Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Adventures in Grip Land: Cranes

Uh, how do you get that thing off the truck...

During my first five or six years in Hollywood, the boundaries between the worlds of grip and electric were extremely fluid. Although I was much more comfortable juicing, opportunities kept arising to work as grip. Work is work, and if the resulting paychecks won't buy love, they'll buy just about everything else. It's a long time before a free lancer is able to say “no” to any paying work.

As it happened, the first movie job to come my way that didn’t involve being a Production Assistant offered the chance to work as a grip. Needless to say, the budget was minuscule – three hundred thousand and change. Granted, $300K represented a lot more in real dollars during the late 70's than it does today, but there was no way to put lipstick on this pig: it was a bottom-feeder production all the way. It started at the top, too -- unable (or unwilling) to afford an experienced feature DP, the producers hired a guy who’d shot a few sky diving films, but not much else.

I don’t mean to be overly critical here – he was still a DP who knew a lot more about cameras, lenses, and shooting film than I did about gripping or juicing at the time – but I'm just trying to give you an idea what kind of production this really was. There were only four of us on the entire grip/lighting crew – the key grip, gaffer, and two best boys. Fresh from the PA ranks, I was perhaps the single least qualified best boy grip in the history of professional film making. I understood sandbags well enough, but even though I knew what to grab when the key grip called for a C stand and a flag, I had no idea what to do with the damned things once I reached the set.

We managed to stumble our way through the four week schedule, during which I endured (and for the most part, enjoyed) a steep climb up a very bruising learning curve. By the time the last week rolled around, we were filming a car scene out on the then-unfinished 118 freeway in the north San Fernando Valley, a frequent location for film crews before the freeway finally opened to the public. The scene called for a big crane shot, forcing the producer to open his wallet for a truly impressive piece of machinery: a Chapman Titan crane. Even with my limited experience, I knew that a Titan was no mere crane, but a moving camera platform able to cruise along the road while a camera operator and assistant did their work way out at the end of the long crane arm. The wheels of a Titan could even “crab” like a dolly (all the wheels turning in the same direction), enabling the driver to put the camera and lens exactly where the director wanted it. With the weight balance adjusted by pumps moving liquid mercury within the arm rather than manually-loading lead weights, the Chapman Titan was a top-shelf item -- other than the camera itself, probably the biggest and most sophisticated piece of film equipment available at the time.

As usual, the crew gathered for our morning ritual of slurping bad coffee and inhaling donuts while the first AD went over the day’s work ahead. Halfway through his spiel, the Titan crane drove up the empty freeway and pulled up right in front of us.

The DP squinted hard, then turned to the crew with his usual look of befuddled irritation.

"We don't have enough guys to get that thing off the truck," he complained, shaking his head in disgust.

A moment of stunned silence followed, during which nobody quite knew what to say or how to say it. It was the AD who finally -- gently -- suggested that maybe this didn't pose much of a problem after all.

The rest of us turned away or stared hard into our coffee cups, desperately trying to maintain. It was a hell of a start what ended up being one very long work day...

I returned to my comfort zone of juicing after that movie, but eventually the Grip World reached out a long arm and dragged me back – which is how I found myself sitting at the wheel of a Nike stage crane a couple of years later, doing a twenty foot move atop a set of aluminum “I” beams. Having had no experience driving such a crane -- and with a camera operator plus assistant way up there on the long end of the arm -- I was sweating bullets. The steering was safely locked off, but there’s not much room for error atop those narrow “I” beams, and on every run, one of the crane’s steel wheels would roll right out to the edge and beyond. Had that wheel gone just a little bit further, the resulting six-inch drop could have inflicted serious damage on those entirely too-trusting camera people.

We got through the shot without killing anybody, but I think that’s when it finally hit me that I really shouldn’t be putting other people in jeopardy due to my own inexperience. Taking chances with my own well-being was fine – at least I could judge each situation and react accordingly – but I didn’t like being a player in a situation where other people could be seriously hurt if I screwed up. With no experience driving a crane like that, I had no business being there.

That's the thing about cranes -- people can get badly hurt when things go wrong. I got a good look at the potential for such trouble many years later, while working as a gaffer on a cheapie commercial out in Griffith Park. One of the scenes was to take place at the park’s ancient wooden carousel, a sequence which included a crane shot.*

We were under-crewed as usual, trying to do too much with too little, and by the time we arrived at the carousel, the sun was already behind the hills. Rushing to get the shot before full darkness fell, there was only one grip on the crane – a Nike stage crane. Before rolling film, one of the agency guys wanted to see the shot – and since we lacked video-assist (low rent jobs are such a joy....) the crane grip had to buckle this guy into the camera assistant’s chair and give him a ride through the move. He was a big boy, too – at least 6-3 and well over 250 pounds.

