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)

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Getting Started

Update: Since this post went up four days ago, Local 728 in LA announced a class that will run on July 7, designed to teach wannabe set lighting technicians how to join the union.  Information on that class is here.  Oh, how things have changed since I first tried to get into 728 back in the late 70's.  I walked in and found a fat slob wearing a wife-beater siting behind the desk - and when I told him I wanted to join, he proceeded to laugh me right out of the office. It's a different world now...

Whether you arrive in Hollywood with ambitions to jump-start a career above-the-line, or are more interested in doing the heavy lifting on set, getting started in the film and television industry will not be easy -- it wasn't when I first knocked on Hollywood's door forty-plus years ago, and isn't now.  Those with ambitions to be writers, directors, producers, or actors will have to look elsewhere for guidance, but down below decks in Grip and Electric, the basic equation hasn't changed that much. One way or another, you'll have find a way to get thirty days of IA work over the course of a year, at which point you'll be eligible to join the union. Once you've passed muster with Contract Services and paid a stiff initiation fee (plus your first quarter dues) to get your card, the rest is simple: work hard, pay attention, maintain a good attitude, and don't be a dick.

Do that, and you'll be fine.

I could bore you with a long-winded account of how I finally got my Local 728 card... but I won't. There's no point, because that's all ancient history now, pretty much irrelevant to what newbies need to know today.* Although you still have to get your thirty days -- some things are eternal -- the quantum leap in digital communications technology over the past twenty years has permanently altered the way wannabe grips and juicers get work in Hollywood.

Example: when I was working as a young non-union griptrician, the standard ritual on every job was to hand out business cards with two phone numbers: my home phone and an answering service. There were no phone machines back then, so I paid a monthly fee for a service to handle incoming calls when I was out of the apartment.  I'd check in with the service from a pay phone (which were everywhere back in the day), then respond to any work calls. The world spun a lot slower in those days, so even if I didn't call back for several hours, I still had a decent shot at the job.  The advent of cheap phone machines put the answering services out of business, then pagers came along to kill off phone machines, then cell phones arrived to make pagers redundant, and then smart phones and texting came into being, which pretty much rendered talking on the phone obsolete. Nowadays, a Best Boy who needs manpower typically sends out a mass text to everyone on his work contact list, and the first to respond gets the job.

It's a different world now -- remaining glued to your smart phone and having a quick pair of thumbs is crucial these days -- which is why I turned to a couple of young below-the-liners to share their respective journeys from non-union newbies to union members. Their experiences will be a lot more relevant to newbies than the dusty ruminations of a burned-out ex-juicer like me.

First we hear from "Mike," who not so long ago was struggling to find film work in Hollywood, but is now a card-holding member of IATSE Local 80.

"I did a brief stint working in the industry when I was 24, than had to go back home for personal reasons, but constantly thought about making my way to Hollywood.  A year and a half later I booked a one-way ticket for LA with no real plan on how to fulfill the dream.  I had no contacts and nowhere to live, but all that could be figured out when I got there." 

"After a few days scrolling through Craigslist, sending resumes to anyone and everyone looking for grips or electricians, a director of photography emailed me back. She needed a crew for her thesis film at AFI.  I signed on as an electrician, but later she asked if I'd be willing to work as the key grip on another thesis film she'd be gaffing for a friend.  One thing led to another, and I met a lot of people who became close friends during my year of working freebies, and all whom have since managed to join Local 80, 728, or 600." **

"The downside of volunteering on every thesis film is that neither I nor my growing list of contacts were getting paid, so I had to find a flexible part-time job to pay the rent. I wound up at a Shake Shack, where I'd out in my 12 hours on set before going to work as a line cook for up to 8 hours, then do another 12 on set. I got my first paid job thanks to a recommendation from a DP I'd met at AFI.  Production was looking for someone from the school willing to work for $100/day for a three day job, and I got the call.  I was able to bring along a friend to help out at the same rate, and we both thought we were rich when we got our $300 checks at the end of the shoot." 

