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, January 22, 2012

The New Job

The ropes, brakes, and counterweights at the heart of an arbor system

A new year, a new job, another Monday. I stand in the pre-dawn chill with my work bag slung over a shoulder, waiting for the red light to turn green so I can cross Sunset Boulevard without being sent into the Great Beyond by some bleary-eyed commuter lead-footing it to a job he hates but is scared to death he might lose. The darkness is just beginning to fade in the east, the air still and cold. In the fluorescent glow of the corner gas station, a ragged form sleeps on the sidewalk next to a shopping cart filled with scavenged cans and bottles. A filthy, tattered blanket is pulled tight, leaving only an unruly mop of dirty hair to face the world. Once again I confront a living, breathing reminder of just how thin the line can be between a relatively comfortable life and the purgatory of wandering big city streets in a daily struggle to survive – and how fortunate I am to have a job in such troubled times.

Even a cheap-ass cable-rate gig that will run out in less than four weeks. It’s a job, and I’m glad to have it.

The light finally turns green, but I wait a beat and look both ways before crossing. Can’t be too careful in this, the second decade of a very lean and increasingly mean new millennium. A hundred yards down, I surrender my driver’s license to the security guard manning a dilapidated kiosk. He checks my ID against the show’s updated crew list, then returns the license with a red wrist band that will allow me to come and go throughout the day. This doesn’t apply, since I won’t be leaving the studio until our work day is done, but protocol is protocol.

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

I navigate around the antique “gate” – a ridiculous hand-operated boom that looks like a prop from an old Groucho Marx comedy – and make my way through the gathering dawn between the big sound stages. Once upon a time this was the old Warner Brothers studio (now saddled with the bland and breathtakingly unimaginative name of “The Sunset Bronson Studios”) before the brothers Warner finally hit it big with "The Jazz Singer" and were able to leave their competition -- the rest of the second-tier “Poverty Row” film studios at the time -- in the dust when they moved to their current studio in the San Fernando Valley.

Our stage is a funky relic of those earlier days, complete with an "arbor system" for hanging and powering the lamps. With an arbor rig (or Fly System), the pipes are suspended from cables and pulleys allowing them to be lowered to the floor, then raised back up once the lamps have been hung and powered. Such systems have long been standard for theatrical productions, but they won't work for sit-coms or episodics, which require maximum flexibility to meet the lighting needs from one episode to the next. This show doesn't use the arbor system as it was designed -- rarely raising or lowerer the arbor pipes -- but simply as the basic pipe grid. To provide the requisite flexibility, the grips hung an additional fixed-pipe rig amid the arbor pipes that can be modified as needed.

This awkward blending of two very different systems creates some problems. On a standard pipe grid, juicers can add or remove lamps without alerting the grips – but with an arbor system, counterweights must be adjusted accordingly whenever a change is made to keep that particular pipe in balance. If that critical balance is not maintained, an arbor pipe can become dangerously overloaded on one end or the other. When the rope lock is released on a seriously unbalanced pipe, the law of gravity can take over with potentially catastrophic results. A grip or juicer unlucky enough to have a finger, hand, or arm caught between one of the fixed-grid pipes and a suddenly rising or sinking arbor pipe could end up in a world of hurt.

The danger is minimal as we hang lamps to light a set, but the tricky part will come when we wrap the entire stage in a few weeks -- and that's when my department will have to work in very close communication with the grips to make sure nothing bad happens.

It's stupid to even have to worry about such things, but this is what happens when the people who make the deals (and the money...) above-the-line don't know a goddamned thing about the actual nuts and bolts of getting a show made. So now it's up to us to make this unholy marriage of two completely different systems work without anybody getting hurt in the process.

That should be interesting.

Still, this grip crew is good, and seems to have the proper attitude. One of them introduced himself as I was inspecting the arbor system. I mentioned "The Jazz Singer," adding "I guess we're breathing the dust of history on this stage." With a quick grin, he put a hand to his mouth and coughed a reply. "We're sure as hell breathing something in here..."

I think we'll all get along fine.

The work day is short when we come in early on Monday. As the troupe of young actors precede the director on set, we hang up our tool belts and head for home. The sun is high as I walk back through that ancient studio gate back to the real world beyond. At the gas station across Sunset, the homeless man is long gone in search of more recyclable cans and bottles, and another patch of hard concrete for a bed come nightfall.

Such is life in modern Hollywood, where everything seems to get just a little bit tougher every year.


Jenny Karns said...

Such great commentary. I love how you think. XOXO

Michael Taylor said...

Jenny --

Thanks for your kind words, and for tuning in. I'm honored to have you as a reader.