Totally Unauthorized

A side of the film industry most people never see.

At least I know I’m not crazy.

Yesterday’s work was preparing a set for a TV show – we were getting it ready for first unit to shoot and I don’t think it’s been used in a while, because a lot of the power had been re-routed to other sets and some of the lights had been taken down.

My job was to check and make sure all the practicals (a lamp you can see on screen), wall sconces*, and duplexes (wall outlets) worked in this huge set – there were about 50 practicals and duplexes.

I got all of them working, except two sconces and a duplex (all on the same wall) – I had the dimmer board operator bring them up on the dimmer system, and nothing came up. I checked again, and tried the neighboring numbers. I crawled all over the set to see if they’d been repatched into ‘hot’ power (sometimes the dimmers get wacky and we have to do this). Nothing. My boss went up into the perms to check the power up there. Nothing. We couldn’t find where they were powered from.

I damn near went bananas trying to find the tails (because if I can find the cable that’s powering the sconces – the tails – I can trace them out and find where they’ve been plugged in), and at some point during the process I’m fairly certain my boss formed the opinion that I was an idiot (Boss: “They have to be plugged in somewhere.” Me: “I got nothin'”).

On the back side of the big set, and directly behind the wall with our dead sconces, they were painting a walk in closet set – as I stood there, staring at the top of the wall, hoping I could make the connecters for the lamps appear by sheer force of will, I noticed that the floor had sawdust on it.

“Say, when did you guys build the set on this side of the wall?”

The painter looked up “Yesterday, why?”

“Would you happen to know if they disconnected some of our cables?”

Just then, one of the construction guys walked by.

“Oh, yeah. You had three connectors back there – I figured you didn’t want connections sealed in the wall so I cut them off for you. I figured you could drill down with a [piece of equipment only the construction department has], then pull a new cable up so your connectors will be on top of the wall.”

In the construction guy’s defense, he’s right. One does not want cable connectors buried between walls where no one can get them. In any power run, the connections are always the weak point. Cable almost never catches fire (it can, but you really have to work at it). Connectors melt and/or burst into flame all the time.

But I’m not a construction guy with an arsenal of strange drill bits and power tools which one needs a license to operate. I’m set lighting – you want to know what I’ve got on my toolbelt? I’ve got a Leatherman, a pair of moldy gloves, and a chalk bag full of clothespins, that’s what I’ve got. Drill down, indeed.

When I told my boss what had happened and why I wasn’t able to get the sconces on, he wanted to know if we could just cut thorough the wall directly behind the sconces and duplex – he figured they’d have clothes hanging in front of it (since the set’s a closet), so no one would see the holes or our power.

“I don’t think so,” the painter said. “I don’t know how they’re going to dress this and if it’s in the wrong place, it could get ugly.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, brother, but it’s ugly now – I have to have those lights on because of course, if we can’t get them on, guess what they’re going to point the camera at first thing?

When I told the rigging gaffer that his solution wasn’t going to work, he just shrugged and said “Well, go get the [piece of equipment only the construction department has] and start drilling. We’ve got to get those hot.”

So, we got the [piece of equipment only the construction department has], figured out how to use it and then cut straight down through the set wall to the sconces – then we tied the cable to the string we’d sent down and pulled it up. It took us over an hour to do the two sconces, and we couldn’t get to the duplex at all because it was on the bottom of the wall and the [piece of equipment only the construction department has] wasn’t long enough to cut through 10 feet of serious miscommunication.

Due to the shape of the big set (and how the second set was built behind it), we couldn’t even drill to the duplex from the side. I ended up putting the plate back on and labeling it “N.F.G.” where the dimmer number would be.

*What is it with set designers and wall sconces? I can count on the fingers of one hand how many homes I’ve been in that have wall sconces, and in movie-world, every single private home has them on every single wall.

Filed under: Work

4 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like you’re crew is in need of a “shop” electrician. In NYC, we try to employ at least one on every feature/TV show. Some of their tasks include following around the dressers to make sure all the practicals have accessable plugs, the painters have work lights, and the construction crew has power for their tools. They also keep the gaffer and rigging gaffer informed of new sets being built while they’re on location. If a large set on location with a zillion practicals to be wired (like the situation you were in recently with the tables that kept moving) comes up, the Production Designer lets the shop electric know about it so he can hire a crew to deal with it. Now the rigging gaffer is free to lay in the big power and deal with the movie lights and dimming system and not lose his crew to taping down SJ.

    Of course, production doesn’t (usually) want to pay for this “separate entity.” They get paid the key rate and don’t (always) have as much on their plate as the gaffer and rigging gaffer. Some Production Designers, who are usually on the job before the gaffer and have more power (no pun intended), will make sure it’s in their budget to carry a shop electric to support Art and Construction for the entire show. This is a big help because it keeps the gaffer focused on lighting the set and not worrying if the sconces are hot.

    Do you use “shop” electrics in your local? I think I saw in the credits of a Hollywood film, “practical electric.” Maybe that’s the same as a “shop” or “house” electric in NYC. Anyway, they’re a tremendous help; especially on the big jobs.

    Take care.

  2. Anonymous says:

    So they came in and completely covered the wall with set dressing. They didn’t even need to build the back of the closet, let alone make our lives hell.

  3. Peggy Archer says:

    Of course they did. We both knew it was going to happen, too.

    I love the film industry.

  4. Rae says:

    I don’t get sconces either. As a former on-set dresser, sconces suck because they can’t be cheated around. If it’s half in frame in a weird spot…too bad.

    Maybe that’s why, actually. The person who places those sconces is actually the art director or set designer- not the decorator, or anyone who spends any time on set.

    (Also, sad fact: I dress nicer houses than I live in or visit. So while movie/TV houses have more sconces than in real life…I also don’t see the real-life equivalents of set houses. And sconces are a high-end house or condo feature.)

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