Tuesday, July 8, 2014

New Perspective

It's been 11 months since I said "adios," and cited one of my reasons as being that I felt I could no longer offer fresh perspectives. Well maybe I spoke too soon.

First I wanna just say that for the entirety of my blog up until this very post I was living at home. Yep, me, a 26 year old college grad forced to move back in with his parents. I talk to many people who claim it was their first gig ever that got the ball rolling for them, and a year later they're a mainstay on all the major film and tv productions that come through town. Me, I spent 4 years toiling in unpaid indies and low-paid reality, with numerous false starts along the way. I still check the local crew gigs section on the list of Craig everyday. I will be forever grateful to my parents who gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream without a single word of discouragement or even a suggestion that I should maybe get a day job until my prospects improved. My first year out of college, when I decided I wanted to do this and nothing else, I worked a grand total of 3 days. The next year I wanna say I worked at least 30 -- 20 of which were unpaid. The next year probably at least 6 weeks. Lately I've been measuring my workload in months. It's been a difficult road, but I'm getting there.


Last March I mentioned how I got a PA gig with a local production company (which shall remain nameless) that produces a number of scripted cable shows. I said it was my dream job. I actually used that term! I guess I was just blinded by the awesomeness of 8 solid weeks of work. Don't get me wrong, it worked out - and then some. A month later they geared up for another show and I was back - 8 more weeks, and this time I was in Art Department. I hit it off with the Art guys and early this year I came back again for another 8 weeks, as Prop Master.

In all likelihood they'll be asking me back August through October.

...and I'm thinking of saying no.

Here's why. The hard truth is, the productions are garbage. I kinda glossed over it I guess, or maybe I just had my rose-tinted glasses on, when I called it "scripted TV."

They're semi-scripted. Okay, it's a reenactment show. Fine, it's goddamn murder porn - yes, South Park made an episode ripping my livelihood to shreds. So yeah, for the past year I've been doing those wonderful true-crime recreation docudrama things that air on Discovery and TLC and have names like Sex Sent Me to the ER and Southern Fried Homicide.

Dream job. Right.

Okay, I love the crew, we're like family. Great people, we work fast together, and the only time tempers flare is when somebody tries to debate the 2nd Amendment with our Gaffer. But at the same time, the shot-callers at the office run us ragged, we work out of shitty Enterprise rental trucks that production re-rents each season (even though they could have purchased a whole fleet by this point). I injured my knee because the shitty 5-ton's lift gate kept dying every 20 minutes so I just took to jumping off the back of the truck if I needed to run something to set quickly. In Art Department we didn't even have a cart to carry our stuff with. We hand carried bins and crates to and from set. It becomes stressful and maddening quickly. It made absolutely no sense that production wouldn't pony up just the little extra dough for a cart to make our lives 100% easier and the day go considerably faster. (They eventually did. On week 7 of 8.)

We also shoot episodes back to back. Which means there is zero time between the last shot of one episode on Friday and the first of the next the following Monday. That meant on Monday we have to find the time (on top of what we are currently shooting) to empty the truck of last week's props and set dressing and load in the current week's.

I can't imagine this is the standard practice. You need things like prep days (weeks?). And swing crews? And maybe you're not sharing a truck with 3 departments? Right?

So anyways, I'm probably gonna get the invite to do props again next month. And I'm not entirely sure I want to. Besides the obvious financial benefit to 3 months of work, I just seriously doubt that sticking with this group is gonna advance my career in any way. If anything, it'll just result in more work with the same production company and on the same level of productions. I've already given a year to the company and it hasn't opened any doors really. And I'm not sure I want to spin this wheel again.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


It's been almost exactly 3 years since I embarked on this journey to make a living freelancing in this crazy industry. But now that the impenetrable forest of shitty reality TV, no-budget indies, and low budget music videos is giving way to a bountiful clearing of consistent work in scripted TV, I'm finding that although I have more and more things to talk about now, most of it has already been said by the other - and far more esteemed - industry bloggers out there. As I've gotten closer to my goal my point of view has become less unique, the perspective less refreshing, the experiences less vivid. And I'm afraid I have no more to offer here.

