Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Yesterday I finished my first job as a grip + electric. By "grip + electric" I mean the person who sets up the lights and flags that light a scene, and by "job" I mean two days unpaid on a tiny music video some guys threw together. Nevertheless, it was a job, and for me, jobbin' means learnin'. Here's what I've learned:

First, being a grip is easier than being a production assistant. The thing about being a PA (or anything on the production side, for that matter) is that you have to deal with all the problems that no one wants to deal with.

I was reminded of this when we got to the end of the first day and the picture car couldn't leave the set because it wouldn't start. No one wants to deal with a stalled car in the middle of the night and, for the first time, I didn't have to. That's a real privilege.

Second, I have a long way to go before I'll feel I deserve that privilege. I have so much to learn; what the different lights are called, how to weight a C-stand with a kino at the end of a long arm, all the way up to how to light a scene as simply and quickly as possible. It's a good part of why I decided to be an electric - I learned plenty by being a PA, but it gets a lot harder to learn when it's week 3 and I'm getting five hours of sleep a night. Grips get to go home and absorb what they've learned, possibly while drinking a beer, before collapsing in exhaustion.

That said, I also learned that G+E work is something I can do. Electric work is pretty intuitive, at least at the level I'm working on. The great Harry Box says that no particular process you need as a lighting technician takes more than five or ten minutes to learn - the trick, of course, is putting these techniques together to light a scene well and efficiently.

The other difference between production work and grip and electric work is that their work runs so completely parallel that it is almost like they are working on two different movies.

Production work is, by definition, support work: production is responsible for logistics, keeping the crew happy, transportation. The goal of the production crew is to make everything happen so the crew can work, so the director can say "action." When the crew is ready to set up a shot, production has done its job. When the camera rolls, PAs are busy again, making sure outside elements (namely, noise and members of the public) do not interfere with the roll.

G+E work rhythm is almost exactly opposite that of production: grips work to set up a shot and then stop working when the camera rolls (although they have to hover nearby in case something needs a quick fix between takes.) At first, this was really, really disorienting, because my brain kept getting ramped up to work during shots and wound down during set ups. I had to turn everything around, like trying to write with my left hand.

PAs listen to the Key PA, who listens to the Assistant Director, who listens to the director, department heads, and the Production Manager. They work with the other supporting departments, the one who work between takes and off-set: locations, the production office, catering and craft service, wardrobe, hair and makeup.

Grips, electric and camera people have to communicate with a parallel hierarchy. I was wrangling video cable on this Russian film I worked as a PA for last week. The DP was talking to the camera crew, and I asked the 2nd Assistant Camera if I could position myself a certain way without interfering with a shot. He answered, very quietly, "Yeah, but, Shh!"

In production, when the DP is talking and he isn't asking for a bottle of water or for you to get out of the shot, it means, your job is basically done. In the camera department or G+E, when the DP talks, you better listen.

The other thing is that I was privy to a whole different set of decisions. Figuring out how to light a scene is a much different problem than figuring out how to get enough water on set. For one thing, there's a lot more possible answers. Four people trying to solve the same lighting problem can easily come up with twenty different solutions. At some point, the DP just has to say he likes what you've got and it's time to move on (ADs are also good for this).

Lighting a scene is also a finite problem - you do your thing, and then you live with it while they shoot. Production problems are never ending - if you're done with the problem of right now, you've got to start thinking about the problems you'll have later today, or tonight when you have to get the trucks back, and of course you have to know at least tomorrow and the next three days and you're advanced schedule and what's going to happen when you run out of water or if it rains.

Maybe that's why G+E work feels so much less exhausting than PA work (so far, anyway). I guess I'll find out this week - I just got a call for some electric work starting tomorrow. See you at 6:30 a.m., America.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Almost Impossibly Tired

Today, I worked, and, as a result, I am exhausted. The shoot I am working on now, a Russian film, surprised me with a unique combination of exhausting things;

1) I was on firewatch all day, which was boring and therefore tiring.
2) The shoot was extended two weeks past when it was originally supposed to wrap, meaning everyone else is tired and wants to go home.
3) The main set is on the fifth floor of a walkup, and we are talking some tall ceilings here.

I haven't worked in about three weeks (one week of sleep, one week of happily screwing around with small and inconsequential projects, one week of being too disorganized to get a job), so I wasn't limbered up for this triple-threat of exhaustion. It also didn't help that I tried to make it through firewatch using coffee. Coffee makes me so happy and then it makes me nervous and then it puts me in need of a nap I can never achieve.

Another tremendously interesting thing about this shoot: the most competent of the PAs are all very, very tall. This briefly leads me to consider crewing only super-tall PAs. Too many questions arise (Do I know that many tall PAs? What will short people think?) I quickly dismiss the idea as slighly too silly.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Where I've Been: Sun., Oct. 8-Sat., Oct. 14

<-- Back to the previous post in this series

The first, median and last sites I visited each day of the past week.

