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 26, 2008

Day Two: The Pipe Grid Clusterfuck

Small man-lift with bucket fully extended

This is the second part of an explanation detailing how a television pilot is made from the bottom up. In cased you missed it, here's Part One.

The widespread use of pipe grids for lighting on sound stages is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood. Studio sound stages were built to facilitate the use of “green beds” – rectangular wooden platforms hung from the overhead perms on chains, then securely fastened together and braced to form a stable work platform over each set. A properly constructed system of green beds provides a safe, user-friendly environment for juicers and grips to work, with plenty of room to deploy most of the lighting equipment required for any production. Green beds allow quick and easy changes or adjustments to the lighting without disturbing the sets down below, or impacting the other departments at all.

That's how it was when I started in the biz, but times have changed in that regard, and not for the better – and for the usual reason: money. Instead of paying for a crew to hang green beds over the sets, the Money Men now insist on using a pipe grid. Although this might make economic sense for a pilot or other short-duration production, pipe grids are increasingly common on long running shows as well. This represents a false economy at best, and a dangerous one at worst. For the producer to save a few bucks at the start, the crew and production end up paying dearly in many ways on down the line. When working with a pipe grid, juicers and grips must rely on small man-lifts (pictured above), and scissor lifts to hang the lamps, which creates a whole new set of problems. But we live and work in the world that is, rather than the world we'd like to see. And so as always, we bend to reality, make the best of a bad situation, and do whatever it takes to get the job done.

We hit it early Thursday morning, and hit it hard. Two men headed up high to run the power cables out along the catwalks and drop them down where needed, while the remaining two juicers (me included) begin hanging lamps, roughing in the lighting with 2000 watt “Juniors”. Thanks to the continued presence of the construction and painting crews, we’re forced to start with the only set that’s remotely close to being finished, a simple three wall set dressed with stacks of dusty televisions and radios – either it’s meant to be an old-fashioned small appliance repair shop or a thrift store set. There’s no way to know until I read the script, and I haven’t had time yet. We work as a team, with my younger co-worker in the bucket of a small man-lift, while I prepare and feed him the lamps. Picking our way through the construction detritus and growing piles of set dressing, we only manage to hang ten lamps over the next couple of hours. This is pitiful progress, but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances. In an industry that measures time and money on the same warped ruler, none of us has the luxury of working in an organized, efficient manner. The production company only has the stage for a month, and a week of that is already gone. Everything else will have to get done in the remaining three weeks, so we march forward through the noise, sawdust, and paint fumes, in a crowded rugby-scrum of five separate crews trying to work in the same confined space.

In other words, it's a major league clusterfuck. Such is the nature of working on pilot.

But the real kicker comes minutes after we finish hanging those ten lamps, when the production manager strolls down from the office to inform our gaffer that the set we’d just ringed with lights is being “written out” of the script. The writers came up with a better scene that will require a different set altogether -- and that meant the last two hours of work we just finished was all wasted effort. Nobody seems to know what the new set will look like or exactly where it will go, so we just leave those ten juniors right where they are: hanging in effigy, more or less, as a fitting symbol of futility. The space on the stage floor they’d recently occupied has already been filled with set dressing, so there’s no place to put them anyway.

We press onward, doing what we can, where we can, when we can. As the carpenters and painters leave for their breakfast break, we go in with all four lifts (two small man-lifts, and two scissor lifts) to put up as many big lamps as possible. Upon their return, we stay right there and keep working: possession, as they say, being nine-tenths of the law. The carpenters and painters aren’t thrilled by this, and I don’t blame them. Having the wheels of a 2500 pound man-lift creep inches from your unprotected body – a lift controlled by some guy you’ve never met and have no reason to trust – is more than a little disconcerting. No doubt they’d be much happier if we’d just go away until they finished. We feel the same way about them, of course, but it ain’t gonna happen. We’re all stuck with each other for the duration.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Rodney King, “We’ll all just have to get along.”

When operating a man-lift in such conditions, I warn those down below where I’m heading and what I intend to so, trying to reassure them that I won’t drop a heavy lamp on their heads. This is no joke – with the pipe grid 18 feet off the stage floor, even a small lamp can do a lot of damage if dropped. The Baby Tener I’m about to hang weighs close to sixty pounds, which could seriously hurt or even kill someone from that height. For the guy in the lift, the actual weight of these lamps isn’t the biggest problem -- we routinely deal with cable that's considerably heavier, but the cable itself is much more compact, and thus easier to keep close to your body. When lifted properly(letting your legs take most of the load), the strain isn’t so bad. The lamps we’re using on this pilot aren’t particularly heavy in absolute terms, but that weight is distributed in a bulky, awkward package. When working from a man-lift, your legs can't offer much help in manhandling a big lamp -- it’s the lower back and upper body muscles that bear the load and take the pounding.

If I was working on an open floor, the process of hanging lamps on the pipe grid would be relatively simple. But the set below is crowded with obstacles (including people), so a straightforward ascent is out of the question. To hang this Baby Tener, I must first extend the bucket of the man-lift all the way, then go up and creep in towards the pipe. At a certain point, I have to climb out of the bucket and take a stance with one leg on the set wall and the other on the rail of the man-lift. This is a flagrant violation of Sony safety rules, as well as the official Industry safety procedures laid down in classes we’ve all been required to take over the last few years.* Such a blatant violation puts me at considerable risk, since being caught by one of the studio safety officers can result in my being fired on the spot and sent home without pay. Repeated violations could have me banished for life from working at Sony Studios.

That would be bad. Very bad.

