Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Sweet Home, Alabama

This post is different. It won't be about dollies, or track, or cranes. It's about something far more important.

"In the place where I was raised,
  clocks tick and the cattle graze.
  Time passed with Amazing Grace,
  Back where I come from."
            -Mac Mcannally

".....It looks like two miles of Hiroshima."
                        -Tuscaloosa resident and old friend Billy Field

       A couple of days ago, I awoke as I normally do, tired and cranky. I had a three o' clock call time so I had a few hours to relax and also watch my baby boy while my wife went to the gym. I sat down on the couch and turned on the tv and saw something extraordinary. I saw Concord, Alabama on my local Los Angeles Fox affiliate. What makes this extraordinary is that the only reason that Concord, a small rural hamlet outside Birmingham, would be on television in Los Angeles is that something really, really bad had happened. It had. I knew that there had been a storm and that tornadoes were in the area. I had, in fact, watched their progress on my Droid a little anxiously the day before as they bore down on my little hometown. I mentally went down the list of where my family members were at the time- daughter in Atlanta- good, Mom and Dad at home*- bad, sister and kids and various aunts, uncles, cousins and friends at home*- bad. I quickly made a few phone calls and put out a request on Facebook. Once I was assured that everyone was ok, I had to go back to work and didn't really have a chance to check back in for a long while. Now, I was looking at my television in sunny Los Angeles and seeing miles and miles of splintered trees, empty concrete slabs, and debris. It was unfortunately a familiar sight.
   In 1998, an F5 tornado roared in from the west and detonated on the Oak Grove-Concord area like a nuclear device. It left a swath of destruction a half-mile wide and took with it 32 souls. It left the wreckage of countless houses, trees, cars and my high school scattered for miles. I found out about that storm much the same way as I did this one. On my couch in Atlanta, watching CNN. My daughter was about two at the time and after kissing her and her Mother goodbye, I raced the three hours from Atlanta to Oak Grove to see what I could do. It was a sight I will never forget. I parked in a long line of cars just on a curve outside town and joined a crowd of other natives/onlookers walking slowly around the curve. As the town came into view, my jaw dropped. Helicopters hovered, firemen and policemen ran around shouting. Residents, people I'd known since I was born, picked through what was left of their lives. And as far as the eye could see was total devastation.

   Let me tell you a little about this area and her people. Oak Grove, Alabama lies in a cluster of unincorporated, and incorporated towns stretching in a line from the Black Warrior River to Birmingham, around 30 miles. They have names like Rock Creek, Concord (pronounced "COHN-coard," not "Concurd"), Pleasant Grove, and Hueytown. It's a mostly rural area with three high schools, Oak Grove (my school),  and about fifteen miles away, Hueytown, and Pleasant Grove in close proximity to each other. Students from the three relatively small schools mingled pretty freely. We all went to the same parties, hung out in the same McDonalds parking lots on Friday nights, and worked at the same grocery stores on the weekend. It is a place of green rolling hills, Sunday School, pine trees, and and a big wide river made for fishing and skiiing. In the Summer, the air grows thick and lazy. Summer nights are filled with lightning bugs and the sound of crickets. Fall means crisp air, Friday night football games, and blazingly colored leaves. Winter sometimes brings a little snow. And Spring, with the May flowers, also brings tornadoes. Tornadoes are a fact of life in the South. They're just something you live with and don't really think much about because they rarely affect you directly. As children, we were all subjected to monthly tornado drills in elementary school. We dutifully knelt under our desks, covered our heads and privately wondered how effective a twenty pound desk would be when the roof got ripped off. Other than that, we really didn't think much about them. It was a great place to grow up. I actually still know the names of most of the people I started kindergarten and first grade with. I know them because I graduated high school (a high school that was now a pile of bricks) with most of them in a class of about seventy, twelve years later. We would spend summers as kids exploring the woods and having stick battles, and as teenagers, building a bonfire  out on a rutted track known as Joe Berry Road, turning up the radio and having a party. We weren't rich, but we sure were privileged. Now, a town I knew like the back of my hand was gone.
   That was 1998, and now it's happened again. Not directly to Oak Grove. This time, at least, it was spared. Concord and Pleasant Grove, though weren't. It doesn't matter. For all intents and purposes, it's the same people being hit again just thirteen years after rebuilding. Only this time it was worse. An F5 descended from the west once again and cut a raw wound in this community. This time, along with Tuscaloosa, Pratt City, and a few more communities, the death toll is 250. Imagine ten or twelve random people who you saw at the gas station, sat next to in church, bought hardware from, people you'd known as long as you can remember, suddenly gone. And left in their place a pile of splintered wood and a homeless family trying to deal with the loss, not only of a loved one, but also their home.
  I don't want to get too maudlin on this subject, but this place and these people are my own. Although I haven't lived in that area for years, it's still "home" to me. My family still lives there. Everyone I knew from birth to the age of twenty lives there. They're good people. The finest I've ever known. They are tough and proud. They are bent, but not broken. So, here it is.... I don't like asking for things. The information we provide here has always been free and always will be. But, if you are doing well, if you have ten extra dollars in your pocket, please give to the organizations listed at the end of this post. If you're down on your luck, send along a prayer. They surely need it.

