Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Series Recap

As most regular readers know, I (D) just finished a season of a series after a long absence from tv. During this long six months I relearned a lot of things I had forgotten that are peculiar to television dolly work and in the process, sharpened a lot of skills that had grown a little rusty. I hadn't done a full season of tv since around 1994 and was curious to see how it had changed. The first thing I learned was that to make a decent paycheck on a cable series you have to have rentals. I had spoken on the phone with the Dolly Grip from The Sopranos a few weeks beforehand on an unrelated matter and he had mentioned this fact, and boy was he right. The side letter for cable television that the IA negotiated years ago and refuses to revisit is ridiculous. It's not much more than the rate I was making 10 years ago. I won't go much further on this issue because it's just restating the obvious and it gets me all worked up. Needless to say, it's driving down wages and making us all the collective bitch of the industry. Don't even get me started on this tier 3 crap.
Here are some things I did like about doing the show, however:
It forces you to learn to work fast. As I've stated before- a good Dolly Grip earns his money in set-up. Laying floors, what surface you need, which tool is best for the job- all these are decisions that have to be made quickly and you have to be right the first time. The moves should be second nature, either you have the skills to pull them off or you don't. It's the collaboration with your operator and deciding how to best allow both of you to execute the shot that get's you the attaboys in tv. You also have to be able to pull off some seriously technical shots in a rehearsal and a couple of takes. If take 7 comes around and you're still the reason they don't have it, you're not going to last long. In as far as the moves go, tv brings you up to snuff pretty fast. You've got 6 pages a day, not 1 or 2, so you've got to be able to nail it.
You've got to solve problems quickly and effectively. Got a bump that won't go away? A squeak in a floor or track that's killing a line? You've got to diagnose it and come up with a solution fast, usually while number one on the call sheet is watching you do it.
Know your sets. You'll generally have a couple of sets that are "home." Know the dimensions. Know where a 2x4 sheet of floor will work and where only a 2x18" will work. Make special cuts for hard to cover spaces you regularly end up in. We had a bar set that was five feet wide behind the bar. I had a 1' x8' piece of floor cut that I could add onto a 4x8 and cover the whole space because we consistently used it all. Cut 30" doorway pieces. Anything that regularly pops up. The beauty of this is that you can keep these special cuts on the stage and they are there when you come back.
Plywood these days sucks. We went through two (2!) sets of plywood before we said, "OK, what's going on?" It bowed, it chipped, it warped and when we talked to the lumber company, they said you couldn't get good birch anymore, the hurricane rebuilding cleaned it out. We ended up ordering Baltic Birch, heavy as all get out and expensive, but it holds up and stays true.
Get your dolly inspected and tuned up every couple of months. We rode it hard and were doing a lot of shots on offsets directly over actor's heads. You don't know what's jarred or rattled loose over a couple months of hard use so get it looked at every so often by the techs. Don't take the chance of something giving way with 60 lbs over someone's head.
I fully expected to hate everyone after a few weeks, but surprisingly didn't. My camera operator and I truly had a working relationship based on respect. He knew I would get the job done and that he could trust my decisions and vice-versa. Same with the AC and pretty much everyone else from the DP on down.
So in the end, I'm glad I did it. It gave me six months of steady income and brought me up to snuff after several years of 1 page a day feature work. Will I go back for the next season? We'll see what happens between now and then.

Oops! On an earlier post I gave our email address as It's actually a dot com. Sorry and thanks to Nathan for the head's up!


GHB said...

Couldn't have said is better myself. The part about specialty cuts of dancefloor for the hero sets is the best tip, too. T.V. is brutal and if you can make anything easier for yourself, it's worth the effort. And yea...what the hell happened to birch plywood? I trashed a full set in three months on my show.

D said...

It's all crap! Thanks for the comments.

Azurgrip said...

I keep having to use / buy the Russian made ply that's twice as heavy - but boy does it last.

Now, if I could only find some masonite around here...