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)

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.