Friday, September 30, 2011

The Open Road

  This week I will begin the long drive to Atlanta to start my next show. It's the one I'm doing B Camera on and I'm actually looking forward to not having the responsibility of A camera. I'm also looking forward to the drive. I've made this trip probably half a dozen times over the last ten years and while it may seem like drudgery (and sometimes is), I see it as a little "me" time. I've got four days with nothing but my satellite radio and my cellphone which has GPS and Yelp, so I should never be lost. I'm going to treat it like a mini vacation and stop when I want to, and take a side road now and then if it looks interesting. I'll be taking Interstate 40 from Los Angeles to around Memphis, where I'll drop down into Atlanta. I did this a couple of years ago and enjoyed it a lot. If anyone has any ideas or good restaurants along that route, let me know.

  It's been a good week. I did two second units on two different television series that went really well and then filled in for a friend of mine on A camera on a pretty big movie  for one day and had a blast. I've been enjoying my two and three day a week schedule, but I'm ready for an actual job. It'll be good to get back home and see some familiar faces. I hope all of you are doing well. Drop me a line sometime.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Letting It Go

  I once had a camera operator ask me how many takes before I start to sweat. I honestly have no idea what my answer was. At the time we were both under the thumb of a particularly dictatorial DP (think Captain Bligh, or Humphrey Bogart's character in The Cain Mutiny). This guy just couldn't be pleased and alternated takes between screaming at him, and screaming at me, a peculiarly ineffective leadership style. It does bring up a topic for a post, though: letting go of your mistakes.
  This was always a hard one for me. I tend to beat myself up for mistakes. I will hang on to them way too long if I allow it. It's in these times that the words of a great old DP come back to me, "D, sometimes you just have to say f*#@k  'em."
  In a lot of ways you have to be like a quarterback. Sooner or later, you're going to throw an interception. You may even throw one that results in the other team running it back for a touchdown. But you have to let it go. The next play is a brand new one and you can't be effective with the memory of that spectacularly bad pass weighing you down. This is one of the reasons I always say that TV is the best training ground for a Dolly Grip. It's fast and there's little room for mistakes. If you don't get it by the third take, you don't get it. If you consistently don't get it by the third take (unless it's an extremely technical move of some kind, with a three-axis Lambda, a 360 degree pan and three booms while crawling on the floor to stay out of reflection) they are probably going to start looking for another Dolly Grip. Lucky for me (heh heh) I've been doing mostly TV for the past three years. And I enjoyed it. It was a challenge every day, and it taught me that the previous fifteen years of big fancy features had made me soft. I didn't get three rehearsals and six takes to get a shot in a two page day. I got to lay a dance floor, get the master and most of one side in two or three takes, while mentally working out where and how much floor I would need for the other side as we worked our way through a seven page day. And I learned that if I made a mistake to let it go. Luckily, most of my mistakes were in execution, not in setup, which would have taken a lot longer to correct. Sometimes you'll miss a boom or have a bad sitdown, but it takes a long time to re- lay a floor because you calculated wrong, or forgot which side the eyeline was on and just didn't lay enough. But every now and then that will happen, and when it does you will feel like a complete dumbass. Let it go.
   The truth is, most mistakes are quickly forgiven, unless you're working for a jackass like we were. Usually, you are your own worst enemy. It's easy to let the pressure get to you. Unlike most other departments, you've got at least four people depending on you (focus puller, camera operator, DP, director). Learn to let it go.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Going Out On A School Night

  This post is for all of us who have:

Woke up in our car in crew parking.
Walked out of the bar to a pale blue sky and realized we have to be at work in an hour.
Passed out on the bed, forgotten to set our alarm, gotten a call from the Best Boy asking, "Are you coming to work today?"
Done a sixty foot, balls -out move in the scorching heat with a blinding hangover.

  I'm going to start this topic with my most cringe inducing story. Not too many years ago, I did a movie in Louisiana. The star was Denzel Washington. The whole movie was shot in and around the Shreveport area except for one location: a small town a couple of hours over the Texas line. The company decided to bus the crew there in three private coaches, where they would drop us off at our hotel. As most of you know, any time a film crew gets on any sort of mass transit, be it plane, train, or bus, liquor will flow, and hijinks will follow. As soon as we boarded and staked out our prospective seats, the coolers came open and the crew in general, and the grips and electrics in particular, began to get blitzed. We had Bloody Mary's. We had beer, We had rum. One of the grips had pineapples that he cut in half, added rum and a straw, and passed them out. So we journeyed through the afternoon, blowing off steam and getting ripped. When we got to the hotel, we all got off the bus and began looking for our respective bags. At some point, I noticed Mr. Washington's makeup artist, whom I hadn't yet met. Now this man is just one of those people who carries himself with a lot of class. He's always dressed to the nines. He just exudes dignity. Today, he's chosen an outfit of pure white silk. I, of course, have picked a Bloody Mary as my particular poison and I think you know where this is going. I marched up to this completely unsuspecting man and stuck my hand out to offer a handshake. Bloody Mary, meet white silk. I was mortified. To make a long story short, the next day, after my repeated calls and notes begging forgiveness, he gave me a big hug. To this day when I think about that moment I shudder.
   The film business lends itself to substance abuse like few other careers. You take long nights in crew hotels with a common bar in a strange town for four months, add a group of mostly youngish men and women who have spent the last twelve to fourteen hours on a set, and you've got a recipe for disaster. I've seen marriages end before my eyes. Add per diem into the mix and you can ruin your life and reputation on the company dime. Now I joke around a lot about The Captain, and I do like my liquor drink. Some of my best posts have been with The Captain's guidance. But I learned long ago when to say when. Not because I'm naturally chock full of common sense, but because I've been burned enough times to know not to get loaded and lay down on the stove anymore. So here are some other things I've learned:

Respect the eight hour mark. This is the point where you can go to bed and still get eight hours of sleep before call. Know it ahead of time and adhere to it. Party like there's no tomorrow up to it, then leave.

Know your limits. Listen to the little voice (not the one in your pants).

If you're going on location alone, and you want to stay out of trouble (whatever kind of trouble that may be), take your X Box. It's a lot easier to say no to your friends when you've got twenty more levels of Gears of War waiting on you in your hotel room.

Chasing twentysomething PA's is fun and rewarding when you're under forty. After that it's just creepy.

If they are having the wrap party before shooting is actually completed, DON'T GO. (I have a story for this one involving a DP's lovely daughter, but I won't go into it).

Take a cab. Take a cab. Take a cab.

  I hope this timely Public Service Message comes in handy to those of you not quite old enough to know better.
And now....I believe I'll have a drink.

Monday, September 05, 2011

A Good Week

  It's been a good week.  I got two days on a series (A one day and B the other) and a two day commercial. I also got a call from one of my regular key grips about a movie in Atlanta in October. It's actually for B camera (the DP has a dolly grip who has been with him for over twenty years and he wants to bring him which I am all in favor of) and I thought, "Hmm, less work, same rate." So I'm going to do it.The B operator and focus puller are both good old friends of mine so hopefully it'll also be a lot of fun. It'll be nice to step away from the normal responsibility for a while. This dolly grip is also one of the best in the business and it'll be nice to meet him. It's funny that after last season's brutal schedule and workload, I still, after two months off, don't really want to step back in it yet. Usually after two or three weeks off I'm anxious to get back behind the dolly, but not this time. I don't know if it's just from getting older, a priority shift, or if the last year was just that hard. When I was in my twenties and thirties, work was all I knew and  I'm sad to say that I chased it at the expense of a lot of more important things. I haven't had but a couple of  birthdays off since 1990. Even when it's fallen on a weekend it seems there was always a  commercial to be done, and I also worked on a six day a week series through much of my twenties. The lure of distant locations, fancy hotel rooms and exciting new cities all kept me hungry to work constantly. Suddenly, not so much. I'm suddenly weary of irregularly shaped sets that need dance floors, rugs that don't come up, fifty foot track runs through the forest, sideboards that don't fit, and a lower back that remembers every Peewee I've helped carry up a set of narrow stairs. I'm not whining (well, maybe a little), I'm just surprised at my lack of ambition to jump into a feature. I'm sure I'll get it back. This just feels like a mid-point breather. By the way, Me, Me, Me, Me. I didn't mean to make this such a self-indulgent post, but I'm due for one. In the meantime, what would any of you readers like to discuss? I've had a call in to at least one of you for a guest post for a while now (you know who you are), so give us some ideas. Also, the pictures on the right are getting a little old, so feel free to send any cool ones you may have. I'll be away from the computer for a week or so (I still get email though) to do some family things and spend time with my children who are on opposite sides of the country, but will be together this week. Also, don't forget the message forum on the right of the page, which strangely gets rarely used. I see searches for things that lead to this page all the time ("used Fisher 10," "Mounting jib arm on Hustler 4," "laying circle track") but rarely any questions. So use us. We'll do our best to give an answer. Meanwhile, all of you have a safe and productive week.


I feel like I should clarify something here, also. For whatever you're doing on set, there is no substitution for an experienced Key and Dolly Grip. We can give you ideas and answers for whatever you might be doing, but some things shouldn't be attempted without someone who knows what they're doing actually present. Be safe. Learn the basics before you try complicated rigs. Just thought I should throw that in. Remember, Anything Can Happen.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The View From The Perms

