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...


Nathan said...

Merry Christmas!

Ashley L. said...

Mike, thank you for writing here all these years. I came upon your blog about six years ago, when I was in my fifth year of college and consuming as much film knowledge as I could after nearly graduating with a degree in photography, a degree I never wanted in the first place.

I read yours and TAPA's blogs in tandem as I made the move from Missouri to Los Angeles, and kept your stories in the back of my heart as I was wrenched through the trials of beginning my career, through the sludge of when I had finally was working regularly, and still now as I've made the transition to animation. I like to think you and I probably worked on the same lot at the same time in some point in the past five years, that any time I came across a friendly electric on another show, maybe he was you.

Your tone of your stories is one that I look for, when looking for inspiration to continue on in what I want to do, and one I encourage those who follow after me to seek out. A voice that won't sugar coat the labor that goes into making Hollywood glamour, but at the same time doesn't spew discouraging vitriol. You always write poetically about reality and it's something I've appreciated for this half of a decade.

I look forward to your book.


Michael Taylor said...

Nathan --

Thanks -- and to you as well!

Ashley --

Writing this blog, I often feel as if I'm standing on the edge of a stage, blinded by the footlights and unable to see anything beyond my nose as I shout into the void. Absent some response, I've no way to know if anything here actually connects with those in the audience -- or indeed, if anybody is really out there at all. Granted, the Blogger software can tell me a lot of things -- how many computers, tablets, or cell phones landed here in the past day, week, or month, the date and country from which they came, and which websites they found their way here from... but that's just raw quantification: the digital equivalent of "much sound and fury signifying nothing." For all I know, most of those clicks are coming from spam-bots, wandering hackers, and Nigerian princes seeking to bestow their fortune upon oh-so-lucky me.

When an e-mail or comment like yours comes in out of the blue, I'm reminded that there are real people out there in the cyber-void reading these posts, and that some have been impacted in a positive way. It's a rare occurrence, but maybe that's why it feels so good. I've been writing this blog for many reasons -- as a labor of love, a message in a Hollywood bottle, and simply because telling these stories as I've lived them seems to scratch a very particular itch -- but also in an attempt to pass on some of what I've learned over my long roller coaster of a career in the hope that it might somehow help a few young newbies out there. There were no such voices of experience when I broke in, which meant for the first few years, I went into every new situation a wide-eyed innocent with no idea what to expect.

Knowing little about the world of animation, I'm pleasantly surprised -- gratified, really -- that you've found some resonance here, but I suppose on the the most basic level, the struggles we all endure to make it in this business are universal.

Thanks so much for making the effort to write such a thoughtful, eloquent response. It hit the sweet spot, and means more to me than you know.

I wish you all the best as your animation career unfolds, and a very Happy New Year!

Matthew R. said...

Michael, as a DP I have enjoyed your blog immensely and will miss your writings. I work out of the hollywood studio system and mainly in ads and corporate video, so I don't to get to shoot on stages much. But, it's amazing how much is the same no matter where you shoot. You gotta setup lights, run power, and yell at a producer standing in the way. Enjoy retirement!

Michael Taylor said...

Matthew --

I did my share of commercials (twenty years worth, as a juicer, BB, and gaffer), several low budget features on location, and my share of industrials before my career took a turn towards sit-coms and sound-stages -- and you're right: the same challenges are there no matter what the job. I'm glad to hear you've been following the blog and find it worth your time -- thanks for that, and for reaching out. It'll be some time before BS&T fades to black, but once I've officially retired (later this month, assuming my plans aren't torpedoed by unexpected developments), I won't be posting nearly as often. I'll be busy with the move and settling in to my new digs for a while, and my return to the keyboard will focus on hammering out a book based on the best of the posts here -- but when the spirit so moves, I'll put up a post. I've been feeding this beast for nearly ten years now, and such habits die hard.

Thanks for tuning in...