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, November 29, 2015

The End of an Era

                               So long, Mole-Richardson...

The great post-recession building boom continues here in LA, which means you can't turn a corner these days without running into another massive construction project. The "Manhattanization" of Los Angeles proceeds at a break-neck pace -- I've never seen anything like it since I first rode into LA back in 1977 -- and as a result, real estate on which to build is in very high demand. In turn, that has spurred another loss for Hollywood, as Mole-Richardson -- which revolutionized motion picture lighting back in the late 1920's, then became an iconic presence supplying lighting and power distribution equipment to the industry -- has now abandoned the town it helped make so famous.

On the way to work recently, I stopped in at Mole's Studio Depot expendable store to pick up a new pair of work gloves, and saw the old familiar presence across the street at 937 North Sycamore -- the Mole Mother Ship -- now just an empty shell, another memory of Hollywood's past.

As I was about to resume my journey towards the studio, I stopped dead at the sight of this -- an old lightweight carbon arc about to be loaded on a stake-bed truck bound for the new Mole Richardson facility.

I talked to the two young men doing the moving, who had never seen an arc in action, of course  -- to them, this ancient lamp was the equivalent of an old steam-powered locomotive -- and they paused long enough for me to take a few pictures.

This might sound silly, but the sight of that old carbon arc and the shuttered Mole-Richardson building put a lump in throat. Mole is a user-friendly company that always treated me with respect from my early days as a greener-than-green newbie juicer on through my Best Boy and Gaffer years. Time and again, they went the extra mile to help me solve power and lighting problems on set.

While prepping a ten-day location shoot heading into the mountains of Colorado for a car commercial back in the 80's, I was concerned about the two carbon arcs we were taking along. As the Best Boy, it was on me to make sure those lamps kept working through the entire shoot, and back then, lightweight arcs could be troublesome creatures. I don't know why -- maybe the lightweight head didn't disperse heat as well as the bigger heavy head arcs -- but the worm gear mechanism inside tended to get sticky after ten or twelve hours of use, which is why we always brought one spare element per lamp along on every job. No matter how much we lubed the gear mechanism before and during the day, we'd usually end up having to install the spare elements before wrap was called. During one nightmare job (scheduled to run twelve hours, but went twenty-five hours), we were reduced to force-feeding the positive carbon by hand after our last spare element jammed up.

Not a fun day, that.

Although I ordered two spare elements for the Colorado job -- one for each head -- I worried that we'd run into the kind of arc trouble I couldn't fix on a distant location. Being so far from Hollywood, I'd be up Shit Creek without the proverbial paddle.

A week before the job, I went down to Mole-Richardson and found the shop in back where the rental equipment was maintained. Someone pointed me to a stocky man wearing a filthy shop apron and heavy gloves. I explained my concerns, then asked if he might impart some wisdom on how to make sure those two arcs ran smoothly for the entire shoot.

"Just keep 'em clean and lubed," he said. "That oughtta do it."

This was not the response I'd hoped for.  Although I always kept the arcs clean and lubed, they still gave us trouble on almost every shoot. But the man had nothing more to say, so I crossed my fingers and caught the flight to Colorado.

The next nine days days were tough, running 4/0 and wrangling those arcs in the thin air above 7000 feet, filming at multiple locations per day. Still, the scenery was spectacular up in Wolf Creek Pass and all around Silverton, which is one of the things that made working distant locations so much fun -- and what made those nine days a lot more fun was that my two arcs ran smooth and trouble-free the entire time, giving me no problems whatsoever. We never touched either of the spare arc elements.

That was a first.

Maybe it was the altitude, or maybe we just got lucky... but I think that guy in Mole's maintenance shop went through those arcs with extra special care to make sure they'd run properly. He wasn't willing to share any of his trade secrets, but saw to it that our arcs left his shop fully prepared to go the distance.*

Years later, I landed job as a Lighting Director for a shoot filming the then-new intro and logo for PBS.  It was a big deal for me at the time, and my crew worked hard on the pre-light day to make sure things went well. For a back-light, we used one of  Mole's then brand-new 18K HMI lamps, which worked fine all day… until the next morning on the shoot, when it abruptly shut off and refused to re-strike.

The producer-director -- a real asshole, truth be told -- was on my back in an instant, demanding to know what was wrong and when it would be fixed.  

