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, October 25, 2015

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 28

Loose Ends

                   Green beds with high braces

(Note: this week's JFTHOI ties up a couple of loose ends with items that hit my radar screen too late to make the previous posts)

While perusing the internal traffic statistics of this space a while back -- something I do when the blank screen paralyzes my brain -- I came across one reader's search titled "how to make a high-brace?"

As pointed out in a recent post describing my brief life as a grip back in the day, high-braces are used to stabilize green beds hung above sets on a sound stage. Absent those braces, the interconnected web of green beds would sway like a ship at sea everytime a juicer or grip climbed around up there trying to do some work.

From what I've seen, not much has changed since the early 80's when I was making and hanging high-braces at Warner Brothers. Back then, the ground crew would butt two 20 foot two-by-fours together, then lay another, shorter two-by-four (called a "scab") down to overlap  both 20 footers -- then they'd nail all three pieces together with 16 penny double-head nails. Two quarter-inch "belly-lines" were then tied to the center of the completed high brace.  A grip up high in the perms and another on the green beds dropped their hand lines, which the floor crew tied to opposite ends of the brace. 

A forty-year veteran of the grip life was kind enough to refresh my memory in explaining what happened next: 

"The high man pulled the entire high brace up into the perms by himself. Once it was up and against a perm, he would then signal the low man to pull his end of the brace to the green bed. If they both pulled the brace at the same time, the brace would get sqirrelly and make it unsafe for the man up in the perms." *

When both ends of the high-brace were securely nailed in place, the high man (or other grips up high) would toss out hand lines to pull up and tie off both of the belly-lines nice and tight -- one on either side -- where they kept the brace from bending under stress. After all the braces were in place and belly-lines tied off, the network of green beds over the set was  stable and safe, ready for use as a platform for lighting, grip, special effects, and sound.

Remember -- back then there were no safety harnesses or fall protection for grips. They worked out on the perms with no safety equipment whatsoever, where one serious mistake could result in a horrendous thirty to forty foot fall. During the time I worked as a studio rigging grip, full union scale was less than nine dollars an hour -- not a lot for risking your life every day.

But that was a very different time.

* Thanks, Kirk!  We used nails back in the day, and although it's possible grips nowadays use screw-guns instead, I doubt it.  Drywall screws are very brittle and break relatively easily under stress.  Under the same load, a double-head 16 nail might bend, but it won't break.


                                   Peak Television?

In other news, a brouhaha (love that word) seems to have erupted among critics and observers of our culture's favorite visual medium as to whether or not we're currently enjoying a Second Golden Age of Television.  The case for "Peak Television" -- a concept floated by FX head John Landgraf at the recent Television Critics Association gathering here in LA, then repeated on KCRW's The Business recently -- was seconded by Tim Goodman, chief TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter. Goodman went even further, declaring that we're in a Platinum Age of television, and expressing his view that the current output of quality on the Toob has created expectations that can't possibly be sustained.  
LA Time's critic Mary McNamara then weighed in: 
"To be honest, much of the anxiety you feel is, I fear, being generated by those of us who write about television. That's right, this time, you can blame the media because we are most certainly freaking out. Too much TV? Hell, yes."

That makes sense when you consider that -- unlike those who make and/or simply watch television -- a TV critic's job is to watch as much television as possible, then write about it.  A critic has to see something of everything, then come up with a cogent, snappy review -- and that's not easy. It was a lot easier twenty years ago, when the kickoff of the new Fall season was the busy time for critics, as dozens of new and returning shows hit the airwaves all at once -- but after the September/October rush was over, a critic's life would settle back into a much more relaxed pace. In today's year-round television environment, new shows arriving from somewhere (Netflix, Amazon, several cable networks, and soon Apple) are pounding on the door every month, each demanding its fifteen minutes in the media's critical spotlight.  Unfortunately for TV critics, some of those shows are actually worth watching, and thus deserving of thoughtful, nuanced reviews.