I know when something has run its course...I watch a lot of television after all. It's an embarrassment  when a tv show reaches it's logical conclusion but then someone upstairs decides to squeeze one more season out of it.

I started this blog as an account of me growing from a college graduate who couldn't even set a C-Stand. Admittedly, it has helped me along the way, using it as an outlet to vent my frustrations, failures, fears, and celebrate my triumphs (I re-read my entire blog, and found a post where I basically spend 10 paragraphs high-fiving myself for working my first one-day cooking show gig. So young...so dumb...)

Though if you're hungry for that unique recent-film-school-graduate-getting-a-facefull-of-reality perspective, look no further than Delusions of Fresh Meat which has that market pretty much cornered.

Many thanks to all 3 of you who actually read this stuff...

Friday, June 21, 2013

Another Dose of Reality

So it seems I've been neglecting this blog again. Remember that 7 week gig? Well 2 weeks after that ended I hopped on another long term job.

An MTV reality show.

As a PA.

So, yeah, 5 months after I vowed I was done with Reality, I relapsed (again) I guess.

Oh well. But I had nothing else going on and it was a month and a half of work. I've got more saved up in my bank account now than I've had in the last 7 years. Can't complain.

Or can I?

It's weird. Being a PA is a comparatively easy job. I spend 90% of the day sitting in a van. But the longer the job goes on, the antsier I get. I find myself counting the hours until the end of my shift.

You know what it feels exactly like? High school a week before summer break.

"Only 3 more hours until it's only 4 more days..."

And once I start this kind of thinking on the job, that's a bad sign. It's a slippery slope of unproductiveness, poor judgement, and rookie mistakes after that. So I'm finishing out the week, then I'm done.

And even though I KNOW this is the easiest job in the world - I literally just drive crew, keep them hydrated and fed, and buy groceries - the problem is it feels like...WORK.

The horror.

The job I was on before this - the first long-term job - was a scripted series. That didn't feel like work, and there I was running around with 125lbs worth of sandbags at a time, drenched in sweat. Somehow that was a blast.

So I guess that's conclusive proof to myself that Reality TV is no good for me, and Scripted is where it's at. It's nice to be able to put my finger on the reason. Yep, it came down to good ol' creative fulfillment. And by that I mean, I need to be able to see the fruits of my labor. On the scripted set, watching a whole world come into being before the cameras, and knowing I had a part in it - even if it was something as simple as bagging a C-stand - was enough to keep me going. And that's all I need really, the knowledge that my efforts have in some way contributed to the whole. In Reality, I sit in idling minivans all day outside of whatever location we're shooting at. Not to mention the whole Reality world is a cesspool of exploitative schlock you couldn't pay me to watch.

I had an interesting discussion with the director of this reality show during lunch the other day. He started in movies, and somehow found sitting on film sets - spending hours to get a 10 second long shot right while actors repeated the same lines of dialogue over and over and over - boring, and - for him- creatively unfulfilling. In his words, the faster pace of reality TV suited him better - at first behind the camera, now behind a monitor in an air conditioned Sprinter - where he can watch real people interact and develop in real time.

He told me if I wanted to do scripted stuff that's all I should pursue - the worlds don't mix, and in LA submitting a resume to PA on a film with nothing but Reality credits will get you laughed out the door. The only thing Reality was good for was the money, to keep the cash flow, um, flowing, during the slow periods.

He didn't act like the show was something incredibly unique and special that I should feel blessed to be working on. It was Reality TV. He knew it was shit. But it floated his boat. Yet he didn't assume it did the same for me. He knew I probably had dreams and ambitions beyond this. It felt good to spoken to with such candidness.

Only 2 more days to go...

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Long Story Short...

...I got my dream job. By which I mean a long-term gig. Still "just a PA" but it's consistent employment for at least a month and a half.

The downside - no OT. The rate is flat based on a 12 hour day, and production "tries" to keep us on schedule. The days average 13-14 hours. Today was, miraculously, only 10. Which is why I'm able to turn on my computer for the first time in a week and punch this post out before diving into bed and taking full advantage of this whopping 12 hour turnover.

The upside - vertical mobility. There is incredible room for career advancement with this production company. Much of the current crew - an AC, a grip, the sound guy, one of our directors - all started as a PA. Just yesterday they had me fill in on the grip team (and increased my pay accordingly).