Feeling very much under the gun, I called Mole, and in minutes Mike Parker himself (one of the owners) arrived with one of Mole's HMI technicians. Thirty minutes of work on their part got the light working properly, but just as they were leaving, the production company's camera whiz came over to  me, and  -- in an oh-by-the-way manner -- said that he wanted to shoot at 9 frames a second… something he hadn't bothered to mention during the pre-pro meetings or entire pre-light day.

There were no "flicker-free" HMIs in service back then, which meant the camera could only operate in frame-rates divisible by 12 -- 12 fps, 24, 48, 96, and so on. Otherwise, the dreaded "flicker" could show up in dailies, as if the camera assistant was opening and closing the iris -- which meant there was no way we could use that 18 K.

I caught Mike Parker at the stage door and -- after profuse apologies -- explained the situation and asked him to bring me a carbon arc to replace the 18 K. He got right on it, and  we had that arc up and burning half an hour later. Thanks to his patience and quick work, the shoot went just fine, and I managed to get through another job without looking like a complete idiot.

Mole Richardson saved my ass from a difficult situation then -- and many other times -- because of their work ethic and approach to business… and because their facilities were located right in Hollywood, ten minutes from dozens of sound stages.  But now Mole is way the hell out in East Bumfuck (otherwise known as Pacoima), a long way from Hollywood.

The world has changed a lot since I first rolled into town on the back of the proverbial turnip truck. Then, Mole Richardson was the lighting equipment company in Hollywood, having eclipsed Bardwell McCallister as the go-to supplier of incandescent and carbon arc lamps.  I worked for a gaffer or two who used cheaper foreign lamps, but most of those were crappy lights, poorly designed and awkward to use. With a few notable exceptions, Mole Richardson's lamps have served as the lighting workhorses on sound stages all over Hollywood and beyond.**

Still, change is the only constant in this business, and never so much as nowadays. I'm not sure there's much I'll recognize in Hollywood by the time I pack up and leave.  All I can say is that Mole Richardson's departure from Hollywood truly does mark the end of an era... but the old days are gone for good, rolling on down the river towards the Big Waterfall that marks the journey's end -- and they're taking me with them. 

The roar of those falls, once so distant, grows louder every day.

Next -- (and by "next," I mean at some undetermined point in the future) -- I'll delve deeper into the subject of carbon arcs.

* Of course, this raises an inevitable, uncomfortable, and unanswerable question: why didn't every lightweight arc leave Mole's shop in such tip-top condition? That would have made my life as a Best Boy a lot easier back in those days.

*  I don't like Mole's 200 watt Inky at all. With an awkward, cramped design, changing a B.O. bulb in an Inky can be a serious pain in the ass.  Although the Tweenie is a good lamp, it has problems with corrosion on the posts of the 650 watt FRK globes, which seriously shortens their useful life. Thicker posts and a more robust receptacle might fix this problem, but that would require Mole and all the bulb manufacturers to change their manufacturing process -- and that's just not going to happen.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Pot, meet Kettle...
Nothing blows the illusion of the Old West like a pioneer woman checking her cell phone…

I've been carping about the increasing ubiquity and abuse of cell phones on set ever since the earliest days of this blog. To label my struggle a losing battle would be a massive understatement -- truth is, I've been pissing into the wind of a technological and cultural hurricane all this time.

Which means my shoes are sopping wet at this point.  Time for a new pair.  

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" the saying goes, and having at long last joined Generation Wireless with my own smart phone, I'm forced into the decidedly uncomfortable position of viewing what once seemed like a clear-cut, black-and-white issue from the other side -- because in struggling to cope with the terminal tedium of my current brain-dead, soul-crushing show, I too find myself staring into that little glowing screen as the cameras roll, and roll, and roll.


I get it. The daily routine on set can be very boring, and it's nice to have a small device at hand that's capable of bringing the larger world in -- and as the pot who made such a big deal of calling the cell-phone kettle black for such a long time, it's my turn to eat a little crow while shaking hands with that very same kettle... to mix, mangle, and obliterate my metaphors in the conceptual cuisinart.  

The phone remains in my work bag during our three lighting days each week, which are when the really heavy lifting takes place, but come those two (or sometimes three) grindingly endless shoot days, the phone has a spot in my tool pouch, ready to whisk me off to Google, Facebook, Gmail, or one of my favorite sites, The Electric Typewriter, to help pass the time and ease the drip, drip, drip torture of slow brain death -- or what my gaffer (in a brilliant turn of phrase) refers to as "content poisoning."

