I Miss Set Life
Today is day nine of a 10-day writing challenge. There is not too much to say about the challenge as the only requirement is to write and publish for 10 consecutive days. That in itself is enough of a challenge as my usual cadence is three to four a week.
When I was 26 I ran away with the circus to become a roustabout.
Describing set life to anyone not working in the film industry is going to be hard but a good writing challenge is not supposed to be easy, so hold onto your hat.
Before you can describe working in the film industry you have to get the gig. The process is akin to foraging and though my experience pre-dates cell phones and the internet many of the same principles remain unchanged. The best gigs are all obtained via word of mouth and ongoing relationships. Breaking into that groove is about a simple as crashing an Oscars after-party. There were a couple of industry rags that publish upcoming productions. Hollywood Reporter listed productions monthly while Daily Variety published theirs on Friday. Dramaloague would list productions looking to hire but these were typically pretty shady outfits offering only screen credit or the dreaded “deferred payment”. The promise to pay as a percentage of net proceeds or any other formula is one of the most transparent con games in tinsel-town. A stoke of the pen on the books can erase all profits, especially after producers take their cut from gross receipts. Just ask Art Buchwald.
“Ok kid, you got the job”. I scored day-play electrician from one of the only two people I knew in L.A. for a night shoot. The budget was over one million putting it in the “legit” minor leagues. The head electrician thought I was too green but by four in the morning I had won him over by simply staying awake.
Possibly the single most important success factor after “who you know” is “staying awake”. Literally. I am not talking about being in touch with your inner-light or being Johnny-on-the-spot (though that helps). Falling asleep is considered a flaw, not a human need. When the first assistant director wears a tee-shirt that states “Sleep is for beginners” he is only half kidding.
The hours are brutal, not just in length. Big budget pictures define studio days as 10 hours and location days as 12 hours, but these are only guidelines and when the big expenses like locations and rentals are by the day there is an overwhelming desire to shoot as much as possible per day. The typical schedule is 12 hours but once hours are included for arrival, lunch, and wrap, it quickly becomes 15 hours. Driving time to get to the set is not included in this and the 30-mile “studio zone” could leave you fighting traffic for an hour each way.
Here is an example:
- Rise at 5 AM.
- Arrive on set before the 6 AM call for a quick breakfast.
- Shoot for 6 hrs.
- Lunch at 12 (30 minutes from last through food line).
- Shoot for 6 hours.
- Wrap from 9 to 10.
- Drive home.
- Eat, shower, and sleep in the remaining 7 hours for the next cycle.
- Repeat for 6 days.
This example assumes the 10-hour turnaround rule is respected, the shooting hours are limited to 12, and it is day shooting all week. If the schedule goes long or slides into night shoots you could end up with a work week that starts early Monday and runs to Sunday morning.
Staying awake means staying alive as well. In 1997 camera assistant Brent Hershman was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel having worked a 19-hour day after the previous four ran 15 hours. I was lucky to have survived two crashes from similar circumstances. They say no movie is worth dying for and in 1999 I left the industry for a career in IT. No longer would I have to hustle for gigs, work extreme hours, and endure harsh weather.
There’s the beast, but where’s the beauty?
As Ethel Merman sang, “there are no people like show people”. Misery loves company and the tribe is both trusting and supportive. Not to say it’s all hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go, but like the Seven Dwarves “personalities” are both tolerated and admired.
The tribe also comes with a lingo that is steeped in history.
Gaffer — A gaff is a pole with a hook used to pull fish onboard a boat. Early lighting technicians would adjust lights with a gaff. The term specifically refers to the chief electrician.
Best Boy — This the gaffer’s next in command, the term coming from the gaffer requesting the studio send their best boy to the set. The term is changing these days to be less gender-specific.
C-Stand — A telescopic stand with a set of clamps and poles that allow holding a lighting flag (and a lot of other things) in a variety of positions. The legs are designed to nest tightly with lighting stands. Named after the Century Lighting company that first produced them.
The jargon is extensive. Spot the noun that does not fit on this list (answer below): Abbey Singer, banded, barn door, blonde, C-47, cans, cheese plate, chicken feet, cowboy shot, dead cat, Ford axle, french flag, front box, high-hat, hot set, pipe ramp, quarter load, read head, spider box, squib, sticks, tail sticks, tweezel nut, wall sled, wall spreader.
The level of problem-solving is an order of magnitude greater than any other business I can think of. The location can be anywhere, the middle of a desert or the rooftop of a skyscraper, and each shot throughout the day takes inventiveness to capture the scene and give the illusion that there are not 20 people with heavy equipment standing just outside the edge of the frame.
There were times when I was able to step back from the cluster of action surrounding a camera set up and just marvel at the coordinated dance of the professions, all focused on achieving one result. In the end, set life is a young person’s game and I am grateful to have had the experience without serious injury or death. So thanks for the memories, and no, I don’t really miss it.
Answer to the quiz: The tweezel nut is the second nut added to a threaded shaft to lock the first one in place according to A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield, Volume 22. A grip might certainly use a locking nut but the term is not used in the industry.
Day eight of the challenge can be read here.