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, February 26, 2012

The Wrap: Day One

From Order to Chaos

So where does Disney Executive #436 get to park?

As I drove up Gower Street through the pale light of dawn towards work early Monday morning, two tall, gangly trannie hookers – one a blonde, the other brunette – leaned into the street giving me the come-hither eye.

This is Hollywood, all right, where (in the words of a fellow juicer) “The best looking girls on the street usually turn out to be boys.”

These two were a long way from “best looking,” though. Indeed, both were very rough around the edges, but since sunrise marked the end of their work shift -- and considering what they’d been doing all night to make money -- the ragged look was understandable.

With a nod to the guard in the parking lot, I headed across the street towards the traffic signal at Sunset and Bronson... and if it seems many of my recent posts have opened at this intersection, that's because much of what I observed there for a minute or two every morning was vastly more interesting than any of the work we did on stage. Let's face it -- this show was a steaming pile. The actors are great kids: talented, pleasant, and hard working, but although the show looked great thanks to the efforts of our Gaffer and DP, the three episodes I witnessed were hopelessly lame. In effect, this show is a non-animated cartoon featuring one-dimensional characters mouthing inane, brain-dead lines for a very young and apparently uncritical audience.*

Working on such a god-awful product brings me to reconsider a position previously staked out on this little patch of the Internet -- that for those of us who toil below the line, the quality of the show doesn't really matter. Work is work, I said at the time, and it's our obligation to bring the same level of professionalism to every production regardless of how crappy the resulting product turns out to be. That much holds true -- you give your best effort on set every day, regardless of the circumstances -- but it's a lot easier to feel good about your work when the show itself strives just as hard to be clever, snappy, and funny.

This show was none of the above -- and in comparison, made my last one (a cute-but-silly adult comedy) look like Shakespeare. Fortunately, we had a terrific DP, excellent grips, and a set lighting department I'd been unable to work with for nearly five years. Altogether they made a great crew... but every day I watched the young writers for this show come on set, pencils and rolled-up scripts in hand, and wondered how they could pound out such bland, brainless drivel and still look at themselves in the mirror.

Then again, every one of those writers was taking home a much fatter weekly paycheck than I ever will - the cranky old juicer who still lifts heavy objects for a living - so who am I to judge? Our writers were just trying to make a living too, at a craft that’s immeasurably more difficult to break into and succeed at than mine. It’s incredibly hard to land a professional writing gig in Hollywood, and those who do are justifiably grateful for the opportunity. Still, it can’t be easy to sit down at a keyboard every day applying one's carefully-honed writing skills to such a simple-minded kid’s show, especially when working for the tight fist of Disney.

There's much that I'll miss about this business when I finally kiss Hollywood goodbye, but working for Disney is definitely not on that list, and for good reason. Disney productions are famously cheap, driving the hardest bargains at the expense of those who do the heavy lifting -- and if beggars can't be choosers these days, that doesn't mean we have to like it.

And so began the wrap. We hit the swing sets first, where the swamp had been drained and four hundred large potted plants that served as set dressing for the jungle were being dragged off stage one truck load at a time. While two juicers worked on clearing the floor, the rest of us went up in man-lifts to un-patch the soccapex and hundred amp connections, then -- one by one -- pull down two hundred-plus lamps and stirrup hangars from the pipe grid. The considerable quantities of heavy, dusty cable up high will have to wait until later in the week when there's less crowding on the stage floor.

Where the actual filming of a show is a stop-and-go process involving long periods of watchful-waiting punctuated by frantic bursts of activity, wrapping is all work, all the time. With the constant activity on the stage floor -- set dressers, props, grips, and construction (de-construction, actually) crews, we can't go too fast up in the man-lifts. You don't want to run over anybody's foot with one of those lifts, and dropping anything -- a lamp, stirrup hangar, or bates extension -- could really hurt someone down below, so we work at a careful, measured pace. With five or six days to get this thing done, there's no rush. We just have to get into the zen of grinding it out, minute by minute, hour after hour, until the clock says our day is done.

Wrap is a dirty job that has to be done right, and nobody's idea of fun, but it's work. Under the circumstances, I don't suppose there's a dime's worth of difference between those of us toiling for Disney -- writers and juicers alike -- and those trannie hookers out there working Gower Street. We each sell our skills and services to keep the bills paid, smiling at the customer through clenched teeth while doing it for the money.

So it goes in Hollywood, out on the street or in a sound stage.

* Tweeners do not seem to share my low opinion of this show, which is doing very well among the target demographic.


