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)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

TV Critics and the Modern Sit-com

“De gustibus non est disputandum”

In the real world -- where people crawl home after a long day of beating their heads against the brick walls of a job they're grateful to have, yet hate in so many ways -- there will always be a place for clever escapist entertainment designed to distract us from work, politics, life in general, and the increasingly dismal state of a world lurching inexorably towards the abyss.

Every now and then we all need a mental time-out of one sort or another. Each has our own preferences when it comes to zoning out in front of the Toob, but over the last decade, so-called “reality television” – mutant bastard-spawn of the ancient Candid Camera show – shouldered aside the traditional multi-camera sit-com as the media opiate of choice for vast numbers of television viewers.

I don’t much care for the genre. From “Survivor” and “American Idol” to the odious “Housewives of Orange County” and their mindless young cultural kin along "The Jersey Shore," “reality television” remains a bleak wasteland of shame and humiliation. Still, a lot of people I know and respect are fans of these shows, and since there really is no accounting for taste -- what we like is not who we are -- I won't pass judgment on their viewing habits.

Despite drifting out of the popular spotlight, the old-fashioned multi-camera sit-com never really died. Kept alive by the astonishing success of “Two and a Half Men” (until Charlie Sheen’s recent meltdown, anyway) followed by “Big Bang Theory,” the flickering flame of sit-coms is burning brighter these days thanks to a resurgence on cable led by Betty White’s return to center stage in “Hot in Cleveland.”

For an old dog like me -- with work boots firmly planted on the turf of sit-coms in making my Last Stand in Hollywood -- that’s a very good thing.*

Two very eloquent critics of the medium recently addressed the state of the modern sit-com. Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman discusses the “unexplainable surge in good sitcoms” currently on TV, while Robert Lloyd –- to my mind, the LA Times most thoughtful TV critic –- dissects the evolution of sit-coms over time, both as a genre and the manner in which an individual hit show tends to morph into something very different over its five-to-ten year life on screen.

Any student of modern media culture will find both columns worth a read.

My only quibble with Goodman and Lloyd is in their habit of lumping single camera comedies in with the traditional multi-camera shows under the term “sit-com.” This seemingly minor detail may just be a pet peeve of mine, but for anyone involved in making television, the term “sit-com” refers to a multi-camera show accompanied by an enhanced (“sweetened”) audience laugh track. Single camera comedies are typically shot out of sequence on stage or location in the time-tested, grind-it-out, 12 to 14 hour-a-day process pioneered long ago by feature films. Multi-camera shows couldn't be more different -- after a full week of lighting and rehearsals, most are shot sequentially in front of a live audience over the course of three to four hours. Nobody I've talked to in the biz (from producers and writers down to grips and juicers) considers single camera comedies to be “sit-coms” -- but TV critics remain stubbornly oblivious to this. The differences between these two forms of televised comedy are profound -- translated to the animal kingdom, one would be a Zebra and the other a Wildebeest; both four-legged ruminants that live and die on the veldt, but there the similarities end. I just wish our TV critics could wrap their undeniably talented brains around this notion.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- get a life, Mike -- but it's a little late for that...

* Not that I watch sit-coms any more than "reality TV" -- which leaves me in the rather awkward position of rooting for the success of genre on which my livelihood depends, but that I don’t actually, uh, "consume." From my point of view, "reality TV" is a highly exploitative medium based largely on the cruel dynamics of personal humiliation, while a quality sit-com is a balanced, well-crafted comedic effort worthy of professional respect, at least. Still, making such a show is one thing – tuning one in at home is something else altogether. In a world of limited time, choices must be made...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

By now you know what that blank billboard means – I’ve got nothin’. I can’t blame my really hard week, because it actually wasn’t all that hard, but at this point in life it doesn't take much more than a stiff breeze to stop me in my tracks. Given that life grades on an ever-evolving curve, I've come to realize that every week at work is hard in its own special way. There are no easy work weeks anymore -- just hard and harder. So that's my lame excuse, along with the minor detail I have nothing ready to post.

Such is life.

So until I do come up with something worth your time, click on over to “Martini Shot” and listen to Rob Long’s latest three minute commentary discussing Facebook, lying, and modern life in the media fishbowl. It’s a good one.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Directors: a brief return

A recent post discussing directors prompted an e-mail from an old friend and fellow below-the-line veteran. Having followed the links therein to an earlier post on the subject, he wondered just who those two sit-com directors I mentioned – the pseudonymous “Bernard” and “Mr. Herman” -- really were. I e-mailed the answer, which was followed by his reply.

"Mr. Herman. Yup. I know that guy. Came out of theater. Nobody likes him. Except producers, I guess.

