Totally Unauthorized

A side of the film industry most people never see.

Back it on up

Shooting on a stage requires a backing*, for the obvious reason that if one sees white walls or staged equipment through a set window, the illusion of being in Victorian England/the frozen tundra/the Enterprise is ruined.

Back in the old days, backings were hand painted on canvas. There are still a few of those floating around, but most shows use a day/night backing.

When lit from the front, the backing appears as day. When lit from behind, the backing appears as night.

It’s genius.

You don’t need two backings and an army of grips to raise and lower them five times a day – the dimmer board operator makes the change instantly, and everything is wonderful and happy.

Except when you get your brand-new made-to-order backing and they forgot the ‘night’ part.

It looked great from the front, then, when the backlights were turned on, it looked like a daytime backing lit from behind without quite enough light.

There was a moment of silence as the department heads pondered that a) there was nothing they could do about it, and b) someone besides them was going down for this one.

Probably the backing designer, who was paid the price of a luxury car for this.

Not one of those crappy proletariat jobbies, either. A good luxury car.

Since the backing was custom ordered, I have no idea what anyone is going to do about this, and since Friday is my last day I’ll likely never find out.

Also, I learned that brand new backings smell like the worst mix of chemical slurry you can possibly imagine.

Remember your high school yearbooks and that weird benzene smell?

Imagine that, but 30 feet tall and 100 feet long.

In a stage with the doors closed.

When I recover, I’m going to really miss those brain cells.

*Also called a backdrop, but they’re both the same thing.

Filed under: studio lots, toxic waste, Work, , , , , , , ,

Choo Choo Choo

Due to the events of the last year, productions are really jumpy about shooting anywhere near trains, so we had to travel to an appropriate location where trains don’t do things like barrel down tracks at 70 mph.

That location is Fillmore, California. It’s 60 miles from my place to the location. One way.

We were shooting at the Fillmore and Western Railway. They have historical and modern (well, modern for the US) trains and since it’s only a semi-active railway (they do scenic tours on the weekends, but it’s not active in the sense that freight or commuter trains come through), it’s a great place to shoot anything train-related and remain relatively safe.

Relatively safe because it’s a rail yard. Uneven ground, rocky footing, pointy things at head height, and chickens.

To be specific, 400 chickens. In a boxcar.

Don’t ask me why, I don’t know.

I do know that they qualified as a hazard because any time one got near them, they’d peck through the mesh cages. If the unlucky target wasn’t in pecking range, they’d spit water.

Do chickens spit? I’m not sure. I just know that one shouldn’t turn one’s back on them, and that’s hard when they’re in a boxcar and one must set a Kino Flo in the back corner.  They got me good. One was pecking and another was spitting.

I hate chickens.

I took perverse enjoyment in devouring the fried chicken served at lunch.

Every time the wind picked up, dust would blow into everything. By the end of the day I was completely coated in dust and chicken spit. I’d have spit back, but my mouth was all dry and gritty.

Since we’re coming back tomorrow and the trains will be in different areas, we had to clear all the cable that was crossing the tracks and drive the condors out of the rail yard.

It took us a while to do that, as the tracks were about 10 inches tall. we had to build a wooden bridge so that the lift’s tires could roll across the tracks without tipping over the lift of damaging the tracks.

Turns out, railroad tracks are more delicate than one would imagine, and they have sensors trigger the warning barriers. Those sensors are little pieces of wire attached to the outside of the track – if they’re broken, the bells and lights start, the gates come down and there’s no way to stop it until the sensor is replaced.

We finally managed to do it, thanks to a co-worker who is an off-road driving enthusiast. Apparently, guiding a condor over rail tracks is just like getting a vehicle over a very tricky bit of ground. I’m so grateful he was there or we’d have likely tipped that condor.

After my hour-long drive home during which I guzzled water and berated myself for not bringing a change of clothes, I got home and finally showered.

The water ran off brown, but the chicken peck marks don’t look as bad now.

We’re back tomorrow.

Filed under: california, crack of dawn, distant location, hazardous, long long drives, Work, , , , , , ,

An unexpectedly busy week

I had planned to swim Monday morning around 7, but I woke up with a sore shoulder, so instead I called into the union hall right when they opened and put myself on the available list. I figured since it’s busy I’d get a call in a day or two.

