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 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"...


Anonymous said...

As usual, you've nailed it with "Set Ears". As a sound mixer I have to listen to the usual ton of blather on set in addition to the crap coming in on my headphones from several wireless and sometimes witless actors during the final moments before we roll, this means I have to tune myself to the AD's voice to pick him / her out of the crowd.
Not having your advantage of working on a series or feature, in my world of a continuous flow of 1 to 3 or 4 day shorts where the AD voice may change daily, it becomes a challenge to not get caught by surprise by an out of no where "roll sound" because of the methodology of someone that doesn't use some variation of what used to be the normal preamble of "Sound ready? Camera ready? Let's Roll sound please".
I've had many boom ops who would start walking to the set long before they hear "last looks", these are the ones that developed Set Ears, while others need a push to get going over their headphones and will be replaced as quickly as possible.
So it goes...

Michael Taylor said...

Bosko --

True, that. Thanks for tuning in...

A.J. said...

Woah, you got a cell phone??

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

Indeed, I finally left my Luddite hair shirt (the digital version) on the floor and joined the Zombie herd mesmerized by that little glowing screen. A very old dog trying to learn a new trick...