Yes, this is Oscar Sunday, and no, I'm not going to write about it. From my perspective, the Oscars have always been a bloated exercise in narcissistic onanism... or is it onanistic narcissism? Puh-tay-tow, puh-tah-tow, you make the call. I could forgive all that if the show itself was at least somewhat entertaining, but it's not. Not to me, at anyway. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary -- and if so, more power to you. At any rate, I had my say about Oscar's big night a while ago, and see no reason to keep beating a dead horse, even if it is plated with gold.

I'll probably tune in for a bit, but if past Oscar extravaganzas are any guide, twenty or thirty minutes will be all I can take -- at which point I'll flip on over to AMC for "The Walking Dead." The zombies on that show are a repulsive lot, but at least they don't make weepy, long-winded speeches...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Not This Week

Attentive readers know what that blank billboard means. It's not like I didn't try to put up a post today. Indeed, I put in way too much time trying to hammer a post into shape that finally -- perhaps inevitably -- grew to be much too long. Reading it over this morning, it was clear that I could either publish an unwieldy and somewhat confusing post, or do what I should have in the first place -- unsheathe the Salomonic Sword and cut that clumsy pair of Siamese Twins in half, and thus (hopefully) create two somewhat more reader-friendly posts.

I chose the latter path, but alas, too late. Separating Siamese Twins is never quite as simple as it sounds, and since writing this blog is supposed to be a somewhat rewarding activity rather than a self-induced sentence to Punishment Park, I'm throwing in the towel for this Sunday.

Hey, I had a hard week, folks. The sun is going down and I just can't pull that rabbit out of my hat this time. But all is not lost. Place your cursor right here and click your way over to Rob Long's latest offering at Martini Shot, where he discusses the difference between reflexively sneering at a stupid idea, and realizing that when looked at a different way, the very same idea just might be pretty smart after all.

It's all in the execution -- and at only three minutes and twenty-six seconds, well worth your time.

The storm clouds are already building over next week, but I'll try to get one of those posts up by Sunday come Hell or high water.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Week Three

Ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag

A front-lit cloth backing hung against the stage wall behind the four foot zone

If week two was bad, week three was worse. Much worse. Over the weekend, the construction crew began building two swing sets, a big interior and a much larger exterior that was quite literally a jungle, complete with rain forest backing and four hundred large potted plants. The jungle set wasn’t so bad -- in general, bigger wide-open sets are easier to light, enabling us to use larger lamps hung much further away. Not only does this work with (rather than against) the immutable laws of the Inverse Square, but hanging a few big lamps is usually a lot easier than hanging (and powering, adjusting, tweaking, and flagging...) twenty smaller units.*

Although the big jungle set turned out to be reasonably user-friendly, the interior swing set had been built atop three feet of steel deck to allow special effects enough room for their rigs under the floor -- and all that steel deck plus the extra elevation made the set a real pain in the ass to light. The man-lifts could only work the perimeter, leaving the bulk of the lighting to be done from ladders and an absurdly cumbersome construction lift light enough to avoid damaging the set floor, but still so heavy it required a forklift to get up on the set in the first place. Adding to the confusion, these two big swing sets took up all the remaining space on an already crowded stage. With very little room to store the yet-to-be deployed equipment, we were tripping over ourselves and everyone else all week. While threading his way through the mess, one of the grips stopped to survey the scene, then shook his head.

"It's ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag," he sighed.

Still, easy or difficult, our job is to light the set -- and at least there was a good reason for the way this interior swing set was built. This is not always the case... which brings me to a pet peeve of sorts, a sharp little stone that’s been festering in my shoe ever since I moved into the world of multi-camera shows. In twenty-plus years of working single camera productions, we rarely had a problem with the set designers, who made a point of factoring in the needs of every department when drawing up their blueprints. If only that held true in the multi-camera world, where far too many set designers (and set decorators) work in their own private cloister unencumbered by any concerns for the rest of the production. I don't expect them to figure out how the sets should be lit – that’s our job – but as the saying goes, "if you can't help us, at least don't hurt us."

An inexperienced set designer might be forgiven for not allowing enough room behind a set to properly light the backing -- once, anyway -- but the veterans are often no better.* When I questioned such a situation very early in my multi-camera journey, the reply was that many multi-cam designers are more concerned with creating big beautiful sets that make great pictures for their “book” – a portfolio used to get future work -- than in crafting a user-friendly set for the show. Trouble is, that books never reveals how little of the set actually ends up on screen for the show. Multi-camera sit-coms are all about the medium shot: two shots, three shots, over-the-shoulders and an occasional four shot, then punching in for close-ups to help a line or gag get the laugh. Sit-coms don't do car chases, big explosions, or long rock-'em-sock-'em fight scenes requiring huge sets or extremely wide shots. At most, a typical multi-camera show might use one semi-wide shot to open a scene at the beginning of a show, then move in with medium and close shots for the rest.

