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, February 3, 2019


                                Fun in the sky -- for some of us, anyway...

Back in the good old/bad old days, I’d take an occasional gig working on an industrial film -- essentially an infomercial done by or for a company to use in-house for employee education and training, or to promote its brand and product to potential customers at trade shows. 

As Wikipedia puts it: "An industrial video is a type of sponsored film (such as an educational film) which prioritizes pragmatism over artistic value." 

The focus on "pragmatism over artistic value" meant that these jobs were usually fairly  straightforward, with neither the time for glowing, painstakingly-lit product shots nor the money for famous celebrities to lend their star power to the project. They weren't exactly quick-and-dirty -- we made each shot look as good as circumstances allowed -- but with thin budgets and tight schedules, there was only so much to be done. The analog video technology of the time was relatively primitive, so most of the industrials I was involved with were shot on 16 mm film with a small crew: often just a gaffer, grip, and swing man to work with a DP/operator and camera assistant, a one or two person art department, a sound mixer and a handful of PAs, one of whom usually ended up holding the boom. Industrials didn't pay nearly so well as television commercials, but the jobs were low-key and casual, lacking the pressure and tension of big-dollar advertising jobs. There was often a lot more laughter too, which helped ease the sting of lower rates and the utterly pedestrian subject matter. There's nothing remotely interesting about filming a talking-head executive or manager in an office environment as he drones on about the mind-numbing details of manufacturing and distribution... but when no commercial jobs were available, I took what I could get. 

Such is the life of the Hollywood work-bot, a hunter-gatherer constantly on the lookout for his next meal in the freelance world of the celluloid veldt.

The first industrial I worked was as a grip on a one-day shoot for Silhouette Romance Novels (emo-porn for those with a predilection for bodice rippers), a short film meant to induce orders from buyers for the big and small bookstore chains of the day.* Unlike most such projects, this one splurged for an actual celebrity: Ricardo Montalblan, who had achieved widespread fame on the television show Fantasy Island.  After filming shots of the new lineup of Silhouette's literary offerings, we pre-lit the big wicker chair in preparation for our star. 

And finally out he came, resplendent in his trademark white suit: the living, breathing Mr. Roarke himself.  Despite myself, I was impressed. Although I considered Fantasy Island to be ridiculous schlock, Ricardo Montalblan was the biggest star I'd seen up close at the time, and he did not disappoint. Dapper, classy, and dignified, he was a real pro, nailing every line in a precise, exotic accent -- especially the finale, which he crooned with a knowing smile, a glint in his eyes, and a lilt in his voice:

"Romance the way it once was... and profits the way they can be again!"

If that didn't warm the hearts and quicken the pulse of those book-sellers, nothing would.

We worked sixteen hours-plus that day on a flat rate, but I didn't care. Every day on set was a blast back then -- I was just happy to be there... and getting paid. 

Cut to a slow summer ten years later, when a call came to gaff an industrial shoot for Piper Aircraft. We'd be filming MOS, with no sound department to slow us down or demand "QUIET!" on set -- just a producer/director, two cameramen, one camera assistant, a grip, gaffer, and a single PA. The crew gathered at John Wayne Airport early one morning, where I found the grip in the bar sipping mineral water while reading a worn paperback copy of “The Federalist Papers.”

This was a very different sort of Key Grip than I was accustomed to working with. Not only did he consider himself something of an intellectual tough guy, he was also a vocal vegetarian determined to dispel any and all stereotypes that haunt those who follow the meatless path.

“I’m strong,” he assured me — not that I'd asked, mind you.

While the producer/director, one cameraman, and assistant climbed into a Piper Cub with a camera mounted in the space where a side door had been, the rest off us piled into the Piper Aerostar picture plane, a twin-engined aerial hot rod capable of speeds over 250 mph. The two planes took off and headed east over the San Gabriel mountains, where the camera plane filmed suitably picturesque shots of the Aerostar in flight. We landed at the airport in Lake Arrowhead to shoot takeoffs and landings against the spectacular mountainous background, then headed back into the sky. A minutes later we were high over the Southern California desert when our pilot -- an ex- Naval aviator who had flown fighter jets off aircraft carriers for twenty years -- turned around with a grin.

“Hang on,” he said, then snapped the Aerostar ninety degrees on its axis, wings suddenly vertical.I turned my head to look straight down out at the desert floor ten thousand feet below as the plane launched into a vertiginous attack dive, swooping down before flipping back to horizontal, then zooming up and under the camera plane until just a few feet separated us: two aircraft flying so close together that a miscue by either pilot could send us all spiraling into eternity.

Riding an aerobatic roller coaster in the sky like this was a thrill I'd always wanted to experience, and being young and immortal, I was having way too much fun to be scared. My faith in the skill of our pilot freed me from any real worry, and besides, this was all out of my control. If Something Bad happened here, there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, hope for the best, and enjoy the ride.

We were all having a giddy blast… except for the Key Grip in the back seat, who had suddenly turned green, his countenance a pale verdant hue unlike that of any person I’d ever seen. Physically strong he might be, but this guy was on the verge of blowing vegetarian chunks as we careened through the high desert air -- and no good could come of that.** Alerted to the imminent danger, the pilot eased off the throttle and back into calm air. The grip's stomach gradually backed down from Defcon One, and we got on with our day.

It went well. We spent the next few hours touching down at a series of rural airports out in the desert, whereupon we'd disembark to crank out a few more shots as the pilot took the locals up for a high-speed aerobatic spin. When the producer/director was finally happy, we flew back to the airport, our work day over.

This was the best day on an industrial I ever had -- the most fun by far, even if our Key Grip might not agree. 

Hey, you can't please everybody...

* This was twenty years before Amazon crawled out of the digital sea like Godzilla to crush the life out of Crown Books, Borders Books, and Barnes & Noble.

** It's no joke -- here's an excellent tale of the stomach-churning hazards that come with aerial filming.