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, November 30, 2008

Episodics: Tied to the Whipping Post

                                             So it goes in episodics...

I’ve done a fair amount of ragging on episodic television in this space, continually harping on the brutally long hours endured by production crews who make these one hour dramas. Industry veterans know exactly what I’m talking about, but I can understand why the handful of civilians and film students who occasionally drop in on this blog might assume I’m exaggerating. I mean really, who could possibly work 14 to 16 hour days, Monday through Friday, week after week, month after month, all the way to the bitter end of a 22 episode television season? Given that each episode usually takes eight days to film – typically four days on stage and four more on location – this adds up to a very long season indeed, dragging on for nearly ten months.

Who would subject themselves to such a sustained regimen of abuse?

Lots of people, as it turns out. Not including me, of course – I’ve already served my time on low-budget features and a thousand other death-march productions, thankyouverymuch. The taste of episodics I got later on was like the lash of a bullwhip on a not-yet-healed wound, and I’m no longer willing to “go there” for more than the odd day or two. At a certain point, enough really is enough.

So who are these martyrs willing to strap themselves to the blood-stained whipping post of episodic television? Young people, mostly, working their way up through the ranks of their chosen craft. Working episodics makes sense for the young, who have energy to burn and need a decent income to get started in life. Everything – cars, housing, food-- costs an arm and two legs these days. For most young people, working a 40 hour week simply won't cut it anymore. Episodics provide at least 20 to 30 hours per week beyond that, with every one of those additional hours fortified by overtime: and that’s where the money is.

You find an occasional graybeard working episodics as well, mostly department heads who no longer do any heavy lifting. I can only assume they too need the money – whether due to a divorce or two, a spouse with expensive tastes, or kids to put through college. Or in some sad cases, all three…

I will say this for episodics: working a 70 hour week at full scale does build a fat paycheck. It may be blood money, but at least there’s lots of if.

Other than the money, though (and the rapid accumulation of hours toward each individual's benefits/pension plan), I can’t think of anything good about these meat-grinder productions. It’s way beyond my comprehension that anyone past a certain age could truly enjoy working such an ugly, dehumanizing schedule – but I’ve met otherwise normal, pleasant people who actually like listening to Rush Limbaugh, so I suppose anything’s possible.

All that money comes at a steep price, though. One’s social life suffers working those hours, and for young people and families, that can be very rough. It’s no picnic for older people, either.

But if any non-industry readers of this blog won’t take my word for it, listen to Tom Harmon, star of “NCIS” – yet another police procedural I’ve never seen. According to the LA Times, the show underwent some key personnel changes after last season due to the “chaotic” working conditions. Here’s an excerpt from a recent column:

"Harmon sees that as a change for the better. 'If we're working 14-hour days now instead of the 17- or 18-hour days that we were doing, it doesn't mean we're working any less hard,' the actor said. 'We're just more organized. . . . This has become a very well-oiled machine."

There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth -- 14 hour days means a 70 hour week, while 17 hour days works out to an 85 hour week. I’ve never met Tom Harmon, but I do know people who have worked with him, and they tell me he’s a straight shooter. So now that his “well-oiled” episodic machine is back to working the crew a mere 70 hours per week, everybody’s happy.

Everybody except the co-creator/producer of “NCIS,” that is, who was fired.*

Anyway, that’s why you’ll find me shooting an occasional fire-arrow into the underbelly of episodic television. I’m glad somebody is doing all that work – but I’m really glad that someone isn’t me.

Just in case anybody was wondering...

The LA Times can be hard to access for non-subscribers, so if this link doesn’t work, and you really want to read the article, e-mail me and I’ll send it along.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Really Big Picture

Remember this?

Internet bookmarks remain a conundrum. We all do it -- find an intriguing website, then “bookmark” it to make return visits a simple matter of point-and-click. It’s a wonderful technology, but sometimes too much of a good thing is just that: too much. We keep finding more and more interesting sites to bookmark, and as the list grows ever longer, some invariably get lost in the mix. It’s easy to lose track of those few truly golden nuggets of wheat amidst the ever-mounting piles of internet chaff.

What’s this got to do with anything? It's very slow in my part of Hollywood these days, which is to say that although many people are still working – most of them on shows that have been fully crewed-up for months now -- I am not among them. With feature production still in the doldrums, there are a lot more juicers available than jobs right now.

Either that, or it’s finally happened – I really am finished in this town, and everybody knows it but me...

Paranoia runs deep, as the song said, especially after three weeks of sustained silence from the phone, but it’s all part of the deal here in California, where boom-and-bust cycles have been the rule ever since the Gold Rush. Having thus been blessed with “the gift of time,” I now have the opportunity to put up more mid-week posts than usual. Given that Sundays are pretty much reserved for Industry topics (hiatus weeks excepted), these random weekday posts tend to wander off the reservation. That said, the subheading at the top of the page reads “Life in Hollywood, Below the Line” – and since not-working is every bit as integral to Industry life as working, it all qualifies.

Besides, I’ve got nothing to say about The Biz today. It is what it is, and right now, that ain’t much.

Instead, I’ve been contemplating the big picture. No, not the impending new era of Obama, Hope, and Change, nor am I gloomily dwelling on the slim-to-none chance that Our Way of Life here in the First World will survive the shit-rain tsunami slowly and steadily building just over the horizon.*

None of that today -- instead, I’m talking about the really big picture: the cosmos.

Why? Because while looking for another bookmark the other day, I stumbled across this, a list of photos taken by astronomers all round the world, including the Hubble space telescope. This is no dry-as-dust, scientists-only compendium of data – just look at the titles: “A Spectre in the Eastern Veil,” “A Witch by Starlight,” or “Haunting the Cepheus Flare.” These could all be titles of 1950’s era Sci Fi novels, but they're the real thing – the cosmos beyond the paper-thin atmosphere of our tiny planet, an unfathomably immense and beautiful universe Way Out There.

Granted, some of them sound anything but inspiring. “Anticrepuscular Rays,” for instance, which are not some new hotter-than-Botox skin treatment for aging divorcees in Tarzana, but rather a very cool earthbound phenomenon. Then there’s the “Tarantula Nebula,” which sounds creepy, but is breathtaking in the very best way. These, and thousands more stunning images are available to anyone with a little time and an internet connection – even (ahem), dial-up -- absolutely free, thanks to NASA and your tax dollars. Each photo comes with further links and a clearly worded explanation of exactly what it is you’re looking at.

Somebody sent me the URL several years ago, and I dutifully bookmarked it. But time did what time does, and this wonderful site slipped from the rather dull edge of my consciousness into the dark abyss of the past. Only by accident did I recently stumble across it while searching for something else.

Lucky me – and now, lucky you, because we all need to pull our heads out from our asses every now and then to re-boot of the internal navigation system. A sense of perspective is essential to staying sane in this increasingly unstable world, especially as the holidays roll around. A really good book or movie can get the job done, as can a truly tectonic roll in the hay (laugh at Hemmingway all you want, but the man had a point), and so can these photos. If you don't want to bookmark it, no problem; the link will remain on the sidebar for as long as this blog exists, under the heading "All the Universe."

Because that's where we live.

*I have just two words to say on this dismal subject: Peak Oil. Google it and weep...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Working in a Winter Wonderland

Early morning on location in Vermont, December 1987. We were still using the old DC cable on this movie, and this snow was all too real...

Not so long ago, I touched on the subject of working with artificial snow. Here, we wander a bit deeper into the powder...