Roll Tide.

Thanks, D

*All my immediate family on both sides live in the affected area.

Visit  Hands On Birmingham to make a donation or, if you're in the area, to sign up as a volunteer.

You can go to and order a "Roll Tuscaloosa Roll" tshirt for 10.00. All proceeds go to relief efforts.  for the Mid Alabama Red Cross to donate. Click on "donate" far right top. The Birmingham or Tuscaloosa areas were hit as well as the Phil Campbell area in Franklin County.

Text "red cross" to 9099 to donate 10.00. Standard text and messaging may apply.

Friday, April 22, 2011


  Happy Easter! I hope those of you getting a day off enjoy it. I am taking Monday off also due to the fact that I can't bear the thought of going back after only three days off. I have reached the point of burnout. Five months of day in and out tv scheduling have taken their toll and I find myself caring less and less every day about the work or who does it. To help demonstrate how I reached this point, the following is a simple breakdown of a typical week on my show:

Monday- 7 AM call. Arrive at stage and the riggers have graciously unloaded the truck and moved it to the stage. They didn't have a chance to get to the dance floor cart, though. I can't remember where we used it last (We have a stage package that floats around to the six stages we occupy, and a truck package, a huge custom made beast that stays loaded on the truck for locations). Ok, we finished on stage one last week, all the way across the lot. The B camera Dolly Grip and I trudge across the lot and wheel it back to stage three. Get marks, Set up. A standard twelve hour day on stage follows.

Tuesday- More of the same except we moved all our stuff at wrap so it's already waiting for us on stage two, where we're working. We have a middle of the day move scheduled to stage four for three scenes. We make it at 3:00. After a 14 hour day, we wrap. Riggers will move us tomorrow morning.

Wednesday- Today is a double-up day. We have two full units shooting. My B-camera Dolly Grip will take A- camera on the other unit. Due to a call sheet mixup, my dollies and equipment have been moved to the wrong stage. The double-up unit dollies are outside the truck because the riggers didn't have time to get to them. I show up at the wrong stage, 20 minutes late due to the call sheet mixup (which happens on every double up day. The problem is, that I go to whatever unit my camera operator is on. He goes to whatever unit number one on the call sheet is on, unless there's Steadicam on the other unit. It gets a little silly and. sometimes whoever does the call sheet can't quite figure it out. Hilarity ensues). I spend a good twenty minutes figuring out where I'm going, and where my stuff is. I locate my fill-in B camera Dolly Grip who was also on the wrong call sheet. We push our stuff across the lot to the right stage. Get marks, set up, Shoot. After a 13 hour day, wrap. Tomorrow is a split, so we have a 2PM call and a long turnaround. I try to stay up as long as I can so that I'm not up at 8AM and asleep at midnight the next night.

Thursday- Shooting at a large ranch out towards Malibu where we have most of our standing exterior sets built. Arrive at 1:30PM, grab a burrito and load a stakebed. We are actually shooting in a cemetary we have built about 1/4 of a mile back in the woods. We'll need luma beams. Load, move, get marks, lay track, shoot. Cut, check gate, move on, tear down, get marks, lay track, etc etc ad infinitum. Move to ext. house. Load stakebed, move , get marks, lay track blah blah blah. After a 14 hour day we wrap. Tomorrow is a straight night. We have a 5PM call even though it doesn't get dark until almost 7.

