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 7, 2008

Adventures in Grip Land: Dollies

Uh-oh.  No good can come of this...

In a recent post, "D" (of “Dollygrippery”) asked his fellow dolly/crane grips for stories of shots or shooting situations that went bad. If you missed it, the responses are worth reading. Pushing a camera dolly or operating a crane is serious skill requiring experience, good judgment, and the ability to modulate a delicate blend of brute force with a light and accurate touch -- all on the fly. It’s an art, really. As far as I’m concerned, a dolly/crane grip deserves every bit as much credit as the camera operator when together they pull off a really spectacular shot.

Being a juicer, I don’t have many good dolly stories, and already told my bad dolly story here, But it’s not like I was born a juicer. When getting started in the biz, the rule of thumb was to say “yes” to every job offer, no matter what, which is how I stumbled into my first dolly grip job for a small stage shoot. Having played with a Fisher 10 a few times, I didn’t figure this would be any big deal: the arm goes up, the arm goes down, and the wheels go ‘round and ‘round. It was only while discussing my potential employment with the producer that I learned we wouldn't be using a modern dolly at all, but rather an ancient Moviola* stage sled I’d never even heard of, much less seen or operated. Sensing my hesitation, the producer began peppering me with a series of probing questions, expressing particular concern that I knew how to “bleed the hydraulics.”

“Oh sure,” I lied. “That’s no problem.”

Unconvinced, he pressed the issue. It was too late to back down -- I'd already taken my first fateful step into the dark abyss of mendacity -- so I parried every question with another baldfaced lie until he pretty much had to call my bluff. The job was mine.

I hung up the phone wondering what I’d just gotten myself into. “Bleed the hydraulics?” -- I had no idea how to bleed anything more sophisticated than the disc brake line on my motorcycle. But with the job a few days away, I activated Plan B, and called the only experienced dolly grip I knew. After explaining the situation, I asked him -- well, begged, actually – to show me the ins and outs of the Moviola. He was not enthusiastic, but after a long pause followed by a reluctant sigh, he agreed to meet me at an equipment rental house in Hollywood later that afternoon.

The basics turned out to be simple enough – booming up and down, pumping up the tank, and switching from rear-wheel-only to four wheel crab mode. The only real trick was a two-stage hydraulic riser on the front of the arm, where the camera mounts. I’d never seen anything like it, but the riser was easy to operate with a simple lever switch. Having finally laid my hands on the mysterious beast, I began to relax. Maybe I could pull this off after all.

“So how do you bleed the hydraulics?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

He shot me a cold glance, as though such a question was beneath his dignity, then took a drag on his cigarette. “Don’t worry about that shit,” he said, dismissing my question with a cloud of smoke. Rather pointedly, he looked at his watch. "I gotta go."

I thanked him, not really satisfied, but unwilling to press the issue.
He started to leave, then paused.

“Look, if they plan a lot of dolly shots, just make the first one shaky. Believe me, they’ll cut way back on the dolly.”

I didn’t know enough to be worried about making the dolly moves – hell, you just push the damned thing where the DP wants to go, and how hard could that be? -- but I couldn’t shake the nagging fear that I might be called on to bleed those mysterious hydraulics. The dolly we’d be using was part of the equipment package at the stage, a low-rent operation that kept their overhead down by using old (read: cheap) equipment that wasn't in the best of shape. For all I knew, that dolly was a leaky piece of junk nobody at the stage cared – or even knew -- how to maintain. Maybe it seeped hydraulic fluid all over the stage floor, and needed to be “bled” every couple of hours. What if that’s why the producer asked me about it in the first place?

I’d be fucked, that’s what.

Arriving early on the shoot day, I was fully pumped on a high octane blend of nerves and adrenaline. I found the kid acting as our stage manager, and together we checked out the big dolly. Everything seemed to work okay – the arm, those funky risers, the various steering modes, and even the brake, a primitive rod-and-lever device that held the dolly in place by raising the rear left side of the dolly ever so slightly off the ground.

“When’s the last time you bled the hydraulics?” I asked.
The kid's face went blank. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

In a way, this was reassuring. If this dolly had chronic hydraulic problems, the stage manager would know – even a kid like this -- which meant I was probably okay. At any rate, I’d done all I could to prepare, and it seemed do-able. Now I just had to pretend I knew what I was doing and try not make too big a fool of myself.

The shoot was a series of “wrap-arounds” -- intros, segues, and exits by an actor playing the host of the show – to be cut into several programs already on film. First up was a long dolly shot across the stage, past several big photo placards and ending on a medium close-up of the actor. This shot would open the show, so it had to be good. While the gaffer and his best boy lit the shot, I helped the AC mount the camera, then waited for the cameraman to make himself comfortable behind the lens. Once he was ready, we made a run.

It didn’t go so well. With the camera and operator aboard, that Moviola must have tipped the scales at close to seven hundred pounds. Weighing barely a hundred and fifty dripping wet, it took everything I had just to get the damned thing rolling. I did it, though, but after practicing the shot a couple more times, the cameraman decided the shot was too wobbly.

