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, December 11, 2011

The Best Boy Hat

Back to juicing with "Mels Muff Ball" (don't ask...) on shoot night.

Note: This will likely be my final post until the New Year -- with the holiday crunch on, we've all got better things to do than read (or write) blogs as the clock winds down on 2011. I might put up something quick if inspiration strikes, but don't hold your breath. Meanwhile, thanks for tuning in and for all your comments over this past year. May the holidays be good to you, and the New Year bring a bright new day to us all.

Merry Christmas.

Returning to LA and work from a brief visit to the Home Planet was a little different this time. With my show’s Best Boy out of town on an extended holiday for a few more days, I drew the short straw to fill in until his return, assuming a role that once upon a time – twenty-odd years ago -- felt as comfortable as an old shoe.

Given a choice, I prefer the clean, simple dance with Newtonian physics of juicing to the logistical hassles and paperwork that define the job of a Best Boy, but you take what comes in this business. Last season I filled in for the Gaffer for a week while he was gone, so this season I strap on the Best Boy hat for a few days. Given that I’ve been around long enough to be somewhat more useful than the average hall-call, stepping up when necessary seems to be my role on this crew.*

I certainly appreciated the bump in hourly pay and ten-hour guarantee a Best Boy receives, which added another three hundred dollars and change to my weekly paycheck. In this era of myriad cable rates and the Balkanization of union scale, every extra dollar makes a difference. To quote the immortal Humphrey Bogart as he poured a glass of champagne in the film classic Casablanca: “This sure takes the sting out of being occupied.”

Another bonus -- paperwork and dealing with equipment is a hassle, but it’s considerably less physical than juicing, so I didn’t take the usual beating meted out by each episode: no cuts, bruises, metal splinters or low-impact (but painful) head-bashing that comes with the job of hanging and powering lamps up among those unforgiving steel pipes. Truth be told, I didn’t raise so much as a bead of sweat during those three days... but the downside was having to stay on the floor while the juicers did all the work. I’ve never been good at standing and watching other people work, and every now and then just couldn’t help myself: I’d hop up on a ladder to rig a light and keep things moving.

But not for long; a Best Boy can’t afford the luxury of getting distracted by the ongoing flow of work. He (or she) has to keep track of and support the working crew while taking care of all the other Best Boy duties on a television show -- and for me, it’s that constant racking of mental focus that takes the most effort.

Once upon a time I was happy being a Best Boy. Back in the good old/bad old days of low-budget location features, the Best Boy gig meant I didn’t have to spend all night in a condor or endure the endless tedium of doing “coverage” on set – all the little shots from every angle the director wants (and the editor needs) after the master is in the can. Once my presence was no longer required, I’d head back to the truck to prepare equipment and/or run any cable needed for the next scene, and perform routine maintenance on the genny.** If there was nothing pressing to be done, I’d sit down and write a postcard to whatever girl was waiting for me (or not) back in Hollywood at the time.

Those were primitive days, kids -- no internet or cell phones back then.

I enjoyed a degree of autonomy the juicers and gaffer lacked – while they were stuck on set grinding out the cinematic sausage, I could come and go. So long as I made sure the gaffer and crew had the proper equipment ready to go when and where they needed it, I was pretty much on my own. If that meant getting a PA to drive me sixty miles into town to burn an entire morning checking out the equipment from a local rental house (and seeing a lot of the countryside along the way), so much the better. This was one of the few perks available in that low budget world.

Things are very different now, especially in the strange little cloister of multi-camera sit-coms. The Best Boy on our show pretty much sits at his desk in the “Gold Room” all day – the cramped set lighting office our crew shares on stage – ordering and returning equipment, keeping the paperwork straight, and fighting with the UPM about what equipment the budget will or won't allow. Meanwhile, the television flickers all day long with sports and trash TV... That kind of job is definitely not for me. As long as I can still climb a twelve step ladder and perform the gymnastics that come with getting the job done in a man-lift, I’ll stick to juicing. If the day comes when I can no longer do that safely, then maybe I’ll have to transition back to being a Best Boy.

But not until then -- not if I can help it.

