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 4, 2016

One Step at a Time

                                   Yeah, you've seen this picture before...

Most of the real sound stages in Hollywood were built long ago, with an extensive network of wooden catwalks high above the stage floor that provide a place to run and drop in power cables or hang whatever needs to be suspended over the sets.*  Everything from green beds to BFLs to a variety of special effects gags can be hung from up high.

Although I've worked on a few stages in LA that have elevators to carry us up to the catwalks (and what a luxury that is), the usual route is to climb the stairs -- but the stage I'm working on now lacks an elevator or stairs. Instead, there are three steel ladders, each enclosed in a lattice-like tube designed to contain a falling body and prevent it from from hitting anybody else on the stage floor below. With no safety harnesses or other form of fall protection, you'd best pay attention when climbing up or down. I grasp each rung nice and tight, being sure that my boots make solid contact before moving on.

The combined effects of gravity and Newtonian Physics here could be lethal -- a slip would totally ruin my day -- so I take these ladders one careful step at a time,

                                 Forty-two steps up...

Each ladder is built in two sections -- one going halfway up to a platform that forms the base of the second ladder, which then takes you all the way to the catwalks. I assume this staggered construction is designed to give those of us who have go up high a place to rest for a moment, and prevent anyone who might slip from falling more than twenty feet at the most.

That might not sound particularly reassuring, but I can testify that it's a lot easier -- physically and psychologically -- to take the climb in two stages rather than one uninterrupted ascent.

I counted the rungs while heading up to our first day of work up high -- twenty steps straight up to the platform, then twenty-two more to the catwalks. When it was time for a coffee break, lunch, or the bathroom, there was only one way back down -- which is why you'll find so many water bottles half-filled with yellow liquid tucked away in dark corners up there.

                               and forty-two steps down...

I've never had a problem ascending or descending these ladders, but the very fact that they're the sole means of access to the catwalks raises the issue of safety. The film and television industry loves to huff and puff about its commitment to safety, but it's evident to those of us who do the heavy lifting, breathe the toxic air, and navigate such unforgiving ladders that the higher powers in Hollywood are a lot less concerned with actual safety on set than in avoiding any potential legal liability or having a production delayed due to injury -- situations that would cost them money and affect their bottom line.

Okay, I get that, and have learned not expect much from an industry that grows more corporate every year -- but what if a crew member suffers a heart attack, stroke or some other medical emergency up high that renders him/her unable to climb down a ladder?  On a stage with stairs, that person could be carried down to the stage floor and receive medical care fairly quickly, but given the physical limits imposed by these enclosed steel ladders, we have no safe method of rapidly transporting an injured or unconscious person down to the stage floor. We're juicers and grips, not paramedics, and lack the training and equipment required to deal with such a situation.  

A few years ago, a big, tall juicer I know hurt his back while working up high at another studio, and suddenly couldn't move. A team from the fire department had to come to the studio, climb up high, strap him into some kind of sled, then lower him with ropes to the floor -- and that took a long time. He recovered, but if he'd suffered a time-sensitive medical emergency up there, he might not have been so lucky.

So what the fuck is up with sound stages that have ladders but no stairs?  The studio I'm working at now isn't some cheap-ass warehouse facility in an industrial park, but one of the majors, a lot steeped in Hollywood history. This studio wants me to wear an utterly worthless "safety" harness while working in a single man-lift, but expects me to climb up and down a forty-two step steel ladder  -- where one simple mistake could result in a crippling injury or death -- multiple times a day without any safety protocol whatsoever.

It's bullshit, pure and simple, but the Industry and Hollywood have been hip-deep in bullshit ever since the lawyers came on board, and never more than nowadays -- so what else is new?

Still, I'm almost ashamed to admit a certain sense of perverse pride in using these ladders. Anybody can take the stairs, but not everybody is willing or able to climb a forty-two step ladder three or four times every work day.  I'm fully aware just how stupid this sounds, but sometimes a guy really does need to feed the beast.

Anyway, back to the subject of steps...

One of the features of a modern smart phone -- which I now carry on my tool belt, just like everybody else -- is that it records my daily physical activity in terms of steps taken and miles traversed. Here's the story of my first week on this job:

Monday:           11, 404 steps     4.34 miles
Tuesday:            9, 574              3.68
Wednesday:     10, 246               3.71
Thursday:           9, 815              3.77
Friday:               9, 802              3.66

Total:                50, 841 steps    19.16 miles

Statistics don't lie -- that was a busy week -- but Saturday didn't offer much relief. After going to the post office to mail the bills, the bank to pay credit cards and withdraw cash, the laundromat to wash my work clothes, then two different grocery stores for provisions to get through the next week, I'd logged another 6000 steps on the first of my two days off.

But on Sunday, the seventh day, I rested.

Total steps: 46

And people ask me why I want to retire...

* With occasional exceptions, the major studios have good sound stages, as do some of the smaller independent lots around LA, but too many of the newer facilities are nothing more than a large empty buildings in industrial parks.  With concrete floors, no catwalks, and nothing more than a rudimentary pipe grid overhead, these stages are not good places to work. To be blunt, they suck.


JD said...

Who will be tasked with the removal of all the bottles of yellow liquid from up on high?

Michael Taylor said...

JD --

Good question. When forced to resort to The Bottle, I try to remember to bring it down for proper disposal at the end of the day... but sometimes I forget. And truth be told, I've never seen any other juicers or grips bring those bottles down.

Yeah, I know -- it's disgusting, but such is life.

Still, those bottles seem to vanish. I've occasionally seen crews of studio maintenance personnel up high vacuuming the dust off the catwalks and perms between shows, and assume they clean up any of those tiny port-a-potties they find.