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 14, 2011

Back on the Gang

The phone rings in the evening with an offer I can’t refuse – a day of work on the studio rigging crew. After three and a half months off (thanks to some minor-but-unpleasant surgery and the annual spring/summer television hiatus), this will be my first paid day since April. I hang up with a smile, knowing that the wheel has finally turned and Hollywood is getting back to work.

It’s a welcome change. Not being one who lives to work, I very much appreciate the time off afforded by this inherently unstable business, but enough is enough. With a checking account coughing on fumes -- and no experience as a Wall Street crook (pardon the redundancy), crack dealer, or Amway salesman -- working is the only way I know to make money.

So I’m up with the alarm at 5:00 the next morning for thirty minutes of stretching, back and stomach exercises, then a shower and quick breakfast before heading up and over Laurel Canyon, a drive I could probably make in my sleep at this point. It's all rote by now. The first real test comes at the parking structure, where the laser scans my aging, faded studio badge – and by some miracle it still works.* The gate rises and I’m in, circling all the way up to a space on the fifth floor to park amidst my fellow below-the-liners. Down six flights of stairs, my rusty old bicycle is still chained up where I left it in the basement after the show wrapped. The tires could use a little air, but other than that it’s good to go.

A brisk two minute pedal carries me over the river to the stage, where eight big tubs and pallets are lined up outside the elephant door, each loaded high with heavy black cable. An electric hoist waits inside, all set up and ready to go. Connecting these dots is easy: today we’ll be sending all that cable up high, which means I’ll probably end up driving the mule.

I leave my work bag in the dimmer room and walk around the stage. The carpenters and painters are already at work on half a dozen sets in various stages of completion. Sawdust and paint fumes linger in the air. I hate that – foul air in a work situation is a personal peeve. Thirty-plus years of sucking down my daily ration of LA smog is bad enough without having to inhale an additional load of particulates and airborne toxins at work, but there are some things you just can’t do anything about. Toiling in less-than-ideal conditions comes with the turf of a rigging crew.

Still, I’ve had to work in much worse air, and as I cruise the stage perimeter checking out the sets, it dawns on me that I’m suddenly feeling pretty good – hardly my normal state of mind this early in the morning. Despite the full day of hard physical labor ahead, it feels like I’ve come home after a long absence.

Once the rest of the crew arrives, the rigging gaffer issues our marching orders. Two of us remain on the floor to send the cable high while the other two head up the long flight of stairs to the catwalks above. With my fellow floor man loading the sling, I'll be running the hoist with a foot switch and the big inch-and-a-half thick hawser. It’s been a year since I’ve driven the mule, and since rust never sleeps, it takes a good twenty minutes to get back in a comfortable working groove. But it's not exactly rocket science, and although we have to endure the wailing cacophony of power saws and percussive chatter of nail guns, the usual array of bellowing boom boxes is conspicuously absent. This is a very welcome change, allowing us to communicate without screaming, which considerably lowers our collective stress level. Power saws run intermittently, but a boom box never stops -- and a typical set construction crew has three of them on stage, each tuned to a different radio station blaring at maximum volume. Working under those circumstances is too much like the Bad Old Days doing music videos, where the deafening sonic assault made doing even the simplest tasks so much harder.

With no boom boxes today, I count my blessings.

We spend a couple of hours sending cable high before stopping for breakfast. The studio commissary is crowded with familiar, friendly faces. Lots of new and returning shows are gearing up, so it’s homecoming week with everybody happy to be working again.

Back from breakfast, we switch places – the floor crew goes high while the high-boys take their turn driving the mule. It’s a different world up here, removed from the dust, fumes, and confusion of the floor. Here the task is simple: as each hundred-and-twenty pound load of cable comes up, we pull it in from the open void, release the hook, then muscle the cable atop a narrow furniture dolly and roll it down the catwalks to lay out in neat rows. The dolly makes this much easier than it used to be – there was a time when we’d simply shoulder each coil of cable as it came up and carry it to the proper spot on the catwalk – but convenience comes at a price, which means we have to be very careful. If we go too fast and hit a bump, the load will shift. With eighteen inches of open space between the catwalk boards and the knee rail, it would take only a moment’s inattention to lose a sixty pound coil over the side, where it would plunge forty feet to the floor. Any carpenter, painter, or juicer unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time down below would be in a world of hurt -- and the person up high who allowed it to happen would have to live with that.

I haven’t killed anybody yet in this business, and don’t plan to start today – so I take it nice and slow rolling that heavily-laden dolly down the catwalks.

The idea is to store the hundred and fifty-odd rolls of cable far enough away from the waterfall to avoid hindering the show boys when they start running it out to power their sets, but close enough to keep it relatively handy.** Even with the help of that dolly, we still end up manhandling every coil of cable at some point in the process – and once again I remember the hard truth that the only way to stay in shape for wrangling cable is to wrangle cable. All the hauling, splitting, and stacking of firewood back I did back on the Home Planet last month was hard physical labor, but it didn’t do much to keep me in cable shape. By the end of this eight hour day, we've transported five or six tons of cable forty feet up and laid it all out in neat, accessible rows. The job is done, leaving me dog-tired, aching, and sore all over. Everything hurts -- my neck, shoulders, back, arms, and legs -- but I’m working again, earning a paycheck.

And that feels good.

* Something I never take for granted after a stretch of time off... 

** The “waterfall” is a massive flow of cable running from the dimmer room up the interior stage wall to the catwalks. Power is modulated through the dimmers via the waterfall to the sets, allowing the DP and gaffer to have control over each lamp on stage.


A.J. said...

Welcome back, Michael! Rumor around the trucks is that it's going to be busy.

Jesse M. said...

You know, until this very moment I did not realize "rigging" referred to electrical cables. Whenever I saw the term "rigger" in film credits, I thought it referred to the guys who create those giant frames and suspend those huge silks to reflect or diffuse light. Mainly because these contraptions ultimately resemble the rigging of a ship. Thus, I thought, this was just another instance of nautical jargon becoming commonplace in Hollywood - a result, as I recall, of the early film crews being recruited from the docks. But I guess I was wrong. Thanks for setting me straight.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

Thanks. Busy it is...

Jessie --

Grip and set lighting use rigging crews to prepare stage and location sets for the first unit crew. The grips do indeed rig big silk "flyswatters" among many other things. Set lighting riggers lay lots of cable and "distro" -- power distribution boxes of varying capacities, depending on the nature of the job. When the budget is right, they'll often do the broad brushstrokes of the basic lighting plan, (ie: setting up and powering big lamps for a night exterior) to have the set ready for the show boys to do their thing -- and once the shoot is over, the riggers usually come back to help wrap everything up.

For day-players and non-first unit crew, rigging is a big part of making a living.

Anonymous said...

Impressive, so much movement and action in this post - like an amazingly long dolly shot involving lots of choreographed extras. Maybe not as thought provoking as some of the other posts, but a great vehicle for powering a reader along. - kooba