I've worked with Bernard too. Before he became a familiar face to millions on television, he’d been a cast member in a famous big-budget bomb that hit the theaters in the early 70’s when I was still in school. I liked that film more than most people because I was apparently one of the few college students living at the time who never read the 800 page book the movie was based on.

Still, even though I already knew a lot about the making of that big-budget bomb with the stellar cast, I was really, really curious to hear some first hand experiences from Bernard. So, I bides my time, you know, waiting for just the right moment to talk to him, so as not to bother him and all.

The second day of the two day shoot, as I was scraping my plate into the garbage can after lunch, I see Bernard sitting alone at a lunch table, finished eating, staring into space.

And I strike.

"Excuse me, Bernard, you know, I really enjoyed your work in The Famous Big Budget Bomb*, and was wondering if you could share a story with me of what it was like spending 6 months working with Mike Nichols and Orson Welles and Dick Benjamin and Paula Prentiss and Tony Perkins and Jon Voight and Alan Arkin...?"

He gave me a long, dead-fish stare.

A little panicked, I said, "Any special memories of working on that movie"?

"Naaah", he said.



Well, I guess I'll just slink away back to work now.

And that was my memorable encounter with Bernard...."

Having worked with that director more times than I cared to, this story came as no surprise at all. Fortunately, I haven't seen or heard of him for several years now, and I can only hope he's moved on to yet another career -- in which case, we're all better off.

* At this point in the e-mail, he used the actual title of the movie, which I changed to “The Famous Big Budget Bomb” (using his words) for the same reason that I won't print either of these directors real names. There’s enough information here for anyone sufficiently curious to figure out what the movie is, and who that particular actor/director might be...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Tolling of the Bell

“...never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne, Meditation XVII

Sometimes you just know. The phone rings at an odd time of day – say, 10:45 on a crisp, bright Tuesday morning – and some sixth or seventh sense tells you it isn’t just another wrong number, collection agency, or the Scientologists. Not this time. Reverberating all the way down the hall, the ring seems louder and more insistent than usual, like the tolling of John Donne’s bell.

Before I'd picked up the receiver, I knew that this beautiful sunny day -– a day that had been all mine a few seconds earlier, stretching out like spring break during our hiatus week from the show -– was about to be wrenched from my grasp.

It was a job call, all right, and not for tonight or tomorrow, but right now, as in jump into my work clothes, lace up the boots, and put the pedal to the metal.

Forty-five minutes later I walked onto the sound stage for a solid eight hours of hard, dirty labor. And as often happens in this oh-so-fluid business, one day morphed into three for a total of twenty-four hours gainful employment, thus canceling whatever vague plans I'd made for my hiatus week in a straightforward exchange of time, sweat, and pain for money.

Such is the basic equation of life below decks in Hollywood.

The show was a big network multi-camera sit-com wrapping after the conclusion of a 22 episode season. The extra hands – mine and those of another juicer – were called due to a change in the studio's booking schedule that now had a pilot loading in on that stage the very next week. Even so, additional help beyond the core crew isn't ordinarily needed to wrap a multi-camera show in four days, but walking around looking at the very large and elaborate sets, I saw this was no ordinary sit-com. The dense lighting style of the DP required a truly massive quantity of lamps and assorted rigging equipment, every last bit of which had to be pulled down from the pipe grid, properly wrapped, sorted and matched against the Best Boy's paperwork, then returned to the lamp dock.

Looking up at this mountain of work, I understood the Best Boy's cry for help.

Much as I would have liked to turn the job down (I do like my hiatus weeks off), I couldn’t, for all the usual reasons. In the fading light of my so-called career, I’m pretty much hard-wired to stand and deliver when that bell rings with a job offer. After so many years of living with the uncertainty of intermittent employment, this is now my default setting, one that requires extraordinary circumstances to successfully override. Then there’s the matter of “hours” -- to maintain coverage under the union health plan, I have to accumulate at least 300 working hours per six month qualifying period.* Logging any less than 300 means dipping into the bank of hours -- excess hours compiled during previous qualifying periods -- to make up the difference. That bank only goes so far, and once exhausted, leaves an Industry work-bot at risk of losing the health care plan, which is the first step on the slippery slope towards financial disaster.

And that really sucks.

Finally, there’s the minor detail of income. My little cable show has provided a more-or-less steady stream of modest paychecks for the better part of a year now, but it’s break-even money at best. When your monthly income barely exceeds the monthly expenses, all it takes is something unexpected – an accident requiring medical care, car repairs, a traffic ticket, or catastrophic computer meltdown – and you're back drowning in red ink.**

I've often heard that a shark must keep swimming at all times to maintain the flow of oxygen-bearing water through its gills -- and if the big fish stops moving, it will die. Likewise the Hollywood freelancer must maintain forward motion or suffer a slow professional demise. Upward movement is not required (at a certain point, professional ambition gives way to practical reality), but the work-bot who does not keep working begins to spiral down into the dark abyss. This too has been burned into my brain over the years, and thus I didn't have much choice but to take that job. It was three days of dirty, bruising, physical work -- you'd be amazed at how much dust can settle on a pipe grid over the course of 22 episodes -- but thanks to a good crew (who had a big boom-box and good taste in music), I managed to have a few laughs along the way, and now another paycheck is in the mail.