I worked a grand total of 5 days in February. 2 of those days were boom op gigs in a city 90 minutes away because that was how desperate I was. Of course sound is not my forte, and I fucked up an hour of audio that was finally recovered but at great financial cost which will be summarily deducted from my paycheck...if I ever get it.

But now that I have this solid block of work in the bag, all the job offers are coming in...I had two commercials offered to me during my first week of work. As they say, when it rains, it pours. And since they were on a weekend, I actually could have done them! But I was so beaten down after 5 days of work (yep, gotta build that stamina back up...) I declined both offers, opting instead to spend my weekend in bed. Yes... I actually refused work.

To sleep.

Which is what I'm going to do right n

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.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Still here.

So,  I made my mind up. I'm done.

Done with PA-ing on cable reality shows, that is.

Looking back on 2012, I worked on no less than 15 different reality shows. And I'm over it now.

I'm sick of navigating 15 pass vans through the traffic of downtown San Francisco, I'm sick of driving 30 miles to the nearest big box retailer, I'm sick of picking up quadruple soy white chocolate lattes for the talent.

My last gig of 2012 was the final straw for me. It was supposed to be three solid weeks of work, a great way to end the year (paycheck-wise), my longest duration job since spring. Thought it was going pretty well, the line producer and I geeked out over Star Wars, I rented some stingers and a light stand to the production, the host was easygoing and friendly.

Just me and one other PA were the only local hires, so when I got the text that they were going down to just one PA after the first week and chose the other guy, I was disappointed but also confused. It was logistically impossible to run that show with one PA. I shrugged it off...until I found out TWO other PAs were brought on board for the final 2 weeks.

So, there's no other way to spin it. I was the problem. I don't know what I said or did. They got mad at me once while I was on a coffee run, but I can only go as fast as traffic lights will allow.

Whatever. I'm through trying to impress these out-of-town crews. I can only do my best, and if that's not good enough...well...fuck.

Oddly enough, this happened on my first job of the year as well.

I just wish instead of the "it's not you, it's me" spiel, that they actually told me what the fuck I did wrong, so, I could, I dunno, make sure I didn't do it next time. I don't have some fragile ego or need to be let down gently. On the contrary, I need blunt, frank, explicit criticism. Otherwise I can't grow.

But that's it for me, I'm done with these corner-cutting, egotistical dickheads that reality tv production teams seem to be made up of. Had some good experiences, had some terrible experiences, but the bottom line is, it's not what I set out to do.

Sure it was work, but now it's a whole year done, and I haven't made any inroads into the bigger productions - I got in this game to land those features, those commercials, those ridiculously well-paid industrials.

So I'm done with reality.

Well, unless it's one of those sprawling, Bruckheimer-produced shows.  I'd do one of those again. Always amazing catering...

Hm, I think what I'm realizing is, the bigger the crew, the better I work. I'm better as a small cog in the giant machine. There's just too much pressure when I'm one of just two PAs - or indeed, the only PA. A small fuck-up on my part in that situation will be far more pronounced. That sounds bad though, doesn't it? Like I can't take too much responsibility. Not what I meant. It's just difficult when you're at the bottom and everybody else is your boss.


These reality crews fly in, get their shots, and hightail it to the next location. They're not looking to make new connections. And I can't move up if I keep surrounding myself with these types of productions.

And that's the root of the problem - it's like the old saying - surround yourself with people who are going to lift you higher, surround yourself with people you can learn from - or the inverse - quoted from a local Steadicam op. - "keep surrounding yourself with schlubs, and best case scenario is you'll be the best schlub."

(But it's a tricky distinction to be made - I have friends in production who don't share my level of ambition - or are happy where they are - and are they the so-called schlubs I shouldn't surround myself with? Hell no. I tried explaining these thoughts to a PA colleague and quickly realized how much of an entitled prick it made me sound like if I didn't word it carefully)

Basically, my goal is to work on major shoots. With legit street blockages, and not covert guerilla-style shooting from illegally parked minivans. I want to spend an entire day helping get a 1.2 second shot just right, and not a full day helping get B-roll at 10 different locations. When I watch the behind-the-scenes videos of those big blockbusters, with 40 trucks and trailers, miles of cable, armies of extras, meticulously crafted and painted sets - I just flip out over it, how fucking cool would it be just to work on that for even just a day? It's creatively fulfilling, ya dig? 30 years from now I don't want to my "war stories" to be about particularly arduous coffee runs.