This week, as part of my current two and three day a week schedule, I got to visit a place I've rarely had cause to venture into. I worked in the perms. For the uninitiated, the perms, or permanents refers to a grid system of wooden beams suspended in the top of most Hollywood stages. The beams are criss-crossed at 90 degree angles leaving roughly 3'x5' openings called ozones. This grid is surrounded and quartered by a system of catwalks and the whole thing is basically just a base from which to rig everything from lighting to set walls and special effects. The whole grid can be anywhere from thirty-five to sixty  or seventy feet above the stage floor,* depending on the height of the stage. It's truly a grip and electric's world up here, as we are usually the only crew members who have a reason to climb the long ladders or staircases into these shadowy recesses. It is from here that the electrics pull up hundreds of feet of cable and the grips hang teasers, green beds (catwalks that are suspended by chain just above set walls), backings, truss, and any of  the other countless things we are called upon to suspend above a set. I've actually never spent much time up here. I came up as a set grip in Atlanta, where stages were mostly empty warehouses in which we would hang a pipe grid. Perms were unheard of. I didn't come up through the studio pecking order where a rookie started out on the gang hanging green beds and backings before finally making his or her way onto a set crew. By the time I started working in Hollywood, I was already a working Dolly Grip with years of set experience and a pretty good resume, but there was a whole segment of grip rigging knowledge of which I was ignorant, that many Hollywood grips take for granted. I still remember my first job in Los Angeles. I was a permit (someone trying to earn their thirty days on a union show, making them elegible for membership in Local 80, the grip local in Hollywood.). As a permit, you basically had to wait until the town was busy enough so that even the most moronic among us had a job and no actual  Local members were available. I got a call at five o'clock one morning from the Local asking if I could push B camera on NYPD Blue, as their guy had called in sick."You can push dolly, right?" the voice on the phone asked. "Yes... yeah I can. Where are they?"  "Fox Studios in Century City," the guy said. "You need to be there by seven."  So I pulled out my trusty Thomas Guide** and plotted a course to the storied Fox Studios for my first job in an actual soundstage after over twelve years as a grip in the film business. I still remember calling my parents from the parking deck and telling them that I was at Fox Studios to work on NYPD. Even though I was, by now, a seasoned Dolly Grip, I was still a little unnerved by the thought of actually being there and wanted to share it with them. Anyway, I've gotten off track here, but I still remember walking in that stage and craning my neck up, and up to the highest ceiling I think I had ever seen. And at the top of it was the perms.
  So this week I did a commercial at Paramount. Now, I've done many commercials, too many to count. But I am still pretty ignorant of the perms. I've just never had much reason to go up there until this week. I should explain that there really isn't a dedicated dolly position on commercials, at least as far as rate goes. As a Dolly Grip on a commercial, you are expected to fall in with the boys when you are needed and especially on prelights and at wrap. So, I showed up to push dolly on a commercial and found myself in the perms pulling up pipe and trying to remember my knots. You know what the perms are? The perms are history. They've seen it all. Many of these stages were built in the twenties and these ancient beams have supported lights and walls, grids, and backings for everything from Sunset Boulevard to Casablanca.***  You can see the notches worn by years of rope rubbing across beams and handrails as it was pulled up by now forgotten craftsmen on these movies that have ingrained themselves in the public consciousness. On the air ducts and handrails, grips and electrics have drawn pictures of everything from women, to (strangely) women with penises (I don't get this one. What are they, twelve?) to dirty jokes or their own names, and sometimes, just the names of shows and a date. The wood is worn smooth by years of the hands of long-gone grips and juicers who participated in the making of everything from Ozzie and Harriet to Star Trek. These guys lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and then hitched up their pants, lit a cigarette, and went to work. They walked these narrow beams without a yoyo**** or a harness. I guess the thought of falling seventy feet came in a close second to getting shot at by the Nazis. And then they went home to dinner with their families. I rubbed my hand along the smooth handrail and thought about them for a moment. And then I waited to hear the voice of the Best Boy say, "3-2-1 Pull!" like so many of them probably did. And I pulled, and pulled, and suddenly the pipe was at the top and I quickly tied it off (under the handrail, cross over, pull back, over the handrail, behind the rope, pull up, under itself and a double hitch. I think that's it). I think everyone who gets a chance should visit the perms at least once. It will humble you. It did me.

Catwalk in Stage 18 at Paramount Studios, Hollywood.

*No, I don't know exact numbers. Come on, did you read the first part of the post?

** In LA, before smartphones and GPS, everyone usd the Thomas Guide, which was a comprehensive map of Los Angeles. Call Sheets would give the Thomas Guide page for the location.

***Stages 8 and 9 at Warner Brothers.

**** A safety system designed for high work. You clip it onto your harness. It keeps you from hitting the ground.
For more personal experiences in the perms, check out Michael taylor's excellent blog at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium. He says it best.

Okay, you made it this far, now I have a ghost story involving the perms. Two good friends of mine, on separate occasions told me this story. They were both up in the perms on a stage (I don't recall which one, it may have been stage 18 where I was) at Paramount working on a movie called The General's Daughter. At some point, while looking down upon the filming, they noticed they were in the company of a man a few feet away, in strangely outdated work clothes, who was also gazing down upon the activity below. They didn't really pay that much attention to him, other than that they didn't recognize him. Then, as soon as they had seen him, he was gone. They both walked the perms looking for him and found no trace. When they finally climbed down they asked the stage manager if there was another way out of the perms and explained why. He stuck his hand out and said, "Congratulations. You saw him."
Thanks to Dano and Gary for this story.