The gaffer from that short film turned out to be a well-known gaffer in Local 728, and he hired the two of us to work on a few non-union music videos.  I was still checking Craigslist and working at the burger shop a couple of days a week, but then I discovered Facebook groups for job postings and grip/electric discussions.  I was itching to quit that part time job and start working my way up, but first had to meet the right people."

"One of those first jobs I got from Facebook landed me a spot working with a grip crew that helped start a chain reaction leading to where I am now.  The first was a four day short that paid more than I'd make in a month at the Shake Shack, then the key asked me to cover him on a different short film the next week that paid even more.  I knew this was the moment I'd been waiting for, so I quit flipping burgers and dove straight in. The key from that second short film would later offer me my first three days of work on a union set a few months later."

"I set up my phone to get every notification from one of those Facebook pages, so when someone posted anything at all, I knew about it.  A union best boy grip put up a post looking for a rigging grip, and permits were okay.  I sent him a message within 20 seconds of that post going up, and two minutes later was hired. Thanks to that Facebook page, I was then able to get the additional twenty seven days I needed to join the union." 

"Right now I'm finishing wrapping up a TV show with the same grips. Since I started working with these guys, we've done three TV shows, one feature film, promo spots, music videos and commercials.  My buddy that helped me on the initial $100-for-12 hours short was the first one in our group of friends to make it into the union. He landed a full-time spot on a network show and was able to get me on as a regular dayplayer.  The key grip that gave me the two short films that enabled me to quit the Shake Shack job has come out to push dolly for me on a movie, but he's also traveled the world pushing dolly since making it out of the freebie days -- and he got his 30 days on a Facebook movie (for their streaming service) that flipped." ***

Now we hear the story of "Sam," who was trying hard to get his thirty days a year ago, but hadn't had much luck -- then the tide turned, and he's now a member of 728.

"I started my crazy Hollywood journey in January, 2016, fresh out of film school and eager to get on set. During my last semester, I had an internship where I met a couple of Production Coordinators, and after graduation, they hired/recommended me for jobs as a PA.  On set, I  kept an eye on the the grips and electrics, watching what they did and how they did it.  When they weren't busy, I'd ask them how they got into the industry, and if they had any advice for someone just starting out. Occasionally I'd get a call to work as a grip or juicer on a non-union shoot with some of my ex- classmates who'd made it to LA a year or two before me.  I also tried Craigslist and, but didn't have much success, as most of the sites wanted me to pay just to reply to job offers."

"A year and a half of working as a PA/Grip/Electric taught me a lot, and along the way I'd met quite a few grips and juicers.  I kept in touch with many of them, as well maintaining contact with my ex-classmates as they moved up the ranks on set.  I'd also begun to take full advantage of some useful set-related Facebook groups that were always looking for G&E help.  After a while I decided to shed the label of being a PA, and from then on took only G&E jobs, even if that meant gigs as a swing man on crappy music videos that paid only $150/12.  As time went by, I honed my skills as an electric and focused on making a career as a juicer.  I kept meeting more and more people, and before I knew it, was working consistently on music videos and non-union commercials." 

"Fast-forward to the summer of 2018, when it was so busy that both local 728 and 80 were into permits. A close friend of mine (who I'd met when I was a PA) was working as an office PA on a union commercial, so when the Best Boy Electric couldn't find an available 728 member, she gave him my name (via the Production Manager), and I got hired for two days as a permit juicer.  I busted my ass on that job, trying to impress him with what I'd learned over my years of non-union work.  After that job, he passed my name along to other 728 members, and a month later I got a call from a Best Boy working on a Tier 1 feature, where I got twenty-five permit days of union work.  I was still three days short of my thirty, and didn't get those until the end of March in 2019 on another job, thanks to someone I'd met years before." 

"I'd say it was 60% luck and 40% hard work that got me where I am today: a dues-paying member of Local 728.  Although I hustled hard to make it, I might never have gotten my union card without some luck and the help of other people when I really needed it." 

