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, July 26, 2015

Stage 16

                             The humble swivel-snap

Note: This is another in an occasional series about my days working with grips and as a grip early in my Hollywooden career -- before I saw the light (but wasn't smart enough to notice all that godawfully heavy cable) and turned to juicing.  If you missed the previous posts and want to catch up, start here.

Stage 16 at Warner Brothers was cavernous. A full sixty-five feet from the stage floor to the grid above, it was by far the biggest sound stage I'd ever seen.*  Sixty-five feet doesn’t sound like much when you’re on the ground -- walking at a brisk pace, most people can cover that distance in a dozen seconds -- but once you make the long climb up high, that stage floor looks to be a mile down... and that’s from the safe haven of the catwalks. Imagine how high it feels when you're standing out there on the perms -- a grid of six-inch wooden beams laid out in four foot squares -- your eyes constantly racking focus from the tips of your work boots to the stage floor below. 
As a raw permit, I had no intention of going up high on Stage 16, but when things began dropping from up there -- big, sharp double-head 16-penny nails that hit the stage floor with a percussive crack -- I reconsidered. It wasn't clear if the grips up there were just fucking with us (harrassing permits was considered great sport) or if they really were that clumsy -- but either way, I had no desire to get hit in the head by one of those steel missiles, so I volunteered to go up high. There, I figured to learn something watching how the real grips went about their job.   
The very last thing I expected was to climb over the catwalk rail and walk out on one of those narrow wooden beams, then spend the next eight hours pulling steel hangars up from the floor... but that’s what happened. I didn't really want to, but at a certain point it was made clear to me that there would be no watching from the catwalks -- going up high as a grip meant working out on the perms. The only alternative was to chicken-out and make the long, humiliating trip back down all those stairs to the stage floor, and I just couldn't do that.

So I took a deep breath and went over the rail, and soon was fifteen feet from the safety of the catwalk holding nothing but a seventy-five foot hand-line with a swivel-snap tied to one end, the toes and heels of my size 12 work boots hanging over the edge of that wooden beam by three inches front and back. Not only did I have to keep my balance at all costs -- there were no safety harnesses or fall protection devices for grips to wear out on the perms in those days -- but I had to get the work done. To do that, I'd have to suck it up and keep my cool.

That was easier said than done, because I was scared shitless. Those first few heart-pounding minutes out there felt like an eternity.

Hangers are steel frames formed in a block "U" shape, at right-angles on either side of the bottom and open at the top.  They're designed to be hung from the perms with chains -- one attached to the top of each vertical piece -- in pairs eight feet apart.  Once all the hangers have been hung and adjusted, the green beds are hoisted up with a "mule" and carefully set in place, one end of each bed slipping into fittings on the hangers. The green beds are then nailed together, wooden railings installed, and high-braces nailed into place to connect each row of beds to the perms or catwalks up high. By the time the bracing is complete, the result is a safe, stable walkway above the perimeter of the set walls, where lamps and flags can be set -- and where a boom operator from the sound department can work when necessary once filming begins.
(A good picture would be worth the proverbial thousand words here, but since green beds aren't used much anymore, such pictures are hard to come by. The best I can do is direct you to this post, with photos of fully assembled green beds  hung above sets for a show I rigged a few years back.)

Pulling up and adjusting the hangers is the first step in that process. Working in pairs out on the perms, we'd each drop our hand lines to the floor crew below, who had already laid out and measured the chains, then fastened a "perm hook" (a steel bracket designed to fit over the top of the beams) to the end of each chain. They'd then secure both chains with double head 8 penny nails slipped through the hole on the lower end of the hook, bending the nail slightly so it couldn't come out -- a simple but effective safety procedure to prevent the chain from slipping off the perm hook while being hauled up. Once everything was secure, the ground crew would  attach each swivel-snap to a perm hook, and give the up-high boys a yell.  