Not being a native of the Southern California urban desert, I very much appreciate working on sound stages during the fierce heat waves that so often bring the hellish wrath of an Old Testament God down upon us during the spring, summer, and fall. The industrial strength air-conditioning units that cool these stages don’t come cheap, though, and few producers would dream of squandering company money simply to keep the crew from being miserable – in their eyes, we’re entirely expendable -- but rather to ensure that the actors stay as cool and happy as possible. It seems these sensitive creatures don’t like it hot.

Neither do I.

Sound stages exist to provide an artificial environment – in effect, a weather-proof bubble -- in which any desired cinematic reality can be created and maintained as long as necessary. Such artifice comes at the cost of cubic dollars for stage rental, equipment, and a small army of skilled workers to build, dress, and light the sets in preparation for filming. Much of that expense can be avoided by filming on a suitable location at the right time of year, but those savings are often held hostage (and then some) by the many complications that come with working out in the real world. Although the outside weather is immaterial when shooting on stage, it can become the crucial factor for location shoots -- especially television commercials. Although the production manager of a feature film can often divert the crew to an indoor "cover set", television commercials rarely have that option. A few days of unexpected rain can keep actors and crew of a commercial shoot in the hotel bar, blowing their per diem on Bud Lite, Tequila Shooters, and video games while the budget follows all that rainfall down the drain. Most productions carry some kind of weather insurance, but that only goes so far. This is one reason the fledgling film biz headed west in the early days of the Industry: with a guaranteed three hundred-plus sunny days a year (and snow only in the mountains), Southern California was an ideal place to make movies.

Modern satellite technology has made predicting the weather more reliable than in the past, but meteorology remains an imprecise science, and anytime time a producer has to make a weather-based decision, he or she is walking the high wire without a net.

When the script of a movie or television show calls for snow, a producer faces two choices: take the production company to the snow, or bring the snow to the production company. The former presents serious (and hugely expensive) physical challenges. Real snow usually means winter, when daylight hours are much shorter. If the script calls for lots of day exterior scenes, a longer schedule will be required to get the work done, and that means more money. Then there’s the matter of actually dealing with the cold: snow and ice are hard on film equipment, most of which is designed for use in temperate climes. Cameras and batteries don’t like sub-freezing temperatures, while generators, trucks, and picture vehicles can be balky and hard to start. The big HMI lamps we use to simulate and enhance daylight run the daily risk of catastrophic failure as their quartz bulbs go from below freezing to something like 3000 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes. Cable becomes stiff and unwieldy in cold weather, and as snow falls on warm electrical equipment, it can melt and seep through the cracks. Since mixing water and electricity is seldom a good idea, the juicers must cover everything well enough to keep the snow off, but not so tightly that the HMI ballasts overheat.

Working in the cold is hard on people, too. Although the snow was beautiful up there in Vermont, the harsh conditions made that job a particularly draining ordeal. I did another job (a Lexus commercial) that required us to spend three long days filming exteriors on the cold, slippery surface of an ice lake in the mountains of Colorado, during the depths of winter. It took a while to thaw out and recover from both of those jobs.

When a producer wants the look of snow without the expense, hassle, and inconvenience of shooting the real thing, it’s up to the special effects crew to fake it. My first experience with this came in the early 80’s, while working a commercial in the gritty warehouse district of downtown LA. The spot required us to create a Chicago street scene in mid-winter, complete with traffic jams and a small army of pedestrians bundled up in heavy clothing and rain/snow gear – and this, on a 100 + degree day in late July. The special effects crew sprayed the entire intersection with some kind of white soapy foam to simulate snowdrifts, then spent the rest of the day shoveling endless buckets of plastic “snow flakes” through huge wooden blades of Ritter fans to create the look and feel of a howling blizzard.

That no Chicago snowstorm would have a big bright sun beaming down through the clouds didn’t seem to bother anybody in “video village,” where the producer, director, agency and clients clustered under the shade. There was no such shade for us on the crew, of course, manning our big DC carbon-arc lights behind those “snowdrifts”, but at least we were clad in the standard summer work uniform of T shirts, shorts, and sunglasses. The poor actors suffered horribly, sweating their lives away under thick wool coats and rubber rain slickers in that broiling heat, their misery compounded by the nearly 14 hours of filmable daylight available in July. It was a long day for everybody, but while the crew’s main problem was avoiding sunburn, those actors had to labor under threat of heatstroke.

Experiencing the seasonally-surreal is standard operating procedure for Industry workers. Years ago, I did a series of “Murph 76” commercials featuring the granite-faced Richard Slattery, who seemed born for the role of a crusty-but-benign gas station owner named “Murph.”* With his youthful, mustachioed sidekick "Bobby," and a perky-and-pony-tailed female gas pump jockey named "Jill," they formed an ensemble along the lines of “All in the Family” (minus Edith), with “Murph” as the grumpy patriarch.

Most of those spots were filmed at a Union 76 gas station just beyond the parking lot at Dodger Stadium, always on a non-game day. Most were shot in daylight hours, but when it came time for the Christmas commercial, the agency came up with a Murph-as-Santa Claus spot – and that meant an all-night shoot. Since every night shoot begins the day before, we arrived in early afternoon to lay out the cable (4’0, naturally) and build six carbon arc lights on double parallels (a portable steel scaffold, in this case, about 12 feet high) arranged in a wide semi-circle around the front of the gas station. As twilight settled in, the special effects crew sprayed the gas station and surrounding area with lots of that soapy foam to simulate snow.

My job was to sit up on one of those parallels and operate my arc. This was considered sweet** duty, since you can’t just turn on a carbon arc and walk away. A carbon arc lamp is essentially a giant arc welder encased in a metal housing, with a lens at one end. Once the lamp has been "struck" -- the two 1/2 inch thick carbon rods brought together to start the flame, then pulled apart the proper distance to maintain it -- those rods are fed together by a motor-driven worm gear. The resulting electric flame must be constantly monitored and kept in proper adjustment to ensure a smooth, even light from the lamp. As those carbons burn down, they have to be replaced with fresh ones – a process called “trimming” – wherein the lamp is shut down and opened up, exposing the hot machinery and glowing red carbons. Installing new carbons isn’t particularly difficult, but handling any red-hot item demands one’s full attention. Operating an arc is a full-time job -- you can’t run off to work on the set, where all the yelling and screaming usually takes place. You just sit up there next to your big hot lamp and watch the circus of chaos unfold down below.

Like I said, sweet.

By the time darkness fell, the gas station really did look like a winter wonderland, deep in snow and glowing with Christmas lights. Something wasn’t right, though, because they kept fiddle-fucking around for hours before getting the first shot. Even then, the process seemed to take a lot longer than usual. It wasn’t until nearly 2:00 in the morning that “Murph” finally emerged from his motor home/dressing room, wearing a red and white suit stuffed with pillows, and the big white beard of Santa Claus. Whatever caused the delay, “Murph” had apparently filled those empty hours with a quantity of booze, and was now as well-lit as the gas station, his nose and cheeks glowing without the help of makeup.

I couldn’t really hear what was happening, but saw lots of arm waving and jaw flapping before the director finally was able to run “Murph” through his paces. Burned in my mind’s eye is the image of this drunken Santa Claus staggering around in the soapy snow under the glare of half a dozen arc lamps, with the enormous dark saucer of Dodger Stadium looming in the distance -- and beyond, the glass towers of downtown LA glittering in the pre-dawn gloom.

