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.


Ed (sloweddi) said...

Yes, the good old days of no harness and a very long drop. I have seen those separate, and I have seen a senior worker hit a bulls eye with one of those at 30 feet. Our biggest value on my old crew (hanging very large speakers) was a fella who was a climber for fun (go figure)and showed up with full harness (for the whole crew) and the proper rope. They were just going to loop a piece around our waist (broken ribs waiting to happen).

Michael Taylor said...

Ed --

Sounds like quite an adventure you had. It's all different now, of course, and although certainly much safer, I'm glad I had a chance to do it the hard way back in the day...