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, August 30, 2015

The Hammer of Lazarus

Another Week of Mondays...
 Ten hours sleep over two long work days, staring at a Sunday of toil...
                                (photo by Steve Morales)

Mondays are never fun, especially a Monday coming off a hiatus week. After nine straight days of freedom (five off-days bookended by two full weekends), my brain has managed to re-inflate after being steamrolled flatter than a stale tortilla by three straight weeks of hard labor. Once again I can appreciate good music, resume reading books, and chip away at the ever-growing logjam on my DVR. Outside I hear the birds sing, and watch big puffy thunderheads build up over the rugged San Gabriel mountains east of LA. I see the sun rise a little bit lower in the sky every morning as summer moves towards fall, the light shifting on that big white Hollywood sign high in the parched hills over the city that’s been my home-away-from-home these past four decades.  

By the end of nine days off, I've resumed human form and -- like Lazarus -- come back to life.

Then it’s Monday again, back at work, where I feel the weariness in my bones -- a dark, enervating fatigue that sinks deep into the marrow. Age and time have everything to do with this, as the sheer weight of all these years working on stage and location sets makes it feel as though I'm walking the surface of Jupiter.*  

In our Gold Room, I was greeted by the unwelcome news that after the usual five days of toil required to light, shoot, and wrap another episode, we’d get Saturday off, then report to location ten miles from the stage at 8 a.m. Sunday for a full 12 hour day filming pick-up scenes owed to a past episode. And that meant Saturday wouldn’t be a “day off” at all, but rather a day swallowed by the mundane-but-essential chores that allow an Industry Work-Bot to keep going. I’d sleep in, then stagger from bed to pay the week's accumulation of bills, hit the post office, laundromat, supermarket, and Trader Joes... and by the time that was all done, Saturday would be over, and the alarm clock set to go off at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning. 

This depressed the hell out of me -- more than it should have, really. It was only then that I realized just what a slog this job has been, and how thin the line is between being ready to go and feeling too goddamned tired all the time. The show is hard enough as it is -- after three days of lighting, we work long and hard over the Thursday and Friday shoot -- and now the company was taking one of our precious weekend days away. 

On a job like this, the crew needs a full two day weekend to recover. Not only would we lose that recovery time, but we'd be right back on stage the very next day -- Monday -- still feeling the effects of the previous week and that long, hot Sunday.

Thus my attitudinal flame-out. We were in for another week of Mondays.

I’ve been here before, of course -- enduring a week so chaotically fucked-up that every day feels like Monday -- and will doubtless be there again before calling a wrap on this Hollywooden career.  Multi-camera shows aren't supposed to routinely mete out such floggings each and every week. 

Seriously, who needs this shit?

Me, I guess, because I'm still here -- and as hard as the show is, I like to finish what I start. More to the point, I like this lighting crew, and there's a reasonable chance this show might be my last as a member of the core crew. The New Year may well bring nothing but an occasional day-playing gig.

More to the point, the shortage of multi-camera shows currently in production for the new Fall TV season means I’m lucky to be working at all. Most Industry Work-Bots in town are toiling much longer hours on single-camera shows that supplanted all those sit-coms. Once again, it seems a glut of crappy multi-cam shows has choked the Golden Goose. After years of assuming the viewing audience would swallow just about any crap the networks and cable outfits barfed up on the small screen, an entirely predictable audience backlash has come.

Last time this happened was when the ogre of “Reality TV” reared it’s cheap, ugly, exploitational head and drove multi-camera comedies into the hills, where the survivors scraped out a subsistence living by candle-light while dreaming of better times to come. the good times did return, but after a few reasonably fat years, multi-camera shows are once again sliding down the dark side of the "boom and bust" wave, and although they'll doubtless come back into industry fashion again, that future boom will not include me. By the time the multi-camera buffalo return, I'll be long gone from Hollywood.

Such is life.

Although the work-on-Sunday clusterfuck will mean a slightly fatter paycheck (an additional work day plus the sixth consecutive day the following Friday to be paid at a higher rate), much of the increase will be absorbed by the higher rates of tax withholding trigged by any increase in gross weekly pay. By the time we see our checks, the increase won't amount to much more than couple of hundred dollars -- which is better than a sharp stick in the eye, but I'm not sure the minimal monetary gain is worth the considerable pain inflicted by working eleven out of twelve days.  

So why do it? Our Best Boy was upfront in asking if anybody wanted to bail on Sunday and be replaced -- no hard feelings, no harm, no foul.  All I had to do was raise my hand to reclaim my precious weekend...but to quote an old song from my long-gone youth, "I didn't, and I wonder why."