Sam then added these words of advice:

"Don't get discouraged if you don't join the union with X amount of years -- sometimes it takes people ten years to get those thirty days.  Just keep grinding and good things will happen.  Save your money whenever you can, because you'll need it, and try not to burn bridges.  The business may seem big, but it's much smaller than you think, and word travels fast.  And to all wannabe 728 members: learn DMX/wireless technology. It's the future."

Mike and Sam took different routes to their union cards, and so will you -- everybody has to blaze their own path through the Hollywood jungle -- but there are distinct parallels in their respective stories. Both had the drive to do whatever was necessary to survive the most challenging phase of every Hollywood journey: getting started. Mike flipped burgers to pay the rent and worked a year of freebies for the AFI, while Sam toiled as a PA to scratch out a minimal living and gain experience on set. They asked questions, learned from the on-set pros, reached out to make contacts and keep in touch with those people, and made the most of whatever opportunities arose, working hard to gain acceptance and credibility.

That's how you do it.

Both also received a little help from other people at crucial moments, just as I did four decades ago -- and that might be the most important thing to take from this post: nobody makes it on their own. Working your ass off is a given, but you'll also have to be the kind of person other people are willing to help.  Although I've never met Mike or Sam, it's evident from our e-mail communications that they're good guys, not me-first assholes. If they weren't good, hard-working people, others would not have dropped their names in the right ears when it really counted.  

The lesson here is at the end of the first paragraph of this post: Don't be a dick.

Although the modes they employed to find work were different from mine more than four decades ago -- there was no Facebook, Craigslist, or internet back then, and the AFI was a shadow of what it would become -- the rest is very similar to how I got started. 

There's a reason I'm publishing this post in mid-June rather than waiting for July.  The broadcast network sitcoms and episodics will soon begin gearing up for the new Fall season, and with the streaming networks in full swing, a movie or two shooting in town, and commercials going strong, Hollywood should be very busy in the latter half of July. There's a good chance the unions will run out of available grips and juicers, at which point permits can be hired -- and that will be the opportunity for any newbie grips or juicers to get some union days, meet pros on set, and make more contacts. Call the locals to see if you can get on a list of permits, scour the Facebook links below, and call the grip and/or electric departments of all the major studios at least once a week. Be polite but persistent -- make sure they know your name. A one-day permit call at a studio can turn into three weeks of work, and sooner or later you'll get your thirty days. Mike did it, Sam did it, and so did I -- which means you can do it too.

Good luck!

Grip and Electric LA

Grip and Electric East Coast

TV/Film crew Availability

Production 911

* Besides, that story will be in the BS&T book, which -- yes -- I'm still working on... and will be for a while.

** Local 80 are grips, 728 are juicers (set lighting technicians), and Local 600 is camera.

*** "Flipped" means that the movie started as a non-union production, then at some point the producers decided to sign a union contract, allowing the crew to accrue union days.  


Austin said...

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 too has not been easy and there have been many unexpected challenges. I wouldn’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. Even still, while there certainly are easier and more stable ways to make a living, I still can’t imagine wanting to do anything else, and in the meantime I’ll keep trying my best…

I won’t get too much into my own long winded story, but I wanted to share some thoughts since I started taking permit grip and electric calls a few summers ago (granted this was the San Francisco union not LA but I think it all applies). Most of what I wanted to share is the same as what Michael wrote above, but I hope any other young grips/electricians may find it useful:

Austin said...

(part 2)

-Work very hard, even when you don’t think anybody 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 (should you ever 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, and nobody is below you. As they say, that PA you were a total dick to yesterday will be a producer tomorrow, and they’ll 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. - That all being said, I started to learn 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 is 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, you 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.

Austin said...

(Part 3)

-If you’re just starting out as a day player - you’re probably there for extra hands and are not going to be one of the main grips or juicers on-set - know your place and 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. In fact it will downright annoy them and they won’t want to work with you, when they probably are more than happy to teach you both technical skill and savvy 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!
-I have never been a fan of social networks, am not on them, and in fact I can’t stand the thought of being on them - That being said, these days I can only imagine it is much easier to network and stay in contact with various people you meet on shoots (generally speaking, reminding them you exist) if you can just add them on facebook or follow each other on instagram afterwards. In fact, I know a lot of people who can’t imagine someone being stupid enough to not have social media while working in our business!