As much as I want to move up, I plan on giving back - I love filmmaking, period. If I have a free weekend, I'll even come and help out pro bono on a student thesis film or indie short - cause it's fun. And there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. Just gotta offset the freebies with a few paid gigs the rest of the time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Art Department

So this post comes at the end of an ambitious short film shoot I was on. This time I worked as an assistant in Art Department. I was grateful for the change in pace and the chance to explore uncharted territory (not completely, as a PA I've been shanghaied into many a department, Art included), and it's hard not to feel just a little smug when the AD calls over the radio for PA Nation to "lock it up," or "bring the director water" knowing that my responsibilities lie elsewhere and I don't have to budge.

But...it's been frustrating. As cool as it is to sprinkle dust on a desk to make it look old, as fun as it is to make cobwebs with rubber cement and a fan blade drill attachment...I still have to deal with these people.

I demand only one thing. Well I don't demand it. I expect it, and when it doesn't happen ...well, it certainly makes it more difficult to work as hard.

One thing.


I wasn't getting it, not from Art.

I can forgive the Art Director. She's been doing this longer than I've been alive. A certain crabbiness is to be expected. But she doesn't have to keep repeating her orders to me. Maybe it's a quirk...maybe she's repeating things more for her own benefit than mine. Some kind of re-affirmation that her decision was correct. Or something. But still. Shut up. I heard you the first time. If I don't get it I will ask for clarification. I'm not an idiot.

And that's where my problem lies...being treated like I'm an idiot. Like a child. Like this is my first rodeo. I've come to understand from speaking to others that I'm a bit quirky myself. That I don't exactly exude the confidence a superior would prefer to see...I know I mumble, I stare off into space occasionally like I just had the nuclear meltdown of all brainfarts...but that doesn't mean I'm an idiot.

Then there's the Assistant Art Director.

Good. Grief.

You know those people who just seem to hate you for no reason? Those people that just suck the oxygen out of the room as soon as they step into it? People who make you involuntarily clench your jaw as soon as they open their mouth to speak?

That's what I was dealing with.

An entitled know-it-all brat with a title they don't deserve.

And the odd thing is when we met during a pre production day at the prop house, she was a total sweetheart. We talked about our experience and ambitions, and it seemed to be the beginning of a beautiful working relationship.

And then the call sheets for the first day of production went out, and I did a double-take when I saw the title next to her name. But I shrugged it off, figuring things would be no different.

But I guess she saw the same call sheet, saw she had an Underling, and promptly went to her Dark Place, sacrificed a newborn, and activated Bitch Mode. Cause starting on the first day of production she started treating me like shit.

She was snappy and rude. Gone was the small talk. The smile was replaced with a permanent scowl.  She threw her weight around. Borrowed my stuff without asking. Brushed off my perfectly legitimate ideas rudely, only to implement them 5 minutes later as her own.

Every chance she had to put me in the wrong, she took. Every. Little. Thing. Even when it was just the two of us, prepping the set. I'm sorry, did I hand you the wire cutters to you before you needed them? Yes, that definitely deserves a stern reprimand. How about you cut just a few feet of wire for yourself, then we don't have to keep passing the spool back and forth when you need a couple inches? Yes, please scold me for trying to be efficient...

I can count the number of times she agreed with me or supported my decision on one hand. Being in charge doesn't mean you have to be right all the time...

There's something to be said for the fact that I work 100% better when she's off doing something else. That I'm happiest when I'm riding set alone while she's prepping the next location.

I have no qualms taking orders from her, but I could do without the unwarranted amount of assholery. There's a way of telling someone to get something done without making them feel about 2 inches tall in front of the entire crew.

I'm pretty sure it's just insecurity on her part. It's her first major gig. It may be an indie short, but all the crew are major players in the local production community. So she's trying to make an impression.

