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, February 24, 2013

Oscar Time

Yes, it's Oscar time again -- which is why half a dozen helicopters will soon take their assigned stations hovering over the intersection of Highland and Hollywood Boulevard.  There they will remain for the rest of this day, filling the air with a clattering mechanical din as the media fulfills its cultural mandate to saturation-cover any and every celebrity dog-and-pony show -- and Oscar is the ultimate celebrity showcase.  None of this would bother me if I lived in Simi Valley,  Santa Monica, or Beverly Hills, but since I reside in Tinsel Town -- ground zero for Oscar madness -- this is one day of the year I can count on not being able to hear myself think.

In other words, it's a good day to get the hell out of Dodge, but since I'm lucky enough to be working tomorrow, that's not gonna happen. Guess I'll just have to fire up the stereo with some good rockin' blues to drown out the cacophony of my industry's annual orgy of self-congratulation.

The arrival of Oscar also means Hollywood Boulevard has been closed to vehicular traffic all weekend, but that's okay.   Unless you're a tourist, there's really earthly reason to drive down this boulevard of broken dreams, which -- as Hollywood's version of Disneyland, absent the oppressively smothering security of the "happiest place on earth" -- is strictly for out-of-towners.*

While discussing Oscar in this space over the years, I've referred to the annual pageant as "a bloated exercise in onanistic narcissism" -- or was that "narcissistic onanism"? -- I really don't recall, but you get the point.  My first Oscar post detailed an oblique brush with the little golden man way back when -- and if you're interested, a click of the cursor will take you back in time -- but better yet, read this, which was brought to my attention by good friend, skilled gaffer, and the ever-observant Dr. Kagen.  It's a rude, politically incorrect (in all the right ways), and to my mind, highly entertaining take on tonight's festivities.

Who will win what?  Having seen none of the entrants, I don't know and really don't care -- but if you do, I hope you enjoy the interminable broadcast.  Me, I'll pick up my trusty Mexican Strat, crank up the amp, and proceed to piss off my neighbors as I try (and fail) to match licks with BB, Albert, and Freddie King, among others.

Different strokes for different folks.

* And if Disneyland is where I have to go to be "happy," just shoot me now.  Please...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Another One in the Can

Here we go again...

The end of January brought the curtain down on the show that has sustained me since last June, with 26 episodes of cable-rate Disney fluff that kept the rent paid and the wolf from my door.  We returned from the Christmas break to reel off four straight episodes – the finale a hellaciously ambitious effort that involved two dozen moving lights and a full array of rock-and-roll LED-effects lighting, along with the usual tungsten package to be hung, powered, and adjusted. Given that the last three episodes were directed by this clown, closing out with such a complex show would pose a real challenge under the best of circumstances, but when our DP went down for the count on Tuesday with a very nasty flu bug, we were in for trouble. 

And trouble it was, in the shape of the substitute DP. The groans from our Gold Room were audible as he  walked on stage.  Although I hadn't worked with him before, some of the crew had – and judging by the stories they told, we’d all need to strap on our track shoes for the rest of the week.  As it turned out, he wasn’t a bad guy, but just a terminally indecisive DP who didn't know when to say “when,” and could not resist the urge to keep lighting and re-lighting right up to the moment the cameras rolled – and sometimes beyond.  

Although lighting certainly isn’t easy, it’s neither brain science nor rocket surgery, and a good DP understands that once a shot is lit, it’s lit.  At that point, you don’t fuck with it anymore absent a compelling reason – or as our gaffer likes to say, “Don’t put your foot through a Rembrandt.”

In this situation,  the substitute DP's job is to keep a light hand on the wheel and make sure the producers don't freak out.  Our gaffer had been lighting this show's sets for the previous thirty-plus episodes, and pretty much has it wired.  All the substitute DP had to do was take a good look at each shot, suggest a tweak or two, then sign off and let the cameras roll. 

Needless to say, this did not happen.  Instead, he came in hard on Wednesday – the last day before two long days of filming – at full throttle, and immediately began to change all the lighting our DP had already established for the huge swing set.  On a day when we typically add three or four lamps, then tweak and polish the lighting until every set is camera-ready, he forced-marched us through a major re-light, shuffling around (and re-patching) most of the big, heavy moving lights way up high on the grid.  Six long, sweaty hours later, we finally got around to the tweaking and polishing, which took us right up to the point where we had to stop or else violate the next morning’s early call turnaround.

It’s bad enough going into two long shooting days with a hack director at the helm – by now, we were more or less accustomed to that indignity– but without our unflappable DP to keep the producers happy, this thing could get ugly.  And with the substitute DP lobbing a steady rain of metaphorical Molotov Cocktails on the equally metaphorical fire, "ugly" is exactly what happened.  We hustled and sprinted our way through nearly thirty hours over those two seemingly endless days, and the dust didn't settle until early Fraterday morning.

After all that running around at his behest, you’d think the sub-D.P. would at least make a point of thanking every member of the grip and electric crews for their effort – but once wrap was called, he vanished into the darkness.  

What a guy.

It was a rather sour note to end the show on, casting a shadow over what is always a bittersweet experience.  Emotions tend to collide when production ends -- everyone is tired after the long season, and ready for a break, but without another episode to crank out, the sudden lack of forward momentum is unsettling.  You never really know if a show will come back for another season, and even if it does -- particularly with these low-budget, cable-rate shows -- it's doubtful that all of the crew will return.  None of us likes to trade our sweat, labor, and hard-earned skills for the low-rent, sub-scale wages paid by so many cheap-ass cable outfits, which is why anyone who gets a chance to work another show for more money will take it every time.  Still, cable rate or not, a crew bonds through the ordeal of grinding out a season -- and as A.J. put it so well in a recent post

"...this is the last day of the show, and like all shows, it will come to an end. After they call wrap, each department will disappear, spreading to whichever corner of the world (or Hollywood) the wind takes them. You might see a camera person or a grip or two somewhere down the line, but never again will all of you be on the same set. It will never be like this again."

