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, December 22, 2013

Another Christmas in LA

                        This one is for all you actors out there...

I wasn't planning to post anything else until 2014, but then the Bad Old Year of 2013 paused at the door to give me one last sneering kick in the teeth before heading out into the land of no return.  Having successfully dodged an ugly cold virus that swept through our crew over the past couple of months, I thought I was home free... but it finally caught me by the ankles and took me down on the five yard-line the weekend before we began filming our last episode of the year.

Which presented me with the eternal dilemma of the Hollywood free-lancer: to work or not to work?

That was indeed the question.

But given that most film industry Work-Bots (even the core members of a crew) get bupkis in terms of sick days, my choice was stark -- stay home and get well or go to work and get paid. And since the malaise was just a cold (however miserable the initial stages) rather than the halucinatory fever and gut-wrenching nausea of a flu bug, I popped a couple of Advils and drove to work.

This wasn't quite the morally queasy decision it might have been.  Since I was among the last of our crew to get this particular cold, there wasn't much chance I could pass it on to anybody else.  Besides, having carefully scrutinized our schedule of episodes and done the math to determine exactly how much income I'd wind up with by year's end,  I was very reluctant to  -- in effect -- give any of that money back. That's what it feels like when you get sick as a part of a machine that makes no allowances for normal human frailties.

If this sounds ridiculous (as it probably does to those of you who work normal jobs), I understand, but nothing Hollywood resembles a normal job.  Believe me, everybody in this business knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Still, working a tough lighting day with half my normal energy and a wobbly, hydrocephalic head full of snot and God knows what else was a grueling ordeal.  It was all I could do to crawl home and into bed at the end of the day... but I did not slip into that restless sleep before inhaling a bowl of the miracle that is home-made chicken soup.  And I swear to whatever deity you believe in, that time-tested elixir worked wonders.  I felt much better by Wednesday's block-and-shoot, and almost back to normal for Thursday's audience shoot and post-show Christmas party.

Chicken soup, people -- it's magic.

At one point on Thursday, one of the camera assistants showed me the above video featuring The Killers (with Dawes) doing "Another Christmas in LA," and although -- inshallah -- I'll be spending the holidays back on my Home Planet, I thought that video might resonate with many who have traveled here from far distant places chasing the shimmering mirage of film industry success.

Especially all you wannabe actors out there.  I feel for you.

Then again, I feel for us all, because this is not an easy time of year for anybody.  Old ghosts and demons rise from their dank crypts to haunt these cold, long, dark winter nights.  There is no escape.  We just have to stare them down and wait for the chilly light of dawn, even when it seems it'll never come.

And then we get Christmas itself, which usually feels like a slow-motion train wreck until the actual day arrives... at which point the miracle always seems to happen as it all comes together one way or another.  So in that slightly loopy but eternally grateful spirit, I offer you one more musical tribute to the season by the inimitable Robert Earl Keene.  I like it a lot, and maybe you will too.

Or not.  Hey, there really is no accounting for taste.

                                        ....and this one is for the rest of us.

I'm outta here, folks.  Wherever you are and whatever your circumstances during this most troublesome of seasons, do have yourselves a merry little Christmas.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

That's a Wrap...

...on 2013

                        Working the Christmas episode for Disney

Maybe it's just me, but this holiday season felt a lot more compressed than usual. Whether due to a quirk of the calendar or the ever-accelerating crush of modern life, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas have been a blur -- and it'll be 2014 before we know it.

Although I'd prefer the passage of time to slow down a bit, I won't be sorry to see 2013 disappear in the rear-view mirror.  For a number reasons -- and at times, the oncoming black tide took on the biblical proportions of a tsunami -- this was one rough year for me and many people I know.  On my end, the only real blessing was work, and lots of it.  In the sheer quantity of days worked, this was my busiest year ever.  It was all cable-rate, of course -- of the 190 and-then-some days I logged this year, none were at full union scale.  Zip, zero, zilch, nada.  Last year was nearly as busy, but only two of those work days paid full scale -- the rest were under one sub-scale cable contract or another.

I did the math, and it's depressing: 99.5% of my work over 2012 and 2013 was at cable rate. That's a lot more than a trend -- at this point cable-rate seems to be the New Normal.  I don't like it, but there are a lot of things I don't like in this ugly new millennium. This is just one more cold lump of coal in the Christmas stocking.

Still, quantity can help compensate for quality, and I'm lucky to have enjoyed such a consistent roll of employment these past two years -- almost (but not quite) a Tuna Run.  Having toiled long and hard as an itinerant day-player in the cinematic vineyards of Hollywood, I know very well how it feels to wait for the phone to ring in the hopes of scraping by for one more month on just-enough-money.  Not all my fellow Industry Work-Bots managed to get enough work this year, so despite the ongoing insult of cable-rate, I have to be grateful for my good fortune.  All any of us in this business can do is take the good with the bad and pray that it all evens out in the end -- but in the meantime, I'll kiss 2013 goodbye with an eye towards a better year to come for us all.

Thanks to everybody for tuning in this year, and especially those of you who took the time to comment on what you found here.  This blog is meant to start a conversation whenever possible, not simply serve as a soapbox for my wordy, meandering pontifications. Pro or con, your comments and e-mails mean a lot.

I wish all of you the best in this holiday season, and hope to see you back here in the New Year.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Big Bang Theory

                                                  Fire in the hole...

Big bangs -- explosions of one sort or another -- have long been a staple of the film and television industry. Given that the narrative arc of most action movies made over the past thirty years has included the blowing up of cars, trucks, helicopters, and/or a wide variety of airplanes, we who do the heavy lifting on set witness our share of explosions. The digital revolution has enabled CGI effects to perform or enhance much of the work in the last decade, but when a director wants to blow something up in a big way, there’s often no substitute for the real thing.

Every on-set explosion was real when I first started in this business, which was fine by me.  Inspired by the heavily-televised space race of the 50’s and 60’s, I went through a youthful period of building rockets fueled by a variety of home-brewed chemical concoctions.  Every launch was a venture into the unknown -- a few of those rockets shot high into the wild blue yonder as planned, some were duds, and every now and then one would blow up in a spectacular manner.  Watching a rocket take off and streak into the sky was a thrill, but those explosive failures were undeniably exciting... and so from time to time I wandered from my quasi-scientific pursuit of rocketry to make a pipe bomb. Back then, the lure of the big bang was irresistible.*

That phase of life ended once I discovered girls and motorcycles (pursuits that in many ways were more thrilling and dangerous than rockets or bombs), but years later in Hollywood, my old fascination was tickled by the explosions Special Effects crews created for movies and television. 

