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.