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, June 23, 2019

Getting Started Redux: Thoughts from a Long Time Reader

                               Bebee Nightlight working in San Francisco

Back when I was still working in Hollywood, an occasional post would strike a resonant chord and generate comments from readers. Nowadays, not so much, which is no surprise given that the readership here plummeted after I retired and went to posting once a month. Before that, a good post might attract a couple of thousand hits over the course of a few weeks, along with several comments -- a mere hiccup on the internet, but this has always been a niche blog aimed at a relatively small audience.  Nowadays a post might collect  a hundred hits, and what few comments arrive usually come from spam-bots hawking one website or another.

Those, I delete ASAP.

So you can imagine my surprise at finding a series of five long, detailed comments on Getting Started, all from a long-time reader who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Austin first started reading this blog while still in high school, and has since made the bruising journey from young wannabe to industry pro carrying an IA card.  Having learned a lot over the last seven years, he wanted to pass on some of that hard-earned knowledge, and put some real thought into his comments. Given the reduced readership around here nowadays, it seems likely that most people have already read that post, and thus won't see those comments.  Since I agree with most of what he said, I'm publishing what he had to say as a guest post.

I did a bit of editing, of course -- at this point, I can't help myself -- but tried to keep a light hand, aiming only to smooth out the narrative flow without diminishing Austin's distinctive voice in the following paragraphs.

Almost 7 years ago (yikes) I was the "anonymous" commenter that inspired this post

I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write that post way back then, and I thank your blog for preparing me for the realities of life while working below the line in the film industry. Heck, you could even call me stupid for going through with it! It hasn’t been easy and there have been many unexpected challenges. I can’t say that I’ve ended up where I thought I would (new member of IATSE Local 695) and I don’t know what will happen next.  Still, while there certainly are easier and more stable ways to make a living, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else, and in the meantime I’ll keep trying my best.

I won’t go into my own long-winded story, but want to share some of what I’ve learned since I began taking permit grip and electric calls in the San Francisco Bay Area a few summers ago, in the hope that other young grips/electricians may find it useful.

First off, work very hard, even when you think nobody is watching. 

Have a good attitude, and don’t complain. Don’t get discouraged even if you’re working harder than you every imagined.

Be respectful and nice to everybody —  above the liners/cast (if and when you interact with them), department heads, fellow crew, PA’s, drivers, the caterers & crafty, extras, the public, etc. Just because you work on a Big Show doesn’t mean you should have an inflated ego. Nobody is below you. As they say, the PA you were a total dick to yesterday might well be a producer tomorrow, and will never forget what you said.

Pay attention, always. I can’t stand it when people say film sets are boring. There is always something to learn. By keeping an eye on the gaffer (when you can), you not only learn how to light a set, but you also learn to anticipate what they need when and why, which can be very gratifying.

Put your damn phone away: I made a point of leaving my phone in my pocket at all times when I started getting the opportunity to work on big sets - and the Best Boy noticed, as other folks sat at the carts glued to their screens.  In time, I learned when it was appropriate to take a peek to see if anyone was offering me more work or if a loved one was in distress.

There’s always work to be done. Sweep the truck. Organize carts. Cut and label gels. Small repairs. It’s work nobody wants to do, but if you show yourself as someone willing to do the dirty work, they will want to have you around. THERE’S NEVER AN EXCUSE TO SIT ON YOUR ASS AT THE CARTS, especially as the new guy/gal.

If you really don’t have anything to do, are on stage, and the set is lit for a 6 page dialogue scene, go over and start LEARNING as much as you can about those fancy LED lights — go through the menus, settings, etc.

When starting out as a day player, you’re there as an extra hand not to be one of the main grips or juicers on-set.  Know your place — don’t try to be the hero or step on one of the core crew’s toes. Once they get to know you, maybe you’ll get the chance to be the gaffer/key’s “pocket” on-set person for a bit. If it’s your first time working with that crew, take time to learn their workflow and how they work with each other when lighting the set.

Don’t act like you know everything already (even if you think you do). It’s an easy default to try to fit in and “act like you belong,” but by doing so, you shut yourself off from learning and accepting help from more experienced veteran electricians and grips who would probably be more than happy to teach you the technical skills and tricks of the trade. Even if they try to teach you basic stuff, smile and thank them - they’ll like you more and WON’T THINK YOU’RE A DICK! 

Watch other people’s backs and they’ll hopefully watch yours. Don’t be afraid to ask, or offer, help.

Have a sense of humor. I took a lot of shit from the other guys when I started out, and made sure to laugh my ass off and have a good attitude about it. As it turned out they were testing me.

Show up early (I try 45 mins before call) and don’t seem like you’re in such a rush to leave.

Thank the best boy at the end of the day for bring you out. If they like you they will call you again.

Get Condor/Aerial Work Platform certified! When a Best Boy calls the hall for 3 additional condor certified electricians for that big Friday night exterior, this will increase your chances!

Don’t be afraid to ask for people’s contact info!  Although I’ve never been a fan of social networks, and am not on them, there’s no denying how much easier it is to network and stay in contact with various people you meet on shoots if you follow them on facebook or instagram afterwards. 