And sometimes -- very rarely, and only when strictly necessary -- I'll even make a quick phone call at work. Imagine that.*

Although I see some of the younger juicers and grips losing themselves in on-line games of one sort or another with their phones, the appeal of this eludes me. But  hey, when it comes to dealing with tedium, to each his own. 

Still, I always keep one eye and ear tuned to whatever's happening on set, ready to jam that phone back in my tool pouch and answer the call. An old analog dog might be able to learn a new digital trick or two, but work habits forged over the decades die hard. If you want to call it "old school," fine -- that's not a bad thing in my world.**  However stupefyingly boring the action in front of the cameras can be (and oh Sweet Jesus, does this show put me to the test each and every week…), doing the job right means paying attention.  

And if you can't do that, you shouldn't be on set.


* Which leads me to another revelation -- I finally understand the massive popularity of texting.  Given that the audio quality of a $650 dollar smart phone is unbelievably crappy, it's no wonder people prefer to tap out a print message than deal with the frustration of a mutually unintelligible voice conversation.

** Or you can just call me old. There's no denying the truth anymore...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Bad Week for the World

                         Photo by Joel Saget, courtesy of Getty 

I had another post almost ready to go for this week, but given the events of Friday the 13th, it hardly seems appropriate. Besides, the final edit and polish for a Sunday post usually happens on Saturday, and that task just doesn't interest me today -- so it'll go up next Sunday.  

This was one bad week.  First, a terrible bombing in Beiruit -- a city once known as "the Paris of the Middle East" -- then Friday's horrific slaughter in Paris, France.  

A lot of innocent people died for no good reason in the past few days.

I've never been to Paris, and since I'll probably have to work right up to the day of retirement -- and given the financial realities that will rule the post-work era of my life -- I'll likely go to my grave never having strolled down the boulevards in the City of Light. Still, I fell in love with French films back in college, where the work of Louis Malle, Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Francois Truffaut, and Jean Luc Godard (among others) turned my head around to give me a whole new perspective on the power of movies. That was when I realized the Hollywood method of filmmaking isn't the only way, and that we had a lot to learn from the French when it comes to making movies about people navigating their way down the rocky path of life.*

Although nobody makes the kind of lush, earthy, romantic films the French have been producing since the dawn of cinema, Hollywood does manage to get it right every now and than. I don't think I've ever managed to remain stoic through many viewings of  Casablanca -- especially the scene where the band at Rick's Cafe American strikes up a stirring rendition of La Marseilles, the magnificent French national anthem. It gets me every time.

I'm just a juicer in Hollywood, a tiny cog amidst many thousands who keep this enormous entertainment machine running. I have no real knowledge of what's going on in the Middle East beyond the litany of misery in the daily news.  All I know is that it's been a fucked-up mess over there ever since I can remember, starting with the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. The bloody violence has only gotten worse over the ensuing five decades as the fire spread farther and wider -- and is now burning hotter -- than ever seemed possible. I see no easy answers, and no end in sight to the carnage.

Whatever the initial spark, it's evident that nobody involved knows how to put these flames out. Fueled by a combustable blend of religious blood feuds, the iron-fist of repression, and the outside world's appetite for oil, the Middle East has come to resemble one of those humongous underground coal fires that once started, burn for thousands of years.

But this fire is burning up people, not coal.  

I don't have solutions, only questions without answers, but it seems likely things will get worse before they get better, and that the bloody horror of Friday the 13th in Paris may well happen again in other cities.  Living with such recurrent horrors may well be our "new normal," as the modern world struggles to find a way to deal with a nightmarish enemy right out of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie.

Unfortunately, this is no summer blockbuster -- it's all too real.

So weep for Paris, weep for the world, and pray for us all. I'm not much of a believer in Divine Intervention -- or divine anything, really -- but we're gonna need all the help we can get 

* If you've never seen Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heartdo so.  No matter how glowing the reviews, words can't do justice to this movie, which epitomizes the "french touch" in dealing with a highly-charged subject in a manner that would be impossible in Hollywood.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Then and Now

          The more things change, the more they stay the same…

The studio where my current show is being shot is unlike any I've ever seen.*  We have four permanent sets and three additional areas reserved for swing-sets, two of which are on an elevated section of the stage that can only be accessed by equipment carts and man-lifts via a 15 foot long, 4 foot high ramp that must be removed whenever we need to shoot on two of the permanent sets. After the grips move that ramp, anything on wheels stays up there until the ramp is back.