                                  Perm Hooks

Now it was time to learn the fine art of pulling hangers.  

A hanger with chains isn't particularly heavy, but must be hauled up steadily and evenly on both sides to keep the hanger from spinning and tangling the chains. Once the hooks were set onto the perms, the floor crew used a "story pole" -- usually a pair of long one-by-threes marked at the exact height the green beds were supposed to hang -- to measure each side of the hanger.  No matter how carefully the chains had been measured on the floor, one or both sides were usually a little bit off, requiring adjustment. The man with the story pole would call out how much higher or lower each side of the hanger had to go.  If the chain needed to go up just a small amount, the man up high could simply pull the perm hook up (with the swivel-snap and rope still attached), then spin it once or twice before resetting it on the perm. But sometimes the chain would have to go up or down by a full link or two -- and that was trickier. The swivel-snap had to be released from the perm hook, then attached to the chain just below the correct link, at which point the safety nail could be pulled from the perm hook to allow the chain to be lifted free and re-set on the proper link. Once that was done, the safety-nail would go back into the perm hook to prevent it from coming loose.  If we were lucky, the first time would be the charm, but if not, the process would be repeated until each side of the hanger was at the proper height.

All this was done while bending over on that six inch beam, trying not to fall or drop the rope while following instructions from the story-pole man on the floor:  "Take it up two links on the right, one link on the left," he'd yell, then check again. "Give me one twist on the right." **

Only when each hanger was perfect could we move on down the line another ten feet to drop our lines and pull up the next one.

And so it went, hanger after hanger, all day long. This was a serious gut-check for me, and  although I never felt truly comfortable out there on the perms, the process got easier with each successive hanger. Still, I was utterly exhausted by the end of that eight hour day,  drained not so much from the physical exertion of the work as by the white-knuckle tension of controlling my fear while getting the job done.

It was the longest eight hours of my life, but a day that taught me a lot about what it takes to be a grip -- and is one reason I have such great respect for the grips of that era.

By the time we climbed down to wash up and go home, all the hangers on that run were in place -- and it was a beautiful sight: a perfectly straight row hanging high above the stage floor. I felt a real sense of pride at having been part of getting such a challenging job done right. A producer, director, writer, actor, or any above-the-liner might walk on stage, look up, and think nothing of it… but having learned exactly what it took to make that happen, I now viewed that row of hangers with very different eyes.

The eyes of a budding grip.

*  At nearly 32,000 square feet, Stage 16 is the biggest stage at Warner Brothers, but Stage 27 at Sony Studios is taller -- 80 feet to the perms.  I never got a chance to work on that stage, and at this point, probably never will.

**  The simple magic of the swivel-snap -- which secures the drop line to the perm hook and/or chain -- makes this possible.  As the name implies, once it's been snapped on, it can swivel as many times as needed, allowing a grip working up high to spin the perm hook and chains without twisting or knotting his drop line.

Next: Landing the beds.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Laugh Track

                                    It ain't so, folks…

Multi-camera shows have been the subject of posts at the Anonymous Production Assistant and Totally Unauthorized recently, as well as the comic above, by Dan Piraro. As it happens, I'd been  (slowly) working on this post ever since that comic appeared in the Sunday LA Times a few weeks ago, so now seems a good time to weigh in.

I've been reading Bizarro comics in the daily paper for many years now, because I appreciate Dan Piraro's playful, off-kilter sense of humor. More often than not, his cartoons absolutely nail it -- whatever the issue might be -- dead on target.

But not always, and given that this cartoon perpetuates popular myths concerning sit-coms in general and multi-camera shows in particular, I'd like to set the record straight. Over the last 18 years, I've worked on dozens of multi-camera shows of the sort depicted above, and never once has there been an "applause" sign to prompt an audience, much less any signage urging them to "whistle, laugh, giggle, sniff, gasp, hoot, sigh" or whatever that last one might be.

