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, July 15, 2012

Good Hooks, Bad Hooks: a Rant

                                The Lamps of Damocles

This being something of an "inside-baseball" post, it may seem irrelevant to readers unfamiliar with the nuts-and-bolts realities of set lighting. Still, any film students out there -- all you would-be writers, producers, directors, and cameramen hoping to one day walk onto a sound stage as a working professional -- should understand that each of the many heavy, hot, metal-and-glass lamps hanging above every set is potentially lethal should something go wrong.  Gravity is merciless, leaving very little margin for error, which is why a good juicer makes every effort to keep those lamps safely on the pipes where they belong.  But crappy equipment exists, and shit occasionally does happen.  

Just so you know...

When working on a stage with a pipe grid, the majority of lamps used will be hung from that grid -- either “dead hung” (directly on the pipe itself) or from a telescoping stirrup hangar attached to the pipes, which allows a lamp to be lowered to the desired height. Either way, the lamp must be equipped with a pipe clamp. Some units (notably Par Cans and Source Fours) come with pipe clamps as standard equipment, but most lamps come from the rental house or lamp dock lacking any clamps, which means we have to install them. This is a simple matter of inserting a cotter-pin and tightening a bolt, but even that has to be done right.  I can't tell you  how many times I've gone up a ladder or in a lift to adjust a lamp only to find the cotter pin dangling uselessly from a small retainer chain -- which happened because the juicer who installed that clamp didn't bother to spread or bend the cotter pin enough to prevent it from sliding loose.

There's no excuse for such laziness.  Granted, we always install safety cables from the light to the pipe for added protection, but that's a back-up measure meant to prevent the whole thing from falling in a worst-case-scenario.  The cotter pin is the first line of defense to keep a lamp safely attached to the pipe clamp. 

Juicers tend to use slang rather than the proper names of equipment during the course of a work day, which is why pipe clamps are commonly called “hooks” on set -- for reasons that are apparent when you see one. Unfortunately, not all hooks are created equal in Hollywood, where there are Good Hooks and Bad Hooks. A good hook is pictured below, with teeth that extend around the top of the pipe so that the lamp-and-clamp can’t slip off the pipe or stirrup hanger before you have a chance to tighten the bolt.  Since most lamps tend to be slightly front-heavy, this matters.

                                          Good Hook

                                           Bad Hook

In contrast, a bad hook offers many fewer teeth set at a 90 degree angle, and is thus much more likely to slip off the pipe if you’re not very careful and deliberate when hanging the lamp -- and as a juicer who works with these clamps every day, I’ve come to loathe bad hooks.  They’re trouble enough on a small, relatively light lamps, but while wrapping a swing set late at night last week, I came across a Studio Senior (a 5000 watt lamp weighing nearly fifty pounds including the clamp and barn doors) hung from one of these bad hooks – and getting that pig safely off the pipe onto my lift required extra care and attention.

This is no trivial matter.  Wrapping at the end of shoot night after a 14 hour day can be a frenzied process with prop people and set dressers working on the floor as we clear the lamps and stirrup hangers from the pipes directly above them. They usually get a head start on us, but we can't wait always wait for them to finish.  Everybody is tired at that hour, and any piece of equipment that makes an inherently risky task even more dicey than absolutely necessary is a problem.

For the life of me, I can't understand the mentality of manufacturers who design and sell such crappy equipment, much less the rental houses and lamp docks who buy and stock the goddamned things.  Maybe a bad  hook requires less metal and is thus slightly cheaper, but can saving a nickle’s worth of iron at the cost of sending a decidedly inferior product out into the world – a badly-designed clamp that by its very nature puts people and expensive equipment at increased risk – be a sensible marketing strategy?

Not to me.  I tell the Best Boy to reject these bad clamps whenever the lamp dock delivers one, but with a hundred and fifty clamps arriving in crates on the first day of rigging (and a gaffer anxious to get the lamps up and rough-in the lighting), a bad clamp occasionally winds up on the pipe grid.  We can deal with that -- and we do -- but the point is we shouldn't have to.  And much to their discredit, every Source Four I’ve ever seen over the years (and we use a lot of them) came from the lamp dock or rental facility with one of these piece-of-shit 90 degree clamps as standard equipment.

And that pisses me off...


Anonymous said...

So which are the good brand names, which are the bad ones? (I know you explained shape in the article)

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Good question -- I run across the bad hooks in the rush to get a lamp hung, and haven't had a chance to note particular brand names. Pipe clamps last for a long time -- and some I've used are very old indeed -- so it's possible that good and bad hooks are the same brand, but from different eras. I'll check it out and post what I find.

Near as I can tell, Source Fours come from the factory with those crappy hooks -- I've never seen one with a good hook. And on that note, a good hook and some kind of worm-gear adaptation to help focus the lens would make the Source Four a much more user-friendly light.

Anonymous said...

Good post, as always.

JD said...

Bad hooks, lots of them out there in theaters as well. Ignorant TD(s) don't understand what's wrong with them.