Sunday, October 8 (40)

Monday, October 9 (127)

Tuesday, October 10 (151)

Wednesday, October 11 (87)

Thursday, October 12 (16)

Friday, October 13 (17)

Saturday, October 14 (133)

<--Back to the previous post in this series

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Fall is not a time for love

Last week, my grandfather and I took the bus all the way up to Riverbank Park on 145th St., a big, beautiful place that seems to hang almost on top of the Hudson, barely clinging on to the island (and built on top of a sewage treatment plant to boot).

There, all the way up near the north of the island of Manhattan, was the first tree I'd seen changing from green to yellow. Since then, they're everywhere. It's old news to New England and months off for Texas, but Fall is here in New York City, and it's making me terribly lonely.

I'm just wrapping up a slow spell for work, and I'd gotten in the habit of spending my downtime wandering around Manhattan, particularly Central Park. The colder weather has cleared the park out a bit, and the main source of visitors now seems to be schoolkids walking in large groups and young, attractive couples.

Spring is when people fall in love. Summer is when they go to movies and concerts and on interesting trips and meet each other's parents.

But Fall, when the nation comes home from vacation, when your job gets more serious, when the tourists finally clear out back to middle America and leave the city to the rest of us, fall is when you and your loved one settle in to a routine, maybe move in together if it's time for that, and take long walks together on your days off, bundled up in stylish coats and scarves, not with any particular purpose or destination, but just to talk, just to be together.

I consider myself a person who's been around the relationship. Fall is a time for what Nick Hornby calls side-to-side or back-to-back (as opposed to face-to-face) couples, and that's the part of a relationship I like the most. The early I'm-in-love high has worn off, the early hurdles have passed, you're still together, and you're starting to get an impression of what's next in your life with this person.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Perfectly Legitimate

The other month, My Cousin The Revolutionary and I, after many months of walking up and down Smith St., decided to walk up Court St., which runs parallel to Smith but is one block further away from our apartment. We had never done this before.

They call it New York because you can be a block away and effectively be in a different neighborhood, and so our Court St. experiment ended up showing MCTR and I how we choose to approach a new neighborhood in New York.

Maybe because we come from the same genetic stock, and maybe just because our moms are more alike than different (we say they are "the same kind of crazy"), MCTR and I have very similar approaches to new neighborhoods. Also, because our approaches are so similair, we got to see ourselves take in a new neighborhood by watching each other. Two points of interest:

ONE: A major indicator of the success or failure of the neighborhood was the ratio of white people we saw to non-white people we saw.

This is simple enough to explain. I'm from San Antonio (58% Hispanic of any race, 32% non-Hispanic White) and MCTR is from Atlanta (61% Black, 33% White), and I'd say we're most comfortable being in the racial minority but not so much that we feel like we've stepped on the set of Catch a Fire.

Also, and speaking only for myself, let me say right now that there is nothing creepier than an all-white neighborhood. What sort of factors coincide to bring a neighborhood to all-whiteness? Nothing I want to be a part of.

For its part, Court St. did very well on White / non-White balance.

TWO: As we were already idlying along Court St. anyway, MCTR and I decided we might as well pretend we were looking for something to eat. We examined several different places in turn, discussed each of them, and dismissed them half-heartedly. Then we were talking about something else entirely when we got to a small (small enough I can't find it on google) family-owned-type Mexican place with a couple of tables outside.

We were already halfway through the door when I realized that this was where we were eating, and we hadn't even needed to discuss it. We hadn't even really thought about it. This was so much our kind of place that even though we'd never seen it or the surrounding neighborhood ever before, we had acted like this is where we had been walking this whole time. It was, in retrospect, a little creepy.

Okay, so we liked Court St. Why? Why were we so comfortable there? What do these two things, the constant checking for racial balance, the second-nature restaurant, have in common? And what was it about MCTR and me that made us behave so strangely, so non-chalantly, at exactly the same time in exactly the same way?

I've been thinking about it, and I think I have at least half an answer. Could be our generation, could be our families or just our being Americans, but whatever it is, MCTR and I both place a great importance on legitimacy.

Nothing gets to us more than something pretending to be something else, like an expensive restaurant with crap food, or a crazy friend who doesn't admit to herself that she's not crazy.

We are the kind of guys who would wear a jacket and tie to a restaurant, but only if we know we could go back to the same place next week wearing a T-shirt and jeans and feel just as comfortable.

We come as we are, we work hard, and that's all we want from anyone or anything else. That's why MCTR was the best roommate I ever had, and I was prolly his. We were open and up-front with each other, and smart enough to understand the whole even when the other of us could only explain the parts.

To me, an all-white or totally non-white neighborhood feels artificial, manufactured. A family Mexican restaurant with a couple of tables out front is not trying to be anything it isn't.

We were right about the restaurant, of course - it was good food, there was plenty of it and it wasn't very expensive. It was honest, straight-forward, family- or community-recipe food.

It was what we were looking for.