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 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.


Scripty said...

Wow, great post!!!!!

The Grip Works said...

Amazing post !!! Brought a tear to my "seen it all done it all" jaded eye !!

Unknown said...

Awwww... I feel all warm and squishy, now.

"...until the last shot was in the can." What can? :) The AD on my show still calls out for the camera crew to check the gate.

Unknown said...

This certainly was a well written post. I can't wait to start killing pigs.

Nathan said...

The most shocking thing to me was that you guys showed up on location and there was no Craft Service? Holy crap! I've seen mutinies for lesser reasons.

Kidding aside, that's such a completely different world than I'm used to working in. I think I've actually worked on a stage all of three days in my 20+ years.

(And thanks for the shout out.)

D said...

interestingly, no matter how much they claim it on "", most features are still shot on good old 35mm, as well as every tv show I've dayplayed on. Every AC I've talked to still shudders at the thought of taking a Red on location because of all the bugs. Great Post