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 13, 2011


(Photo by Ben Margot, AP)

"To err is human; to forgive, divine."

Alexander Pope

No matter how careful we are, no matter how many times we remind ourselves to check and double-check, we all screw up from time to time. Everybody does. Ours is a highly imperfect world heavily populated with equally imperfect human beings – and anytime humans are involved, mistakes will be made.

After a long and tiring blocking/pre-shoot day recently, I slogged home through the LA gridlock, poured a glass of wine, and began preparing a simple dinner. While chopping an onion, a cosmic snowball suddenly came howling in out of the ether and smacked me right upside the head. My knife froze in mid-air.

I’d fucked up.

I tried to reassure myself that my blunder was no big deal, but the more I thought about it – and after a few seconds of gear-spinning cogitation, this was suddenly all I could think about – the worse it got. A brain fart at the end of the day led me leave a dozen or so practical fixtures in one of our swing sets still burning after we’d clocked out and left the stage.* Although the total wattage involved was minimal (two or three hundred watts, max), even a small incandescent lamp can be a fire hazard if left burning in the wrong place at the wrong time.** Given that we weren’t due back on stage until the following morning, those wall sconces and small table lamps would be burning unattended on set for at least twelve hours before anyone on the set lighting crew could turn them off. If just one of those lamps had been left too close to filmy drapes hung on a set wall built of thin, highly flammable wood, a fire could eventually ignite and do considerable damage before the stage sprinkler system doused the flames. Although the sound stage itself could survive such a disaster, the combination of fire, smoke, and water would certainly ruin our sets and all the furnishings, and possibly much of the grip, lighting, and camera equipment.

This worst-case scenario (and I’ve always been a worst-case-scenario guy) was grim indeed. A dark vision unfolded in my head -- driving to work the following morning to find a mountain of sodden, smoldering wreckage inside our sound stage. Not only would I be out of a job, but so would the entire crew – and all because of me. Even if the show were to rise like a phoenix from the ashes with new sets on another sound stage, my services would certainly no longer be required or desired. I’d likely be banished from that studio, forced back to the unforgiving world of day-playing on whatever shows would have me. At my age, cobbling together enough work days to survive, let alone hang on to my union health coverage, would be a steep hill to climb.

In reality, such an apocalyptic scenario was unlikely, but having left the door open to the possibility, I was staring down the barrel of a long and troubled night. See, it’s all right for others to make mistakes occasionally – hey, they’re only human -- but for reasons that would require a psychiatrist to fully unearth, it’s not okay for me to fuck up. I expect myself to cover all the bases at work and make sure that nothing under my control slides off the rails. That’s just not supposed to happen.

But it did, and now I had to fix it.

There were a host of contributing factors to this particular fuck-up. Our show labors under an exceedingly tight lighting budget, and with five swing sets that week – including sets built within sets – we’d been pushed to the limit. Lacking enough dimmer circuits to run all our lamps and the swing set practicals, we’d resorted to using two home-built “Socco-Savers” – each with six household dimmers running off power from a single plug – to free up half a dozen Socapex circuits for lighting the sets.***

                                              Home-built "Socco-Saver"

The downside of this was that responsibility for adjusting the on-set practicals then shifted from the dimmer operator to the set juicers, who ordinarily don’t worry about adjusting -- or killing -- practical fixtures. Socco-Savers are generally powered via a Socapex circuit so that the practicals will still go off when the dimmer operator kills the power to that set, but in trying to save every possible dimmer circuit for our lamps, we’d powered both Socco-Savers from a studio wall plug not under dimmer control -- and that meant somebody had to remember to unplug those units at wrap. Since the Best Boy had to leave work a little early that day, that somebody was me.

And I forgot.

Leaving the onions half-chopped on the cutting board, I called the Best Boy and explained the situation. He agreed to call the studio’s electrical shop (where a real electrician is always on duty so long as any filming is taking place on the lot) to take care of things. With the problem solved -- and potential disaster averted -- I went back to my dinner preparations and bottle of wine with a clear conscience, secure in the knowledge that the stage and sets (and my job) were safe. I slept easy that night.

The next morning, I headed in a little early, grabbed a cup of coffee and a doughnut at crafty, then found the set dressing department’s Lead Man carting away the last of the swing set furnishings.

“The practicals were off this morning, right?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “I had to pull the plug and let ‘em cool down for a few minutes before I took the bulbs out.”

That was a sobering moment. It turns out I’d “slept easy” with my clear conscience on the thin ice of a Fool’s Paradise after all.

I don’t know what happened with the studio electrician, and didn’t ask. Maybe he had a busy night taking care of the several episodics shooting late that evening, and never got around to checking our stage. Since nothing bad resulted -– another bullet dodged -- it doesn’t really matter. Luck was with us both that night, so no harm, no foul.

That doesn't excuse me, of course, nor does the fact that nobody else on our crew remembered to check those practicals at the end of the day either. Since I was standing in for the Best Boy, the weight of that fuck-up rests squarely on my shoulders. If Alexander Pope was right, any forgiveness must come from a higher source.

Still, such near-miss experiences serve a useful purpose. The important lesson to absorb is that none of us -- newbie or veteran -- can afford the kind of complacent assumptions that might leave your crew in the position of depending on someone outside the department to cover their asses. Don't let that happen.

I certainly won't. Whether covering for the Best Boy or not, I won't leave that stage again at the end of the day without doing a quick walk-around to check every set.

Call it a form of penance if you will, but refusing to make that same mistake again is the only way I'll earn my own forgiveness.

* “Practicals” are the table lamps, floor lamps, chandeliers, and sconces set decorators can’t seem to get enough of...

** An incandescent bulb is really nothing but a tiny toaster -- complete with glowing white-hot filament -- encased in a very thin glass shell.

*** Socapex is multistrand cable that comes out of a dimmer pack and ends with a "breakout" consisting of six individual circuits, each capable of powering a 2000 watt lamp.


Penny said...

Sometimes it sucks to be the stand in, Mike... ;-) But glad no harm, no foul. :)

Michael Taylor said...


Hey, at least I didn't burn down the stage...