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, June 10, 2012

A Sit-Com on Location

The mighty Robosaurus roars...

It’s 6:30 a.m. as the crew, trucks, and a large crowd of extras assembles in the big asphalt bowl of the Irwindale Speedway. A heavy gray gloom hangs low overhead as Southern California’s springtime marine layer blankets everything from coastal Santa Monica to the outskirts of the so-called “Inland Empire” under a dank cloak of ocean fog.  A long, bleary-eyed drive through the pre-dawn dark brought each of us to this location, but an unspoken question hangs in the mist above:

What the hell are we doing here?

As everyone familiar with the multi-camera world knows, the natural habitat of such shows is a sound stage, not the great outdoors at the mercy of Mother Nature. But here we are halfway to nowhere amid the vast urban deserts east of LA, at a bankrupt racecourse named for a nearby flyspeck of a town best known for playing the sucker twenty years ago to Al Davis and his Raiders football team -- an exercise in small-town hubris that cost the people of Irwindale ten million dollars. We’ve gathered in this bleak wasteland of endless freeways and immense gravel pits to do a full days filming on a multi-camera pilot for one of the major broadcast networks.  Although the bulk of the pilot will be shot back on stage at the studio, today we’re working under the wide-open skies of Southern California.

There's a long list of logistical reasons why multi-camera shows are filmed in the snug, weather-tight confines of a studio sound stage, but the primary rationale is budgetary -- shooting this type of show on stage is much cheaper.  Location filming can be a very expensive endeavor, and since sit-coms are all about comedic family drama of one sort or another, much of every show takes place in the same apartment, condo, or suburban home.  Most sit-coms need a living room, dining room, and kitchen set, and if the show takes place in the suburbs, a front door/front porch is often included with those permanent sets. "Swing sets" -- temporary sets needed for a particular episode (a garage, back yard, bowling ally, or whatever the script requires) -- can be quickly added, dressed, and lit on stage without the complications and craziness of location scouting, honey wagons, crew parking, transpo, equipment trucks, sound issues, security, and buying off the neighbors that comes with turning a real-world location into a usable film set.  Plus, most multi-camera shows are shot in front of a live studio audience, and there's really no practical way to do that on location. 

But every now and then the writers go a little stir-crazy in their little room upstairs -- they get a wild hair and dream up a scene that really can’t be shot on stage at a reasonable cost -- and that's when we go out on location. The writer’s job is to surf the waves of imagination in their quest to create a compelling script, but given that writing is an indoor gig, most television writers are utterly clueless as to what location filming actually entails. For them, a day of shooting out in the real world is like a field trip back in grade school -- a chance to escape the classroom and play in the sun. That's understandable, I suppose, since any opportunity to flee the trapped-in-an-elevator claustrophobia of the writers room doubtless sounds like a great idea at the time, but taking a multi-camera crew on location often results in a Grade A cluster-fuck. Ask any veteran lighting crew what happens when you roll four electronic cameras and their indoor camera crews off stage into the great outdoors, and watch the eyes roll. Every juicer and grip I know has served his-or-her time on location shoots (decades, for most of us), where we all learned the hard way just how challenging a day of location filming can be. That's why the producers hire us – to use our hard-earned skills to help turn the writer’s dreams into on-screen reality, no matter how silly it all might seem at the moment. And although the scenes we shoot on location usually end up working pretty well when edited into the rest of the show, it's equally true that you can’t know what you don’t know -- and most writers have no idea what forces they’ve unleashed when taking a multi-camera show on the road.

Fortunately for this pilot, the grip and electric crew were veterans one and all. With better than a hundred and fifty years of professional experience among the set lighting crew alone, we wouldn't be flummoxed by the sudden transition from stage to location.  Indeed, it promised to be an unusually entertaining day, since the scene on the call sheet involved a cinematic face-off between the legendary Robosaurus -- a huge fire-breathing, automobile-crunching mechanical dinosaur that has been delighting crowds at automotive events across the country for the past two decades – and a DeLorean-on-steroids Monster Truck.

Silly, but fun.  What more can you ask from a day of work?

It was the usual location-grind from dawn ‘til dusk -- softening, bouncing, augmenting, and chasing the constantly moving sun to maintain consistent lighting on the action while dealing with a few equipment failures and gusting winds as the day wore on -- but in the end the director and producers were happy, and after two more long days shooting on stage, this pilot was in the can. Once we'd wrapped the show – a task accomplished by working all the way through Easter weekend -- our job was done, and the rest was up to the post-production crew.*

With our old show on indefinite hiatus (never a good sign), this crew needs to catch a new wave somewhere, somehow, and we were all very hopeful this pilot would get picked up. Being a major broadcast network production, a pick-up would mean starting work in mid-July on a show with the potential to carry us all through the fall and winter into next spring – a job paying full union scale rather than the odious cable rate we’ve been saddled with all year long.  The prospects seemed good, too, since the network had been willing to invest so much money in this one... but the Gods of Hollywood play by their own set of rules, and the results are not always kind. As the upfronts in New York closed out, our pilot was not among the lucky new shows on the 2012 fall lineup. 

Like a weekend in Las Vegas, pilot season is always a roll of the dice that deals many more losers than winners, and once again those dice ran cold for me and my crew.  So we close the door on this one and move on, looking ahead towards an uncertain spring and summer.  But such is the nature of the Hollywood beast.  Being a free-lancer in the film/television biz means always having your thumb out, looking to hitch another ride to the next town down the road.  There are no promises or guarantees of any kind -- nothing but a check in the mail and a little faith that something else will come along soon enough.

That's not much to hang a hat on, but it'll have to do. 

* With another show due to begin work on our stage the following Monday, there was no choice but to work through the weekend.

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