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 4, 2021

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 64

                               "Tiger, tiger, burning bright...

Leading off this 4th of July post is a story from Jeff Smith, who recently retired from a long, bruising career as a grip, best boy, and key grip before settling in as a dolly grip to close out his career. His story brings an added resonance to the bitter cliché "No good deed goes unpunished" -- a phrase that puzzled me when I was young, but which resonated ever more with each passing year in Hollywood.

There's really nothing good about a 4:00 a.m call time, especially on a cold, damp morning. Fully loaded with a sleepy crew desperate for coffee, our passenger van left the hotel and headed for Pismo Beach, the only beach in California where ordinary people (including film crews) can legally drive vehicles on the sand. Our job today was to film an Exxon commercial starring the Exxon Tiger.*  Once we arrived at the beach parking lot, each van driver was careful to follow the park ranger leading our caravan, whose job was to make sure we didn't wander off the hard-packed sand onto the soft, deeper stuff. The van I rode in (with Mike - the key grip - and thirteen other people) was behind a truck towing a flatbed trailer equipped with a cage holding that huge Bengal tiger

Although towing a trailer on a beach can be problematic, everything would have been fine if the truck driver had followed the park ranger -- but that would be too easy. Instead, he had the bright idea to take a shortcut across the deep, dry sand, where the truck and trailer promptly got stuck. Being a grip means lending a hand in such situations, so Mike and I jumped out to help the wranglers get unstuck, using their shovel to dig the tires out, then jamming wooden blocks underneath, all standard procedure for getting a vehicle out of deep sand. Meanwhile, our van and all the other crew vans kept going on through the dark, and were soon out of sight.

Once we had every scrap of wood available shoved under the tires, Mike and I got behind the trailer and pushed hard as the driver gave it the gas. It didn't come easy, but eventually he powered out and drove away as fast as possible to keep from getting bogged down again.  After exchanging high-fives for getting the job done, it dawned on us that we were now alone on that pitch black beach. Surely they'd send a van back to pick us up, but with nothing else to do, we started walking ... and walking ... and walking.  After twenty minutes, it was clear that no van would be coming, but by then we could see lights in the far distance.  After walking another mile, we finally arrived on set forty-five minutes after call time, just as dawn was beginning to break. Our D.P. was livid. 

"Where the FUCK have you guys been?" he yelled.

Before either of us could respond, the producer chimed in. 

"I don't know why, but they wanted to walk."

I couldn't believe my ears.  My jaw dropped and my eyes got wide -- now it was my turn to yell.

"What do you mean we 'wanted to walk?' We were digging the tiger trailer out of the sand and the vans left us there. Nobody came came back to pick us up. Why the hell would we want to walk two miles and be forty-five minutes late?"

The producer slithered away without another word.**

Finally able to start doing our work, we built a network of cages out of six-foot parallels with decking on top, then wrapped each in cyclone fencing, with the legs of every parallel secured by bull pricks driven as deep as possible into the sand.  Several cameras with a long lenses were set up inside, each with an operator and assistant. Meanwhile, the wranglers unloaded a small cage of their own, which they placed out in front of the camera cages, keeping it low enough to remain out of frame.  In that cage was a nice little goat that would serve as bait for the tiger.

                                                    Inside the Tiger Cage

                                                 (photo by Michael Milella)

 Once we were ready to shoot, the wranglers walked the big cat out to the sand dunes a hundred yards away, then the goat was brought out on a leash and paraded around in front of its little cage. When the tiger noticed the goat, it charged full speed at what he thought would make a nice breakfast snack, but at the last second a wrangler jerked the goat to safety just as the tiger slammed hard into that little cage. The tiger was frustrated, but that poor goat must have been terrified.

After a few takes the tiger got bored with this game -- after all, a cat, no matter how big, is still a cat -- and wandered off, at which point everybody not in one of the cages was ordered into a van or motor home while wranglers tried to corral the magnificent beast. The whole scene reminded me of those "Shark Week" shows on Discovery Channel, where scuba divers pay lots of money to go underwater in a steel cage while hungry Great White sharks circle around -- but here we were getting paid to remain in a cage safe from a tiger -- in essence, a Land Shark.  The wranglers finally got the tiger back with a hunk of raw meat and a thick leather collar attached to a heavy steel chain, and we went back to work.