Remember all those papers I signed yesterday morning? Among them was an agreement to observe the studio and Industry safety procedures, and by willfully ignoring the terms of that agreement, I’ve put myself beyond the studio’s legal umbrella. If while violating those terms, I were to drop a lamp on some hapless painter or fall and break my neck, the show producers and studio would be absolved of any legal liability.

This is the Catch 22 so many of us face every day on the job: due to the nature of the sets where we toil -- and that damned pipe grid -- the work often can’t be done in any officially approved “safe” manner. But the job must get done, so we do it -- and in the process, walk a tightrope over the abyss with no net of legal or financial protection below. We’re on our own out there.

Welcome to the laissez faire world of modern Dickensian industrial life, where accountants and lawyers rule – and ruin -- everything...

Just because I’m breaking the safety rules doesn’t mean what I’m doing is particularly unsafe. So long as I pay full attention and proceed with due caution, there’s very little chance either the lamp or I will fall. At my age, I can’t afford to fall – an accident like that would probably end my career in more ways than one -- which gives me every incentive to do the work as carefully as possible. And that’s exactly what I do, straddling the lift and the set wall to heft the big 10,000 watt lamp onto the pipe. Once that crucial task is done, I tighten the clamp, hook up the safety and power cables, and label the lamp with a number, using white tape and a magic marker. The gaffer and dimmer operator can now identify and adjust the intensity of the lamp when required.

One of the painters below shakes his head as I back the lift out.

“Piece of cake,” I grin, lying through my teeth.

And so it goes all through the morning and deep into the afternoon. The job itself isn't terribly complex, but working under these conditions demands serious concentration. The constant din, the billowing clouds of sawdust, and the lingering fumes of slowly drying paint all conspire to confuse and distract, and with so many people working below (in what I call “the kill zone”), any lapse in attention could be disastrous. But after a while we all more or less get used to it, and fall into a good working rhythm. The lamps go up, the time passes, and the work gets done. By the end of the day, we haven't crushed any sets, set dressing, set dressers, carpenters, or painters. Nobody gets hurt, and no tempers flare. Our man-lifts are gradually destroying all those shiny new floors, of course, but that was ordained right from the start.

All in all, a good day.

The three big lamps hanging from the pipe grid here are a Studio Senior (5000 watt) on the left, a Studio Junior (2000 watt) equipped with "barn doors" in the middle, and another Senior on the right -- this one with what is known as a "Croney Cone" projecting from the front. In the background are three more Juniors, a 1000 watt nook light, and a 1000 watt "Baby."

Note the juicer's head in the lower left of photo -- he's up in a small man-lift behind the set wall, preparing to adjust the aim of the Senior. Unlike O.J. Simpson (extra huge) or The Artist Formerly Know as Prince (bizarrely small), this juicer has a normal sized human head, which gives you an idea how big these lamps are.

And thanks, Al, for the use of your head...

Thank God it’s Friday...

The alarm goes off at 4:15 a.m., dragging me from the quiet refuge of sleep into a dark world of pain. My back hurts, my arms and shoulders are sore, and my head throbs with a sinus headache from all the sawdust and paint fumes we’ve been breathing the past couple of days. I wash a couple of Advils down with some OJ, then crawl into my work clothes and head to the studio with something less than cheerful enthusiasm. At this point, I’m just grateful this pilot started on a Wednesday rather than Monday. Three straight days of this is quite enough, thankyouverymuch -- a full week might plunge me into a terminal depression. Low on sleep and bone-tired from performing the physical gymnastics required to hang lamps under such awkward conditions, I’m more than ready for a couple of days off.

The stage remains a colossal mess. Carpenters are still cutting, sawing, hammering, and sanding, while the painters continue to brush, roll, and spray their arsenal of multicolored paints. At this point, the atmosphere is thick with enough toxic crap to have this stage condemned as a Superfund site.

To make matters worse, the set dressers are now invading “our” space on the sets. Until today, they’ve been content to unload truckload after truckload of stuff, stacking it wherever possible. As we arrive this morning, they’ve already begun filling one of the main sets with furnishings. We all know there’s no truly good reason for this – that it is, in fact counterproductive in the extreme -- but their boss is impatient to see how the sets look, and they must obey. They too face their own impossible mountain to climb, so we’ll just have to work around each other as best we can. To ease the stress, I climb out of my lift and make the effort to meet each of the three working set dressers, shaking hands all around. They seem like good guys, and now that we’re on a first-name basis, getting them to move their stuff when necessary will be a lot easier.

We keep at it, each crew pushing their own big rock up the same steep hill. This is what we do -- that’s why we’re here – and by the end of what feels like a very long day, the progress is measurable: each set ringed with lamps ready to burn. We’re nowhere close to being done (many dozens of lamps remain to be hung in the week to come), but we’ve made a good start.

And the truth is, that feels pretty good -- especially on a Friday.

*I’ll discuss this in greater depth in a future post

Next: A Monday by Any Other Name


Unknown said... what I call 'the kill zone.'


Great post. This is the kind of real-world filmmaking that they don't cover in Entourage.

createbmx said...

I like the part about meeting the set dressers. It's totally true about meeting people and getting on a first name basis with them. I hate it when they beat me to the opportunity, and ask me to do something first...shit happens. I've been in your situation tons of times, wondering why the UPM didn't ask the dpt heads about scheduling their crews to work together.

Anyways, I never want to be the grip or electric that has earbuds in, since we need to communicate so often, but in situations like this, it seems perfect.

best of luck. Take more pictures (that probably violate your NDA).

Unknown said...

scissor Lifts are basically designed to lift rectangular loads and carry them from one place to another. With the help of attachments, it can perform a number of varied tasks.