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)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Reel Truth About Commercials

Note: Sadly, in the years since I posted this, the first link here has been deactivated.  Apparently the internet is NOT actually "forever"... but the second link (part two) still works, so do check it out.
MT 09/22/19

Having spent nearly twenty years toiling in the crass world of television commercials, I found the following Utube clips dead-on in their depiction of the true social dynamics at work on set. These are exaggerated for comedic effect, but the separation from reality is one of degree, not kind. Many of you have probably seen them, but anyone who hasn’t is in for a treat.

Start here, then go for part two here. The whole thing won’t eat up more than six or seven minutes – and they might be the best minutes of your day.

Thanks to Pam, another battle-scarred veteran of the commercial world, for sending them my way...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Assumptions: the Root of All Evil


I don’t mean for this space to morph into a “how to” blog, but given the recent emphasis here (and other Industry blogs) on the hazards of electricity on set, there are a few more things I'd like to get off my chest. Mostly this means confessing my own screw-ups over the years – and since I’ve done more than my share of stupid things on the job, maybe these posts are more in the nature of “how NOT to do." I run my dirty underwear up the public flagpole in the hopes that others can learn from the mistakes I made, in which case this blog might be worth the paper it’s not printed on...

There’s a reason the set lighting crews and studio electricians are in charge of electric power on and around the set – it’s dangerous. When non-pros start plugging stuff in, things can get ugly fast. This was particularly true back in the good old/bad old days before HMI's took over, when the carbon arc lamp ruled the film world and lighting on stage or location done using D.C. power. On commercials and smaller shoots, we often used a single “concurrent” generator capable of producing limited quantities of AC along with the usual DC feeding the lamps. When working on location, my habit was to run the DC first – outside for the arcs, then inside for the tungsten lamps -- before laying in the AC power for production, wardrobe, and makeup/hair.* Following my usual routine early in the morning on a one-day commercial shoot, I ran the DC outside and in, then plugged in a couple of gang boxes near the room where wardrobe was setting up. Before heading outside for more equipment, I warned the wardrobe girl not to plug anything in. “That’s DC,” I told her. “Either plug into the wall or wait for the AC – it’s coming soon.”

She nodded, and I went back to work, but a few minutes later a PA found me and said the producer needed to see me ASAP. I found him standing with the wardrobe girl, who held an electric iron in each hand. She was very upset. “Look at this!” she cried, holding both irons out for me to see. The flat smooth underside of each had melted into a mottled “U” shape, as if both irons had just been kicked by the Devil’s own horses from Hell.

I wasn’t sure what this had to do with me until the producer explained that when the wardrobe girl tried to iron one of her absurdly expensive blouses ($800) for the lead actress, it scorched a sleeve beyond repair. Assuming the iron was defective, she plugged in her back-up iron, which promptly melted down and ruined the second (and equally expensive) blouse.

Then it hit me: ignoring my pointed warning, the wardrobe girl had plugged her irons into one of those hot D.C. gang boxes -- and no good can come of that.

“But I told you not to plug in to the DC,” I protested.

“You did not!” she lied, pointing the Finger of Blame squarely at me.

I experienced a brief moment of blinding rage, accompanied by a powerful urge to grab the bitch by her throat and squeeze very hard for a long, long time...

The ensuing “Did so/Did not!” argument was embarrassingly juvenile, and a credit to neither of us – we were like a couple of five year old brats yelling at each other. The producer finally waved me off, then did what producers get paid to do while I went back to work, cursing under my breath. Presumably those two ruined blouses ($800 back then would roughly equal $1600 today) were covered by insurance, and although the producer doubtless ended up buying two new replacement irons to placate his wardrobe girl, this was small changed in the big budgetary picture. From that day on, though, that particular wardrobe girl was dead to me – in my eyes, she’d revealed herself as a snake in the grass willing to say or do anything to cover her worthless ass, and thus she was not to be trusted. On the many jobs we did in the future, I made sure that she got electricity well after every other department.

Lesson Number One: If your department needs electricity to function, do not fuck with the juicers. Treat us with a little human respect and we’ll return the favor – and more often than not, you’ll have power waiting for you before you even ask for it. But if you treat us like brainless subhuman Morlocks, we won't forget.

It was only later – after much grudging reflection – that I realized this little incident wasn’t the wardrobe girl’s fault at all. Yes, she plugged both irons into a hot D.C. box after being expressly warned not to, but if I’d done my job properly, that never would have been an option. Making the D.C. run hot was okay, but installing those gang boxes without clearly labeling them was my mistake, and a big one. I'd made an unconscious assumption that she was actually paying attention and would thus heed my warning, but in the early morning crush, she had a lot of other things on her mind. It’s possible she didn’t even hear my words, much less understand them. Being a wardrobe girl (and not a juicer), she probably had no idea what D.C. was in the first place. In all the ways that really mattered, this incident was my fault.