A day that started off ugly with an asshole producer ended up as one of the more memorable experiences of my early days as a grip -- and at least nobody got stuck in the sand at the end of the day as we left Pismo Beach.


Any of you who've been around BS&T for a while might be familiar with Martini Shot, veteran television writer/producer (and sometimes director) Rob Long's brief, wry commentaries on the vagaries and vicissitudes of working in Hollywood.  Martini Shot ran every week on LA's main NPR radio station for many years until the Covid shutdown put an end to all that, and for reasons best known to the powers-that-be in management at KCRW, they decided to stop hosting Rob's commentaries, which -- not to put too fine a point on it -- really pissed me off. But since I no longer live in LA, and thus don't send money to KCRW during their every interminable pledge drive (that money goes instead to my local NPR outlet in the Bay Area), I couldn't really bitch about it. But an e-mail to Rob revealed that a he's still doing his Martini Shot commentaries, which can be heard here.  They're good, and at four to six minutes long, well worth your time.

The link to the Rob's KCRW archives will remain over on the right side of the home page under "Essential Listening," along with a link to current Martini Shot episodes.  Check it out, although I must issue fair warning: Martini Shot is a hole you can fall into for a long time -- like when you really should be writing a blog post instead...


We've all heard of -- and many of us have worked on -- "shit shows," be they television or features run by idiots whose toxic egos and/or consistently stupid decisions made life miserable for all concerned, but a game show for NBC called Slip 'n Slide brought an entirely new dimension to the term, redefining it in an all too literal manner. Apparently the production used copious quantities of water contaminated with giardia bacteria for their giant slip 'n slide, which induced the rapid onset of extreme gastro-intestinal distress among the cast and crew.  According to Wikipedia, Giardia causes "excess gas, stomach or abdominal cramps, upset stomach, and nausea" -- and in this case (drum roll, please...) "explosive diarrhea," which (needless to say) incapacitated everyone affected and shut down the production.

Just imagine having to drive home through rush hour LA traffic while suffering from explosive diarrhea...

Once again, I'm so grateful to be retired.

There are other reasons I'm happy to no longer work on set, among them the rapid influx of new and ever more complex lighting technology. LED lamps were just coming into the industry during my last few years in Hollywood, and since then, several generations of new lamps -- many of which must be controlled by computerized consoles -- are now common on set. There are many advantages to this new technology, but the first time I had to hang a few dozen LED units, each equipped with a screen and buttons on the back to access the digital menu, I knew it was time for me to go. 

Back when I was a gaffer in the late 80's through the 90's, all I needed was an incident light meter, a spot meter, and an optical frequency meter -- a device about the size of a pager that allowed me to read the frequency output of a generator simply by pointing the meter at a burning HMI. In those days, the frequency of a generator had to be kept between 59.75 and 60.25 hertz, or else the processed film could suffer the dreaded "HMI flicker," which made it look as though an inebriated First A.C. had been opening and closing the aperture of the camera during each take.  When flicker-free ballasts were introduced, my $400 "freak meter" was instantly rendered obsolete.  My DP had a color meter which we used to keep our HMIs and high output Kino Flo fluorescent units within an acceptably consistent range of color temperature, a process that typically involved adding a combination of eighth or quarter plus/minus green gel along with CTO or CTB, depending on whether we needed to warm or cool the light. This was relatively straightforward, and worked well, but with so many different LED units from a wide variety of manufacturers, maintaining a consistent color temperature nowadays has become more complex. If you doubt that, take a look at this clip explaining how to use a new color temperature meter made for the modern era of LEDs.

Uh, no thanks.  I'm happy to spend my retirement weed-whacking, tree-trimming, and barbecuing out on the deck rather than trying to figure out how use all this new technology.  That the new stuff works is undeniable -- in most ways, movies look better than ever these days -- but I'm happy to leave all that for a new generation of juicers, best boys, and gaffers.

Happy 4th of July, kiddos.  Have fun out there, and play safe.

* Not this exact commercial, but very similar.  

** I worked with this producer more than once -- and yes, he was a jerk.