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, November 28, 2010

Breaking the Rules

Ape and Essence*

Oops, that's a no-no...**

A recent post discussed the use of green beds on sound stages, which I much prefer to the infinitely less user-friendly (but cheaper, if only in the short run) alternative of pipe grids as a platform for rigging lamps. Still, we live and work in the world that is rather than the land of ought-to-be, and the near-universal embrace of pipe grids in my little cloister of multi-camera sit-coms requires us to make extensive use of ladders and electric man-lifts to hang, power, and adjust the hundreds of lamps every sit-com employs. I’ve spent more hours than I care to recall atop ten and twelve step ladders, and on many occasions have worked an entire shift up in a man lift, swaying to and fro while rigging lamps for eight to ten hours. After such a stint, I invariably come back to earth feeling much like a sailor freshly returned to solid ground after a long ocean voyage, with "sea legs" fully adapted to a world of random movement beneath my feet. That phantom sensation of constant motion often stays with me all the way into bed that night.

The sets are usually still under construction by the time we start rigging a stage. There are carpenters, painters, and all their equipment to maneuver around, but at least the furniture – desks, tables, chairs, couches, ottomans, rugs, end tables, bookshelves, refrigerators, stoves, sinks, and cabinets – isn't yet in our way. The pipe grid itself is wide open and easy to work on in those early days, but as the week progresses, both the sets and the grid grow increasingly crowded. Once we’ve got enough lamps rigged and powered to rough-in the lighting for one set, we move on to the next so the grips can go in and hang all their equipment from the pipes – an aerial forest of meat axes, flags, and long teasers to cut and control the light. By the time we come back to continue the lighting (it’s never really “complete” – we’re always tweaking and adding “specials” to meet the unique needs of each new episode), that pipe grid becomes ever more difficult to access. At a certain point, it's literally impossible to reach certain portions of those pipes while following the approved rules for working in a man-lift -- upward progress is completely blocked by the lamps and grip equipment already in place. Where possible, we'll use ten and twelve step ladders to do the work, but as the sets become increasingly jammed with heavy, bulky set dressing, those big ladders can't always be opened out all the way. Climbing a ladder in such circumstances is not only dangerous, but very much against the safety regulations.

That’s when we start bending -- and breaking -- the rules.

Just as each studio has its own list of on-set safety regulations, so too does the Industry at large through the so-called “Safety Passport” system.*** The rules pertaining to the use of aerial lifts on stage are straightforward – we’re only allowed to work in a scissor lift or single-man lift while inside the caged work platform. We’re not to climb up on the side or top rails of the lift, and are absolutely forbidden from exiting the lift while it’s up high. Some studios require the use of a safety harness while using any type of lift – even a single-man lift, which is so far beyond stupid that I can’t even wrap my brain around the notion – but we’ve entered an era where the common sense and long experience of people who know exactly what they’re doing is routinely shoved aside by the obessessively liability-averse “wisdom” of corporate legal departments.

Once a set has been lit, there’s often no way to reach the pipe grid (and thus adjust a lamp or add a new one) without either standing on the very top of a 10 step ladder -– which is verboten – or climbing up on the high hand rail of a lift that can go no higher without disturbing the previously deployed grip and lighting equipment. If done properly, this isn't particularly dangerous – it’s not like walking a high wire with the Flying Wallendas. So long as you keep both feet on the rails and one hand on a pipe, you’re not going to fall. Even when (as is often the case) both hands are required to do the work, you can usually brace yourself against the grid or a stirrup hanger for that crucial third-point of support -- and when there’s nothing to lean on, you just plant your feet carefully and proceed slowly, with deliberate caution.

It's no big deal -- every sit-com grip and juicer I know does this on a regular basis. It's just the nature of the job.****

But sometimes even the top rail won’t get you where you need to be to get the job done. That’s when the rule book goes up in flames, because you just might have to do an EVA (as in Extra Vehicular Activity) -- leave the safety of the man-lift while up high and venture out atop the pipe grid hanging onto the chains for balance. I've had to do this very rarely, and never in a casual manner, but sometimes there’s simply no other choice. Before doing so, I take a long look at where I have to go and exactly what needs to be done to make dead certain it’s safely doable. Only when I have complete confidence do I open the gate and venture out onto those pipes. No safety harness, no net, no nothing – just sixteen to eighteen feet of empty space (and lots of furniture) underneath those pipes.