She was still a bitch, though.

Lesson Number Two: Always assume the worst. Indeed, that’s the only safe assumption you can make -- that no matter how likable everybody else on set might (or might not) be, they're all children when it comes to electricity. This is nothing personal, but strictly business. If you allow non-juicers the option of doing Something Stupid with electricity, you’ve opened the door for “the worst” to happen. By ensuring that nobody can make a simple human mistake with the power you’ve supplied, you’ll go a long way towards preventing bad things from becoming reality.

D.C. is a thing of the past nowadays, and upgrades in cable connectors and power distribution systems over the last two decades have made on-set power much safer in general. Opportunities to screw-up have been minimized, but the potential for error (and trouble) cannot be eliminated from any human endeavor. If the equipment is safer, it’s also being pushed a lot harder than in the past – and no matter how seemingly fail-safe our equipment might be, there’s no substitute for good judgment on set. For one thing, D.C. was infinitely safer in the rain, and the universal use of A.C. power on set now means being that much more careful in wet conditions. Despite all our new, sophisticated equipment, the old truths still apply: if you work sloppy and stupid -- and make assumptions -- sooner or later you'll pay the price.

* My first priority, of course, was to run an AC stinger from the genny to craft service before anything else...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another Way to Make It in Hollywood

Monday’s “The Business” on KCRW features a fascinating interview with Jay and Mark Duplass, young masters of the “Mumblecore” genre who managed to climb the ladder of Indy circuit success all the way to directing Cyrus, a studio movie in current release. Their journey is further proof that despite the increasingly difficult financial circumstances of the Industry, there’s always a way to make it – and that way usually requires blazing a new path of your own rather than following the footsteps of others.

The Duplass brothers openly discuss the problems they had integrating their very intimate, small-scale style of production with a Studio System that only knows one way to get things done. They were smart enough to make the system work for them without compromising their vision or style, and along the way discovered that the collaborative nature of the Indy vs. Studio process actually helped make Cyrus a better movie.

It’s a terrific interview. Check it out.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

And So It Begins

The first week is the hardest...

Somehow, even after all these years, I still manage to forget just how tough it is to get a show up and running. You start at zero, with an empty stage, and five long, hard, up-early-work-late days later, the sets are almost finished and the lighting roughed in. Much remains to be done in the week(s) to come, but the worst is almost over.

A good thing, that, because on this gray Saturday morning, everything hurts. A wide variety of shooting/stabbing/aching pains now afflict my back, neck, arms, hands, legs, and feet, thanks to the sustained beating delivered last week. And since I have to be at the airport in one hour in order to wait two more hour before being shoehorned into an aluminum cylinder for the fifty minute flight back to the home planet-- a process I shall reverse tomorrow morning -- that's it for this week's post.

Right about now I'm wishing the loving couple had simply decided to elope in Las Vegas rather than stage a real wedding, but they didn't -- so away I go...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

“Nothing is written.”

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

I hate to quibble with T.S. Eliot (much less T.E. Lawrence), but April is not the cruelest month – not in modern-day Hollywood, anyway. Here, May is the month of doom, gloom, weeping, wailing, and the proverbial gnashing of teeth. The networks announced the winners of their annual Spring Pilot Season Derby a few weeks back, and every crew member not lucky enough to be aboard a winner -- or a returning show -- is now desperately looking for another ride.

Count me among the losers, since my own Spring pilot finished well out of the money and is now being rendered into cat food and glue along with the rest of the three-legged nags. By now -- having had so many pilots stumble and fall coming down the stretch -- failure should hardly come as a surprise, but I really thought this show had a chance. According to all the usual (and apparently meaningless) measures, it looked like a "go." Having read the same chicken bones, the entire crew felt it; a very enthusiastic audience response on shoot night, a truly lavish Green Room for the network stooges, er executives, and -- most importantly -- a serious buzz emanating from the upper levels of production, which generally has a much firmer grasp on the mysterious machinations above-the-line. To give you an idea of the seeming certainty of these rumors... during the wrap, we were quietly informed that the sets would be rebuilt on Stage 14 (the pilot was shot on Stage 12) when the show went to series in July.

That sounded pretty solid.

The general consensus had us good for a six episode pickup, minimum, with the distinct possibility of twelve. If twelve came to pass, the “back nine” would then be in reach, leading to a successful Season One. At that point – all things being equal -- a show is generally in the running for a second season, and possibly many more. Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.

But not this time. Turns out everybody was wrong. Again...

