Monday, July 27, 2009

How to Deal With Your Dolly Grip

Regular reader DP Ed Moore, from the UK, sent in an idea for a post for operators concerning how they can make our jobs easier. I thought this was a great idea, especially since I spend my day trying to make their jobs easier. Here are a few tips.

The following are given with great affection for my Operator friends. No offense is meant. I hope you get a laugh out of them:

Don't wait until we're rolling camera to tell me that you see a bump. We've done three rehearsals. Wake up.

Don't leave your coffee cups, half eaten sandwiches, candy wrappers etc on the dolly for the rest of the day. I understand you can't always leave to throw it away, but if it's been on there since breakfast and we're on the third shot, it's time to pull the trigger. I'll just put it on the camera cart and then blame it on you.

Don't leap off the dolly. You're not dismounting a horse and if the brakes aren't on you can make something really bad happen.

Don't tell me every move to make if I've proven to you that I know what I'm doing. I generally know which way to orient the dolly, how much floor I need, how high low-mode is, and whether or not I need a riser. Believe me, if I need help I'll ask. I need your input, but some things are pretty self -evident.

Don't get accessory happy. I can almost always set up the dolly correctly so that you don't need a seat offset. I've managed to make it ten years without using one (that's the last time I remember using one. It flipped and dumped the DP on his ass. Sorry, Frank). Give me a chance to set up the dolly in the right way for the shot before you start yelling for stuff. If you're still not happy, I'll get you what you need.

Do include me in conversations about the shot. I need all the info I can get and my contribution may make your job easier.

If I blow a take or a rehearsal, turning around and yelling won't help. I know I screwed up. I'm very sorry. I'm your friend. And I'll start changing your gear settings when you're not looking.

I have to see it at least once. Don't expect the first run through with actors to be perfect especially if the stand-ins did it differently (and they usually do). I know I have to match movements, hold eyelines etc.

Communicate with me. Tell me how I can do it better, or conversely, how I screwed it up if you can see that I don't get it.

Use a finder. I don't want to lay it twice.

Yes, I can do a boom and a move at the same time. I actually do this for a living. If I can't, you've got the wrong guy and it'll be pretty evident very soon anyway. I'm just as good at my job as you are at yours. Can you pan and tilt at the same time?

When I'm at work, I'll give you 110%. It's my job to make sure you can do the shot safely and as comfortably as possible. I drink Budweiser.

Watch my back. If you see me forgetting something, not doing something right, are uncomfortable with a shot set up, tell me. Don't watch me lay the track in the wrong spot and wait until I'm done before you mention it. We're a team. Watch out for me and I'll watch out for you.

I have a name. Learn it. Use it. I know you're big time DP and all but I'm a big time Dolly Grip and the whole motioning up and down thing with your thumb without saying anything is just insulting. This is a phenomenon mainly associated with commercial and television DPs. For some reason, some cameramen think it's cool to never address the Dolly Grip personally but to communicate through a series of cryptic finger displays. I know some do this from time to time if the set's loud or they're trying to be quiet. I don't mean you. A certain few do it very dismissively all the time. Believe me, I've worked with the best, they don't do this. This doesn't make you cool, it only makes you a jackass.

Don't tell me what kind of dolly to use. I don't tell you which head to use. I've been doing this a long time and I know the right tool for the job and which machine I'm most comfortable with. Every dolly is different and some Dolly Grips can make a Fisher Ten sing while others are more comfortable with a Chapman Hustler. It's my job to make sure you don't notice which brand of dolly you're on and if I do it well, you won't. I'm the one who has to make it work. Let me do my job. Help me, help you.

Operators- send in your own tips, pet peeves, etc. I'll put them in a post. I need all the help I can get.

These tips all pre-suppose that the Dolly Grip is experienced and is engaged in what's going on. Otherwise, I probably deserve whatever I get. I count Camera Operators among my best friends and what you do is truly a joy to watch. These are just some helpful suggestions to help us work better as a team. You know who you are.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


My last post was an indictment of the whole incentives mess we've gotten into. Right after I posted it, Mike over at sent me an email and a column he had just finished and had intended to post the next Sunday. One problem- it was eerily identical to mine. The writing style was different (Mike's lyrical, well-thought prose vs my last minute angry scribbling) but he had independantly written a post that hit almost all the same points. He said that in light of mine hitting the airwaves first, he would cancel his. I encouraged him to post it. It's an important subject and his column was great, so hopefully he'll have it up soon. Anyway, if you read his and it bears an uncanny resemblance to mine- it's because we're both geniuses.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Film in LA (or not)

