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, December 25, 2015


I almost forgot to post what has become something of a Christmas tradition here at BS&T: Robert Earl Keen's incomparable ode to the joys of the season, "Christmas from the Family."

The standard Christmas songs we've all heard a million times before are all well and good -- and they have their place -- but nobody gets right down to the gritty, pulsing human heart of this day quite like Robert Earl Keen.*

Check it out, because these might just be the best four minutes your day -- and if nothing else, they'll give you a laugh or two, and maybe a fresh perspective on the season.

Feliz Navidad to you all…

If for some reason the video won't play (Blogger seems to have gone off the rails, and will not allow me to confirm that it works in draft or preview mode), you can experience the full glory right here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

That's a Wrap

Another year gone...

               Your humble correspondent wrapping a swing set
                                (photo by Kevin Brennan)

Sometime before midnight last Friday, I headed into the Gold Room for a quick break to rest my aching feet. The gaffer walked in a few minutes later, slumped in a chair, then looked at me and shook his head.

"We're too old for this shit," he said.

Lacking a snappy comeback to such a plainly stated truth, I just nodded. There was nothing else to say.

We started this show back in June, but that first day feels like a lifetime ago. The past six months have been intense, forcing me to re-learn lessons from the past while discovering a few new tricks along the way in a season that often seemed like it would never end. Still, the long and winding road from June to December finally did come to an end early Fraterday morning with one last 14 hour beat-down that left the entire crew hanging on the ropes.

It's over now, and not a day too soon.

I've done plenty of bitching about the show in this space, mostly because it turned out to be much harder than it should have been, or than any of us anticipated. I can't discuss the reasons for that right now, but our constant ventures offstage to shoot big day and night exteriors compounded the existing issues to lard a thick layer of bitter frosting atop an already unpalatable cake. 

This was one very unusual multi-camera show, and not in a good way.

I'm no stranger to location work. During my first twenty years in Hollywood, 90% of the work was shooting exterior locations all over LA, California, and the U.S., including a grueling ten day job in Mexico. I've worked in the thermonuclear heat of Death Valley, the sweltering humidity of a North Carolina summer, and the 8 degree snows of Vermont.  For most of that time, location work was what I did -- but the rust sets in quickly, and after fifteen years on sound stages, those first few days and nights filming outside were a rude awakening. Once back in the groove, I couldn't decide which was worse: enduring the endless boredom, meat-locker cold, and relentless shushing by our oppressively overzealous first and second ADs on stage, or suffering outdoors under the broiling heat of the merciless SoCal sun. Then there were those long Friday nights that always seemed to stretch into a Fraterday morning, thus laying waste to half the weekend.

That our only choice was to persevere or quit didn't make the situation any easier, but as always, we did what was necessary to get the work done. That's the job. 
As one of my fellow juicers quipped during a recent on-set ordeal: "They can kill us, but they don't have time to eat us."  

A moment would come during every frenzied cluster-fuck of confusion where I'd find myself working as hard and fast as humanly possible -- not for the DP, director, production company, or the show -- but simply for the sake of my crew. I had to stop being pissed off at the rank stupidity upstream that created those problems, then concentrate on doing whatever was necessary to get this shot done, then move on to the next until we could all finally go home.

Our last episode was no exception to this bruising pattern. The same top-down idiocy that threw sand in the gears all season long made for another excruciatingly drawn-out finish late into the chilly Hollywood night.  

Now that it's over, I have to acknowledge a few bright spots that illuminated the darkness, week in and week out. As always, the people made all the difference, with my own set lighting crew at the top of the heap. Blessed with a nice blend of age and youth, experience and enthusiasm (and very diverse personalities), we endured those twenty weeks of hard labor with a minimum of friction, a maximum of sweat, and a constant stream of raw, dark humor. That got us through
 some very tough shoot days.

With so many big day and night exteriors, we had lots of day-players helping us out every week. Given how busy Hollywood has been lately, our Best Boy met the constant challenge of finding solid juicers. That alone was an accomplishment, but what made her efforts near-miraculous was that every one of those juicers was really good -- smart, attentive, knowledgeable, hard working, and who always showed up with a good attitude. I was extremely impressed.

Who knows what's going to happen to Hollywood over the next twenty years, but with a new generation of highly-qualified young people filling the ranks below-the-line (as aging, ready-for-the-glue-factory vets like me exit stage left), I'm confident that the crew side of this Industry is in good hands.

Others on the crew helped make the long siege bearable, particularly the set-dec and prop departments, who always kept me laughing… when we weren't muttering curses under our collective breath, at least. The stand-ins were total pros, and -- as usual -- the production assistants worked their asses off. The camera department was usually good for a smile, and craft service did a great job of feeding us well, if a bit too often. That the shows we cranked out together week after week were nothing I'd ever want to watch is irrelevant. As our first AD noted, "This show is meant for nine year olds," which means that if I liked it, something would be very wrong indeed.  

Another plus was that the absurdly restrictive and intrusive industry "safety" regulations that hamstring our work lives at the major studios didn't apply on this job -- or more accurately, those rules weren't enforced. Production left us alone to do the work as we saw fit, with none of the usual raised-eyebrow/finger-wagging admonitions to toe the line. That meant we didn't have to wear "safety"harnesses in our single-manlifts (a lawyer-mandated rule that is beyond ridiculous), so I was free to use the middle and top rails of my lift or walk the set walls whenever necessary to get something done. I did all of that and a whole lot more -- but never with a cavalier attitude -- simply because it was the best, most efficient (and often the only) way to do the work.  