That's what it all boils down to in the end: work=money and money=life. Like the itinerant farm worker who rises in the cold and dark pre-dawn to harvest another crop in the fields, I too must take what's offered. Sooner or later the phone will stop ringing as the job offers go to younger work-bots -- and ready or not, my time in Hollywood will be done.

I'm not ready for that, not yet, anyway, so until I am, I'll just have to keep answering that bell whenever it tolls.

* This will rise to 400 hours in August. That sucks too...

** The fine for running a stop sign or red-light in California (the latter infraction targeted by automatic cameras at many intersections) now run upwards of  five hundred dollars...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Official Rejection"

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might get what you need.”

The Rolling Stones

At some point in the not-too-distant past (I can’t exactly remember when or even find that old post), I recommended a then brand-new documentary called “Official Rejection.” The post was based on seeing the film's snappy and intriguing trailer, but came with the caveat that I had not yet actually seen the entire film.

This gaping hole in my movie-viewing resume was recently filled, so I can now add a few figurative exclamation points to that early recommendation: This is one terrific film.

I could try to get cute with the usual “I laughed, I cried, I wet my pants” kind of drivel, but that’s not quite true – I did not cry, nor did I wet my pants while watching Official Rejection. I did laugh, however – a lot – but as the film progressed, the prevailing emotion that welled up from within was a profound sense of empathy for the filmmakers profiled in this wonderful documentary. Unlike so many movies-about-movies, Official Rejection opens well after the drama of actually shooting a film has played out. Rather, it begins at the point where all the artistically creative work is over and done -- that magical moment when the filmmaker finally sallies forth to offer the world a completed movie ready to be screened in a thousand theaters.

In a truly just world, this would be a day of triumphant exultation, the jumping-off point for an artist to engage an audience, and -- with a little luck -- kick off a successful career. In that bright, clean, and highly fictional world of our dreams, important film festivals would accept every worthy entry without prejudice, ego involvement, or the unseen web of back-door connections that make the decidedly grubby real world go 'round.

But in this, and so many other ways, ours is not a just world.

Official Rejection
follows the travails of Scott Storm and Paul Osborne as they strive to enter their newly-completed feature Ten ‘til Noon on the festival circuit -- Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca, and all the others.... right on down to the Phoenix, Riverside, and the San Fernando Film Festivals. Accompanied by the commentaries of several festival circuit veterans who know the pain of that quest all too well, theirs is a grueling odyssey of endless frustration and dogged endurance, a vertiginous plunge through the looking glass of what ought-to-be into the utterly unreal Alice-in-Wonderland world of what really is -- a Bizzaro Planet of film festivals where up is down, down is up, and the hapless filmmaker is so often sent helplessly spinning through space.

If you thought making a film was the hard part -- writing a decent script, scrounging up the money, assembling a cast and crew, filming on a shoestring, then enduring the quiet ordeal of editing and the entire post-production process -- think again. It turns out that's the easy part, the fun part. The really hard, ugly, slit-your-wrists-depressing part comes much later, when your only goal in life is to put that movie up on screen for an audience.

After watching this film, I have a tremendous respect for these guys -- what they willingly put themselves through in the quest to get their movie seen by an audience was fucking brutal -- but they did it, and keep on doing it, because making movies is what they really want to do in life. In chronicling their journey to Hell* and back, Official Rejection delineates the hard but unavoidable truth staring all would-be indie filmmakers in the face:

"When the shooting stops, the war begins."

Everybody out there contemplating a dashingly romantic career as an independent filmmaker (ahem -- that would be just about all of you film students...) seriously owes it to him/herself to see this funny, poignant, and sobering-but-ultimately-hopeful documentary. Anyone interested in the process of making movies will certainly enjoy it -- indeed, anybody who just likes to watch a good movie will have a great time with this one.

A good film is a good film, regardless of genre, and this is one very good film.

It's on Netflix. Do yourself a favor and add it to your queue.

* Actually it was Chicago. But don’t get angry, good people of the Windy Second City – just watch the film and you’ll see what I mean...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tax Time in Hollywood

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain but death and taxes.”

