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, July 31, 2011

The Off Season

Over the wire and gone...

Until relatively recently, the television season in Hollywood followed a familiar routine. The new fall season geared up in mid-July with the construction of sets on dozens of stages at all the major studios, followed by rigging and lighting those sets for grip and electric. Meanwhile, all the other departments – props, set dressing, wardrobe, hair/makeup, camera, sound, and the various aspects of production -- were preparing for what everyone hoped would be a long season ahead. Filming commenced early in August and continued until a week or two before Christmas, shooting the first twelve episodes. Following the holiday break, the surviving shows (those that hadn't been cancelled by Thanksgiving) churned out their remaining episodes into March, completing a full season's work. As those shows wrapped, pilot season was busy ramping up to a full-throttle frenzy through April. By mid-May that too was over and done, with television production shut down for the off-season hiatus -- eight-to-ten weeks during which very little was going on.

That was the pattern in the late 90's when I left the single-camera realm of low-budget features, commercials, and music videos for the world of television. In those not-so-long-ago-old-days, the television hiatus was a good time to pick up day-playing work on features, but with the outgoing tide of runaway production over the past fifteen years, features are no longer a reliable source of employment in Hollywood. If you want to work on movies, go to New Mexico, New Orleans, or Michigan -- features just aren't happening like they used to in this town.

The rise of cable over the last decade has altered the television equation. Following the advice of "Wee Willie" Keeler to “hit ‘em where they ain’t,” the fledgling cable networks took advantage of the annual hiatus – when the broadcast networks burned off re-runs or weak mid-summer replacement shows -- by starting their much shorter season (usually ten to thirteen episodes) in early spring to run those shows all summer.* Although I’ve often been critical of cable productions that take full advantage of the cut-rate contract to grind their crews into the dirt, they do provide work at a time when there’s not much else going on.

There’s still not quite enough cable work to turn the television season into a true (and oft-rumored) “year-round schedule,” but that’s fine by me -- I didn’t get into this business to strap my nose to the bloody grindstone 52 weeks a year. I value my off time for the opportunity to escape Hollywood and do something different away from the down-and-dirty labor on set. Work is good and work is fine, but I’m not one who wants to work all the fucking time. The spring-into-summer hiatus is perfect for taking care of real-life matters -- personal or family vacations, or dealing with any lingering dental or medical issues that would otherwise require missing work. Most grips and juicers (and a few set dressers I've known) have to endure shoulder, knee, and/or back surgeries during their careers, and scheduling such procedures for the hiatus allows time to recover before the season kicks back into gear.

Sometimes such issues are forced upon us, though, ready or not. Not so long ago I ran into an old friend who – after suffering through an expensive divorce – hit a dry spell bad enough to lose his health insurance. With only a few months of coverage left, he spent his entire summer in a painful trek from one specialist to the next in a desperate effort to complete all the various surgical/dental procedures he needed before the clock ran out.**

All things being equal, my own preference is to head back to the Home Planet during the off-season. Ten months in LA is more than enough each year, but such lengthy escapes have not been possible the past few years. The show I recently wrapped is a cable production that started in the early spring of 2010 and ran on through the summer, fall, and winter to the following spring. Unlike every other cable show I’ve done in the past, it blew right through the standard ten-to-thirteen episode cable schedule to shoot thirty in a single year. That kept me tied to the whipping post all during the usual off-season hiatus, but if the show gets picked up later this summer for a second season -- inshallah -- that should put us back on the “normal” schedule of broadcast network shows.

Go figure. Just when I understand how the system really works, the deck gets re-shuffled for a whole new deal. Still, the lack of permanence or predictability in the shape-shifting terrain of Hollywood is the true norm for the Industry, and something those of us who choose to work here must accept lest we end up walking into the cold blue Pacific towards China while speaking in tongues.