And I did it all safely.  

It's hard to express what a relief that freedom really was, and is something I'll miss dearly if I manage to land another show at one of the big studios next year.

It helped that we were blessed with two good man-lifts, because that doesn't always happen. As much as I enjoyed a long run on my last show, we were saddled with two old, poorly maintained lifts owned by the studio. Being a typically top-down/bottom-line obsessed corporate entity, they insisted on keeping those old junkers running with bubble gum and bailing wire rather than buy new or factory refurbished lifts.  

As simple as it might sound, working in a good lift can be a real pleasure. After enough time in the bucket, the controls become an extension of your body. Maneuvering that 2000 pound lift in and around a crowded set without crushing the set dressing (or somebody's foot) or destroying the intricate web of lamps, flags, and cutters festooning the pipe grid isn't easy, but it's enormously satisfying. It feels good to climb in a lift on a bare, empty set, then ease into a good working rhythm and get the job done -- and at the end of the day, see that set lit up and ready for the set dressing, props, actors and cameras. 

That -- along with the weekly paychecks, free food, and the camaraderie of working with a good crew doing a challenging job -- is what I'll really miss once my time in Hollywood is done. Although it's a relief to see this particular show come to an end, I hate that I'll no longer get to work with all those people who together helped us make the best of a very difficult situation.

Every show begins in a maelstrom of chaos and confusion, and ends five or six months later a well-oiled machine. Like all journeys, it starts in one place and winds up in another. Enduring such an odyssey leaves a mark, and by the end, none on the crew are quite the same person they were at the start. We emerge from that dark tunnel a little older, a little wiser, and (hopefully) with a little more money in the bank, and -- in ways that are as meaningful as they are unquantifiable -- further enriched by the human bonds forged in suffering and laughing together over the course of a long and difficult season.

With just a week to go before Christmas, that's a wrap on 2015, a year that flew by faster than I thought possible. Thanks so much to all of you who reached out to share your thoughts with comments and e-mails over this past year, because without your feedback, I'm just another cranky old man shaking his fist and shouting into the void. I have no idea what 2016 holds for any of us, but  -- inshallah -- will be back here sometime in January, and together we'll find out. 

Until then, I wish you all a great holiday season and the best of everything in the New Year to come. 

Merry Christmas from Hollywood, where the only constant is change, and the building never stops...

Sunday, December 13, 2015

One Bitch of a Week

The curse of the Born-Again Hybrid

             One of our two Bebee Night Lights preparing for action

It's Sunday morning, and my feet still hurt -- a lot -- thanks to the beating they took last week.  It was the hardest week of the year for me, bad enough that even my pair of $230 Ecco boots (which usually are great at protecting those feet from the rigors of working on set) couldn't do the job.  

Mind you -- wthout those boots, I'd still be crawling around on all fours this morning, but there's no way around it: last week was a real bitch.

A typical multi-camera sit-com works on a five day schedule: three days of lighting swing sets and tweaking the existing lighting of the permanent sets to accommodate the needs of each episode, followed by a block-and-shoot day to orchestrate the four camera choreography and do any pre-shoots, then the shoot night when the show is performed and filmed in front of a live studio audience.

That's pretty much the way it's been done since Dezi Arnez laid down the template on the "I Love Lucy" show back in the good old/bad old days.

The past few years have seen the unwelcome rise of a mutant bastard multi-cam called the "Hybrid," a vile creation that trades one lighting day for an additional shoot day, and eliminates the audience shoot altogether. That means the crew works two long lighting days and three long, grind-it-out shoot days every week, which  -- to me, at least -- takes all the fun out of working a multi-cam show.  Yes, you work more hours and make more money, but it's blood money, hardly worth the additional work load.

The newsletter published every couple of months by my union often profiles a show currently in production, and a couple of years back, the featured show was a Hybrid -- and the crew interviews were revealing.*  The gaffer (who was either brainwashed, out of his fucking mind, or leery that the shows producers might read the piece) lay the B.S. down with a shovel, prattling on about what a "wonderful opportunity" this show was and blah, blah, blah. None of it rang true. Then the focus turned to one of his juicers, a veteran unafraid to speak his mind. I can't quote his words chapter and verse, but the gist was that filming so many setups over three days was a serious grind -- and he closed by warning his fellow juicers to avoid  taking a Hybrid show if they had any other options.    

Now in the twilight of my own Hollywooden career, I have no interest in working a Hybrid, which is why I joined my current show with some trepidation. Working a schedule of  three lighting and two shoot days each week, it wasn't a true Hybrid, but too close for comfort, and I knew I was going miss the humor and pulsing energy of those audience shoot nights.  

As it turned out, we ended up leaving the stage for way too many day and night exteriors, which added to the strain as we slogged through this season. 

For reasons best known to the God of Hollywood, most television shows seem driven by a desire to finish big -- to wind up each season with a bang -- which means the hardest episodes usually come at the end. Heading down the home stretch, my show finally turned all the way bad, metastasizing into a true Hybrid for the last five episodes, with just two lighting days and three full shoot days.  

