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 28, 2011

The First Week

It's all hard, but the first week is the hardest.

I walked on stage early Monday morning to find a brand new and considerably larger set for Season Two of my little cable show. The pipe grid hanging above those new sets was empty, a bare steel skeleton ready to be rigged with a dense array of stirrup hangers, lamps, meat-axes, flags, and teasers -- but for the moment, only a thin layer of fine sawdust adorned those cold metal pipes, a residue of the ongoing process of building, sanding, and painting the sets.

Getting a show up and running from a standing start is a daunting task, and with only one short week to rough-in the lighting, our work was cut out for us. We had just five days to hang, power, adjust, move -- in some cases, repeatedly -- well over two hundred lamps to light the sets for actor's rehearsals the following week.* As usual, all this would have to be done while the carpenters, painters, and set dressers did their work, which meant the juicers and grips working in man-lifts -- me being one of the former -- would have to be very careful not to drive over (and thus crush) anything or anybody down below, all the while trying to avoid dropping a fifteen pound stirrup hanger or fifty pound lamp on some hapless innocent unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the worst possible time.

There's a reason we call that four-by-four area directly in front of a lift "the Kill Zone."

So we got to work. The dimmer operator took two young, strong day-players up hight to wrangle cable and drop dimmer leads while my fellow core-crew juicer and I climbed into our respective man-lifts and began hanging lamps. As someone much older and wiser once said: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," and it's true -- one by one, lamp by lamp, that empty pipe grid began to fill up. It went slowly at first, but before long we were back in our familiar working groove, and by the end of that first ten hour day, nearly fifty lamps had been hung and powered. Those were the easy ones, of course -- and as the grid filled up, working amid those pipes became increasingly difficult. It was tough enough working around the lamps we'd already hung, but hard on our heels were two grips busily installing meat-axes, flags, and teasers to cut and shape the light from our lamps. All that grip equipment takes up a lot of space, making it much harder for us to add, power, and adjust any additional lights -- and there are always going to be more lamps to add. Worse is when we have to go back and move a lamp already burdened with the additional weight of a meat-axe (a clever but ungainly combination of a big C clamp and two sliding gobo-arms) and a large flag. The lamps are heavy enough, so my habit is to remove all that crap and hand it off to the nearest grip. Once the lamp is in the right place, he (or she) can re-install the grip equipment.

Two steps forward, one step back.

Such is the nature of the beast when gearing up a show, where everyone is constantly in somebody else's way. It took all five days of that first bloody week, but by Friday night a measure of order had emerged from the chaos. Getting there took an enormous effort (with much remaining to be done), but if we all limped into the weekend like survivors of the Bataan Death March, at least we'd accomplished something -- and fully earned our paychecks for the week.

Although the first week is the hardest, we're not done with the heavy lifting just yet. Following the contours of the first few episodes (where the set is essentially a construction site), all the permanent sets will be re-painted and re-furnished as the season unfolds -- which means the lighting will have to be adjusted on a continual basis. The first week was a blur, but we'll be very busy for a while. The truth is, working on a show never really gets easier, but evolves to a different degree and variety of difficulty. With each episode being custom-made to fit the requirements of the individual script, new challenges will arise every week -- and that means we'll be pushing that big rock up the steep hill for a long time.

It's been a while since I've worked a show that survived its first crucial season to earn a shot at another. It's a nice feeling, a rare (and doubtless fleeting) sense of stability in the typically storm-tossed Hollywood seas. After all those brutal one-after-another pilots and shows that could have (and should have) continued, Season Two of this one is officially underway.

And that feels good.

* Most new or returning shows allow at least seven or eight days to rough-in the permanent sets and any swing sets for the first episode.


Sis Cesspool said...

The Kill Zone: A Juicy Mystery. ;) Congrats on your sophomore season!

Michael Taylor said...

Thanks, Sis.