Such signs may well have been used back in the early days of television, but I've never seen one  in Hollywood.*

And since I'm in a rather pedantic, stick-up-my-ass, "say WHAT?" mood today... multi-camera shows use four cameras, not two, and the warm-up man works up in the audience grandstand, not on the stage floor.

But hey, it's just a cartoon, where such details don't really matter.

What does matter (and  the main thing this cartoon gets wrong), is the contention that "nothing the performers do will even remotely resemble comedy or entertainment of any kind."

That's simply not true, and tells me that for all his comedic artistic talent, Dan Piraro has never had a chance to sit among the audience watching the filming of a multi-camera show -- because with very few exceptions, those people have a blast.

This doesn't mean the completed episode as it appears on television will be funny, mind you. A lot can change between shoot night and the broadcast, and sometimes the comedy suffers in the editing process. Some sit-coms are really good, more are average, and many  are mediocre on their best days. Truth be told, although I work exclusively on multi-camera shows these days (and usually enjoy watching the live show unfold), I rarely watch them at home.  

It's just a matter of personal taste. When it comes to television, I'm more of a Breaking Bad, The Wire, and True Detectives kind of guy. For comedy, I prefer shows with some real bite -- Louie CK, Archer, or even The Comedians, the recently-concluded Billy Crystal/Josh Gadd effort on FX.

One thing I've never liked about watching multi-camera shows on the Toob is the ever-present laugh track, which has always seemed a bit insulting to me. Before I began working in the multi-cam world, I felt that if a show had to tell me when to laugh, then something was seriously wrong. "Canned laughter" seemed like a cheap trick designed to make me think I was enjoying a show simply because of the laughter bellowing from the speaker of my TV. 

I don't know if other viewers feel the same way about laugh tracks -- vaguely insulted -- but it wasn't until I actually began working on multi-cam shows (after twenty years of single-camera life -- features, commercials, and music videos) that I understood why that laugh track exists in the first place. Although multi-camera shows had been around long before Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball came up with I Love Lucy, their show was the first multi-cam to shoot in front of a live audience.**  Short of looping every episode after filming (which would have been prohibitively expensive), there was no way to cut the audience laughter from the sound track -- so they made it part of the show. Eventually, someone came up with technology to "sweeten" laugh tracks for broadcast, and the practice was accepted by the viewing audience at home. Single camera comedies used canned laughter on their soundtracks for a while, but that faded away as the shows got better and the audience at home learned to laugh without any prompting. The more recent advent of "hybrid" multi-cam shows -- which are not shot in front of a live audience --  brought back the canned laughter. It's a bad idea, in my opinion, but the industry doesn't care what any of us who do the heavy lifting think. Until my current show (a ball-busting hybrid), every sit-com I've worked (including pilots) was shot before an audience of anywhere from two hundred to three hundred people. 

That audience was right there, with an up-close and personal view of the actors performing the show -- and they had a great time.

The truth is, any civilian who wants to have fun (and a lot of laughs) while observing the making of a television program would do well to attend the taping of a multi-camera show. Those who have never been on a working set may find this hard to believe, but even if they could manage to get on the set of their favorite single-camera comedy or drama -- no matter how good the show -- the experience wouldn't be nearly as entertaining as sitting with the audience of a multi-camera show.

Watching a single-camera show being made is a lot like watching paint dry -- especially for civilians, who expect to see shoot-outs, huge explosions, or maybe a high-speed car chase on set… but they won't.  What they will see is a large crew of people standing around and apparently doing nothing.  

It's the reality of our working lives on set.