So I'll let her have her fun, get her kicks, whatever. Be the bigger man and all that.

But it was killing me inside. I was fucking enraged. Like, it activated that inane primal part of me that wants to deal with it by pissing others off. I actually entertained the notion of driving super slow in the fast lane all the way home one day. Just so others can share in my complete and utter misery.

Again I didn't expect this gig to be a cakewalk. If I did I'd be in the wrong line of work. And I know that I'll be encountering way more dick bosses down the road. But it's almost not worth it if I have to spend the entire shoot with bottled up anger and a forced smile.

I spent the second week of the shoot imagining what I'd say to her if I had the chance. Had a whole long-winded rant planned. Didn't go through with it cause I'm chicken, I guess.

It was only a few days ago I was venting to my mom about this person when she told me this little anecdote. Apparently when my mom landed her first job with a personal secretary she treated her terribly. And then one day it got to be too much and the secretary said to her, Look, I'm your secretary, not your servant. And that's all it took for it to click.


So now that that's out of the way, let's talk Art Department.

I was grateful for the opportunity to try something new, and definitely would leap at the chance to do more Art gigs.

Honestly, this two week stint in Art was more rewarding than any previous gig...I'm really thinking this is where I belong. It awoke that artistic side of me that has been dormant for so long. In school, there wasn't a paper or ditto I turned in without some kind of wacky doodle...I remember being inspired by science fiction films - Star Wars in particular - and spending hours at my desk trying to make replica lightsabers and blasters. Never was particularly great at making models (unless you count Legos!) but I really dug 1:1 hand props and such. My only tools were a drill, hacksaw, superglue, and duct tape, and the results left a lot to be desired. But I had the passion. Man, if only I had had access to a dremel kit, a metal lathe, a vacuform chamber....

And then at some point...the passion went away. The pressures of the real world and all that. I've honestly been in a funk for so long, trying to make my meager paychecks last until the next meager paycheck, I avoid the temptation of spending money altogether. Literally, by not even leaving the house unless it's for work. Or groceries. So no time for hobbies. It's no way to live, and my creative spirit all but went into hibernation.

But this experience in Art Department really gave me a jumpstart...time to be creative again.

I had been attracted to G&E because it was a quintessential "film" job. It's right there at the top of "Lights, Camera, Action." It's fuckin' Hollywood, man.  From where I sat the other jobs - such as those in art department - seemed like (apologies in advance) a bunch of glorified furniture movers, construction workers, and house painters.

BUT -  now that I've tried it out, I have come to the conclusion...that I was right.

KIDDING - yes there was the back breaking moving around of heavy furniture and set pieces. But then we got to age it, dust it, spiderweb it. We constructed innovative rigs and gags. And that's when it got FUN. I also got to run the wind machine (fancy way of saying giant shop fan) and a hazer.

Also, it's one thing to say, I helped light that scene. It's another to say, see that sock hanging out of the dresser? THAT WAS ALL ME. 

Not saying one is better than the other, it's just a different awesome experience this vast realm we call the Industry holds.

Back in college, professors would encourage prospective directors to take acting classes, and acting students to take directing classes. I'd always thought that was sound advice. It works in other film careers too. For the longest time I've had my eye on G&E, and have even started to make some headway in that direction. But stepping back and watching G&E from another department was a whole new world. I saw the pitfalls and mistakes from the safety of the sidelines, and I will take that knowledge with me next time I'm juicing or gripping.

Like to never put my breakfast burrito down on a piece of meticulously aged and dusted set dressing plastered in "Hot Set" signs...

Fucking grips...

Monday, July 23, 2012


One of the most ubiquitous items I've encountered on sets are dimmers - or hand squeezers as they are also known. Used to knock down the intensity of tungsten fixtures, it's one of the strange tools in the electric department that have to be built - it's not something that is manufactured as a product by a single company and sold off the shelf at the average home improvement store.  The basic component is a rotary (or slider) dimmer mechanism like one would find on a living room wall. These are made to handle varying wattages - 600, 800, 1000, 1500, and 2000. The higher the wattages, the higher the price, and the more robust the mechanism.

