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, March 20, 2016

Pilot Season 2016

The Time Machine
                         The calm before the storm…

Like every industry veteran, I've worked at most of the major and minor studios in Hollywood over the course of my career. Things have changed a lot during those four decades, thanks to the ongoing evolution of technology, the digital revolution, and a takeover of our industry by huge corporations.

Still, every studio retains its own unique character. To me, Paramount feels a bit like The Gulag, its stages and office buildings hidden behind imposingly high walls and a security protocol that makes all who enter feel like suspects. Warner Brothers  -- which felt like small town when I worked there back in the early 80's -- has suffered a similar fate, souring over the years as it morphed into an overly bureaucratic police state. WB's rules on using safety harnesses in man-lifts are as draconian as they are idiotic, and I'm told that bringing a bicycle onto the lot -- which many of us do so we can get around the studio more quickly -- requires a bike permit that takes thirty days for the Grand Poobahs of Warner Brothers to issue.

Uh, no. Much as I love and respect the storied history of Warner Brothers, I'll take my gloves and tool belt elsewhere, thankyouverymuch.

Universal is immense -- big enough that until you learn your way around, it's all too easy to get lost on the way from the humongous parking structure to your sound stage. Sony (once upon a time, MGM) has a chilly, institutional vibe, while CBS on Beverly Boulevard (home of "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars") never was a movie studio in the first place. Instead, they grind out soap operas, talk shows, and high-gloss reality programing rather than serious dramas or sit-coms. Disney remains a studio built in it's own image, a hermitically sealed and decidedly unmagical kingdom. They don't even run a lamp dock anymore, having sold off all their lighting equipment years ago. It's not a very user-friendly studio for guys like me.

But hey, Disney has the cleanest sound stages in town. That's something, I guess.

I worked one solitary day at Fox, a very long time ago, which wasn't nearly enough time to get a real sense of the place. All I know is that being on the oh-so-crowded West Side of LA, Fox a hard place to get to and from unless you live nearby… which I don't.

My favorite lot is CBS Studio Center, known throughout Hollywood as CBS Radford.  Follow that link and you'll learn about the history of Radford, once the home of Mack Sennet, Republic Pictures, and so many classic television shows over the years. I began working there in 2003, after doing several shows at Paramount, and was very pleasantly surprised at the difference. Although there were a lot of good people at Paramount, the studio itself felt a bit like the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea -- a dark, dysfunctional empire run on the basis of fear. Granted, that was during a particularly bad time for Paramount, but my experience there led me to assume that sort of top-down, iron fist bureacracy was common at all the studios.

Then came the day I walked through the gates of Radford into what felt like a sunny village of smiling, friendly people who were all happy to be there -- and as I proceeded to learn, for good reason.

That's why I worked so hard to make CBS my "home lot" for the next decade-plus, right up though today. I'll work elsewhere when necessary (I spent most of last year on a show at a minor studio near the classic Hollywood intersection of Sunset and Vine), but my preference is to work at Radford.  So it felt very good indeed to come back home for six days of work on a pilot the last two weeks, particularly since the first five days were among the easiest work days of my career.

Day Six -- the audience shoot day -- went 14 hours-plus, but although long, it wasn't particularly hard.  It was also something of a time machine, taking me back to the days before the digital era and shrinking budgets caused camera pedestals ("peds") to supplant dollies in the multi-camera sitcom world. Instead of four ped-mounted cameras, four camera operators, and two assistants, we had four cameras on Fisher 10 dollies, along with four dolly grips, four camera assistant/focus pullers, four camera operators, and two camera utility men -- something I hadn't seen for a very long time.

There was only one reason for this: our legendary director Jim Burrows likes to use dollies rather than peds, and being the most sought-after producer/director in the multi-camera world, Burrows gets what he wants.

It was good to be back, if only for six days. As has long been my habit at Radford, I headed for Residential Street (a suburban street backlot used as the setting for countless TV shows, commercials, and movies over the years) after lunch, where there's a false front of a house that has a very real -- and very nice -- front porch. Once planted in a chair, I took off my boots to let the dogs cool off a bit before the long audience show began… which is what I was doing when the photo up top was taken. All in all, it felt like I'd been transported back in time to a better, slower, friendlier era of Hollywood.

The respite was all too brief. At the end of that long day, my stint at Radford was over -- and next week I start another pilot... back at The Gulag itself, Paramount.

What goes around, comes around, so back to the future I go…

Next: Pilot Season Part Two


BoskoLives said...

Hi Michael,
I remember seeing a plaque on the wall when I was a still photographer many years ago, I believe that it was located at the entrance to one of the huge stages at CBS Radford, and said that it was the first stage used in a 4 camera t.v. show, "I love Lucy" produced by Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball.
It's a given that my memory is notorious for being spotty at best, it may have been elsewhere but it seems to me like that was the location, of course your milage may vary.
Be well,

Michael Taylor said...

Jerry --

I've seen that plaque many times, and it's at Hollywood Center Studios. Back then they used three cameras. If you go inside that stage, they have several great old photos of the Lucy/Desi show -- huge blow-ups that really give you a feel for how it was back then. Definitely worth seeing if you ever have the chance.

I'm told (but can't confirm) that it was Jim Burrows who pushed for the addition of the fourth (X-Cam) camera. Still, Desi started it all with his revolutionary idea, and I'm grateful to him for that. I couldn't have lasted this long in the single-camera world…

All the best!