Friday, May 28, 2010

"A Film Set Tragedy & Lessons Learned"

In case you haven't noticed, posting on this blog has been slightly different the past couple of weeks, veering from (more or less) thought out pieces to a series of short blurbs. A hopefully momentary change that can be attributed to the good/weird/crazy/stressful/amazing/holy shit!/WTF-just-happened?? moments that I've been enduring recently. In other words: I've been busy. The plan is to get back to your regularly scheduled programming soon, but until then, please bear with me as I try to navigate these unusual, scary and awesome changes in both my personal and professional life.

That said, this weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and with that, the usual slew of independent productions taking advantage of bored crew members in the months to come. Shoots like those often have an "anything to get the film done... cheaply" mentality and unfortunately, safety and common sense end up as nothing more than an afterthought.

One such example came about last summer on a student film shooting out in Georgia. I had heard bits and pieces about it almost right after it happened, but never got the full story... Until a few days ago. An e-mail that had been forwarded around recently found its way into my inbox and I found it too important that I can't not share it, especially since today happens to be the one year anniversary of the tragedy. It was written by the Safety and Training Director of Local 728 and serves an all too important reminder of how dangerous our jobs can be, how one person can affect the lives and safety of others, how we should always be aware of our surroundings, never assume that something is "safe" and definitely not last nor least, how much electricity scares the bejeezus out of me.

So as you read this letter, I hope you take to heart the message it sends. The lessons learned from it can and will save your life, the lives of others and get everyone safely home at the end of the day.

"For those who have not heard of this accident, a person was killed on an NYU student film set last summer. We were aware of it almost as soon as it happened but due to the inevitable lawsuits, many of the details are now coming to light.

The accident happened on a student film set in a rural area of Georgia when a condor rigged with a 12k made contact with a high voltage power line. As with many "no budget" productions, the electrical aspect of the production was almost an afterthought so the production had hired a local person to be responsible for the generator and distribution system. This person, while eager to work, had limited experience and absolutely no training. The rest of the lighting crew was made up of students.

The mistakes were many: the power lines were assumed to be dead or telephone lines; the set was in a cellular dead zone; they had made no provision for first aid or emergency action plan; and the students apparently were never given any safety classes what-so-ever. [ed note: I've never even heard of a film school giving safety classes.]

The accident scenario is one that we have all envisioned at one point in time. It was a dark night exterior and the DP was giving directions to the person who was operating the condor. No one noticed just how close the basket was to the power line until the diffusion frame made contact. There was an explosion, the lights went out, and one person lay on the ground dying.

Surprisingly enough, the student killed was not the person operating the condor. He survived, not because he was wearing rubber soled shoes as was stated in the news, but because he remained at the same potential of the lift and provided no path to ground. Since the contact was made with the diffusion frame on the 12k, the power sought earth through the equipment ground of the light. In so doing, it energized the ground of the entire distribution system. Every metal piece of the distribution system and every device plugged into it became energized at 14,000 volts. It was unfortunate that a film student on the other side of the set was holding a light at the time and he became the path to earth.

Act II of this great tragedy was the complete unpreparedness of the production to respond to an accident. They were many miles away from the nearest city at an abandoned house in a cellular dead zone. They had not informed any local authority that they were shooting and when they finally did contact emergency services, they could not give the address of where they were. The ambulance took 45 minutes to get to the scene while getting lost on the way.

So what are the lessons learned? First that you can survive if your condor makes contact with a power line, though I must caution that this person was extremely lucky that he wasn't hit by the arc blast. Had he been hit by the arc blast, he would have instantly caught fire with no way to extinguish himself. In other words, don't count on surviving if it happens to you.

The second lesson is that someone not involved with the electrical accident can still be injured (or in this case killed) by it. This person had no idea anything was even close to being wrong when he got shocked. It was almost literally a "bolt out of the blue."