And it won't -- it'll be something different, maybe better, maybe worse.  You never know.  It's a crapshoot every time.  

Early Monday morning, bleary-eyed and yawning, we all gathered on stage once again – still tired from the month-long flogging – to begin wrapping the lamps and cable, tearing down something that had taken the past six months to build.  As the saying goes, “It comes down a lot quicker than it goes up,” but only after what feels like an endless uphill slog.  The five day wrap turned into three days for me, when I had to bail early to start a new job with my old crew at another studio across town.  There, on Thursday morning, we'd begin hanging, powering, and adjusting the two to three hundred lamps the new show would need.    

We put the lamps up, we take the lamps down, then we do it all over again.  Our work is never done here on the Mobius Highway of Hollywood until we drop dead or retire, which makes this job feel a lot like the endless labors of Sisyphus.  

And so I threw a weary leg over my bicycle and pedaled on home one last time.*  Another show in the can, and another brick on the road that will eventually lead me out of Hollywood.  There's a way to go yet -- another four years, assuming I can make it -- and if the Gods of Hollywood are with me,  a few more rigs and wraps lie ahead.  But the end is now in sight.  

For better or worse...

* Yes, you heard right -- for the first time in 35 years, I landed a show within bike range of my apartment, and for every one of those 26 episodes, five days a week, rain or shine, early morning and late at night, I commuted to and from work via pedal power.  It felt good, too -- all 390 miles -- but the next show is over the hill in The Valley, so I'll be back in the car...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Hooks Redux

And what’s wrong with the Source Four

In response to a comment on the Good Hooks, Bad Hooks post a while back, I checked the pipe clamps on my show, but couldn’t find a brand name on the older bad hooks – which means they’re very old indeed. The Best Boy thinks they’re ancient Mole Richardson clamps, and given that such clamps pretty much last forever, he may be right. A quick quick look at Mole’s on-line catalog revealed nothing, but the bad pipe clamp pictured in the previous post came from ETC, and was bolted to an ETC Source Four lamp. As far as I'm concerned, ETC should be ashamed of themselves for manufacturing and sending out such a potentially dangerous clamp as standard equipment -- but a true sense of shame seems to be an exceedingly rare commodity in this town.

Which brings me to the subject of ETC’s Source Four lamp, which I first saw back in the mid-80’s. Small and light enough enough to hang anywhere, the Source Four could be equipped with a wide variety of focusable lenses and patterns, and proved very useful for adding luminous texture and/or color to set walls. Using an iris, the Source Four could even serve as a low intensity follow-spot.* We used lots of them to good effect on the sets of “Will and Grace,” and every other show I’ve worked on over the past 15 years.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that ETC hasn’t bothered to improve the Source Four much at all since those early days. The 500 watt bulb was upgraded to a 750 at some point, but that’s about it. Given that the lamp was apparently created for the theatrical world -- where lamps are hung and set, then left alone for the (hopefully) long run of a live show – this comes as no surprise, but lighting for feature films and television is a much more fluid endeavor. For the most part, the lamps we use on set were designed for durability, flexibility, and ease of use, but the Source Four remains stuck in a more static world.**

A couple of minor changes would make these lamps much more user-friendly. First, ETC should send all those crappy, dangerous 90 degree hooks back to be melted down and made into good, safe hooks. Then they should replace the tiny bolt on the stem (which controls the right-left pan function of the lamp) with an honest-to-God T-handle knuckle so that a juicer hanging and adjusting the lamp doesn’t have to pull out a crescent wrench just to loosen the bolt, pan the lamp an eighth of an inch, then lock it back down. These two modifications would make the lives of every juicer I know a lot easier on set.

Another long-overdue upgrade would be more complicated, but worth doing – adding some kind of worm gear along the barrel of the lens that would allow the light emitted from the lamp to be quickly and accurately focussed to DP’s liking. The current method is simple – a slot with a screw/knob adjuster – that requires both hands to use.  That's okay when the lamp is on a stand and easy to reach, but we rig most of these lamps on crowded pipe grids that can be very difficult to access. I can’t count the times I’ve had to go up in a man-lift (or climb to the very top step of a 12 step ladder), then stand on the rails in an incredibly precarious position to hang, focus, and cut a Source Four – at which point that sticky lens barrel suddenly makes the job much harder than it should be. A simple worm-gear mechanism with locking knob that could be operated with one hand would make a huge difference, but given that ETC doesn’t seem to give a shit about how bad their hooks really are (much less display any willingness to replace them with good hooks), I won’t hold my breath waiting for them improve the lens-focusing mechanism.

My job as a juicer is to make do with what we’ve got – to get the set lit whatever it takes – and I’ll do that until my days in this business are over and done.  Still, it would be nice if companies like ETC would help us out a little rather than sit there with both thumbs firmly inserted up their corporate ass.

But I suppose that’s asking too much.

 * I’ve done some day playing working for a DP who uses well over a hundred Source Fours on every show.  He’s something of an idiot, though, so I‘ll leave that discussion for a future post. 

** There are exceptions, of course. I don’t like the 200 watt Mole Richardson Inky or 1000 watt Baby Baby, and am no fan of small-wattage Pepper lamps, either.