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 2, 2020

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 56

                                    Canvas backing used on "Sound of Music"

Back in the early 80s, I did a fair amount of work at Paramount and Warner Bros (a.k.a. "TBS" at the time - The Burbank Studios) as a permit grip. Among our many tasks was to retrieve painted canvas backings and trans-lights (the latter essentially a giant photographic slide) from the scene dock, then roll or carrying them to a sound-stage, where we'd go up high, drop ropes, and pull the backdrop up into place. There, they'd serve as a background outside a window, or open door (or whatever) to match the scene being filmed by the 1st unit show crew.  I was still young enough to have a romantic view of the movie business, and those old backings seemed laden with cinematic history. Since I'd doubtless seen many of those very same backings in the movies and TV shows of my youth, working with them made me feel that I'd finally become a part of Hollywood. 

Some of those old canvas backdrops are still being used in the multi-camera world, where smaller budgets preclude doing much filming on location. Canvas backings are relatively cheap to rent, and good enough for sitcoms, where high production values are not nearly as important as good casting and clever, funny scripts.  

Back in the day, every studio had its own scene dock full of hand-painted backings, but with features and episodic television (particularly the streaming dramas) now filming more on location or using green/blue screen technology for a hyper-realistic look or to create fantastical backgrounds, there's not much demand for the old canvas backings, and many have gone into the trash.

In December, the LA Times ran a terrific piece on a long overdue effort to save a few of the old painted canvas backings.  Some real artistry went into them, and now some are being preserved.  That's a good thing.

Still, it's sad to think of all the skill it took to create those large scale paintings dying out.  There are still a few of these artists around, but their numbers are shrinking.  As the saying goes, "All things must pass."


On that note - unfortunately - the bell has tolled for Modern Props. With it's distinctive logo and sophisticated, terrific-looking props (which at the time represented the ne plus ultra in modernity), Modern Props quickly became a major presence in Hollywood during the 80's.

But nothing lasts forever in LA, and Modern Props has gone the way of so many legendary institutions that once supported the industry, marching into Hollywood history.

I still have a piece of Modern Props, a sweatshirt the art department snagged for me back when I was gaffing commercials thirty years ago. Here's the image from the front of that shirt. (Thanks, Bob!)


While we're on the subject of Hollywood passings... Buck Henry, a low-key, very funny guy with one of the more unlikely names in Hollywood.  Tagged with a name like "Buck Henry," he should have been one of Hollywood's loud, rugged, hard-drinking, two-fisted manly-men -- a bigger, brawnier Sean Penn, if you will, but with a sense of humor. Instead, he was a quiet, bespectacled, supremely talented writer, actor, and occasional director who let his work speak for itself. He had a hand in many films that made a big impression on me over the years, from The Graduate, to Heaven Can Wait, to The Player, and was universally liked and respected. When working below-the-line, much can be heard about many of the big names in the film and television industry -- talk that's rarely flattering -- but during all my years in Hollywood, I never heard a bad word about Buck Henry.  For a taste of his quiet wit and humor, here's a brief on-stage interview he did with Terry Gross, originally broadcast on her show, "Fresh Air." 

I hate it when we lose another of the really good ones. 


Despite all the box office/ratings success of movies and television these days, the business is in turmoil, from the streaming wars to the ongoing struggle between the Writers Guild and agents.  A few months ago, the WGA ordered its members to fire their agents, which most of them did, over something called "packaging."  This has to do with agents moving beyond their singular role of representing clients - striving to get the very best deal for the writers they've signed - to playing both sides of the field in order to make a lot more money. None of this made much sense to me until I read this, by David Simon, an ex-newspaper man turned writer turned show-runner of some truly great HBO shows, including The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce.  Simon knows of what he speaks, having come to the television industry assuming - as once was the case - that an agent would fight hard with the network executives to get the best deal possible for his client. What he learned as the scales fell from his eyes during that process is detailed in the article, which is eye-opening, and definitely worth a read if you're a young writer striving to succeed in Hollywood.

The streaming wars are going strong these days, with another new, oddly-named streaming entity (Quibi, anyone?) popping up every few weeks. God knows where all this will end, but remember: early in the 20th century, there were more than a hundred small automobile manufacturing companies in the U.S. alone. Fifty years later, only a handful of large survivors remained, and those numbers have continued to shrink since then. Over the next decade or so, a similar winnowing will probably take place in the rapidly-expanding universe of streaming entities, as the weaker fail and/or are absorbed by their larger, more fiscally stable competitors. Which will remain standing is unclear, but all will become clear in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, here's a piece that helps explain what's going on.


A good director puts a lot of thought into the art direction, wardrobe, and shot selection of his/her movie, all of which help support and flesh out the unfolding narrative. Noah Baumbach is a very good director, and if you've seen Marriage Story, this half hour discussion between Elvis Mitchell and director Baumbach is definitely worth a listen, offering a fascinating look at the process. Any of you budding directors out there can learn a lot from him.

A further education in the finer points of filmmaking is in this seven minute clip, wherein various distinguished DPs discuss how they "grade" a film after the picture is locked in the editing process. Grading involves the final adjustments to color and contrast from shot to shot, to give an overall "look" to a movie. Another clip, titled Fuck the Numbers, discusses the difference between those who use their eye and knowledge of art to capture compelling images, and those who, in effect, paint by the numbers. Both of these clips are from a fascinating series put out by the people at Cooke Lenses  (you can subscribe to the whole series), and were brought to my attention by retired DP/director Peter McLennan, who made a memorable contribution to this blog a six years ago with this wonderful two-part post

If you never read those posts, I urge you to do so. You'll be glad you did.


Finally, here's the year-in-review show from KCRW's The Business.  A lot happened in the film/television industry during 2019, so check it out.  

That's all for this month. The way 2020 has unfolded thus far, I suggest you buckle up your seatbelts, kiddos -- we've got eleven more months to go, and it promises to be a bumpy flight.