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 5, 2011

The Elephant Door

Big enough for, well, you know...

One of the more distinctive aspects of a real sound stage* is the big elephant door -- so called, I presume, because such doors are more than large enough to allow the entry of an adult pachyderm. I'm not sure there's any particular dimensional standard for such doors, but although they are seldom called upon to admit real live elephants these days, they must be large enough to allow 14 foot high set walls to pass through.**

These doors are massive -- six to eight inches thick (for soundproofing) and extremely heavy. Nowadays, most of them use electric motors to slowly open and close, but at the studio where I first started, many of those doors were operated manually -- shoved open or shut by the strong backs of the crew. Gravity provided the locking mechanism, with a wheel or chains employed to engage a mechanism to raise or lower the door as required. The strangest elephant door I ever saw was at the back of Stage 32 at Paramount (the "haunted" stage where -- I was told -- the original Star Trek television show was filmed), which was opened and closed using water power. How this actually worked remains the deepest of mysteries to me, but halfway through the season something went wrong, and that door stayed shut from then on.

Electric and gravity doors have their own strengths and weaknesses. When an electric door has a problem (and it happens more often than you'd think), it usually ends up stuck open, bringing production to a screeching halt. This does not make the producers happy, which means the studio has to kick into high gear to get the damned thing fixed ASAP. Although gravity doors don't have that problem, they're not immune from the perils of Newtonian Physics. Early in my career, I slammed a gravity door shut with enough momentum to bounce it off the track -- and for a briefly horrifying moment, I thought the whole thing was about to topple inward, crushing me and several other hapless innocents whom fate had brought to the fatal crossroads of The Wrong Place and The Wrong Time. Fortunately, this stab of raw panic proved groundless -- that big door was solidly frozen in place and going nowhere.

My problems weren't over, though. Still trying to earn my spurs and build a reputation as a useful, reliable griptrician in town, I'd instead demonstrated poor judgment in a manner that was impeding the production -- so I was greatly relieved when the stage manager appeared with a forklift a few minutes later to lift the big door back on its track, thus taking me off the hook.

Another bullet dodged.

During winter, the elephant door keeps the cold and rain on the outside and the heat on the inside. In the fierce San Fernando Vally summers, massive air conditioning units maintain a comfortable working temperature on stage while the rest of LA broils in 100 degree heat. When walking or riding a bicycle down the alleys between stages in that suffocating summer heat, a deliciously cool wave of refrigerated air flows out from the occasional open elephant door -- one of those slow-motion sense memories I'll take with me to my grave.

Without those big stage doors, those of us who do the heavy lifting in Hollywood would be a lot more miserable.

In many ways, the elephant door defines a sound stage, sealing it off from the outside world and setting the tone for what goes on inside. When wide open, filming stops. Lots of other things can be going on -- rigging, wrapping, building/tearing down sets, or simply a break in the action -- but actors are rarely performing for the cameras when that big door is open.*** Everything is more relaxed then, as crew members grab a quick smoke, make a phone call, or simply stare up at the blue sky and the great outdoors. But when that door slowly glides shut, the outside world of sunshine and sky vanishes as we return -- like Morlocks -- to a world of darkness, artificial light, and make-believe.

Then it's time to get back to work, and the business of Hollywood.

* As opposed to one of the many insert stages found in industrial areas all over the LA Basin -- which typically consist of a thin, decidedly non-soundproof shell with a pipe grid hung from the rafters. Insert stages have their uses, but I'll take a real sound stage every-time...

** Just once, during my brief career as an LD (Lighting Director -- basically a glorified gaffer making a much fatter daily rate -- did I see an elephant walk through one of those big doors. Three elephants, actually, two adults and a baby, on Stage 5 at Raleigh Hollywood. That was impressive... and shades of D.W. Griffith's Hollywood.

*** There are always exceptions to every rule. The crew of Samantha Who? often built their sets right out the open elephant door and into the alley. That was one very expensive half hour comedy, which led to the show's premature demise. As I heard it, the network demanded a cut in production costs of $500,000 per week if the show was to return for a third season. When the producers balked, the axe came down.


Ed (sloweddi) said...

I know that building!!! Back when I was with Paramount Sound. And the fire that took the stage. :)

Small world. Especially in the industry

Joe Cottonwood said...

Nice post. For an outsider like me, I get a slice-of-life sense of what happens in the industry. And it does seem "industrial."

Nathan said...

We don't have a whole lot of elephant doors in NY and, frankly, as a locations guy, when the company is on a stage, it's my cue to be elsewhere.

But I loved the picture you painted here.

Oh, and BTW...the one time I worked with an elephant, we were just running her wild through the streets of Oakland. She fit in the set "garage" just fine.

Michael Taylor said...

Eddie --

The photo is from inside Stage 16 at CBS Radford. I haven't been back on stage at Paramount for ten years or so -- long before I had a digital camera. Did the fire burn down Stage 32?

Joe --

Every now and then I try to write one for the civilians out there, people who have no stake -- present or future -- in what we call "The Industry." Glad you liked this one.

You're right, film and TV are indeed industrial, but in that they're not so different from the construction biz. I've talked about the similarities/differences between these two endeavors before and won't belabor the issue here, but both include a wide spectrum of individual and group approaches. Just as in construction, there are "owner operators" in and around Hollywood with equipment trucks they drive to the location ("jobsite," in construction-ese) and use to do "custom" jobs for a variety of clients. I've done my share of those gigs over the years, which are light years from the studio grind of cranking out television shows. But each has advantages and drawbacks -- and as in the rest of life, the trick is to find the balance that works for you.

Thanks for tuning in.

Nathan --

That's a compelling image - an elephant running wild through the streets of Oakland. Must be an A's fan...

Nice to hear from you.

Ed (sloweddi) said...

Stage 32 was the old Star Trek TV series "exterior" set and a former Desilu stage. The fire did a good number on the interior of the stage and I remember that when the Fire Dept showed up they let us continue to use the fire hoses (under supervision) as we were having too much fun (till the bosses showed up and we had to stop). I was told years later that the interior of stage was completely rebuilt and upgraded. I had since moved up to NorCal and moved into the computer industry. About 8 yrs ago it returned to its "roots" and was used in Star Trek :Nemesis.