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, October 6, 2019

Rule Number One

                                             The hard way IS the easy way...

During my forty years working first as a grip, then juicer, best boy, gaffer -- then juicer, again -- my daily motto was: "Make the boss look good." Once I strapped on my tool belt, everything I did on set until wrap was finally called flowed from that one central idea, because if I made my boss look good, he/she was a lot more likely to hire me on the next job.

In that sense, it was pure self-interest.

This didn't mean endlessly backslapping and flattering those above me on the crew food chain, or telling everybody else how great my immediate boss was -- hey, I worked for Best Boys, Gaffers, and Directors of Photography, not Donald Fucking Trump -- but it did mean doing every aspect of my job in a thorough, professional manner to make sure nothing could come back to bite me or my department on the ass. When I started out as a grip, sandbags were liberally and properly employed, as a juicer, loose connections were tightened, excess cable was tied up and out of the way, lamps that didn't work quite right were repaired or sent back and replaced with good ones. As a Best Boy, I kept a constant eye on the genny, diligently checking the frequency (there were no "flicker free" HMIs back then) and the amp load on each leg of the cable run. As a Gaffer, I took copious notes during location scouts, and more than once went back to a potentially tricky location on my own time just to make sure I understood exactly what we'd need for the job -- then I triple-checked my equipment orders before sending them in. All this was aimed at making sure nothing under my control would go wrong at a bad time -- and although there's no good time for something to go wrong when dealing with electricity, there certainly are worse times. You really don't want a lamp to fail or a loose connection to start smoldering, melt down, and catch fire when a big, expensive star is on set working in front of the cameras... or during a show being filmed in front of a live audience.*

Absolute perfection is unattainable, of course -- film and television being a human endeavor, things will go wrong from time to time -- but the idea is to minimize the chances of that happening. Although other departments might never notice when things go smoothly on your crew (they're busy dealing with their own challenges), a good, experienced director, producer, UPM, or AD certainly will, because they've all been on shows where that wasn't the case, and they understand how much care, effort, and professionalism is required to keep everything on a set running smoothly.

Shit will occasionally happen no matter how careful you are, though, and usually when you least expect it. So long as it's a rare occurrence, this shouldn't be a big deal, but if lamps failing and connections melting down becomes a regular thing, that will be noted -- and even though the direct fault may lie elsewhere, the Best Boy will come under scrutiny from the gaffer for hiring such a sloppy  crew, while the gaffer receives a raised eyebrow from the DP, and the DP suffers a skeptical glance from the Director, UPM, and Producer for the same reason.  Recurrent problems in any one department casts a negative light on everyone involved, and if not rectified quickly, heads will roll. A Gaffer or Best Boy who hires a lousy crew is putting his/her own job and career at risk.

That's why it's important to do things right, which means avoiding the quick-and-dirty easy way. Your reputation is built on doing a consistently good job, not simply getting it done as fast as possible, and having to backtrack to fix a screw-up means doing it twice -- once the wrong way, then again the right way. Not only does this double your work, but it leaves you feeling like an idiot. Most veterans of the industry have been there, including me, which is how I came to understand that very often, the hard way is the easy way.

This doesn't mean being stupid, of course. The idea is to work smart, not unnecessarily hard, and working smart means doing the job right the first time.

This being a time = money industry, we don't always have the luxury of doing everything by the book, which is where experience makes all the difference. When the DP needs it done ASAP, we sometimes have to resort to a fast bubble-gum-and-baling-wire rig -- and we've all dealt with that situation -- but this should be the exception rather than the rule. The key is knowing how to do a quick rig in a way that minimizes the chances of anything going sideways. Still, sometimes you'll just have to say "No. We need a few minutes to do this safely," and again, experience will be your best guide to making this decision. When that happens, be sure to emphasize the word "safety," which will usually silence a director, DP, or AD who's trying to rush things along. Big trouble awaits anyone in a position of authority on set who ignores a safety warning before something goes wrong.

Given the long hours we work, it can be easy to fall into bad habits, which is another reason to make doing it the right way your default setting. I've run across a few grips and juicers over the years who were lazy slugs, always looking for the easiest, quickest way to accomplish every task. You might get away with that approach for a while, but sooner or later it'll catch up to you -- and that will make your boss look bad. Keep it up and your phone will stop ringing. The Freelance Jungle is a Darwinian world in which only the reliably competent can survive and prosper.

Remember this once you rise to a position of hiring a crew: they can make or break you. A Best Boy or Gaffer is only as good as his/her crew, and hiring a sloppy crew is a good way to curtail your own future job prospects. When I first started gaffing, a veteran gaffer I'd BB'd for gave me a very good piece of advice: "Hire guys who are better than you."  At first -- being justifiably insecure in my new role as a Gaffer -- I wasn't quite sure what to make of this, but in time I understood. When I landed my one and only gig as a Lighting Director on a commercial (it was a total fluke that I got the job, but the rate was $200/day more than I'd been getting as a gaffer), I hired that same gaffer to run the crew. It was a sizable rig that had to be done right, with forty chicken coops hung above a huge silk, and a row of cyc-lights arrayed all around to illuminate a big white three-corner cyclorama. There were no sets, but the commercial featured three elephants, two adults and a baby, and the lighting had to be smooth and bright... which it was. With the crew's hard work (and a few key suggestions he quietly whispered in my ear), that Gaffer made me look good.

Hey, sometimes you really do have to fake it 'til you make it -- and that's when a really good crew can save your ass.

So do it once, do it right, and remember: always make your boss look good...

* Or rig these lamps that fell and nearly clobbered a future President and First Lady on national TV...