From a letter by Ben Franklin

Monday is the big lighting day on my show. With the new swing sets freshly constructed (but not yet fully painted), this is when we lay down the broad brush strokes using seniors and juniors -- 5000 and 2000 watt tungsten lamps. Depending on the size of each set, we'll hang anywhere from a dozen to three dozen lamps on the pipe grid, working from man lifts where we can, and ladders where we must. The endless tweaking required to smooth out the lighting -- adding numerous “specials” and accent lights, then fine-tuning everything (tilt-up/tilt-down, pan right/pan-left, add-a-double/pull-a-single...) will be done on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Monday is all about the heavy lifting.

So that’s where I was one recent Monday afternoon, up in my lift hanging 5Ks and 2Ks on the pipes, when loud voices erupted from the stage floor below. Vociferous conversation is not unusual once the director, actors, writers, and production personnel have left the set, but ours isn't a particularly boisterous crew -- and this ruckus was loud.

I finished tightening the pipe clamp bolt, then looked down to see the set lighting best boy locked in spirited debate with the best boy grip. A young grip stood between them, looking confused, his eyes darting from one to the other like a spectator at a tennis match.

Listening in (and given the volume of the discussion, it was impossible not to listen-in), I was surprised to hear it had nothing to do with the usual subjects of blue collar discourse – these two guys weren’t jawing about sports, women, or the latest wild-eyed antics of Hollywood's Bad Boy de jour, Charlie Sheen.

They were arguing about taxes.

Income taxes are a big deal in our society, for reasons both practical and ideological. Rich or poor, nobody likes to pay more than their fair share at this time of year, and if the rich enjoy a huge advantage here, it's because they've already bought and paid for enough politicians to keep it that way. Meanwhile, the rest of us -- the working classes -- do the best we can on this decidedly uneven playing field, scrambling for whatever tax-break crumbs the rich left on the table.

Our tax code is so absurdly huge and complicated due to a blizzard of exemptions and loopholes add down through the years. Tax payers who itemize their returns can usually find ways to claim all sorts of deductions, and those of us who grind out the film and television sausage here in Hollywood are no exception. If you work for a bank, repair cars, or unclog people’s toilets for a living, that brand new sixty inch flat screen TV hanging on your wall is probably not a deductible expense – but if you are among those who follow the Hollywood elephant, shovel in hand, it may well be. The same goes for movie tickets and the monthly cable TV bill -- the former falling under the heading “professional admissions,” while some portion of the latter can be classified as a legitimate work-related expense, since those who make television do have to stay current with the products of our industry. Dining and entertainment expenses with fellow work-bots (who might be able to offer employment somewhere down the line) are also candidates for deductions under the “business expense” provisions of the tax code, as are some percentage of cell phone and/or land-line telephone bills. In an industry where most of us are itinerant free-lance workers, documented mileage on the car to and from work can also qualify as a tax deduction.

It all gets very complicated in a hurry, and I claim no real expertise in this -- which is why I just throw all my receipts in a bag as the year unfolds, then spend a miserable day or three every spring collating those expenses before mailing the distilled data to a tax prep specialist whose job is to make sure my return takes advantage of every legitimate loophole. Once she’s done her work, I send her a check. In the end, I usually wind up getting back a healthy tax return while the Feds and state hang on to a considerably larger sum.

Such is modern life.

Almost everybody I know in the biz does something similar, each following a strategy tuned to their own comfort level. I'm not one to push my luck, but over the years have run into several fellow Industry work-bots who take pride in paying nearly nothing in taxes every year by adopting hyper-aggressive tax avoidance strategies – claiming every possible deduction while exploiting every potential loophole. Among these people was one of those “don’t tread on me” zealots, a self-described "patriot" who claimed that the government had no legal right to impose income taxes on U.S.citizens. I made the mistake of asking him about this once, an innocent question that sparked a twenty minute spittle-flecked harangue complete with long-winded quotes from the Constitution. Talking to him was like trying to have a rational discussion with some tri-polar homeless person long gone off his meds. Like many crazy people, he was very sure of himself, scrupulously following the advice of a famous anti-tax guru -- but eventually the Feds got tired of his antics and threw his ass in jail for a couple of years.*

The animated discussion on our stage turned out to be a tug-of-war over the tax-paying soul of that young grip. Still new to the biz, he planned to file a short-form 1040 with H&R Block this year. One best boy -- a fervent adherent of the save-every-receipt-and-claim-it-ALL school of tax preparation -- was doing his level best to talk that young man into seeing a tax specialist knowledgeable in the the ways of the Industry. The other best boy maintained that until the kid stopped renting and bought a house, itemizing his tax return wouldn't be worth the trouble and expense.

I had no idea who was right, but since the only thing I hate more than talking about taxes is actually doing the necessary-but-odious paperwork, I tuned them out and went back to work.

