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)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Day at the Beach

And a "double-up day" at that... 

 Monday morning, Zuma Beach. It’s ten minutes before sunrise and the crows (ravens?) are out in force, dozens of the big black birds patrolling this empty ribbon of sand where the southwestern continental United States finally surrenders to the sea. Crows (ravens?) seem to be all over California these days, filling the umber skies over Hollywood, the Valley, and downtown LA, spreading throughout the vast Central Valley, and in the past few years, occupying more and more airspace back on my home planet as well. Their indignant “caws” and eerily hollow castanet-like clacking are becoming an integral part of background music of life all along the West Coast. In a movie, such a growing population of large black birds overhead would be an ominous sign of some horrific disaster in the next couple of hours. Real life unfolds at a more leisurely pace, but who knows what's going on here? Perhaps the Big One really is coming soon, and these feathered angels of death are gathering to feast upon the rotting flesh of several thousand dead Angelenos once the shaking stops. Not a cheerful thought. Either way, I suspect these crows (ravens?) will still be here -- along with countless rats, wild dogs, feral cats, and billions upon billions of cockroaches -- long after we humans have poisoned ourselves into oblivion. 

Arising at an ungodly hour always puts me in an existentially apocalyptic frame of mind. The alarm went off in the pitch-darkness of 4:00 a.m. so I could make a 7:00 call day-playing on a 2nd Unit crew shooting a beach scene for an episodic most of you have heard of – a re-make of a soapy/sexy twenty-something drama very popular back in the 90’s. That it was a crappy show back then and is a crappy show now doesn't matter in the least. With my little cable sit-com dead and gone to multi-camera heaven (or is that Disney Hell?), I’m back out in the real world taking whatever I can get from whoever will have me. Beggars can't be choosers, and I'm grateful for the work. 

Here I must briefly digress to eat a little crow (not those birds – the other kind) after some of my recent snide remarks concerning Facebook. Through very little effort on my part, this mysterious social networking site put me in touch with a gaffer I’d last worked with on the first season “CSI-NY” Insert Unit several years ago. A subsequent exchange of e-mails led to a one-day job that (as often happens) morphed into three days of work -- and now a halfway decent check is in the mail, all thanks to Facebook. Granted, there are many creepy/cloying/annoying aspects to the Facebook experience, but I’m having to re-boot my perspective. Maybe there’s something to all this digital madness after all...

Zuma Beach is a study in gray under the soft pre-dawn sky, with a dense marine layer (ocean fog, for you inlanders) hovering low over the slate-gray sea. At high tide now, the ocean feels very close as a nice set of breakers comes rolling in from China, each wave collapsing on itself with a visceral crunch, then steaming up the wet sand in a loud hiss. I find this sound immensely soothing, whether due to our shared mammalian ancestry going all the way back to the primordial seas, or simply as a welcome relief from the urban cacophony of traffic, car alarms, sirens, and the ever-present police helicopters buzzing overhead. It feels good to be way out here by the ocean, thirty miles from the ugly chaos of downtown LA. 

 Slinging my tool bag over one shoulder, I join the crew standing around the parking lot. Several white passenger vans are lined up, teamsters at the wheel, waiting for the signal to roll. I don’t recognize anybody, but the rest of the crew seems to know each other. Meeting a new (and considerably younger) crew has become the new normal these days, but it’s been a while since I didn't recognize anybody at all. Since we have a pre-call (lots of cable to run this morning), the gaffer will arrive later, so it’s up to me to force the introductions. Looking around, I pick out the juicers from the grips (not hard to do) then join my tribe-for-the-day, shaking hands all around. We make small talk until the signal comes, then pile into the vans and are on our way down to Westward Beach, a familiar location for television and film productions. I've been here countless times during the past thirty years, and the place never seems to change a bit. A fleet of 40 footers awaits us – grip, lighting, wardrobe, hair and makeup, props, set dressing, caterer, and the honeywagon. With six hundred feet of 4/0 to run (single phase, for a welcome change, saving us at six hundred pounds of cable), we get to work immediately -- no coffee, no doughnuts, just heavy lifting and lots of it. We lay down two hundred feet of cable to the end of the pavement, where the real work begins – running the remaining four hundred feet (nearly 1600 pounds) through deep, dry sand. Even with the right equipment (a fleet of small 4WD vehicles called “Gators”), working in sand is a bitch. They say you don’t miss your water ‘til the well runs dry, and the same is true of traction, because doing any kind of work on dry sand is infinitely harder than performing the same task on solid ground. The Gators can get the cable to the various drop-off points, but we still have to run it out, make the connections, then bury it in the sand. 