This moment crystallized for me the realization that I’d finally become a part of the Hollywood Machine, if only as a tiny cog among thousands in the vast array of spinning gears. Whether I truly belonged in this world of professional artifice (or would manage to carve out any sort of long-term future in the form of an Industry career) was very much unclear at the time, but I can still see that absurd scene as if it happened yesterday. In that single shining moment, I took one large metaphorical step back to view the distance I’d come: a kid who grew up milking goats in the chilly evenings of rural Northern California, now living and working in the shadow of that famous Hollywood sign.

I don't know if this was a true epiphany, or if I was just tired. Both, perhaps, but like most such moments of profound clarity, it didn’t last long. The night dragged on until the Eastern sky turned from black to gray. They cameras kept rolling until the sun finally came up – and then the director, actors and all but a couple of production people went home. It wasn't long before we juicers were the only ones left, with a single yawning production assistant watching us wrap several thousand pounds of wet, soapy, and very heavy cable under the heat of the slowly rising sun.

I didn't know it then, but I would re-live similar night-into-day scenes many times over in the years to come, with and without the phony snow. And although I really hate working nights, I have to admit that after suffering through the long hours of darkness, the coming of the dawn is truly magical.

Until it's time to start wrapping all that cable, anyway, at which point I'm just happy to be working in fake snow rather than the real thing.

*This was back in the days before self-serve gas, when we fueled up at a “service station” that had a mechanic on duty to perform whatever repairs a car might need to get back on the road. You can see some of those “Murph 76” ads here (although not the Xmas spot, unfortunately.)

** The modern equivalent of this is condor duty, but since condors go much higher than parallels or floaters, I find condor duty a rather isolating experience. Some juicers love this splendid isolation -- they yak on their cell phones, listen to Ipods, watch portable televisions, or just got to sleep up there, high over the set. To each his own, I suppose, but all things being equal (which they never are), I’d rather sit on a parallel, tending my old carbon arc...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hour of the Wolf

This is not the Sunday Post – that will appear at noon tomorrow, right on schedule. Earlier this month I promised to stay away from the subject of politics -- and I will -– but the events of this past week had me pondering the “Dismal Science” of economics, about which I know even less...

Did you feel that cold shiver ripple through the country late last week when the stock market finally sank below 8000?

Not that I know anything about stocks or the overheated economic house of cards that seems to have collapsed in upon us, but there was something different in those voices on the radio, the faces on the television news, and even in the oddly narrow and taller headlines of the LA Times -- a note of strain and tension that once lay below the surface, but now has burst out into the open: the first whiff of real panic over our current economic situation.

Those unlucky enough to have already lost a home or job in this unfolding mess know all about the tailspin of despair. The rest of us have been peering over the lip of the abyss watching them tumble into the darkness, clucking our tongues and shaking our heads in sympathy. Up until this past week, there was always a remote quality to this spiraling disaster, as if it was just another show on TV – something we could turn off when the images became too disturbing. Until now, we could always look away and make The Fear go away.

Not anymore. This isn’t happening in Darfur, Somalia, or Indonesia. It’s happening here.

Watching Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson on the news last week, I saw a man – supposedly an expert in economics -- who looked like he was falling apart inside. After blathering on about “confidence” and apparently standing his ground during the early weeks of this crisis, he suddenly performed a series of shockingly swift back-flips and reversals, head-faking Wall Street, the stock market, and the rest of the country right out of our shoes. It seems abundantly – and stunningly -- clear that the adults are no longer behind the steering wheel. Our government has become a headless corpse lurching from one microphone to the next, spewing promises and platitudes the way a suddenly decapitated chicken sprays blood all over the yard.

Nobody in power seems to have any idea how to stop the bleeding, much less pull us out of this economic death-dive.

So here we are in the midst of a lap-dissolve between an outgoing administration whose ideological foundations prevent it from taking any truly effective action, and an incoming regime unable to wield any real power for another two months. I don’t think the Founding Fathers had the foresight to make constitutional provisions for such a dramatic set of circumstances.

As many of us are only now becoming aware, if you’re close enough to look over the lip of the abyss, then you’re in real danger of tumbling over the edge yourself: we’re not peering down anymore, we’re dangling from that crumbling ledge by one hand. If Someone Important doesn’t start making the right moves – and fast – a lot more people are going to fall. This is real, and it's staring us right in the face.

Did you smell the sudden stench of raw fear in the air last week? Did you hear the rumble of dreams collapsing, empires crumbling, and the previously unthinkable vision of everything you’ve always taken for granted now lying prostrate and quivering on the cosmic chopping block of fate?

Do you hear the wolves howling in the distance?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fire, again...

The end of the world as we know it?

So here it is mid-November -- just a few short weeks from the official start of Winter – but in Southern California, the thermometer hovers at 90 degrees and five percent humidity as firestorms rage through the canyons consuming houses like a fat man inhaling popcorn. Sirens rend the air while Hollywood swelters in the strange coppery glow of sunlight filtered through a dense pall of smoke. The throat-tightening stench of burning tires drifts through my windows.

Yes, it's just another day in paradise...

My phone isn’t ringing these days, so there’s plenty of time to read the newspaper. Bad idea. The stock market plummets like a dying bird, while the sclerotic American auto industry teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. Closer to home, we’re suffering through a sustained drought with no end in sight, the state coffers are in the neighborhood of 25 billion dollars beyond empty, and once again Southern California is going up in flames.

It feels like the end of the world, all right.

Obama might be our new president-elect, but the Santa Ana Winds don’t care, nor do those sick arsonist bastards whose eyes begin to glitter whenever the humidity drops and The Heat blows in from the deserts. Accidents are one thing – shit does indeed happen – but there’s a special place in Hell for people who deliberately set fires at a time like this. Personally, I’d just as soon beat the living crap out of them with a lead pipe in the here-and-now rather than await the questionable justice of the hereafter.

I’ve been through a big fire, and it’s no fun. Back on the home planet in the last century – during the hot winds of October, naturally – a huge, fast-moving conflagration came over the hill towards my house. As the immense wall of reddish-gray smoke approached, cops drove up the street ordering mandatory evacuation. It’s a very strange feeling to stand in the middle of your house, looking around for what suddenly feels like the Very Last Time, while trying to decide what to leave and what to take with you into the future. And later, of course, come the regrets – a small watercolor I’d foolishly left behind, painted by my grandmother, along with other small items that escaped my attention as the flames approached. But there's no time to think, so you make your choices and go, heart pounding with adrenaline, down a narrow road, dodging fire trucks, crazed wildlife, and other fleeing cars all the way.

And once safely past the fire lines, away from the swirling vortex of panic and confusion, all you can do is watch and wait and pray.

In the end, I was among the lucky ones. Although forty-five houses in the immediate neighborhood were incinerated, a late night wind-shift drove the flames back over the hill, sparing my place – but not before the fire came within four feet of the carport, and fifty feet from the house. A bullet dodged. It was several days before those whose homes survived were allowed to return, to a bleak lunar landscape reeking of smoke and ash. Not until months had passed and the winter rains come did that awful stench fade away.