I don't mind paying my fair share at tax time. Modern life in a First World society doesn't come cheap, and those who enjoy the benefits have an obligation to share in the burden. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously noted, "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization." He was right about that, but until our tax code is revised to the point where it's fair and simple, I'll continue to play the game, however reluctantly. What drives me up and over the wall isn't paying the taxes, but the unbearably tedious process of collating and itemizing all those receipts -- an exercise in mindless concentration that always makes me feel like I'm choking.

So that's what I'll be doing on this lovely Spring weekend -- drowning in a small ocean of receipts. I'm certainly not alone in this purgatory of paperwork, though, with most of Hollywood (and beyond) doing the same thing.

April 15 looms just a month away, and the tax clock is ticking...

* I wonder if he pays his taxes now...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


On a winter afternoon...

Sunset through the looking glass

Last week was pretty easy, considering how hard a five day work week in this business can be, but Friday didn’t end until well after 10:00 pm – which meant getting home close to 11:00. Unwinding from a shoot night takes some time (and a good double shot of Knob Creek small-batch Kentucky Bourbon), so I didn’t go down for the count until after 1:00 a.m. And that meant waking up Saturday feeling like a zombie in desperate need of a steaming plate of sweet, fresh brains.

Anybody working an episodic show would consider getting home before midnight on Friday a gift from heaven -- which is why I remain in the low-stress/low-pay cloister of multi-camera sit-coms. You won't find too many juicers my age tied to the whipping-post of episodic television, because like it or not (and I don't, but that doesn't seem to help), age takes a toll. Every year, every month, every week seems just a little bit harder than the last... so it was no surprise that after such a sluggish start to the weekend, I got very little done over those two days.

I did, however, take a leisurely stroll through the archives of my new favorite blog, 365 Jobs -- yes, the very same blog I mentioned last Wednesday, before I’d had time to leaf through the past two months worth of posts. There are some real gems waiting for you on those shelves, including this.

Read it. You’ll be glad you did.


Much has been written and said about the ongoing implosion of Charlie Sheen’s life and career – too much, really. At this point, the studio has supposedly fired him, abandoning the final would-have-been-worth-millions season in favor of cutting the cord with their increasingly troublesome star.

Having never met or worked with the man, I’ve got no fuel to add to that fire, no sage insights on the situation or finger-wagging, tongue-clucking “advice” for anyone involved. It's just a mess, that's all, with no winners on either side. The studio just watched an enormous pile of money vanish into thin air (and that's before the inevitable tsunami of lawsuits), while Sheen edges ever-closer to the lip of the abyss. The people I feel sorry for are the entire production crew, who just went from the best gig in sit-coms since "Seinfeld," straight to the unemployment lines. Those poor bastards are shit out of luck.

Do not pass "Go." Do not collect two hundred dollars.* Just stare at your TV and scream...

Lost in the subsequent media frenzy was the full content of Chuck Lorre’s infamous vanity card -- the card that sank a thousand jobs. The last line got all the press (Lorre declaring "I'll be pissed if Charlie Sheen outlives me"), but those eight words came at the end of a long paragraph leading up to the punch line heard 'round the media world. Had Lorre written that undeniably well-constructed paragraph for Jon Stewart to deliver on "The Daily Show," it would have gotten a huge laugh. Instead he posted it -- as is his habit -– on screen at the tail end of an episode of “Two and a Half Men.”

Big mistake, Chuck. What a hellacious shitstorm that -- and the law of unintended consequences -- kicked up...

I'm currently following three shows on FX.** As it happens, that cable network runs syndicated episodes of "Two and a Half Men" immediately before each of those programs, so I see the tag and end-credits at least three times a week. I've noticed Lorre's vanity cards in the past, but paid no attention. They're on screen for only an instant, and pack so much micro-font prose into a such a cramped space that it would require a TIVO freeze-frame on a 60 inch HD plasma screen to read the damned things -- and in keeping with my 20th Century Luddite ways, I have neither. Thus I never knew (or cared) what those vanity cards were all about. I suspect the overwhelming majority of the show's viewers are in the same boat, which is probably why Chuck Lorre figured he could get away with indulging in a little free-range snark as an inside joke for the amusement of the in-the-know Hollywood crowd.

I finally heard the full text of that card on a recent “Martini Shot” commentary by veteran TV writer/producer Rob Long, who explained the origin and purpose (assuming there is a valid purpose) of the vanity card. When you hear the entire statement, it doesn't come off quite so cold and cynical -- really, it's just the slightly-skewed lament of another rich-but-mortal guy on the potential/inevitable unfairness of life. To me, it sounded like a tongue-in-cheek joke, not a shot fired across Charlie Sheen's bow. But none of that matters now. The damage is done, and the only remaining question is how long and hot the fires of this very public self-immolation will burn.

