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, April 7, 2024

Whither Hollywood ... again.

Like every veteran of Hollywood, I've seen a few changes to our industry over the decades.  Carbon arcs and tungsten lamps were the state of the art in film lighting technology as I was getting started in the late 70s, but arcs were soon elbowed aside by HMI lamps in the early 80s.  HMIs have evolved a lot since then, and still rule the roost of day exterior filming, but small LED lamps have made inroads in lighting on sound stages and for day/night interiors. From what I hear anecdotally, attempts at larger LED fresnel lamps haven't as yet been entirely successful, but that too may just be a matter of time.

LED Walls came into use in the last few years to replace the crude canvas backings, trans-lights, and blue/green screen technology that has long been standard on Hollywood sound stages. These arrived after I retired, so I never got a chance to see them on set -- but their capabilities are astonishing.  Not only can LED walls create a totally believable world for the actors to inhabit, but the "location" light emanating from the LED screens helps light the actors for the camera in a naturalistic manner. Some physical props and sets are still needed, along with additional lighting, but the end results are remarkable.

For more examples of what LED walls can do, click herehere, and here -- and if you're really interested, here's how an LED wall is constructed on stage.

I addressed the question Whither Hollywood? a dozen years ago -- a very different era -- and although I'm clearly no Hollywood Nostradamous, this seems a good time to take another stab at it. Once again everything seems to be in flux: just when it seemed that LED technology was exactly what Hollywood needed to continue grinding out "product," along came AI to muddle the waters and send shivers down the spine of Hollywood veterans and relative newbies alike -- above and below the line.

We've all seen the AI-generated images from Sora by now, which are as startling as they are scary for everybody who works on set in the film and television industry. Half of those clips look appropriate for animation, but others are astonishingly photo-realistic. There are major limitations on the capability of AI imagery at the moment, but given the rapid evolutionary progress of all things digital, it seems destined to have a serious impact on the industry as we know it ... and indeed, it already has.  After seeing what AI can do, Tyler Perry recently backed off a planned $800 million expansion of his studio facilities in Atlanta. A lot of people there were doubtless looking forward to the construction jobs that were to come from building those sound stages, and the movies and television shows that would have been shot there. 

Now, who knows?

Creating hyper-realistic images and sixty-second clips is a long way from making a feature film, of course, much less generating the kind of performance a skilled actor can bring to the screen -- and blending truly convincing vocals and performance with AI imagery may prove a much steeper hill to climb.  That said, new generations of viewers are bringing their own sense of aesthetics to the table. In time, those who grew up immersed in the visual textures and palette of video games may be ready to leap across the uncanny valley to fully embrace AI performances on screen.  

Movie audiences were once dazzled by black and white silent films in a nearly square format, then came sync-sound and a slightly wider format, followed by color, true widescreen, three-strip technicolor, VistaVision, cinemascope, Cinerama, Imax, digital, high def, 4K, 8K, and now ... AI.  

"The only constant is change," the ancients cautioned, and big changes in the way movies are made and viewed have been part of the equation from the very beginning. 

The potential of AI is doubtless bringing the money people and producing class -- at least those who actually work at producing rather than those who've been anointed the title "producer" thanks to the efforts of their agents -- to a state of euphoric delirium as they dream about abandoning cameras, crews, physical sets, sound stages, and location filming altogether in favor making movies entirely within the digital boundaries of computers.  I can see them high-fiving over magnums of Cristal champagne while chortling "We'll save hundreds of millions -- that's more money for us!" In these wet-dream fantasies, those who do the heavy lifting on and off set will go the way of steam trains and the boiler tenders who shoveled coal to keep those massive engines running, all relegated to the sepia-toned archives of Hollywood history. 

Their dream is a nightmare for the rest of Hollywood.

Although I don't think that day will come soon, the long-term outlook for those currently employed in Hollywood is not encouraging.  AI might never replace all the workers on set, but it could drastically reduce their numbers, which is not something any of us wants to hear.  The industry health care and pension plans are funded in part by contributions from working union members, and a slimmer workforce would reduce that funding. Absent some new source of income, a tipping point could be reached beyond which both programs collapse, which would be catastrophic for the rank-and-file who desperately need health coverage now, and will eventually need the pensions they've earned. 