Which means the job of a TV critic these days has come to resemble the labors of Sisyphus.
Enter Gavin Polone, one-time agent turned producer and occasional director, who threw down on all those critics with his argument that "Television's golden age is one big hallucination" -- that there really aren't more good shows now, but rather the same level of quality programming floating atop a vastly larger swamp of mediocre shows.* 
"Designating which shows are exceptional is subjective. But it is evident that the total number of outstanding shows on the air at one time hasn't increased in decades, while the quantity of mediocre and bad television has exploded. The reason for this is that the number of talented people who write, direct, produce and act on TV also has remained about the same. It's the nature of excellence: By definition, only very few from any category of endeavor are exceptional today, the best talent working in television is spread out more thinly over a larger number of shows, bringing down the overall average level of goodness."
Polone blames the huge increase in shows that began with the proliferation of cable networks, then accelerated with the entrance of Netflix, Amazon, and other media entities previously known for hardware and distribution of television rather than production. He maintains that a shakeout at some point is inevitable, after which the flood of good television will slow markedly.   
Polone isn't altogether wrong, but the examples he uses to compare eras seriously undercut his argument. I find it hard to believe that he -- or anyone, really -- could possibly consider "The Mod SquadThe WaltonsThe Brady BunchThe Partridge Family, and Room 222" to be comparable to "The Sopranos," "The Wire," or "Breaking Bad." Still, his conclusion that a shakeout is coming makes a certain sense. 
"The result will be fewer but better television series, more room on your DVR and less time wasted waiting to see if that show your friend recommended will get any better after episode four. Because with TV, often getting less will give you more."
On that much, at least, there seems to be agreement -- the current overloaded center cannot hold on either the production or consumption end of the deal, which means change is gonna come. Veteran writer/producer Rob Long added his voice to the cacophony, arguing that there's no reason to worry about any of this because it'll all work out over time.  
Hardly a profound thought, that, but he's probably right. Just as the balance between predators and prey holds over the long run in the natural world -- with wild swings involving maximum carnage from one year to the next  -- the current glut of good television isn't an actual problem. Hollywood is in California, a state that came to national prominence with the Gold Rush in the 19th Century, then enjoyed the post-World War Two boom of the aerospace industry, the Tech Bubble of the late 20th Century, and the current New Millennium digital gold rush, and thus has always ridden the wild horse of a boom-and-bust economy. It's the nature of the beast. The current boom in television will be followed by some kind of bust as surely as night follows day -- the only question is when and how what form that bust will take.  
For the rest of us -- those who do the heavy lifting required to actually make all these shows -- this argument is a bit like discussing how many angels really can dance on the head of a pin. Like tiny fleas riding the back of the industry elephant, we just have to take what comes, helpless to steer the great beast. All we can do is keep our eyes open, hope for the best, and be ready to scramble come what may.   
In other words, it's Hollywood -- same as it ever was -- Peak TV or not Peak TV.

* Polone often comes across as a prickly, highly-opinionated guy, and thus easy to dismiss, but he won me over a few years back with his condemnation of the brutally long hours so many crews have to work on set.  I don't know that he's actually bothered to do anything about it -- and a producer often has that power -- but at least he was willing to publicly acknowledge the problem. 


k4kafka said...

With respect to the "brutally long hours" on production days. As you no doubt are aware, the Cinematographers Guild has campaigned for shorter,more humane work days for many years. Problem is, certain other departments are not on board with less overtime in their weekly paycheck$.

Michael Taylor said...

Kafka --

I wouldn't have believed you before hearing that exact argument from a veteran Key Grip not long ago, who claimed he needs the overtime from those 85+ hour weeks to meet his family expenses. Granted, it ain't cheap to live and die in LA anymore, but that attitude forces HIS values and HIS money-management problems on everybody else in the business. To be fair, though, the camera department -- up and down the line -- earns a much higher hourly wage than grip, electric, set dec, props, or anybody else below the line (with the possible exception of the sound department), which means those other crew members are working the same hours for a considerably smaller paycheck. For some of them, O.T. is the only way to keep their financial heads above water.

I didn't mind working long hours when I was younger, but now I absolutely hate it. Enough is enough…