 Once the cabling is all but done, we leave two juicers to hook up all the distro (100 amp Bates extensions, lunch boxes, and stingers to distribute all that hot juice) while the rest of us break off to build the lamps – two LTM 18K’s, a monster ArriMax 18K that weighs close to 145 pounds, and a 12K HMI Par – each of which we mount atop a Road Runner stand clamped onto a three-wheeled desert sled. With the ballasts and head feeders strapped aboard, each 18K rigs weighs about the same as a full-sized camera dolly, and although the big wheels roll easily on pavement, maneuvering through all that sand is something else. The Gators are able to tow the lamp rigs to the base of a sheer cliff where an outcrop of rocks rises out of the sea, but from that point on it will take sheer muscle power and lots of hands to move and place each lamp for every shot. By 8:30, we’re good to go – lamps standing by and power flowing from the genny all the way out to the set -- so three of us break off to hit the caterer. 

Once we’ve wolfed down the obligatory gut-buster breakfast burritos, we trudge back through the sand so the other juicers can take their turn at the feeding trough. It turns out this is a “double-up” day, with the 1st Unit crew working back on stage in the Valley, while we in effect form another temporary 1st Unit crew shooting a full scene the regular crew wasn’t able to get to the previous week. Even though we’re technically 2nd unit, we’ve got the first unit DP and best boy electric. Although this “double-up” tactic is new to me (the result of spending the last few years on sound stages doing sit-coms), it’s become common practice in episodics these days. Most of the 2nd Unit work I've done in the past involved short sequences and shots the 1st Unit didn't have time to shoot at a given location, but 2nd Unit has now become another branch of 1st Unit, doing principal photography. I suspect this evolved in part to make UPMs look better on paper, since appearances still count above and below-the-line. Example: UPMs hate to see meal penalties on the daily production report (having an officially-recorded meal penalty apparently makes the UPM look bad to the producers), to the point where they'll often give the crew an additional half hour of overtime just to keep that meal penalty off the books. It’s just another iteration of the ancient “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” method of mutual self-help that keeps everybody winking and nodding up and down the line. I suspect a similar thing is going on with the “double-up day” phenomenon.* Episodics typically schedule each show to come in over the course of eight or nine shooting days, but holding the attention of today’s increasingly sophisticated viewing audience demands an ever-escalating degree of creative and logistical complexity – and that takes more time and money. Given the relentless corporate bean-counting pressure to hold costs down, some episodics have been told to bring the show in over seven days, which puts the UPM between a proverbial rock and the hard place. Rather than push the 1st Unit crew into ridiculously excessive overtime or "forced call" situations to get the job done (which also looks bad on the production report) these UPMs could be exercising a little budgetary sleight of hand to sweep the additional expenses under the 2nd Unit rug. The same amount of money gets spent in the end, but with the expenses allocated on paper in a way that keeps the UPM looking good to his bosses, the producers. 