At any rate, this "Martini Shot" is a good one, well worth your three-and-a-half minutes.


On a different, but related note, one of the listener remarks to that commentary is worth repeating: an entertaining and informative dissertation on the last brutal mile of emotional broken glass every filmmaker must cross -- naked, on all fours -- to finally expel his/her cinematic baby from the womb out into the cold, cruel world.

Note: the following will make a lot more sense if you listen to the "Martini Shot" commentary first...

“Just a little clarification of what an answer print is. An answer print is more accurately the last step in the post cycle before a movie is released. Or the beginning of the end. The actual end. The light at the end of the grueling filmmaking tunnel. I guess for anyone besides a producer, the answer print means you'll soon get to see your family and loved ones again, catch up on the lives of your children, wonder why your wife is spending so much time with her pilates instructor, try to salvage the family dynamic with a trip to Hawaii. You strike your answer prints once everything is completed and joined on film (final picture with color and mixed sound). The answer prints are used to QC the final product. Not a whole lot to do after the answer print except spend a ton of money if something isn't up to snuff. And checking the answer print? It's a total bitch. You've seen the movie so many times at this point that you're ready to gouge your eyes out and Van Gogh your ears. But still you have to sit and watch the whole damn thing very carefully. Over and over. Until you do actually gouge your eyes out and Van Gogh your ears. This is why so many people in Hollywood are blind and deaf and wear sunglasses all the time. They don't hear notes and their follow-up movies look like shit. All because of the damn answer print. It's a tragedy, really. So many great filmmakers and craftsmen left to the dust bin of Hollywood lore only because no one figured out a better way to QC the final product. Also, all that blindness and deafness really ruins your enjoyment of Hawaii.”

Now that's the kind of been-there-done-that insider wisdom they won't teach you in film school. Someone named "Nathan" wrote this wonderful paragraph, but I have no idea who he might be.

After reading it, though, I'd sure love to see one of his movies.

* For anyone too young to recall, this is a reference to the board game "Monopoly."

** "Justified," "Archer," and "Lights Out."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

It Takes a Village: Sound

Run Silent, Run Deep

Sign posted on one of my show’s two Perambulator Booms.

The LA Times recently ran a short but interesting profile of two sound mixers who were both nominated for an Oscar this year. It's a good read on a number of levels: the human interest story of two old friends competing for the same gold statue, a revealing portrait of the kind of people drawn to work in sound, and as an example of the attitude and sense of humor it takes to put in year after year enduring such long hours of filming on set.

Lots of humor is generated behind the cameras on any decent show, particularly a comedy. Some of the funniest quips -- from actors and crew -- could never make it past network censors, even on a cable show. Sound crews tend to be pretty low-key (which is only fitting, since they always want the rest of us to remain hushed), but they have their own quiet ways of joining in the fun. The sound department seems to attract people who are smart and well-informed -- the former evidenced by their wisdom in choosing a career that does not requires lifting hundred-pound rolls of cable, the latter mostly because they have ample time to read newspapers and surf the web while everybody else does the real work.

Our sound crew fits that mold, doing their part to (quietly) keep us loose. They're a good crew, and fun to work with.

It wasn't always thus. Back in the bad old days of low-budget, non-union features – while toiling in the salt mines on undermanned, underpaid, and highly overworked lighting crews -- I suffered through endless battles with sound departments. The scenario was all too familiar: we'd take an early call for an hour of hard humping to lay out the cable runs, empty the equipment truck, and build the lamps, at which point the mixer would finally show up, then point to the generator and airily insist that it was much too noisy and much too close, and would have to be moved. Then he'd make a beeline for the catering truck to wolf down a nice hot breakfast none of us had yet been able to order, much less had time to eat.

And I'd go into a slow boil.

Between the heavily sound-proofed (but hardly silent) generators and humming HMI ballasts, life on set was a constant struggle between set lighting and sound.* The mixer would complain, then we'd have to fix it. Sometimes this was a simple matter of building a sound-dampening wall with C-stands and furni-pads (furniture blankets), but all too often we'd have to unhook the cable, hitch up the genny, tow it down the block and around a corner, then run several hundred feet (read: several hundred pounds) of additional cable to re-power the set -- and do it fast. At that point, we were already hopelessly behind the 8-Ball, doomed to play catch-up for the rest of the long day. When the Assistant Director finally called wrap (twelve, fourteen, or sixteen hours later), we'd have to coil and tie all that additional cable (along with the rest of our lighting equipment), then lug it back and load it into the truck, cursing the sound mixer every step of the way.

The mixer never heard us, though -- by then he was already long gone and heading for home.

