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, January 26, 2014

Grips: Part One

What's a Grip?
Posted on their Gold Room door by a very good grip crew with a great sense of humor

When cornered by civilians curious about behind-the-scenes Hollywood, the first question out of their mouths (after "What stars do you know?") is usually “What’s a Best Boy?”  Considering the fog of weirdness generated by such an undeniably strange term, this is totally understandable... but their next query is almost always “What’s a grip?”   

Good question.

A common misconception is that grips are hulking, brutish mouth-breathers capable of bench-pressing four hundred pounds without breaking a sweat -- the pack mules of the film and television industry -- and although there are a few who fit that description, most of the grips I've worked with are average-sized people who also happened to be very smart.  

As the story goes, the great Don Rickles was once asked who -- if given one choice -- he would pick to accompany him into exile on a desert island.  Rickles didn’t hesitate.  Rather than opt for the obvious babe-du-jour sexpot, he declared "I'd take a grip, because a good grip can do anything.”

This exchange took place well before many women had entered the grip world. "Mr Warmth" wouldn't necessarily have to choose between an attractive woman or a supremely competent grip nowadays -- he could have both in one package, and odds are she'd be a good cook, too, making life on that island infinitely more pleasant.  

All that aside, there really isn't much in the way of on-the-spot engineering a good grip can’t do.  Industry cliché holds that "electricians add light while the grips take it away," and although that's true, it's only a small part of the story.  Among many other things, grips have to come up with quick and effective solutions to real-world, time-sensitive camera and lighting challenges on set -- and as other industry blogs have pointed out, a good grip is worth his/her weight in gold. Bad grips aren't worth a damn, of course, but the same is true of bad juicers, bad DPs, and bad directors.  The industry would be a lot better off without any of these rotten apples undermining the morale and effectiveness of their departments, but the vast majority of grips I've met over the years have been good, with a few rising above and beyond.  Having toiled for so long and in so many different circumstances as a juicer, Best Boy, and Gaffer, I can't overemphasize what a difference it makes -- and what a pleasure it is -- to work with really good grips.

As the photo above demonstrates, such grips tend to have an equally good sense of humor.  Given that every set experiences its share of tension from time to time (some more than others...), the ability to lighten the mood with humor is priceless.

I’ve been meaning to do a post on the value of grips ever since this blog began, and never quite got around to it, but now thanks to cinematographer Mark Vargo -- I don’t have to.  This short video Mark made offers an overview of some of the tasks routinely performed by grips -- after watching it you’ll know more about what grips do on set than 90% of the above-the-liners in the film and television industry. Of course, all the grip work demonstrated on this video takes place outside in beautiful weather or in the friendly confines of a climate-controlled sound stage.  Trust me on this -- gripping or juicing in the snow, rain and mud -- or all night long -- isn’t quite such a tidy, clean endeavor.

The only thing that doesn’t ring true in the video is the last line, where Mark declares “If I wasn’t in the camera department, I’d like to be a grip.”  That’s easy to say from the comfort of a shaded chair behind the camera while watching a small army of grips take a beating out there in the hot sun, but I wonder how he’d feel about having to carry a 400 pound camera dolly, along with C stands, high-rollers, 12-by-12 and 20-by-20 frames, and the usual compliment of flags and nets across several hundred yards of burning sand -- repeatedly -- over the course of a 14 hour work day in the 120 degree heat of Death Valley?

Having been there and done that, I can tell you it isn't much fun.

Still, he's made a great video that's been making the rounds on Facebook and other industry blogs for a few weeks now.  If you haven't yet seen it, do so -- it's well worth your ten minutes.


I imagine most of this blog's readers stop in at Dollygrippery on a regular basis -- and if not, they should.  Backed by more than twenty years of experience, "D" writes with heartfelt passion about the trials and tribulations in the working life of a dolly grip, and in his latest post -- Scraping the Paint --  discusses the risk/reward ratio of operating a camera crane.  As usual, it's a great read.  

Much of what we do in grip and electric is inherently dangerous,** but serious crane work ups the ante for everyone involved.  It takes an exceptional blend of skill, experience and balls to pull off the most challenging crane shots. The ability to accurately gauge the risks of any given crane move -- to know how much is just enough, then ride that delicate, shifting line all the way through -- is crucial, and can make the difference between getting a spectacular shot or causing a camera-smashing disaster.  When such a shot involves a moving camera and several vehicles maneuvering at high speeds, that crane grip's judgement and skill really can be a matter of life and death.  