Stepping out there is always a very strange moment, and something of a gut-check. The first time I had to do an EVA, I felt an odd, almost giddy sense of freedom leaving the lift behind. That came as a real surprise, since my biggest concern had been that I might pucker up and freeze once the lift was out of reach -- which could be a real problem –- but instead, I felt great. I suddenly recalled a day back on the home planet many years ago, when I’d climbed a good sixty feet up a huge Bishop Pine tree, trimming limbs with a hand saw as I went. Once I’d cut away the dead and overgrown branches, I found a secure branch to sit for a while and just looked out at the view -- thousands of trees all the way down the ridge to the shimmering water below. It was a wonderfully serene and peaceful experience, the big tree swaying with the wind, in tune with rhythms that took root and evolved millions of years before the advent of man. Eventually the sun sank low on the horizon and I had to come down, but I’ve never forgotten the experience.

Our ancient ancestors once lived in the trees, fearful (for good reason) of what awaited them down on that very dangerous ground below. Eventually they descended for good, but I think there’s still a part of our primordial brain that remains in tune with life in the trees – ancient circuits that helped us deal with and respond to the tug of gravity up there, and the intense focus required to maintain proper balance. The blood of those ancestors still courses though all our veins, and up on those pipes, I feel a tangible connection reaching all the way back to our collective primate past. There's nothing remotely modern or abstract about it -- you hang on tight, get the work done, then beat a careful retreat back to the lift. It's best to do this when no one is watching, of course (especially your best boy or gaffer, who tend to get nervous seeing one of their crew quite literally go ape), but once back in the lift, the mission accomplished, I always feel a very satisfying glow from within. Whether this is due to adrenaline, endorphins, or the simple physical reaffirmation of my ability to work in the three dimensional world, I really don't know.

What I do know is that occasionally connecting with the ancestral ape inside always leaves me feeling much less like a mindless work-bot, and a lot more like a living, breathing human being.

And rules or not, that's a good thing.

* With apologies to Aldous Huxley...

** Not that I recommend standing on the top of a ladder, mind you, but sometimes there's no other choice.

*** The Safety Passport Program is widely considered to be a joke among the rank-and-file in the trenches. A few of the mandatory classes provide some useful information, but the program overall stinks of something created to erect a legal shield from liability for producers and the studios rather than any serious concern for worker safety.

From what I hear, Warner Brothers is one of the worst offenders amongst the major studios at strict enforcement of absurdly unworkable restrictions on people working in lifts. I'm not sure what crawled up their ass over there on Barham Boulevard, but somebody up in the executive suites is in desperate need of an enema administered with a fire-hose...

**** It certainly isn't anything like what this juicer does every day...


Phil Jackson said...

I've always enjoyed climbing. One location in a barn I once climbed up the side wall using the support beam to set a bottomer really fast before a second take. Humans enjoy climbing. I wish I could do it more often in this flat city of Chicago without having to get some gym membership.

Jason said...

I know those boots!

Niall said...

Sometimes you have to break them rules.

Granted any time I'm up in a condor or scissor lift I wear a harness. I've almost taken a lethal tumble out of one a while back that scared the fear of god into me about lift safety.

Standing on the top step of a twelve step ladder, meh. Just need good balance and soft PA to fall on.

Anonymous said...

I hate to ask, but... what about earthquakes?

Michael Taylor said...

Phil --

Me too -- I loved to climb trees as a kid out in the sticks. There's not much opportunity for such endeavors here in LA, nor an excuse -- if any is really needed -- to indulge. Not many jobs in our increasingly abstract society allow for such all-around physicality as being a grip or juicer in the film biz.

Jason --

You speak of boots. I know nothing of boots...

Niall --

A harness while working up high on a scissor lift makes a certain sense, especially if you're on a big one outdoors. It's really not that hard to tumble out of those things. I'm dead set against using them in single-man lifts (which are pretty much restricted to stage use), and am not so sure about wearing one in a condor. At worst, a harness in a condor could act like a bullwhip if the rig tipped over, with predictably fatal results. At best, it could prevent you from making a last-second jump to get out of the way of all that metal -- which might be your only chance to survive. I know a guy who lived through such a fall only because he made a perfect jump at the last possible moment. He still got both ankles crushed, but lived to haul 4/0 again.

Speaking only for myself, I avoid wearing harnesses whenever possible. I just don't like them.

Anonymous --

Well, yeah -- an earthquake could certainly pose problems while standing on top of the rails of a lift or walking the pipes. The thing is, you don't stay up on those rails -- or out on the pipes -- for very long. Less than a minute, for the most part. The odds of the Big One hitting just then are reasonably slim.

That said, I heard about a guy who was atop a ladder on stage at Warners when the Northridge quake hit -- he came down FAST and hit the ground running as the set collapsed around and behind him, like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.

Never say never...

Niall said...


When it comes to a condor making the big fall side ways. I hear the old guys say if you feel it go, unhook/cut yourself free and pray you got time to jump to safety.

One man lift, yeah you really don't need a harness. If you fall out of that you bigger problems than being dead or injured. Someone up stairs in the big office hates you pretty bad.