The decade prior to the last year's WGA/SAG strike was golden as the streaming networks funneled vast sums into producing movies and television shows, which brought a lot of new writers, directors, and crew people into the industry -- but given the boom-and-bust nature of Hollywood, I had a bad feeling that many of those who came in during the boom times of streaming would be left high and dry when the inevitable bust came. Sure enough, once it dawned on the money men that the economics of streaming wouldn't support such high levels of spending, an across-the-board retrenchment commenced well before the WGA/SAG strike. From what I hear,  production is still way down as we move into what should be the peak of pilot season ... but it's just not happening. Maybe this is due to the threat of an IA strike in the coming summer, or maybe the money people are just waiting to see what develops. I don't know, and I'm not sure anybody else does either, but one thing is evident: a lot of people are hurting in Hollywood these days.

So ... back to the subject of AI.  After deciding to conduct my own experiment, I logged on to ChatGTP, created an account, then asked it to come up with 150 words describing how AI would affect workers in Hollywood -- written in the style of "The Hollywood Juicer."  I haven't a clue if ChatGTP knows who or what "The Hollywood Juicer" might be, but this is what came back.

"In a whirlwind of circuits and celluloid dreams, the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) casts a shadow over the bustling streets of Hollywood.  As the gears of innovation grind, so to do the fears and aspirations of the industry's workforce.  AI's incursion into Hollywood promises both marvels and challenges, reshaping the landscape of creativity and labor.  On one hand, AI heralds a new era of efficiency, streamlining the production pipeline and revolutionizing visual effects. Automated algorithms analyze scripts, predict box office success, and even generate storyboards. Yet, this technological revolution raises poignant questions about job displacement and creative autonomy.  Will AI render traditional roles obsolete, leaving actors, writers, and directors adrift in a sea of algorithms?  Navigating this brave new world demands a delicate dance between innovation and preservation.  Embracing AI's potential while safeguarding the human touch is the industry's tightrope walk. For Hollywood's denizens, the future beckons with both trepidation and tantalizing promise." 

Other than counting the words (153, for those who care), who am I to judge?  I leave it to you, dear readers: Should I just punch in a question or subject on the first Sunday of every month, then publish the results rather than slaving over a hot keyboard for weeks on end to come up with readable posts?

Let the Vox Populi be heard!


I must confess that not many modern movies interest me.  The last two mainstream movies I saw and liked were Bladerunner 2049 and Hell or High Water, both of which are ... well, let's just say "no longer new." Another recent viewing was Crazy Heart, which I liked, but given that it's fifteen years old, you can see where I'm going here.  This could be because I've become an old crank who shakes my cane at passing clouds while grumbling "They just don't make 'em like they used to!" -- or maybe, as The Dude might say, I'm just not into the whole superhero thing. If you love Marvel movies, great -- hey, more power to you -- but I'd rather stay home and watch Netflix, TMC, or Criterion these days.  Still, every now and then I hear about a new movie that makes me sit up and pay attention, which is what exactly happened when I heard this review of Don't Expect Too Much From the End of the World, then watched the trailer

Okay, now I really want to see this one, because it just might be another Stranger than Paradise, which blew my considerably younger mind back in 1984, but since it's only playing at little art house theaters at the moment -- none of which are near me -- I'll probably have to wait until it hits a streaming network. You might be luckier.

Even the staid Gray Lady herself had good things to say about this movie -- and if that link leads to a paywall, try this one, which the NYT claims should be good until April 20 or so.  I'm not gonna waste my breath and surrender my wrists to tunnel carpal syndrome by describing those reviews and the trailer, so just click those links and see/hear for yourself.  This movie sounds like a true breath of fresh cinematic air, which we sorely need these days.


     The young me with an even younger Lea Thompson in her wardrobe for the day.

I took a trip down memory lane recently to watch a feature I'd worked on thirty-seven years ago.  Thirty-seven years ... how is that even possible?  

The tempus, it really does fugit.