And what a grind it's been.*

Following that well-worn path to the Big Finish, our penultimate show was an absurdly huge episode that beat us into the ground for five long days, three on stage and two more  filming at night on a local football field amid cold, blustery conditions. In the process, we employed two Bebee Night Lights, two 60 foot condors rigged with big Arrimax 18Ks, two balloon lights, and a truck full of 12K pars and smaller HMI units -- along with six cameras on two steadicams, three dollies, a 24 foot Techno-Jib, and 1200 paid extras screaming in the grandstands… 

Such a level of production befits an episodic drama, but a multi-camera sit-com?  Multi-cam shows came about because they're cheaper to make than single camera comedies. As such, they're creatures of the climate-controlled sound stage, and rarely venture outside where the weather suddenly becomes a major factor. When a multi-cam show does go offstage, it's usually to a nearby studio parking lot dressed to look like something else. Occasionally a pilot will leave the studio to shoot a scene that's impossible or prohibitively expensive to film on stage, which -- given the need for that pilot to stick out from the rest of the pilot-season herd -- makes a certain sense, but for a multi-camera sit-com to indulge in such a lavish production strikes me as a ludicrous waste of money.  

But hey, I'm just an itinerant juicer who shows up at call time to do the job at hand. I have to leave the strategic thinking and Big Picture planning to those higher up the food chain --  who are paid accordingly -- so I suffered, along with the rest of the crew, through the toughest week we've had in a long while. We got rain out there on that football field, along with a burst of hail and the heavy, gusting winds of a cold storm that blew in out of the north just in time to catch us out in the open, far from the weather-proof confines of our sound stage.  A football field is a big expanse, and with no motorized vehicles allowed, we had to move everything by hand and foot -- which is why over the course of those two nights, I walked sixteen miles on those expensive Ecco boots.***

We'd been dreading this week for the past month, but although it was a very hard five days, it could easily have been worse.  All of us --  producers and crew -- were lucky this storm didn't morph into the first rainy assault of the El Nino deluge the weather geeks have been predicting for the past few months. If it had, those two long nights would have been truly miserable.  I'm grateful for that much, at least.

More to the point, I'm really glad we have just one more episode -- five days -- to go on this born-again Hybrid. I'm sick and tired of getting my ass kicked each and every week, which means the end of this show can't come soon enough -- for me and my feet...

* Yeah, I know -- this schedule is nothing compared to the killer grind of an average episodic, but those are crewed mostly by young people.  I understand how a thirty year old juicer or grip might dismiss my bleating about a Hybrid show schedule, and that's okay -- in your shoes, I'd probably do the same.  All I can say is this: work another thirty-five years, then tell me how much you like it...

**  Not a particularly funny one, mind you, but that's the writing staff's problem, not mine.

** According to the pedometer app on my phone, anyway -- but since my feet feel like an angry psycho has been whacking them with a two-by-four, I have no reason to doubt it...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 30

A sharp-eyed reader (thanks, Kafka) reports that the photo I used to illustrate a recent post depicts Cecil B. DeMille directing Paulette Goddard in Paramount's Reap the Wild Wind. The on-set technicians in that photo  -- who were more-or-less the subject of the post -- remain anonymous, of course (like the rest of us who work below decks), but such is life.

Another reader (thanks, Tom) sent a link to the poster for that movie, which -- typical of the era -- is rather lurid  and over-the-top. I doubt anybody seriously considers Reap the Wild Wind to be one of Cecil B. DeMille's "greatest," but Hollywood never lost a minute of sleep worrying about the false promises and overblown hype required to sell movies to the viewing public.

Same as it ever was...


Commenting on another recent offering, JD said:

“Hmmm....tedium on set? Read a book, play cards or an actual board game that makes you think like Scrabble or chess, learn some new skill, learn to tie some new knots (like the masthead knot!)or just wall yourself off in your own little cell phone world. Such a difficult choice. I once did some minor truck repair while on location. A friend knits, etc.”

First, there's the matter of appearances. In a business where perception is reality, reading a book or playing cards/board games in plain sight on set can give others (like the Key Grip, Gaffer, DP, director, and producers) the impression that you're not really paying attention. Even a small paperback is hard to stuff in your tool pouch when you have to jump up and get back to work, and if left unattended while working on a busy, chaotic set, that book might disappear. Depending on the type of show, there's often a bit more slack on a soundstage job, where the crew can rotate duties -- some staying "in the pocket" of the Gaffer to handle whatever comes up, while others retreat to the Gold Room and get off their feet for a few minutes to read, watch TV, or whatever.  This works so long as nobody abuses the privilege, and everyone remains tuned to their walkie-talkies, ready to answer the call the instant something is needed on set. 

So it's there on set -- much as I'm loathe to admit it -- that cell phones really do fill the bill. Since everybody from the producers to the extras has one, nobody raises an eyebrow when you pull out your cell and boot up. Never mind that you might be reading a long article from The New Yorker or Atlantic Magazine (or even an e-book) rather than checking for messages, the cell phone is accepted as an essential part of life on set nowadays.  
Knitting? Sure -- the Best Boy on my current show brings her knitting to work, when she leaves the ukelele at home, anyway. As for learning knots -- you bet.  While working on the grip rigging gang at Paramount thirty-five years ago, I spent much of one day learning to tie a bowline knot, an essential skill for grips and juicers alike. Card games at lunch and after work are not unheard of, and I've seen an occasional quiet chess match underway. Haven't seen Scrabble yet, but my experience is far from universal.  
So yes, there are indeed many ways to deal with the inevitable tedium of life on set -- which is a good thing, so long as everybody understands that the work always comes first.

