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, August 22, 2010

Second Team

So close, but so far...

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

John Milton

In response to a reader's question, The Anonymous Production Assistant (TAPA) recently kicked a little dirt on the shoes of stand-ins.

“See, when the DP is lighting the set, he needs someone standing there to make sure the actors will look as pretty as they can be. Now, a normal person might think, “So, what’s the problem? Have the actor stand there.”
But that’s not what happens. What happens is, the production hires someone to… stand there. That’s all. Stand there while the crew works around them, and the actors rest in their trailers. During the actual filming of the scene, the stand-ins sit on lawn chairs at the edge of the set, reading People magazine.
And these people get paid as much as I do.”

TAPA was voicing an opinion based on his own experience in his usual snarky manner -- a style I happen to enjoy for the most part. Although actors were the real target of his response, he managed to deliver an elbow to the ribs of stand-ins as well. Although you could call it collateral damage, I suppose, it was nothing worth citing the Geneva Conventions.

But then he added this: "I’m glad to hear that Elyse wants to do real work on the set" (emphasis mine) -- referring to the reader, who was already working as a stand-in but wanted a job as a production assistant.

"Real" work? That's a rather low blow.

Over my first twenty years in the biz, I rarely saw any stand-ins at all. The ultra-low budget features I started out on couldn't afford to hire "second team" (as they're known on set), and the TV commercials and music videos I did later would simply shove the nearest PA in front of the camera whenever necessary. The first time I recall seeing stand-ins at work was on a steaming pile of cinematic crap (a biker flick) meant to mark Gary Busey's triumphant return to the big screen after a stint in rehab.* Accompanying the actors was a handful of stand-ins to help us light each scene. That's pretty much all they did, too -- stand on their actor's marks. Had that been my only experience with stand-ins, I too might share TAPA's low opinion of their professional skills. It was only much later when I began working on sit-coms that I gained a true appreciation for what stand-ins really do to help the production of each show.

Stand-ins occupy a nether-world that remains strange even by the notoriously loose standards of Hollywood, where the term "normal" can encompass an astonishingly wide spectrum of jobs and behavior. Their task is different on every production, depending largely on the DP and his/her preferences. Some cameramen want their stand-ins to plant themselves on the actor's marks like statues until the lighting is finished, while others like to see the them run the whole scene complete with action and dialog. On a multi-camera sit-com, stand-in's perform an essential, under-appreciated, and most definitely underpaid function. They study the script carefully to know who says what, when, and where in each scene, then pay very close attention to the blocking -– the actor’s movements within each scene -- during rehearsals. They have to know every one of their actor's marks, looks, and lines of dialog. Stand-ins for child actors (whose hours on set are restricted by labor laws and educational requirements) play out the role during extensive rehearsals until the kid is once again available. Before a pre-shoot (while the stars are in make-up and wardrobe), stand-ins often perform the entire scene with the non-star actors for full camera rehearsals.

As one stand-in told me: "I'm the understudy who never goes on."

Think about that for a minute...**

Every now and then a stand-in does get a small role in the show, finally giving him/her a chance to experience the adrenaline-fueled rush that comes from making two hundred and fifty people roar with laughter. Those are great moments to share, watching a stand-in who has spent so much time in the shadows finally have the opportunity to step into the heat of a brightly lit set in front of an audience. But it's a fleeting, bittersweet Cinderella-at-the-ball moment at best -- by the next day, he or she has already morphed back into a pumpkin, once more a stand-in.

My impression is that many (if not most) stand-ins start out in pursuit of an acting career. Working as a stand-in puts them on set right in the center ring of the Hollywood circus. A few manage to make the jump to acting careers, while others solider on, keeping the torch burning year after year. For many, the bumpy realities of Hollywood (and life) eventually douse that fire within. Some leave the biz altogether for better paying civilian jobs, while others settle in for the duration as professional stand-ins. Although severely underpaid compared to most below-the-line jobs, a stand-in who works steadily can make a living (if barely) that includes guild health insurance.

At some point, though, every stand-in must find a way to come to terms with what can be a very frustrating role. If your desire is to be an actor, working as a stand-in puts you tantalizingly close -- on set, in the lights, speaking the lines -- but in all the ways that truly matter (money, respect, career prospects, artistic fulfillment) you may as well be standing on the dark side of the moon. That must be a bitter pill to swallow, and in some ways can be counter-productive. One veteran stand-in told me he warns young aspiring actors to avoid the temptation of stand-in work, because doing the job right demands a dedication and discipline that will inevitably conflict with their ability to do auditions. It's hard enough to build a successful acting career under the best of circumstances, but an actor who can't make every possible audition is attempting to fly with one wing tied behind his/her back.