One reason the audience of a multi-cam show has such a good time is the warm-up man, whose job is to keep the audience entertained during the inevitable lulls in the action on set.  Since a sit-com script runs only twenty-two minutes long, but takes three to four hours to shoot, there's a lot of down-time between takes and scenes. A good warm-up guy is worth his weight in gold, and the good ones are really good. Guys like Ron Pearson bring the archaic term "warm-up man" to a whole new level. I've seen Ron many times on several different shows, and never get tired of the kinetic dynamism of his very funny act. He's just amazing -- the best in the business, IMHO -- and if you're ever lucky enough to attend a taping that he's working, you're in for a real treat.***  

I'll never like the laugh track, but it exists for a reason, which I can accept.  And since I rarely watch sit-coms of any sort at home, the idiocy of being told exactly when to laugh doesn't bother me at all...

* I do like the arrow in the back of the cameraman on the right, though.  I've seen a few directors fire those arrows, and -- metaphors or not -- they had an impact…

** I Love Lucy was the monster hit of its time, a huge show.

*** Or one of his gigs on the corporate circuit, where Ron does quite well. Here he is appearing on Craig Fergusson's show a few years back.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Pay Attention

                   Unless you're reading this blog, of course…*

(Note: this post is not aimed at industry veterans -- who already know what it takes to succeed on set -- but at wannabes and newbies who still have much to learn.) 

A lot goes into making a competent, reliable worker on set, be it a juicer, grip, set decorator, camera assistant, or anyone else on the first unit shooting crew. You have to be on time, know your craft, understand when to speak up and when to keep your mouth shut, when walk and when to run -- and above all, you really have to pay attention.
The first is a no-brainer. The call time is when work starts (or as one AD I worked with put it "Call time is the word of God"), so set your alarm clock to kick you out of bed with enough time to get dressed, wade through traffic, find parking, and walk to the location or studio set.  Arriving fifteen or twenty minutes early allows you to grab some coffee and a bite at crafty before strapping on your tools, at which point you’ll be ready to work at the call time.  
If you’re one of those people who always strolls in right at call time, don’t be surprised by the looks you get from the rest of your crew, who will already be working while you're shoveling food onto a plate at crafty’s steam tables.  
We all have those mornings when nothing seems to go right:  you worked late the night before on another show, then spilled your wake-up coffee, dribbled Cheerios and milk down your shirt, dropped your car keys into a gutter filled with stinking, fetid water, then hit every goddamned red light on the way to work and barely managed to get there at call. Shit happens in life, and when the unfortunate/unpredictable/unavoidable occurs on the way to work -- a flat tire or accident ahead that ties traffic into a Gordian Knot -- that’s what cell phones are for. Call the Best Boy or department head and let him/her know what’s happening.  Everybody winds up running late on one point or another, but there's no excuse for not letting your crew know that you'll be delayed.  
On my last show, our dimmer op faced a horrendous daily drive on the tortuous 405 freeway here in LA -- the only viable route to the studio from his Westside apartment -- and one morning called to report that he was trapped in gridlocked traffic and would be very late... so via phone, he talked me through booting up the Ion board to bring up the set lights so the director, actors, and camera crew could get on with the block-and-shoot day.  
He handled the situation exactly right -- no harm, no foul, no hard feelings -- and when he arrived half an hour later, nobody but the DP and lighting crew the wiser.  
But the guy who wanders in a few minutes late on a regular basis without bothering to phone ahead will not be regarded so kindly, and sooner or later will be replaced on the crew by somebody who understands what the call time really means.  
Learning any craft takes time and experience. Some people are naturals at the job -- they pick it up quickly and rise through the ranks fast -- but everybody learns at their own pace.  Although rigging or working on a shooting set is neither brain science nor rocket surgery,  there's a lot to learn at first. That’s one reason it’s good to work for many different crews to learn various ways of dealing with the problems that crop up on every set. Good ideas come from everywhere, so keep your eyes open and take note of the more elegant solutions you come across. The knowledge you acquire there will serve you well in the future.
For newbies, it’s best to follow the ancient advice concerning children, who were "to be seen, but not heard.”  Should you have a question regarding the task at hand or see a safety hazard others missed, by all means speak up, but keep the idle chatter to a minimum until break times. Your thoughts and opinions may indeed be precious pearls of wisdom -- gifts to a world that will one day kneel before you in the deepest and most profound gratitude -- but a busy set is not the delivery platform to showcase your intellectual brilliance.
In other words, shut the fuck up and concentrate on your job.  
When to walk?  99% of the time. When to run?  The standard response is "never," but that's not realistic -- and besides, every rule was made to broken. You just have to know when the right time to break that rule.  Every now and then an emergency or other situation requiring urgent action will arise, and then we have to move fast.  Still, the adage that “haste makes waste” always applies on a crowded set, where moving too fast can end up injuring you or someone else. Stay calm and do what needs to be done with a minimum of noise and elbow-flapping. Believe me, that will be noticed and help build your reputation.
The last item -- paying attention -- is really the most important, because it underlines all the others.  Pay attention to your alarm clock and you won’t be late.  Pay attention to your craft and you’ll learn faster.  Pay attention to what matters on set -- the ongoing work -- and you’ll always know what’s happening. Not only will you be more useful to your department head and crew, you're less likely to be caught by surprise, and thus won't end up rushing to fix whatever problems arise. 
The genesis of this post came from reading a comment AJ (who runs things over at The Hills are Burning blog) left in response to a recent post at Dollygrippery, and the ensuing discussion on the breakdown of set protocol in the digital era. To me, it all boils down to a lack of on-set situational awareness, which happens when people aren't paying attention -- and one culprit here is the ubiquitous cell phone.  It's always bothered me to see the entire grip and electric crew staring into their cell phones on set, not paying attention to what’s going until the Key Grip or Gaffer shouts for something. Suddenly, up come the heads and down go the cell phones... and only then does the crew get off their asses to respond. Had they been paying attention to what was happening on set, they might have anticipated what would be needed and been ready to solve the problem without their department head having to yell. 
To that issue, AJ made a very good point.
"I think part of it may be that the "new kids" see the seasoned vets sitting at staging on their phones and think it's okay. What they don't realize is the guy who's been doing this for twenty years can stare at his phone because he's been doing this long enough to know when something's needed and is keeping an ear out. Meanwhile, the kid just sees the guy on his phone and so he does the same thing."