In a recent post over at Totally Unauthorized, Peggy Archer described some of the inherent dangers of on-set explosions.  No matter how careful the SPFX people are, there’s always a chance for something to go wrong when dealing with explosives -- a lesson I nearly learned the hard way while working on a low-budget non-union feature in 1980.

We filmed for several weeks on locations all over the rural hinterlands north of LA, including several scenes in the quiet little backwater of Piru, where one morning was spent setting up to shoot the crash of an old pickup truck in the center of town. Being a bright day exterior, no lighting was required, and with the gaffer having been drafted to operate one of the many cameras covering the shot, I had nothing to do but watch.  

For plot reasons I can't recall, the pickup truck was supposed to blow up as a result of the crash, and after asking the director how big a blast he wanted -- "Big!" came the reply -- the SPFX crew put together and installed a charge to blow the cab along with enough gasoline to provide the requisite fireball.**  As the Screaming Cameraman placed the cameras, everybody began to tense-up.  With only one picture truck, this had to go right the first time.

I was positioned several yards behind the camera operated by my gaffer, between a big stake-bed truck and the production motor home.  Each camera operator was huddled under a furniture pad as protection from the blast, which meant they couldn't see anything outside the narrow frame of the eyepiece.  If something were to go wrong, my job was to alert the gaffer/camera operator so he could get out of the way of any trouble.  I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but since the SPFX crew appeared to be grizzled veterans confident in what they were doing, I figured there was nothing to worry about.  

In theory, this was one of the perks of working in Hollywood -- getting to watch professionals blow things up with no real danger.  

The cameras rolled, the slate clapped, and a few seconds later all hell broke loose.  The cab of that picture truck blew up with a deafening explosion that produced an enormous fireball boiling into the sky.  I saw something small, black, and rectangular shoot up from that fireball, spinning high above in sailing arc that -- the more I watched -- seemed to be heading in my general direction.  The tiny dark object reached the peak of its trajectory a couple of hundred feet up, then began to descend, getting bigger by the moment.  I could see that it would land well past the gaffer/camera operator (who had no clue of the danger), but that meant it really was spinning my way. And the closer it dropped, the bigger it got. 

Stuck in a narrow slot between two big vehicles, there was no room or time to turn and run, so I crouched down beside the stake-bed trying to get as low as possible.  I was practically hugging the dual rear tires when the object hit with a loud crash -- landing directly in the bed of the truck where I crouched, maybe three feet from my head.

There was a brief silence, then everybody cheered as the camera operators emerged from their furni-pads to exchange high-fives, oblivious to what had happened.  Meanwhile, I was looking at a four foot square of blackened, twisted metal smoldering in the back of the stake-bed: all that remained from the roof of the picture truck. 

A slight change in the force of the explosive charge or a sudden gust of wind could have sent that spinning chunk of metal onto any one of the camera operators, background extras, or the rest of the crew, all of whom were intently focused on getting the shot.  Even though I saw it coming, by the time I realized where it would hit, there was nowhere to go.  

We were just lucky that morning, all of us... but a miss is a good as a mile, and everyone lived to tell the tale.  Still, I made damned sure to stay a long way away from explosions on set after that.

My most recent brush with on-set pyrotechnics was considerably less dramatic. For plot reasons too absurd to relate (believe me, the details would put you into a catatonic stupor), the script called for a pineapple to explode on the soundstage set of that low budget Disney sit-com I worked last year.  With the fruit-bomb rigged and ready to blow, the SPFX department head insisted that everyone clear the stage or move to a safe area.  Nobody was allowed to watch the explosion live.

He didn't have to tell me twice. I dutifully retreated to the Gold Room with the rest of the set lighting crew to watch the action on our monitor, where the quad-split feed from all four cameras was displayed.  When the countdown reached “zero,” there was a loud bang as that big green pineapple vanished into the ether -- one moment it was there, the next it was gone -- and then came the gentle patter of pineapple shrapnel raining down on the chicken wire and cloth roof of the Gold Room. With a dull splat, a thumb-sized piece of the tropical fruit landed at our feet, having threaded the needle through a narrow slot where the cloth had been pulled back to allow for better air circulation.  Even if that chunk of pineapple had hit one of us, it wouldn’t have hurt a bit.  No harm, no foul.

Apparently the SPFX head wasn’t expecting quite such a thoroughly atomizing detonation, though, because the next morning he showed up at our Gold Room door with an apology and a case of beer to make up for having sprayed the lamps on the pipe grid with a thin mist of sticky pineapple plasma.  

A gentleman and a scholar, that man.  May he live long and prosper.

Serious explosions are all but nonexistent in the multi-camera world, where the comedy is situational and verbal for the most part, seldom relying on elaborate special effects.***  That's okay.  I've seen so many items large and small explode at this point that the novelty is long gone.  After a while, enough is enough.

Besides, if you've seen one pineapple blow up, you've seen 'em all.

* I later turned to more whimsical pursuits such as making hot air balloons much like this -- except mine used thin balsa wood spars and birthday candles instead of wire, tin foil, and lamp fuel.  

**  Believe me, why that pickup had to explode really doesn't matter.  Despite the presence of several real actors, that movie was a godawful piece of crap

***With the occasional exception, of course... 

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Death in the Family

I didn't know Paul Walker.  Until the news of his tragic death in a car accident this past weekend, I had no idea who he was.  Being in the wrong demographic for hot-car action movies, I've seen none of the "Fast and Furious" movies, nor was I aware of his acting career prior to signing on with the FF franchise.  Still, Hollywood is a big little town, where the untimely passing of anybody in the extended industry community has an impact  -- and like every death in the family, such an event resonates among us all.

"D" --- one of my fellow industry bloggers -- has been working on "Fast and Furious Seven" for the past three months, and got to know Paul Walker.  He wrote a sad but beautiful post about the experience, and the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of working on feature films.  It's a poignant piece that says a lot about our lives in this industry.  Most of us who've been doing this for twenty or thirty years have lost someone we met and got to know on set, and that hurts with a pain that never really goes away.

If you haven't read it, you should.