For several reasons, I suppose, starting with my own sense of professional pride. I don't want to be the old guy on the crew who can't hack it when the going gets tough. Indeed, I need to prove to them and to myself that I can hack it -- that despite the gray hair and lines on my face, I still carry my weight every day on set.

There are other factors to consider. My opportunity to work with crews like this will disappear soon enough, and the bond forged in working and suffering together as a crew is unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere in life. Maybe my need to hang in there is just another iteration of the old cliche about “hitting yourself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good to stop,” or because deep down inside, I think it's better to work a little too hard for a little too long -- and thus be good and ready to bail when the time comes -- than to back off the throttle and coast across the finish line.

Whether working Sunday was the right call or not, the day came and went, and of course we sweated and suffered all day long. Before we knew it, here was Monday again, back on stage to begin this week's work -- which promised to be yet another week of Mondays.  

Only this time, there'll be six of them...

* Yes, I realize Jupiter is a gas giant with no real surface as we know it, but I'm exercising a little poetic license here to speak in figurative terms about the perceived increase of gravity...

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 26

                                       It's heeeeere...

With September just a week away, the 2015 edition of the The West Marin Review is now out and available to be purchased by mail or in a few bookstores.  

And why should this interest you?

No reason at all, truth be told, since it's exceedingly unlikely that any of you have ever heard of this small literary and arts review, which publishes a new edition every year. The 2015 edition marks a milestone of sorts for me, though, because up 'til now, my efforts to achieve publication (other than in the pages of this home-brewed blog) have met with what could charitably described as "limited success." But I can now carve one more notch on the writing belt, because one of my older posts made the cut to appear among the fifteen prose pieces showcased in this year's WMR. Although there's no money involved, I'll have the satisfaction of seeing at least one of my efforts in a print venue other than a newspaper or blog.  

That (and five bucks) will buy me a cup of Starbuck's finest.

There are two ways you can read the piece. The most obvious is to buy a copy of the WMR, which will the allow you enjoy the rest of the writers featured there, or you can simply follow this link to the original post, which many of you have already read.  It was massaged slightly to satisfy the editors of the review, but there's no substantial difference.

Either way, I'll get paid exactly the same -- nothing.

The choice is yours. 


I’m not a big fan of lists -- ten best or whatever -- and have little patience for those who insist on comparing different eras, whether in the realm of sports, television, movies, or whatever. No matter the subject, things were different way back then because it was a different time. Would Joe Louis have beaten Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier, or George Foreman in their prime?  Could Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio hit so well against modern pitching? Would Jim Brown run right through NFL defensive teams nowadays?  
Is “Modern Family” a better show now than “All in the Family” was way back when? 
Who knows -- and more to the point, who cares?  Such arguments are the hot air of idle speculation, and if there’s a place for that kind of blather on the bar-room stool, living room couch, or workplace lunchroom, it's just an exercise in mental cud-chewing along the lines of  pondering how many angels really can dance on the head of a pin.

That said, Tim Goodman -- the Hollywood Reporter’s Chief Television Critic  -- is not wrong in describing the current era of television as “the Platinum Age,” arguing that no previous “Golden Age” of TV can hold a candle to what’s on the small screen nowadays.  He’s not subtle about it, either.
“There hasn’t been a more competitive, cut-throat, quality-saturated era in television ever. Period.”
And even though I’d rather watch an old episode of “The Honeymooners” than any modern laugh-track sit-com, I think Goodman is right -- but this is not really good news for the broadcast, cable, or New Media networks. Although the current glut of quality works for the viewing audience (up to a point, anyway), the more good shows are on the Toob, the harder it is for your show to stand out from the herd and attract the viewers desired by advertisers. 

None of the corporate entities who put up the funds required to produce television do so with the aim of making an artistic success that fails to find an audience. They're in it to make money, and that means drawing enough viewers to keep the advertisers paying up -- or in the case of HBO, enough paying subscribers to keep the mother ship in the black.
Goodman’s dissection of the difficulties this glut has created for the industry was part of his reporting on the recently concluded Television Critics Association meetings here in LA, where (thanks to John Landgraf, CEO of FX) the concept of “Peak TV” was introduced to the modern media lexicon. For me, the salient quote in that piece is this:
The Platinum Age of Television. What a clusterfuck of possibilities within an impossible business environment that can't sustain it.”
It’s a good one, and well worth reading.  
There you’ll find links to the rest of Goodman's TCA reports, including this one lecturing the broadcast networks on their many sins over recent years, and this one offering his trademark cranky-pants advice, including the following nugget:
“Spare me the next "star vehicle" you make. They're almost always tar pits of ego.”
Well put, sir, and nicely played.
I’ve been reading Goodman ever since his television criticism appeared in the pages of my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. Indeed, it was Goodman who commissioned me to write a piece for the Chron ten years ago (for actual money!), which ultimately led to the birth of this blog back in 2007.  Goodman's columns are smart, funny, and take no prisoners.  He's a terrific writer, always worth reading.