Friday- We have a Moviebird tonight. Unload stakebed, find crane tech and say hi. Move equipment to forest clearing. Get marks, place crane, do shot. Move crane. Get marks blah blah ad nauseum. Crane is done. We now move to exterior house. This house is on a hill and trucks park at the bottom of it. We push dollies up hill and ramp up stairs onto porch. Watch rehearsal, get marks. This will take a floor. Lay floor, do shot etc. Turn around. Re- lay floor, do shot etc. We finish on an interior of the house. This particular house has about a four inch dropoff from one side of the living room to the other. We're going to need bucks. The Key Grip sends a couple of guys to the truck for some aluminum bucks. Meanwhile, I watch rehearsal, get marks, bring in dance floor and bucks. Lay floor, rehearse, shoot, tighter, check gate. Turnaround and re-lay floor on other side. Marks, shoot, tear down. We need an insert of a cellphone. B Camera is wrapped. Go get camera riser, do insert. Wrap to stakebed and then to 48 footer. The sky is turning blue so at least we won't wrap in the dark. It's 7AM when I get in my car. We have a 6AM call on Monday and we'll start over again with a new director and a fresh DP and AD crew.

 You can see my point.  I have unfortunately reached the point where I have a hard time showing interest and I'm starting to let little things go. I don't like working that way. So, four days off instead of three isn't really a cure, but it may bring me back around enough to carry me another couple of months. I hope the rest of you doing television have a chance for a little breather as well.
 Stay safe, D

**For those of you wanting more, Michael over at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium has a nice addendum to this post. Check it out.**

Mon, April 25-BTW, I just called the Best Boy and told him I would like to take tomorrow off as well. He said, "Awesome."

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Spotting Problems

 By spotting problems, I mean seeing potential problems and fixing or avoiding them before they become obstructive, or even dangerous. The ability to know when something is or isn't a potential issue is one of the most important assets of being a Dolly Grip. Actually of being a Grip also. It's always been my own opinion, for what little it's worth, that a Dolly Grip makes his money in setup, not necessarily in the moves themselves. I think the moves come with practice and either you have, or develop, the timing and dexterity or you don't. Once you have that part down, you don't really think about it much, you just step up and do it. Setup is where the problem solving part of the job arises and where you try and head off the roadblocks before you turn the corner and see them screaming toward you at 80 mph. Most of it is common sense, some of it is just gut feeling, and some of it you've learned just from being around other really good grips. I'll give a vague example which is the only one I can think of in my fatigued state: we used a certain brand of jib arm on a show I did a few years ago pretty consistently over two or three seasons. Now I'm not a fan of this particular arm, but someone higher up the chain than me liked it, so we used it a fair amount of the time. It's commonly seen arm, one used by a lot of guys all over the world and it works fine. I just don't like it. The connections are all internal so I can't see what's actually going on with them, and it is always a pain to put back in the case at the end of the day. We had this arm delivered from the vendor whenever we needed it and would build it at the start of the day. One time we were building it and two of the pieces just wouldn't fit together, no matter how we coaxed and cursed. It got to the point where the DP was standing over me waiting to see if he was going to be able to use it for the next shot. In any case, we managed to get it together (by employing a pair of pliers and questionable means) and the show went on. The next season, it happened again. Same problem. Same DP standing over my shoulder. This time, I told him to postpone the shot if he could and I would get the vendor to run over a replacement part. Which they did. Now this is not a huge deal. Sometimes things get tweaked and don't fit right. But not the same thing. Twice. This tells me that there's either a problem with the shop, or with that arm. Either way, sooner or later, down the road, something worse than postponing a shot could happen. I went to the Best Boy and asked him to never bring that arm out again. Get me a Fisher Jib. I can see the connections  on  the arm and I've never had one give me a problem. Not even once. "Big deal," you're thinking. "Two problems in three years. You just got mad at the arm and didn't want to see it anymore." And you're right, to a certain extent. But mostly I was concerned. In twenty years of putting crane arms together, I've never had two pieces that were meant to go together that just didn't. Not that involved tweaking one of the connections with a pair of pliers.That tells me that this is, to me, becoming a safety issue. If it's happened twice in two years, what else don't I know about. And while it probably would have been fine, I don't want to take the chance with a jib over actors and stand-ins heads.
  Now this example, while admittedly vague, demonstrates a pattern. In my experience, crane parts not fitting together is irregular. Having to physically change a connector by force is irregular. I've now seen it twice with this arm. Get it out of here before something breaks loose with 40 pounds of camera and 120 pounds of weight over someone's head. That's what you look for. You look for patterns. You look for irregularities. You look for two threads on the castle nut instead of three. Potential land mines are everywhere and spotting them can be the difference between swapping out a part and someone going to the hospital.
  On a lighter note, yesterday I got in my car and halfway to work before I realized I didn't have any shoes on.
 Be safe,