Film critics are a distant part of the industry community.  Although they often meet the stars and directors of movies, the nature of their job keeps them far from the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the Industry -- and maybe that distance allows them to take a clear-eyed, dispassionate look at the films and actors they review.  In a piece that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle put his feelings about Walker like this:

"Paul Walker was never going to be asked to play Hamlet, but he was at the center of a number of highly enjoyable films over the last fifteen years.  He had an ability, probably innate, to engage audience sympathy.  He was good-looking enough to be a pretty boy, but he was something else.  He had a toughness that, combined with his smooth good looks, made him something unexpected.  He held his own opposite Vin Diesel, whose voice alone could blow anyone off the screen.  He was a truthful actor, and I always liked him.
As a critic, I try not to know what a movie is about before I go see it.  I try even not to know who’s in it, though most of the time I do.  But there have been a few times over the years when Paul Walker has turned up in a movie without my knowing, and I always thought, “Oh, good.  Him.”  With him, a story was in good hands." 
That last line -- "With him, a story was in good hands" -- speaks volumes, and is an epitaph that would make any actor proud.  Like so many before him, Paul Walker died much too young, truncating a promising future in film and in life.  Such tragedies have  happened before and will doubtless happen again, but that doesn't make the bad news any easier to take.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

That Was the Week that Was*

"Without winter, you can't appreciate the spring."
Garrison Keillor 

                                Double trouble

We were fucked -- one look at the shooting schedule made that abundantly clear.  After three intense days lighting, re-lighting, and endlessly tweaking three swing sets, we now had two days to shoot sixteen scenes that would comprise the 22 minute episode... which would be a normal work week except that fifteen of those scenes -- all but one -- featured a very young baby and/or a yappy little dog.  And by “featured,” I mean the baby and dog weren’t mere props for the other actors to work around, but formed the comedic fulcrum upon which the entire show was leveraged.  If one or the other caused serious problems or couldn't deliver, this episode could go down like the Hindenburg. 

One of the grips stared at the schedule, then shook his head.  

“Babies and dogs,” he sighed.  “What could possibly go wrong?”
In addition to filming in six different sets on stage, we also had two scenes to shoot on location, a day exterior and a night scene in a car.  This was the holy trinity of horrors for a multi-camera show: babies, animals, and having to leave the safe harbor of our climate-controlled sound stage for day and  night scenes outdoors.  The weather forecast brought more bad news -- with rain due the evening of our exterior shoot, we faced the dismal prospect of filming the night scene in wet conditions, after which we'd be wrapping a load of damp lights and cable.  
Having done my share of work in the rain over the past three-and-a-half decades, I can tell you with a certainty born of soggy, miserable experience: it sucks.
The additional equipment required to light those three swing sets -- each with a day and night look for different scenes -- maxed out our available dimmer power and ran the week’s lighting budget deep into the red, which brought the Production Supervisor down hard on the Best Boy in her ceaseless quest to cut any unnecessary expenses.  But there’s only so much fat you can carve before hitting blood and bone, because sooner or later we always end up needing another piece of gear to get a particular shot.  Our job is to be ready for anything -- that's just the nature of the beast -- so the Best Boy had to do a delicate tap-dance in appeasing the Production Supervisor while making sure to keep our lighting ass well covered.

And that's just one more reason I have no interest in revisiting my past life as a Best Boy.  Been there, done that, and don't want to do it again.
Another strike against this episode was a director known for his plodding style, which could most charitably be described as “deliberate.”  How he got the nod to direct what was clearly our most challenging episode of the season mystified me, but the list of things I don't understand about this business gets longer every day.  Then there was some kind of odd disturbance in The Force that had me (and a few others on the crew) hitting on only seven cylinders during the entire first lighting day, when it seemed I ended up having to go back and do every task twice, if not three times.  All told, by the time our  block-and-shoot day rolled around, the entire week appeared doomed to be spent slogging through the swamps of multi-camera Hell.
That’s pretty much how it turned out.  Between the baby, the dog, the director, our O.C.D.P. and the night exterior in the the rain -- which arrived right on schedule two hours before wrap -- we got peeled.   That’s just the way it goes in this business, where an occasional rough week comes with the turf.  But that's not such a bad thing, really.  A hard week slaps you in the face and forces you to go all out, which helps reboot your perspective and thus make the subsequent easier weeks all the sweeter.  
Besides, it takes a grain of sand lodged in the guts of an oyster to create a pearl, and I think this episode will turn out to be one of our better efforts once post-production is finished.  That little dog may have caused us endless retakes, but he delivered in the end, and the baby looked appropriately cute on camera.  With a nice tight script (this one by the writer’s assistant, who got -- and nailed -- his second shot at the brass ring) and the usual solid performances by our regular cast, this should be a very funny show.  
In the final analysis, that’s what really matters.  From Olympic divers to ballet dancers to  film crews, endless hard work and suffering go into achieving the goal of making something very difficult appear smooth, effortless, and beautiful.  That's our job, and meeting the challenge of getting it done over the course of a very tough week felt pretty good.
Once it was over, anyway...

* With apologies to the real thing, a great if short-lived show that blazed a path which ultimately led to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, among other modern comedic takes on the news of the day.  

Friday, November 29, 2013

Welcome Reddit/Shitty Rigs Readers

No particular reason for this photo -- I just kind of like it in a horrifying end-of-the-world sort of way...

The unique and excellent blog Shitty Rigs (which earned a spot on my industry blogroll a long time ago) recently came to the attention of, resulting in a tsunami of new readers.  This is a win/win for all of us that will doubtless result in many more photos of highly inventive bailing-wire-and-bubble-gum solutions to on-set filming problems.

That's a good thing.  This industry tends to attract very creative people at every level, and it's not only fascinating but instructive to see how they find ways to get the job done despite a lack of resources.  Indeed, that's often the most fun and satisfying aspect of this business -- coming up with an effective on-the-spot solution using what you've got to keep the machine moving forward.

Unlike the photo above -- which displays the dark side of mankind's creativity -- this kind of thing gives me hope for the future.  Maybe that protean quality of human inventiveness will find a way around the monumental problems currently staring all of us in the face here on planet earth.

According to my Blogger tracking statistics, a fair number of Reddit readers found their way over here thanks to a link at Shitty Rigs.  All are welcome, but given that a new reader could find this blog a bit confusing -- depending on when they land and what post currently tops the home page --  I'd like to point new eyeballs to this (hit the link, then scroll down) which has a list of direct links to a couple of dozen posts that have been popular with readers over the years.

I really do need to update that list one of these days... but until then, any new visitors should be warned that the very first post is a rather too-wordy tome that served as a champagne bottle broken across the bow of this blog when it launched back in 2007 -- just move on to the other links below and you might find something worth reading.  Those who prefer an uncurated experience are free to wander the dusty digital archives to their heart's content, of course.  The choice is yours.

However you came here, welcome -- and if you'd care to join the conversation, feel free to leave a comment on any of the posts or via e-mail at the link under those worn out gloves above.