This was completely bizarre to me at first, but after four months of work it feels more or less normal… which just goes to show that you can get used to almost anything after a while.

What I haven't quite been able to get used to is the serious grind this show has become. It  was right from the start, of course, but fool-that-I-am, I assumed the rough patches would would have smoothed out by now, with the crew settling into a good working rhythm. In some ways that happened -- we know what to expect now, and are prepared to deal with it -- but if anything, the sheer idiocy behind so much of what we do each week is getting harder and harder to take. I can't be specific about this (for reasons that should be obvious…), but I can tell you that the subject matter of a show makes a big difference. It shouldn't, but it does -- and working on such a brain-dead children's show is very hard indeed.  The kid actors are great -- they work hard, hit their marks and deliver the lines -- but there's not enough lipstick in the world to pretty up this pig. My last show (which was Hamlet compared to this drivel) had its challenges, but was a lot of fun to work on.  The only fun this show offers comes from the bond forged by the shared misery we all shoulder together, a mutual appreciation for utter absurdity, and the resulting gallows humor that allows us to cope. But as powerful as that bond is, it only goes so far -- and  with five episodes left in this season, it'll be all I can do to belly-crawl through the finale just before Christmas.  

And right now I don't even want to think about the possibility of us being asked back for another season…  

We're all feeling it, as evidenced by the reaction of one of the grips when I asked him how it was going the other day. Leveling a dead-eyed stare at me, he pointed the index finger of his right hand at his head, then cocked his thumb and said: "Click, click, click…"  

It's that bad.

So now I'm praying that one more season of something deceit (please, Gods of Hollywood, not another fucking kid's show…) will materialize from the ether early next year.  I'd really like to close out my industry career with at least a few shreds of dignity.  

But that might not happen, in which case I'll do what I have to do, and then -- when the time comes -- exit stage left at a brisk pace with no regrets or second thoughts about calling a wrap on my own Hollywood adventure.  

One way I deal with the frustrations of this show is to carve out a couple of minutes every day to take a good look at some of the many wonderful photos of old Hollywood hanging in the staircases, hallways, and bathrooms of the studio -- which serve as reminders that we on this crew are part of the long continuum of the film and television industry here in Hollywood. All those photos are good, each for a different reason, but one of my favorites leads off this post. I don't know who took it or who anybody in this photo might be -- not the actress or director, and certainly not the various technicians, who were among the nameless multitude of human cogs that kept the industry machine running back then.

Kind of like me, nowadays -- which is why I feel a certain kinship with them.

I like the way this photo captures all sides of the on-set equation; the actress smiling for the camera, the focused but studied indifference of the first assistant, the operator hidden behind that enormous blimped camera, and the intensity of the director issuing orders while standing atop a ladder.**

Those we've all seen before… but look at the right side of the frame, where down on the stage floor below are eight or nine technicians -- grips, juicers, prop men, and/or set decs, I imagine -- doing then what we still do now during a long day of filming: waiting for the wheel of production to turn so we can resume our work. In a very real way, I am those guys and they are me -- except the men in that photo are probably all dead by now, and although this show is doing its best to kill me, it hasn't succeeded yet.

The photo isn't labeled, so I don't know when it was taken or the name of the film being shot.  My guess sometime in the late 30's or early 40's -- but other than that absurdly humongous camera, things really aren't that much different on set nowadays. Cables and paper still litter the stage floor while the crew stands or sits, quietly fighting the endless boredom and fatigue while waiting, waiting, and waiting for the cry of "Cut!"  

The struggle to maintain one's focus and keep a good attitude on set over the course of a long day remains eternal, forming a through-line of continuity from the earliest days of the industry right up to today. The only real difference is the lack modern technology -- there were no walkie-talkies and cell phones back then, and although we've come to depend on such digital baubles, I'm not sure they've actually improved things on set. In Hollywood and elsewhere, change usually comes as a zero-sum equation, with whatever is gained coming at the cost of a loss somewhere else.

Looking at this photo, I can't help but wonder what the scene on set will be like forty or fifty years from now, when I'll be long dead and gone, just like the people in this photo.  

