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, October 28, 2012


An October Surprise
                       Now that's what I call a skeleton crew...

Given the shoot-now/air-later nature of television, the Halloween episode of any show must be shot well before the end of October.  Editing takes time, and if pickup shots, re-shoots, or ADR are needed, the producers will have to make room in an already-crowded schedule.*  The more lead-time before the air date, the better, and since most broadcast network shows don't start their season's filming until late July, that  means shooting the Halloween episode in August or September, during the suffocating heat of Southern California's infamous fire season.  I've sweated my way through many a long, sweltering autumnal afternoon rigging cable and lights around tombstones, caskets, and spider-web encrusted crypts carefully laid out by the art department.  Although the end result always looked great once the set was lit after dark, getting there was no fun at all.

Then again, they don't pay us to have fun, do they?

Cable television marches to its own drummer, which is why the very first episode of my current show this season (shot way back in early June) was the Halloween show.  Fortunately, our show is filmed on an air-conditioned sound stage, safe from the brutal SoCal sun. I've done enough 14 hour day-exteriors over the course of my career, thankyouverymuch, and am quite happy to work on the climate-controlled confines of a sound stage.**  

Still, it felt a bit odd once that big haunted house set was lit.  With all the Halloween decorations and moody lighting, it really did feel like the onset of the holiday season, but when I headed off stage at lunch, I was back in the middle of another sunny spring day in LA. Working in such constantly shifting states of unreality is the nature of life in the make-believe world of film and television.

It's what we do. 

So it's back to work tomorrow, where the producers of my show have a Halloween treat in store for us -- an "October Surprise" in the form of yet another four day work week.  Yes, once again we'll cram five days of labor into four, ratcheting up the pressure on the entire crew while shaving one entire pay-day off the weekly budget.  Good for the producers, bad for the crew, and what else is new?  I don't know their excuse this time, but don't much care.  Their rationale doesn't really matter.  The way things are these days, they can do pretty much anything they want and we just have to take it.  They have the money, and money is power. The Disney Corporation is among the One Percent, those cigar-smoking plutocrats with their white-tasseled, platinum-spiked golf shoes planted firmly on the jugulars of those of us who do the sweating, get the bruises, and perform the heavy lifting essential to harvesting their record profits.

If there's any justice in this world -- or beyond -- then Walt Disney's ghost will be one very unhappy spirit haunting a particularly dank and dismal graveyard come Halloween night.  But truth be told, I'm not sure I believe such justice can happen anymore.

Still, a guy can dream...

* Additional Dialog Recording, otherwise known as "looping," wherein an actor watches a previously filmed scene on a monitor, then re-records his or her lines -- in effect, lip-syncing -- until the producers are satisfied.

** A couple of months later we shot Christmas episode in the midst of a suffocating heat wave.  The "when" isn't really a factor -- Christmas in July is just like any other work week here in the bowels of the television sausage factory.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Wow... I had no idea. Hollywood has long been the land of terminal excess and over-compensated absurdity, but this is just ridiculous.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Happy Elephants

Time for a little "inside baseball"
                    Three Happy Elephants in action...

This blog generally avoids wandering into the nuts-and-bolts weeds of technical matters regarding set lighting -- there are other blogs out there that do a great job of covering such issues, and my own interests lie elsewhere -- but in light of last week's discussion (and the endless quest for clarification), here's a photo showing two 650 watt Tweenies and a 1000 watt Zip (soft light) mounted underneath Happy Elephants screwed into the set walls. 

I'd rather use a Grumpy for this kind of thing, since a Grumpy has two baby pins, one facing up and the other facing down -- but all the lamp dock could offer us that day was a small herd of Happy Elephants, and in this business, you make do with what you've got.  When using a Grumpy, if the gaffer or DP takes a look and decides that the lamp should be six inches higher, it's a quick and easy fix, with the added option to mount another small light on the unused pin if necessary.  You'd be surprised how often we do this in the multi-camera world, and in that regard, a Grumpy is more versatile than a Happy Elephant.

Since sound stage sets typically have a pipe grid hung above, we can always mount small lamps from telescoping stirrup hangars clamped to the pipes, but that usually requires a man lift to get up there, and some of these sets are too cramped and narrow to maneuver a lift where it needs to be.  It's usually quicker to use a ladder and wall-mounts to set small lamps, and in a business where time = money, that can make a difference.  Besides, nobody wants to spend any more time lighting than is strictly necessary.  Still, there are circumstances where it's better to use a stirrup hangar.  If a scene includes a door being slammed hard -- and sit-coms are all about domestic conflict -- a wall mounted lamp (whether it be on a baby plate, baby plate with an offset arm, a Grumpy or Happy Elephant) can shake when that door hits the flimsy set wall.  If there's any chance that shaking light will show up on camera, we'll take the time to hang the lamp from the pipe grid, which is not connected to the walls.