"There's been more than a few times when a co-worker is showing me a video or article on his phone when the Gaffer calls for something, and I'm the only one who hears it. You still have to be able to pay attention to set if you're going to dick around and sadly, not everyone realizes that."
She's absolutely right -- which brings us to the subject of “set ears.” On my second feature (working as a PA helping out grip and electric), I marveled at the ability of the grips and juicers to know what was going on at all times. I’d be engrossed in a conversation with one of them when suddenly he’d abruptly turn and head off to add a scrim to a lamp or get a flag, C stand and sandbag -- and this was back when walkie talkies were only used by those up in condor lifts, not the ground crew.  
How did they know? What did they hear that I couldn’t?
They were veterans who had good “set ears,” that’s how.  By keeping one ear tuned to the voices of the DP, Key Grip, and Gaffer, they were always ready to respond  to whatever situation arose. In time, I developed set ears too, which are important even now that the entire crew wears walkie-talkies. Often the director or DP will point something out to the Key Grip or Gaffer requiring action on the part of the crew -- and if you're paying attention, you'll notice and be ready to respond before the voice of your boss comes over the radio.  
I know all too well how boring the long hours on set can be,** where we’re usually waiting for another department to do their work before we can proceed with ours -- and having recently joined the herd of smart-phone owners, I understand the lure of that little glowing screen. But when I’m at work, my phone stays in my work bag or tool belt pouch until there's serious lull in the action or a break is called. Those with families or day-players with complicated work and/or social lives can’t necessarily afford to do that, but there’s a difference between exchanging quick text messages and staring into the screen playing Angry Birds on set. There's a right time for everything, so use discretion before pulling out your phone -- and when you do, always keep one ear tuned to what's happening on set.