During my twenty years working in commercials, music videos, and features, I had ample opportunity to observe dolly and crane grips in action.  In the early days -- while still finding my own footing in the industry -- I wound up at the controls myself a couple of times, and quickly learned neither was the path for me.*

I got the chance to fully appreciate crane grips while doing a Mercury Cougar commercial in downtown LA back in the 90's.  While shooting a long sequence of the picture car doing a fast run through the twelve-hundred foot Third Street tunnel one night in downtown LA, I ended up strapped into the crane seat out at the end of the arm aiming a pair 40,000 watt Lightning Strikes strobes directly at the picture car driving alongside.  Racing through the tunnel at 50+ mph with that shiny new Cougar very close to the Shotmaker -- the wind whistling through my hair and those unyielding tunnel walls a few feet from my head -- I was totally dependent on two grips to keep that crane arm under control.  If it got away from them,  I could easily slam head-first into the tunnel walls... and at that speed, I'd be toast -- just another quiet-but-bloody statistic no one beyond my own circle of family and a few industry friends would ever hear about.  

We went through the tunnel on a Shotmaker and crane much like this, with that camera on the arm replaced by two big strobe lights and me in the chair... 

Given the forces and leverage involved, those two grips had to work very hard to keep that beast steady, and although it wandered just enough to make things interesting, they did a great job --  we got the shot and they kept me alive -- and although it was serious business,  I had an absolute blast.  Every one of those three or four runs we made through the tunnel that night was big fun, a high-adrenaline rush I'll never forget.  Even if the crane grips didn't have quite so much fun, they kept their cool and did the job like real pros, without a word of complaint.    

As far as I'm concerned, those two grips really were worth their weight in gold.

Next: The Awakening

Shit happens in this business.  One of my union Local's young juicers was killed in a 30 foot fall on the job a couple of years ago, and more recently a grip survived what  -- absent a stroke of blind luck -- could easily been a fatal fall from the perms on a stage at Warner Brothers. Then just a few weeks ago, a juicer friend of mine fell nearly twenty feet from a big scissors lift.  She lived, but after two weeks in the hospital and spinal-fusion surgery, her shattered feet will keep her riding a wheelchair for months to come.  When she'll be able to walk again -- or work --  is unclear right now.  

** See Fun with Cranes and Fun with Dollies...

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Mixed Blessings

                           Sometimes even when you win, you lose...           

The New Year brought the usual blizzard of credit card bills from the recently concluded Christmas spending season, along with stacks of advertisements courtesy of local retailers desperately hoping to squeeze the few remaining dollars from my barren wallet.  But that's not all -- nestled amid the bills and junk mail was a packet from my union with a 2014 datebook planner, a card detailing the myriad pay rates (all below scale, each lower than the last) offered by our thoroughly sliced, diced, and shredded union contract, and a sheet of paper with a list detailing the official union holidays for the year to come.

On the other side was a schedule of membership meetings -- always on a Saturday at "9:00 a.m. sharp" -- but having attended one of those dog-and-pony shows long ago, I'll be ignoring all that.  Some experiences in life just aren't worth repeating.

A little googling reveals that the term "holiday" derived from the Old English halig daeg, which became holy day, and eventually morphed into modern English to describe a religious festival or a day of recreation. Holidays are for spiritual reflection or kicking-back -- and sale prices on large appliances from major retailers, of course.  My union recognizes eight official holidays per year:  New Year’s Day, President’s Day, Good Friday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.

With New Year's Day already come and gone, we're at one down and seven to go.*  

Holidays are a hard-won benefit from the labor movement offering an occasional respite from the relentless physical pounding and mental tedium of work. Union rules dictate that any production company working on a holiday must pay each crew member double-time for the privilege, which is why I can recall working a grand total of one official union holiday over my 23 years as a dues-paying member of the IA.  Given that producers hate to shell out one thin dime more than they absolutely have to, the prospect of paying an entire first unit crew double-time is enough to send most producers into a wide-eyed, spittle-flecked apoplectic fit.  It's no surprise that IA crews rarely work holidays unless under the most extraordinary of circumstances.
So far, so good.  Double-time was designed as a hammer to dissuade producers from abusing their crews, but thanks to the law of unintended consequences, a holiday can be a double-edged sword. Toiling on a show is a finite process -- you only get a certain number of work days before the season (and your job) comes to an end.  My current show is scheduled for twenty episodes, which translates into a hundred days of work.  Add the nine days we spent rigging the stage and lighting the sets before production commenced to the five days we should get to wrap it all up at the season's end, and that comes to a total of 114 days.  Then it's over unless and until the network comes up with money to fund another season in the future.  

Working below-the-line is a zero-sum game, where each missed day (due to illness, family matters, jury duty, whatever) is day you can't get back.  That day, and the money you would have earned, are gone for good.

