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, December 25, 2016

The Enemy Within

                                                Look at all the fun I missed...
                                             (Photo by Chris Elizondo)

So much for getting back to doing the "best part" of my job -- hanging, powering, and adjusting the lamps on set. My four days in Sick Bay took me out of the heavy lift to get the second half of this show underway, as four sets went out, replaced by four more, two of which were big and meant to simulate the Outside World. One was a huge woodsy set that required a 140 foot long scenic backing, several big artificial trees, truckloads of dirt, many large bags of leaves and pine needles, and dozens of potted bushes. The greens crew got a serious workout building this set, as did the juicers and grips -- because it takes a lot of lights to create a convincing illusion of an exterior set on a sound stage. 

The trick in this case was making sure they were placed properly, because once the dirt and trees were in, adjusting the aim of many of these lamps would be a very time-consuming effort requiring a big articulating lift. During the two rig days, this wasn't a problem -- the dirt and trees weren't all in place yet, so the juicers and grips were free to do their work. But once the shoot days arrived, all bets were off. Due to the fifty-pounds-of-shit-in-a-five-pound-bag nature of this show, there was no room on stage for that lift, so it had to be kept outside. If we needed it, all five (yes -- five) cameras, cables, and two big arrays of video monitors (along with two massive sound department perambulators) would have to be moved well out of the way, the big elephant door opened, the lift driven in, and all the necessary lighting adjustments made. Then the lift would have to be driven back outside, the big door closed, and all the cameras, cables, monitors and sound gear moved back in place -- a process that could easily consume half an hour. With the extremely tight schedule of this show, there just wasn't time for this, so those lamps had to be set properly the first time around.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is where the DP and Gaffer earn their money, and fortunately, we had a very good DP and Gaffer who got it right.

The other exterior set was a beach, complete with sand dunes, palm trees and real sand that came in eight of these huge bags, each of which weighed in at well over a ton.

                                                      Three of eight...

Being laid up in Sick Bay, I missed all the fun. By the time I returned to work on Monday -- the first shoot day -- most of the heavy lifting was done. There was lots of tweaking, of course, but that never ends until the cameras roll, and sometimes not even then.  

Scheduled for six consecutive shooting days -- several of which went 14 hours -- this was the hardest week of the entire five week job. By mid-week, we worked a day that started at 8:30 A.M. and ended at 11:30 P.M., then we had to be back on set ready to start another long day at 8:30 the following morning. When you factor in drive time both ways, shower time, and wake-up/eat-something/get-dressed time, there aren't many hours left for actual sleep. At my age, and still recovering from that cold (having lost my voice for two days), this was a serious grind. Day Six would be lucrative, of course (at time-and-a-half all day), but we were zombies by then -- dead men walking -- because all that accumulated fatigue truly is the enemy within. It wears you down, makes you stupid, and dramatically increases the odds of making mistakes. At one point, a camera assistant looked up and said to no one in particular, "I was driving home last night and saw all the lights on the houses... and realized I'd forgotten it was Christmas." 

I knew exactly what she meant, because the same thing happened to me every night on the way home from this job. When I pull the plug -- very soon, kiddos -- I certainly won't miss the all-consuming nature of the film and television industry, where we do little but eat/sleep/work until the show is done. The show becomes our world, with everything outside the sound stage seeming somehow not quite real anymore.   

It's no way to live.

I arrived on set that sixth morning at half-mast, acutely aware that my brain was not functioning well.  "Stay off the ladders today" was my first thought, because ending my career with a fall and in the hospital on my last shoot day in Hollywood as a core member of a set lighting crew might make a good ending for a lousy movie, but I had no desire to bring such bad fiction to life.
So naturally -- the Gods of Hollywood being famously contrarian at the best of times -- my first assignment was to climb that forty-two step steel ladder up high, inside the Tube of Death, to drop down power for one of the newer swing sets. Needless to say, I made that climb very carefully, holding tight to each and every rung on the way up and down, breathing hard all the way.

And once safely back on the stage floor, I was wide awake at last, once again proving that adrenaline is a lot more effective than coffee.

With that, the tedium resumed as another long day unfolded one slow hour at a time. We'd been told the producers wouldn't go past 10:30 P.M. no matter what, and they were true to their word. We plugged in the man-lifts to recharge, then did some minor clean-up around the stage -- "making it safe" -- and that was that. There will be a few days of wrap, and hopefully a little day-playing early in the New Year, but with the end of this day, my career in Hollywood is essentially over.  

Put it this way: my name will never again appear on a call sheet as a core member of a set lighting crew. That part of my life is done.

                                                  The last call sheet...

I'll have some thoughts on that and a few other things in the weeks to come, but for now I'll leave you with a little Christmas gift -- the same one I leave under the cyber-tree here every year: the great Robert Earl Keene's rendition of Merry Christmas from the Family. If you've never heard it, you're in for a treat -- and if you have, you already know.

Merry Christmas, and as always, thanks for tuning in...