Paying attention isn't easy, especially when you're new to the biz and don't really understand what's going on, but learning to avoid distractions and remain focused on the job when nothing much seems to be happening is an essential skill for every industry professional. With time and experience, the rhythms of life on set will gradually become second nature, as will the not-so-simple act of paying attention.

It's a gradual process that you won't even be aware of until one day you notice a young newbie on the crew who's totally engrossed in watching a Utube video on his cell phone or blathering away on set, not paying attention. Only then will you understand how much you've learned and how far you've come -- and that you're now a pro.

And that he isn't.  Not yet.

*  Just kidding… but Blogger's stats indicate that many of you read this blog on cell phones rather than computers or tablets, and now that I've joined Generation Selfie, I notice that the standard view on a cell phone does not display the industry blog links (or any of the other links) on the right side of the page -- to see those, you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom and click "view web version." Only then will all those links appear, giving you instant access to many terrific industry blogs, podcasts, and other interesting websites. 

**  Hey, there's a reason this blog is titled "Blood, Sweat, and Tedium"...

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 24

Not a UFO, nor a giant flying yamaka, but a balloon light being rigged at dusk.

I don't recommend film industry gear or services very often, maybe because I've been working mostly on sound stages the past six years, and thus have been using much of the same equipment I first encountered more than three decades ago. When you don't work with  new technology, there isn't much reason to say anything about it one way or the other.*

My new show is so different from the last one that I'm not sure you can call both "multi-camera sit-coms" -- although that's what they are -- and this one is much harder on the lighting crew than anything I've done in a very long time.  At three weeks in, we'd already done one full day filming exteriors under a hot sun along with two night exteriors, one of which blew right through midnight into Fraterday. With the busy pace and full schedule causing the fatigue to accumulate week by week, our entire crew has begun to feel like we're working on a feature film.

This isn't quite what I had in mind when I wished for a show to come my way... but you take what you can get in this town, and right now this is it -- and it is what it is.  Still, it's always good to scrape the rust off old skills and learn some of the new tricks that have turned up since I last did exterior location shoots.

Balloon lights certainly aren't "new" -- they've been around for quite a while now -- but the technology has evolved over the years to the point where they've become an essential part of the equipment package for many night shoots.  For our first night exterior work on this show, we used the calm, capable, and supremely competent services of Brian Glassman and 1 Stop Lighting and Grip, who specialize in all aspects of balloon lighting and post-shoot helium recovery, which lowers the cost to the production company.

Brian was just great -- an industry veteran who knows what's what, but hasn't sunk into the  dismal swamp of despair that turns some of us into bitter old cranks.  He knows what he's doing and brings a great attitude to the job.  Once his balloon was up and lit, he helped our lighting crew place, move, power up, and adjust the tungsten lighting package until the AD finally called wrap. He didn't have to do any of that -- he could have concentrated on hoovering up all the snacks at craft service -- but he's not that kind of guy.  Whenever we needed an extra hand, he was there, and when the balloon had to be moved or adjusted, he got it done fast, with a minimum of fuss.

I was impressed, which is why I have no problem recommending Brian and 1 Stop to anybody who needs balloon lights for a night shoot -- and you'll notice a permanent link to 1 Stop now under the list of Industry Resources over on the right side of this page.**


Next up, here are 13 signs that you work in the film and television industry.  The bit about over-and-under only applies to sound and video people these days -- juicers wrap all cable clockwise, all the time -- but the other twelve hit the nail on the head.


Last, here's another pithy meditation on the industry and modern culture from veteran writer/producer Rob Long at Martini Shot.  It's a good one.

Those are your picks of the week -- so check 'em out...

* I have discussed LED lights a few times, but that technology is still climbing the steep part of the developmental curve.  With things changing so fast, there isn't much point in recommending or dissing the current offerings.

** Those of you reading this on a cell phone will have to click "Web Version" at the bottom of your screen to see all those links.