I don't recall that a cast and crew screening was ever held for The Wizard of Loneliness, which we filmed late in 1987 in rural Vermont with a surprisingly good cast for a low-budget feature: a very young Lucas Hass, the lovely Lea Thompson, Dylan Baker, Lance Guest, and the venerable old pro John Randolph.  It was a tough shoot  -- two solid months of six-day weeks filming in a small town amid the rugged hills a forty-five-minute drive east of Sugarbush, where it got very cold as November morphed into December.  I've written about this job before, and the small crew we had to film night exteriors in the snow, a deal memo that paid us overtime only after we'd worked a cumulative 96 hours per week, the six rental cars various crew members wrecked while driving icy roads in the first weeks of production, and Lea suffering a cut on her head in one of those crashes that required plastic surgery back in LA while we shot around her for several weeks -- but I'd never actually seen it.  The VHS tape of the movie that I bought twenty years ago and never watched is now useless without a working VCR, so I figured I'd never get to see it ... until one night it occurred to me to search the web, and sure enough: there it was on Amazon Prime. You know what?  It's not half bad.  Rather earnest, and there are five or ten minutes that might better have ended up on the cutting room floor, but all in all it's a decent little period piece.  

The thing about watching a show you worked on is that it feels a bit like a home movie -- so many scenes remind you of things that happened on set -- some crazy, some fun, and many not fun at all -- and of the people you met and worked with back then, but never saw again.  Finally seeing The Wizard of Loneliness was a bit like watching a lovely young woman in a sleek, sexy dress walking down the street on a lovely spring day ... it made me feel young and old at the same time.  

And on that rather poignant note (thanks for the writing tip, ChatGTP!), I'll sign off for another month.  Spring is here, so try to ignore the firehose of bad news that's drowning us all these days, and enjoy it while you can.

Sorry about the awkward formatting in the very first paragraph.  It was all fine and dandy until I found a better train photo to replace my original choice, and for reasons best known to digital gurus, tech nerds, and the non-existent God above who clearly hates me ... it fucked up the formatting of that paragraph all to hell and gone.  I tried to fix it four times -- rewriting that paragraph and reinstalling the links, but each time the rogue formatting re-emerged.  Blogger software is buggy in its own special and infuriating way, leaving me no choice but to go outside and shake my cane at a cloud.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Dark Day


From the first time I walked onto a soundstage, I liked going up high, where the work was always physical but relatively straightforward. The catwalks are a world apart from the clusterfuck of noise and confusion that so often infects the stage floor, where one or two loudmouths always seemed to be yelling about something. Some days were utterly terrifying, of course, but at least I knew that I was contributing in a meaningful way -- and in the process, earning every last penny of my paycheck ... and then some. Those days were very satisfying on many different levels.

Working thirty to forty-five feet or higher off the ground comes with inherent risks -- gravity has no mercy and takes no prisoners -- so you have to be careful, but the soundstages I started on at Paramount and Warner Brothers were in solid shape.  I felt safe on most of the non-union stages around town as well, although a few of the really old ones were decidedly sketchy.  My biggest worry when working up high was accidentally dropping a crescent wrench or screwdriver that might hit some poor bastard down on the stage floor. Still, most of those stages I worked on were built many decades ago, and time takes a toll on everything. Any studio that doesn't keep an eye on and maintain those catwalks is putting at risk the lives of crews who work up high. 

A terrible tragedy happened early last month at the CBS Studio in the valley -- "Radford" as it's known throughout Hollywood, which was my favorite studio and home lot for the last third of my career.  A  41-year-old lighting technician working a show on Stage 3, one of the oldest soundstages on the lot, was killed when the boards under his feet gave way with no warning. Exactly what happened remains unclear pending the investigation, but what matters is this: one moment Juan "Spike" Osorio was doing his job and the next moment he was falling forty feet to his death.  He wasn't out on the perms or doing anything remotely dangerous -- he was just doing the physical but routine task of wrangling cable up high, something every juicer does many times over the course of a career.  I spent countless days landing and dropping cable up high at Radford, although never on Stage 3, where Gunsmoke and many other shows were filmed way before my time in Hollywood. Never once in all those years did I worry about catwalk floorboards giving way like a trap door -- the possibility never entered my mind.  I'd spot occasional missing boards or a weak safety rail on the catwalks, and if I couldn't fix the issue right then and here, I'd report it to the studio rigging gaffer. Other than a few heart-pounding adventures out on the perms, I never felt in any danger up high, but it seems my confidence in the structural integrity of those stages was misplaced.  

