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, May 27, 2012

Day Player


Mime is money...

I sit on an apple box looking in the window of a nice little waterfront restaurant, with the panorama of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf behind me. It’s night, the rows of boats along the quay awash in the cold blue glare of mercury vapor streetlamps. The bright glow of neon from a dozen restaurant signs sparkles through the night, reflecting off the cold waters of the bay. But for the absence of fog, this feels a lot like a scene right out of Dashiell Hammett.

Five feet away sits a lovely young woman with long dark hair, high cheekbones, full lips, and a magnificent chest. Dressed to the nines in a sleek outfit that makes the most of her impressive curves, she’s looking great -- and she knows it. I watch through the glass as she carries on a silent conversation with a man seated across the small table. All I can see of him is a shoulder, arm, and hand, and he’s not aware of me at all. But she is, and eventually waves, flashing a brilliant white smile. I return the wave and smile, all the while gently shaking another apple box under the window with a four foot pole. A wide, flat aluminum baking pan sits atop that apple box, the bottom covered with small shards from a broken mirror covered with an inch of tap water. Ten feet over my head, a 1000 watt Par Can gelled blue-green is focused directly on that pan, bouncing a reflection of moving water up along the window panes.

Meanwhile, Dan Ackroyd and Fran Drescher run through their comedic dialog one more time, seated at a table on the other side of the set wall surrounded by a carefully selected and wardrobe-appropriate cast of extras playing diners and restaurant staff. Four cameras on peds practice their delicate choreography as the rehearsal unfolds.* Being on the outside looking in, I can't hear the dialog, but that doesn’t matter -- my job is to remain out of sight of those four cameras while keeping the pale blue water reflections dancing over the windows. It's impossible for me to see how well it’s all working on camera, but that doesn’t matter either, since DP is watching like a hawk on a twenty-seven thousand dollar digital monitor. If I’m doing something wrong, his voice will crackle through my Secret Service-style walkie-talkie earpiece.

In this case, no news really is good news.

Since we're on a sound stage in Hollywood rather than a real location, “Fisherman's Wharf” is actually a large translight backing lit from behind by ten thousand watts from two 5K Skypans, with another thirty-five thousand watts or so from twenty more lamps illuminating the set interior.  Amid all that firepower, it’s a very small thing I’m doing (and truth be told, it looks rather cheesy), but every scene in a television show or feature film is composed of many small elements. When all those little things are done properly and work together, the cumulative effect can be very convincing – and that’s the idea.  This show being a multi-camera sit-com (a genre not known for subtlety),  my ever-so-cheesy water reflections seem to hit just the right note.

 Making such reflections during a shot is one of the oldest tricks in the lighting book. In one form or another, I’ve done this or seen it done on features, commercials, and television shows since the beginning of my career, and it probably goes back to the silent film era. Once we’ve set the lamps, the grips ordinarily handle such effects, but with so many windows on this set, the entire grip crew is already busy shaking their own mirror-and-water equipped pans, so I’ve been drafted to help. As a day-player on this show, my job is do whatever the gaffer asks, so here I am. That’s fine with me – doing something is almost always better than doing nothing on set, where tedium and boredom-induced lethargy can slow the clock to a painful crawl.

Having waited patiently all morning in the audience seating area, the extras in this restaurant scene are suddenly very busy indeed.  During rehearsals and once the filming starts, they’re working hard – waiters bustling from tables to kitchen as the diners make their menu choices, order, and carry on animated conversations. The female extra on the other side of the window does a good job, talking, smiling, and flirting with her dinner companion. It’s very convincing, but she’s faking it, her every action performed in absolute silence. The extras have to pantomime everything so that the scripted dialog uttered by Dan and Fran can be picked up by the boom microphones and recorded with a minimum of background noise. Clean dialog minimizes the need -- and expense -- of "fixing it in post," which means for the producers and extras alike, mime really is money.

Between takes the extra on the other side of the glass beams another thousand-watt smile at me, trying to figure out just what the hell I’m doing out there. The high set wall and glass preclude any verbal conversation – we’d both have to shout to be heard, which would be totally inappropriate – so it's my turn to do the mime-thing, pointing at the pans of water, then the Par Can above, and finally to the resulting watery reflections meant to simulate the effect of streetlights bouncing off the waters of Fisherman's Wharf.  Her face lights up as she finally connects the dots.