And stay tuned...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lost in Space

The past couple of weeks have been a real grind at work -- especially last week -- so I've got no good stories or pearls of hard-earned wisdom from the set today.  As AJ points out over at The Hills are Burning, it's a bitch to post something worth reading week after week while working on a show full-time.*  Still, this week did offer at least one pertinent observation: not everyone on earth has experienced the five minute Utube clip of astronaut Chris Hadfield's music video homage to David Bowie's "Space Oddity."  Over the past six weeks I've heard so much in the media about this video -- filmed in orbit aboard the International Space Station -- that I assumed only a handful of sentient creatures (including me) hadn't yet seen it.

Turns out I was way wrong. After finally getting around to watching it the other night, I mentioned the video while we were wrapping a swing-set the next morning... and got blank looks from the entire set lighting crew.  Nobody knew what the hell I was talking about.

So much for assumptions.

Chris Hadfield has posted numerous Utube videos from the space station, showing those of us who will never have the opportunity to "slip the surly bonds of earth" what it's like to live and work up there in orbit, that most rarified of high-tech human habitats.  When goaded by his son to cover Bowie's famous song in the form of a video from space, he managed to pull it off, and the results are very cool indeed.

On the off-chance that you haven't yet seen the video, check it out.  Utube wouldn't let me embed the link in this post, so you'll have to click your way there -- just don't forget to plug in some good earphones and crank up the volume.  It's worth it.

This just might be the only music video I truly wish I'd worked on...

* And she's working much longer hours than I am.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

It's Hard, All Right

          "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, / Gang aft agley"
          Robert Burns

For a recent episode, our producers hired a celebrity chef to appear in a guest role -- one of many such chefs who have managed to make buckets of money and become media stars over the last couple of decades by turning their culinary skills to a series of lively, intense, and often confrontational cooking shows.  
Allow me to pause for a brief digression:  I used to watch a number of cooking shows back in the day -- everyone from Pierre Franey to Julia Child to The Frugal Gourmet -- but my favorite was a wonderfully cheeky program hosted by a cheerful British chef named Keith Floyd, who was never happier then while demonstrating the fine art of cooking on camera, be it over a crude stove in the open English countryside or the fancy kitchen of a high-end French culinary school.* Floyd's passionate but refreshingly down-to-earth approach -- usually with a glass of wine (or something stronger) in one hand -- thoroughly demystified the process of cooking.  He introduced one memorable show talking straight into the camera while careening through the French countryside at the wheel of an automobile, drinking all the way.  Adding to his not-your-mother’s-cooking-show credentials was a fondness for the music of The Stranglers, whose tunes often graced the soundtrack of the show.** 
In a bonus we took for granted back then, “Cooking with Floyd” was broadcast on PBS, which meant nobody had to pay a fat monthly cable bill to enjoy the shows.  Ah yes, those were the days...

I’m sure many of the modern cooking shows are indeed entertaining, but my interest in such programming faded over the years.  I’ll occasionally stumble across “America’s Test Kitchens” for a few minutes, but that’s about it.  Although I still like to cook (and continue to buy cookbooks I’ll probably never get a chance to use), I'm not familiar with most of the cooking shows on television these days, which is why I’d never even heard of our guest-star celebrity chef or his television empire.***

Almost everybody else on the crew had, though, and to some of them, having this man on set was a Big Deal.  Given that he'd done so many high-pressure television shows, there was no reason to think he'd be intimidated by sets and cameras, so choosing him to portray a pompous, arrogant chef who runs the best and most expensive restaurant in town must have seemed a stroke of genius to our producers.

But many a late-night inspiration collapses like a bad soufflĂ© during the transition from script to screen, and perhaps this particular notion should have been inspected more carefully before the celebrity chef’s agent was called.  Despite pacing the kitchen set alone for a good three hours, script in hand, diligently learning and rehearsing his lines, the poor guy turned into a proverbial deer in the headlights once the real actors joined him and all four cameras rolled into position.  He continually forgot or fumbled his lines, and on those rare moments when he did manage to summon the correct words, couldn't deliver them with any authority at all -- and this from a man accustomed to being King of the Kitchen, barking orders like the battle-hardened commander of an aircraft carrier.  A quick little scene that should have taken no more than twenty minutes to shoot stretched out to a solid hour... and a tortuously painfully hour at that.

I felt bad for the guy, but no doubt he felt a lot worse.  Still, I have to give the man credit for soldiering through all the way to the the bitter, humiliating end.

It wasn't a complete disaster -- we shot enough takes from various angles for the editors to cobble together a usable scene -- but once again I was reminded exactly why actors get paid a lot of money for what they do;  because most normal people (including some who make a great living performing on camera) just can’t do it. Acting is hard, which is one more reason I’ve always been quite happy to remain behind the cameras -- and why I have a lot of respect for those who do such good work out there in the heat and glare of the lights.

I can only hope our producers learned something from this experience.  My guess is they'll think twice the next time somebody suggests hiring a non-professional for a role in the show.  Just because something looks easy -- and the good actors do that -- doesn't mean it really is.

And I'm betting that there's at least one celebrity chef out there who has a new and hard-earned appreciation for what a real actor can do.

* Here’s a four minute sample of Keith Floyd's unique approach  to hosting a cooking show.  Sadly, he passed away in 2009 at age 65.  RIP, Keith, and thanks for the laughs. 

**  If nothing else, The Stranglers remain memorable for Golden Brown, one of the best heroin songs ever.

*** No, not Gordon Ramsay.  For reasons that should be obvious by now, I can’t name him.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Here We Go Again

                                           Is this progress?

Getting a multi-camera show up and running from a dead-start -- a cinematic barn-raising that begins amid clouds of sawdust, paint fumes, and constant yelling -- doesn’t really end until the first one-week hiatus arrives, usually after the third episode is in the can. By then the lighting on the permanent sets is pretty much dialed-in, and the bulk of our work from that point on involves a bit of tweaking to meet the needs of each new episode, hanging an occasional “special,” and the usual routine of rigging, lighting, and wrapping the swing-sets.*   

That's the good part of a show -- after the really hard work is done -- but getting there is a bitch.  With the construction crew, grip, electric, and set-dressing all trying to work on top of each other at the same time in the same limited space, that initial week on stage is a study in propulsive, chaotic confusion.  

These early, very physical days of pushing the big rock up the steep hill are the most dangerous in the course of any show.  Constantly bumping elbows with the other crews is bad enough, but having to do so amid the scream of chop saws, the mind-numbing drone of sanders, the percussive blat of nail guns, and the reptilian hiss of paint sprayers joined by at least three boom-boxes blaring radically different music at maximum volume --  a cacophonous din that rules out any communication short of shouting -- is a draining ordeal for everyone involved.   

But somehow, in spite of all the noise and confusion, the work gets done.