If you ask any writer, director, producer (or recently-graduated film student) in Hollywood why he-or-she chose to enter the film and television industry, odds are they'll give the same basic answer: 

"I just want to tell good stories."

Maybe… but I think the truth is most of them just didn't want to spend their lives working a mind-numbing, soul-crushing  nine-to-five job -- which I totally understand, since neither did I.  Like me, they thought working in the film and television industry would be fun -- and  sometimes it is.  

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that their primary goal really is to tell good stories -- so where does that come from?  I think it comes from seeing, reading, and hearing good stories. After you've experienced the power of a good story, it's hard not to want to try telling stories of your own.  

That's one reason I created the "Essential Listening" list over on the right side of the page, where you'll find links to websites and podcasts that feature compelling human stories of all kinds.*  The latest addition to that list is Snap Judgement, a radio show with a full slate of listen-when-you-want podcasts on its website.  Last week's episode -- titled Crash and Burn -- is one hell of a listen.  

It's a great show.  Check it out -- I think you'll be glad you did...

And in case you hadn't noticed, this JFTHOI post went up on a Sunday, not a Wednesday.  The demands of my current show are such that I can't put out something worth reading more than once a week (if that…), so for the time being, those mid-week posts have gone the way of the Dodo Bird, Passenger Pigeon, and rarest of the rare, the Honest Politician -- all, sadly, extinct.

To quote a much better writer than I'll ever be, "So it goes…"

* Anybody reading this on a smart phone should immediately scroll to the very bottom of the page and click the "Web View" link, which will reveal all seventy-some links -- from "Industry Blogs" to "Industry Resources" and others, including the seventeen websites listed under "Essential Listening."

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Terminology -- Words Matter

                         Behold: the Five Pecker Billygoat…

Every industry creates a unique subculture complete with arcane terminology incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the internal contours of that world. The film industry is no exception -- indeed, it might lead the pack with terminology that remains as baffling to brand-newbies as it is to outsiders. This was nicely illustrated by a one-minute spot  the LA Times ran in movie theaters way back in the last century, that soon become known by its tag line: The Best Boy needs a spinner.

A liberal dose of poetic license rendered that spot more than a bit campy, but the essential truth is right on. Phrases like "get me a four-banger on a turtle and a zip on a beaver-board" are uttered every day in Hollywood and beyond.* As with every language, there are regional dialects as well -- which any industry work-bot will realize as he-or-she travels between the East Coast, Southeast, and Los Angeles for work.

Learning the terminology of the industry is a crucial step on the road to becoming a professional below-the-line, and a steep hill to climb for the young man or woman just entering the industry. That's why -- when asked -- my recommendation for newbies with no solid industry contacts is to work at a rental house for a year or two, where they'll become familiar with lighting and grip equipment. They won't learn how to use that equipment until they actually get on set, of course, but it's a lot easier to teach a newbie juicer who already knows the difference between a suicide pin and a spider box.

Indeed, learning the proper terminology might be half the battle.

I haven't found a truly good on-line Film Industry-to-English glossary yet.  The New York Film Academy has one that seems designed for brand new film students who don't know anything  at all -- which is to say it's very basic.  The glossary put out by AMC isn't much of an improvement, nor is the one from the IMDB.  This one isn't great either.   

Maybe you'll just have to starting working in the biz if you really want to learn what's what below-the-line.

God knows where the slang term came from to describe that 100 amp Bates-to-five-plug-edison adaptor pictured above, and although rather crude, it fits. Still, it's right on the borderline of what might be considered acceptable language in our modern and oh-so-fractious age.  
Once upon a time, set lighting was strictly a man's world, with terminology that evolved in a rude and crude testosterone-soaked environment. When I first started juicing, the command to make a tiny adjustment to a lamp usually went like this: "Tilt up and pan right an RCH" -- short for "red cunt hair" -- which was presumably extremely thin compared to pubic hair of a darker hue. Having no first-hand knowledge of that, I took it on faith as part of the biz.