 Whatever the justification, this felt like any other location day on 1st Unit, with lots of cable and lamps, while the grips have a Super Techno-Crane on a sand buggy to play with, and an 80 foot condor "flyswatter" -- a huge silk on a frame suspended over the set to take the curse off hard sunlight. Once the "talent" arrives on set, we start grinding out the coverage, hustling to move the lights as required for each setup, then sitting back to watch the waves roll in as the director attempts to coax a satisfactory performance from his actresses. Meanwhile, a cloud of paparazzi hovers on the cliffs above like a swarm of flies, their long-lenses ready and waiting to catch a glimpse of tabloid celebrity. The scene itself was the usual TV crap – a ludicrous emotional cat-fight over nothing at all between three highly-strung women – but I guess that’s the sort of thing the target demographic wants. No longer a member of that coveted age group, who am I to judge? I’m just here to do the work as best I can and earn a paycheck. 

 The fog began to lift around noon, turning the ocean from gunmetal-gray to a stunning blue. By now, the crows were long gone, replaced by squadrons of pelicans** cruising in tight formation inches above the waves, occasionally rising high to circle briefly, identify a target, then make a neck-breaking plunge into the water. Sea gulls joined in the feeding frenzy while pods of dolphins kept rolling by a few yards offshore. It was a beautiful day at the beach. 

 As any Industry veteran will tell you -- having learned the hard way -- this is the rarest of exceptions. On my first movie working as a grip (having just graduated from PA status), the schedule kicked off with a day shooting exteriors at Paradise Cove, near Malibu. I was thrilled – not only did I finally have a real job on a real movie, but we’d be at the beach all day, right where “The Rockford Files” was made! So what if I was only getting fifty bucks a day – I was just burning to do something – anything – other than work as a PA. Paradise Cove is gorgeous place, but with only two grips (one-and-a-half, really, since I didn’t know shit at the time) and no motorized vehicles to haul all that heavy film equipment from the parking lot across several hundred feet of sand (including a Stint dolly weighing nearly four hundred pounds), I had no clue what an extraordinarily grueling day lay ahead. Sixteen hours later, my opinion of working at the beach had spun a full 180 degrees -- after busting my ignorant ass in all that sand under the full heat of the July sun (wearing no sunscreen, which either hadn’t been invented yet or was too expensive for our cheap-ass production to supply) – I crawled back to my car whipped, beaten, and broiled to a cooked-lobster shade of red. This is not the way you want to start a punishing twenty-one day schedule.

Naturally, this baptism of fire came on a very low budget, non-union production – the kind where there’s just enough money to do everything wrong. A union production would have had a small army of grips and vehicles to get the job done. Lacking any such budgetary/logistical support, we got fried to a crisp lugging all that heavy metal back and forth across the burning sand. I remained permanently scarred from that day on -- never again would I be so naive as to look forward to working a day on the beach. Even in the best of circumstances, working at the beach is never easy, but with the right equipment, plenty of hands, and smart planning (a good best boy is crucial), this "double-up day" wasn’t bad at all. Truth be told, the only easier beach day I ever had was back when I was a gaffer, and didn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting. Those days are over and done, but it just goes to show you're never too old to learn something new -- and this time I learned that a day at the beach doesn't have to be a bitch. Just don't count on it. 

  * This is just a theory. I don’t really know what’s going on here, but if any of you can enlighten me, please do. ** Take a good look at a pelican in flight sometime, and see how much that big bird resembles a pre-historic pterodactyl -- sans teeth, claws, and leathery skin of course...


hazel motes said...

Great post. Always relish your observations and the fine prose that delivers them.

Michael Taylor said...

John --

It's always gratifying to hear when a post resonates with a reader. Thanks for tuning in.

GrabtheGaffer said...

enjoyed your prose,
like it more if it was
short like a haiku.

hazel motes said...

haha! i remember that day well! i still can't fathom why all that firepower was necessary given that it was a day at the beach. actually, i can. shooting a scene you want to keep the lighting consistent. but sheeeeeeeet!

Michael Taylor said...


Indeed - but hey, it kept a big crew working, which is a good thing in and of itself.