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, June 21, 2015

The Moment of Truth

The New Show, Week Two
                           Day One of filming.  This is NOT your average sit-com

“Dude, what’d you over the weekend, rebuild your house?”
It was Monday, back on stage after a grueling rig week that left me more-or-less comatose by Friday, and one of the new (to me) grips was apparently trying to say “hello.”
“Say what?”
“You look beat already, and it’s only Monday.”
I stared long and hard into his unlined, youthful countenance -- the face of a man still happily skipping though his 40’s -- then shook my head.
“At this point, just crawling out of bed in the morning is enough to wear me out,” I replied, trying to put a sardonic spin on an otherwise grim reality. 
“You close to retirement?”
“Another year or so.”
“I wouldn’t wait too long,” he cautioned.  “You don’t wanta die before you start collectin’ social security.”
“Gee, thanks for the advice, punk,” I thought -- but refrained from saying. I don’t know these grips well enough to start barking at them just yet.  All in good time.
Unable to come up with a polite reply, I just shrugged and moved on.  
Still, he had a point, because feeling tired is one thing, but looking tired is something else altogether. Here in Hollywood -- in front of and behind the cameras -- perception is accepted as reality, and I can't afford to be seen as the broken-down old juicer limping along behind the rest of the crew. It hasn’t come to that yet (not even on this job, where -- with one notable exception -- I’ve managed to shoulder my share of the load), but after two punishing weeks, I am starting to wonder if the load will ever lighten up on this show.
“Be careful what you wish for,” a wise man once said, and there’s a lot of truth in those six words.  I wanted a show and I got one, but after two brutal weeks I’m beginning to question the wisdom of having that generic wish granted in this particular way. 
Which is to say, this show has been a real bitch thus far.  
Two Fridays in a row now, I’ve staggered home having had my ass thoroughly kicked and handed to me on the way out the stage door.  At the end of each week, I could not have worked one more day with any real effectiveness or enthusiasm whatsoever.  I was one whipped puppy.
The first week was all rigging, all the time, much of it up high in the narrow labyrinthine catwalks of soundstage that’s nearly eighty years old and showing every one of those hard years. The depression-era dinner theater was converted to a television stage back in the 80's, but it’s unclear if any serious upgrades were made up high.  From the looks of it, my guess is “no.”
And on that first day up high, I encountered a moment of truth -- one I knew was coming someday, but hadn’t yet experienced.  Faced with five 100-foot coils of 4/0 (the really heavy stuff, with very thick insulation), I took a deep breath, bent my knees, then grasped a coil with both hands and attempted the classic clean-and-jerk maneuver to heft it to my shoulder.
But I couldn’t do it.  I got that monster up to my chest, but no further... so I duck-walked it across those god-awful catwalks to where it had to go.  My fellow juicer -- a considerably younger guy -- took note of this, and without a word proceeded to bring the other four coils over.  I let him do it without any argument.
That was a first, and not the kind I like. Not one little bit.
The rest, I could do.  Pulling each cable around the corner, then running it out straight and snapping it tight on that over-crowded catwalk wasn’t a problem -- and once we had all five cables neatly lined up and ready to feed over the side down to the stage floor (there to run outside and thus double the capacity of the existing exterior power), the really hard part of that particular task was done.  
But that moment was humbling for me. I can still do everything a juicer is responsible for on set, but will have to leave carrying 4/0 on my shoulder to the younger juicers from now on. Otherwise I might end up rolling out of Hollywood in a wheelchair when the time comes.
It's abundantly clear that this show is not your average multi-camera sit-com.  We won’t film in front of an audience at all, but will instead be shooting lots of day and night exteriors in addition to our stage work. Indeed, our first day of filming was on a football field from dawn 'til dusk, wrangling  two 20-by-20 condor-mounted fly-swatters, two 12 by 12 ultra-bounce frames, two18Ks, two 6K HMI pars, and all the requisite support gear. Granted, a package this size wouldn't impress the crew of any episodic (not even a second-unit crew), but it's six years since I last worked a location job using this kind of equipment.  
With four juicers to handle the load, it wasn't a problem, but spending an entire day under the harsh Southern California sun (an unseasonably warm 87 degrees) made it something of an ordeal for this aging juicer. By the end of that day, I was hurting.*
Fortunately, the next day's filming was in the air-conditioned comfort on stage -- quite a relief, that, even if I was still dog-tired.  Running up ten-step ladders and climbing atop set walls to adjust lamps is still right in my wheelhouse, and it felt good to be back on familiar ground.
But with a ton of location work coming our way, this job will either beat me into some kind of shape, or pound me right into the ground -- and at the moment, I have no idea which way that will go.
We shall see...

* Yeah, I know -- all y'all twenty-something studs filming day exteriors in Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida will sneer at this, and for good reason. I've done features down South in the summertime, and know exactly how rough that is.  But it's all relative, and once you've become accustomed to working almost exclusively on stage, suddenly being thrust out into the real world comes as a rude awakening.


Jerry Wolfe said...

Thanks for bringing back the memories (of the aches) Michael. About 20 years ago I was asked to help a key grip friend and fill in for someone on his crew who had dropped out on him at the last moment, a night for night and rain for rain exterior shoot. I was working those days mostly as a still photographer and had nothing on the books for the week, so I showed up and was put to work for what turned out to be a long night of dragging 4.0 cable through the mud. I went home well thrashed, but the pain didn't really set in until I woke up 10 hours later and was unable to stand up, that was the beginning and the end of my gripping days. I did help out when later in life I was working as a DP, I made it a point to never speculate on where lights were placed and made sure that I got it right the first time and didn't spend the day nuancing the set up.
Be well,

JD said...

You only have to lift a case of beer the wrong way once and then age becomes irrelevant. I hope you were wearing a back belt.

Michael Taylor said...

Jerry --

Too bad there aren't more DPs like that… 4/0 is a nightmare -- and dragging it through the mud all night would be enough to discourage anybody from a life in this biz. Thanks for tuning in…

JD --

No back belt. From what I've heard, they don't do much good -- but having said that, I've never tried one. I'm not sure I've ever seen a juicer wear one whether rigging or working on a shooting set. I rely on proper lifting technique (although that's not always possible), and the 30 minutes of stomach/back exercises I do every morning to keep my back in working shape. And I'm very careful with 4/0...

JD said...

If worn properly they enforce correct lifting technique. My back surgeon swears it.

A.J. said...

I've said it before and I'm sure you're very well aware of it anyway, but no one should be lifting a coil of 100' 4/0 by themselves.

Now if only I can get everyone (or even anyone) in Hollywood to listen to me...

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

You're right, of course, but when I first started in set lighting back in the Pleistocene, juicers were expected to be able to handle at least one coil of 4/0 by ourselves. Some of the really big guys would carry two -- one on each shoulder. There were no cable carts back then, either, just doorway or desert dollies, which are a poor substitute. And that's one reason we all have bad backs now...