In the daily grind of television, each week marches to a certain rhythmic beat. A standard (non-hybrid) multi-camera show filmed in front of a live audience allows for three days to light the swing sets before a block-and-shoot day (when the camera choreography for each scene is worked out, then a few scenes pre-shot for the following night’s live audience show), and the actual shoot day.  There’s plenty of work to do every one of those five days, so a union holiday that falls on a work week is a decidedly mixed blessing. Since the block-and-shoot and shoot days can be shifted to avoid budgetary complications, that holiday ends up costing us one lighting day, and although a day off is always nice, we then have to compress three days worth of lighting into just two days while losing one days pay.  

In effect, that holiday forces us to work a lot harder and faster for less money -- not such a great deal.
Whenever possible, production companies schedule the hiatus weeks to accommodate union holidays.  That’s fine with me.  A hiatus week means we're already off, but if I don’t get a holiday from work, at least I don’t lose a days pay either. Such temporal gerrymandering is not always possible, though, and looking up the road ahead at our schedule, I see President’s Day looming like a large pile of steaming dog-poop directly in our path.  We won't be on hiatus that week, so that malodorous mound of crap will indeed squish up between our bare and wiggling toes come February 17th.   Since President's Day lands on a Monday -- which, due to our Wednesday/Thursday block-and-shoot schedule, is the major lighting day of each week -- we'll have only the previous Friday and following Tuesday to get all the swing sets lit and ready for filming.  

And that will be a royal pain in the ass.

Were it in my power, I’d happily waive this particular holiday and work at straight-time to spread the work load over all three days, then receive a normal full week's paycheck in return... but that's not going to happen.  Once again, this supposed "benefit" will make for one tough week in the process of grinding out a television show -- and as usual, those above-the-liners will chalk up the win while we below-the-line suffer another loss.

Same as it ever was.

But such is life in Hollywood and beyond, where we take the good with the bad while hoping for the best.  Hey, at least I’m working in a town where lots of people aren’t.

Especially on President's Day...

That works out to nine actual days off, since both the Thursday of Thanksgiving and the following Friday are considered holidays.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Another New Year

“I’m not one to make a big deal of New Year’s resolutions.  Although I’ve declared a few over the years (and even managed to keep one or two), most of these good intentions -- like overloaded boats wallowing amid turbulent seas -- sank under their own weight into the muddy waters of reality.’

“Such is life.  It’s hard to be perfect.”

So began a post I wrote one year ago, in January of 2013.  The subsequent year taught me a few things, including the reality that the promised book based on this blog will be a long time coming.  My assumption that I could slow the pace of posting and use that time and energy to work on the book proved woefully optimistic.  I did get it started, with a much-re-written introduction and initial chapters... but then Real Life intervened with the kind of drama and demands that elbow everything else aside.  Add in the steady drumbeat of work all year long, and my own need to keep writing and posting new material simply to preserve my mental health (just for the distraction, if nothing else), and it’s no surprise the book didn’t get very far. 

And so the great resolution of 2013 didn’t come to much.  Still, no book can ever be finished without a beginning, and although I didn’t make anywhere near the progress I’d hoped for, the project still lives.  All I can say at the start of this new year -- which, inshallah, will be nothing like the benighted year we just left behind -- is that I'll do the best I can on the book and the blog.  Whether this is just another fool’s errand remains to be seen.

Check back a year from now and maybe I’ll have an answer for that one.   

Meanwhile, you’ll find a new entry under the Industry Blogroll over on the right, a tumblr blog called Assistant Director, and it’s a good one, with trenchant, well-written posts and the occasional re-post of something brilliant from another site.

Something like this.

Industry blogs have multiplied like proverbial rabbits since I jumped into the waters in September of 2007. Back then, I knew of only one other (Totally Unauthorized), which had been around at least four years at the time.  I soon stumbled across Dollygrippery -- which also preceded mine -- and The Script Goddess.*  My awareness of the industry blog-o-sphere then opened wide, with a new blog popping up every few weeks.  Some lasted and some didn’t, but all were interesting reads from voices spanning the spectrum of the industry. Although I'm rather picky about what ends up on my blogroll, that list keeps gets longer every year.

So the world at large may be going to hell in an increasingly bloody hand-basket, while Hollywood continues to suffer from the ongoing plague of runaway production, but the industry blog scene is alive and well.  That, at least, is a good thing.

Happy New Year.

* Links to all are over there on the right. Totally Unauthorized and Dollygrippery are still going strong, but Scripty hasn't posted anything new since October of 2012.  That's our loss...