Needless to say, nobody uses "RCH" on set anymore…

I had no problem abandoning that one, but when word filtered down through the industry grapevine a few years back that we should no longer utter the word "dikes" at work, the wave of politically correct speechifying washed a bit too far up on the hard-packed sand of reality. From now on we were to use the term "diagonal wire cutters" in order to avoid the remote possibility of offending anyone.

                       A pair of dikes is not a pair of dykes…

This was just too absurdly ridiculous to stick. Everyone I know still uses the term "dikes" on set simply because it has nothing to do with that other slang term.**

Still, the New Reality causes me to think before I speak, especially when working with new people. That's not a big issue on my current show. Although we hadn't worked together for a couple of years, I knew everyone on the electric crew -- all except the Best Boy, who was a holdover from the first season. I didn't know her at all, so was very careful about what I said and how I said it.

Maybe too careful, but you never know… and besides, she turned out to be a very quiet person. I've worked for several female Best Boys over the years, and all were outgoing, competent, gregarious women with a good sense of humor, quick to laugh and crack a joke. Not this one -- she didn't smile at all, nor did she engage in small talk. She was all business, all the time, and very thorough.  

This was understandable, given the circumstances. The Gaffer had wanted to use his regular Best Boy going into this job, but the DP insisted on keeping the Best Boy he'd worked with and come to trust during the previous season. Rather than start off on the wrong foot with a new DP, the Gaffer asked his regular BB to step down and work as a juicer. 

This could have been a very awkward situation. Our new Best Boy was all too aware of that, and seemed determined to keep her professional guard up at all times. That too was understandable, because some crews might then find ways to make her look bad, thus providing their Gaffer with an excuse to fire her -- but what she didn't know is that we're not that kind of crew. For one thing, most of us are too old for such bullshit, and the one youngster among us has a highly developed sense of fair play.  Besides, getting the work done right is hard enough without generating needless strife and drama within the crew.  So long as this Best Boy did her job well, we'd be good.

But she didn't know that yet, and thus kept her cards very close to the vest.

A week and a half in, I was wondering if she'd ever loosen up. I'd seen her smile once or twice in conversation with the gaffer and other juicers, but whenever we talked, it was strictly business. My efforts to to bridge the gap kept missing the mark, sparking no reaction, and I began to wonder if I should just surrender to the apparent reality of the situation. Sometimes it is what it is, and there's no point in beating your head against a brick wall trying to change things.  

Then, of course, there was the male/female dynamic to complicate things -- not in terms of anything irregular (I'm older than Methuselah and she's a young, happily married mother of two), but simply because I'd never before had a problem breaking the ice with a female member on any crew.  But here, every time I tried to connect on a level beyond the immediate task at hand, I failed. I like to have a good time with the entire crew at work -- to work hard but have fun doing it, because otherwise it's just work. I hated to think that some chilly wall of formality would remain between me and this Best Boy for the next six months. The rest of the crew seemed to be getting along with her, so why not me?

If the ice didn't melt, this was going to be one long, brutal slog all the way to Christmas.

Then a day came a couple of weeks in when I needed a hundred amp Bates to-five-Edison plug adaptor, but couldn't find one. Our stage is large and split on two levels, but very crowded with sets and equipment stored in every nook and cranny. I spent half my time walking around looking for whatever it was I needed to complete every task -- and right now I needed one of those big Bates to Edison adaptors.

Then the Best Boy appeared, so I asked her where I could find a Billy Goat.

She gave me a long, deliberate look.

"You mean a Five Pecker Billygoat?" 

 I nodded.

"Then why didn't you say so?"

"I'm not sure I know you well enough to use that term," I shrugged.

"Well you do," she said… and finally, there was the smile I'd been waiting for, like the sun coming out on a cold and cloudy day.

"Okay," I grinned, "that's good."

She pointed me toward the Five Pecker Billy Goats, and I got on with the job.

That's the moment she won me over, and from then on everything has been fine on our crew -- other than getting the crap beat out of us shooting long days of exteriors under the hot LA sun, and equally long Friday nights that inevitably morph into Fraturday -- but at least we all understand and take care of each other now. We're working as a team rather than a group of individuals, which makes each work day proceed much more smoothly.  And equally important, we're all laughing together now and having fun making the best of a difficult situation. It turns out this Best Boy is very funny indeed, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor.  

What a relief.

Looks like we might make it to Christmas after all.