The ripple effects of this tragedy won't be confined to Juan's widow and their families -- and here I speak from experience: nobody who was there will ever forget the sight and sounds of his violent death.  It's bad enough if you don't personally know the man, but if he was part of your crew and/or a friend, it's devastating. One way or another, everybody on that stage is a victim, and Spike's death will haunt them for a very long time.

Maybe I was just lucky during my years working up high -- I really don't know. All I can say for sure is that Juan Osorio didn't deserve to die on Stage 3: he should have finished his workday and gone home to his wife. There will doubtless be some kind of legal action and eventual settlement, but those things take time, so a GoFundMe has been established for his wife, who needs all the support she can get right now. I chipped in, but it was still short of the goal the last time I checked, so if you can help, please do.  If for whatever reason you can't contribute, please consider adding your voice to this online petition pressing for legislation to mandate that studios inspect, maintain, and repair sound stages. Let's do what we can to make sure what happened to Spike never happens to anybody else.


RIP, Spike.

I'd planned to write about other things this month, but shifting to another subject just doesn't feel right, so I'll save it for another day.


Sunday, February 4, 2024


Thanks to the "Crew Stories" FB page, I recently came across another "inside the belly of the beast" film book. In Purple Fury: Rumbling With the Warriors, Rob Ryder weaves a collection of anecdotes describing his adventures toiling in many aspects of the film industry -- from PA to locations, set dec, acting, screenwriting, props, and sundry other on/off set chores -- around the central story of working on Walter Hill's legendary 1979 film The Warriors.  The title and cover photo come from Rob being drafted by Hill to replace an injured stuntman as a member of "The Baseball Furies," one of the violent gangs The Warriors must confront as they fight their way across New York City over the course of one long, bruising night. While playing the bat-swinging role of "Purple Fury" for the cameras at night, he managed to keep his day job in the Locations Dept for a few days, which made the messy and exhausting job of working a feature film all the more grueling. 

As you can see from the first page, Ryder is a stylish writer who spins a punchy, informative, and highly entertaining tale: 

"Making movies is a lot like life -- a swirling chaotic clusterfuck. So if you're looking for a polished story that stays on track, clips along in perfect chronological order and rolls into the last station all tied up in a shiny pink bow, you caught the wrong train."  

He wasn't kidding. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and place from NYC to Hollywood, but Ryder's casual conversational style feels like he's telling you these stories told over a few ... okay, more than a few ... beers, and that's a good thing. This book is a highly entertaining read for industry veterans and newbies alike: the former will nod and grin as they resonate with Ryder's experiences, while the newbies receive a lively and accurate introduction to what it's like to work on a feature film.

I saw The Warriors when it was released thirty-five years ago, and although it made a big impression on me, I had no idea that it's since become a cult favorite all over the world, or that surviving members of the cast still gather at conventions to meet-and-greet fans, many of whom weren't even born when the film first hit theaters. 

Ryder moved to New York to become a writer before fate sent him on a detour into the film industry, but kept at the keyboard writing screenplays that often sold but didn't get made. Although one could view this as -- in the immortal words of then-president Jimmy Carter -- "an incomplete success," it's a hell of a lot more than most wannabe screenwriters accomplish. As his book reveals, he's still at it all these years later, coming up with ideas for scripts and making them pay one way or another. All that practice turned him into an excellent writer, which makes Purple Fury a great read.


There's a fascinating piece on Scott Frank in the January 1 - 8 New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe, titled The Ventriloquist. Truth be told, I'd never heard of Frank before reading this article, but it turns out he's been one of the most prolific and in-demand screenwriter/script doctors in Hollywood for quite a while now, to the point where he was able to demand $300,000 a week for his re-write services before moving into the triple-threat task of being a writer/producer/director.

His credits include Get ShortyMarley & Me, and Logan, among many others, and according to Keefe, has done rewrites for sixty features. His most recent effort is directing a television series currently running on AMC called Monsieur Spade, which imagines the life of an aging Sam Spade -- the lead character of Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon -- after he's left San Franciso to live in France.

Although I've long been interested in writing, I've never been drawn to screenplays.  Like all writing, screenwriting is an art -- and thus a noble endeavor -- but even the best screenplay is a blueprint for a movie, not the movie itself.  No matter how clever the plot or beautiful the story structure, a brilliant screenplay will never see the light of day unless and until someone turns it into a movie.  Few people beyond actors, producers, directors, and aspiring screenwriters read screenplays, and I don't imagine many people outside the film and television industry ever say to themselves "Hey, this feels like a good night to sit by the fire and read a screenplay."  