No doubt the carpenters and painters don’t relish sharing their work space any more than we do -- all of us forced into the same Procrustean Bed -- but since the primal equation of time = money rules in Hollywood, everyone must suffer.  To make sure the work proceeds as safely as possible, each of us has to work carefully and pay real attention to what we’re doing.  It's important to remain fully aware of whats going on all around, and stay within yourself by pausing to think twice before doing anything with the potential of causing damage... which is just about everything we do when lighting sets. 

It’s been nearly a year since I last helped get a show off the ground, and this time was a lot harder than I remembered.  In the midst of it, I recalled a rather pointed -- and suddenly very relevant -- paragraph from a recent review of Robert Redford’s new film, All is Lost.

“Redford's age is integral to the film's effectiveness. He is 77, probably 76 at the time of filming, and though he is by no means your grandfather's 76, he can't be mistaken for a young man. And so all the physical things he must do - drag himself through water, climb, pull things up, lift himself out - are an effort. What a 30-year-old might do spontaneously, he must think about, and position himself properly, and consciously apply his strength with precision and no wasted effort. Thus, we feel his strain, and our involvement becomes much more intense than if we were watching, say, Channing Tatum.”

I’m more than ten years from Redford’s age, but underlined sentence in that passage resonated deep within, accurately describing the mental and physical process I go through prior to each and every action when hanging and powering lamps up on the pipe grid, and never so much as on this rig.  

This caused me to wonder -- did the work actually get harder since the last time around, or am I simply wearing down to the point where it just feels that way?  Truth be told, I'm not sure there’s a good answer to that question.  
Still, there was an X factor on this rig: forty brand new LED BriteShot lamps to replace the 5Ks and many of the 2K tungsten heads we used last season.  The LED units are more compact than the old Studio 5K’s, but as usual in Hollywood, appearances are deceptive.  At around 40 pounds each (about as much as a five gallon bottle of water), these are heavy units to wrangle up in a man-lift.  Getting those pigs hung and powered was only half the battle -- at that point we had to daisy-chain DMX cables connecting the lamps back to opti-splitters linked to the dimmer system, then individually address each head using a keypad mounted on the back of the lamp. 
I shit you not -- a fucking keypad on the back of a motion picture lamp.  The old guys I came up must be spinning in their graves at this.  Me, I get dizzy just thinking about it.

Thanks to our unfamiliarity with this new technology and the short-but-steep learning curve in mastering their set-up, we were still a bit behind the by the time the first block-and-shoot day rolled around.  It was a bit of a scramble to patch everything together and get through that day of filming, but the new LEDs have worked fine since then.  If they continue to perform as advertised, they’ll be a big improvement over the ancient toaster-with-a-lens tungsten technology, starting with their much lower power consumption (3.5 amps vs. 17 amps for a 2 K and 45 amps for a 5 K) and being fully dimmable without affecting the color temperature. That alone represents a huge bonus, given that our DP is legendary for having the juicers add or pull scrims for the same lights all day long during filming.  

He's have us put a single in, take the single out, then five minutes later, put it back in again -- which is how he earned the nickname "The O.C.D.P." a long time ago.**

If nothing else, these LEDs should relegate his scrim-crazy indecisiveness on that fewer lamps, which will make our job as juicers easier -- and if this shifts more of the load to our dimmer operator, well, that’s why he gets the big bucks with his sweet 54 hour weekly guarantee.  Still, the poor bastard earns every penny.

We managed to get through the first episode without any disasters, and then -- miracle of miracles -- one of our lead actors pulled my five dollar bill from the pot in the traditional post-show Dollar Day drawing, netting me a cool $120 after tipping the PA who runs the weekly drawing.  Although I'm still deep in the red after so many years of losing these drawings, I'll accept this as an auspicious beginning to the new season, and maybe a sign that after slogging most of the way through a year that has been so ugly in so many ways, things might finally be turning around.

I hope so.  That would indeed be progress.

* A "special" is a lamp set to illuminate a particular actor in a very specific position on set for a given scene in that week's show -- a light that may or may not be used again over the rest of the season.  "Swing sets" are sets put in for a new episode, then taken out after filming is complete. 

**  A "single" is a circular metal scrim used to reduce the output of a lamp by half a stop.  A double scrim cuts the light by a full stop.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


This is a badly-damaged 100 amp to 60 amp Bates splitter, commonly used on sound stages to power one or two 5000 watt lamps from a single hundred-amp Bates extension cable.  As with all electrical distribution equipment, the "male" part of the splitter plugs into the "female" end of the cable -- the hot part, so to speak -- which helps minimize the chances that a juicer doing the hook-up will get shocked.

It seems there's just no getting away from sex in this business, no matter how many tedious, droning, early-morning sexual harassment lectures the production companies force us to endure.  Given that all cable comes with the male and female parts required to make a connection, it's hard-wired into the process.

In this case, the splitter was used to power just one 5 K head, so the unused 60 amp receptacle was taped over to prevent the energized hollow tubes within from making contact with any random bit of metal that might be nearby.  The untaped -- and utterly destroyed 60 amp receptacle -- was plugged into the 5 K.

I'm not a big fan of Bates plugs in general.  They're fine when new, but  -- as in real life -- the male pins and female receptacles lose their tight fit over time and use, and the resulting sloppiness creates internal arcing that can lead to a melt-down such as this.  Juicers can (and should) always check the fit when hooking up Bates equipment, and if the pins are loose, use a pin-splitter to spread them enough to tighten everything up.

This doesn't always happen.  In the rush to get the stage rigged or a set lit -- or often just out of sheer laziness -- many juicers don't bother.  Instead they tape up the connection, then tie the cables together and hope for the best.  This keeps the cables from separating, but does nothing to stop the slow thermal cancer of internal arcing.  It works for a while, but eventually there will be a problem.

We had a big problem here.  After weeks of working fine, this splitter finally melted down on shoot night in the middle of our live audience show.  The lamp went out, forcing us to stop the show long enough to pull the dead lamp down, then install, power, and adjust a good 5 K head, along with a new splitter.  A maximum effort, take-Mt. Suribachi-charge by the electric and grip crew got the job done in just a few minutes, after which the show resumed.  The melted splitter was fused to the dead lamp, and had to be forcibly removed once everything cooled down.  During the process, two of the tubes in that thoroughly burned-out female Bates recepticle were ripped out and are visible in the photo.  Only the third one (below the other two) remained in the Bates housing.  

After getting my new/old show up and running, I feel a lot like that charred Bates splitter these days -- burned out, over-exposed, and ready for some R&R.  That's why there haven't been any new posts the last couple of weeks.  Between what felt like an endless siege of work and watching/listening to the baseball playoffs (hey, we all have our priorities in life), I haven't had the time or energy to post. Truth be told, I wasn't planning on posting today either, but figured you deserved an explanation.  With the World Series winding up over the next few days -- and maybe (hopefully) a bit less stress and strain at work with the new show now rolling -- I'll be back, but not for another week or two.