Another (non-industry) reader left a comment on that same post: 

"In most jobs outside the movies there is almost always more work that can be done.  The one without the phone is asking questions, getting ready or starting the next thing.  The one with the  phone is quickly checked out.  I've started doing a meeting and making sure the folks with phones have a long list of the projects they need to complete.  Our conversations now go like this.

"How's it going on X?"

Puts phone down -- "I'm waiting on Y"
"Got it.  Did you look at your list for what you can do next while you wait?"

If you are early in your career (20's), keep your ears open.  The boss paying for your time will appreciate it.  And the client paying by the hour and watching will appreciate it eve ore.  Some paying clients are older-- zoning out on their $250/hr will be considered rude, no matter how justified it is (and in some cases it is).

Now on the long public transit rides to and from a location (in my work) -- I'm all for the phone, the Kindle, etc.  That is your time."

I agree with much of that -- and in the civilian working world, the kind of cell phone use we see every day on set would probably get people fired -- but the film and television industry is a very different beast. The "work to be done" each day on set is clearly laid out in the call sheet. For the average juicer or grip, there's no point in thinking beyond that call sheet -- and since the work day will usually last at least twelve hours, there's plenty to do without thinking about tomorrow. Besides, worrying about the next day's work is the job of the Gaffer and Best Boy.

Still, there's usually work that can be done -- cleaning up and organizing the equipment and gel carts, and putting away gear that's no longer needed -- and in the days before cell phones, that work tended to get done without anything being said. Nowadays, not so much.

So long as the work gets done, it doesn't much matter how the crew spends their time on set. Problems can arise when a newbie producer or UPM notices all the grips and juicers sitting on apple boxes staring into cell phones while the cameras roll -- then begins to wonder if such a large crew is really necessary -- but a veteran producer/UPM understands that when it's time to move on and redeploy all that lighting/grip equipment for the next scene, those hands are needed to make it happen in a say and efficient manner.  

In a business where time really is money, that matters.


"Do not escalate your expectations."

William Friedkin's advice to wannabe filmmakers

I'm not sure who reads books anymore -- except women, of course. There are thousands of Book Clubs in this country, all but a handful made up of and run by women. If it weren't for female readers, the book business would probably have collapsed a long time ago. The sad truth is, most men would rather do anything in front of a screen -- channel-surf, watch movies, sports, porn, you name it -- than sit  down to read a book. In our oh-so-modern world, "reading" has come to mean cruising Facebook or Twitter, then falling down the rabbit hole following links.

I understand the appeal of FB, and (believe it or not) have had a Twitter account for a while now.*  I know what it's like to sink into the digital quicksand chasing link after link after link on the Internet, and (in moderation, of course) there's nothing wrong with that.

Still, there's no substitute for immersion in a good book, like the one discussed here last year.

For those of you who haven't read it, that's your loss. I'm just a juicer, not a book critic.  I can lead the proverbial horses to the equally proverbial water, but I can't make 'em drink. That said, The Friedkin Connection is a great read for anybody interested in how great movies got made back in the 70's, particularly for anyone who thinks any movie made before Pulp Fiction isn't worth watching.  Tarantino's good, alright, but there were a lot more before him who were just as good or better in their own way and in their own time -- and William Friedkin is one.

Okay, so you didn't read the book… but you can still hear some of the best stories therein, because Friedkin recently sat down to talk with Alec Baldwin in front of a live audience, and 35 minutes of their discussion can be found at this link to Baldwin's terrific podcast from WNYC, Here's the Thing.

Do yourself a favor and listen to that podcast -- it's really good, and the stories of how Friedkin cast crucial roles in The French Connection and The Exorcist will blow your mind. By the end of it, you too might believe in The Movie God.**

Just don't assume that listening to that too-short podcast is the same as reading the book -- it's not, and until you do read it, you'll never know all the great stories Friedkin didn't have time to tell Alec Baldwin. Hey, Christmas is coming, so tell someone you love that you'd like this book as a gift, then read the damned thing.

You'll be glad you did.


Last, a quote (lightly edited) from my favorite movie critic, Mick LaSalle, who writes for what's left of the San Francisco Chronicle, about the MPAA's system of rating movies:

"The rating system has no basis in morals, just money. It’s designed to make sure that the violent summer blockbusters, which often cost over $100 million, get a PG-13 rating, so that they can keep a bigger slice of the box office, while maintaining their ability to merchandise products to children. The MPAA, which essentially works for the studios, doesn’t dare tamper with the big money, and so they jump at every chance to prove their virtue by beating up on better, smaller and more virtuous movies. The prohibition on love scenes, especially in light of the free rein given violence, is only one part of the problem...even worse, in my opinion, is the MPAA’s hysteria about language. Apparently they have an idiotic rule that one f-word is OK, but if it’s spoken twice, they must gather their skirts around them and confer an R-rating."
So remember, all you wide-eyed young film students hoping to make cinematic art in Hollywood: this town and industry have never been about the art, but always about the money.    
That is all.

*  Not that I do much with it other than flog this blog, mind you

** Friedkin offers some sage career advice for wannabe directors at the end of the podcast, so pay attention, noobs...

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The End of an Era

                               So long, Mole-Richardson...

