Monday, November 30, 2009

It Sucks When...'s windy and freezing cold. The whole crew is sipping hot chocolate and soup from crafty while huddled around the heaters. Meanwhile, you're stuck in a condor 60 feet in the air.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"What Is It That You Do Again?"

Oh no... It's that time of year again... It's the Holidays.

The time when so many of us make the trek from Hollywood to Virginia, Minnesota, Arkansas, Orlando, Seattle, Sacramento, or wherever else it is where we have family. After some long days of maneuvering yourself around a forest of stands, lights, and producers on cell phones, you're now battling the roads and airways with thousands of other cranky travelers, just to immediately be thrown into another tricky situation: The big family dinner.

You're suddenly face to face with aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, family-in-laws, and an assortment of people you're not quite sure how you're related, but they're always at these events anyway, pinching your cheeks and lingering a little too long around the booze. These are people that you only see about once a year; usually at Christmas or Thanksgiving.

While I love my family (cheek pinchers and all), I don't always look forward to seeing them because all too often, they ask the question: "So, what kind of work are you in these days?"

Ugh. I hate that question. Although most people love watching movies, not everyone thinks about how they're made. And even when they do, the extent of their knowledge is limited to Directors, Producers and Writers and it's usually that they know they exist, without a clue as to what they actually do. But it's not that hard to figure out that Directors direct, Producers produce and Writer's write. Just like it's not that hard to figure out that Computer Programmers program computers, Interior Designers design interiors and Customer Service agents deal with customers.

But most jobs on a film set aren't so self explanatory. Script Supervisors don't sit around watching the script, making sure it doesn't misbehave. Assistant Directors don't assist the Director with directing. And Craft Service doesn't have anything to do with Popsicle sticks and glue. And unless you're in the industry, it's hard to know what Gaffers, Key Grips, Best Boys, Grips and Electrics do. It's even harder to explain.

I usually try to answer the question with a simple, "Oh, I work in movies" to try to keep it short and concise, but rarely will they leave it at that.

"Yeah? What do you do in them?"
"Uh... I move around the lights and stuff."

This obviously over simplifies the job, but I find this to be the quickest way to satisfy their curiosity. Any other answer would just sound more confusing, complicated, boring, and awkward as I try to explain things in laymen terms. Trust me, I've tried every other answer I could think of.

This is also the only time of year that I'll 100% identify myself as a juicer. Why? Because as hard as it is explaining what a Set Lighting Technician does, it's ten times harder to adequately explain what a Grip does. Because now, not only do you have to explain that there are special lights that they use in movies, but that there's an entire department dedicated to shaping and controlling the light. Try convincing your Great Aunt Margaret that the sliver of a shadow in the corner of the show she's watching didn't occur naturally. Yeah, not easy.

Even my parent's aren't quite sure what it is that I actually do. Whenever anyone asks them, "So what's A.J. doing down in L.A.?" they usually say, "Oh, she's shooting and directing movies." I still haven't figured out if this is because it's the easiest answer or if that's what they really think my job is.

Only the people who work on set everyday will know what you mean when you say "I'm a grip" and unless you're from Los Angeles, you probably won't find a lot of them at your family get-togethers.

I know of a DP who'll answer the question with, "I'm a photographer," and while I understand where he's coming from, I kind of feel like that's a cop out. We've worked so hard to get to where we are in the biz that it feels like a shame that we don't get to announce our official job title to relatives who you know are silently judging your success. Even "Coffee House Barrista" has a more authoritative ring to it than, "Uh... I move around lights and stuff."

I think this year though, I'll try a new plan. It involves stuffing my face with a steady stream of turkey, mashed potatoes and pie. I can't answer the question if my mouth's full, right? I'll let you know how it goes....

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Signs Your Shoot Is Going To Be A Bad One.

Sometimes you can tell how bad a shoot is going to be before you even get to set. If you see any of these signs, either quit now or brace yourself.

You get e-mails from a production that don't contain the name of the show. This means the people in charge work on shoots once in a blue moon. They don't need to use titles in correspondence because it's the only project they've had all year. In other words, they don't work on films for a living and will probably expect you do put in 18 hour days, eat pizza for lunch, etc, because they're doing it for "fun" and so should you.

When they e-mail you about your availability, they don't include a job title. It's most likely a copy-and-paste form letter and they're too lazy to throw in "grip" or "electric". If they can't even do that, imagine how they handle the really important stuff.

They expect you to pick up the truck and gear the day before for free. Because, you know, load in and prep doesn't take a whole day, so they shouldn't have to pay you for it.

They ask if you have any gear they can use. Notice I said "use" and not "rent".

They insist on having a pre-production meeting and/or tech scout, but when you get there, everyone else shows up late. They don't know what kind of shots they want or where the camera's going, and when you ask them a simple question, the answer is always "We don't know yet."

