Saturday, September 27, 2008

For the New Grips

I've been getting a lot of comments and emails from young grips just starting out which I'm kind of surprised about. I haven't seen many young grips starting out in the last few years and wondered if people just weren't going into it anymore. So here are some general tips from my own experience and from working with younger grips:
Ask questions. Don't act like you already know everything because if you're 22, we know you're lying and it just makes us want to screw with you.
Keep your dialogue to a minimum. Chatterboxes just get on our nerves.
Watch and know where your Key is at all times. If you see him or the DP waving their arm in front of a light, get a stand and flag ready to run in. You'll eventually get to a point where you'll know what a light needs when you see it, but not in a year.
Be on time. Better yet, be 30 minutes early.
You'll be the victim of some good natured (and some just nasty) jokes. Laugh louder than anyone. They're testing you.
Setting a flag isn't generally a two man (or three man) job.
Deferred pay is slang for "free." You'll probably do a freebie or two (I did). Treat them as a learning experience and chance to practice. Don't believe that crap about paying you when they make money. They're full of it.
The long, low paying crappy movies you slave on now will make some of the best stories and memories later. It won't last forever and no, there really isn't a difference in how huge movies are run. The pay is better, there are more toys to play with, and you'll rub elbows with bigger names, but the process is the same. It'll just take 4 months instead of 3 weeks. Now is the time to learn, while the stakes are lower. And you won't learn it all in a couple of shows. Gripping involves a lot of things; rigging, lighting, construction, engineering, camera movement, safety, and a little art mixed in. You want to learn as much as you can now so when you're on the 120 million dollar picture with Brad Pitt and Vilmos Zsigmond, you'll know what you're doing. You'll find a niche that suits you. I'm not a rigger. I can bolt truss together and build a car mount but I can't walk on a stage and know where and how the truss goes (well, I could, but just not as well as a Key Rigger.) You might want to be a Key Grip, Dolly Grip, Rigging Grip, Best Boy, or stay a Set Grip. But you'll generally find yourself gravitating to a certain area of expertise.
Join the union. No matter what your politics are, in the US at least, you'll need the turnaround, overtime, and insurance protection they provide. Plus, all the big movies are union. There's nothing wrong with low budget indies if that's your taste, but if you want to do bigger budget work, you'll need to work toward this. I was non-union for a while at the beginning and resisted, but eventually got in and my career got immediately better.
Allright boys and girls, stay at it and drop a line every now and then.

New Video Added...

Orson Welles' Touch of Evil kicks off with a spectacular crane shot lasting over three minutes. It was probably the inspiration for Robert Altman's opening shot in The Player. Watch and learn.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Yeah. I Can Do That.

As an admirer of Michael Taylor's writing, I've decided to veer away from technical stuff for a moment and ruminate on where we've come from and where we seem to be going. Like most of you, I started in the film business as a wide-eyed young man who loved movies and wanted to be a part of the whole thing. As a boy growing up in the small town South, Hollywood couldn't have seemed further away, nor a place in it harder to reach. I managed to get a job as a "grip" (note parentheses) on a really, really low budget movie and proceeded to sweat my butt off. As I recall, my rate was 300.00 a week flat out of which I paid my hotel room. We worked roughly 14 hour days. I was sent to my room the second week because I was sick from exhaustion. I had run myself literally to the point where I was nauseous. I remember collapsing in the bathtub of my room that day (before I took a four hour nap and went back) and being the happiest I could remember in my life. I was 19 years old. I was dirty, worn out, broke and elated that I could actually make a living (300.00 a week flat) doing this. The dolly track and dolly (Fisher 10, square track) fascinated me and as I watched our Key/Dolly Grip push and pull it, I knew that's what I would someday do.
Then came the dues paying. C-Clamps were polished. Jockey boxes were cleaned and waterproofed. The c-stand was mastered (about 2 years for that one). I stood out in the rain on glorious 35 degree nights counting sandbags. I was called "30 day wonder," "maggot," "rookie," and the one I hated most for some reason,"kid." As time went by, I managed to slowly climb up the budget ladder from movies that involved reincarnated -Elvis -as- a -serial -killer and teenagers being chased by Death played by Joe Estevez (Martin Sheen's brother!), to an actual tv series. In the Heat of the Night ran for 8 seasons. I was there for roughly 4 and a half. The pay was still crappy (15.00 an hour!) and I shared a run down rat infested house with a juicer from New York, but those were great times. We worked 6 day weeks in Covington, Georgia and I made some of the best friends and best memories I have. I started out on B-camera and did the requisite park and shoot. Then the Dolly Grip had to leave. Thanks to a great DP and Carroll O'Conner ("Give the kid a shot.") I got a chance to push dolly on a network series at the age of 23. I was awful. I mean really bad. But, the actors and DP and Pops (which was what everyone called Mr. O'Conner) knew I was green and I was allowed to screw up. When the show was finally cancelled and everyone went their separate ways, like they tend to do, I was still a really bad Dolly Grip. But I was getting better.
More set gripping followed. The pay got better. Then worse. Then better again and more features popped up. And I got a little better. I was shooting for that point that I knew I would push dolly exclusively and not have to wear that heavy tool belt and shlep sand bags anymore.
Sooner or later, I reached that point. Still learning. Still trying to wring an extra dollar an hour out of people who throw $50,000.00 wrap parties (don't get me wrong, I've been to some fantastic wrap parties and loved every one of them). Though a little more jaded, I still haven't lost my fascination with the way a beautifully executed camera move looks on screen. And I'm still trying to execute one. I still get excited when a DP or director turns to me and asks, "What's the best way to do this?" I still love being part of a crew of talented grips who do the impossible more than once a day and rarely get recognized for it. We watch the outcome of our labor make hundreds of millions of dollars and still get asked, "Do you really need that _________? It costs an extra 20.00 a day."
As grips, most of you have a similar history. You've hung truss, built bridges, silked actors, laid track, stacked sandbags, dodged lightning, and know how to do a million specialized things that most people would drop their jaw at and say, "You can do that?"
Yes we can.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Straightening the Tires Etc.