I needed all three days to once again feel truly comfortable in the Best Boy role, and by then it was over. It had been different and kind of fun, but I was happy to have our regular Best Boy return in time to fill out the weekly time cards -- a task I’ve always hated. Off came the Best Boy hat and on went the tool belt for the blocking and shoot days.

And that was just fine with me.

* A “hall call” is a warm body sent out by the union when a Best Boy is unable to fill a slot with someone he knows. Hall calls can be surprisingly good, so-so, or really bad. Because of that uncertainty – and you never know who or what you’ll get -- calling the hall is usually a last resort for most Best Boys.

** On some of those low-budget shows, I was the rigging crew -- and with no real transpo department, it was often up to me to install fresh fuel filters and do periodic oil/filter changes on our genny as time permitted.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Great Wheel

Although I’ve never been a fan of Monday mornings, this last one was looking pretty good for a while. Answering the alarm in the bleak pre-dawn darkness was grim, but I felt a lot better pulling into the studio parking structure an hour later. We took a 6 a.m. call to light the swing sets for the new episode, and everywhere I went that day – our stage, the commissary, lamp dock, and production office – were people I know and like. There was lots of smiling, joking, and laughter as the morning unfolded. After a week off for the Thanksgiving hiatus, it felt good to be back in harness making another episode and earning another paycheck. To sweeten the pot, the actors came in for rehearsals before noon, at which point we were wrapped, walking off the stage into a crisp, sunny Southern California day. I felt great on the bike ride back to the parking structure.

I had no way of knowing then that the Angel of Death was hovering over the studio, or that on this lovely Monday morning one of the studio’s rigging grips lay dying on the cold tile floor of a bathroom.

In essence, a major studio is a machine built for the purpose of manufacturing feature films and television shows, a machine that runs smoothly thanks to a hard working core group of people who form the living, breathing infrastructure of the lot. More than that, each studio is a village of sorts where everyone more or less knows everybody else. Among the many departments that keep the machinery of the studio lubed and synchronized are the grip and electric rigging crews, who prepare sound stages for every new or returning show. Among other tasks, the rigging grips hang green beds (for the lucky shows) or pipe grids (for the rest of us), while the electric rigging crew runs cable to power back-lot “location” shoots, and installs/removes the massive dimmer packs required by every show these days.

I've done time on the rigging crew, and although grip and electric remain distinctly separate worlds, we’re constantly rubbing shoulders working from stage to stage. I’ve seen the same handful of rigging grips for years, and by now we know each other well enough to indulge in the good-natured ribbing that helps take the edge off a tough, physically demanding job. The rigging crews are good people, and it hurts to lose one of them. The tight-knit grip department was particularly hard-hit, but everyone in the studio felt the blow. It didn’t matter that I only knew him by his first name -- he was somebody I’d said hello to and joked with several times a month over the past decade. His death rocked the studio like a sonic boom, reverberating down every office corridor and sound stage, leaving an aching, uncomprehending void in its wake.

The details of his passing raised disturbing, unanswerable questions, but what matters now is that our little village has lost one of its own, a man with a wife and two kids, a man who was always smiling and flashing a wonderfully quirky sense of humor -- a man who was old enough to have lived a lot, but much too young to die.

Ours is a physical business where tragedies can and do happen. I’ve seen things go terribly wrong on set, and hope never to witness that again. Looking beyond the earthly tragedy of this man’s premature death, I struggle with the uncomfortable fact that at the very moment I was enjoying an unusually good Monday, a guy I knew and liked was having the absolute worst day of his life.

I'm not sure how to make sense out of that.

Such is the conundrum of our dust-to-dust existence on this little blue marble spinning through the unfathomable emptiness of space. The messy business of living and dying has never been easy to understand, but in one of those poignant symmetries so often served up by modern life, one of my show’s young grips became a father that very same day. As George Welch Jr. left the trials and tribulations of this world behind, Blaise James Ruffner took his first squalling breath, a reminder that although the void remains -- and throughout the studio the wound is raw – life does go on. Ready or not, the Great Wheel keeps on turning.

Rest in peace, George.

George Welch Jr.
1968 – 2011