Or three...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What's a PA to do?

                                   Marvin takes a stand...    

Given sufficient time and money, there are a million things to do here in LA... but what if you don't have much of either?  Let's say you happen to be a production assistant working long hours, five-days a week, on a Disney sit-com -- a low-paying job that offers a toe in the door of Hollywood in exchange for your tender young soul, while leaving you nothing but the weekends and barely enough money to get by.

What then?

Many young people in this situation might hunker down for those precious two days off to recuperate and prepare for the next work-week -- do the laundry, wash the week's accumulation of dirty dishes piled in the sink, hit the grocery store to re-stock the fridge, surf the internet, play a few video games, and indulge in a little low-intensity socializing.  Then suddenly it's Monday Morning all over again, with another long week ahead doing what other people tell you to do. Such is the lot of the average Production Assistant, lowest of the low, occupying the very bottom rung on the shit-stained ladder of Hollywood suck-cess.

Or it would seem.  Then again, I'm not sure there's any such thing as the "average Production Assistant."  Most of the PA's I've met over the years (many hundreds) turned out to be interesting, highly-motivated young people eager to learn and begin climbing that ladder.  Some went on to do just that, and in the process, became very successful. As for the rest, who knows?  Hollywood probably ate some of them alive, while others doubtless had second thoughts and returned to civilian life before it was too late.  I can only hope that most were able to find a niche in the industry they could live with, made the best of it, and are happy with their choices.

All of the PA's on the show I just left are very impressive young people -- smart, articulate, and motivated.  One in particular  (let's call him "Marvin," since that's his name) is a very energetic young man in a hurry.  Straight out of Detroit -- America's favorite dystopian ruinopolis -- Marvin is not taking his LA experience for granted, nor is he the least bit daunted by the sprawling immensity of this place. Rather than retreat into exhausted seclusion at the end of each work week, he's on a year-long quest to experience a new adventure every weekend.  Thus far he's learned -- among other things -- how to make a fire without using modern technology, how to make sushi, how to weld, how to make a wooden bow,  how to be utterly miserable while enduring the sweat-house ordeal of Bikram Yoga, how to ride a surfboard, how to sail a boat, and even managed to fly through the air with the greatest of ease while being schooled in the rudiments of the aerial trapeze.

With boundless energy and imagination, Marvin has done more on weekends this past year -- all on his own thin dime, mind you -- than most people do over the course of a decade in LA.  I've never seen anything like it from a PA or anybody else.

It won't surprise you that his adventures (chronicled on video) are the raw material for a feature-length documentary he's making -- a year in the life, more or less -- or that he posts each week's fish-out-of-water escapade on his own Tumblr blog.

Do yourself a favor and check it out.

This young man came to LA to do things, not just show up for work every day and hope for the best.  He managed to land a PA gig on a TV show (not easy to do) and is well on the way to making his first movie.  Whether he'll "make it" in conventional Hollywood terms remains to be seen -- this town loves big talk about bold new ideas, but when it comes to shelling out the money required to put fresh talent and new ideas on screen, Tinsel Town can be remarkably timid.  Still, the sclerotic nature of Hollywood will not stop Marvin from continuing to make things happen and doing it his way -- and besides, the old modes of doing things are gradually being shoved out the back door by the tectonic forces of the digital revolution.  New ideas and approaches are already beginning to fill that void, which creates opportunity for imaginative young people like Marvin. From what I've seen, whatever he does will be worth watching.  One way or another, I think he'll find a way to "make it" on his own terms.

He's earned a spot on my Industry Blog Roll with a link to "Marvin's Weekly Activity."  Now that I don't get to hear these stories straight from Marvin on set anymore, I'll have check in with the rest of you to see what he comes up with next.

One thing I'm pretty sure of:  it'll be a fun ride.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Hollywood Circus

Same shovel, different elephant...

It’s one of the oldest jokes in the entertainment industrial complex:  A man takes a job in the circus following the elephants around with a shovel to clean up the mess whenever one of the massive pachyderms takes a dump. When asked how he can tolerate such unpleasant, demeaning work -- and why he doesn't find a better job -- the man's reply is one that resonates with many veterans of the film and television industry.

“What, and quit show business?”

There’s more truth in that joke than the uninitiated will ever know.  Whatever our reasons for coming here, most of us who made the many sacrifices required to carve out a career in the film and television industry have a hard time imagining doing anything else.  Maybe it really does seep into the blood or – after enough time has slipped through our fingers – perhaps remaining here has simply become the path of least resistance.  Probably a bit of both.  I've lost all objectivity by now, and really can't say with any degree of certainty.

So we go from job to job, show to show, doing the same basic work in new surroundings and often with a new group of people.  

One thing I’ve learned over the years is there’s only one good way to leave a show, and that's with everybody else at the season’s end.  After a wrap party to provide a modicum of closure, and maybe the traditional cast/ producer’s gift of a hoodie emblazoned with the show's name as a memento, the crew then wraps the stage clean – and a week or so later, all traces of the sets and lighting equipment are gone, leaving an empty, cavernous sound stage ready for the next production to move in.  Seeing a show all the way through to the bitter end offers a real sense of completion, of closing of the door and moving on.  It's always bittersweet, but such is the nature of the beast.

The worst way to leave a show is to get fired.  Although I’ve yet to be booted off a television show, I've been fired a couple of times during my career, and it wasn't fun. No matter the circumstances, getting shit-canned feels like the most profound sort of failure.  It hurts a lot, and for me, the financial and emotional recovery from both experiences took a long time.

Somewhere in the ugly netherworld between those two extremes is leaving a show in mid-season, before all the episodes have been shot, before the crew has said its collective goodbyes, and with all the laboriously constructed show machinery still going strong. The rest in the schedule will be shot (barring the catastrophe of cancellation), but you won't be a part of it anymore.  Denied the satisfaction of completing the job, you're left with a sense of having betrayed the group dynamic -- the emotional bonds -- at the core of every good crew.  In an industry with so much uncertainty and so many ragged edges, leaving early just feels wrong.

I hate it.

Still, there are no guarantees in a free-lance life built on a foundation of sand that dissolves under the assault of each incoming wave, where you do what you must to survive – and right now, I need to stay on the merry-go-round of work for as long as possible.  Once I step off (or get thrown...), there will be no going back.  Yes, I could day-play here and there for a while, but logging sufficient hours to hang on to the health plan is all but impossible for a day-player nowadays – you really have to be on the core crew of a show to pull that off -- and at my age, it's extremely unlikely that a new Best Boy would take me on as a regular with his/her crew.  Not when there are so many younger, stronger juicers out there eager and ready to take the job.