The great post-recession building boom continues here in LA, which means you can't turn a corner these days without running into another massive construction project. The "Manhattanization" of Los Angeles proceeds at a break-neck pace -- I've never seen anything like it since I first rode into LA back in 1977 -- and as a result, real estate on which to build is in very high demand. In turn, that has spurred another loss for Hollywood, as Mole-Richardson -- which revolutionized motion picture lighting back in the late 1920's, then became an iconic presence supplying lighting and power distribution equipment to the industry -- has now abandoned the town it helped make so famous.

On the way to work recently, I stopped in at Mole's Studio Depot expendable store to pick up a new pair of work gloves, and saw the old familiar presence across the street at 937 North Sycamore -- the Mole Mother Ship -- now just an empty shell, another memory of Hollywood's past.

As I was about to resume my journey towards the studio, I stopped dead at the sight of this -- an old lightweight carbon arc about to be loaded on a stake-bed truck bound for the new Mole Richardson facility.

I talked to the two young men doing the moving, who had never seen an arc in action, of course  -- to them, this ancient lamp was the equivalent of an old steam-powered locomotive -- and they paused long enough for me to take a few pictures.

This might sound silly, but the sight of that old carbon arc and the shuttered Mole-Richardson building put a lump in throat. Mole is a user-friendly company that always treated me with respect from my early days as a greener-than-green newbie juicer on through my Best Boy and Gaffer years. Time and again, they went the extra mile to help me solve power and lighting problems on set.

While prepping a ten-day location shoot heading into the mountains of Colorado for a car commercial back in the 80's, I was concerned about the two carbon arcs we were taking along. As the Best Boy, it was on me to make sure those lamps kept working through the entire shoot, and back then, lightweight arcs could be troublesome creatures. I don't know why -- maybe the lightweight head didn't disperse heat as well as the bigger heavy head arcs -- but the worm gear mechanism inside tended to get sticky after ten or twelve hours of use, which is why we always brought one spare element per lamp along on every job. No matter how much we lubed the gear mechanism before and during the day, we'd usually end up having to install the spare elements before wrap was called. During one nightmare job (scheduled to run twelve hours, but went twenty-five hours), we were reduced to force-feeding the positive carbon by hand after our last spare element jammed up.

Not a fun day, that.

Although I ordered two spare elements for the Colorado job -- one for each head -- I worried that we'd run into the kind of arc trouble I couldn't fix on a distant location. Being so far from Hollywood, I'd be up Shit Creek without the proverbial paddle.

A week before the job, I went down to Mole-Richardson and found the shop in back where the rental equipment was maintained. Someone pointed me to a stocky man wearing a filthy shop apron and heavy gloves. I explained my concerns, then asked if he might impart some wisdom on how to make sure those two arcs ran smoothly for the entire shoot.

"Just keep 'em clean and lubed," he said. "That oughtta do it."

This was not the response I'd hoped for.  Although I always kept the arcs clean and lubed, they still gave us trouble on almost every shoot. But the man had nothing more to say, so I crossed my fingers and caught the flight to Colorado.

The next nine days days were tough, running 4/0 and wrangling those arcs in the thin air above 7000 feet, filming at multiple locations per day. Still, the scenery was spectacular up in Wolf Creek Pass and all around Silverton, which is one of the things that made working distant locations so much fun -- and what made those nine days a lot more fun was that my two arcs ran smooth and trouble-free the entire time, giving me no problems whatsoever. We never touched either of the spare arc elements.

That was a first.

Maybe it was the altitude, or maybe we just got lucky... but I think that guy in Mole's maintenance shop went through those arcs with extra special care to make sure they'd run properly. He wasn't willing to share any of his trade secrets, but saw to it that our arcs left his shop fully prepared to go the distance.*

Years later, I landed job as a Lighting Director for a shoot filming the then-new intro and logo for PBS.  It was a big deal for me at the time, and my crew worked hard on the pre-light day to make sure things went well. For a back-light, we used one of  Mole's then brand-new 18K HMI lamps, which worked fine all day… until the next morning on the shoot, when it abruptly shut off and refused to re-strike.

The producer-director -- a real asshole, truth be told -- was on my back in an instant, demanding to know what was wrong and when it would be fixed.  

Feeling very much under the gun, I called Mole, and in minutes Mike Parker himself (one of the owners) arrived with one of Mole's HMI technicians. Thirty minutes of work on their part got the light working properly, but just as they were leaving, the production company's camera whiz came over to  me, and  -- in an oh-by-the-way manner -- said that he wanted to shoot at 9 frames a second… something he hadn't bothered to mention during the pre-pro meetings or entire pre-light day.

There were no "flicker-free" HMIs in service back then, which meant the camera could only operate in frame-rates divisible by 12 -- 12 fps, 24, 48, 96, and so on. Otherwise, the dreaded "flicker" could show up in dailies, as if the camera assistant was opening and closing the iris -- which meant there was no way we could use that 18 K.

I caught Mike Parker at the stage door and -- after profuse apologies -- explained the situation and asked him to bring me a carbon arc to replace the 18 K. He got right on it, and  we had that arc up and burning half an hour later. Thanks to his patience and quick work, the shoot went just fine, and I managed to get through another job without looking like a complete idiot.

Mole Richardson saved my ass from a difficult situation then -- and many other times -- because of their work ethic and approach to business… and because their facilities were located right in Hollywood, ten minutes from dozens of sound stages.  But now Mole is way the hell out in East Bumfuck (otherwise known as Pacoima), a long way from Hollywood.