So why build sets with enormous bay windows that add nothing to the show, but cause endless reflections to bedevil all four cameras? Why build entrances and alcoves with low overhangs where lamps can’t be hung -- and once the set is finished, why do set decorators proceed to hang giant chandeliers (often the night before shoot day) in a living room and/or dining room set, invariably blocking the back-cross key lights that are the foundation of multi-camera lighting?

You know the answer as well as I do -- "Because that's the way we do it." To quote the question posed by a memorable Bud Light ad campaign back in the early 90’s: Why ask why?

Ample on-set real estate can allow an especially creative (ahem...) director lots of room to play without shooting off the set, but that's no excuse for needlessly complex and fussy set design that owes more to the designer’s professional ambition than the actual needs of the show. If the troublesome elements of a set are written into the script or otherwise help propel the story, fine -- but much of the time the problems we end up having to solve are caused by set designers blithely unaware that other departments also have work to do.

I don't understand that attitude. While lighting a set, we consider how our lamps might affect sound (will a lamp cause boom shadows?), the grips (do they have enough room to effectively cut the light?), and camera -- will a given lamp impede any of the cameras or otherwise impinge on the shot? From what I've seen, it's a rare multi-camera set designer or decorator who gives any thought to how their work impacts anyone else.

I suppose I shouldn’t blame them – after all, we usually find a way to get the sets lit and looking good no matter what – but the consistent obliviousness of these people just pisses me off. So yeah, I do blame them.

All right, that's off my chest. End of rant.

Getting those two swing sets lit was a long struggle, but with help of some terrific day-players, we managed to get both swing sets lit despite the difficulties. The only truly good thing about week three – the final week of production – was that after a 14 hour Thursday and Friday night’s 15 hour day, we were able to walk away. With a full week to wrap the stage commencing the following Monday, our only responsibility was to “make it safe” – lower any lamps on stands, clear the four-foot zone around the perimeter of the stage, and plug in the man-lifts – then go on home.***

Which is exactly what we did -- and grateful though I am for these past three weeks of work, I’m really glad this one is over.

* While taking my first baby steps as a gaffer in Hollywood – leaving my then-comfortable role as Best Boy behind – I asked a veteran gaffer for advice. He did his best Clint Eastwood squint for a few seconds, then relaxed.

“A couple of things,” he nodded. “If you ever have to light a long alley for a night scene, alternate your light and dark areas all the way down, then put a light at the very end – and when lighting actors, use the biggest lamp you can for your key light, and put it as far away as possible.”

It was good advice. His first point described the fine art of chiaroscuro – often described as “the interplay of light and shadow” -- while the second was a reminder to pay attention to the law of the Inverse Square. The link in the post above will provide the scientific explanation, but for a more prosaic and entertaining demonstration, click here.

** Cloth backings, once the industry standard, are usually front lit, while trans-lights require back light, but many modern digital backings utilize both – front-lighting for day scenes, back-lighting for night.

*** Thanks Desi, Cole, and Dave. We couldn't have done it without you..

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Voices from the Other World

Words to live by, on set or off...

It's been a while since I had the time or motivation to put up a mid-week post, but the manic pace of the past few months seems to be on the wane. The coming calm won't last long, of course -- pilot season will tie us all to the whipping post in Hollywood and beyond soon enough -- but even a brief respite will be welcome.

The vast majority of industry blogs I follow deal with some aspect of life below-the-line, but I recently came across a blog focusing on life and work in that Other World above-the-line -- not the lofty stratosphere of megabuck studio films, but the gritty realm of low budget features. As a writer, teacher, producer, and director (among other things), John J. Bruno has worked in the low budget world for the past 25 years, with the war stories and battle scars to prove it. Some of those stories can be found at Living in My Oblivion – a Life in Low Budget Films, an industry blog he’s been writing since 2008.*

From what I've read thus far, Living in My Oblivion doesn’t wallow in the snarky mud of lampooning the contradictions, absurdities and frustrations that provide the meat-and-potatoes grist for so many industry blogs, including mine. That's impressive. After so many years toiling in this business, it’s all too easy to slide into the stance of a bitter old grump -- indeed, I struggle every week to avoid becoming another angry Internet ape hurling verbal shit at the zoo keepers. Although I enjoy a good juicy tale of ego-driven insanity on set as much as anybody, there's a lot more to life in the industry than snarky stories, and in that light, John Bruno's positive (but realistic) attitude towards the biz comes as a breath of fresh air. With no particular axe to grind, his posts are the work of a true story teller, and as such, demand that the reader settle in and pay attention to fully absorb the lessons he offers. For anyone interested in the reality of working above-the-line in the low budget world, John's blog is a gold mine. Newbies, film students and industry wannabes can learn a lot from his experiences, while those of us who have done our time on low budget productions gain a further appreciation of what the producers were -- and still are -- up against when trying to make a decent movie on a limited budget.