I'll never know -- that's for me to wonder, and you (the young ones, anyway) to find out.

Meanwhile, we soldier on, week by bloody week, marching towards Christmas...

* It's also in danger of being torn down sometime next year. The private equity company that owns the property plans to cash in on the construction boom that's currently turning much of Hollywood upside-down.  If and when that happens, we'll lose yet another link to our past.

**  You can bet OSHA and the Motion Picture Safety Passport people would not be pleased by that nowadays...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 29

Terminology -- a few more loose ends
                   Reminder note above the Best Boy's desk

(For reasons I don't quite understand, this post went up on the blog for a couple of hours, along with JFTHOI #28 -- undoubtedly due to an error on my part. Since it was then a work in progress -- a first draft, really -- I pulled it down to finish the damned thing before putting it up for real.)

The subject of industry terminology keeps popping up on my radar, the most recent sighting  being a book called Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde, which should prove useful for industry newbies befuddled by the on-set vernacular of Hollywood. Mind you, I haven't read the entire book, nor am I likely to -- after nearly four decades in the biz, I'm familiar with the lingo below-the-line -- but flipping through the preview pages on Amazon revealed a reasonably thorough (if rather glib) approach to defining the terms I've learned on set over the years, including a few I hadn't heard.*  The book was originally published in 2005, but it appears that Dave Knox updated the current edition. 

I have some quibbles with his definitions, though. Knox claims that a "blonde" is the same thing as a "mighty" -- and although the two lamps employ the same globe and are often used for the same purpose on set, that's where the similarities end.**  Early in my career, more than one DP yelled at me for bringing a blonde when he'd asked for a mighty, so it seems to me that if you're writing a book defining industry terminology, you'd better make sure your definitions are precise.    

Knox wanders into deeper water with an astonishingly lame definition of "auteur theory": 

"French film critics in the 1950s and 1960s, centered on the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, started studying a directors entire body of work and drawing conclusions on the person based on their findings. For instance, Spielberg... likes aliens but is afraid of sharks... something like that."

Wow. I suppose that's meant to be humorous, but it falls flatter than stale tortilla. Humor only works if it's actually funny -- and for that "definition" to have any shot at being funny, the reader would have to know something about auteur theory in the first place… which Dave Knox clearly does not. That makes this passage a lazy effort unworthy of a book meant to serve as a guide through the labyrinth of industry jargon. The saving grace here is that "auteur theory" has no real meaning beyond the over-caffeinated world of film school and the grim academic dungeon of serious film criticism -- and has nothing whatsoever to do with working on set -- so I guess it's a case of no harm, no foul. 

Still, Knox would have done better -- and produced a more useful book -- by sticking to what he actually knows, and failing that, should have done more thorough research before committing his work to a finished book. Google really isn't that hard to find.

From what I saw of the Amazon preview, his book offers a breezy, informative read for anybody new to the film and television industry, or who's thinking about making a career below-the-line. Learning the language of the industry is all part of becoming a pro, and if Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde is an imperfect guide, it's a lot better than nothing for the newbie desperate to find his/her footing in the biz.

For what it's worth, here's the official blurb:

"Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a gaffer and a grip? Or what makes the best boy so great? In Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde,* Dave Knox, a top camera operator and longtime veteran of the film industry, gives you the inside story on the lingo and slang heard on the set. This is an A-to-Z guide to making a movie: the equipment, the crew, and the sometimes hilarious terminology—everything you need to know to sound like a seasoned pro.”

That last line overstates the case. Although knowing the jargon is a good first step, we've all met newbies who could talk the talk but not walk the walk -- and they weren't fooling anybody. Sounding "like a seasoned pro" won't mean anything unless and until you know what the equipment is and how it should be used.  Only then will you be taken seriously on set.

I don't mean to be harsh on Dave Knox or Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde, which looks like a useful book for any industry newbie or wannabe. Just remember to take it with a grain of salt, and not as the final-word gospel truth.

* Every region -- from Hollywood to New York and the Southeast nexus of New Orleans, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida -- has it's own local variations on industry vernacular. 

** A Blonde is a rather flimsy open-face 2000 watt lamp made by Ianero in Italy, while a "Mighty" refers to the Mole Richardson Mighty Mole, a similar, but much sturdier lamp. Not even a blind person could mistake one for the other.