Five minutes later the phone rang.

Usually, calls from the hall in the morning are for work the same day, so half an hour later I was on the freeway driving to the furthest reaches of the San Fernando Valley.

There’s an entire neighborhood in the northwest valley that consists mostly of the very tacky spare homes of very rich people who live nearby in other very large homes, some of which are probably also very tacky

I don’t really get the concept of an extra house. Spare jacket? Sure. Spare car? Sure, especially if you have to get to work. Spare underpants? You betcha.

But a spare house a few miles away from your actual house? That just sits there and isn’t rented?

Maybe move one of the more annoying children into it, along with some help – okay, maybe I do get the spare house after all.

This call was for Super Hyped Horror Movie 5 (or 6, who’s counting). The lighting crew were a bunch of really nice folks that I’ve not met before, and since this is the new style of cinema verite, we didn’t do a whole lot of lighting.

I figured it would be a nice day with fun folks and I’d call in and pick up another day later in the week.

Until the end of the day when I was informed that I’m on for the entire week and since I’m now the best boy. I assume because I was available for the entire week.

Since this show has been shooting for months and I have no idea what’s where or which rental order is what, my job is mostly paperwork, for which I’m paid the princely sum of two dollars an hour more.


Filed under: locations, long long drives, movies, Work, , , , , ,

Continuing Education

In order to shift liability for accidents onto the crew, we are required to undergo safety training.

The bulk of the classes were some time ago, and now it’s just the occasional add-on whenever someone gets hurt, or someone important thinks they might get hurt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for education and safety training, I really am. An educated workforce is the best insurance against accidents.

This particular class was about process trailer safety. And that’s an important class, especially for people who haven’t had any experience with process trailers.

That funny-looking thing you see in the link is a process trailer. Because it’s asking a bit much of actors to remember their lines and drive at the same time (no snark here, it’s difficult), one puts the car on a trailer and tows it around while the actors mimic driving and say the lines.

It’s also very useful if your car is a stick shift and your actor doesn’t know how to drive one – or if you want a dolly shot of the car while it’s moving, or if you want…

Hell, there’s a million reasons to use a process trailer and very few to let an actor drive.

It was taught by a former AD, so it was a very interesting perspective on the whole thing, and despite the warnings I’d heard that the class was boring and useless I found it very interesting.

The only bad part is the driving all the way across town.

I’m not kidding. The training facility is on the other side of the Los Angeles Metropolitan area, and I have to traverse the worst traffic corridor in North America to get there.

So I went to the 12:30 to 3:30 class in the hopes of missing the worst of the traffic.

I combined errands and went to the bank, dropped off the recycling, swam in the 50 meter pool in the valley, and then hit the class.

I’d intended to go to Ikea after, but Obama is coming so I went straight home in the hopes of missing that clusterfuck.

Still no work, but I’m hearing it’s going to be really busy, soon.

Until then, I will continue with cleaning the apartment and weeding the garden – two tasks that get neglected when I get busy.

Filed under: life in LA, long long drives, Los Angeles, Non-Work, , , , , , , ,

Easing into the real world

Over the past two(ish) months, I’ve become accustomed to the lighter schedule of the multi-camera show.

Monday, we come in around 2 pm, and work until about 8. We hang lights – enough to ‘rough in’ the look so when they do the rehearsal with the cast the next morning, they have a good idea what the sets look like and what we need to change or add.

Ditto Tuesday and Wednesday.

Our long days are Thursday (block and pre-shoot) and Friday (audience), but neither of those days usually go over 12 hours.

Friday, the director does a ‘block and refresh’ with the cast before lunch, and then the audience load in and we shoot the live show.

Most directors finish with the refresh well before lunch, leaving us with a two-hour lunch.

This is a good thing and a bad thing.

I can go to the bank or the gym or just nap for those two hours, but I’m also on the Sony lot which means there’s a deeply discounted electronics store within walking distance, and I really don’t need to blow a paycheck on three TVs and a sound system.

But next week is our last week, and we’ve got three new sets plus an extra shoot day (to re-do the opening sequence), so we’re going to have more hours than usual.

