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, 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...


A.J. said...

Great post. But as much as it is a lesson to properly label things, it's also a lesson to other departments to ask before plugging anything in. I can't tell you how many times I go to plug in a light and find all the outlets on the lunch box filled with laptop and phone chargers or discover that one of our lights keep popping the breaker because someone plugged in a hair dryer without asking if it was okay.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

True enough. It never ceases to amaze me how many hair stylists seem to consider a simple cube tap to be a piece of magical technology. They'll plug three 12 amp hair driers into one 15 amp cube tap coming off a 20 amp plug, then wonder why everything goes dark amid the reek of melting plastic three minutes later.

If the safety classes all IA members are required to take would impart at least a basic level of electrical literacy among the non-juicer ranks, I'd feel a lot better about the whole silly program.

A.J. said...

Actually, I believe the new A2 class mentions something about asking before plugging anything in. Then again, they also mention something about not having the lift gate down when it's not actively being used, and when was the last time you saw anyone following that rule?

The Grip Works said...

Great post Michael,
Different countries have different rules. In India for example, wardrobe, hair, makeup, crafty etc. all get power from a genny that has nothing to do with set electric. It is not the Juicers job to supply all and sundry with power. They are there to work the lamps and all the stuff on set (practicals, stingers for the dolly :-) )
That genny is productions (locations) responsibility. The gaffer would not appreciate a hairdryer being plugged into his on set power.
This is not a strict rule though, and if you ask nicely the juicers always help you out.
I always carry a 5kva putt putt in my truck, and ALWAYS have a battery and inverter on standby to charge the dolly .
AJ - In Bombay (all of India actually) you leave the lift gate down because if you don't, someone will park there.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

I hope you're right -- I haven't taken the class yet.

Sanjay --

It's not so different here -- on any good sized location shoot (episodic or feature film), transportation (teamsters) generally takes care of the power needs for everyone else. The incident in this post took place on a one-day commercial shoot back in the 80's -- at that time, on such small shoots, we only had one generator with which the juicers supplied power for all.

Our union leaders are constantly making noise about taking back the non-set lighting chores from the teamsters, but that's because they get to sit in their air-conditioned offices talking on the phone all day while the membership does the heavy lifting in the hot sun. We've got our hands full doing the set lighting -- I don't know any juicers who want to take an earlier call to run power for production, wardrobe, hair/makeup and crafty, then stay late to wrap up long after the lighting truck is gone.

hazel motes said...

good post michael. the wardrobe woman was wrong for throwing you under the bus. and yes, as you admit, you should have made it impossible for anyone to have plugged an a/c appliance into d/c gang box. you are man of honor and integrity! it's amazing how low people will stoop when a lot of money is on the line and someone needs to take the heat for a mistake. we're all prone to shirking blame, i'd imagine. god knows i have in the past. generally tho, when shit goes bad, i like to tell the producer immediately (via my best boy!) and avoid any finger pointing. what's done is done.
and yes, like sanjay said, set lighting techs shouldnt have to deal with power for other depts. but we do. and that's ok. as long as people are respectful, like you said. my favorite line i once heard a gaffer shout when he was being bombarded with power requests from every dept was, "What am i the fucking janitor around here?!" that made me laugh.
keep up the great writing/reporting/commentary

Anonymous said...

Saw this one while catching up on old posts.

I've never worked with DC, so I'm surprised a regular Edison plug would even work in a DC outlet. It seems like the standards should be different, doesn't it?

Michael Taylor said...

Hazel --

Thanks for the kind words. Glad to know you're still reading, but I'm still waiting for more posts on "Hold the Bollocks"...

Anonymous --

Since incandescent lamps don't care what kind of juice they're fed -- AC or DC -- the standard edison plug works fine either way. You do, however, have to be careful an edison plug is firmly seated and doesn't get half kicked-out by some snowshoe-clad producer stumbling through the set. When that happens, a small but very hot DC arc can occur, with smoke, fire, and meltdown soon to follow.

The rise of HMI's has driven DC into the shadows these days. Sometimes we'll use it when working around lots of water, since it's much safer than AC in wet circumstances, but even that is increasingly rare.

Tim Elder said...

LA teamsters run power for base camp? Never knew that. Electricians provide power for everyone in New York. I always ask before plugging in, even if it is house power, but that's because I'm courteous, and prefer having people on my side. Also, I don't like getting 'grumped,' as I like to call it

One thing I thought of when reading this post. You mention how much safer on-set power is now than in the past, and I have no reason to doubt you, but my first thought upon reading that was to remember an NYU film student who was electrocuted and killed last year. I have run into people whose condescension towards the people who provide power to film sets has led them to forget that AC power is potentially quite dangerous.


Michael Taylor said...

Tim --

Go back a page or two in the blog archives and you'll find a post called "Rainy Night in Georgia" discussing the incident you mentioned. Two other blogs -- "Dollygrippery" and "The Hills Are Burning" covered the issue around the same time. There's a link in my post to a Village Voice piece on the tragedy that details what happened that night. A condor lift with a burning 12K contacted a city power line, sending a huge surge of electricity back through the generator and cable. The young man happened to be adjusting a lamp at the time, and was killed by the power surge. Under normal circumstances, set power is very safe -- unfortunately, that night was anything but normal.

Grounded circuits weren't considered important in the DC era, and even when AC came on line, fully grounded cable and generator power systems weren't in universal use until the mid-to-late 80's on the West Coast.

As to teamsters and base camp power, there's lots of crossover out here. A few years back, I did two weeks of pickups in LA for "The L Word," and our driver turned out to be a gaffer I'd worked with many years before. He had a teamster card too, and was renting his genny, cable and distro to the company to power base camp. That was fine with me -- we were buried on set already, and had neither the time nor manpower to take care of base camp.