Now, these dimmers are often sold by individuals or companies pre-assembled - the one pictured above for instance is sold by Filmtools - but at a high price, usually between $90 and $120, before shipping costs. This leads a lot of people - professionals and amateurs alike - to build their own. But the homemade ones I've come across, while practical, are hardly as sleek or robust - often using $1 galvanized steel components, blaze orange household extension cord for the "tails," etc -

Above: a 1k homemade dimmer - one of a pair I purchased on ebay for a pretty fair price, considering.

While these will do the job, and I've seen many a janky squeezer on gigs, it got me thinking - just how much would it cost to build your very own to the exact specifications of the sexy "$100 dimmer" in the first image?

Surprisingly, all my scouring the internet for answers turned up nothing about making your own professional dimmer in a clear, concise step by step fashion. You have a guy who makes a 600w dimmer for under $10 using a cheap plastic box and a non-grounded cable he happened to already have. You have this janky as all Hell and potentially dangerous instructional from your friends at IndyMogul. You have directions for wiring it directly to dual outlets within the same electrical box, and though admittedly there's some useful information there in regards to wiring, it doesn't offer the blow by blow nor the parts list I was looking for.

So I guess it's up to me.

Yes folks, for the first time on the internet (as far as I know) I'm gonna give a step by step on how to make a DIY 1K hand squeezer that will hold a candle to the prefabricated ones from Filmtools, Barndoor Lighting Outfitters, or your local G/E house.

Firstly, most of these prefabricated dimmers utilize as the main dimmer component either the Leviton "Van Gogh" style, or the Lutron "Centurion" line. These are heavier duty dimmers with huge heat sinks beneath the faceplate. They are differentiated from "residential" dimmers - which typically max out at 600w - by being branded as "commercial" or "architectural" dimmers.

Let's focus only on making a 1000w dimmer for the purposes of this post. So grab yourself a Leviton 61000-W or a Lutron C-1000. (Note: There are such things as "3-way" dimmers - which I made my first prototype dimmer with - it just results in a mess of extra wires, since the 3-way [simply put, this is so you can have more than one switch controlling the same light - your house may have this] functionality is completely moot for the purposes of this device.)

These dimmers run about $40-$45 new.

Step 2: The box. If you go to your local hardware store's electronics aisle, you will see bins full of ugly galvanized boxes with knockout holes, and cheap blue or grey molded plastic ones. What you want are the more robust, outdoor, weather resistant ones. They should be there too - Solid die-cast aluminum and painted grey (as a result, it might appear plastic at first). You want the Deep Single-Gang Box from Hubbell Electrical Products (Will be under the product family name of Bell Outdoor or Bell Weatherproof). Key word is DEEP. I've seen people use shallow ones, but in my experience you want to have plenty of room for the dimmer mechanism and all the wires. The standard boxes are 2" deep, while the deep one is 2 5/8."

You'll want the one with 3 holes, one in the bottom, and one at each of the narrow ends. Electrical boxes have several different standardized diameters for these holes, 1", 3/4", 1/2". 1/2" seems to be the standard for industry squeezers. As such, Part #5385-0 is you friend. This should cost $7-$8. It should come with plugs to seal the unused hole or holes. Seal the one at the bottom.

Step 3: Cable.
12/3 cable is the film industry standard. So it's what I used for the "tails." This stuff costs just over $1 per foot, and is usually purchasable by the foot at your local hardware store. I use 2 separate 1' lengths. Total cost: $2-$3.

Step 4: Male and Female Edison connectors.
Like these.  At my local hardware store, they price about $8-$9 for male connectors and $12-$13 for female connectors.

Step 5: Cable clamps/cable connectors/cord grips.
These are the nubs sticking out of the side of the box in the first photo, holding the tails in place and sealing the holes. You buy these based on the diameter of the threaded hole in the box you purchased in step one (1/2" in this case) These were a bit trickier to find, and it took some trial and error before I found the ideal part. The ones they sell at my local hardware store are these fool things.

No, no, no, my friend. You want the dimmer box to be as airtight as possible to prevent dirt and moisture from getting in.