The best screenwriters are as good at their craft as any short story specialist, novelist, or poet, but I'm grateful that I've never been drawn to that particular literary flame.  I know a few people who are, and although they write smart, well-structured screenplays, the finger-to-the-air nature of the marketplace has left them beating their heads against the wall of futility for many years.  It seems that a good screenplay at the wrong time has less a chance of being sold -- much less making it to the silver screen -- than a bad screenplay at the right time.  Although I can't imagine dealing with such a level of frustration, I salute those who keep grinding away at it year after year.  They're made of sterner stuff than I.    

For what it's worth,  here are some thoughts on the subject of screenwriting from back in 2008, and eight years later, a few more thoughts.   

Keefe's article is a great read, so I hope that link works -- you never know these days.  If not, well, most libraries carry the New Yorker, and this one is worth a trip to your local branch.  For any of you interested in more from Scott Frank, he has a lot to say in several of the On Story podcasts out of Austin, Texas.


At some point in the last few years I stopped listening to podcasts of The Business, the weekly half-hour show on KCRW-FM that begins with a quick roundup of the latest news in the film and television industry, then moves on to an interview with an actor, writer, director, producer, or other luminary of the business.  Some weeks were great, others not so much, but eventually I grew weary of the show host, Kim Masters, and her habit of constantly interrupting and talking over her guests to the point where it seemed she thought the show was more about her than them.

I tuned in again recently and was pleasantly surprised to find that -- for these two episodes, anyway -- Kim left the interviewing to hosts more willing to shine the spotlight on the guests. The first features Noah Hawley discussing his Fargo series and another series in the works based on the "Alien" movies.  A wonderful storyteller, Hawley is also one very smart guy, and has some interesting things to say about a lot of things in that conversation.  The second has Gary Oldman talking about his role in Slow Horses, his acting career, his interest in directing, and the lure of continuing to work part-time so he can do things in life other than work on set. Personally, I could listen to Gary Oldman read a phone book (google it, kids) for twenty minutes, but this interview offers a lot more. If you like either show, give these a listen -- you'll be glad you did.


A letter from my union local arrived a couple of weeks ago with an odd request: the officers wanted me to retire ... again.  I was confused at first --  didn't I already retire back in 2017, so WTF?

It turns out that a large portion of the dues each retiree pays to remain a member of the local goes to the IA international.* Although that's not necessarily a bad thing, my local in LA is hard-pressed to keep up with the ever-increasing cost of life insurance premiums that cover all members. They could raise the quarterly dues, of course, but after most of the union was unemployed for more than six months last year thanks to the WGA/SAG strike -- and with full production not yet up to speed in Hollywood -- nobody wants to see the dues go up.  By signing and returning the form, I'd become "a retired member of IATSE" rather than simply retired from Local 728,  so the local would get more of the annual dues I pay, which would help defray those insurance costs.  

According to the letter, the only downside to signing that form is that there's no going back. An IA member who retires from the local can "un-retire" and go back to work -- or if sufficiently motivated, run for one of the union officer jobs -- but once he or she officially retires from the international, those avenues are closed. Given that I now live four hundred miles north of LA and am not about to take all those "safety classes" again --  without which I wouldn't be allowed on set anyway -- going back to work was never a realistic possibility, and my interest in becoming an officer of the local is less than zero.  That said, I hate to torch a bridge unless it's unavoidable, so I left the letter sitting on my desk for a week or so.  Then one morning I looked at it and thought "Who am I kidding? No fucking way am I moving back to LA to get back on the Hollywood merry-go-round." 

It's over -- it was over the first time I retired back in 2017.  At this point, an hour or two of stacking firewood finishes me off for the day, so there's no way I could go back to slinging 4/0 on a rigging crew or working 12 hour days on set.  More to the point, I don't want to -- at all. Forty years was enough ... so I signed the form and dropped it in the mail the next day. 

I won't lose any sleep over this.

That's all, kiddos. As months go, February isn't much fun -- at all -- but remember the words of Garrison Keillor:

"Without winter, you can't appreciate the spring."

 * Retiree dues are much less than active members -- in my case, around $120 a year as opposed to nearly $1000 active members pay.