As I enter the final thousand-day slide towards retirement, there’s no room for error.  Much like a shark, I must keep moving forward or else sink into the dark abyss of permanent unemployment,  and that means taking advantage of every opportunity to go from one show to the next whenever possible.  Spurred by the cable networks, television is now produced on a year-‘round basis rather than the old July-through-March schedule pioneered by broadcast television, and given the shorter seasons favored by many cable outfits, it’s possible to work two or three different shows over the course of a year.  This worked out well for me last year, when just as the Disney show wrapped after cranking out twenty-six episodes, my little back-from-the-dead (and much better paying) sit-com returned with a slate of sixteen episodes, taking me straight from pulling lamps and cable down on one stage to putting lamps and cable up at another studio across town.  This was an exhausting transition that gave me no time to recover -- I hadn't even completed one intensely physical ordeal before being thrown into the chaos of another -- but it kept the paychecks coming in and the hours piling up.  In these rocky economic times, that’s a good thing.

This year, the timing didn’t work out.  With the Disney show halfway through their schedule, my little Lazarus sit-com returned for twenty more episodes, forcing me to choose between the two.  It’s a no-brainer in economic terms – eleven remaining episodes at cable-rate vs. twenty at nearly full scale will mean an extra three thousand dollars in paychecks over the next four months, followed by nine or ten more weeks of better-paying work after the Disney show wraps. Besides, I started the Lazarus show doing the pilot sixty-some episodes ago, and with a network commitment to hit the hundred episode mark (thus achieving the fiscal Valhalla of syndication for the producers), we’re looking at a total of 40 more episodes over the next year or so.  Nobody knows what will happen with the Disney show, now well into its third season.  Most Disney sit-coms hit their sell-by date and melt into the ether after three seasons as the young stars get old enough to rebel from the squeaky-clean straitjacket of Mousewitz and follow the post-Disney trail blazed by Lindsay Lohan, Demi Lovato, and Miley Cyrus in re-inventing themselves as young adults.

Besides, the rate of pay for the crew usually rises after three seasons, and there’s nothing the Disney Corporation hates more than paying people what they’re actually worth.*

Still, leaving a show early rubs me the wrong way no matter how compelling the logic.  I was raised with the idea that when you take on a job, you see it through come hell or high water, but those old-fashioned ideals don't always work in this Brave New World of ours.  I'll do it for all the obvious reasons (the rest of the Disney crew would consider me a fool if I didn't -- and they'd be right),  but I won’t like it.  While I miss out on the rich vein of on-set humor that crew generated on a daily basis – they’re a smart, very funny bunch -- another juicer will fill my shoes, and after a day or two, my absence won't even be noticed.  Individual footprints are erased quickly in the dry desert sands of Hollywood, where the winds of change always blow and the show grinds on no matter what.  

And so I move on to the next job, hanging lamps and running power on another stage, at another studio, with another cast and crew.  They're good people, and it's a fun show.  In a couple of weeks, it'll feel like I've never been anywhere else.  

Same shovel, different elephant.

* Not always, apparently, but from what I hear, even Disney has to pay full union scale at Season Four...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Old Curmudgeon

                                                        Guilty as charged

Hopefully this is the last time I'll feel compelled to address the apparently fractious issue of cell phone use on set, but once more I ride into the breech... 

The Anonymous Production Assistant recently tagged me an "old curmudgeon" for my fossilized views on cell phones, and maybe TAPA is right.  I certainly can’t argue with the “old” part: after thirty-six years of putting my shoulder to the Hollywood wheel, the calendar, my aching back, and the labyrinth of deep lines carved into that increasingly unfamiliar face staring back from the bathroom mirror every morning offer undeniable proof that time is indeed dragging me into the grave.

And yes, I do have curmudgeonly days when the modern world seems to be devolving into a shallow wasteland ever more crowded with inane crap – be it another brain-dead moron blasting the tuneless cacophony of hip-hip from his car stereo at ear-splitting levels, the ceaseless barrage of lowest-common-denominator garbage that is Reality Television, or Miss Klassy-with-a-Capital-K, Miley Cyrus, the tongue-and-twerk-mistress formerly known as Hannah Montana.   

On days like that -- the bad days -- you bet I’m an old curmudgeon… but  not every day is a long slog through the fetid swamp of cultural degradation.  "New" isn't the same as "bad," and as some of TAPA’s readers were quick to point out, smart phones truly have become an essential tool for Production Assistants.  No argument there.  Even grip and electric Best Boys utilize smart phones nowadays to get information on equipment, put in orders, and broadcast mass texts when extra hands are needed for a big job – which is just one of many reasons I’m happy to remain in the ranks of humble juicers rather than take the Best Boy gigs certain gaffers keep trying to shove down my throat.*

Been there, done that, and I don’t need to go there again.

It's a generational thing.  Having grown up in the computer age, twenty-and-thirty-somethings swim like fish through the digital seas while many in my generation -- including me -- flounder on the surface just trying to avoid drowning.  This new Digital Age is your era, not ours.

A cell/smart phone can indeed be a useful tool, but a tool is nothing more than a device to help perform certain tasks, and just as it would be inappropriate for a grip to wander around the set randomly banging on stage walls with a hammer simply to keep himself amused, I don’t like seeing technicians on set answering calls, making calls, surfing the net or playing “Angry Birds” when they're supposed to be working.  Change is a constant in this business, where part of the job is keeping one's eyes and ears open to everything happening so as to be ready to react to whatever comes up.  There’s ample down-time on every shoot – waiting for wardrobe changes, hair-and-makeup repairs, or for another department to complete their work before we can resume ours... and that's when it's acceptable for the digital devices come out for personal calls.**  

Dismiss all this as the spittle-flecked ranting of yet another cranky, get-off-my-lawn gummer if you will, but first be aware that Mr. Louis C.K. -- perhaps the smartest, most insightful, and funniest comedian/social commenter working today -- feels the much the same way.

Even TAPA agrees with me on this much: there’s a time and place for cell phones, and in ordinary  circumstances, working on set is not the time to be making/taking personal calls or surfing the net on your digital device simply to stave off a momentary wave of boredom.  Doing so takes your head out of the game and leaves you one step behind the co-worker who is paying attention to his/her job.  So call me old school, a stubborn old fart, or simply an old curmudgeon, but as this beautifully-written post points out, giving away a step on set is a good way to get left behind in your budding career -- and with so much competition in the ranks these days, a newbie really can't afford to give anything away.