But such is life in California, which has been a boom-and-bust state right from the very start. It’s always something out here -- if the earth isn’t shaking, then the hills are burning – but between disasters, it can be a nice place to live. That's the Devil's Bargain we all make: live here at your own risk, and be prepared to take the good with the bad. Trouble is, disaster seems to be visiting a lot more frequently these days, mostly in the form of fire -- and the Big One is still out there lurking in the gray mists of the future, awaiting the right moment to grab us by the throat and shake our world to pieces. We've been through some pretty good earthquakes in the last twenty years, but nothing like what's coming. When that one hits, it really will be the end of the world as Californians have known it.

How nice to know we have something to look forward to...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Holidaze Loom: A Time to Worry

Uh, this is style?

While leafing through the LA Times the other day, I came across an advertisement featuring the image of a young woman gushing with what can only be described as orgasmic delight – head back, eyes half closed, her glossy lips parted and moist -- clearly a woman in the deepest throes of ecstasy. In bold letters beneath, the caption read: “Give the ultimate gift.”

What else could this mean but the soul-cleansing, mind-blowing sexual tsunami that remains Mother Nature’s most profound expression of physical gratification?

Well, a heart transplant, maybe, or giving up a kidney to someone on death’s door – that could certainly qualify as “the ultimate gift.” But this young woman didn’t seem to be suffused with the soft glow of such rarefied altruism -- she was in the grip of something a tad more raw and self-serving.

So I read a little further: “When it comes to giving, there’s no better choice than to GIVE the gift of style.”


This, it turned out, was an ad for the Westside Pavilion, a mall on the “fashionable West Side" of Los Angeles, as the newspapers like to say – and according to these merchants, “the ultimate gift” is buying a new and very expensive wardrobe. Yes, change may have come, with a New Order on the way, but retail America still depends for sustenance on fostering the consumer delusion that you really can buy happiness.

Same as it ever was...

The rather astonishing photo above appeared in another section of the paper. I freely confess that the world of "high fashion" has always baffled me: models prancing down runways clad in the most outlandishly preposterous outfits imaginable – clothes no actual human would ever be caught dead wearing on the street – while grinning hipsters and their fellow trendoids sit in the dark sipping cheap champagne and nodding with approval.

There are many things in life I do not understand, but this just might top the list. How such a sartorial freak-show is supposed to infuse the citizen-consumers of America with the overwhelming lust to get out and buy (a state of mind vital, apparently, to keeping our increasingly leaky economy afloat) is beyond me.

This hapless model is dressed in what appears to be an asymmetrical double breasted trench coat with armpit cutouts and some kind of black flower/ruffle arrangement down below. But even if I cared about such things, it would be hard to concentrate on the coat, since the poor girl seems to be spontaneously combusting from within -- white smoke billowing out her collar to engulf her head as it rises into the black sky.

Or maybe she simply couldn't resist sticking her entire head into a giant cotton candy machine that someone forgot to load with pink dye...

I really don't know, but if this is the future, I’ll have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming – which is nobody's idea of going in style.

It's Hiatus Week Number Three here at the BST Lounge, time for me to pull up a stool, lean on the bar, and blather on about whatever comes to mind -- and this week, that would be the looming holiday season. I don't know about you, but I am not ready for Christmas. The drums of work, pounding away so furiously for the past couple of months, have suddenly stopped, and a great silence fallen over Hollywood. This is not good -- as the native guides in those old jungle movies invariably used to warn, “When the drums stop, Bwana, it is time to worry.”

Worry is not an emotion I like to associate with Christmas, but such is the Curse of the Freelancer, always wondering when (or if …) the next job will materialize from the ether to put another paycheck in the bank. If this was December 16, I’d be fine with a work slowdown -– but right now, another two or three weeks of gainful employment would make sliding into the holidays much more comfortable.

The Gods of Hollywood, they care not a whit for my comfort level -- or yours.

I’m hearing good things about the New Year, though -- rumors of pilots galore, despite the fact that pilot season (or what we used to think of as "pilot season") won’t arrive until March. But it’s not at all clear that the old rhythms and patterns still hold. I just finished doing two pilots back-to-back at a time of year when pilots are usually nothing more than sugar plum dreams in the heads of writers and producers all over town. A pilot in October is either six months late or six months early, depending on how you look at life.

A busy start to the New Year would be welcome, especially after the way last year started out in such a dismal manner with the writer's strike. But January is still eight weeks away, and all those rumors of pilots swarming the studios could easily turn out to be nothing but hot air -- Lord knows there's no shortage of that in Hollywood. Meanwhile, if nothing turns up, there’s always the dole. According to the LA Times, California’s unemployment fund won’t dry up until sometime next year, and maybe the Feds will bail us out by then. If not, we'll be tap dancing on very thin ice indeed, since I really doubt the Chinese will.

Until the phone rings again, all I can do is chant the mantra of America’s foremost philosopher, Doris Day, from The Man Who Knew Too Much, “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see, que sera, sera.”

In other words, hold on to your wallet and hope for the best.

On the brighter side, I’ve discovered a few more interesting blogs worth exploring. “Polybloggimous” is just what it sounds like – many blogs in one, posting something new several times a week. Nathan works as a location manager out of New York, doing features, commercials, and doubtless anything else he can get. He's also a very good writer, and has posted several informative and highly entertaining accounts of his trials and tribulations on the job. Since you're just as likely to find photos of Central Park, Nathan's two cats, or his musings on a very wide spectrum of topics, I'm reluctant to label his an "Industry Blog" -- but who cares? Labels schmables -- like the name says, it's a poly-blog, and well worth a look.

"The Jimson Weed Gazette" has been quietly posting photos of LA for a long time now. "K" is a gifted photographer and a man on a mission: as the subheading on his blog declares, "I'm photographing LA -- all of it."
That he is, and doing it very well. He doesn't say much, but when he does, pay attention. Check it out.

Although "Waiter Rant" has been around for a long time, I just discovered this diary of a New York waiter. He recently published a book based on the blog, thus blowing his cover -- and how this will influence his future posting remains to be seen -- but the archives are a rich treasure trove of well-told stories, complaints, and observations on human nature accumulated during his many years on the front lines of the restaurant business. Anybody who has done time working with the public -- especially in the food biz -- will find much to appreciate in this blog.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Pilot, Week Three: Kill the Pig

Pilots are a bitch...
(photo by Scott Lee)

This is the last in a seemingly endless series of posts telling you way more than you ever wanted to know about how a sit-com pilot gets made, down in the trenches.

Twenty years ago, I spent a couple of months working in Oxford, Mississippi on a feature called “Heart of Dixie.” Like most low budget, non-union shows, it was a grueling ordeal – very long hours, six day work weeks, and three solid weeks of night filming to finish it off. Working such a brutal schedule takes a heavy toll. As you near the finish line, you’re really not the same person you were at the beginning.

Late one night in our final week, I was walking back to the truck when I ran into one of our actors, Kurtwood Smith. Smith was a favorite of mine, largely on the strength of his scarifying performance as the baddest of futuristic bad guys in the original “Robocop.” There in the half-lit shadows a couple of hundred yards from the set, we chatted about finishing up “Heart of Dixie.”

“It’s time to kill the pig,” I said.
“What do you mean?” he smiled.
“Making a movie is kind of like killing a pig,” I replied, half out of my mind under the cumulative weight of fatigue from seven week’s constant work. “We’ve been swinging an axe at that pig for almost two months now, cutting off a leg here and another leg there, until now it can't run anymore. It’s just lying there all bloody and screaming. It’s time we killed that pig.”

Kurtwood’s smile faded as he listened. His eyes widened ever so slightly.
“Yeah, sure,” he nodded, slowly backing away. “Look, I gotta go to makeup...”