Just as not everyone is cut out to be a grip or juicer, working as a stand-in certainly isn't for everybody. Whatever your own limited experience or feelings on the subject, it's unfair to make the glib assumption that stand-ins don't do "real work." They might not heft hundred pound coils of cable or muscle camera dollies up circular staircases on location, but the stand-ins I've seen in my twelve years of toiling on sit-coms bring a level of concentration and effort to their job worthy of any grip, juicer, or production assistant. A film crew is a machine that can only run well when everyone is paying attention and doing their job -- we're all essential parts of that machine, and everybody counts. Good stand-ins are professionals who take their job very seriously, and in so doing, help make everything else on set run smoother.

And that deserves a little respect.

* We did the first painful six-day week on that feature before our DP got fired on a night that sent five cast and crew members to the nearest hospital. The new DP brought in his own crew, which meant we were out too -- but I can honestly that I've never been so glad to be fired off a job in my life...

** I recently stumbled across a blog by a professional stand-in -- One Red Cent Trying to Make Sense -- who takes her readers on set to show them what it's like to work as a stand-in for television shows. It's not an easy job, by any means, but Penny is a terrific writer -- and her blog is a great read.


A.J. said...

Very well put! And oddly enough, it's hard to find a good stand-in. Too many of them don't pay enough attention to rehearsals, get too distracted talking to their fellow stand-ins to hear you ask them to run through their action, and/or are always looking down at their phone (which isn't helpful when you're trying to light their face). While it may not be as physically taxing as other jobs on set, it doesn't mean that just anyone can be a stand in.

D said...

Great post! I read TAPA's post and almost replied but didn't. A good stand-in is really helpful in blocking and lighting. The actor's have to go be made up and standing around under hot lights while we're setting up would just melt their makeup. A good stand-in remembers exactly when and where everything happens in the scene and they're invaluable to the lighting and camera teams.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about ANYTHING in Hollywood, but even I thought TAPA's post was unnecessarily snide. A very cheap shot at a target that cannot easily reply. Obviously, stand-ins are employed because they're USEFUL.

I suppose TAPA probably wouldn't scruple to kick the crutch out from under a crippled kid, if he thought it might earn him an audience, and he could do it with a winsome enough quality so that the underlying self-serving meanness could be masked. I shudder to think what sort of PA he might become.

The Grip Works said...

To expect actors to stand under lights and go through the motions endlessly while we light and do camera rehearsals and refine the blocking of a scene would serve no ones purpose.
I cant imagine what TAPA thinks the protocol should be.

JD said...

Saw stand-ins used extensivly on "Ed". If you don't remember it, the show was about a lawyer who goes back home to Ohio and buys the town bowling alley. Filmed in North Jersey and used locations in many of NJ's older looking small towns.

Anonymous said...

I have worked with many stand-ins and they are worth their weight in gold.
They are truly "understudies who never go on."
You mentioned a stand-in named Penny. I know Penny, have worked with her for years. She's aces and an asset on any production.
Her work is only surpassed by her writing. Her blogs should not be missed. LN

odocoileus said...

Great post (again), about a part of production that's not widely known to outsiders. Good stand ins are great to work with because they are always ready to go on set, they know how the process works, and they manage themselves. (This is, ahem, not always true with the cast members.)

The shows I worked on usually gave the stand in at least one speaking role per season. That way they could pay their SAG dues with that one check. Almost all of them were actors, and we'd have to find replacements when they had auditions. As to their pay, if they're good, they're worth it.

One thing TAPA should note is that long term stand ins for stars can develop close relationships with them. So be careful about suggesting that they're overpaid do-nothings.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

I wasn't teribly impressed by any stand-ins until I got into the multi-camera sit-com world. Stand-ins there have to be good or they're soon gone.

D --

You're right again, as usual. Although actors often make ripe targets for below-the-line frustration, we have to remember how crucial -- and difficult --their job really is.

Wolfe --

My intention was to stand up for stand-ins, not trash The Anonymous Production Assistant. TAPA lives and dies by the sword of snark, and wields a very sharp blade indeed. I'm a big fan of his blog, but sometimes -- like all of us -- he succumbs to the temptation to shoot from the lip. I just wanted to correct his notion that stand-ins don't earn their small paychecks.

Sanjay --

I think it's just a lack of experience on his part. He's only been in the biz a few years -- and it took me many more years to understood the value of good stand-ins on set.

JD --

What I saw of "Ed" was pretty good. I still can't understand why they took that show off the air.

Anonymous --

I agree on all counts -- and Penny's blog is a good read.

Odocoileus --

Thanks. Glad to hear your shows were so generous with their stand-ins. Last I heard, stand-ins only get something like fifteen bucks an hour. It's hard for an adult, living on their own,to survive in LA on that.