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, January 26, 2014

Grips: Part One

What's a Grip?
Posted on their Gold Room door by a very good grip crew with a great sense of humor

When cornered by civilians curious about behind-the-scenes Hollywood, the first question out of their mouths (after "What stars do you know?") is usually “What’s a Best Boy?”  Considering the fog of weirdness generated by such an undeniably strange term, this is totally understandable... but their next query is almost always “What’s a grip?”   

Good question.

A common misconception is that grips are hulking, brutish mouth-breathers capable of bench-pressing four hundred pounds without breaking a sweat -- the pack mules of the film and television industry -- and although there are a few who fit that description, most of the grips I've worked with are average-sized people who also happened to be very smart.  

As the story goes, the great Don Rickles was once asked who -- if given one choice -- he would pick to accompany him into exile on a desert island.  Rickles didn’t hesitate.  Rather than opt for the obvious babe-du-jour sexpot, he declared "I'd take a grip, because a good grip can do anything.”

This exchange took place well before many women had entered the grip world. "Mr Warmth" wouldn't necessarily have to choose between an attractive woman or a supremely competent grip nowadays -- he could have both in one package, and odds are she'd be a good cook, too, making life on that island infinitely more pleasant.  

All that aside, there really isn't much in the way of on-the-spot engineering a good grip can’t do.  Industry cliché holds that "electricians add light while the grips take it away," and although that's true, it's only a small part of the story.  Among many other things, grips have to come up with quick and effective solutions to real-world, time-sensitive camera and lighting challenges on set -- and as other industry blogs have pointed out, a good grip is worth his/her weight in gold. Bad grips aren't worth a damn, of course, but the same is true of bad juicers, bad DPs, and bad directors.  The industry would be a lot better off without any of these rotten apples undermining the morale and effectiveness of their departments, but the vast majority of grips I've met over the years have been good, with a few rising above and beyond.  Having toiled for so long and in so many different circumstances as a juicer, Best Boy, and Gaffer, I can't overemphasize what a difference it makes -- and what a pleasure it is -- to work with really good grips.

As the photo above demonstrates, such grips tend to have an equally good sense of humor.  Given that every set experiences its share of tension from time to time (some more than others...), the ability to lighten the mood with humor is priceless.

I’ve been meaning to do a post on the value of grips ever since this blog began, and never quite got around to it, but now thanks to cinematographer Mark Vargo -- I don’t have to.  This short video Mark made offers an overview of some of the tasks routinely performed by grips -- after watching it you’ll know more about what grips do on set than 90% of the above-the-liners in the film and television industry. Of course, all the grip work demonstrated on this video takes place outside in beautiful weather or in the friendly confines of a climate-controlled sound stage.  Trust me on this -- gripping or juicing in the snow, rain and mud -- or all night long -- isn’t quite such a tidy, clean endeavor.

The only thing that doesn’t ring true in the video is the last line, where Mark declares “If I wasn’t in the camera department, I’d like to be a grip.”  That’s easy to say from the comfort of a shaded chair behind the camera while watching a small army of grips take a beating out there in the hot sun, but I wonder how he’d feel about having to carry a 400 pound camera dolly, along with C stands, high-rollers, 12-by-12 and 20-by-20 frames, and the usual compliment of flags and nets across several hundred yards of burning sand -- repeatedly -- over the course of a 14 hour work day in the 120 degree heat of Death Valley?

Having been there and done that, I can tell you it isn't much fun.

Still, he's made a great video that's been making the rounds on Facebook and other industry blogs for a few weeks now.  If you haven't yet seen it, do so -- it's well worth your ten minutes.


I imagine most of this blog's readers stop in at Dollygrippery on a regular basis -- and if not, they should.  Backed by more than twenty years of experience, "D" writes with heartfelt passion about the trials and tribulations in the working life of a dolly grip, and in his latest post -- Scraping the Paint --  discusses the risk/reward ratio of operating a camera crane.  As usual, it's a great read.  

Much of what we do in grip and electric is inherently dangerous,** but serious crane work ups the ante for everyone involved.  It takes an exceptional blend of skill, experience and balls to pull off the most challenging crane shots. The ability to accurately gauge the risks of any given crane move -- to know how much is just enough, then ride that delicate, shifting line all the way through -- is crucial, and can make the difference between getting a spectacular shot or causing a camera-smashing disaster.  When such a shot involves a moving camera and several vehicles maneuvering at high speeds, that crane grip's judgement and skill really can be a matter of life and death.  

During my twenty years working in commercials, music videos, and features, I had ample opportunity to observe dolly and crane grips in action.  In the early days -- while still finding my own footing in the industry -- I wound up at the controls myself a couple of times, and quickly learned neither was the path for me.*

I got the chance to fully appreciate crane grips while doing a Mercury Cougar commercial in downtown LA back in the 90's.  While shooting a long sequence of the picture car doing a fast run through the twelve-hundred foot Third Street tunnel one night in downtown LA, I ended up strapped into the crane seat out at the end of the arm aiming a pair 40,000 watt Lightning Strikes strobes directly at the picture car driving alongside.  Racing through the tunnel at 50+ mph with that shiny new Cougar very close to the Shotmaker -- the wind whistling through my hair and those unyielding tunnel walls a few feet from my head -- I was totally dependent on two grips to keep that crane arm under control.  If it got away from them,  I could easily slam head-first into the tunnel walls... and at that speed, I'd be toast -- just another quiet-but-bloody statistic no one beyond my own circle of family and a few industry friends would ever hear about.  

We went through the tunnel on a Shotmaker and crane much like this, with that camera on the arm replaced by two big strobe lights and me in the chair... 

Given the forces and leverage involved, those two grips had to work very hard to keep that beast steady, and although it wandered just enough to make things interesting, they did a great job --  we got the shot and they kept me alive -- and although it was serious business,  I had an absolute blast.  Every one of those three or four runs we made through the tunnel that night was big fun, a high-adrenaline rush I'll never forget.  Even if the crane grips didn't have quite so much fun, they kept their cool and did the job like real pros, without a word of complaint.    

As far as I'm concerned, those two grips really were worth their weight in gold.

Next: The Awakening

Shit happens in this business.  One of my union Local's young juicers was killed in a 30 foot fall on the job a couple of years ago, and more recently a grip survived what  -- absent a stroke of blind luck -- could easily been a fatal fall from the perms on a stage at Warner Brothers. Then just a few weeks ago, a juicer friend of mine fell nearly twenty feet from a big scissors lift.  She lived, but after two weeks in the hospital and spinal-fusion surgery, her shattered feet will keep her riding a wheelchair for months to come.  When she'll be able to walk again -- or work --  is unclear right now.  

** See Fun with Cranes and Fun with Dollies...


Matt said...

Good gravy, that shot sounds horribly dangerous and not-at-all worth it. Is the commercial available on line somewhere?

Michael Taylor said...

Matt --

Good question. I did a google search for it a few years ago without success -- but I'm not sure just what year we did that one. Maybe I'll dig out my work calendars from years past and try to find it.

i can't argue with "horribly dangerous and not-at-all-worth it," -- and I probably wouldn't ride that crane again today -- but it really was a blast. I guess fun is where you find it in this crazy business...