Austin said...

(part 4)

-And one other key area 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 was the perfect combination of the excitement of working on a big set, understanding the artistic side of cinematography, immense technical skill, working as a team and working with my hands (alright, well, mostly with my back). - 4/0, Bates cable, 5 wire banded, 18Ks, and also camera dollies are all seriously heavy. Your most important tool for a long fruitful career doing this stuff is your body. Take it seriously. If you have time/money, go to a gym and get a personal trainer and get strong. Learn how to take care of your back, your knees, your shoulders, etc. How to lift things properly, back straight, knees bent, lifting with the legs. Have good posture. Use wheels whenever possible when moving gear over long distances, heavy loads, across stage. Ask for help when you need it, don’t try to be a hero. If there’s a couple extra guys standing around, use 5 people instead of 3 to head up that 18k. Also see how to work smarter not harder. Rig to wrap, avoid double-handles, etc. Watch the old guys who are still doing it, see how they work that’s enabled them 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 learn the gear! If you keep trying eventually good things will happen for you!

Anyways there’s probably other stuff I’ll think of later but those are things I’d tell any young person taking advantage of a busy summer, be it in LA, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, or New Mexico, etc, that is interested in calling their local IATSE union and trying to get out on a Big Show.

Austin said...

(part 5)

Oh sorry one more thing: Learn good walkie-etiquette and clear the channel, learn to communicate what you need to say as succinctly and clearly as possible. I blabbed like an idiot on the walkie my first night and the gaffer was pretty annoyed. Thankfully I was given a second chance...

Michael Taylor said...


What you said -- and thanks for broadening the conversation to a more general discussion of how to approach the industry no matter where you live. If you'd sent this to me as an e-mail, I'd have published it as a stand-alone guest post... and I might just do that anyway. Congratulations on finally making it into the union. One question, though -- why 695 and not 16? Maybe things have changed in SF, but back when I was working on commercials in the Bay Area (having traveled north from LA with the production company), all our local hires came out of Local 16. Truth be told, I wasn't even aware of 695 in the Bay Area.

If this blog was of some help to you, that's great. Half the reason I started it in the first place was to shine some light on a realm that had long been shrouded in mystery, and in so doing, help others decide if they too wanted to walk that path. It's not for everybody, but for some of us, it's the only road that made any sense.

Thanks for tuning in...

Austin said...

Hey Michael,

Honestly I never considered emailing as an option, but if you think there's anything good in there, please go ahead and share!

To answer your question, I am a part of Local 16, which has allowed me to try out various departments. If I work in the Bay Area, I work under their contracts. I'm still grappling with actually experiencing "success" in this industry, since for so long it was some far off unattainable dream of mine. Why I didn't dream of becoming a baseball player or a race car driver or a Sillicon Valley mogul, I still do not know... However, after being asked to do a union feature in LA this spring (and not being able to because I wasn't in the LA local), I knew it only made sense to join 695 so I could not only travel to work there, but also potentially make the seemingly inevitable move South one day sooner or later.

As you know, the film industry fluctuates wildly in the Bay Area, and the bread and butter is commercials. Luckily since 2012 when I was still in high school, there has been a somewhat modest return of longer term feature/tv work which has allowed me to start building a resume, before moving elsewhere if I so choose to do that. Back in 2012, LA wasn't on my radar because of runaway production, plus I was wary of Southern California and Dodger fans. But as my view softens on living in LA and more productions staying there recently, I am considering it, even though in a lot of ways I'd be starting new all over again...

Michael Taylor said...

Austin --

I have some questions about that -- why don't you e-mail me at the link on the right side, just under the gloves photo, and we can continue this discussion off the blog.

I'll do a bit of editing on your comments and include them in my next post. Thanks.