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 29, 2012

Week One

“Don’t put your foot through a Rembrandt”

Quip from The Unknown Gaffer...

Makeup tables backstage

“It’s a piece of cake,” said the voice on the phone, a gaffer I’ve known for a very long time. “The DP is a great guy who knows what he wants and doesn't try to re-invent the wheel every week. Most of the episodes only have one swing set, and sometimes not even that – our last three shows didn’t have any swing sets at all.”

Given that lighting the swing sets is where the heavy lifting takes place on a multi-camera show, this job sounded like the easiest sit-com money I’d ever make. Not very much money, mind you, since working under a $650,000-per-episode cable contract means getting paid the increasingly common and much reviled cable-rate by a production company feeling relentless pressure from their corporate overlords to wring every last drop of blood from the budgetary turnip.* Unlike my old show, there would be no 48 hour weekly guarantee for the juicers -- I’d get the industry minimum eight hour daily guarantee plus any additional hours worked, and that’s all. Combined with the low hourly cable-rate, that meant a $300 cut in weekly pay, but with my old show more or less on the dust-bin of history and nothing on the horizon for the immediate future, I was ready to take pretty much anything short of an All 4/0, All The Time rigging call.** This job would draw first blood in the New Year and keep my head above water for the entire month of January without kicking my ass.

At this point in my career, that means something. Since making the best of a situation – going with the flow, more or less – comes with the turf in free lance Hollywood, I signed on for the duration.

As it turns out, this show is another product of Disney’s assembly-line comedy machine, churning out simple (and simple-minded) shows made for an audience of kids between six and twelve years old. Most of the cast is well under eighteen, but as the first week unfolded, I was surprised how good they were in front of the cameras. True, we’re not exactly making “Hamlet” here, but these kids fully inhabit their roles, and bring a lot of energy to the set. They've got talent, too, and it's clear that one way or another, they'll be making buckets of money for the Disney Corporation over the next few years.

Not those of us toiling below-the-line, though (not working for the Mousewitz cable-rate, anyway), but the awkward truth is that the low pay had everything to do with my getting this job in the first place. A slot on the crew was open only because the Best Boy hasn’t been able to keep a crew all season long. His juicers would have stayed if the show paid scale, but the minute one of them got wind of a better-paying job, he or she was gone.

The first week was pretty much as advertised, with just one small swing set resulting in three short and easy lighting days. The block-and-shoot day went twelve hours, but didn’t involve much actual work, and the shoot night was over and done in only ten hours. Our DP really is a sweetheart; calm, polite, and a very nice guy, he’s clear and decisive when it comes to lighting the sets. Equally important, he understands what matters and what doesn’t -- he knows when not to "put his foot through a Rembrandt." I’ve worked for him in the past, and always enjoyed the experience, which is one reason I took this gig. In many ways, he’s the polar opposite of the DP I just did 45 episodes with – a cameraman with a similarly great eye, but whose frantic, ceaseless tweaking of the lighting earned him the nickname of “The OCDP.” He’d shoot out of the “Bat Cave” like a Polaris missile twenty times a day to have us add a scrim to a lamp, take it out, pan the head a quarter inch to the right, then put the scrim back. He’d then stare at his light meter, shake his head, and dart back into the Bat Cave.***

There would be none of that on this show, which made it a lot easier to say “yes” to the job.

The gaffer is a very old friend I’ve known since well before either of us got in the business, but if there’s one thing you can count on in Hollywood, it’s the peril of believing the siren song of a smiling man with a silver tongue. Even if he’s telling the gospel truth as he believes it, when he says “bring a book – you’ll need it,” you can bet that sweet promise of a rocking-chair gig will curdle and turn sour before long. That the previous three episodes didn’t include a single swing set between them – three easy-as-pie bottle shows in a row – meant nothing, because the past is seldom prologue in a crazy business where the only guarantee is that there are no guarantees.

That first week was indeed a piece of cake, but it was also the calm before the storm. As I drove home Friday night after our first audience shoot, I had no clue that the easy part of this job was over, or how very different the next two weeks were going to be.

* $650K might sound like a lot to the uninitiated, but my last show – which paid cable-rate in the first season, then bumped us up closer to full scale for Season Two – was made on a $900K per episode contract. Considering that that the average network multi-camera show comes in around $1.5 million per episode (which is still considered a bargain in the upside-down world of television), you can understand just how cheap Disney really is.

** A friend of mine – younger than me, but no Spring Chicken – took such a call last year and ended up wrangling seven hundred pieces of 4/0 through a mountainous canyon for the movie “Super Eight.” The poor bastard won’t make that mistake again...

*** The “Bat Cave” is a dark, closet-sized room where the DP and a Digital Imaging Technician sit all day and stare at a $27,000 flat screen monitor displaying the feeds from all four cameras.


Joseph L. Cooke said...

For us civilians, what's 4/0 (big wire?) and why was the job difficult? I saw Super 8 and am curious.

Peggy Archer said...

Joseph, 4/0 is the heavy cable. Each 100 foot length weighs about 103 pounds.

Which is fine if you're on a stage, have lots of manpower and can use carts to haul the damned stuff around, but on location? Up in canyons? Hills? Buildings with no elevator with the set on the third floor?

You have to carry it.

About halfway through a job that's all cable, one starts to feel like death isn't so bad after all.

And Michael, a friend's a BB on another of those Disney shows with the kids and has the same problem with not being able to keep a crew.

Michael Taylor said...

Joseph --

Peggy Archer said it well -- 4/0 is the biggest, heaviest, ugliest cable we deal with on a regular basis. I wasn't on "Super Eight," but my buddy who did the job indicated they were rigging for the train shot at night. Not having seen the movie, I don't really know what that means, but a big night exterior sequence generally means a truckload of lights -- and lots of lights means lots of cable. I've done my share of cable humping over the years, but running 700 pieces of 4/0 over hill and dale is back-breaking nightmare.

Peg --

The say it's an ill wind that blows no good, so given that I owe this job to cable rate, I suppose I should be grateful. A job's a job -- but I'd much rather we all were getting scale and didn't have to worry about sub-scale paychecks.

Joseph L. Cooke said...

Thanks to both of you for the info. One learns......

Stay well - and employed.