Another key piece of advice, perhaps the most serious: below the line work, especially grip and electric, is very physical work.One thing I loved about being a Set Electrician was that it offered the perfect combination of excitement in working on a big set, understanding the artistic side of cinematography, technical skill, working as a team, and working with my hands -- well, mostly with my back.4/0, Bates cable, 5 wire banded, 18Ks and camera dollies are all seriously heavy. Your most important tool for a long fruitful career doing this work is your body, so take it seriously. If you have time/money, go to a gym, get a personal trainer and get strong. Learn how to take care of your back, knees, and shoulders, and how to lift things properly: back straight, knees bent, lifting with your legs.  Have good posture.  Use wheels whenever possible when moving gear and heavy loads over long distances or across the stage.  Ask for help when you need it, don't try to be a hero.  If extra hands are available, use five people instead of three to head up that 18K. Also, watch the older workers on set to learn to work smarter, not harder -- rig to wrap, avoid handling the same gear twice.  Work in a way that will enable you to last. If you have time/money, go to a gym, hire a personal trainer, and get strong.  Learn how to take care of your back, knees, and shoulders and how to lift heavy objects properly: back straight, knees bent, lifting with your legs. Maintain good posture. Use wheels whenever possible when moving gear and heavy loads over long distances or across the stage.  Ask for help when you need it, and don't try to be a hero.  If extra hands are available, use five people instead of three to head up that 18K.  Watch the older workers on set to learn how they work smarter, not harder.  Rig to wrap, avoid handling the same gear twice when possible, and work in ways that will enable you to last.

Don't give up. Seriously.  Even if you think you're down and out, if you really want it, stick to your guns and take advantage of any opportunity you can. If there's a local rental house in your area that offers gear demos, go and learn.  If you keep trying, good things will happen for you! There's probably other stuff I'll think of later, but those are the things I'd tell any young person who's interested in joining the union and working on big shows, whether in LA, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, or New Mexico.  One more thing: learn and observe good walkie-etiquette so you can communicate clearly and succinctly. I blabbed like an idiot on the walkie my first night, and the gaffer was pretty annoyed.  Thankfully, I was given a second chance.*


There's much wisdom here for young people who hope to enter the industry. Getting started and making progress is difficult, but it certainly isn't rocket science -- there's no real mystery to the process anymore -- but it won't happen unless you're committed to making a serious, sustained effort.

As Austin said: "Work very hard, even when you think nobody is watching."


dstarz said...

As a Thespian, I have long said that the crew works three times as hard as those in front of the camera; this entry, in your much-valued blog, tells it like it IS! Good on the young man!!! And good on you for posting!!!

You're missed,


Austin said...

Thanks for the post, Michael!

I definitely don't want to make it sound like i'm a know-it-all expert by any stretch, these are just some things I've noticed, and had to learn, often by making mistakes, while trying to break into a relatively small film community without knowing anybody where I really had to play my cards right. Everyone's experiences/circumstances are/will be different but I hope someone may find some of this post helpful!

Darrell said...

Hey Michael, that Beebe shot at the top of your article was from a shoot I gaffed about ten years ago. I'd like to meet you some day, take you out to lunch sometime if you can pry yourself away from the homestead.

Michael Taylor said...

Dstarz --

Well, yeah... but actors still have the most difficult job on set. I'll see you next time I'm in LA...

Austin --

Everyone takes their own path and makes their own mistakes, but your experiences have much in common with my own, and those of everyone who comes from outside to break into the film/television industry. Thanks for sharing your story.


That's good to hear -- I just pulled that photo off the BeBee website. Lunch sounds good -- hit me at the e-mail on the home page sometime and we'll figure it out. Thanks for tuning in...

Rose said...

Aww, great post and great advice.

Michael Taylor said...

Rose --

Glad you liked it. I like what you've done with your blog as well -- great stuff! Thanks for tuning in...

Anonymous said...

I work in a totally different profession - long time reader though. Many of these points apply almost everywhere.

Phone in pocket. I won't fire anyone these days over being distracted by it (the next generation would never get a job) but the few who don't have it out half the time are on a rocket ride up.

Willing to learn, I did this with everything, if I've a moment down I'm poking around and learning. Some folks just sit, and then complain when things change. Others learn and are excited when they change.

One slightly gloomy note - when you are just out of school earning even $3K a month can feel like you hit the jackpot. I remember feeling rich beyond belief -> and had tons of adventures.

But try not to let the rat race catch you later in your career especially if you start making real big money, because it can do so very easily -> family, friends, your health etc are invaluable. A fair number of big but somewhat lonely houses for those that "made" it. Which means don't feel too jealous of those with the big houses either. Having been in a fair number -> all the same problems are there as well in many cases.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Agreed - this is just the basic strategy for succeeding in any endeavor... but you'd be surprised how many people arrive in Hollywood bearing the delusion that the magic will just somehow "happen." Hey, the first job I worked that paid me $100/day did indeed seem like hitting the jackpot, but reality intruded on that comfortable illusion soon enough. The early days really were the most fun -- I didn't care how much I got paid, but was just happy to be working, and yes, it really did feel like an adventure. The last few years, not so much, although there were very different satisfactions to be had. As for making big money -- I never had the chance to find out what that might be like, but was around enough people who did to realize they weren't any happier than me. Thanks for tuning in...