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 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...