Well, they've done it. They've actually managed to drive the industry that Los Angeles and Hollywood is actually known for ( Hollywood!) out of the state. By "they", I mean the bureaucratic half-wits who we (well, not me) elected to run this city and state. Who would have ever imagined a time when more movies would actually be shot in Louisiana and Georgia than Hollywood? Now before the letters saying, "Oh, another LA guy is upset that they're shooting movies somewhere else," start coming in, let me clarify. It's not that they're doing it, I work all over the country anyway. It's the way they're doing it, and the effect it's having on my Grip and Electric brothers and sisters.

I worked in Atlanta and all through the South in the late eighties and early nineties. At that time, it was common for any given city in the country to be the "Flavor of the Month" for the film industry and this was Atlanta's time. I was there working during a boom in production for the city and with the relatively small pool of grips in town, the back to back procession of features, tv movies, and series ensured my perpetual employment. A boom would last for anywhere from two to four years and then the studios would decide they liked Dallas or New Orleans better and move on, leaving a smattering of occasional features or tv movies to keep us employed until the next boom came around. It was cyclical, we all knew that, and it had nothing to do with tax incentives, which were unheard of for the film business back then. Cities in those days were picked mainly for their locations, ease of shooting, and availability of qualified crew members. Los Angeles was a far away place that we both loved and hated for her fickle attentions, but we all knew we were dependent upon it because that's where the business was. It was the home planet that sent representatives in the form of Key Grips, Dolly Grips, and even Hammers with the shows that came in, whom we resented, learned from, and eventually became friends with (I know, I shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition but it would be twice as long otherwise). We were a small community, but proud of our technical abilities and work ethic. Then the door to Pandora's box was opened and nothing has ever been the same since. Studios discovered Vancouver and tax incentives and suddenly a job at Home Depot wasn't that farfetched. Work in Atlanta dried up. We straggled along with enough commercial work and features at home and in nearby states to make a living, but the salad days were gone. In the back of our minds, though, we always knew that there was LA. They would never stop making movies there. I was lucky at the time to be working (I still am) with a Key Grip who had become well sought after by some very big DPs and directors. He had his Local 80 card and worked frequently in LA. Eventually, I realized that I could no longer make the living I wanted in just Georgia and out of necessity, also acquired my card. I still worked in Georgia when the calls infrequently came, but now I could always find a job in LA when I needed one.

Then came Shreveport. A lot of the people I knew in Georgia had moved there for work, which was plentiful.

Then came Boston. Then Connecticut, and the ever present New Mexico. Then Georgia, again.

Only this time, it's different. It's not a decision based on locations or crew depth or proximity to an airport. It's a race to the bottom based purely on which state is giving away the most money at any given time. And there's no way to stop it. Let me clarify something right now. I'm happy for the workers in these states. I'm glad that Georgia is once again the darling of producers if only for the sake of the techs who live there. I'm glad they're working. As long as they realize that it could dry up tomorrow as soon as another state gives a better deal. It's my home state. I still have a residence there and would love to work there again. And I'm sure if I had stayed there and never come to LA that I wouldn't give a rat's ass what was going on out here. But something's wrong. What's going on is just crazy. I'm watching second generation Key Grips who have worked on the same lots as their parents lose their houses. Studio lots that normally would be jammed with trucks, and honeywagons, and stakebeds are ghost towns. I was on the Warner Brother's lot two weeks ago and there was one other show besides ours there. Businesses that have supplied the studios with condors and catering and dry cleaning for thirty years are closing their doors. And it's not like the shows are permanently relocating to a cheaper city to stay. The bosses are still here. They drive their Mercedes and Porsches through the studio gates every morning, while Grips and Juicers chase shows all over the country, living in Extended Stays and working as locals just to send money home to pay their mortgages. And there's the problem. No one is safe anymore. If you're in an incentive city that suddenly gets hot, droves of shows come in from out of nowhere. The bench of locals is suddenly thinned and techs from everywhere start coming in. Rental houses from out of town open up shop and begin competing with, and in many cases driving down rental rates for local rental houses. Local politicians crow about how Boise, Idaho or Cleveland, Ohio is the new Hollywood and start planning studio construction. Then, suddenly Wheeling, West Virginia offers a higher tax rebate and it's a stampede to the border leaving a crowd of dazed locals, empty warehouses, and starstruck citizens behind. Now, a new population of local techs suddenly have more work than they could ever dream of and the one's in the town left behind either move or sit at home waiting for the phone to ring. There's nowhere to put down roots anymore because places aren't chosen because of location. Time was, if you needed Savannah you went to Savannah. Now you go wherever you can get 40% and throw some spanish moss around. True, Los Angeles has stood in for everywhere for years. And if you had to or wanted to, you could move there and work every day and go home every night. Or if you lived in New Orleans, you knew that enough shows would need a New Orleans look that you would get enough work to do well and you could go home every night. Same with Atlanta or anywhere else that has a significant production community. The balance is completely off though, and there's nowhere safe to establish a home base. What's hot today could be dead in two years so you may as well keep the van packed and be ready to go at any time. For the first ten years of my career I worked mainly in Georgia with the occasional location in Mississippi or Alabama. Then, incentives killed Georgia, so I worked mainly in Los Angeles and Georgia for the next five or six years. In the last two years I've been to Shreveport, Boston twice, New York twice, and Connecticut. I've turned down jobs in Detroit and Iowa.