One of the comments to the last post of tips (I think it was Southern Grip) mentioned using a 4' level to align your wheels before a dance floor move. This is a great technique that I've somehow forgotten to mention. Every dolly skews around to some extent. It depends on weight distribution, where you are pushing from, and how far your move is. Chapman dollies have friction tabs instead of positive wheel locks like Fishers. You generally keep the lines on the tabs in line with the lines on the wheels from center steer position and they work fine. To get a little more true alignment, however, it's a good idea to use a level (or any straight edge at least 4' long. Put the dolly in center steer locked position, loosen the tabs on one side of the dolly, press your level firmly against the outside flat face of the wheels, lock the tabs when they're aligned and repeat for the other side. You'll find that this does a great job of lining them up and tracking will improve (as much as it's gonna). Always ask for some extra shims for the tabs from Chapman or the rental house too. The tabs tend to loosen up over time and the slightest bump will throw them out of alignment. Removing the top plate of the tabs and shimming them will tighten them up.
I love the "tips" posts just for the fact that they generate so much response. Some agree, and some disagree, but at least everyone talks and we can all learn a few things. If you have any tips that you use, either email them to the address above, or leave them in the comments and I'll post some of them.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

(Advanced) More Tips For New Dolly Grips

Always add at least 4 feet to what you think you need.
If in doubt, on carpet, double lay it,
If your dolly's not working right, call the company. Make them figure it out.
Under 50 mm, you're probably fine. Over 50 mm, use skates.* See the update below.
When in doubt, call for it ( I know the guys are tired. I'm tired too) Don't be afraid to call for what you need. Even at the end of a 16 hour day.
Above all else, make your operator comfortable. It will get you jobs in the future. And it's your job.
Don't be afraid to say "No" if something's dangerous. It's not worth your career or someone's life.
The eyepiece is always on the left. (Most of you know what I mean).
Know your heads (O'Connor etc).
Always mark the front wheel.
Keep the tanks full. Running out of juice before a big move is a novice move. It has happened to all of us, but keep an eye on your pressure.
An O'Connor head is 14" from base to lens. Factor it in.
A monitor will not make you a good Dolly Grip.

*Update- I wrote this when I was primarily using steel track. It's nearly impossible to get decent steel track anymore and when I wrote this it was true (and still is for steel). Generally, any of the aluminum I-beam tracks, GI Track, FilmAir, etc are good enough that you may only rarely have to use skates anymore.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Onno at Solid Grip Systems will have a booth at Cinec in Munich. He'll be showcasing his Trussdolly system as well as some other gadgets he's come up with to make all our working lives more interesting. If you're going, swing by and have a look.
Onno also asked what kinds of things we as Dolly Grips would like to see. If you have any ideas, leave them in the comments.

Udate- I had the link for Cinec here, but it turns out to be a wine forum (I think. It's in German) I'll get the correct one up when I can. You can also find the link to Solid Grip Systems in the "links" section.

Votes Are In

And the Fisher 10 wins by one. It was neck and neck between the Hybrid and Fisher 10 until the end. The Hustler 4 got only 3 votes, and one of those was mine, suggesting that a lot of you just haven't used it yet.
The second unit goes on and we're having a great time. Meanwhile, feature work seems to have slowed to the point where tier 2 crap is all that's shooting. I got called to do a show,(actually a sequel to a movie I did almost nine years ago) and they offered me a dollar an hour less than I made on the original. I appreciated the offer but said no thank you. The price of everything but dolly moves has apparently gone up. By the way, the original made hundreds of millions of dollars.
You know what guys? Sooner or later we just have to say no and make them get what they pay for- a person with experience equal to the price they're offering. Otherwise, it will just keep going down. Then, when they're a week behind and the operator is pulling his hair out, they'll either have to come up with the money or muddle through. I'm sure they'll muddle through, but the point is that they get what they pay for. I got offers earlier this year for two movies where they got what they paid for, and then two weeks into shooting realized that the dolly grip was in over his head. This led to frantic phone calls trying to find a Dolly Grip who could do a compound move. On at least one of them, they weren't able to find anyone because by that time nobody was available. I don't know what happened with the other one.
I understand that paying bills takes precedence, and believe me, I've done more than one ball-buster at a crappy rate just to make the mortgage. But don't take the crappy rate if you don't have to just to keep working. Say, "No thank you, my rate is ______." and sit back and see what happens.
Meanwhile, my job goes to October 6 and then I've got nothing.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Dolly Grip Makes Good

An old friend of mine who was a dolly grip for years is now an author. His new novel Based on the Movie (which I picked up at Borders) is a dolly grip's story.
I worked with Billy Taylor about 17 years ago when I was still a young hammer and he was an experienced Dolly Grip. He is a great guy and has written an interesting and enjoyable novel. It tells the story of Billy Conlon, a Dolly Grip whose wife has just left him for a hot young director. It very funnily chronicles his subsequent drunken binges and dependence on Xanax even as he finds himself having to save the disaster of a movie he's pushing dolly on when the same young director is brought in to finish it. You'll recognize a lot of the situations and appreciate a lot of the predicaments he finds himself in. Check it out.

Don't Forget to Vote

In the "dolly of choice poll", that is. I was curious who likes what, so I added a little poll to the right. I know, the Hybrids and Hustlers are really for two different location situations, but some people just prefer the Hybrid in any situation. So let us know what you like.