* A "four-banger"refers to a small 4000 watt soft light, a "turtle" is a very low light stand that puts the lamp almost on the ground while retaining the ability to tilt and pan, and the "zip" in question is a small 2000 watt soft light, which (for the purposes of that LA Times spot) is mounted on a "beaver-board" -- a baby-plate nailed or screwed into a pancake.  A "baby plate" is a flat metal rectangle with a cylinder welded to it at a 90 degree angle, used to attach small lamps to set walls -- or in this case, the thinnest of the apple box family, a half-inch thick slab of wood known as a pancake.  Once the baby plate has been attached, it is then known as a "beaver board."  

But I've never -- ever -- heard of a coffee stirrer referred to as "a spinner"...  

**  For a short but interesting back-and-forth on that issue, check out this Q&A.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Just for the Hell of it -- Episode 25

                       The worst night backing ever…

Not only was my now dead-and-gone-forever show more fun to work on than my current tie-me-to-the-whipping-post death-march of a show (I prefer adult humor to the drivel cranked out by the writers of kid's shows), but it was much easier on the lighting crew --  two reasons I miss that show a lot.  But the reality of working in Hollywood is that shows come and go, and Melissa and Joey now lives on in the Hollywood Heaven known as syndication, which means the cast and myriad producers (including writer/producers) will be getting checks in the mail from that show for a long sweet time to come.  

But it's all just a memory for the rest of us, gone with the Hollywood wind.

One thing I don't miss is the scenic backing pictured above -- one of the worst examples of a night backing I've ever seen. I couldn't get a good angle and didn't have a wide enough lens to fully display the poor quality of this backing, but some things are obvious. The lighting is terrible, as if the photographer set up some BFLs with no thought at all, then made no effort to control or shape the light. He (or she) doubtless used strobes rather than big movie lights, but the effect is the same -- a light-blasted "night" on a suburban street that looks like nothing any human has ever seen in real life.  

A suburban neighborhood at night is generally dark, lit by pools of light from street lamps (cold or warm light, depending on the type of globes in those lamps), with a warm glow coming from the windows and porch lights of the houses.  Maybe you'd see a few warm or multi-color accent lights shining up under the trees, but not much else.  The house and trees in this abomination look to be lit by the nocturnal airburst of a nuclear bomb twenty miles away. It's just a god-awful backing.  In this small photo, you can't see the orange stingers running across the lawn, presumably to power the strobes -- but they were clearly visible to us on set.  The photographer couldn't be bothered to use black stingers, which would have been nearly invisible, or fix it in post by photoshopping the orange cords out of the picture.

Clearly a bargain-basement job.

I'm sure the production company got a good deal on it, but I wonder how much all the phony trees cost -- trees they had to rent (or buy) that we used every week to hide the glaring flaws in that lousy backing -- along with the additional rental of lamps we then used to illuminate those trees.  Sometimes a "bargain" isn't such a good deal after all.

BTW -- that's a grip on the left and a stand-in on the right, both good people who had the misfortune of being in the way when I snapped this pic...


Now a question for the more digitally-conversant among you. This blog has experienced a surge of traffic over the past six weeks, very little of which emmenates from the usual sources. A Sunday post typically gets anywhere from a hundred to two hundred hits over a two or three week period, but the recent tally has topped a thousand per post, with one garnering fifteen hundred hits (and climbing) thus far. In the past, that kind of increase only happened when Reddit or The Anonymous Production Assistant shared a link to the blog, but neither has happened lately. Instead, "referring URLs" readout displays more than nine hundred hits per week from Google UK.  But as you can see, clicking that link took me to a dead end. 

I'm happy to (apparently) have more readers stopping by, but don't know what to make of it.  Given that all these referring hits are apparently coming from the U.K., the "traffic sources" statistics from Great Britain should be way up -- but they're not.  I'm getting the usual twenty to thirty hits per week from England.  I'd assume that some kind of spam-bots have targeted the blog, but I'm not seeing any spam.

So my question to the more digitally-literate, internet-savvy readers is this: what's going on here? This old analog dog is scratching his head…


A couple of years ago, a filmmaker named David Sandberg finally finished and launched on Utube a trailer for a movie he wanted to make called Kung Fury -- this after spending two years making that trailer at home, with very little help. The story of how it led to a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and an invitation to Cannes is a good one -- a tribute to what can happen when someone is bold (or crazy) enough to follow a dream.*  

The story and podcast come to you from the good people at Studio 360 (a great weekly radio show), and includes Sandbergs's giddily over-the-top trailer, so check it out.

I think you'll be glad you did.

* Of course, he could just have easily ended up broke, having wasted two years of his life… but this time the magic worked.