The third lesson is that you should NEVER take an emergency action plan for granted and never assume that anyone else has done the work. When you are in a hazardous area or situation, ASK about the emergency action plan if you are not briefed on it. Production is responsible for your safety and they are ALWAYS supposed to have an emergency action plan (that is why the nearest hospital is listed on the call sheet.) However, you need to take responsibility for yourself and anytime you are in a hazardous situation make sure that an emergency action plan is in place just in case the unthinkable happens. Make sure that YOU know what to do when the worst case scenario unfolds to protect yourself and the other people on your crew.

Alan "

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

You Know You're At The Home Of A Grip/Electric When...

... you notice they use a C-47 for everything including as a paperclip, bookmark, holding closed potato chip bags, leveling out their wobbly coffee table...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Be A Good Best Boy.

I'm annoyed when the Best Boy doesn't provide adequate information.
I'm annoyed when he doesn't tell you that you'll be be rigging outside in the hot sun the next day.
I'm annoyed when he doesn't tell you that you're earmarked for condor duty.
I'm annoyed when he'll talk to Production about getting paid overtime only after you and your co-workers make a big stink over it.
I'm annoyed when he tells you it'll be a half day, only for it to go a full 12 hours, after which he'll just shrug and say "Well, that's how long your contract's for."
I'm especially annoyed when he doesn't turn your time cards in on time.
I'm even more annoyed when he leaves your paperwork out for days to the point where it gets trashed and you have to fill it all out again.
I'm annoyed when he doesn't mention which days Production takes off and you don't find out until you look at the call sheet the day before.
Or worse yet, you don't even get a call sheet and have to find out second hand from a co-worker.
I'm also annoyed when the Best Boy thinks you getting second hand info from people in a different department is "good enough" and therefore doesn't bother to update/keep you informed on anything.

Bottom line: Bad Best Boys annoy me.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

News Break.

"People who regularly put in overtime and work 10 or 11-hour days increase their heart disease risk by nearly two-thirds, research suggests." - BBC News

Yikes. I wonder what the statistics are on people who work in the film industry where a 12+ hour day is considered standard practice.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Lift Gates Are There For A Reason."

I have two co-workers with back problems. I guess moving heavy lights and cable has finally taken a toll on their bodies, which isn't uncommon in this business. The scary thing though? These guys are still in their mid twenties.

I've met guys in this business who've told me that there have been days where they can't even crawl out of bed without hurting. Or that they had to take a few weeks off from work for their body to recuperate. It seems that when it comes to aches and pains, everyone has a story.

But one guy in particular has stuck in my mind. He was an old school union grip slumming as a Key Grip on a short I was on a few years ago. One of the first shoots I was ever on and I was ready and eager to prove myself worthy of this industry. I may have been pretty green and inexperienced back then, but I told myself that I'd make up for it with hard work and speed. One day, something was called for from the grip truck. I grabbed it, jumped off the lift gate, and took it to set. When I got back to the truck, the Key took me aside and told me never to jump off a lift gate again.

Why? Because it fucks you up. Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow, but fifteen, twenty years down the line, you'll be paying for it. He told me he has knee problems from years of jumping off the gate. His father and grandfather, who were both in this business, have had their knees and hips replaced because they used to jump off lift gates. "When you get a chance, take a good look at the older guys in this business. The ones who've been here longer than you've been alive. They all have joint and back problems from jumping off the back of the truck. There's never a reason to jump off. The lift gates are there for a reason. Just lower the damn thing half way and step off it if you need to."*

That was the single best piece of advice I've gotten in this industry. Despite being a newbie, it opened up my eyes to a whole different way of doing things and how even the tiniest thing like hopping off a lift gate can have huge repercussions in the end. Why should I jump off a lift gate when I can just lower it? Why should I lug around cable when I can use a cart? Why should I strain myself reaching for something on the top shelf when I can stand on an apple box? If I wanted to last in this industry without hobbling around in pain in my golden years, I had to start paying attention to the stress I was doing to my body. As the old cliché says: Work smarter, not harder.

I asked my colleague with the tweaked back what happened. Turns out he had headed up a BFL** by himself when it really called for two people. "That was stupid," I remarked, "Why didn't you just wait for someone to help you?" "Because there wasn't any time!" he replied, sounding kind of annoyed. So I just left it at that.