No doubt he thought I was crazy, and in a way, I probably was. The stress and fatigue of feature work (especially the low-budget, non-union variety) can squeeze you to the point where you lose touch with reality – after a while, The Movie becomes the only real thing left. I didn’t mean to freak out poor Kurtwood, but the image of that bloody, screaming pig had been spinning through my brain those last couple of weeks, and it just came out. True, my family always kept a pig up in the barn as our garbage disposal (life in the sticks isn’t like growing up in suburbia, much less the city), but although I fed our pigs hundreds of times, I never had occasion to kill one. I shot a few squirrels during the course of one long summer, defending our stand of walnut trees, until even that sickened me. Killing is a serious business, not something to be done lightly.

Still, the metaphor holds. Although every show eventually does grind to an end, getting over the hump to completion always seems to require one last maximum effort -- a final all-or-nothing swing of the blade -- and when that moment finally arrives, it’s time to kill the pig...


Monday, Day Nine

This is our last late-call lighting day, and final chance to get it right. Tomorrow we start off filming on location, then come back to shoot more scenes on stage. Such an early call means we can’t work too late tonight without running into turnaround problems for tomorrow, so we work hard and fast, trying to get every last lighting detail perfect. That’s the goal, anyway, but if we fall a little short – and perfection is hard to achieve -- it’s not for lack of effort. With the turnaround clock ticking loudly, we head for home knowing that once again, everything is about to change.

Tuesday: Day Ten

Just before 6:00 the next morning, we gather inside the studio gates, where vans wait to ferry us to the location a couple of miles away. Grip and electric are the first on set, which means there’s no coffee or craft service yet, so we unload the truck in the dark, stumbling through our foggy-brained, caffeine-deprived confusion. We’ve all been here a hundred times before, though, so everybody knows the drill. Working by flashlight, we run the cable and set up the lamps, working steadily until the power is hot and everything's ready to burn. By then, the sun is up, driving away the morning chill and then some. The jackets come off, and all too soon we’re sweating in the fierce autumnal heat of urban Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the camera crews have been busy unloading and setting up their gear, and they are not having fun. Taking a sit-com crew on location invariably devolves into a monumental clusterfuck, especially in this era of digital tape. Multi-camera shows were designed to be shot on a sound stage, where every aspect of filming can be controlled. Out in the real world, we fight the wind, the sun, the weather, and all sorts of elements beyond our control. Taking a sit-com crew off stage was bad enough back when we still shot on film (all of two or three years ago), but at least each film camera and its crew formed a more or less autonomous, self-contained unit. Digital cameras require much more technical support, with long, thick cables running from each camera back to the “digi-tech” (a “digital technician” who does color correcting and balancing on the fly), and then to “video village,” a tented-in area where the feeds from all four cameras are displayed for the producers and writers. Just getting to the point where those four cameras are ready to shoot takes forever on location.* But we don’t have forever – we have only six hours to set up, rehearse, shoot, then pack everything up and head back to the stage for the rest of the day’s work.

In time the filming got underway, as we moved and adjusted our two 18K's to meet the requirements of each shot. At one point, both lamps went down for no apparent reason, other than burning away in the hot sun (those electronic ballasts are light and flicker-free, but they remain delicate little flowers), so we opened them up to cool for a few minutes, then had the generator operator goose the voltage a tad. After that, no problems. We kept working and sweating and sweating and working until the last shot was in the can – at which point we packed up and headed back to the studio, two hours into the red zone of the day's schedule.

After lunch, we rehearsed and pre-shot several scenes on stage, including one in that newly added bedroom/bathroom set, finally wrapping at 8:00 p.m. It had been one long and tiring fourteen hour day, but it was over.

Wednesday: Day 11

Blocking day starts with an 8:30 call. On an up-and-running sit-com, we’d go through every scene of the show, methodically blocking (choreographing every move of the actors and their dialog with the four cameras), then pre-shoot a scene or two. Being that this is a pilot, we just keep blocking and shooting all day long. It’s a grind, constantly tweaking the lighting throughout the day to keep the DP happy, but the upside is that at this rate, we won’t have all that much left to shoot in front of the live audience tomorrow -- which means we might not have to work a horrendously long day. Show night on a pilot is the last chance the producers have to get what they need/want, so those days tend to run long. If we can get out in 12, I'll be happy.

Thursday, Day 12: Shoot Day

Shoot day on a sit-com feels very different from every other day, be it a pilot or an up-and-running show. We come in at 10:30 in the morning and immediately begin re-blocking to accommodate script changes -- and of course, tweaking the lighting accordingly. The time passes quickly, and almost before I know it, we're breaking for dinner at 4:00. The audience starts to load in at 5, and the show is scheduled to start at 6:00. By then, nearly 250 people are packed into the grandstand that runs right up to the camera aisle, fifteen feet from the sets. It's a rather intimate setting, really, an odd blend of live theater and filmed performance, and with another forty or fifty people down on the floor (just past the camera crews stand dozens of cast friends, girlfriends, families, agents, and great milling herds of producers), there's a palpable sense of electricity in the air.

There's also the warm-up guy. Every sit-com (pilot or show) employs a warm-up guy to keep the audience laughing throughout what can be a long night. The show itself usually runs around 25 minutes or so, and by the time it’s ready for broadcast -- or focus groups, in the case of a pilot -- will have spent a long and painful night in the Procrustean Bed of the editing room, emerging at exactly 22 minutes.

But that's the finished product -- actually shooting (and re-shooting) all the various scenes usually takes about four hours, which is a long time for an audience to sit in a chilly air-conditioned stage watching intermittent and repetitive action. Thus, the warm-up guy, who keeps them occupied and interested between takes or when the writers swarm in to go over new lines for the actors. Sometimes this is done when the original lines didn't get the expected laugh, but with a pilot, it’s mostly to provide a little different spin on the scene – softer or harsher, and hopefully funnier -- in case the show runs into trouble with the focus groups.

A good warm-up guy makes a world of difference. A couple of years back, I watched a really bad warm-up guy during a pilot shoot -- that poor bastard died thousand deaths out there as joke after joke fell flatter than a stale tortilla. The audience just stared at him, not knowing what to think. Meanwhile, the show suffered -- without a howling, enthusiastic audience, it just didn't seem all that funny. This was rare, though, since most of these guys (and they always seem to be guys -- I’ve never seen a female warm-up person) are very good indeed. The very best can be spectacular, able to crack up the notoriously stoic camera crews down on the stage floor.

Tonight, we are blessed to have one of those, a tall, lean comic with great jokes, perfect timing, and a lightning wit as scalding as it is funny. He walks right up to – and sometimes beyond – the borders of good taste, but always manages to pull it off and keep them laughing. He has a knack for physical comedy as well, with otherwordly juggling skills, performing simple sleight-of-hand tricks that boggle the audience mind. Part of his act is hop aboard a six foot high unicycle, spin a basketball atop a stick held in his mouth, and juggle four bowling ball pins all the same time. Talk about multi-tasking... this guy is just a brilliant comedian. One of the perks of working sit-coms is getting paid while watching him perform.

