Friday, February 1, 2013

Union Venues and Digital Backlots

So the good news is I've worked about 15 out of 31 days this month on 4 different jobs. The better news is all this work came to me - people calling me up out of the blue - and not the result of me sending my unsolicited emails out to anyone I can think of.

The bad news is I relapsed - took a PA job on a reality shoot. Something I vowed never to do again. Oddly, it was this job that proved the most rewarding.

Another traveling reality show for TLC - home of Honey Boo Boo - this one featured a wedding planner guy helping young brides-to-be pick out their ideal dresses.

Production had taken over the grand ballroom of one of the fanciest hotels in San Francisco, and the venue had a contract with IATSE. So basically, all the heavy lifting was done by these union guys while us PAs - for whom this work would have surely fallen to otherwise - pretty much got to chill and worry about menial tasks such as keeping walkies charged and handing out water bottles.

But I also got to chat with the Local 16 guys during the downtime. As someone interested in, well, making a lifelong career out of this work, these guys might have some advice. Not necessarily about how to get in the union - something I've certainly wondered about but regard myself as far from ready for such a leap - but I picked their brains for little tips and tricks of the trade - such as the best kind of footwear for this line of work. Cause my feet were damn near going numb by the 7th day of standing around.*

The consensus seemed to be custom molded insoles and getting new shoes every 3 months.

Most of the guys were older and had been in the industry longer than I've been alive. And man, they had some stories to tell. One guy had an E.T. crew vest (still in impeccable condition). You just had to get them started on a topic ("So....Disney bought Star Wars, huh?") and they'd run with it. A few of them worked in the practical effects department of ILM (which would later become Kerner Optical, and currently known as 32Ten Studios) back when they were doing model and miniature shots for films like Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park. And I ate it up. Part of me felt bad that I'm just now getting into this industry, when the heyday - especially for Northern California - is so far behind, and the relentless march of greenscreen and cgi making location shooting here obsolete.  The other part of me wonders if these guys felt the same way when they were starting out. Some old-timer telling them about the joys of working on such-and-such a classic and how things were much better back in the day.

(One thing was for sure, it was hard to sustain a living on just film/tv/commercial work up here, even for these lifers. That's why I was told Local 16 was multidisciplinary/catch-all - it's members also work concerts, operas, live/corporate events, conventions, theater, etc.)


Speaking of the relentless march of Greenscreen and CGI, one of my other gigs was working on a webseries entirely filmed on a greenscreen cyc, with the intent of adding the environment digitally a la Sin City or 300

It was horrible. I was initially contacted via email to be a PA. Apparently I had sent the production company my resume last November and they held on to it. (I didn't remember. Last fall I was averaging 2 resumes sent out per day.) 2 Days before the shoot I'm told I'm gonna be the Set Dresser.

That's it. They didn't send me a script or scene breakdown. I went to set the first day thinking I was going to be jumping in with a fully established art department with all the props and set dressings organized and camera ready. 

Boy was I wrong. Turns out I was the only dedicated Art person. Someone did have a scene breakdown with the props and dressing for each scene listed. That someone was the script supervisor. She became my lifeline to figuring out what I needed to scrounge up for each scene. What little props we did have were brought in 3 duffel bags by a very flustered costume supervisor.  The rest - tables, chairs, desks, lamps - we had to borrow from the offices of the studio we were shooting in.

Did I mention we were trying to shoot 100 pages in 2 and a half days? (we only shot 50)

Oh, but it gets better.

See, there were action scenes. With guns. Parts of the script called for a 12-man SWAT team fully armed to charge into a room. The director brought about 10 airsoft guns, only 2 of which were long guns, and none of which looked realistic. Half of them weren't to scale, 2 of them had a weird steampunk paintjob, and 3 of them still had the blaze orange tips. Fortunately we only used the pistols the first day, and I brought my own personal arsenal of (minimally superior) airsoft guns the next day, which we almost exclusively used from then on. 

