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, July 31, 2016

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 36

                             Ah, the good old days…

Just to be clear -- I am NOT in this photo, which was taken well before I was born -- but it shows Hollywood as it was back in the days when men were men, women were women, and cameras were really, really big.

Nobody was going hand-held with that monster...

To be fair, much of the bulk came from the blimp encasing the camera to keep it quiet enough for the then-new technology of sound. Life on set got a lot more complicated for everybody when sound came in, forcing the movies back to a very static, visually boring style until much smaller, lighter, quieter cameras were perfected.

I did get to work with heavy-head carbon arcs exactly like the two pictured here, though -- a link to the past I'm glad I was able to experience.

It's interesting to note that most of the men in this photo are working shirtless, but wearing long pants.  I don't know if there was an actual dress code for location work at the time, but nowadays, you rarely see guys go shirtless -- and almost never will you see a juicer or grip wearing long pants on a hot day.

It's all shorts and T shirts now.


First up, another short commentary from Rob Long's Martini Shot, wherein he discusses the new generation's ongoing fascination -- and subsequent dissatisfaction -- with modern communications technology, and the frustration older people experience when dealing with a dismissive attitude from someone much younger who doesn't know nearly so much as he/she thinks he does.

It's a good one.


You might not see a connection between Mike Birbiglia (who I first discovered while listening to This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour) and the film/television industry. I didn't either, until hearing this interview, but it turns out he acted in a sitcom pilot long before turning to story-telling on The Moth. His stories there are terrific... which reminds me, if you've never tuned in to a Moth broadcast/podcast, you should. When it's good, it's great. Given that storytelling is the essence of television and movies -- and that so many young people want to get into an industry that's all about storytelling -- you just might learn something about the craft by listening to some really good stories.

Or maybe you just want to come to Hollywood for the money and "glamour," and in that case, good luck. You're gonna need it.

As it happens, Birbiglia has now directed a feature (his second, actually), and has a lot to say about the process -- among other things -- in the interview.  It's well worth your time.

Here's another good (and considerably shorter) interview with the late Garry Marshall. Although I drifted into the world of television much too late to work with Marshall, I've never heard a bad word about the man -- quite the opposite. Listen to that interview and you'll see why. Garry Marshall is happy to discuss his famous hit shows, but unlike most Hollywood legends, he's equally comfortable talking about his many flops -- thirteen, according to the man himself.

We've lost another good one.


Finally, the quote of the week -- this one from the keyboard of Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, in response to a reader's question about Dan Duryea:

"Dan Duryea (1907-1968) was one of the great noir actors, sleazy and slippery, opaque with self-satisfied malice and twinkling with inappropriate amusement. He's always a welcome addition -- slapping around Joan Bennett in "Scarlet Street," getting worked over by James Stewart in "Winchester '73"… and even playing a (sort of) good guy in the 1946 noir "Black Angel." Duryea was so good at being bad that he could only have been a nice person in real life, which they say he was."

Why that quote? For the wonderful first sentence, which absolutely nails the essence of Dan Duryea on screen.

That's it for this week.  Stay cool, my friends, as difficult as that is in the steamy cauldron of mid-summer…


JD said...

How can you be certain those are arc lamps? Age of the photo? Recognize that particular gear?? Only ask because the only arc lamps I've ever seen were the Mole variety. No chimneys on them?

Michael Taylor said...


Good question… and after reading your comment, I blew up that photo as much as possible, and began to wonder... You're right about the lack of smokestacks, but I've used arcs without stacks many times. More troubling to me was the lack of a visible grid, and the closer I looked, the more I realized those two lamps really aren't the heavy head arcs I thought -- so I consulted a fellow juicer who spent his entire career in the IA working on tons of shows we've all seen, everything from "The Rockford Files" to "Little House on the Prairie". His dad was in the biz, so he knows his Hollywood history from top to bottom. He confirmed that those are indeed carbon arcs known as "170 arcs," for the 170 amps they drew -- as opposed to the 225 amps a heavy or light head Brute arc drew. He also said that at one time, there were no incandescent lamps at all on set, where all the lighting was done with a spectrum of small to large arcs -- the bigger arcs for key light, the smaller ones for fill. According to him, there were several manufacturers of these arcs back then, not just Mole Richardson.

Clearly, I'll have to do a post about arcs one of these days… but I'll need to do some research first.

Anonymous said...

Mike, I can't wait for the ARC post.. I have to admit i'm blown away sometimes when i catch an old t.v. show or film and see such incredible lighting... k

JD said...

I've never seen or worked with anyone who has operated an arc lamp on a film set on the East coast. Did see a few 6' or so arcs being used to draw attention at a sporting event or store grand opening. Guess these were probably mil. surplus? Approximately when did carbon arc lamps start to become phased out?

JD said...

Still waiting to read your" What's in my tool pouch/bag?" post.

Michael Taylor said...


Those searchlights you saw were definitely military surplus. We used one of those beasts on a commercial in Mexico City twenty-plus years ago to backlight a statue -- it worked great. The advent of 12K HMIs (and later the 18K) finally pushed arcs out the back door of Hollywood. I recall using the early 12Ks along with arcs back in the early to mid-80's, but I don't think I've seen one on set since 1990. They're still around though -- I recently heard from a rental company in Hollywood that has half a dozen arcs available for rent.

Michael Taylor said...


I did a tool pouch post in response to a reader's question several years ago, but what tools you carry depends on what kind of show you're doing. My multi-camera sitcom tool belt (soundstage/tungsten lighting) is a lot heavier than my exterior shoot HMI-package belt.

Anonymous said...

Your post and that old photo you included reminds me of something I've always wondered about: technicolor period costume dramas and movie musicals of the 50s and most of the 60s always have seemed to me garishly over-lit: nary a shadow to be found anywhere; everyone seems to be baking under a desert sun, even in scenes supposedly occurring in, say, a gaslit Victorian drawing room. I always figured it was due to cameras, or to requirements of color film. Could the lighting instruments available have had something to do with it?

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

I think you're right about the cameras and film available at the time rather than the lighting equipment that rendered those movies so bright -- and so many of them really are garishly over-lit by modern standards. The complexity of the three-strip Technicolor process, which lowered the ASA to 5 (check out this website: had a lot to do with that. Such a low ASA demands a tremendous amount of light just to get a decent exposure, let alone any depth of field. Day exterior scenes shot under full sun weren't so hard -- they just brought in a few carbon arcs for fill light -- but interiors required intensive lighting.

The look of those films was also a product of their time, but as cameras, lenses, and film stocks improved, the visual style of movies evolved accordingly -- and so did lighting equipment. The development of lightweight Panaflex and Arriflex cameras made location filming easier and led to smaller, lighter location lighting equipment as well. That evolution continues, and nowadays it's not unusual to see a very small digital camera filming interiors and/or night scenes using nothing but very low wattage LED lamps.

If you want to see truly great lighting from the old days, go back to the Film Noirs of the late 40's and early 50's, which combined German expressionist visual style with story lines steeped in post-World War II existential angst. The best of them are grim but great films, and the crisp black and white cinematography in those movies is a revelation.