The thing is, I don't blame the studios. They're doing what they do and have always done. This business is about money, pure and simple. Anyone who thinks it's about art hasn't seen Transformers.

I blame the lawmakers. They started this. Now California has to join the same grim war of giveaways just to compete in the industry it's known for and in which it still originates. And they refuse. Businesses are leaving California in droves because of endless red tape, restrictions, and ever rising taxes. So now I'm torn. On the one hand I'm pissed at the cretins who have turned this state into a punchline for not moving to protect a homegrown industry, and on the other, I'm pissed that states are being lured into this trap by studios whispering in their ears and by visions of their legislators getting their pictures made with Kevin Costner. Some of these places are building studios. And as soon as Ohio gives a better deal, they'll sit neglected, millions wasted on empty promises. Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably a little. But piling more incentives upon the heap is the only way Hollywood can hope to stay busy now. Self preservation tends to kick in a little when you've moved twice and finally started establishing yourself in the one place that there should always be a movie shooting.

So where does it end? I really don't know. I want to say what I've always said: it's cyclical and we've just entered a perfect storm of bad economy and union actions. But I just don't know.

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!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Please Ask Questions

I notice we get a lot of hits from Google from people searching for Fisher dolly set-up, Hustler 4 instruction manual, low mode on Peewee, and things of a similar nature. We also get about ten hits a week for Wa11y Dolly and many more with things like aluma beams, dance floor outside. The bad thing is, I never know if these people found what they were looking for. Please, if you have a question about professional camera dollies or camera movement, ask. The best place to do this is to visit the message forum on the right, or you can email dollygrippery @ gmail dot com. We have some of the best Dolly Operators (yes I used that term) in the business and most would be happy to answer any questions you may have. So ask!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dollying on THE ROCK

On the road again...

Sorry you haven't heard from me in a while. I've had a busy year so far - I can't complain when there are so many grips out of work these days.

Work has taken me away from home. I'm out on the "the Rock" in St John's, Newfoundland to work on a TV series (D - odd we're doing more TV than feature work when networks are pushing for more reality TV than drama) for six months.

I'm out of my element and never been here before, but the people are great and ever helping. I uncrated my Pee Wee IV. Something I've never had to do before. Normally I just deal with the dolly tech. Here, I'm the dolly tech. The local rental house doesn't have a dolly in house, so they have a deal with another east coast rental house to supply dollies, however... if the item in question is too big to FedEx, (and they have it in shop) then it's six hour boat ride and 11 hour drive, all dependent on IF the truck gets onto the ferry AND the weather is good enough to drive the roads.

Although the chassis wasn't new, it was in pretty good condition. I'm still suspicious of the arm. I'm not a fan of the PW IV boom control as I find it way too sloppy and not enough force feed back to "feel" where you are in the opening of the valve. Also too much distance to travel from closed to wide open.

Had to send back and exchange the low shot plate (spoon) as it had no lower support pin and the attaching bolt was bent and not enough threads to support the plate.

Working with newish Matthews steel track. I haven't seen the beast in ten - twelve years and had forgotten about all the little tricks in dealing with it. We're still working on dance floor... there's another story.