The annual spring/summer television hiatus offers a sweet taste of freedom during the best part of the year, so if my little cable show comes back -- and the producers decide to run the same schedule as the Big Boys -- you won't hear me complain. When next spring rolls around, I'll be going over the wire again with a big smile on my face.

* Not every cable show plays this game. Shows with a very young cast (ie: Wizards of Waverly Place) often shoot up to thirty episodes per season. Those kids grow up fast, so the network has to crank out as many episodes as possible before the cast outgrows their roles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, shows featuring one or more exceptionally old cast members (ie: Hot in Cleveland) adopt the same strategy for a similar, if darker reason...

** I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing over the next couple of years, given the new 400 hour qualifying requirement for the health plan taking effect in August.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens Clip

You probably have to be on Facebook to view this, but it’s pretty cool. The guys at Lux Lighting built flying rigs (on cables) equipped with moving lights to simulate alien spaceships on the attack in “Cowboys and Aliens.” I haven’t seen the movie – and probably won’t until it comes to Netflix – but these guys did an amazing job with the “speeder” rigs. They should be proud.

It's great to see such real-world non-CGI effects in this era of increasingly digital everything -- old-fashioned bubble-gum-and-bailing-wire Hollywood effects brought to life with the most modern lighting equipment.

Thanks to Heather for bringing this to my attention. The clip is short and well worth your time.

Check it out...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Breaking Bad

Fasten your seat belts. Here we go...

This summer is about to get a whole lot better, with Season Four of "Breaking Bad" poised to hit our screens this weekend. Viewers can argue about what show has been the best drama on television over the past few years, and "Mad Men" fans will make a persuasive case that Don Draper and Company hold the high ground -- but as much as I enjoy "Mad Men," it doesn't capture my imagination quite like "Breaking Bad." Nothing else does. This is the most breathtakingly original show I've ever seen on American TV.

That doesn't make it true, of course. As the saying goes, opinions are like assholes -- everybody's got one. And really, these two shows are so very different that there's no point in comparing them. Like apples and oranges, both are great in their own unique ways.

Still, I'm really looking forward to catching up with Walter White, Jessie, and Skylar - and I'm not the only one. As Tim Goodman leads off in his Hollywood Reporter review of Season 4:

"One of television’s greatest dramas goes unflinchingly into the continued transformation of its lead character from likable to something beyond despicable. It’s one of the most fearless and selfless gambits ever hatched in the name of enduring art."

Oh yeah. This is gonna be good...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Oh yeah...

(Note: With the Sunday Post on hiatus until August, I'll be wandering way off the Hollywood reservation when it feels right -- and today, it feels right...)

If you're young, and don't do something like this in the next couple of months -- okay, maybe something not quite so overtly suicidal -- you'll be missing out.

Me? I'm old, which is nature's way of clearing the decks for the next generation. So it goes -- I had my young and wild summers, but that was then. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Still, the memories remain.

It's your turn now.

Sure, unemployment is at record highs, the economy floats in the toilet, and jobs -- any jobs -- are hard to come by. The world is a mess, Mother Nature is turning on us in a big way, our political system is in a self-induced state of complete paralysis, and the long run outlook for humanity is trending down into the abyss. A clear-eyed observer can hardly be faulted for concluding that the future looks bleak indeed.*

And if you're fresh out of school trying to get into the film/television industry, it's a bitch.

Same as it ever was. The world has always been in a mess, and Hollywood has always been a tough nut to crack. None of that is going to change in your lifetime. The problems you -- and all of us -- face certainly do appear overwhelming, but appearances can be deceiving. Even if things get really ugly, life will go on one way or another.

Unless it doesn't, in which case nothing actually matters anyway.

So don't let it stop you. Do what you can to be part of the solution (rather than adding to the problems) and get on with the business of living. Summer is short. So is life. Get out there and make some memories.

Don't miss out.

* Which is to say, anyone not blinded by ignorance -- willful or otherwise -- or political/theological ideologies