We’ll have a nice check right when we’re unemployed, but the fact that we’re all dreading working a 60 hour week is some indication as to how spoiled we’ve gotten and what a shock it’s going to be to return to the real world of production, where every day will be 12 hours. Or more.

I have to say I really thought I was going to hate being stuck on a multi camera, but it’s been fun – largely because of the wonderful folks I’m working with, who I’ll miss when we’re done (but will see out in single camera world on a semi-regular basis).

I’ve also discovered that copious amounts of free time on a regular basis make me get less stuff done, not more.

Although I have binge-watched several Netflix series on the one new TV I bought (just one, although the salesperson really tried to get me into two).

My new hobby is watching movies from the 70s and 80s and pausing to really get a good look at the backgrounds.

I can really see the tape and spit holding the sets together.  It’s hilarious.



Filed under: overspending, studio lots, Work, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tour de Courthouse

A few weeks ago, as I was leaving work, I was pulled over.

I had a burned out headlight, and given how incoherent I was after a 14 hour day, I’m surprised the cop didn’t haul me out and administer a field sobriety test, but he just gave me a fix-it ticket.

As he was finishing up, he told me I could go to any police station in the city to get a sign-off on the repair, and then go to any courthouse in the county to pay the small fine.

Sweet. I currently reside within a ten minute walk of both a police station and a (small) courthouse.

I figured I’d get the headlight fixed, get it inspected, then get it off the books and not even have to burn a gallon of very expensive (for America) gas.

So this morning, I rolled up to the West LA police station, ticket in hand, and asked at the desk to have someone check my car.

I was met with blank stares from the attending officers.

After an uncomfortably long pause, one of the civilian volunteers said “I’ve got this” and handed me a sheet explaining that the LAPD isn’t authorized to inspect vehicles and I’d have to drive to one of the county sheriffs’ inspection stations to get my signature.


Except that the nearest inspection station happens to be in Beverly Hills.

I hate driving in Beverly Hills.

Under normal circumstances, the traffic is horrific because it’s apparently déclassé  to time one’s stop lights, but now it’s springtime and the tourist bloom is beginning.

In spring and summer, the normally crowded streets of Beverly Hills become impossibly clogged with tour busses and rental cars.

Which is great – the city and the county greatly appreciate your visit and your tax revenue, but residents tend to snap when traffic speeds drop from ‘slow crawl’ to ‘perambulate’.

This results in tempers accelerating from ‘recreational asshole’ to ‘nuclear war’.

Generally, I prefer to bike or bus it through the area – I can either sail past the problem or be encased in the T.Rex of vehicles and be safe from random punchings or headlocks.

But, if I must drive into the fray, 10 am on a weekday is a good time to do so.

Rush hour’s mostly over, and the lunchers haven’t started stalking parking spaces.

So, off I went – thinking I’d get inspected and paid off and then be back home in time to catch the afternoon talk shows.

I guess I wasn’t surprised when the clerk told me that although I got my inspection in Beverly Hills, because my officer had checked the ‘Chatsworth’ box on the ticket, that’s where I’d have to go to pay the fine.

To those of you not familiar with Los Angeles, Chatsworth is not near anything.

Not a freeway off ramp, not any sort of landmark, not any sort of train or bus stop or life support.

So because I’d tried to save gas by not driving, I then drove to the edge of civilization.

Where I stood in line for what seemed like an eternity behind a woman arguing with anyone who would listen that her failure to appear for her court date wasn’t her fault because she’d lost her phone and had written the judge a letter proving her innocence.

Lucky for me another window opened and I paid my $25 and then fought traffic back home.

I have work tomorrow (non-union, but it pays and it’s with a bunch of guys that I really like), and since I’m going downtown I’m going to take the bus.

I’ve had enough of the car for now.


Filed under: life in LA, long long drives, Los Angeles, mishaps, Non-Work, Off-Topic, overspending, travel, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A crash and a bang and that’s lunch.

I’m starting a show next week (hooray for work!), so I’ve not really been looking for work – just getting some random projects done around the house (fun fact: the walls in my apartment are not plumb, as I discovered when I tried to anchor a bookcase to the wall. Awesome).