There is, however, a silver lining to this otherwise dark and gloomy cloud, tarnished though it may be. Remember that silly little off-season pilot I did just before Xmas last year? As luck and the Gods of Hollywood would have it, that show got picked up for a nine episode run, with the prospect of four additional episodes on the backside if the show puts up decent numbers once it hits the air.*

That’s the good news. The bad news? You guessed it -- drumroll please -- rather than riding the big beautiful Bucephalus that is a broadcast network show, I'll be throwing my leg over a flea-bitten mule of a cable show, paying the usual cheap-ass cable rate. They even paid cable rate on the pilot, reaching a new low neither I nor any of my fellow work-bots had yet experienced.**

First time for everything, I suppose.

But I’ll have to swallow it with a smile, because there’s nothing else on my radar screens -- bupkis, nil, nada, naught, zero, zilch, zippo -– and for all my endless carping about cable rate, the bottom line is as simple and harsh as a swift jerk on the choke-chain of reality; a cable rate job is better than no job at all. If, as it appears, this turn of events will send 2010 spiraling down the drain as one of the very worst, income-wise, of my entire Hollywooden career, then I’ll just have to roll with it. Things could easily be a lot worse -- and since the life of free-lancer means making the best of the given circumstances whatever they are, roll with it I shall.

That much, at least, is written.

* In this ridiculous business, all such promises are as sturdy as a sand castle built at low tide. Any number of unforeseen glitches could sink this show between the rig week and the wrap.

** Yes, I’m almost as tired of bellyaching about cable rate as you are of reading my endless litany of complaint -- but here it is again, another fresh turd floating in the punch bowl...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Good Stuff

More from Mick LaSalle...

Once again I point you to the work of Mick LaSalle, senior film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Mick has two terrific movie reviews in today’s paper, showcasing very different facets of his sharp eye, crisp wit, and thoughtful writing. Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says about any given movie, his reviews are always worth reading. I've probably learned more about narrative structure and why a film does or doesn't work from reading Mick's reviews than anything I managed to absorb in four years of college. His perspectives often drag me around a corner to view things from a very different angle -- a rare and illuminating quality in any form of media review -- and sometimes, they make me laugh out loud.

That’s good too -- especially these days.

There’s a little of everything in these two, one on the new documentary Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work, and the other dissecting the latest cinematic/cultural retread, The A Team.

Whether I'll like either of these movies remains to be seen, but I'm giving two thumbs up to the reviews.

Check ‘em out.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Rainy Night in Georgia

Death by Film School

Note: I'd been working on this one for a while (in my usual plodding manner) when AJ over at The Hills are Burning put up a post describing a tragic accident that killed an NYU film student last year. As it turns out, she knew about the accident long before I did -- indeed, I learned of it only recently when one of this blog's readers sent me a link to a Village Voice piece on the accident. AJ's post sparked a lively discussion of the issues, so rather than flush this one (redundant though it may be at this point), here it is...

During my stint in school – not a dedicated film school, but a school where I studied film -- someone much wiser than I taped a cartoon to a wall in the editing room depicting a young man holding a fancy new movie camera and exulting “Now I can make great films!” In the background, another young man held up a freshly sharpened pencil, declaring “Now I can write the great American novel!”

That cartoon should be posted in every film school in the country. It’s not the hardware that makes a good film, but the software in the brain of the filmmaker – the ideas and creative execution of the storytelling. Creativity remains the most elusive and mysterious of human qualities. To thoroughly mangle an already worn-out cliché, it's something like a lump of coal -- when subjected to enough pressure, that ugly chunk of coal can morph into a diamond. Working within the constraints of a meager budget and limited equipment is a form of pressure forcing a young filmmaker to tell the story with what he or she’s got. The truly talented will find a way to make those limits work for them –- to actually serve the story -- and in the process, develop skills that set them apart from the vast herd of cinematic wannabes. Learning to make the most of such creativity can take you a long way in the film/television world.

Most film students aren't ready to hear this -- I certainly wasn't. Like so many others, I clung to the assumption that making a truly good student film required the use of professional grade cameras and lighting equipment. While that might be true for a tiny percentage of highly advanced students on the cusp of professional careers (cinematography majors in particular), most film students do themselves a disservice in spinning their wheels trying to get their hands on fancy equipment. At best this lust for technical sophistication represents a distraction from the real work of coming up with a story worth telling, then finding a way to tell it. At worst, the pursuit of a professional “look” can turn deadly.

An east coast reader (thanks, Frank...) passed along this link to a Village Voice article delving into the tragic death of a young NYU film student who had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time on a student film shoot – and when a totally avoidable mistake was made, all hell broke loose. A condor lift with a 12K HMI aboard inadvertently contacted a high tension power line late at night, and when the smoke finally cleared, John Hunt Lamensdorf was left holding the ace of spades. Read it and weep for a smart young man who -- through no fault of his own -- suffered an utterly pointless and unnecessary death.