The location is on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere and they don't include a map. It's either because the thought didn't even cross their minds, they're lazy, or they assume that just because they managed to find it, 50 other people should be able to find it too. All bad signs.

The location is on a busy street downtown and the call sheet says "Street parking only." Not only will you spend half an hour hunting for a spot, but you'll have to park half a mile away and then move your car every two hours.

There's three company moves in one day. They're all more than ten miles apart. They don't give you a map. Four pages are scheduled for each location. And no, they're not reimbursing you for gas. Oh yeah, and it's street parking.

If they use the words "passion project." Run away. Far, far away.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"You Better Get Used To It."

It's no secret that a film crew, especially in the grip and set lighting departments, is composed primarily of males. And despite this modern day world of political correctness and work place etiquette, a film crew is often exempt from such rules. In other words, if you throw a bunch of guys in a room for 16 hours a day, don't be surprised if you hear phrases that would make even a sailor blush. And don't think that the HR department (if there is one) gives a rats ass about it either.

That means that any woman working on a film crew would be crazy not to expect a slew of sexual innuendos, "your mom" jokes, and the ever popular "That's what she said." I mean, for Pete's sake, we handle equipment with names like "butt plug" and "bull prick". You'd have a hard time working in g/e if you have no appreciation for the occasional dirty joke or two.*

So if it's common knowledge that stepping into the back of a grip truck can be like stepping into a guys locker room, why is it that EVERY crew I work with has at least one guy who thinks I was expecting it to be as wholesome as an episode of Full House??

It never fails. Someone one will say something like, "Yeah, that stand's pretty fucked up. You just gotta force it like a prom date..." And whoever is standing closest to me will inevitably give me a look and say "Yeah, we tell a lot of dirty jokes. You better get used to it."

Yeah, no shit Sherlock.

Grip 1: "We need a new can of Pledge. I had to keep shaking the hell out of it before anything came out."
Grip 2: "Yeah, I'll bet you're good at that."
Grip 3: (to me) "You better get used to it."

Juicer 1: "Damn. If only that stinger was just three inches longer..."
Juicer 2: "Funny. That's what your girlfriend told me the other day."
Juicer 3: (to me) "You better get used to it."

Best Boy: "[Some lame joke about laying cable that I don't even remember because 1) it wasn't even very funny, 2) it was kind of a stretch, and 3) come on, a "laying cable" joke from an electrician? I'd like to think we can be a bit more creative than that.]"
Juicer: (to me) "You better get used to it if you want to work on a film set."

Even when I'm working with someone who's trying to be more of a gentleman, the conversation usually ends up something like this:

Grip 1: "There's not enough room here. We'll just have to go in from the back. It might be a tight fit though."
Grip 2: "Ha. You sound just like my date from last night... Oh, oops! Sorry A.J.! I didn't see you there."
Grip 1: "Eh, she's gotta get used to it eventually."


I think I've been on way too many shows to still be encountering crap like that. And keep in mind that it's not like I have a look of horror on my face every time someone makes a penis joke either. The weird thing is that I still get the "You better get used to it" line even when I'm laughing at the joke. Seriously.

So please, believe me when I say I'M USED TO IT. In fact, once I get settled into a crew, the raunchiest innuendo will probably come from me. So shut the fuck up about how I "need to get used to the jokes" already and give me a good one.

Or rather, that's what she said.

*And I'm not talking about lewd comments directed towards you (like, say, a highly inappropriate suggestion that involves you, his girlfriend, and tub of Cool Whip) but more along the lines of things meant to lighten the mood and make the day go by quicker ("That stand's not open all the way. Spread the legs more." "Yeah, that's what she said!").

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm My Own Worst Enemy.

There are some people who come to LA looking for their big break and never seem to find it. I'll sit there on the latest no-budget shoot and listen to their tales of struggle and doors shutting in their faces. I'll offer words of sympathy when they tell me about the time they almost landed the gig that would take them out of low-budget indie hell and how it got away at the last second. Some of them have been trying for over a decade to break into the unions (IA, DGA, SAG, what have you), big TV shows or large budget movies. To have their name in the credits of something that will be seen on thousands of screens (big or small) all over the country, if not the world. But for whatever reason, be it through lack of talent, lack of skill or just bad timing (but never for lack of trying) their big break never comes.

Just sitting there, listening to their stories about the life the gave up, the heart break they've caused, the things they've left behind, just for a chance to reach for that shiny brass ring is somewhat inspiring. Sure, I gave up another life to start this one in LA. I have my own list of things I left behind and paths I could have taken. But in all honesty, it was never my intention to stay in the small town I grew up in. And while I may have some roots there, they don't run very deep. But if I did, would I be able to leave it all behind? And ten years later, if I still haven't made it, would I be kicking myself for giving up a sure thing?