But in my head, I was thinking "WTF??? What do you mean?? It takes at least TWO people to head up that light, so you wait for two people. If it takes more time, tough cookies. Do the job right." His answer was kind of like saying he didn't have time to put on pants this morning before he went to work. Bottom line: Who cares if you're running late?? You need to put on pants. Really, it's a matter of safety (the light, not the pants). And I don't know about you, but I doubt that a tweaked back was worth the extra thirty seconds he saved Production. I sure as hell wouldn't have done it.

Granted, it's kind of hard to not feel the urge to rush around when Production or your higher ups are on your ass to speed things up. And every once in a while, even I'll go "Oh, fuck it" and lift something I probably shouldn't be carrying by myself. But that's even more of a reason to do things right when you can.

I know it sounds corny, but lift with your legs and not with your back. Don't twist with your back when you're carrying something heavy (like tossing sandbags into the jocky boxes); use your hips instead. Don't wrap heavy cable by pulling it from the side. If something's really heavy, get a second hand on it. Use the "golfer's lift" for smaller things.

Again, I know this is all easier said than done. But taking care of your body doesn't have to stop at work. If you sleep on your back, tuck a pillow under your knees to help preserve the curve of your back (you can really feel the difference at the end of a long day). Side sleeper? Tuck a pillow between your legs. And STRETCH. After you wake up, before you go to bed, and maybe a couple times during the day. Nothing fancy or yoga like necessary. Just doing the basic warm up stretches you learned in elementary school is enough to help "reset" your back and body to the way it's supposed to be. You can even take it one step further and Google "back stretches" for a whole routine. And pay attention to your posture (no hunched backs!).***

Also, if you have medical insurance, see if chiropractic care is covered (I think you get 24 visits per year if you're in the IA). I know a few guys who swear by it. If anything, go for a consultation and just talk about how you can alleviate some of the stress on your knees, hips, back and neck at work. Even if they don't specialize in treating industry folk, just demonstrating how you'd hold a stand or wrap a piece of banded (or hold a boom mic, sit at your desk, etc... Whatever your job entails) is enough for them to throw out a helpful suggestion or two.

I'm not saying that all of this will guarantee you a pain and ache free existence, but it might save you from hobbling around like an old geezer until, well, you're old.

Really, when you think about it, there's no excuse to having a fucked up back in your twenties. I know it can be hard to take the time to do things the right way when you have Production barking at your heels, but I also don't think any job is worth injuring myself in the long term for.

Michael Taylor has said before that those of us in the trenches are "mining our bodies" (and it's definitely a sentiment shared by those who've been in this business for a few years), but I hope that we can all change that. With New Media and productions pushing out more content with less money, Producers are more adamant than ever to shoot more in less time. A hectic schedule like that puts an already undermanned crew under pressure to work harder and faster, which is even more reason why we should take the time to do things right.

I don't know about you, but I want longevity in this industry and I think my body's too awesome to be mined. And after all, lift gates are there for a reason.

*I once gave the same warning to a friend who brushed it off. Then one day he came back from a shoot with a bunch old school guys and said, "Holy shit A.J.! You were right! They all have fake hips and knee problems! I think I'll stop jumping off the gate..."

**Big Fucking Light.

***I definitely don't claim to be an expert on anything medical related, but these are the tips I've gathered from various sources including doctors, safety training and plain old common sense.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bring Something To The Table.

Awesome reader Gabby left a comment on one of my posts last month that I'd like to address. She says:
"If anything I think I consistently surprise the guys by how strong I am. BUT there are certain things that I cannot do or cannot do safely. [...] Just the other day I was pushing a dolly of crane weights on location and an electric guy had to help me get them over a ramp. It was embarrassing, but I'm just an intern.

If I was getting paid I would really have a problem not being able to do every single thing that the boys can do. I wonder if they would resent me if I did make it into the union or we were working together on a paid job."

Gabby, I can totally relate. I can't tell you how many times people have done a double take when they see little ol' me moving things around on set. Sometimes, the guys have trouble keeping up with me. A few have even admitted, with some embarrassment, "Wow. Um... You're really strong."

