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, July 27, 2008

Christmas in July

It's all fake -- phony brick wall, plastic snow blankets, fake bushes, and a painted backdrop -- but at least the Christmas lights are real...

Making film and television has always been a labor-intensive, time-consuming endeavor. Accordingly, a Christmas movie or television episode – and there seems to be an unwritten rule that all television comedies must do a Christmas episode – has to be finished and ready for release/broadcast well before our seasonal tsunami of guilt-induced binge-consumption actually arrives. With much shorter lead-times than features, television shows can shoot their Christmas episodes as late as November. Marching to the same seasonally-driven schedule, a Thanksgiving episode will thus be filmed near Halloween, while Halloween episodes are shot during September.

In some parts of the country, September brings the cool, crisp air and turning leaves of Autumn, but here in LA, we typically suffer through the hottest weather of the year in Fall – and that means filming Halloween episodes in 104 degree heat. Granted, much of each show is filmed on an air-conditioned sound stage, but scenes featuring suburban exteriors crowded with young trick-or-treaters are usually filmed on the “residential street” back lots at studios around town (each a little piece of ersatz middle class suburban heaven) that have been festooned with ghosts, goblins, and faux tombstones for the occasion. Although the scenes are filmed at night, the street and houses must be rigged with power and lights for the shooting crew in the full heat of a September afternoon.

That kind of rigging is hard-earned money. Still, work is work, and if the end product doesn’t always induce thigh-slapping, laugh-till-you-weep comedy (truth be told, I found the sight of Jim Belushi parading down a suburban street in full drag-queen regalia a few years ago more disturbing than funny), at least it puts another check in the mail.

For this year’s final week of production on “The Bill Engvall Show” (Thursday nights on TBS), we shot the Christmas Episode – Christmas in July -- complete with a pair of live deer on our blessedly air-conditioned stage. Deer tend to emerge from their natural environment when you least expect it here in LA, and since a sound stage is an entirely unnatural environment for any living creature, it was very strange indeed to watch a mature doe and her yearling fawn take their first cautious steps onto an 80 foot carpet of rubber matting leading from the stage door to our Christmas set. The matting had been securely taped to the floor to prevent the deer from slipping – traction being a Big Deal to creatures whose ancestors learned the hard way that survival depends on speed and maneuverability.

With all non-essential personnel herded out of sight -- and instructed to stay absolutely quiet -- the immense stage door slowly crawled open, flooding the stage with brilliant sunshine.* Out of that blazing light came two graceful creatures entering an utterly alien world, each step tentative, their ears at full attention, eyes wide.

For once the stage was silent as a tomb, everybody watching with rapt attention. In the back of my mind was the fear these delicate creatures might startle, and suddenly bolt through the set. A film set is not a deer-friendly place, jam-packed with lots of equipment and many sharp edges. A panicked deer could easily mistake the huge canvas backing – painted and lit to look like the open fields and distant snow-capped mountains of Colorado – for the real thing, and leap headlong into it. But there was a wall behind that backdrop, and many hot lamps. Cornering and calming two terrified, disoriented deer under such circumstances would be a difficult, dangerous task. People and deer could end up hurt.

I’ve seen quite enough blood on film sets, most of it fake, but some that was all too real. I don’t need to see any more.

As it turned out, there was no reason to worry -- these wranglers knew what they were doing. Luring the deer with bowls of food pellets, they quietly positioned both animals in the plastic “snow” just outside the windows of the living room set. When the actors inside were ready, the cameras rolled. On a silent cue from the A.D, one of the wranglers made a low whistle – and both deer looked up at the same moment.

It was perfect.

Nailing such a tricky shot on the first take happens more often than you'd think, but this invariably seems to catch everybody by surprise -- and then comes a long moment of awkward indecision. The whole crew knows the first take will end up on screen, but the brain trust in "video village"** has a hard time accepting that any first effort represents the best they can hope to achieve. I suppose it’s human nature to Always Want More (along with following the unwritten rule of providing sufficient coverage for one’s highly-paid, above-the-line ass), but having gone to all the expense of assembling the specialized equipment and personnel required to get a tricky shot, it usually doesn’t cost any more to give it another try. Or two, or five, or ten... Sometimes – extremely rarely – this pays off with an even better take, but the usual pattern is for each successive attempt to fall short in a different manner, as if to demonstrate just how many things really can go wrong. Eventually, a take almost as good as the first one is achieved – at which point, the A.D. starts looking at his watch. This is the signal for the director to surrender to reality, and move on to the next shot.

Following in the footsteps of tradition, we kept trying the same shot until it was painfully obvious that first take really was the winner. Finally, the wranglers led the deer back along that rubber carpet and out the door, their work done for the day.

Our day, however, had just begun. A full slate of pre-shoots kept us busy until mid-afternoon, after which we had the rest of the show to rehearse and block in preparation for the following day’s shoot in front of the live audience. All day long, the sound crew piped Christmas music over the PA system, and after a while it got into my head – with the all the sets lit up in Christmas lights, ersatz snow all around, and holiday music in the air (which was suitably crisp, thanks to the very effective stage air-conditioning), it really did start to feel like Christmas.

Then we wrapped, and walked out into the steaming cauldron that is the San Fernando Valley in July.

Still, even The Heat couldn’t drive that Christmas music out of my head. On the way home, I stopped at a Rite-Aid, and while waiting in the checkout line, found myself humming “Jingle Bell Rock.” The checker shot me a guarded look, then shook her head. I could imagine the story she’d tell her kids when she got home, about the crazy gabacho who came through her line humming Christmas songs in the middle of July.

Hey, it’s Hollywood...

* While working on a stage, one’s eyes adjust to the artificial lighting. It often seems quite bright on set, but the light level inside is nothing compared to real daylight.

**A cluster of monitors displaying the feed from the cameras -- and thus where the writers, producers, and director gather.


Nat Bocking said...

I hope they didn't use the 'falling' snow. That stuff seems to float up as well as fall down and stays up in the perms for years.

AFAIK it's plastic shavings. Lovely when a 'snowflake' settles on your lights and starts to sizzle....

AJ in Nashville said...

Ahh those good ol' Santa Anas...I'd almost forgotten how hot it gets in September and October there.

"Steaming cauldron"...heh. Is it still growing more humid in SoCal? Still, you haven't known 'steamy' until you've spent a summer in Nashville!

Nice story, Michael... :)

Michael Taylor said...


They used both types, so we did indeed find some melted plastic "snow" on some of the lamps.


True, the Santa Ana Heat is dry -- but summers have been gettng more humid here in LA over the past thirty years. Must be all those water-soaked gardens in Beverly Hills. But you're right, it's nothing like Nashville -- or that long summer I spent on a low budget feature in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. That was a steam bath...