The answer? No, I probably wouldn't be brave enough. I'd probably convince myself to be happy in whatever 9-5 job I had, saying that a steady paycheck is better than the uncertainty of a freelancer's life any day.

So I'll sit there, listening to these people tell me everything they've given up just to give this movie thing a shot, and how time and time again, they keep getting knocked down. Yet they keep trying.

And what kills me is that time and time again, I'll come across the same opportunities that they've been waiting for, but I won't take it. Why? I guess it's because I'm a self saboteur. There have been times where I'd loose out on a big opportunity because I'd "forget" to return a phone call. I'd tell myself I'll call them back later, after I finished running my errands/doing my laundry/eating my lunch, only I'll never return that call, thinking that the job would've been taken by then. Or I'll choose a bad job over a career changing one simply because the sucky job called me first, and then curse their bad timing.

Most recently, a very well meaning friend pulled some strings to get me a phone number for a sure-fire gig. And it wasn't just any job. This shoot would put me on the roster for the union. No more running dinky little lights off of house power; we'd have more lights, toys, and amperage than we'd know what to do with. I'd be working on a real movie for a major studio with the paycheck to show for it. All I had to do was call that number and they'll practically hand me the job.

But I didn't call.

I've met dozens of people who would do anything for a chance like that, and I gave it up. Why? I don't know. There's no good reason for it. I hate it when I'm not working with no job leads on the horizon. I hate getting offered rates that are barely a living wage. And I definitely don't like it when I have to work horrendous hours with no overtime pay. And yet, I didn't call.

The best answer I could come up with is that maybe I don't feel ready. Sure, I want to eventually climb the ranks and work on the bigger and better shows. The ones with better working conditions, better pay, and better catering. Eventually. Because to me, those shows are intimidating. With crews ten times bigger than the ones I'm on now, with huge trucks filled with gear, finicky stars in their trailers and millions of dollars on the line... I'd feel like I'd be biting off more than I can chew. They're definitely out of my comfort zone where I can just kick back on a apple box and have a casual chat with an actor or a PA.

And while I may not feel ready to leave my crappy little indie world just yet, I do have to ask myself: When will I be ready? All the major moves in my life (from home to college to LA; from one job title to another) were scary, sure, but they also felt right. Will it ever feel right for me to move on?

You can call me stupid for giving up the opportunities that were handed to me. But I have to believe that each day I spend on another mediocre set will only give me more experience, drive, and confidence that I'll need to survive on the big jobs. And that eventually, one day, I know I'll be ready to move on.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Overheard When I Was Working On Grip Side...

Best Boy Electric: "Hm... Since we're only going about 50 feet, I guess we could just use banded cable the whole way. But since we have the 4/0, we might as well use that."

I'm soooo glad I wasn't juicing that day.

*For those of you who don't know, 4/0 is a 100ft cable that weighs about a pound a foot (there are shorter lengths, but not on this shoot) and a complete set is five pieces. I don't know the exact weight of banded cable, but I've heard guesstimates of 60-70 pounds each... In this particular scenario, only one piece of banded would've been needed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thank You For Not Smoking.

Let's get one thing straight: I don't care if you smoke.

I don't care how many packs you smoke a day.
I don't care if you started when you were 13.
I don't care if you want to quit or not.

However, it'd be nice if you took other people (namely, your fellow g/e brothers and sisters who don't smoke) into consideration the next time you light up.

For example, try timing your cigarette breaks accordingly. Deciding you need a smoke while the rest of the crew is scrambling to get the next shot up? Not cool. Stepping off for a cigarette while we're waiting on you to finish that cable run? Or leaving the set without having anyone cover for you while you light up? That just makes your whole team look bad. And don't think running back and forth between the set and the smoking area will make you look any better either. All that does is make you smell like cigarettes and sweat, not to mention that you're now panting your nausea educing breath in everyone's face. Ew.

And be aware of your surroundings if you smoke. By the generator? Not a good idea. Standing next to racks of costumes? Still not a good idea. Around kids (or more specifically, the lead kid who happens to have an asthma problem)? That's an even worse idea.

And above all, just recognize when it is appropriate to smoke and when it is not. While it's nice that you'll occasionally say the words, "Do you mind if I smoke?" please take note that unless you're in the company of a pregnant lady, 99% of the time the people around you will say "no," even if they do mind. Why? Because if you're in a group of people, no one wants to be that guy.

So please just use your best judgment. Standing in the middle of a parking lot? Outside on the sidewalk a good few yards away from open doors and windows? On a rooftop babysitting a light? Those are all acceptable places to smoke a cigarette.

Sitting in a crowded pass van in the middle of stop-and-go LA traffic?

Not a good idea.

And can someone please explain to me why smokers never seem to carry a lighter??
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