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 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... 


egee said...

Hey! Just wanted to say thanks for continuing to update your blog. I've not been reading it for awhile and needed to catch up. Always fascinating to hear about what goes on behind the scenes.

Michael Taylor said...

Egee --

Many former readers seem to have wandered off to other sectors of cyber-space -- whether bored with what they find here or simply looking for something new remains a mystery. But hey, that's life, where the only constant is change.

Nice to hear from you -- and thanks for tuning in...