“Maybe we should put the whole thing up on a Western dolly?” he suggested.

“Sure,” I replied. Being unencumbered by any actual knowledge, I had no clue what a dumb idea this really was. A Western dolly is just a big wooden platform equipped with four fat pneumatic tires, a push bar on the back, and a pull bar on the front -- useful four hauling heavy items on location when there are no vehicles available, or even for sliding burning lamps back and forth while doing “poor man’s process” shots – but it’s not much of a camera dolly.

It took the whole crew and a couple of production assistants to lift that Moviola atop the Western dolly. Once it was secure, we made another run. Those fat rubber tires made the suddenly very heavy Western dolly much harder to push, and with a higher center of gravity, the camera wobbled worse than ever. After a couple of manful tries, we surrendered to reality and put the Moviola back on its own wheels. The clock was ticking, and I’m sure that producer had already begun to regret having hired me.

I was certainly beginning to regret it. Maybe there was more to being a dolly-grip than I‘d figured...

Needless to say, I had no trouble making the move shaky, despite my best efforts to keep the shot smooth. As it turned out, that Key Grip I’d talked to was right: after the wobbly first move, the director dropped all but the simplest dolly shots from the schedule. Even those moves weren’t easy for me, but we got it done. Although I never did have to face the issue of bleeding those dreaded hydraulics (and to this day, I’ve never heard of this being done on set), I gained a huge appreciation for the skills of a real dolly grip.

Some people never learn, though, because the next time the phone rang with a dolly grip job, I said yes.

This one wasn't even a real dolly grip job at all, but rather a quick screen test for some young actress on 16 mm film on a tiny stage somewhere in Hollywood. I wouldn’t have to fake it with any fancy hydraulic dollies this time -- all I had to do was push a simple doorway dolly, the much lighter baby brother of a Western dolly, small enough to roll through a normal sized door.

We were a three man crew, a gaffer, his best boy, and me. I knew the best boy from previous jobs – but in those, he’d always worked as a grip. We both had to laugh at the deeply embedded irony here: me (a 150 pound juicer) working as the dolly grip, while he (a 250 pound, six-foot five grip who knew a bit about pushing dollies) was the best boy electric.

Still, we soldiered on. The DP turned out to be a very large man -- not so much tall as wide, and extremely heavy. When he and his chunky female assistant both climbed aboard that little doorway dolly, its little rubber tires flattened out like something in a Road Runner cartoon. Trying to push them both down a hallway -- on carpet, no less -- then onto the stage, was almost impossible. Even when the assistant got off, I could still barely push this rig.

I looked at the best boy, who was struggling atop a wobbly ten foot ladder trying to hang a light. He looked back -- and that’s all it took: from then on, he pushed the dolly while I hung the lights.

Order had been restored to the universe.

Right about then, the talent quietly walked onto the stage – and that young actress turned out to be the astonishingly attractive Priscilla Presley, freshly arrived in Hollywood to start her acting career. I have no idea what she was being tested for (although several years later, she got a juicy part in the prime-time soap, “Dallas”), but at that moment, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in person. My jaw gaped, and I’m not really sure just how I kept from falling off that ladder.

No wonder Elvis tumbled head-over-heels into marriage.

We got the small set lit and ready, the dolly moved prepped and rehearsed, and then we waited. And waited. And waited some more... until the gaffer and DP were summoned off the stage. They returned a few minutes late and told us to wrap it up -- an agent or lawyer or Somebody Important had pulled the plug on the deal. We’d still get paid for the day, which now amounted to taking everything down that we’d just put up. Although this meant a short work day, I was disappointed not to see Priscilla go through her paces for the camera.

Yeah, she was that good looking...

It was several years before I saw her again, while working on a “Crystal Lite” television commercial for which she was the star. Sadly, the thrill was gone -- a lot of water had passed under the bridge by then, taking her golden moment of perfection out to sea. Not even the modern alchemy of plastic surgery could bring it back. Life is cruel that way, but at least she had that golden moment, which led to her modestly successful acting career. That's a lot more than most Hollywood Hopefuls ever get.

By then, I’d long since ceased pretending to be a grip of any kind – dolly or otherwise -- which was just as well for all concerned.

*Click here for photos of a McAllister dolly -- similar to the Moviola, I’m told, although the one pictured lacks that strange two-stage hydraulic head riser.

(Thanks to Nathan and D for the link.)

Next week: Cranes


D said...

Great post! I laughed my ass off at the "bleed the hydraulics" motif. I've been a dolly grip for 20 years and I've never bled the hydraulics. The Mcallister photos brought back a lot of memories of the one I used to haul around in my pickup. At Paramount's grip dock upstairs, there are rows and rows of them that have been gathering dust since the original Star Trek went off the air.

Nathan said...

This totally got me thinking about how many times I've risen to my level of incompetence. I may have to plumb those depths again soon. :D