To be fair, sound has a very tough job dealing with any location set. Not only must they contend with a cacophony of ambient noise -- airplanes, helicopters, lawn mowers, weed eaters, leaf blowers, cell phones, and the thumping bass beat of rap music from slowly passing cars -- but the rest of the film crew makes noise all day long. A set is essentially a construction site, where building just about anything creates a racket. With each department focused on their own task-at-hand, sound remains a distant afterthought for the rest of the crew. In truth, nobody really cares about it except the sound department, director, and the editor -- and the editor's not there. The director relies on the mixer's word as to whether the sound for any given take is acceptable, so the mixer has to get it right. His job is to deliver the cleanest sound and dialogue tracks possible. Indeed, his continued employment (present and future) depends on doing exactly that.

When you consider all they have to contend with, it's no wonder sound mixers are so anal about maintaining a quiet set.

Looking back now, it’s clear that most of our problems with sound stemmed directly from the low budgets we all labored under. With only a small set lighting crew to do all the work (rarely did we have a rigging crew), it was crucial to run as little cable as possible, thus minimizing the heavy lifting and cutting down on wrap time at the end of what was invariably a long, punishing day. On such low-budget projects, the Best Boy has to make sure his crew doesn't suffer unnecessary abuse, so from my standpoint, the closer to the set we put the genny, the better. Unfortunately -- but understandably -- this usually meant doing battle with the sound department.

Those were not good days.

Eventually it dawned on me that life might be easier on everyone if I took a glass-half-empty approach and assumed The Worst at every new location. It was better to run a little extra cable right from the get-go than have to move the genny later in the midst of an Oh-My-God-Time-Is-Money panic. But once I'd done all I could (or was willing to do...) and sound still complained, other tactics had to be employed.

Our very first day of filming one of those low-budget features took place way out in the woods, shooting a scene by a pond. Far from any human habitation, it was still and quiet out there -- library quiet – which meant any mechanical sound would travel a long way. If ever there was a time to put the genny as far away as possible, this was it. That's what I did, and when the mixer stalked over to tell me that it was too noisy and would have to move, I explained that I’d already run out every last inch of cable we had.

"Can't you get more cable?" he asked.

Rather than advise him exactly how and where to go fuck himself, I took a different tack. With an apologetic smile, I told him I understood how quiet this location was, and what a problem it presented for him -- which is why I’d gone to the trouble of locating the genny so far away. With a limited production budget for equipment and very little prep time, we'd come in blind and were doing the best we could. Given that we’d be filming in such a remote area (with the nearest equipment rental facility several hours away), there was nothing more we could do that day.

"I'll talk to production about getting more cable," I said, "but meanwhile, we'll have construction make a baffle to put around the genny's exhaust vent. That'll drive the noise straight up rather than out, and should make it a lot quieter for you."

Girded for the usual take-no-prisoners battle, the mixer stared at me for a moment, then walked away with a slightly stunned look on his face. I made the measurements and sent a scale drawing to the UPM. Two days later, a big wooden box – open at the top and bottom -- was dropped off at our truck. From that day on, I dutifully (and very visibly) placed that baffle over the genny's exhaust vent every morning. Although it helped reduce the genny's noise output somewhat, the baffle's primary purpose was to demonstrate to the sound mixer that I understood his problems and was on his side – and in that, it worked perfectly.

The next eight weeks were brutal -- with only a three man crew (plus a PA we'd drafted to help us), we got our asses thoroughly kicked shooting six-day, 100+ hour weeks in sub-freezing temperatures -- but we never had any trouble with that sound mixer. At the wrap party, he thanked us profusely, said we were the best lighting crew he'd ever worked with, and handed us each a carefully wrapped packet of high-octane marijuana as a thank-you gift. Since neither the gaffer nor I still smoked the stuff, our lone juicer ended up the beneficiary, and one very happy camper.

And at the cast and crew screening several months later, I paid close attention to that scene we’d shot by the pond. There wasn't the slightest whisper of generator noise.**

Everything's different now. Securely nestled in the bosom of the union world, I work mostly on sound stages where we enjoy the silent luxury of city power rather than relying on mobile generators. Sometimes a lamp will start humming as the 60 cycle frequency of AC power resonates within, but that can usually be cured with a sharp whack, or -- if it's really bad -- swapping out the head. The worst problem we pose for sound nowadays is an occasional boom shadow on a wall, but the grips can usually fix that simply by lowering a flag or teaser. No heavy lifting required.

Even location jobs with generators present no real problems. If a long cable run is required to keep the mixer happy, the rigging crew takes care of it – or at the very least, production will authorize a pre-call with a small army of additional juicers to make it happen in a stress-free manner.

As Cyndi Lauper sang back in the 80’s: “money changes everything".

