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, November 4, 2012

Phoning it In

                 Sometimes you really do see something new...

When someone gives less than his/her full attention or best effort to any given task, this is often described as "phoning it in." We’ve all had the misfortune to work alongside people like that at one time or another, and I always wonder how such slackers manage to stay employed. The answer is usually simple enough: they’re connected, whether through accident of birth or having at one time been in a position to bestow favors now being cashed in. It’s frustrating to be stuck working with these me-first jerks, whose sloppy, lackadaisical efforts piss everyone off. For whatever reason, they just don’t give a shit anymore -- if indeed, they ever really did -- and this lack of effort or concern shows everything they do (and don’t do...) on set. Such people are toxic to crew morale. By phoning it in, they force everybody else to pick up their slack in getting the job done.

I haven't been in that situation for a while now. Nobody phones it in on my current show, which is a good thing, because there's precious little real satisfaction in working on a show written for the 6-to-12 year-old demographic. Week in and week out, the dialogue is silly, the actions slapstick, the scripts utterly predictable. I never thought I’d miss the relative sophistication of a multi-camera show written for grown-ups, but I do now -- and if my old show seemed rather silly, it was a Shakespearean production compared to this one. A job is a job, though, and in these troubled economic times, I’m happy to have it. We get flogged a bit from time to time, but have yet to be well and truly tied to the whipping post -- and the checks (small though they are) come right on time every Thursday.

As the Black Knight said, "I've had worse.

Although there’s some truth to the cliché that we “see something new every day” on set, there aren't many real surprises in the world of multi-camera sit-coms, which tend to wallow in the warm mud of formulaic plot and characters. During a recent block-and-shoot day, though, I saw something very new indeed -- something I’d yet to witness over the course of thirty-five years in Hollywood: a director literally phone it in while directing a scene.

Actually, I heard him, because that director wasn’t even on set, but working on another sound stage way across the lot, shooting a different show at the studio. As the guest director for one of our previous episodes, he was obligated to complete that show -- and during the editing process, Somebody Important decided that a short scene needed to be shot again Given that he was very busy working his regular show, production arranged for him to direct the re-shoot – a scene involving three actors and four cameras – via an Iphone set to speaker mode with the aid of a video link set up during a five minute break.

So it was that four camera operators, one sound crew, a script girl, two Assistant Directors, and the rest of the cast and crew watched three actors followed the dictates of a tinny voice emanating from an Iphone held aloft by our production manager. I didn’t see any material difference between what we shot that night and the very same scene we’d shot a few weeks ago -- it certainly wasn't any funnier -- but such evaluations are well above my pay grade. The Disney Corporation does not concern itself with the opinions of those who lift heavy objects deep in the bowels of the sausage factory.

It's their world.  I just work in it.

Still, I’d never seen a director do his work over the telephone, and hope I don’t see it again. Such a level of abstraction – an entire crew and actors obeying that ridiculously disembodied voice like puppets controlled by invisible strings – creeps me out, representing a dark vision of a potential future Hollywood I have no wish to inhabit.

Although when it comes to wrangling 4/0, I just might appreciate the ability to phone it in...

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