“Wow,” she mouths. “That’s really cool.”

I smile and shrug my shoulders. Creating illusions is what we do, however silly and convoluted the process might look.

After five or six long takes, the scene is done. As all those extras change back into street clothes and get ready to go home, the cameras and crew are already on another set preparing to shoot the next scene. This being a blocking-and-preshoot day, there’s much to be done before we  can think about going home.

Such is the life of a day-player – this show one week, another show the next. Until (and unless) my regular crew lands a show of our own later this summer, I’ll be a tumbleweed rolling wherever the winds of Hollywood blow... and glad to have the work.

* You still see dollies on broadcast network multi-camera shows, but almost never on a cable show.  Once an integral part of every sit-com camera crew, dollies -- along with dolly grips and focus-pullers -- are now gone with the digital wind on cable, each three-man crew and dolly replaced by one camera operator and his-or-her camera pedestal.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

My Advice? Buy "Drugs"

Those of you who have been here from the early days might recognize the name J.R. Helton, who published a book in 1996 called Below the Line, a highly entertaining, ruthlessly clear-eyed look at the feature world of that era, detailing his own rocky journey through the film biz. After seven years painting sets for feature films on locations all over the south, south-east, and east coast, Helton put down his paint brush in favor of a pen.  Now, with several published books under his belt, he teaches the art of writing to college students, whether they like it or not.

As far as I'm concerned, Below the Line is a must-read for anyone curious about the reality of working in the film/television industry, be they students, newbies, or veterans. In equal measures informative and entertaining, it's a truly great read -- in my opinion, a classic of the genre. 

I haven't yet laid my hands on a copy of his latest book, Drugs, but was able to read a few early chapters published as short stories a couple of years ago.  That R. Crumb cover is no joke -- I was all but sweating bullets reading those pages.  Having strayed across the fine line of the law more times than I care to admit during my younger days, I can attest to the authenticity of the harrowing scenes Helton so vividly describes. Those chapters opened a window on a reality experienced by many of us who eventually made it through to the other side -- and more than a few who didn't -- during a time that, in many ways, wasn't all that different from today.  Young people continue to walk the pharmaceutical high wire in the name of Fun these days, and if the drugs involved are different (some are, some aren't),  the essential good news/bad news reality of that equation hasn't really changed.

As Jerry Stahl (ex-TV writer/heroin addict-turned author of the terrific book, "Permanent Midnight") described it, "This is a truly riveting, mind-altering read, not to be missed.”  But maybe R. Crumb put it best: "J.R. Helton really speaks to me -- starkly honest, darkly funny, acutely observant, and captures the tragic absurdity of human life... he's right up there with the best of them."

I agree.

This blog has never accepted any advertising, despite the offers that periodically land in my Gmail box, nor does it make a habit of pushing products or services. Today I make an exception, because J.R. Helton will appear in LA on a book tour for a reading/signing/discussion at Book Soup the evening of May 23.  Yeah, I'm finally pushing "Drugs"... or at least urging anybody interested to head on over to one of LA's last great independent book stores on May 23.

J.R. Helton is one of us. He's suffered in the film industry trenches below-the-line, enduring the ridiculous abuse we all know too well, then made an almost unfathomable leap of faith to break free. Now he's doing what he really wanted in life, what he was meant to do -- write.  He's good at it, too, and although it's taken a while, he's finally managed to achieve a modest level of success as a writer.  Getting published by the mainstream literary press has never been easy, but it's harder than ever nowadays.  Talented people who make that kind of effort deserve some support from the rest of us, especially when you consider that this book tour isn't being paid for by some Daddy Warbucks publisher -- Helton is doing the whole thing on his own nickle, all the way.

That's why I'll be at Book Soup on Wednesday night, inshallah, to shake the man's hand and hear what he has to say.  I plan to buy "Drugs" -- and I'm looking forward to it.

Hope to see you there.