Well, almost everything -- the sound department still shows up late and leaves early, and the lowest-paid utility person in their department still makes a fatter hourly rate than anybody in set lighting -- but I can't remember the last time we had a serious problem with sound, and that’s a good thing.

It really does take a village to make any show, with everyone doing their part. Although the sound crews remain hidden in the shadows, their work is just as important as everyone else's in ushering a project on on the long journey from the page to the screen.

Me, I'm just glad I don't have to fight with them anymore.

* In the early days of HMI lamps, a sound man once buried two of our 4K ballasts under a thick layer of furni-pads to quiet them, without informing the electric crew. By the time the lamps started shutting down half an hour later, those ballasts were all but toasted. Needless to say, that clown never did it again...

** In my experience, mixers generally ask for more quiet than they really need. I can't blame them for that -- ask for less and you'll get less -- but it's something to remember. Depending on the nature of the scene being filmed, there’s a certain level of noise the post production process can handle. Jackhammers and car alarms are way off the charts, but the soft, steady hum of a generator far in the background isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. A good mixer knows the limits and understands what post-production can live with. When a mixer like that (read: a reasonable person) needed our help, I was happy to oblige, but every now and then we'd get a fanatic who was impossible to satisfy. That kind of mixer could hear a bee fart a hundred yards away...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Something Very Different

And very, very good...

(Today, I wander completely off the Hollywood reservation.)

I've drawn parallels in the past between the film/television biz and the construction industry, which are similar in many ways even though their final products couldn't be more different. In construction, they build big things to last a long time -- houses, apartment buildings and skyscrapers that keep us warm and dry through the chilly winters, and cool in the sweltering summer. Those who do the dirty, bruising work of building those structures go home tired and aching at the end of every work day. They understand very well the meaning of the terms "blood" and "sweat," and if tedium rarely stretches out their day like salt water taffy, then they're one up on those of us who toil in the bowels of the film and television industry.

Here in Hollywood (and increasingly, elsewhere), a lot of very hard work goes into creating and assembling elaborate collages of light and sound that when properly orchestrated, pack an immensely powerful and satisfying emotional punch. A good movie does just that -- it moves us in ways we can't always understand or explain.

Magic is like that, and a good movie really is magical.

That said, films and television programs surely rank among the most ephemeral of manufactured products. Utterly weightless and lacking any real shape or substance, movies exist in and for the moment -- a flickering narrative that flows across the screen in a river of light and sound, then is gone.

Maybe someday I'd come across a compelling blog detailing the life of a sheet-rocker, tile man, roofer, or one of those many nameless workers who pour and shape wet concrete to form perfectly smooth sidewalks that people will then walk upon -- but never stop to think about -- for the next fifty years. The nature of the labor doesn't really matter: there's an art to every job, and some degree of drama hidden deep in every sort of work. The insights on life and human nature that emerge from such stories are what fascinate me. If a story is well told, I don't really care whether it takes place in a steel mill, on a fishing boat, or inside a Hollywood sound stage. So long as the writing is honest and carefully crafted, I'm in.

A reader in the San Francisco Bay Area (thanks Susan!) recently pointed me to a wonderful blog by Joe Cottonwood, a general contractor and jack-of-all-trades who has made a living building, fixing, and remodeling houses for the past forty years. I haven't fully plumbed the archives, but only had to read one or two posts to understand that 365 Jobs is something very special.

A brief description from the author's inaugural post:

"Most of the jobs begin like a blind date. You meet people. You size them up; they size you up. What's different is that you try not to get screwed. They have problems; you try to help. You work hard. Stuff happens. You live by your wits. Sometimes, you do things that make you proud. Sometimes, you make a friend."

"Since 1976 I've worked small jobs in the construction trades: carpenter, plumber, electrician. Some jobs last an hour. Some take months. That's a lot of blind dates. And all the time, I was keeping a journal. For the next year I'm going to remember some of the people, the problems, the craft, the joy and sorrow, day by day."

That's an interesting idea: one fresh post per day, every day, for a year. This is not your typical blog, nor is Joe Cottonwood a typical blogger. He was a writer long before turning to the construction trades, and like every committed artist, continued to hone his craft over the years. By now, he's learned how to say a lot with a little, and makes every word count -- each post is a self-contained short story, some shorter than others.* For a beautiful example, try this one.

And if that doesn't ring your bell, this story should. For any juicers out there -- or anybody who has ever worked with the mysterious-but-spooky power of electricity -- that post will put you in a cold sweat, just as it did me.

Take your time and relax while reading "365 Jobs." Don't rush it. Writing this good deserves to be savored.

* Exception: some of the stories are serialized in two or three successive posts. For these, it's important to scroll down to start with the first post in the series -- the beginning of the story -- then work your way back up to the end. If you just read from the top down, it's like opening a book at the final chapter and reading it backwards.