A warm-up guy like this is expensive -- $3,000 a night and up -- but worth every penny. He keeps the audience in the game, primed and ready to roar at every punchline in the show. When two hundred and fifty people cut loose like that, you can feel the energy radiate down onto the stage. The actors feed off this energy like surfers riding a wave, performing at a level they might not otherwise reach. This, I suspect, is the real reason we shoot sit-coms in front of a live audience. And it works, with one big downside: the laugh track everybody loves to hate when the show is actually broadcast. The laughter that felt so genuine in person sounds utterly fake on TV, in part because the laugh track has been synthetically "sweetened" in the editing process. I don't know anybody who likes to be told when to laugh, and personally, I find these laugh tracks insulting, particularly after the sweetening process has leached any genuine spontaneity from that laughter. But that's the way it is.

Once the warm-up guy starts, there’s usually very little for the set lighting crew to do. We have to keep a sharp eye out for “burnouts” (the bulbs of movie lamps go bad just like those at home, only a lot more frequently), and stay ready to jump in with a ladder to replace any burnouts between takes. Other than that, the only task at hand during this shoot night is turning on the “Obie lights” when needed -- small 200 watt lamps mounted just above the lens of each camera. Some scenes need them, while others don’t, so we have to pay attention to notes each of us made during blocking process. One downside of shoot night is that we all have to wear walkie-talkies equipped with in-your-ear headsets so they’ll remain silent to everyone else. That way we can spread out around the set and immediately respond should something need to be done. This works well, but I hate wearing those damned things, with a strident, tinny little voice yammering away inside my head all night. But on a good show night, there will be no B.O. lamps, minimal Obie notes, and very little to do except watch the show unfold. At that point, we’ve pushed the big rock as far as we can up the steep hill: it’s now up to the actors to finish the job -- to swing that axe and finally kill the pig.

This shoot night goes well, with no problems on our end – “no flies on electric,” as the gaffer I broke in with so long ago used to say. The actors do a good job, requiring very few retakes, and the audience seems to love the show. The first AD calls wrap around 10 pm, after which we do a quick clean-up just to make the sets safe and pull the Obie lights off the cameras, and that’s about it. We're off the next day to give the set dressers a chance to drag all their stuff off the sets, then we'll come in the following Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to pull down all our lights and cable, and leave the stage clean. Wrapping is relatively mindless work that can be done at a relaxed, steady pace. As the old adage goes, "It comes down a lot quicker than it goes up," and we'll have no problem taking down in three days what took ten days to put up. When we leave, the stage will be absolutely bare -- no sets, no nothing -- with only the empty pipe grid hanging above the stage floor, as if we’d never been there at all.

That’ll be it for us. Somebody else will cut the pilot together, then run it through the gauntlet of focus groups for the network. If it survives that ordeal, maybe the show will get picked up for ten or twelve episodes early next year. The vibe on stage during shoot night was good, and we're all hopeful, but that and five bucks will buy a nice hot cup of Starbuck’s finest. "Que sera, sera" -- what will be, will be. Doing a pilot is better than day-playing or slaving on the rigging crew, but beyond the paychecks for this last week and the wrap days, this pilot offers us no guarantees at all.

The set lighting crew gathers in our room after the show with smiles all around. This was a hard pilot, and we're all relieved to be done, but the truth is we managed to have a pretty good time in spite of everything. Two of our five man crew were strangers to me when we started, but I now look forward to working with them again. Hell, even the grips turned out to be good guys. All in all, it was fun -- now that it's over...

We head to the parking structure together, and (miracle!) find both elevators actually working. Parked on different floors, we go our separate ways into the night. As I walk up the long incline of the fifth floor towards my car, I notice the fat gibbous moon hanging bright in the dark sky above the gleaming towers of downtown Los Angeles. It’s a gorgeous sight. I stop for a moment to admire this stunning view of the Emerald City, (not Seattle, the other one...), and it suddenly hits me that I won’t be here doing this kind of work forever. The clock ticks ever louder these days, leaving me only a handful of years before I'll have to retire -– assuming I manage to avoid falling off one of those wobbly 12 step ladders before then. When that day finally arrives, I’ll pack up and head back to the Home Planet, putting LA and the  film/television industry in my rear view mirror for good as all that work and all those people slip into the past. For the last dozen of these thirty-plus years, I’ve been looking forward to that day -– pulling my dirty, battered gloves off for the last time and leaving it all behind: the absurdly long hours, the endless tedium, lousy working conditions, lack of sleep, grinding fatigue, and the bloated ego-driven idiocy that dominates so much of this crazy business.

Those, I won’t miss, nor will the Industry miss me -- I'm just another a grain of sand on the endless sunny beach of Hollywood -- but I certainly will miss all the people I've worked and suffered and laughed with for so long. Sharing and overcoming the misery and frustration of the job, everyone pulling together, busting our asses to get it done -- that, I'll miss. But here, as with so many things in life, the good and the bad come as a package deal: you can’t have one without the other. Now that I can see the finish line at last -- a ways off, but no longer out of sight or mind -- I’m just beginning to understand how much I’ll miss it all when it really is finally over.

And I think I’ll miss it a lot.

* Digital may be the future, but there are still plenty of bugs in the systems that further complicate the task at hand. In time, the technology will improve to alleviate many of these problems, but for now, the digital revolution remains in its infancy -- and as with any other squalling, stinking little shit-machine, this means endless hassle for everyone involved.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Check it out...

What's this? Two midweek posts in a row?

Surely the End Times must be coming...

Hey, it's a busy week, and I have no explanations -- but I don't think this will mark a pattern of multi-post weeks on my part, unless I suddenly become unemployed.

Which will happen in a couple of days, now that I think of it.

Anyway, the reason for this second mid-week aberation is to alert you to a really wonderful post on another Industry blog called "Life Below the Line." Published by a sound mixer/boom person in New York, this is one of my favorite Industry blogs. The mystery Sound Woman writes like a dream, and has a sharp eye for the telling details that bring a story to life. She's really good.

She doesn't post very often, but when she does, it's always worth reading. Her post of Oct. 29 (called "Needy") is a real gem, describing the strange world of commercials, the needy nature of actors, and a whole lot more. If you're interested in delving deeper into the emotional mechanics of this strange Industry -- or just like good writing -- I urge you to check it out.

For reasons I don't understand, I was unable to link directly to this post -- but if you click here, and scroll down to the second post, you'll find "Needy."

I think you'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Change Has Come

The Sunshine Superman
(photographed at the corner of Sweetzer and Melrose, Los Angeles)

I haven't written about politics until now, reserving this space for discussion of life in the trenches of Hollywood, and I don't intend to bring up the subject again. But the events of this day deserve some attention. The previously unthinkable has happened -- a black man has been elected President of the United States. Not even in the halcyon days of "West Wing" could Aaron Sorkin have dreamed up, much less filmed, such a scenario, but here we are.

It's about time.

As a life-long Left Coast Liberal, I'm happy about the results of this election. I liked what Barak Obama had to say, and the way he said it. I supported another candidate in the primary, but came down for Obama in the finals. He appears to be a very smart and extraordinarily thoughtful young man -- and we're going to need a long succession of such smart, thoughtful leaders in the years to come if we're to survive the torrential shit-rains coming our way.

John McCain made one hell of a concession speech tonight -- his best speech of this long and brutally bitter campaign. To me, this was the old John McCain, the McCain who was so thoroughly and disgracefully trashed in South Carolina by the Bush/Rove team of political assassins in the campaign of 2000. We finally saw the real John McCain tonight, not the shrill, absurd caricature out stumping around the country these past few months in this, the longest campaign in history. I felt sorry for John McCain tonight -- a good man led astray in the end by ambition and the political reality of running for a party that will not tolerate any deviation from its rigid ideological orthodoxy.