For the same reason, we always hang a Source 4 (which throws a precise pattern on a wall) with a stirrup  hanger.   Otherwise, that pattern can visibly shake after a door slam as if an earthquake just hit.

Given that all three of the lamps in this photo are under-slung, the proper term is "Unhappy Elephant -- the name telling you whether the the lamp needs to be slightly above the set wall, or a foot below.  When the gaffer calls for "a baby on a Happy Elephant," he-or-she is telling you to mount the device with the pin pointing up, while the term "Unhappy Elephant" means the lamp is to be under-slung.

In a perfect world, I'd rather use a baby plate and sliding offset arm with a double pin than a Grumpy or Happy Elephant.  An offset arm allows the lamp to be mounted top or bottom, with an additional fourteen to sixteen inches of movement using the slider.  You can even rotate it all the way back in the other direction if necessary, which saves the time of moving the baby plate.  In the multi-camera world, once the actors are on set and ready to go, production really hates to wait on lighting -- even when a last-second change of blocking by the director requires a re-light -- so the ability to make the needed adjustments quickly is priceless.

When extending a slider all the way, though, you have to make sure that plate is screwed solidly into the top of the set wall -- and never forget the cable safety.  Due to the leverage involved,  I don't like to use any lamp bigger than a Tweenie with a slider at full extension.  I've done it using a Baby many times, but only when there wasn't a viable alternative.

All of these wall plates are meant for studio work on sets built for filming, not on location in the real world.  Screwing anything into the walls of a civilian house or office is a good way to make the Location Manager turn purple, cost the production additional money, and burn a bridge for the next film crew that comes along.  You'll also make the rest of your set lighting crew -- including the Gaffer or Best Boy who hired you -- look very bad.

If you want to remain employed, avoid doing that at all costs....

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Still Fried

                                 Life on the lamp dock

The door is still locked, the phone off the hook, and the drapes still pulled -- and I'm not coming out until I feel like it. Right now, I don't feel like it.  With no pearls of below-the-line wisdom to share this week, here's a photo I snapped while on a mission to the studio lamp dock last year. If you're in the biz, you'll probably understand -- if not, you'll doubtless be baffled by the terminology.

Much as I was thirty-five years ago.

I'll be back when I've got something worth posting, but given that the baseball playoffs are currently underway, that might be a while.  We all have our priorities, and for a baseball fan, this is the best time of the year.  When not at work, I'll have my eyes on the Toob or my ears glued to a radio broadcast for the next couple of weeks, until the World Series has been decided.

If time and inspiration permit, I'll put something up.  Otherwise, see you in November...

Sunday, October 7, 2012


                                   I've got... nothing...

It was a hard week, folks.  Given the extremely low budget of my show (pretty much the bottom of the multi-camera barrel), the ambition of our writers never ceases to amaze me.  Week in and week out, they send scripts down from the Writer's Room with scenes requiring ever-bigger swing sets and flashier visuals.  This approach makes a certain sense given that our show is essentially just a live-action cartoon written to hold the attention of young, easily-bored children, but it poses endless challenges for those of us who do the heavy lifting required to bring those visions to life.

Then there's the matter of the four day week...  I've never been on a show that worked so many four day weeks in one season.  Most of these were due to holidays, but last week -- for reasons best known to those in the executive suites -- we were given only four days to crank out a show that is normally extruded over the course of five days.  Since most of the crew works on a daily rate, this translates into doing the same work in 20% less time -- meaning 20% less pay -- and this while working under a cable contract that's already paying us 20% under union scale.

I'm sensing a pattern here -- and where some might see this as a sterling example of "greater productivity," I see the crew getting fucked.  Again.

The Gaffer and Best Boy did the cranial work of figuring out the logistics, but it was up to the juicers -- the ground-assault infantry of set lighting -- to climb the steep and rocky slopes, then plant the flag atop Mt. Suribachi.*  As always, that's what we did, keeping everybody above-the-line happy.  In the end, it worked out for us as well, since a decision was made to move one of the main sets big trans-light backdrops several feet back -- which meant we had to move several big lamps on the pipe grid and add another half dozen lamps to cover the wider area down below.  Rather than do the work on expensive overtime after finishing the show, production opted to bring us in for another eight hour day.

So we got our five days after all, and with the weekend finally here, I'm fried.  I've got nothing.  Zip, zero, zilch, nada, naught, bupkis.

Maybe it's time to take a break.  I sense the need to catch a second wind here at BS&T, because when I'm fried, I get grumpy, and when I'm grumpy, I've got nothing good to say to or about anybody. So rather than shout "Get off my lawn!" at the rest of the world, I'm just gonna shut the door, pull the drapes, and sit here in the dark for while to let the batteries recharge.

I'll be back...

* If you don't understand the reference, you should.  It's an important piece of your own history, kids.  Google it...