But I’m certainly not going to turn anything down, so when I got a call to work a stunt unit yesterday, of course I agreed.

Stunts are a producer’s nightmare – they take forever and you cannot for any reason rush a stunt performer. Because if you do, and there’s an accident…

I don’t really need to finish that sentence, do I?

So we set up, lit the very small set and then we sat. And sat and sat and sat. Then, we went to lunch, came back and sat some more. The actors sat. The camera people sat. The producer sat and gnashed his teeth.

This particular movie had a very bad experience with a thing called an accelerator rig (cable system to pull a stunt performer through the air rapidly), so they won’t use them any more* – the ‘kick the bad guy right through the ceiling’ scene had to be shot in little bits, which isn’t a bad thing as we got to do some lighting.

The last shot of the day was a fist fight on top of a train scene – which was really a fight in front of a greenscreen with fans blowing for extra realism. Aside from the scuffing of a very expensive costume, it was uneventful.

The main challenge was to light the actors without casting shadows onto the greenscreen. Easy on really big greenscreen set ups (you can get the actors way away from the walls), not so much on small ones – you can’t get your action far enough away from the screen to make it easy (the screen has to be lighted separately from the actors, and there can’t be any cross contamination – the actor light has to stay on the actor, and the greenscreen light has to stay on the screen).

But again, once it was done, we sat. Lucky for me my co-workers were really wonderful folks and we had a very good time.

I have to give the director credit – we did three really huge, complicated stunt scenes in under 12 hours. That’s amazing.

* I wasn’t there, but I’m told a part of the rig failed (mechanics, not human error) and almost bruised a very expensive actor.

Filed under: movies, studio lots, Work, , , , , , , , , ,

Right down to the wire

Monday and Tuesday were out load out days for the movie, which we’d all taken to calling She Dies in the End.   Loadout days are when we drive the truck back to the rental house, unload it, count it and then call all the other departments to find out if they’ve got any of the items we’re missing, usually extension cords.

We then loaded up the gaffer’s personal equipment and drove it to his storage space (in a hailstorm, of course), and after that I figured I was done for the year. A few days to clean up the disgraceful pigsty that I call an apartment, do the laundry, then get packed up for the annual guilt induced pilgrimage back east to overeat and argue.

But Tuesday, as I was on my way home under suddenly clear blue skies (of course, the rain and hail stopped right as we finished), a friend called me and asked if I was available for Wednesday and Friday for another low budget feature that I suppose we should call Teenage Emo Love.

I thought, for a split second, about saying no, then came to my senses. Of course I was available.

So I spent another 14 hours standing in yet another very small house with only one entrance – a small narrow stairway with no handrail (don’t ask me why they took it off).

Lucky for my knees, I ended up mostly being one of the outside people. I stood on the platform they’d constructed for the big HMIs that were aimed into the second story windows and moved lights around.

I’m back today, for their last day of shooting – which is a split (half day and half night), and then I come home, take a nap and then fly out.

Happy Holidays.

Filed under: hazardous, locations, movies, up all night, Work, , , , , ,

But it’s a dry heat

“Someone said it might be too hot for the goat to work.”

Of course, we were shooting outdoors on what was predicted to be one of the hottest days of the year. In Griffith Park, which can be either nice and breezy or an intolerable furnace depending on one’s location.

Our first location was nice and breezy. No shade, but right in the wind so not too bad. Also, it was 7 am, and although it was getting warm, it wasn’t anywhere near scorching. Yet. All we were doing was rigging a process trailer, and then we’d leave the gaffer and one juicer to babysit while the rest of us went to rig.

Right after we got the process trailer on the road, we went  to another, less breezy location and rigged tomorrow’s set, which was shady but full of yellow jackets nesting in the muddy banks of the one creek that’s still running in the park.

Halfway through lunch is when it really started to get noticeably hot. We knew this because we were sitting outside in the heat while the network suits got to sit in the air-conditioned lunch trailer. Hey, they had a table read and had to concentrate.

After lunch we moved to our final location of the day, which was the side of a road right across from a cemetery. No shade, no wind and a construction site right next door so it was hot and dusty.  When I finally screwed up the courage to check the weather app on my phone, the temperature in downtown Burbank was 103.