But politics is a zero-sum game -- for one to win, another must lose -- and tonight, Barak Obama emerged the winner. In the end, I think we'll all be better off for this: white and black, red and blue, right and left, Americans one and all. The challenges facing the world now are enormous -- an economic disaster of a magnitude unprecedented in modern times, geopolitical threats that could prove existential in nature, and a slowly unfolding cascade of environmental catastrophe that threatens to overwhelm everything else. The next twenty years are crucial. If we don't throw everything we've got into this effort, we're fucked -- all of us -- in ways most people can't even imagine.

Big bad changes are coming no matter what, but the right leadership can at least offer us a chance to soften the coming blows, and perhaps the opportunity to ease into a more sustainable future. The America of that future won't look much like the past or present, but with a lot of effort and some luck, it just might morph into a culture that can survive.

Barak Obama is not Superman. He can't walk across the Potomac and turn water into wine, nor will he be able to cut the Gordian Knot of our seemingly intractable problems with a single clean blow. But it's amazing what a truly motivated and united people can accomplish behind intelligent, thoughtful leadership. Lord knows we've suffered through the other side of that equation for the last eight years, and the dismal results are there to see in the daily headlines. Barak Obama won't work miracles, but at least he offers us a chance to turn the tide in the right direction before we slide into the abyss.

He can't do it alone, of course. It's we the people who must do the heavy lifting, we the people who will have to make the sacrifices essential to building a viable, sustainable future. That future is in our hands.

Barak Obama can point the way, but the rest is up to us.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Week Two: A Monday By Any Other Name...

“Five o’clock in the mornin’, I’m already up and gone. Lord I’m so tired, how long can this go on? Workin’ in a coal mine, goin’ down down...”

“Working in a Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey

Part Three of how a sit-com pilot is made, from down in the trenches.

The alarm goes off at 4:15 on this dark Monday morning. Much as I hate getting up so early -- and I really hate it -- one benefit of these early calls is the minimal pre-rush hour traffic, especially on surface streets. All that wide-open pavement allows me to pull into the Sony parking structure barely twenty minutes after leaving home.

It’s noticeably quieter on stage today. The construction crews worked all through the weekend (probably just to have a couple of days free from the fear of being crushed by our man-lifts), and now the sets are almost done. Only a couple of carpenters remain to finish up the last few details. The painters are still here in force, but there’s not nearly so much crap in our way.

Construction crap, that is. Now that the table saws and sanders are finally gone,  a sudden tsunami of set dressing has flooded every set. Although much of the paint is still damp, the set dressers have already moved a prodigious quantity of rugs, chairs, sofas, tables, table lamps, standing lamps, wall hangings, paintings, and other assorted furnishings into the remaining sets. Each piece has been carefully placed under the critical eye of the Set Decorator, and I have to admit, the sets look pretty good. Trouble is, we still have to get in there and hang more lights, which means everything that isn't nailed down will have to be moved, repeatedly. Having all this furniture in the way makes whole process infinitely more difficult for everybody, but I suppose the Set Decorator and our show runners need to evaluate the fully-dressed sets to determine what, if any, changes must be made.

She's got her job and we have ours. I understand and respect what the set decorators are up against, but that doesn't mean I like the process. Sooner or later, every pilot seems to end up an endless struggle to cram twenty pounds of shit into a five pound bag, with the same predictable result.

At least all those clouds of finely powdered sawdust are gone, leaving only noxious paint fumes to contaminate the atmosphere. That’s the good news. The bad news is now we’re lighting in earnest, which means the huge elephant doors at either end of the stage must be closed to keep the daylight out. Unfortunately, this keeps the fresh air out as well. Since the producers won’t spring for air-conditioning on the rig -- such luxuries are meant to keep the actors comfortable, but the actors aren't yet here -- the lowly juicers, grips, and set dressers will just have to suffer. With all our big incandescent lamps burning away, the stage heats up in a hurry. Pretty soon we're all dripping with sweat, the hot, sticky air thick with paint fumes.

At times like this, I really wish someone could remind me just why I was so excited about getting into the movie biz three decades ago...

We broke for an hour at lunch, and after wolfing down a sandwich at the commissary, I took a walk around the Sony lot. There’s a huge feature going on called “Angels and Demons” -- which is either the sequel or prequel to “The DaVinci Code”, depending on who’s telling the story. I haven't seen the movie nor read the books, and thus haven’t a clue. Half the lot is taken up by this monster show, employing hundreds of people. Between stages, I ran into the Key Grip of the movie – who, as it happens, I worked with on the first real movie of my career.* While I spent the next thirty years meandering through the hinterlands of the Industry, he pretty much stuck with features, working his way up doing bigger and bigger movies. He's hit the big time now -- it’s hard to get much bigger than a show like “Angels and Demons.”

A few minutes later, one of the riggers tells me the budget for this uber-movie is within spitting distance of $250 million. The old Hollywood rule of thumb holds that a movie must gross at least two and a half times its budget to move into the black. If true, that means this movie won't turn a profit until $625 million has rolled in -- an awfully big number.

Whatever the true budget, it's obvious that they're throwing Very Big Bucks at this thing. I checked out the rig on one of the bigger stages, which used more heavy 4/0 cable than I’ve ever seen deployed in one place. A wide river of cable fed power from the main cans into air-conditioned shipping containers packed with racks of dimmers, where the modulated juice was then run onto the stage and up high to the perms, energizing hundreds of big lamps.

If the rig was impressive, the real jaw-dropper was on stage, where construction crews had built a full scale replica of the Sistine Chapel, made perfect down to the last detail with the aid of computer imaging. Spread across the ceiling high above was a recreation of Michelangelo's famous painting, with the a bearded God reaching out to touch the outstretched finger of man. Gazing upward, I was reminded of the old Hollywood, from the enormous sets built for D.W. Griffith's “Intolerance”, to later epics like “Gone With the Wind”, “Spartacus”, and “Ben Hur.” It's nice to see that Hollywood still knows how to build such wonderfully enormous sets -- the old ways live -- but all around the stage were the modern tools of the trade, huge glowing green screens that help create the cinematic miracles we now take for granted.

I'm told the producers originally planned to shoot much of this movie on location in the Vatican, but when the Church found out the story was based on another Dan Brown book, the Holy Henchmen pulled the Divine Plug, and the whole production had to come back to LA. If there is a Hell –- and assuming the Pope has enough pull with the Creator of the Entire Universe -- I’m guessing there’s a particularly nasty flaming pit down there reserved for Mr. Dan Brown. Maybe right next to one right waiting for Rush Limbaugh.

On my way back to our stage, I run into yet another old friend, a camera assistant I’ve known for 30 years, now working on an ongoing sit-com. With a grin, he tells me he just saw Tom Hanks ride by on a bicycle -- and for a moment, this really does feel a bit like the old days in Hollywood. Sony used to be MGM not so long ago, and at a studio with art deco office buildings named after stars like Gable, Garbo, Chaplin, Tracy, and Hepburn (among others), you can't help but feel the history of the place.

The lunch hour passes much too quickly, and soon I'm back in my man-lift, sweating like the proverbial pig. There's much to do, because soon, everything is about to change.