I harbor no illusions that what I write here will affect the on-set behavior of those who consider cell phones to be a technological extension of themselves -- you'll pull out your cell phones and use them whenever you feel like it... and if I was twenty-something nowadays, I'd doubtless do the same.  But being four decades past that tender age, my own view on the encroaching digital revolution includes a more distanced (if occasionally jaundiced) perspective that takes into account what we're losing in the  slavish, because-we-can embrace of all things new and digital. Young people tend to see only the positive things these devices bring... which is totally understandable, since they have no other personal frame of reference.  Born into the Digital Age, it's all they know.

The Analog Era is over, but that doesn't mean everybody gets to act like a giddy fool with the new technology -- not without paying a price. So listen up, noobs, and remember that you're being watched and judged every minute of every long day on set.  Perception is reality in this business, and like it or not, how you handle yourself during these early days of your career can determine whether you begin to ascend through the ranks or remain trapped in the endless purgatory of PA-dom.  You're not in school anymore -- no report cards are handed out here in Hollywood, nor will you  be treated with kid gloves when you blow it -- which means it's all on you.  You'll succeed or fail due to your own attitude, demeanor, and performance on the job. So pay attention, keep your eyes and ears open, and use your head... and yes, your cell phone, when necessary and/or appropriate.

But only then.

* And you know who you are...

** Unless there’s something huge going on in your real life that requires a attention, of course. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Maus Haus

When you wish upon a star...

I’ve been pretty hard on Disney since the inception of this blog, and for good reason.  As a corporate entity, Disney is as tight-fisted as they come, routinely forcing some of the leanest and meanest deals on below-the-line crews in the industry.  Having done too many commercial shoots at their big theme park in Anaheim – a place I loved as a kid, but came to loathe as an adult – I've long been repelled by Disney's top-down, stiff-necked management style.  The individual Disney crew members assigned to help my crews move, power, and deploy our lighting and grip equipment in and around the park were great, but it was from them – once they learned to trust us -- that I first heard the term “Mousewitz.”

So it was with mixed feelings that I rejoined the lighting crew pulling a familiar splintery oar below decks of the same Disney slave-ship I worked last year, a sit-com aimed at an audience of tweenagers. The crew and cast are great from top to bottom, but the cable-rate money sucks, and -- wouldn't you know it -- the director on the first show of my return just had to be this clown, who managed to make everyone work much longer and harder than necessary over the course of two endlessly tedious shoot days.   

How this fool still gets hired to direct anything remains the deepest of mysteries, but I suppose he's living proof just how absurd Hollywood can be -- and a useful reminder that in this town, cream ain't the only thing that floats.

Fortunately, the next few episodes had different directors at the helm, at least one of whom was very good.  As we left for home at the end of our third lighting day, he was still on set working out the next day's logistics with the camera coordinator -- and that extra effort paid off.  By doing his homework, he was able to move us smoothly through the next two days of filming without doing eight takes of every shot.

I just hope we get to see him again.

Over my thirty-five-plus years in this business, I’ve rarely heard a good word about Disney from anyone, and most of those positive comments were in reference to the good old days well before my time.  When it comes to paying below-the-line crews, the modern corporate Disney is as cheap as they come, routinely -- and as a matter of policy -- grinding us into the dirt.*

So how, you might ask, could I possibly write a post that says something nice about Disney?

Good question – and believe me, I never thought this day would come… but that was before our show a few weeks ago.  No, the UPM didn't walk on set to announce that we'd all be getting paid full scale from now on instead of the cheap-ass cable rate -- that kind of thing only happens in the land of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, where the sun always shines and unicorns fart rainbows -- but Disney did bring another Make-a-Wish family onto the stage to watch us film a couple of scenes.  

By definition, every Make-a-Wish family has been handed the short end of the stick in life -- you don't get into that program without first receiving a catastrophic diagnosis concerning the health of a child.  Terminal heart conditions, cancer, and other terrible maladies strike young and old alike, and although this is always horrible news, it seems particularly poignant -- and unspeakably cruel -- to see a child who has yet to sample the full menu of life handed such devastating news.  It's brutal on the whole family, forcing them to grapple with something that simply should not be.

This was the second Make-a-Wish Family I'd seen come on set during filming, but I was pretty busy the first time around -- this time I watched as they were seated just behind the cameras to get an up-close view of the process.  The whole family was clearly excited to be there, especially the cute little tyke at the center of attention.  Maybe eight or nine years old, he was the grinning essence of wide-eyed innocence.  At one point, our lead actress came over for an extended, light-hearted conversation with him and the rest of his family.  Just a kid herself in so many ways, she sat down on the floor cross-legged in front of them and showered attention on the little guy, asking him questions to kick-start an enthusiastic back-and-forth, one kid to another.  She was just wonderful with him and his family... and when she finally had to go back in front of the cameras, one of the camera assistants took the little guy out on set with the slate, then coached him through calling out the scene and snapping it shut as all four cameras rolled.

The entire crew stood and applauded as the boy -- a huge smile on his face -- was led back to his family.  I don't think there was a dry eye on that stage.  Mine sure as hell weren't.  

Occasionally I'm privileged to witness a moment when this business turns out to have a great big heart after all, and on those days I feel a whole lot better about being a part of it.  Every day on stage is a job for us, but for these kids and their families, a set visit with the show's stars is something very special.  Since that day, another Make-a-Wish family came on set, and during a break in the action, all four of our actors gathered around to focus their attention on the little girl, making her feel like she was the most important person in the world -- which she was, in a way, if only for those twenty magical minutes.

I can't say enough about the young actors on this show and the way they treat these Make-a-Wish kids -- watching them beam energy and affection towards someone who so desperately needs a little relief from reality is heartwarming, to say the least.  I get choked up just thinking about it.

When I asked around, it turned out that getting the Make-a-Wish people involved happened much further up the Disney food chain than I'd suspected. I couldn't find out just how far up or who made it happen, but that's not important.  What matters is that a corporation best known for being utterly ruthless about saving money (or more accurately, not spending money) is actually capable of doing Something Good on a regular basis... and even more impressive, not calling attention to themselves for doing so.  This doesn't seem to be a PR stunt, but something that comes from a heart I never suspected Disney had.

As our ever-more complicated world grows short on absolutes, we all have to grapple with the reality of navigating through a landscape rendered in shades of gray rather than the stark black-and-whites that make passing judgement so much easier.  That can be confusing... and now it turns out that a corporation I've been lambasting at every opportunity for many years now (with compete justification) turns out to be not quite so bad after all.  Still bad, but not all bad, all the time.

Go figure.  I guess there really is something new to learn every day.

* Just one more one reason I’m really looking forward to seeing this film...  

And thanks to Bruce for -- however unwittingly -- providing the title for this post.