What you want, and what those $100 squeezers use are Heyco liquid tight cordgrips. You'll want one specifically for the 1/2" threaded holes in your gang box. That gives you about 4 options (click the specifications tab in the previous link to see the different choices). Within those 4 are different ranges of cable diameters the connectors can handle. Fortunately, I had a pair of calipers handy that told me my 12/3 cable was about 0.4" wide. With that, I can deduce that part #M3231 seems optimal, opening at it's widest to just over my cable diameter, with the ability to tighten down far enough to ensure a secure fit. These cost about $1 each and come in packs of ten on Amazon. Total cost for a single dimmer box: $2.

This means to build your own, with all new parts, you'll spend only $71-$80!!!


Wait a second. What I didn't tell you is you don't have to buy retail!

EBAY IS YOUR FRIEND. Those $40 dimmers can go for as low as $20 shipped, and a few weeks ago I bought 20 feet of 12/3 for about $15. Those Edison connectors, when purchased in bulk lots of 5 to 10 or more can come down to about $4 or $5 per connector.  Congrats, you just built a sleek industry standard 1000w dimmer for $45! Less than half the cost of buying a prefabricated one.

By shopping on ebay and buying bulk when I could, I now have the materials to build 6 of these dimmers at a lower cost per dimmer.


Now that you have all the components, you might want a quick run through on the assembly and wiring! PLEASE NOTE, I am hardly an experienced electrician, but this is what worked for me...

First, take the box, screw the cordgrips into the pre-threaded end holes.

Second, take each of your 1' lengths of 12/3 cable and pass one through each of the box's holes. Strip 2" of the outermost insulation off the ends that will be inside the box. This should reveal the three colors of wires inside - green, white, and black. Strip each of these individual colored wires about .5".

Within the box, connect the white ends of one cable to the white ends of the other with a wirenut. Do the same with the green ends.

Get the dimmer unit. If it's a single-pole unit it should just have 2 black wires, already stripped. I know for sure that's how the Leviton units are. Lutron units have the addition of a green ground wire. The ground will be connected to the grounding screw built into the gang box. Connect the black wires of each cable to one of the black wires of the dimmer unit. It doesn't matter which goes to which.

Close up the box: push all the wires down and fasten the dimmer unit over the top of the box with the provided screws. Pull the "tails" so there is not excessive slack inside the box. Tighten down those cordgrips with a crescent wrench.

Attach the Edison plugs to the other cable ends like so.

Yay. You're done!

Test and use only with tungsten or halogen lights.

Above: Done!

Note #1 - since I was on a mission for the best deals, I used a gang box with 3/4" openings and the appropriate cordgrips. This was also a 3-way dimmer unit which was a little more complex to wire.

Note #2 - A lot of people are selling these little units online claiming them to be 1000w dimmers. They are not. They are what's known as router speed controls. A router being a woodworking tool. While it does indeed dim lights, and you will find its fans (I saw one of these being used on a professional set to dim practicals), in my experience they do not have butter smooth action, do not dim completely off, can result in flickering, overheat after an extended period of time, and create a hum that will drive your sound guy crazy. Also the people selling them as dimmers are asking upwards of $35 for them. If you really want to go this route, then at least save your money, and pop on over to Harbor Freight Tools and pick it up for $20.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Great Leap Forward

Well I did it.  I got an iPhone.

What happened was I had landed a gig at the top of the month, a weeklong documentary shoot. I don't like to discuss money but let's just say if I don't work again this month I'll still be financially A-OK.

So with this windfall, I took a look around, and realized I need to join the 21st century already. And let me tell you, it was a long time coming. I had been dealing with an obsolete clamshell piece-of-shit, but i could take and receive calls, and send and receive texts, which I thought was all I'd ever need.

Smartphones have become so prevalent on sets - and indeed, life in general - it's considered a tool people just assume you have.

There's always a pit in my stomach whenever I walk onto a set. That interminable feeling that I am woefully unprepared. And it's legitimate...undoubtedly I will be asked scan Yelp for a good restaurant, look up business hours, get the phone number for a store - things the GPS I have in my car cannot do. While I would be incapable of doing this work at all without the help of my GPS, it certainly has its limitations.