The world has changed a lot since I first rolled into town on the back of the proverbial turnip truck. Then, Mole Richardson was the lighting equipment company in Hollywood, having eclipsed Bardwell McCallister as the go-to supplier of incandescent and carbon arc lamps.  I worked for a gaffer or two who used cheaper foreign lamps, but most of those were crappy lights, poorly designed and awkward to use. With a few notable exceptions, Mole Richardson's lamps have served as the lighting workhorses on sound stages all over Hollywood and beyond.**

Still, change is the only constant in this business, and never so much as nowadays. I'm not sure there's much I'll recognize in Hollywood by the time I pack up and leave.  All I can say is that Mole Richardson's departure from Hollywood truly does mark the end of an era... but the old days are gone for good, rolling on down the river towards the Big Waterfall that marks the journey's end -- and they're taking me with them. 

The roar of those falls, once so distant, grows louder every day.

Next -- (and by "next," I mean at some undetermined point in the future) -- I'll delve deeper into the subject of carbon arcs.

* Of course, this raises an inevitable, uncomfortable, and unanswerable question: why didn't every lightweight arc leave Mole's shop in such tip-top condition? That would have made my life as a Best Boy a lot easier back in those days.

*  I don't like Mole's 200 watt Inky at all. With an awkward, cramped design, changing a B.O. bulb in an Inky can be a serious pain in the ass.  Although the Tweenie is a good lamp, it has problems with corrosion on the posts of the 650 watt FRK globes, which seriously shortens their useful life. Thicker posts and a more robust receptacle might fix this problem, but that would require Mole and all the bulb manufacturers to change their manufacturing process -- and that's just not going to happen.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Pot, meet Kettle...
Nothing blows the illusion of the Old West like a pioneer woman checking her cell phone…

I've been carping about the increasing ubiquity and abuse of cell phones on set ever since the earliest days of this blog. To label my struggle a losing battle would be a massive understatement -- truth is, I've been pissing into the wind of a technological and cultural hurricane all this time.

Which means my shoes are sopping wet at this point.  Time for a new pair.  

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" the saying goes, and having at long last joined Generation Wireless with my own smart phone, I'm forced into the decidedly uncomfortable position of viewing what once seemed like a clear-cut, black-and-white issue from the other side -- because in struggling to cope with the terminal tedium of my current brain-dead, soul-crushing show, I too find myself staring into that little glowing screen as the cameras roll, and roll, and roll.


I get it. The daily routine on set can be very boring, and it's nice to have a small device at hand that's capable of bringing the larger world in -- and as the pot who made such a big deal of calling the cell-phone kettle black for such a long time, it's my turn to eat a little crow while shaking hands with that very same kettle... to mix, mangle, and obliterate my metaphors in the conceptual cuisinart.  

The phone remains in my work bag during our three lighting days each week, which are when the really heavy lifting takes place, but come those two (or sometimes three) grindingly endless shoot days, the phone has a spot in my tool pouch, ready to whisk me off to Google, Facebook, Gmail, or one of my favorite sites, The Electric Typewriter, to help pass the time and ease the drip, drip, drip torture of slow brain death -- or what my gaffer (in a brilliant turn of phrase) refers to as "content poisoning."

And sometimes -- very rarely, and only when strictly necessary -- I'll even make a quick phone call at work. Imagine that.*

Although I see some of the younger juicers and grips losing themselves in on-line games of one sort or another with their phones, the appeal of this eludes me. But  hey, when it comes to dealing with tedium, to each his own. 

Still, I always keep one eye and ear tuned to whatever's happening on set, ready to jam that phone back in my tool pouch and answer the call. An old analog dog might be able to learn a new digital trick or two, but work habits forged over the decades die hard. If you want to call it "old school," fine -- that's not a bad thing in my world.**  However stupefyingly boring the action in front of the cameras can be (and oh Sweet Jesus, does this show put me to the test each and every week…), doing the job right means paying attention.  

And if you can't do that, you shouldn't be on set.


* Which leads me to another revelation -- I finally understand the massive popularity of texting.  Given that the audio quality of a $650 dollar smart phone is unbelievably crappy, it's no wonder people prefer to tap out a print message than deal with the frustration of a mutually unintelligible voice conversation.

** Or you can just call me old. There's no denying the truth anymore...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Bad Week for the World

                         Photo by Joel Saget, courtesy of Getty 

I had another post almost ready to go for this week, but given the events of Friday the 13th, it hardly seems appropriate. Besides, the final edit and polish for a Sunday post usually happens on Saturday, and that task just doesn't interest me today -- so it'll go up next Sunday.  

This was one bad week.  First, a terrible bombing in Beiruit -- a city once known as "the Paris of the Middle East" -- then Friday's horrific slaughter in Paris, France.  

A lot of innocent people died for no good reason in the past few days.

I've never been to Paris, and since I'll probably have to work right up to the day of retirement -- and given the financial realities that will rule the post-work era of my life -- I'll likely go to my grave never having strolled down the boulevards in the City of Light. Still, I fell in love with French films back in college, where the work of Louis Malle, Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Francois Truffaut, and Jean Luc Godard (among others) turned my head around to give me a whole new perspective on the power of movies. That was when I realized the Hollywood method of filmmaking isn't the only way, and that we had a lot to learn from the French when it comes to making movies about people navigating their way down the rocky path of life.*

Although nobody makes the kind of lush, earthy, romantic films the French have been producing since the dawn of cinema, Hollywood does manage to get it right every now and than. I don't think I've ever managed to remain stoic through many viewings of  Casablanca -- especially the scene where the band at Rick's Cafe American strikes up a stirring rendition of La Marseilles, the magnificent French national anthem. It gets me every time.