There's nothing wrong with this so long as everybody follows the procedure, and that meant listening to and obeying the orders of the crane grip -- neither the director (who was behind the camera) nor the agency man were to do anything without his okay. When the agency guy was securely belted in, the grip added lead weights to the rear to compensate for the extra hundred-plus pounds of dead weight. Once the crane was properly balanced, he moved in front of the post and smoothly lifted the arm up through the move, ending with the camera well under the scalloped wooden lip of the carousel ceiling. After seeing the move, the agency guy was happy, so the grip brought the crane back down.

The agency man had been told to sit tight until the the arm was locked down, and the safety chains attached, at which point the crane grip would give the okay for him to step off. But he didn’t wait. The instant the arm touched down -- before the grip even had a chance to lock it off -- the big man popped his safety belt and jumped off.

I was wresting with a lamp thirty feet away when I heard the scream. As I turned to look, it flashed through my mind that I was watching another man die on set: the camera and director heading skyward fast as the arm shot up, the crane grip dangling from the rail. He’d managed to grab the arm, but at a good 90 pounds less than the agency man -- and with all the momentum and leverage working against him -- he didn’t have a prayer of stopping that arm. He managed to slow it down a little, but not nearly enough. I saw the director duck his head as low as he possibly could just as he and the camera disappeared under the lip of the carousel.

We all ran to the crane and helped pull the arm down, fearing the worst, but by some miracle, the crane arm had ended up exactly between two thick scallops of painted wood – a narrow slot into which rose the director's neck and head. Had the crane arm moved a few inches either way, one of those scallops would have acted like a giant hammer, crushing his neck and spinal cord. As it was, if  the camera hadn't taken the brunt of the impact (turning the Arriflex into an expensive pile of junk), he’d have been dead anyway.

But luck rode with us that day, allowing the director to escape death -- or at the very least, permanent paralysis -- by a hair. It was a terrifying thing to witness, and something I never want to see again.

To his credit, the director got right back up on that horse. In minutes, the backup camera was mounted on the crane, and we got the shot before dark. The agency guy fell all over himself apologizing, but there's really no way to make up for doing something so inexcusably stupid. The director was very gracious about this incident, but as I recall, we never saw that agency man again.

Two images remain burned in my brain from this incident: the crane arm carrying that helpless director up to his apparent death, and the ashen look on the face of the crane grip a minute later. He was a very experienced, supremely competent guy --a man I did (and still do) trust completely -- but experience and competence aren't always enough to save us from the thoughtless idiocy of others.

Looking into his eyes that day, I was glad I'd long ago left the grip world behind.

* Nowadays, such a shot would likely be done with an arm and hot-head of some sort, enabling the operator and assistant to get the shot while sitting safely on the ground. Back then, such rigs were rare, expensive, and unreliable items.


Nathan said...

How do you get that thing off the truck? ROTFLMAO

Honestly, there are few things scarier than a crane in incompetent hands. They're dangerous enough with qualified people around.

I was on a job in the early 80's with a Tulip crane. With the tongue about 3' off the ground, a seat offset snapped under the camera operator. Operator drops 3', bucket slams into the ground and the A.C. went straight up. He was wearing his seat belt, so he just took a major rattling (and the Operator only got a bruised ego). Yeah, scary as all hell.

The Grip Works said...

That is one scary story. In India a lot of DPs and Operators choose to ride cranes. There are some cranes that are really good for this. No doubt in my mind the safest ride on location crane is the Giraffe. The Tulip is a God-Awful crane. Badly made and badly designed. The operator or assistant jumping off the crane is every grips nightmare, and in India there are a few DP's who are famous for stepping off cranes. If I work with them, I budget for an additional BIG grip, whose job it is to stand near the nose and step on, the moment the crane lands. If I am operating the arm, I keep it floating above ground, till I can get a grip to the platform, and the grip will always re-iterate that no one steps off untill he says so. But the occasional accident will almost always turn into a tragedy.

Your story is ever grips nightmare. Certainly sent a chill down my spine !

D said...

Great post, Michael. Sanjay pretty much said it all. You don't see riders much anymore, but when you do, I try to make them fasten the seatbelt (although a lot of the old timers refuse) and I don't really blame them. I wouldn't want to be tied to the thing either. So I just jump up on the arm as soon as it comes down or the shot is over esp if I'm working with someone I don't know.