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 20, 2016

Once More unto the Breach*

                                        The dust is everywhere... 

The bucket of a man-lift was my office all last week, where -- eighteen feet above the stage floor -- my job was to bolt a stirrup hanger to the pipe grid, attach a lamp to the stirrup, power that lamp, mark it with the appropriate dimmer channel number, then fasten both safety cables and rough-in the aim.

Then it was on to the next, and the next, and the next... day in and day out, Monday through Friday.

Our goal the first week was to get the main lights up and working in each set. The real lighting will come later, as our DP and Gaffer react to the blocking laid down by the director, then adjust each lamp accordingly. If past is prologue (and it usually is...), we'll add more and more lights until we finally run out of power, then tweak everything until it's time to shoot -- and once that's done, we'll tear it all down.

There's a reason the myth of Sisyphus resonates so deeply in the world of film and television, where we feel a real kinship with that poor bastard. Still, no matter how good, bad, or ugly a show might be, it's a temporary gig. There's always light at the end of the darkest production tunnel.

Sisyphus wasn't so lucky.

Lighting is a big part of every show, because (as the saying goes) "without lights, television is radio." But we need sets to light, and thanks to the top-down budgetary imperative to minimize costs in every possible way, we invariably end up doing much of our work while the construction crews are still finishing those sets, which makes the whole process infinitely more difficult and unpleasant for everyone.

Sometimes I think the dust is the worst -- a fine, delicate powder that rises from the endlessly moaning power sanders used by the painting crew, then is blown to the farthest reaches of the sound stage by huge industrial-sized fans and jets of air from from a compressor hose. But before the dust came the toxic reek of Bondo, used by the painters to fill holes and cracks prior to sanding. The chemical stench causes my throat to constrict involuntarily, because some part of my brain recognizes this stuff as dangerous to breathe. After the filling and sanding comes the spray painting, as respirator and goggle-clad painters blast a high-pressure colored mist on set walls, tables, trellises, and whatever else is in front of them. Tiny particles of paint fly everywhere -- on my clothes, in my hair, in my nose and lungs.

I'm happy to go up high and sling cable or hang lamps in a man-lift until my back, arm, and leg muscles are screaming -- that's the life of a juicer -- but having to breath such heavily polluted air while doing all that heavy work just pisses me off.

The painters can wear respirators to protect their lungs, but we really can't. Hanging lamps to light a set is a call-and-response activity that unfolds as part of an ongoing conversation between the DP, the Gaffer, and juicers.  A truly effective respirator precludes such back-and-forth, and I've yet to find a suitable respirator that will work with glasses -- and without those glasses, I can't clearly see what I'm doing.

So, no respirator. All we could do was make sure both of the big elephant doors on stage were wide open while we worked to allow fresh air to circulate, and hope for the best.

The irony is that the industry pays lip-service to the cause of on-set safety in a reflexive manner -- it's become their default setting -- right up to the point where taking meaningful steps would cost actual money. For instance, the studio where I'm working now has a strict rule that those of us who work in a man-lift or scissor lift must wear a safety harness attached to the lift. The stated policy is that anyone caught in a lift without a harness will be fired on the spot. Although there's some logic to using a harness in scissor lift -- which one of my fellow juicers learned the hard way a few years ago when she fell 30 feet from her scissor lift to the stage floor -- it's impossible to fall out of a single man-lift unless you climb up on the rails (strictly against the rules), which means there's no valid safety reason to wear a harness in a single man-lift. This isn't a matter of comfort or convenience -- that harness so severely restricts my mobility that it's almost impossible to perform much the rigging I'm paid to do.

So I don't wear one. Again, I just have to hope for the best and keep my fingers crossed that the studio Safety Officer won't come on our stage while I'm up in a lift. If he/she does, I'll be shit out of luck and probably out of a job.

If the Industry, producers, and studios actually gave a damn about crew safety, they'd require all set construction activities be completed before anybody else sets foot on stage. That way none of us would be exposed to all that toxic crap that comes with building and finishing sets -- but such a rule might force the carpenters and painters to work at night, or the production companies to budget for an extra week to ten days of stage rental... and that would cost money.

Which means it'll never happen.

But what the hell -- it's certainly my last job at this particular studio, so I'll work it on my own terms.  I've never yet had to tell a Gaffer or DP that I can't move or adjust a lamp thanks to some pointedly idiotic "safety" rule, and I'm not going to start now. I'm not a fool -- I won't do anything truly dangerous -- but I will ignore the sclerotic "safety" bureaucracy whenever necessary. ***

If I get fired, so be it. 

* A line from Shakespeare, of course.

** Yes, my little Droogies, I'm officially a geezer now -- hand outstretched for my monthly dole, with one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave...

*** I intend to walk away from Hollywood, not roll away in a wheechair.

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