I'm just a juicer in Hollywood, a tiny cog amidst many thousands who keep this enormous entertainment machine running. I have no real knowledge of what's going on in the Middle East beyond the litany of misery in the daily news.  All I know is that it's been a fucked-up mess over there ever since I can remember, starting with the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. The bloody violence has only gotten worse over the ensuing five decades as the fire spread farther and wider -- and is now burning hotter -- than ever seemed possible. I see no easy answers, and no end in sight to the carnage.

Whatever the initial spark, it's evident that nobody involved knows how to put these flames out. Fueled by a combustable blend of religious blood feuds, the iron-fist of repression, and the outside world's appetite for oil, the Middle East has come to resemble one of those humongous underground coal fires that once started, burn for thousands of years.

But this fire is burning up people, not coal.  

I don't have solutions, only questions without answers, but it seems likely things will get worse before they get better, and that the bloody horror of Friday the 13th in Paris may well happen again in other cities.  Living with such recurrent horrors may well be our "new normal," as the modern world struggles to find a way to deal with a nightmarish enemy right out of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie.

Unfortunately, this is no summer blockbuster -- it's all too real.

So weep for Paris, weep for the world, and pray for us all. I'm not much of a believer in Divine Intervention -- or divine anything, really -- but we're gonna need all the help we can get 

* If you've never seen Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heartdo so.  No matter how glowing the reviews, words can't do justice to this movie, which epitomizes the "french touch" in dealing with a highly-charged subject in a manner that would be impossible in Hollywood.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Then and Now

          The more things change, the more they stay the same…

The studio where my current show is being shot is unlike any I've ever seen.*  We have four permanent sets and three additional areas reserved for swing-sets, two of which are on an elevated section of the stage that can only be accessed by equipment carts and man-lifts via a 15 foot long, 4 foot high ramp that must be removed whenever we need to shoot on two of the permanent sets. After the grips move that ramp, anything on wheels stays up there until the ramp is back.

This was completely bizarre to me at first, but after four months of work it feels more or less normal… which just goes to show that you can get used to almost anything after a while.

What I haven't quite been able to get used to is the serious grind this show has become. It  was right from the start, of course, but fool-that-I-am, I assumed the rough patches would would have smoothed out by now, with the crew settling into a good working rhythm. In some ways that happened -- we know what to expect now, and are prepared to deal with it -- but if anything, the sheer idiocy behind so much of what we do each week is getting harder and harder to take. I can't be specific about this (for reasons that should be obvious…), but I can tell you that the subject matter of a show makes a big difference. It shouldn't, but it does -- and working on such a brain-dead children's show is very hard indeed.  The kid actors are great -- they work hard, hit their marks and deliver the lines -- but there's not enough lipstick in the world to pretty up this pig. My last show (which was Hamlet compared to this drivel) had its challenges, but was a lot of fun to work on.  The only fun this show offers comes from the bond forged by the shared misery we all shoulder together, a mutual appreciation for utter absurdity, and the resulting gallows humor that allows us to cope. But as powerful as that bond is, it only goes so far -- and  with five episodes left in this season, it'll be all I can do to belly-crawl through the finale just before Christmas.  

And right now I don't even want to think about the possibility of us being asked back for another season…  

We're all feeling it, as evidenced by the reaction of one of the grips when I asked him how it was going the other day. Leveling a dead-eyed stare at me, he pointed the index finger of his right hand at his head, then cocked his thumb and said: "Click, click, click…"  

It's that bad.

So now I'm praying that one more season of something deceit (please, Gods of Hollywood, not another fucking kid's show…) will materialize from the ether early next year.  I'd really like to close out my industry career with at least a few shreds of dignity.  

But that might not happen, in which case I'll do what I have to do, and then -- when the time comes -- exit stage left at a brisk pace with no regrets or second thoughts about calling a wrap on my own Hollywood adventure.  

One way I deal with the frustrations of this show is to carve out a couple of minutes every day to take a good look at some of the many wonderful photos of old Hollywood hanging in the staircases, hallways, and bathrooms of the studio -- which serve as reminders that we on this crew are part of the long continuum of the film and television industry here in Hollywood. All those photos are good, each for a different reason, but one of my favorites leads off this post. I don't know who took it or who anybody in this photo might be -- not the actress or director, and certainly not the various technicians, who were among the nameless multitude of human cogs that kept the industry machine running back then.

Kind of like me, nowadays -- which is why I feel a certain kinship with them.

I like the way this photo captures all sides of the on-set equation; the actress smiling for the camera, the focused but studied indifference of the first assistant, the operator hidden behind that enormous blimped camera, and the intensity of the director issuing orders while standing atop a ladder.**

Those we've all seen before… but look at the right side of the frame, where down on the stage floor below are eight or nine technicians -- grips, juicers, prop men, and/or set decs, I imagine -- doing then what we still do now during a long day of filming: waiting for the wheel of production to turn so we can resume our work. In a very real way, I am those guys and they are me -- except the men in that photo are probably all dead by now, and although this show is doing its best to kill me, it hasn't succeeded yet.