A good place to start is a post titled Truth, Lies, and 35 mm Film, the introduction to an ongoing series detailing John's experience working as First Assistant Director on a comedy called Lucky Stiffs.

Living in My Oblivion is a terrific blog. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

* The title is a riff on the 1995 indie classic Living in Oblivion, a film the IMDB describes as the “Ultimate tribute to all independent filmmakers.”


And from a more familiar voice above-the-line -- in another of his weekly podcast commentaries on KCRW, veteran writer-producer Rob Long draws a surprising apt comparison between the experience of using a high-tech toilet in Tokyo and certain movies up for Oscars this year.

That's all I'm saying. It's a good one, well worth your three and a half minutes.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hell Week

“We don’t have time to rehearse – just shoot it!”

One very impatient and highly over-caffeinated director...

Once again standing at the corner of Sunset and Bronson waiting for the light to change – this time reporting for a late afternoon lighting day – I snapped the photo above as a long-haired woman rode by on her horse with two more saddled-but-riderless horses trailing in her wake. I have no idea who she was, where she was headed, or what she was doing out there. Strange sights are the norm in Hollywood, but you don’t see a solitary rider and three horses clip-clopping down a car-choked Sunset Boulevard every day.

If nothing else, this brought a welcome touch of levity to what had already turned into Hell Week on the new show. Although Week One was a cool breeze, Week Two brought a heat wave from Beelzebub's Lair in the form of a big nightclub swing set. Given the musical theme of this show, every episode includes a performance number -- in essence, a music video. They're cheap-ass music videos to be sure, but made from the same basic elements as the real thing: a large crowd of extras, lots of “flash and trash” lighting, and the constant hammering of a sonic assault that eventually brings everyone involved to loathe the song being filmed.

These are all the things I came to hate back in the day doing music videos for Sting, The Police, Jefferson Starship, The Pointer Sisters, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, Prince, Randy Newman, Michael Bolton, Huey Louis, and countless other lesser-known acts eager to exploit the marketing opportunities then offered by MTV. Yes, there was money to be made doing music videos back then, but it was always long-hour blood money, with the figurative blood dripping out my ears by the time wrap was finally called.

For many reasons (exceedingly slow equipment deliveries, a constantly morphing script, and the toxic trickle-down that inevitably gums up the machinery whenever there’s serious confusion above-the-line), it took us forever to get that big nightclub set ready for the cameras.* We were running behind and up against the clock from start to finish, barely getting the lamps -- three trusses jammed with Par Cans, a dozen dichroic Double-Fays, and two tall vertical rows of blindingly bright LED Color Blasters -- properly rigged and circuited before the actors and extras took the stage.

But we got it done, and it actually looked pretty good -- "better than they deserved," as the saying goes. Everybody seemed happy as the crew walked away from that twelve hour block-and-shoot day... except the juicers and grips. We had another two hours of work wrapping the swing set and part of one of the huge main sets which was due to be replaced by completely different -- and even bigger -- set for the final episode. The result was a very long Thursday that eventually strayed into the Disney No-Go Zone of double-time, followed by an equally long Friday night. It was close to midnight by the time we walked away after the audience shoot and another long wrap, leaving the stage ready for the construction crew to assemble the new sets (one exterior, the other an interior) over the weekend.

And that’s how we ended up doing two consecutive 14 hour-plus days on a multi-camera show, an ordeal more reminiscent of the Bad Old Days doing low-budget features than anything I’d yet experienced in more than a decade of working on sit-coms.

So much for “bring a book – you’ll need it.”

Still, a grind like this really makes me appreciate working with a good crew of juicers, led by a Gaffer and DP who know how turn water into wine in delivering lighting miracles at a bargain rate. Pushed hard like that, I forget my dead legs, sore back and tired arms, ignoring the heavy accumulation of fatigue to catch a third wind that will carry me until the work is done. It was only after we’d completed the wrap that I realized just how exhausted I really was – and then I stumbled home to a stiff drink and went face down on the bed.

As usual, though, I was much too buzzed from the residual adrenaline high, and couldn't get to sleep for a couple of hours. After two long days of being jerked around by yet another loud, preening director without a clue – a man who was doubtless sound asleep by that time – this was perhaps the cruelest twist of all.

But such is life in Hollywood, where horses (and the occasional horse’s ass) still walk the streets and sound-stages...

* This studio doesn’t have much equipment or anything resembling a real lamp dock, so most of the lighting gear has to be ordered from a rental house out in the San Fernando Valley – and that generally means a next-day delivery. This is hopelessly lame in a business where change is constant, and the ability to react to those changes in a timely manner is crucial.