The temperature at our roadside set? 107 – 41.666 C for those of you on metric.

That’s when the rumor started that the goat wouldn’t work because of the heat.

Which makes one wonder, if it’s too hot for a goat is to too hot for a film crew?  Of course, there’s no such thing as Humane Society monitors for the health and well-being of the dirty (and today, smelly) toolbelt people.

The heat felt like opening an oven door. The fans in the truck were blowing such hot air that they felt like standing in front of a heater. Even the cooling tents equipped with giant misters that production had rented weren’t really helping once a certain heat threshold had been passed, but I have no idea what the number was. 102? 105? 106? It all melted together into hot and miserable.

I started to fantasize about diving into the ocean off McMurdo Station. In the winter.

“But Peggy”, I hear you thinking “in the winter, the ocean there is frozen so you’d just lay there on the ice and get freezer burn with the penguins.”

Fine. That would be just fucking fine.  Throw me a goddamn Popsicle while I’m down there and I’ll be just ducky, thanks.

Lucky for us we didn’t have to do much lighting, so we could mostly cower in what little shade was cast by the trucks. I kept pouring water over my head to cool off and my hair would go from soaking wet to bone-dry in about two minutes. Also, for some reason, the sunblock washed off of my chin, but not the rest of my face, so now I’ve got what looks like a big red chin bindi. Or a giant pimple.


Then, right about 6 pm, on the last shot of the day when it had cooled down to a relatively brisk 102, the goat worked.

So I guess now we know at what temperature a goat can work.

I managed to get enough water in me that I kept having to pee, and took some electrolyte tablets every couple of hours so right now I don’t have that feeling like I’ve been beaten with a pillowcase full of doorknobs.

Lucky for me, I’m rigging on the stage tomorrow, so although it’ll still be hot (they don’t turn on the stage air conditioning if no one’s shooting), I’ll be out of the sun.

Filed under: hazardous, locations, Work, , , , , , , , ,

The beginning of the end, maybe?

This past weekend was a real eye-opener for me. I knew the industry was slow here in Los Angeles, but when I sat in a continuing education classroom at Contract Services with a bunch of guys who are usually always busy (and I mean always), all anyone could talk about was  how thin work has gotten around here.

Yikes. If the heavy hitters aren’t making ends meet, what hope do the rest of us have? I’m currently getting enough work to keep the wolves at bay, but that, of course, can change at any time.

For those of you not familiar, over the past few years several other states (and countries) have been handing producers suitcases full of cash in order to lure film production away from California. I think the technical term is incentives, but really it’s a bribe.

And it’s worked very successfully.  There is currently almost no production in California, but Louisiana and Georgia (the newcomer to the world of corporate kickbacks) are hopping.

I love my job and I’d like to keep doing it, but I’d rather drink poison than move to Georgia or Louisiana (nothing personal, you understand), so the question is how long I can hang on. An added complication is my being  well past the age of being able to snag a rich husband.

Note to parents of girls: Look at my life. This is what happens when you teach your daughters self-reliance. They end up alone, without  Botox, veneers, or overpriced sports cars and worrying about how to pay the bills.

I just have myself and the cat, so as long as I can get enough hours to keep my health insurance, I’ll tighten my belt and soldier on.

But what about the people with families?

One state ends their sop and another starts up. Since most of these subsidies actually cost the states money (currently for every dollar of film revenue that Louisiana brings in, it spends $7.30*), it’s baffling that they keep doing it, but I’m certainly not one to underestimate the capability of humans to not in any way, shape or form learn from our mistakes.

Most of us who have spent our entire working lives in the film industry have skills that don’t easily translate to the real world, and even if we do decide to branch out, we have resumes that are confusing and frightening to anyone not familiar with the transient nature of film production (“No, it’s the same job, for the same people.. just with a different name on the letter head”).

So Wednesday, I have a career counseling appointment at The Actors’ Fund to see if I have any chance of any sort of work at all once production in California dries up for good.

Or, even better,  if I can manage to start some sort of business that legally appropriates taxpayer money just like the studios are doing.

I suspect not, but we’ll see.


Filed under: cranky, life in LA, rants, , , , ,

November 2015
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