Tuesday: Day Five

At last, a later call – 11:00 a.m. Today I get to sleep in and enjoy waking up at a reasonable time, in a leisurely manner, and at least enjoy the illusion of feeling semi-human before heading for work. When I arrive on stage, the carpenters are gone for good, leaving only a couple of painters to touch things up. We continue lighting all day and into the evening, and it's a bitch. Most of the big lamps are up, but getting into tight corners to hang the smaller units means fighting our way over, under, around, and through a mountain of set dressing.

It's a good thing those set dressers are nice guys.

Wednesday: Day Six

Today we have a 3:00 pm call, marking yet another major shift in the rhythm of the show. Until now, we've assumed a sort of "ownership" of the stage -- it was ours to light and make beautiful (along with the set dressers, of course) -- but from this point on, the stage belongs to the director and actors. We'll be having late calls right up until the blocking/shoot days, while the Above-the-Liners come in early to rehearse and hone the script. There's an odd sense of loss at this. After having had the run of the stage for more than a week, we suddenly find ourselves in a subservient role, tiptoeing around as quietly as possible whenever the "talent" is present. Assistant Directors and a small army of Production Assistants are everywhere now, rushing here and there with a frantic sense of mission, while the director lords it over everyone like a king. Now that "they" have taken possession of "our" stage, the relaxed, wisescracking, just-get-it-done atmosphere of rigging has abruptly vanished, replaced by something harder and colder. The business of laughter has suddenly become a very serious endeavor. But this is the natural order of things, and a reminder of why we're here in the first place: to make those sets and actors look as good as possible. In the end, it always was about them, not us.

What was ours, is theirs, and what's theirs... is theirs.

We've now moved into the typical schedule of an up-and-running sit-com. Some crews like to come in very early to do the lighting, then go home when the actors show up, but most opt for the late afternoon calls, working into the night. This is good for missing traffic on either end of the day, but making the transition from early morning calls to late afternoon takes a toll. The extra time in the morning is nice, allowing me to deal with of real-life things -- medical appointments, car maintenance, grocery shopping (and writing this blog), but it also means going to work in the midst of an afternoon let-down. Starting the work day at such a low ebb really makes the time drag -- hauling those lamps up the ladder seems a lot harder now than it did just a couple of days ago.

Accordingly, this first late-call work day administered a serious butt-kicking to yours truly. We were down two of our four man-lifts -- one of the small lifts suffered mechanical failure, while the other scissor lift simply vanished -- and since the grips needed both remaining lifts to hang their huge translight backings (giant photographic transparencies that provide the illusion of a real world beyond the windows/doors of each set), I was stuck using a 12 step ladder to hang those 25 pound lamps on the pipe grid. The drill was thus: climb ladder carrying a 15 pound stirrup hanger (a telescoping device allowing the lamp to be raised or lowered), then head back down to grab the lamp. Climb ladder, hang lamp, power lamp, turn lamp on, move and adjust lamp as required -- then do it again and again and again. Standing on the top rung of a wobbly 12 step, with one foot on the equally wobbly set (which makes two blatant violations of the Studio/Industry Safety Guidelines I've sworn to obey), has a way of focusing one's attention while expending a huge amount of energy.

There's a right way to do this, of course -- which also happens to be the smart way, and thus much easier. One juicer throws a rope over the pipe, then ties it to the lamp, so he/she can do the actual lifting while the other juicer guides the lamp up the ladder onto the pipe. There's very little danger of any accidents this way, and nobody takes a beating by doing all the work alone. Unfortunately, it takes two to perform this tango, and the rest of the crew was busy working on the other sets. I could have thrown a snit, and insisted that one of them come help me, but being the old dog on this crew, I take a perverse (doubltess misplaced) sense of pride (which some might call "stupidity") in setting an example for the younger pups, who often seem rather too willing to wait for circumstances to improve before tackling a particularly difficult task.

In the long run, they’re probably right. It’s just a goddamned job, after all, and there’s really no point in playing the martyr/hero when getting paid by the hour. But sometimes I can’t help myself, and this was one of those times. Whether I was trying to prove something to them or to myself is unclear -- probably both, now that I think about it -- but mostly I just wanted to get the job done. Besides, the kids need to learn that we can't always wait around for everything to be perfect -- sometimes, to paraphrase the Nike line, you have to suck it up and just do it.

The result, of course, is that I was absolutely whipped by the end of the night. Everything hurt as I limped to the parking structure with the rest of the crew – none of whom seemed nearly so tired – where we found both elevators out of order.

Like I said, sometimes you just have to do it – so we all trudged up the five stories to our cars.

That night, I slept the sleep of the dead…

Thursday: Day Seven

With a 3:30 call this afternoon, I arrive early enough to watch some of the rehearsals. It’s always interesting to see how the script is modified through the week, each scene tweaked and massaged to extract the most comedic potential. This type of television remains very much an art, not a science, and the alchemy only happens through the trial and error process of rehearsals. It's a kind of magic, all right, but one born of sweat and effort.

The mystery set has finally arrived, already built and painted by a construction crew that must have worked all night long. It’s just a small bedroom set with an attached bathroom, but it'll take at least a dozen lamps to light properly-- and on such small sets, each lamp must be set and adjusted with extreme precision.

Naturally, the set dressers have already filled it up with beds, night tables, lamps, and a ton of other crap that leaves us only the narrowest of channels in which to work. Getting a man-lift in there is impossible, so again we do most of the lighting from ladders.

We're still tweaking the lighting on the main sets, of course, a task that has become very difficult by now. When we first started lighting, the hardest part was dodging the construction crew and painters. As each day passed, more and more lamps went up, and the light from each lamp was then cut and properly shaped by the grips using large flags attached with a clamp-and-arm device called a "meat axe". All this equipment takes up a lot of space, and after a while, adding new lamps becomes much harder to do. After a certain point, even a small man-lift can no longer fit in between all those lamps and flags – which is when we really have to tap dance around those safety rules. There's often no other way but to take the lift up as far as possible, then climb up on the very top rail of the swaying lift in order to hang a new lamp. I often end up hanging on to the pipe grid with one hand while working with the other. A good sense of balance is crucial here, along with an ability to focus on the task at hand and ignore everything else.

Each day we enter this ever-narrowing crack between the rock of those safety rules, and the hard place of actually getting the work done. It's an impossible situation, really, but we really don't have any choice.

Friday: Day Eight

In terms of lighting, we’re down to the short strokes now, adding smaller accent lamps to brighten various up-til-now-unnoticed dark areas of each set. Sometimes it seems we’ll never finish with all this, and by now, it has become almost impossible to get in there and hang any new lamps. The "greens" arrived today -- the final in a long string of on-set insults -- which means we now have to contend with a dense forest of potted plants in all sizes (some real, some fake, up to and including twelve foot high trees) stacked between the windows of the sets and the big translight backings. Once again we find ourselves having to move increasingly heavy objects belonging to other departments just to be able to do our own work. At this point, our whole crew is tired of this crap -- the Set Decorator had plenty of hands to bring those greens in, but not enough to get them the hell out of our way. Once the greensmen finished unloading their trees and putting them in our way, they were gone.

If I'm sounding rather cranky here, it's because all this is really starting to piss me off. In a metaphorical sense, we're all bleeding profusely now, suffering the death of a thousand cuts. Good thing it's Friday -- if I had one more day of this, I just might end up driving one of our big scissor lifts right through a stand of these goddamned greens, crushing them where they lie.

It wouldn't be the first time...

But it is Friday, so I restrain my sullen reptilian brain from going full-postal, and instead, limp home for a desperately needed weekend.

*"Hometown USA"

Next: Kill the Pig