However, cable is mutherfuckin heavy. There's no way I can push a full cart of 4/0 on anything but flat ground, let alone gravel or a hill. Or hell, even a lift gate.

And a taco cart is definitely taller than I am. If you fully load one up and ask me to move it around, people better get out of my way because I sure as hell can't see where I'm going, not to mention control the damn thing. Luckily, if there's a crossover on the ground, I'm not going to get very far with it anyway.

The list of stuff I can't do is long. But do I feel guilty for getting paid the same as my co-workers? Hell no.

Why? Because I bring something to the table.

I doubt my Best Boy likes having to help me load/unload carts and hefty gear that the average grip/electric can do by themselves. But he'll hire me every time because I'm organized. When I'm done with something, I put it back. Gels get labeled and filed away accordingly. Did someone leave a tangled nest of rope in the middle of our staging? I'll clean it up. The other guys? They may be physically stronger, but they'll leave things a mess; randomly tossing stuff on the nearest cart. Sure, some of this stuff may be tedious to do, but the Best Boy and I both know that if I don't do it, it won't get done. That makes me indispensable. Plus, that means that I know where everything is and can get to things faster than the guys who just leave stuff laying around.

I'm also a bit quicker and more attentive than the other guys, which the Gaffer likes. I can't head up a 4k by myself, but I'm there, ready to tweak it as needed before the Gaffer can even find the talk button on his walkie. If I'm the one on standby on set, I know what he wants before he even calls for it because I've been watching him and paying attention. Many guys I know would just sit around staring at their cell phones, moving into sloth like action only when they hear it called for over the walkie.

And even though the other guys on your crew may be twice your size, being smaller and lighter isn't necessarily a bad thing. I walked by the truck one day and saw my colleague grumbling and kind of frustrated. He whipped out his pliers and started digging around the inside of an 18k with them. It turns out that he dropped a wing nut in the housing and spent the past five minutes trying to fish it out to no avail. I stuck my little girl hand in there and got it out in five seconds. I'm also small enough crawl into cramped spaces (weird corners of the set, carts too close together, etc) and light enough to climb on things that ordinarily wouldn't be able to hold the weight of a fully grown man (let alone one with a beer belly).
Generally speaking, us gals are more nurturing than men and tend to pay more attention to details. On a busy day, chances are your Gaffer/Key/colleagues aren't staying as hydrated as they should be. Offer them a water. Toss them an apple box to sit on. Bring them a treat from crafty. Often times, it's the little things that get you noticed and appreciated. Tiny things like that make the day a bit easier and can really add up in the end.

And while you may not be able to handle a full cart by yourself, it doesn't mean that you can't help. Sure, the muscle men can push a cart uphill on their own, but that doesn't mean that they'd like to. A heavy cart is a heavy cart and an extra hand on it makes a world of difference.

I used to be the in that frame of mind where I'm just starting out and I'm thinking, "Oh dear lord, how am I going to earn my keep with these guys? They're throwing sand bags around like they're nothing!" But then I started finding my niche. Sure, I may not be able to carry a coil of 4/0 in each arm, but I know more about electrical theory than the average juicer, making me the go to girl when my co-workers need a second opinion. I may not be able to throw a 12 step ladder over my shoulder, but I do things the right way the first time, every time. When the Gaffer, Key or Best needs to take a break, they know I've got things covered because I've been paying attention to their jobs and can pick up where they left off.

Bottom line, don't feel guilty if you're physically weaker than your cohorts. You don't have to justify your right to be on set by being like the other guys. Guys who do nothing but move shit around are a dime a dozen. You can stand out and bring something to the table the other guys can't. You have your own strengths that they don't have. Sure, you'll probably run into a crew or two who will write you off as weak and useless, but the good, smart Best Boys will recognize the value of your efforts. Like I said, guys with brute strength aren't hard to find. But people with skill are. Find your niche. Be indispensable. Bring something to the table.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You Know You Love What You Do When...

... after a long, hard day at work, the kind where all you want is a hot shower and a soft bed, you pass by another film shoot on your way home and you and your carpool buddy circle around the block a couple times to check out what kind of gear they have.

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