Book Soup
8818 Sunset Boulevard
Wednesday, May 23, 7:00 p.m

But wait, there's more...   Readers in the New York City area (and I know you're out there, no matter how quiet you may be) will have a chance to meet J.R. Helton in a reading at Book Court one week later.

Book Court
163 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY.
Tuesday, May 29, 7:00 p.m.

Displaying a classic Big Apple sense of humor, they're calling this one "A Night on Drugs."

Be there...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Beggar's Beach

Now that pilot season is over, Hollywood has entered the Horse Lattitudes of what Peggy Archer – displaying her usual lyrical genius -- dubbed The Unemployment Season. Although work is scarce in town, it hasn’t vanished altogether. This isn’t the good old/bad old days when the late spring/early summer months were a graveyard for television production. Back then, features filled the void left by the television hiatus, but that was before so much feature production migrated to Canada, North Carolina, New Mexico, Michigan, and New Orleans, among many other increasingly attractive state-subsidized filming venues. And with Jim Cameron making noise about doing co-productions with – and possibly in -- China, the offshore flow of features could get even worse in the future.

True, the latest Star Trek franchise was filming at Sony while I worked on a pilot out there a few weeks ago, but that remains the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Like it or not, LA is now Television Town. With cable marching to its own internal drummer and the usual garbage truck-load of Reality Crap under way, there’s some level of ongoing production year-round. As the broadcast networks retool for the Fall season, new and returning cable shows of all kinds are gearing up or already filming – and that means there’s work to be had, if you know the right people.

Therein lies the rub. This being a tribal business at heart, we tend to run with the people we know, and thus keep on at whatever it is we’ve already been doing. We’re all free-lancers, and thus able to work on any type of production – feature films, music videos, episodic TV, sit-coms, Reality Crap, or commercials -- but the Best Boys who dial my number are mostly those I’ve worked with over the past few years on multi-camera shows. A few years ago I did a week on the ABC episodic “Criminal Minds,” but that was atypical – which is fine with me. A week of 16 hour location days is more than my back can take these days, so I'm happy to remain in the comfortable cloister of multi-camera shows. Besides, I don’t know too many Best Boys in the episodic world these days – and more to the point, they don’t know me. The same goes for features, commercials (once my bread-and-butter), and Reality Crap.

Right now, the future is muddled. My old show may or may not come back, but even if it does, won’t return until sometime in 2013. A lot can happen between now and then, and since I've got to make a living in the meantime, my fingers remain firmly crossed that seeds we planted during pilot season will indeed sprout and grow into a real show for the Fall  – and if not, that a slot will open up on one of those late-spring cable shows.

Not that I’m eager to get back in harness working for cable-rate, mind you, but beggars can’t be choosers -- and during Unemployment Season, were all camped out here on Beggar's Beach.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Horror...


Open wide, television viewers -- here they come again...

Good news for wide-eyed, slack-jawed droolers everywhere!  Hollywood Douchebag Ryan Seacrest has seen to it that the entire extended Douchebagian family – who apparently achieved world-wide fame simply for being The Douchebagians --  will continue to pollute the television airwaves and turn brains of viewers around the globe into sentient mush for another three years.

Yes, Keeping up with the Kardashians is back and flying high, as Reality Television strives with relentless determination to lower the collective IQ of humanity, and thus make the world safe for stupidity.  There is only one conclusion I can draw from such a depressing turn of events:  There is no God... and She hates us.

Bring me the bucket of Kool-Aid, now... 

Check that -- no Kool Aid.  Not yet, anyway.  Despite the relentless assault of Reality Televsion and the Forces of  Darkness, civilization will not crumble into the sea so long as smart, creative people keep coming up with brilliant little gems like this. It’s only four minutes long, and well worth your time. A tip of the hat to Tim Goodman (lord and master of The Bastard Machine for pointing it out. 

That's all, folks, for a while, anyway.   Should all go well, I’ll be back on the Home Planet by the time this posts – a remote and primitive land where fire is the main source of heat and dial-up remains my only – and hopelessly inadequate – option for on-line access. If suitably inspired, I might hack my way through the underbrush to post something, but don’t hold your breath. 

See you on the other side...