I won't beat around the bush here -- film students have no business using condor lifts or big HMI units without truly competent support and supervision, and certainly not at night on a distant rural location far from emergency help. Any school-sanctioned production using such equipment should have at least two Industry professionals on set to handle the basic power and lighting chores. If that's beyond the budgetary scope of the school or student producer/directors, then they should dial down to a less technically ambitious approach. Without trying to duplicate Hollywood production values, they just might find a simpler, better way to shoot their story.

Most student films are put together on a wing, a prayer, and a credit card. Using wheelchairs or shopping carts for improvised dolly shots is one thing, but when untrained students start plugging in the sort of lighting equipment they can afford – which often means old, beat-up, poorly-maintained crap – they’re asking for trouble. Although young people tend to consider themselves immortal, electricity is utterly merciless -- it doesn't care how talented you are or what a wonderful cinematic future you might have. If you don't know what you're doing, electricity can turn your golden future to ashes in an instant.

It's the nature of youth to take chances, push boundaries, and do exactly that which they've been warned against. Growing up -- coming of age -- is an inherently risky business, and not everybody makes it. Accidents happen. I wasn't there, and thus don't know what really happened that night in Georgia, but it’s clear from the Village Voice piece that those kids were in way over their heads. The film they were making could have been the most original and brilliant student film in history -- or just another clumsy, overheated exercise in cinematic self-indulgence. It doesn’t matter. No film is worth the electrocution death of a young man just getting his start in life. This was a stupid, tragic, and utterly avoidable accident that should never have happened.

I don't know anything about the culture inside a serious film school, but in reading the comments following AJ’s post, there seems to be some real confusion in the mission of university-based film schools. Are they intended to be trade schools funneling talented young people into the Industry mainstream, or academic institutions dedicated to studying cinema as an art form? It's my impression that most film schools attempt to do both -- but film production is an expensive undertaking, and in stretching their limited resources to the breaking point, these schools inevitably leave their students pretty much on their own when it comes to safety issues on set. As that awful night in Georgia demonstrated, such ignorance can be lethal.

I’m not sure the answer is for film schools to train students to be grips and juicers (it takes years to master these jobs, and film students don’t have that kind of time), but if a school's mission is to teach film production on a high level -– providing young directors, producers, and DP’s with the basic tools of their future trade -- then they have an obligation to put experienced industry professionals in charge of handling the power and lighting chores for the most technically demanding projects. That would cost more money, of course, but sometimes you get what you pay for. It might be worth paying higher tuition to make sure student films are made in a safe environment. The alternative is to adopt NYU's post-Georgia tactics by clamping down with absurdly draconian rules only the most timid students will actually follow. The rest will just wing it and hope for the best -- and sooner or later, another promising young film student will end up dead.

It’s just a matter of time.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Real vs The Truth

A couple of months ago I put up a post called ”The Lie that tells the Truth,” addressing the buzz of complaints about “The Hurt Locker” from people who objected that the film did not accurately reflect the boots-on-the-ground reality of a bomb disposal squad operating in Iraq. My point – as usual, laboriously extruded from a labyrinth of prose – was that movies or books about real-life situations need not strictly adhere to the actual, literal truth to tell a greater universal truth.

It took me something like sixteen hundred words to grind my way to that conclusion. Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle’s film critic Mick LaSalle dealt with the issue in answering a reader’s question – but Mick needed only two hundred words to do the job.

Once again I’m reminded why some people get paid to write, while the rest of us do it for free on blogs...

“Even in a movie that attempts to adhere to historical fact, what makes it good or bad is not how realistic it is. It's how true it is to the reality that the movie establishes as real. To talk about something from outside the movie, some set of facts or event that the movie distorts or ignores, is usually to bring up something irrelevant. What is relevant is what is true for the film, and the important aesthetic question is whether the film is true to itself. After all, the movie isn't reality from the second Ralph Bellamy walks out pretending to be FDR.

Orson Welles once made this distinction in a discussion about James Cagney. He said there was nothing real about anything Cagney did onscreen. His classic mannerisms were exaggerations from real life or wholly invented. Yet, Welles said, there was not a single frame of a Cagney performance that wasn't completely true. Not real, but true. The Real is from the land of prose. Truth is from the land of poetry. If you don't embrace the poetry of movies, you can never understand them. You'll be watching films like a narrow grammarian, holding up art to a pointless and entirely less exalted standard.”

Nicely put, Mick. I couldn’t have said it better myself.