemeral incandescence called “glamour”, they reminded me of nothing so much as star-struck cattle. Things haven’t changed all that much since Nathanael West wrote “Day of the Locust,” here in LA.

In those twenty-plus years, it never once occurred to me that I’d wind up working on sit-coms. When you’re young and strong, the prospect of working a four camera sit-com has all the appeal of being chained to a desk in some dead and soulless cubicle. From the outside, the world of sit-coms seems hopelessly stodgy – light years from the youthful cool of single-camera shows, The Movies.

But none of us remains young and strong forever, even in Hollywood. There comes a time when the relentless pressure of commercials, the tedious slog of features, and the merciless, war-without-bullets grind of episodic television – one hour dramas that chew up and spit out the strongest of crews – finally burns body and soul to a charred, smoldering husk. That’s when you learn how efficient the Industry is at culling the herd of the old, the lame, and the attitudinally impaired: the phone stops ringing.

Finding myself in a vertiginous free-fall, it was time for Plan B. Or C, or D -- or anything. When an old friend offered me a position on a sit-com, I jumped at the opportunity, and much to my surprise, it wasn’t the stupefyingly dull routine I’d feared. The money wasn’t much, but at that point, finding a safe harbor of steady work with humane hours and decent working conditions was good enough. In time, I saw that the world of sit-coms is something like an elephant graveyard for the Industry, where veteran film technicians of all crafts, no longer fleet of foot or strong of back, can work until being put out to the green pastures of retirement. In other words, sit-coms are the last stop before the glue factory. This is not to say the work is easy -- no Below the Line job is easy -- but compared to features and episodics, working a sit-com is a the proverbial walk in the park.

Every Eden harbors a snake, however, and no sooner had I found a home in this sunny new world than a glut of sit-coms flooded the airwaves in a series of poorly-conceived, sloppily written bombs. The viewing audience promptly stampeding to the vastly superior offerings on cable, provoking the panicked networks to unleash a new and thoroughly rapacious monster into the over-the-air wasteland: “Reality TV”. The ensuing slaughter nearly wiped sit-coms off the map. You on the receiving end of the Cathode Ray Gun, having been repeatedly burned by the network’s lame offerings, might consider that a good thing. For those of us who pull the oars far below decks of the Hollywood slave ships, it spelled disaster. The buffalo were gone. And in case you’re still wondering, there’s nothing glamorous about waiting for the unemployment check to arrive in the afternoon mail.

It’s been said that ninety percent of everything is crap, and this is certainly true of sit-coms -- a format that all-too-often achieves mediocrity with an insulting laugh track and formulaic twenty-two minute, two-stories-and-a-rimshot-tag. The success of so-called “reality” programming, along with endless police dramas, single-camera comedies -- and the latest show du jour every producer simply must have, the idiotic game show -- demonstrates just how bored the television audience was with sit-coms. Eventually, they even grew weary of watching eager young people eat grubs and cockroaches, or answer ridiculous questions in the quest to win the One Million Dollars. They wanted something new, something fresh -- something like “Heroes.” Believe me, I understand – the only sit-coms I watch are whatever I happen to be working on at the time, along with “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill”, animated shows with none of that idiotic canned laughter.

I suppose it’s unreasonable for me to hope you’ll return to the fold and watch sit-coms that, truth be told, I rarely watch myself. Then again, I make the stuff – would you expect a fisherman to buy fish at the supermarket? So consider the alternatives: paying through the nose for a suddenly impotent HBO lineup bereft of “The Sopranos”, turning your brain into garden mulch by watching reality and game shows, or enduring the synthetic platitudes of Deepak Chopra for the two hundredth time during pledge month on PBS. Yes, there are some good things happening on Showtime, FX, Comedy Central -- and even AMC, of all places -- but hardly enough to fill all your happy viewing hours.

Eventually, the strike will be settled, and a new lineup of shows shall beam into your living rooms. I’m hopeful the buffalo will return, that some of those shows – lots of them, actually – will be sit-coms. Believe it or not, entire armies of people work harder than you’ll ever know to bring a sit-com to life. All of us, Above the Line and Below, sweat blood to create and produce shows designed to entertain you, to make you laugh -- to take your mind off your troubles in life for a little while. That’s not such a bad thing, really. If we fail more often than we succeed, that's life, but you’ll never know what you’re missing unless you give these shows a chance. You might be surprised and find something you like, maybe even a new a sit-com that will actually make you laugh. It’s unlikely, I know, but it could happen. And if one new sit-com succeeds, maybe the networks will order more for the next season. It's no secret most network execs are baa-ing, bleating sheep blindly following the woolly ass of whatever sheep happens to be in front -- and if the sheep go towards sit-coms, the buffalo may indeed return. Should that happen, maybe aging sit-com oar-pullers like me will be allowed to grind out the remainder of our so-called careers with some semblance of dignity. Life below decks may not be the least bit glamorous, but it’s all we’ve got.


egee said...

You've almost guilted me into returning to network television. Almost... I'm actually an unabashed television watcher and spend far more time than I should watching T.V. However, I rarely watch anything on network television.

I had a particularly bad experience when I got into a particular series only to have it yanked after a cliffhanger episode. After that I swore off network T.V. It was too painful!

The days of allowing a program to build an audience seem to be past. I recognize that this is a business not a charity but these decision makers come across as so skittish. But I am definitely one of the "ivory tower" dwellers as far as your business goes. I'm sure no one sets out to alienate audiences.

So I go to cable and watch reruns of old (usually mediocre) shows or other types of programming; all the while feeling like the protagonist in a second-rate romantic comedy..a guy suffering from commitment issues.

But you never know, some day I may return...

Hillbilly said...

I wouldn't include Producers in "above the line glam category" No glitter in my life unless it's part of the set or costume. Even then it just ends up in my eye. I also don't own a tv, sorry, but there's never dead air so there's always work to be had of some sort & honestly how does Reality TV shooting differ from Scripted? It's all staged the same.

Michael Taylor said...


I don't blame you for fleeing network TV to the vastly more interesting and creative pastures of cable. So don't I try to get work as a juicer in cable? Simple -- the pay is bad, and the hours brutally long. I'll cover this situation -- which civilians have no way of knowing about -- in a future post


Reality TV is mostly non-union work, which means no benefits or payments towards my union pension and health plan. Most "reality" jobs don't last nearly as long as even a half season of a sit-com. True, "reality" shows are scripted to a very limited extent, but nothing like a good sit-com or episodic. These are very different animals. Also, it's not so easy to slip from one world to another, since sit-coms, features, commercials, or episodic TV are separate and distinct entities. There's some cross-pollination, but not nearly as much as you might think. Not that the actual work is that much different, but in the Industry, getting work often depends more on who you know than what you know -- but not for the reasons you might think. I'll be covering that subject in a future post as well.

So I'm hoping against hope the buffalo do return -- but first, this strike has to end.

Thanks for the comments.

Michael Taylor