Weather here is a little chilly for my liking as we're right on the Atlantic ocean, and I'm about 15min drive away from the most eastern tip of North America.

Still waiting to be screeched in (local tradition involving lots of rum and kissing a cod). It's an adventure!!!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Chapman on Science Channel Tonight

Just a quick note. Tonight at 10:00pm Eastern (7 Pacific of course) the Science Channel visits Chapman/Leonard and learns about the science of camera dollies. It may be at the end since the main part of the show is about special effects I believe. Check it out.

New Pictures and a Story

I've gotten a couple of pictures in, but not nearly as many as I'd hoped. I've added a few on the right (I know my pictures were getting old) courtesy of Sean Devine, Stephen Murphy, and Alexa Mignon Harris. The above is from Rick at This is (strangely appropriately) from the Michael Jackson video Smooth Criminal in 1987. His came with a story that I'll let him tell in his own words:

"We were doing a shot starting high and moving down right into Joe Pesci's face. I had to cut once because there was a by-stander standing right next me as I was swinging the arm around. I told him to move so I don't hit him in the teeth with the arm... he apologized and moved over.In between takes he came back and bummed a ciggie.Next take there he is again right on my ass... "Dude! you gotta get the f--k outta way" I said."Oh sorry" he said as he was backing up. As he was walking away he trips on the headset wire and rips it off my belt... the stills guy got the shot just as I looked back at this jerk-off. The guy was Bruce Willis. He was just hanging around the set watching...not part of the shoot in anyway."

I'm working on how to get the pictures bigger, haven't solved it yet, even though I clicked the largest size in the layout.
I did the final load-out at Chapman today and had a talk with Dana in the office about having my standard package as well as dolly numbers that I prefer on a list or database somewhere so that it's not a new experience every time and if my favorite dollies are available, they'll hopefully be pulled out for me. I worked so long on the East Coast and dealt with the same people over and over that after working in LA for 8 years, I still didn't have a relationship with anyone at Chapman LA other than the guys on the dock. She was very helpful and hopefully this will streamline my checking out process. It's something that I should have done long ago and just never did. (No, I won't tell you the numbers of my favorite Hustlers).
ps- I appreciate the pictures more than you know. Please be aware that by sending them, they will be posted at some point and I'm looking into starting a Flickr page so that they are all more easily accessible. They will always be attributed to whomever sends them. If you have a problem with any of this, please don't send them.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

That's A Wrap!

Aaaand we're back. Sorry for my absence for so long. We went into six day weeks to finish the last episode (and clean up a couple of previous ones) and I just didn't have the time/will to post. But we finally finished the season and it was a marathon the last couple of months. We even sent a unit to Louisiana to do some exterior scenes next week, but I declined. I have a couple of offers on the table and just didn't have it in me to have a week off and go right into another show. In the coming days I will have some insights on some things I learned and some skills I was able to sharpen as well as some tips for making it on a tv schedule. In the meantime, I got off at 6:30 this morning and have to be in tomorrow at 7:00am to start wrapping two mud encrusted, completely ragged out dollies. I would like to thank some of the great dolly grips who came in over the course of the season to pick up my slack and fill in on days off or take over double up units- Troy Wade started out as my "B" Camera counterpart until he got three (3!) movies in a row as "A" camera and had to leave. He made my job easy and I owe him one. Andy Crawford, Scott Leftridge, Chris Brow, Jason Newton, Ashley Sudge, John Murphy, Bobby Reid, Wayne Stroud, Jeff Curtis, Eric Zucker, Mike Epley, Danny Stephens, and I'm sure one or two I've forgotten over the last six months, all picked up my slack and either allowed me to take days off without worrying if I was well covered, or took over "B" camera and helped keep the machine moving smoothly. Thanks guys. I know Bud thanks you too. For those of you not in the industry, you've witnessed these guy's work on everything from Stargate to Interview With the Vampire and it was an honor to have them on set.
I've also been sent some pictures over the last few weeks that I'll post. Keep sending them. Thanks for checking in even though the posts have been few and far between. I'm going to bed.

PS- I've added an oldie but a goodie to the Video Bar-"Tripp's Trip." This is a good friend of mine, a fine Dolly Grip who eats it while helping out Steadicam. Always a crowd pleaser, we show it with affection.
PPS- I would like to give a big "Thank You" to our soldiers in service for our country. If you are reading this, you are all my hero.