The photo isn't labeled, so I don't know when it was taken or the name of the film being shot.  My guess sometime in the late 30's or early 40's -- but other than that absurdly humongous camera, things really aren't that much different on set nowadays. Cables and paper still litter the stage floor while the crew stands or sits, quietly fighting the endless boredom and fatigue while waiting, waiting, and waiting for the cry of "Cut!"  

The struggle to maintain one's focus and keep a good attitude on set over the course of a long day remains eternal, forming a through-line of continuity from the earliest days of the industry right up to today. The only real difference is the lack modern technology -- there were no walkie-talkies and cell phones back then, and although we've come to depend on such digital baubles, I'm not sure they've actually improved things on set. In Hollywood and elsewhere, change usually comes as a zero-sum equation, with whatever is gained coming at the cost of a loss somewhere else.

Looking at this photo, I can't help but wonder what the scene on set will be like forty or fifty years from now, when I'll be long dead and gone, just like the people in this photo.  

I'll never know -- that's for me to wonder, and you (the young ones, anyway) to find out.

Meanwhile, we soldier on, week by bloody week, marching towards Christmas...

* It's also in danger of being torn down sometime next year. The private equity company that owns the property plans to cash in on the construction boom that's currently turning much of Hollywood upside-down.  If and when that happens, we'll lose yet another link to our past.

**  You can bet OSHA and the Motion Picture Safety Passport people would not be pleased by that nowadays...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 29

Terminology -- a few more loose ends
                   Reminder note above the Best Boy's desk

(For reasons I don't quite understand, this post went up on the blog for a couple of hours, along with JFTHOI #28 -- undoubtedly due to an error on my part. Since it was then a work in progress -- a first draft, really -- I pulled it down to finish the damned thing before putting it up for real.)

The subject of industry terminology keeps popping up on my radar, the most recent sighting  being a book called Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde, which should prove useful for industry newbies befuddled by the on-set vernacular of Hollywood. Mind you, I haven't read the entire book, nor am I likely to -- after nearly four decades in the biz, I'm familiar with the lingo below-the-line -- but flipping through the preview pages on Amazon revealed a reasonably thorough (if rather glib) approach to defining the terms I've learned on set over the years, including a few I hadn't heard.*  The book was originally published in 2005, but it appears that Dave Knox updated the current edition. 

I have some quibbles with his definitions, though. Knox claims that a "blonde" is the same thing as a "mighty" -- and although the two lamps employ the same globe and are often used for the same purpose on set, that's where the similarities end.**  Early in my career, more than one DP yelled at me for bringing a blonde when he'd asked for a mighty, so it seems to me that if you're writing a book defining industry terminology, you'd better make sure your definitions are precise.    

Knox wanders into deeper water with an astonishingly lame definition of "auteur theory": 

"French film critics in the 1950s and 1960s, centered on the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, started studying a directors entire body of work and drawing conclusions on the person based on their findings. For instance, Spielberg... likes aliens but is afraid of sharks... something like that."

Wow. I suppose that's meant to be humorous, but it falls flatter than stale tortilla. Humor only works if it's actually funny -- and for that "definition" to have any shot at being funny, the reader would have to know something about auteur theory in the first place… which Dave Knox clearly does not. That makes this passage a lazy effort unworthy of a book meant to serve as a guide through the labyrinth of industry jargon. The saving grace here is that "auteur theory" has no real meaning beyond the over-caffeinated world of film school and the grim academic dungeon of serious film criticism -- and has nothing whatsoever to do with working on set -- so I guess it's a case of no harm, no foul. 

Still, Knox would have done better -- and produced a more useful book -- by sticking to what he actually knows, and failing that, should have done more thorough research before committing his work to a finished book. Google really isn't that hard to find.

From what I saw of the Amazon preview, his book offers a breezy, informative read for anybody new to the film and television industry, or who's thinking about making a career below-the-line. Learning the language of the industry is all part of becoming a pro, and if Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde is an imperfect guide, it's a lot better than nothing for the newbie desperate to find his/her footing in the biz.

For what it's worth, here's the official blurb:

"Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a gaffer and a grip? Or what makes the best boy so great? In Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde,* Dave Knox, a top camera operator and longtime veteran of the film industry, gives you the inside story on the lingo and slang heard on the set. This is an A-to-Z guide to making a movie: the equipment, the crew, and the sometimes hilarious terminology—everything you need to know to sound like a seasoned pro.”

That last line overstates the case. Although knowing the jargon is a good first step, we've all met newbies who could talk the talk but not walk the walk -- and they weren't fooling anybody. Sounding "like a seasoned pro" won't mean anything unless and until you know what the equipment is and how it should be used.  Only then will you be taken seriously on set.

I don't mean to be harsh on Dave Knox or Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde, which looks like a useful book for any industry newbie or wannabe. Just remember to take it with a grain of salt, and not as the final-word gospel truth.

* Every region -- from Hollywood to New York and the Southeast nexus of New Orleans, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida -- has it's own local variations on industry vernacular. 

** A Blonde is a rather flimsy open-face 2000 watt lamp made by Ianero in Italy, while a "Mighty" refers to the Mole Richardson Mighty Mole, a similar, but much sturdier lamp. Not even a blind person could mistake one for the other.