And that is how I became the Armorer as well. I have no clue what the director's plan was if I hadn't had those guns. As far as I can tell I saved his ass. 

By the second day I had my own copy of the scene breakdowns, and didn't need to consult our script supervisor. I was able to skip ahead and get set dressing and props ready several scenes in advance. 

But I don't know what the director was thinking. I mean, I'm not an Art Department expert or anything, but I feel like there should be at least a week of prop-shopping or something ahead of time, maybe get the director's input on an overall tone for a scene or whatever. If the director wants this to be legit, I'll do everything in my power to make it so, but there's only so much I can do when I have less than 5 minutes while G&E reposition the lights between scenes to get the makings of an office set together. Running the whole production at lightspeed along the razor's edge like that made tensions high. The whole thing was so disorganized and illogical. Even a minimal amount of effort could have been put into the preproduction process that would have lifted so much frustration during shooting. I mean, I know the local prop house. I also know an actual armorer that not only has the real guns but the uniforms and body armor for a full SWAT team. I think that's what disappointed me the most, that my own potential was squandered due to the shortsightedness of the whole production.

It was painful.

The whole thing oozed of incompetence on the director's behalf - although he had somehow finagled 2 of the 10 existing BlackMagic Cinema Cameras for his Magnum doofus he demonstrated a lack of experience and failure to understand the basics that made me want to tear my hair out. We spent half of our first day putting tracking markers on the greenscreen and lighting it. Something, that I dunno, should have been done further in advance?  After several takes he decided to replace the bulb of a practical lamp in the scene with a CFL. Nevermind the obvious color temperature contradiction, if he had wanted less intensity he could have cared to notice I had dutifully put the light on a squeezer. Oh wait, he did notice. And promptly tried to dim the CFL with it.


I won't complain if they don't call me back for the second half. But if they do, I'm going to give them a piece of my mind...

*One of the Local 16ers had a pedometer that estimated 14 miles had been traversed the first day alone. Just let that sink in.


  1. Yeah, I've run into similar things on green screen shoots. I don't understand how someone wanting a good performance out of someone would think they could blaze through that much of a script in a day.

  2. Good post. In a job that makes you spend so much of your day -- and very long days at that -- on your feet, shoes are a constant issue. I tried many different shoes over the years, and found certain New Balance models to work well, but none of those athletic-type shoes last very long. Running shoes aren't cheap, and they flatten out pretty fast. New liners weren't much help for me. Some people swear by orthotic inserts, which I've never tried.

    Eventually I stumbled -- however unwillingly -- into a pair of Ecco boots. Given their expense, I swore I'd try them on just to convince myself that no boots could possibly be worth two hundred dollars... but after walking around the store, I had to buy them, expense be damned. I've never looked back, and am now on my third pair of Eccos. They usually last four to five years before the soles start to crumble. The only downside is that they can't be re-soled and still retain the comfort factor. Still, that works out to forty or fifty bucks a year, which is a lot less than I'd spend maintaining a constant influx of fresh New Balance shoes. I'm seeing a lot more grips and juicers wearing Eccos these days. They're great.

    I've heard Hi Tech makes a very comfortable and light work boot as well. I'd shop around and try on everything you can until you find what works for you.

    As for that fucked-up production mess -- it never ceases to amaze me how some clowns are allowed to spend other people's money in such a brain-dead manner. But it happens all over -- even here in Hollywood, where you'd think everyone would be more professional.

  3. I used a pair of skate shoes for the longest time, they look like they have no support but they actually have really nice insoles - but after working 7 days straight, they had flattened out to nothing. I need my arch support. When I see crew members wearing a pair of vans or converses, I just cringe! How these people sacrifice comfort for fashion I'll never understand.

    Merrill is a popular brand I'm giving a shot at right now, ever since a pair popped up for half price at Ross. I've also got a pair of nice Doc Martens- $3 at Goodwill, never worn! - I've paired with some gel insoles for rougher terrain jobs.

    I might give Ecco a try, I've always been happy to spend the extra dollar for a good quality item.