More and more often I've had to tell people, no, I can't look up restaurant menus, no, I can't check my email for the updated callsheet. And that's just bad form. And it stops people dead in their tracks. And their eyes widen as I show them the ancient fossil I keep in my pocket to stay connected to the outside world. And they shake their heads like an embarrassed parent as they gaze pitifully at the pathetic hunk of circuitry that has all the functionality of a grapefruit.

Well no more, I say!

So there it is...I got an iPhone.

Why an iPhone? Why not Android? Well, once in a blue moon, I am compelled to follow the crowd like a mindless sheep. And 90% of the phones used on sets I've been on are iPhones.

Plus, Apple makes it easy. If I wanted to go Android, I'd have to weigh the pros and cons of LG, Samsung, HTC, etc, and then a host of different models, Galaxy, Lumia, Atrix, Evo...I don't have time for that shit. What I like about Apple is they are to electronics what In-N-Out is to fast food. They keep it simple. One or two models in each line up. So choices are easy.

I paid the full $600 to get it unlocked and then chose a non-contractual $40/month plan from Virgin Mobile. Why? Well, the other option is pay $199 now and then get locked into a 2-year contract for $80/month or so with Sprint or ATT or Verizon. Do the math. After 2 years, I'll actually save $600 over the person who paid less upfront for a higher monthly obligation.

And that phone paid for itself the first week, saving my ass so many times. Plus now I can explore the wonders of a portable music player (I've never had an iPod before either).

I love this thing.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Job

I was sweating as I took the call, and not just because I was in my AC-deprived car. I had pulled over the moment I saw it was a number I didn't recognize. 90% of the time that means it's a job. It was.

Not only a job, the Job.

Yes, one of my grip acquaintances had recommended me for an industrial shoot at a wholesale grocery up in Sacramento. As a grip/juicer.

I felt like doing cartwheels. I'd had my eye on G/E for some time.

"Sacramento, huh? Shouldn't be a problem, I'm located halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco..."
"No no, we need LOCALS"

Ugh, I hate that. People who hire crews up here are rarely from here. They don't know the area at all. And unless they have a map in front of them, I might as well be saying I live in Middle Earth.

"Nononono, I'm reaaaally close, and if it helps I went to school there, I know the area, I have friends I can stay with-"
"Okay then....so what's your rate?"

Oh. Uhhhhhh.....

Well...if I generally get paid $125/day as a PA...

"I'm sorry, did you say you are a PA? Because that's not what we're looking for..."
Oh shit, did I say that out loud?

"Nononono, ha ha, I used to be a PA, but I've been gripping since last summer, it's just I haven't been asked to name my dayrate in a while..."

Not quite the truth, but close.

In fact, I was taking this call while on a run for a production I was PA-ing on.

Anyways, I settled on $250 a day. As soon as I hung up I wanted to slap myself. I felt like I had lowballed myself. Turns out it was exactly what the production was willing to pay, because the other 2 guys I'd be working with were getting the same rate. I felt a little better.

Also the production was much smaller and the days much shorter than I was led to believe. A 3 person shooting crew came up from LA, there were 4 of us locals, and we never used more than 4 lights. 3 divalite Chinese knockoffs and a 1.2k HMI PAR.

The summer heatwave was in full force, and Sacramento generally gets 20-30 degrees hotter than the Bay. Fortunately we shot 90% of it inside, including scenes in the giant walk-in refrigerated room. I did not hate that at all.

The LA shooting crew were pretty easygoing. I think I only mildly annoyed one of them once, when I moved the HMI but neglected to wind the feeder cable up, leaving it trailing behind. Dumb.

The premise of the shoot was that it was some sort of promotional video for investors. "But," the director said, "Once they have the footage they can do what they want." In other words, it might end up recut and repurposed as a commercial or something else. Cause why hire another crew to shoot new footage?

I spent the downtime chatting with the other 2 grip/juicers (griptricians?) While none of us knew each other before then, after a few stories being swapped we discovered we all had mutual acquaintances.

It's a small world up here, and if it's getting smaller, I must be doing something right.


Anyways...I hope this is the first of many G/E jobs. I've gripped before, certainly, but it's always been on low budget shoots where I was essentially a grip-in-name-only production assistant, wearing multiple hats, being paid PA wages, or not being paid at all.

This is the first time it's been, well, pretty legit.