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, July 7, 2019

Hidden Talent: Part 2

                                             Downtown LA at dusk
                                                  Louie Escobar

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's a wealth of talent working below-the-line in Hollywood.  This is not to say there aren't creative people toiling in cube farms, big box stores, fast food franchises, and driving garbage trucks, but all I really know is the film and television industry, where the itinerant nature of free-lance life attracts many who pursue some aspect of the arts in their off time. Over my forty years in Hollywood, I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with more musicians, singers, writers, artists, and photographers than I can count.

Now that I no longer live and work in LA, I don't get to meet these talented people face to face, but social media helps fill the gap. It works even better in some ways, since they can share their work with the world -- like the photo above, by Louie Escobar, a hard-working Local 80 grip with a great eye for color, composition, and mood. Louie has managed to land several DP gigs over the years, shooting commercials, music videos and short films, and long ago put together a sizzle reel shot with then-current, now obsolete video technology. The image resolution doesn't compare to modern cameras, but it's abundantly clear that Louie knows what he's doing behind the eyepiece of a motion picture camera.

Getting your first paid DP gig is no easy task, thanks to the conundrum of Catch 22: you won't get hired without professional experience, but can't get professional experience until somebody hires you.  Saying "no" comes easy for those who do the hiring, because saying "yes" demands the balls to roll the dice on somebody new -- and most producers are loathe to take a chance. Even when you do manage to land that first DP gig, there's no guarantee you'll keep working enough to make a living.

An old saying from the world of baseball applies here: "Getting to the major leagues is one thing -- staying there is another." Every DP needs a web of contacts to keep working, and such a network doesn't materialize overnight... but while you're waiting for the next DP gig, the phone will keep ringing with offers to work at your old job -- gaffer, grip, whatever -- and the temptation to take those jobs can be overwhelming.  It's never easy to make a living in the freelance jungle below-the-line, where the Gods of Hollywood demand periodic sacrifices from us all, but none so much as those with ambitions to move up.  So long as you hedge your bets by taking gigs in your old, comfortable job, those Gods will not smile upon you.

It was easy enough for Alexander Bell to say "When one door closes, another opens," but it's a very different matter when you must consciously decide to close a door on a solid career path in the hopes that a more satisfying and lucrative door will open. Unless you're independently wealthy, the rent must still be paid and food put on the table, which is one more reason moving up is hard.

Still, people do it. During my last good run on a sitcom, our first AD had begun to do some directing on other shows. He wanted to direct full time, of course, but with a mortgage to pay and kids to put through college, he couldn't justify leaving a relatively steady job to test the uncertain waters of a new career. He straddled the line for a few years, until one day his agent sat him down to deliver this message: "If you want to be taken seriously as a director, you'll have to quit working as an AD."  So he did, leaving our show before the final season, and it worked out. He made the leap of faith, stuck the landing, and has enjoyed a very successful career as a director ever since.

Every career unfolds at its own pace, and success doesn't always come early.  When not gripping on features, episodics, and commercials, Louie Escobar has been doing volunteer work teaching art, photography, and still photography to young people at Inner City Arts in downtown LA. He's still pushing to become a full time DP, and if there's any justice in this world, will make that jump sooner rather than later. Some of the best DPs I worked with over the years began as grips or juicers, where they received an education that allows them to know exactly what's needed to get a job done without flogging the crew, working excessively long hours, or running the budget into the red. When Louie makes it -- and I think he will -- he'll be a very good DP.

Meanwhile, check out his website, where he's compiled a remarkable portfolio of terrific photographs. Unlike so many who toil below the line, this man's talent is anything but hidden.