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 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.


JD said...

Splitting hair, a zip can be a 750, 1k, 2k or 4k, which you call a turtle. No?? Wouldn't it be confusing to ask for just a "zip".
I received a stern lecture from the "above the line" folk for saying Ubangi instead of dolly or camera offset arm.

Michael Taylor said...

JD --

You're not hair-splitting, just being more precise. My working assumption with this blog is that industry pros (such as yourself) know all this, so I don't go into excessive detail when discussing equipment, but use broad brush strokes for newbies and non-industry readers. I've seen Zips in four sizes -- 400, 750/iK, 2K and 4K -- but a "turtle" is a very low stand (there are rolling and non-rolling turtle stands) that allows a baby or junior-pin lamp to be placed almost on the floor with full tilt/pan control. We don't use them very often, but sometimes a turtle is the perfect tool for the job.

I was translating the language used in that LA Times spot, not using correct industry-speak. When I call for a zip, it's always for the exact lamp we need, not a generic call. And although the terms 750 Zip and 1 Zip are used interchangably , I can't recall the last time I saw one that didn't have an FCM inside.

I'd forgotten about the whole "Ubangi" thing, though That load of hyper-sensitive, politically correct bullshit came down way before the "dikes" vs. "diagonal wire cutters" edict.

Sigh… pour me another drink, will you...

Ed (sloweddi) said...


JD said...

Got the turtle base stand and 4K zip thing mixed up.

"If I ever hear you use the term Ubangi again on my set, you're fired!", I've never said it again.

Michael Taylor said...

JD --

That's ridiculous. Beyond ridiculous, really. I'm not interested in a name here, but what job title did the asshole who made that threat hold?

JD said...

Either producer or director, can't remember. It was all very serious. I was summoned by the Gaffer who brought be over to the video village, saying that there a report of a serious problem with my behavior and "x" needs to speak to me immediately.

Michael Taylor said...

"A serious problem with your behavior?" Wow… that fool has his head so far up his ass he can't see daylight anymore...

JD said...

I'm okay, I just don't refer to it (dolly offset arm) by its slang term anymore and discourage others from doing so as well. Losing my spot on the crew because someone has a stick up their ass isn't worth it.

Michael Taylor said...

I hear you -- and in your shoes, would have done the same thing. By the time "Ubangi" was officially deemed unacceptable to the stick-up-their-assers, I'd moved from gripping to juicing full time, so it was never an issue for me on set. That kind of hyper-sensitive BS just pisses me off, that's all...

Jesse M. said...

Question - under what circumstances is this 5 pecker billygoat ideal? Especially over a lunchbox?

Michael Taylor said...

Jessie --

It's not ideal -- I'd rather use a lunchbox 90% of the time, but the billy goat is cheaper, much less bulky, and easier to rig on pipes. We use them to power bounce-rows for front fill on sets, generally using 1K pars. I'll dig up a photo of such a rig and post it when I can, but right now I'm in an Internet-deprived area...