Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sunday night countdown to the T of R

The crowds are finally here. Lots of portable fireplaces are burning and gas heaters are cranked up as everyone is counting down the minutes to midnight.

I took a walk along Colorado and Sierra Madre - saw basically the same scene I do every year in the neighborhood.

This year, however, was a bit different.

There's a propane station just up the road, and as I was walking towards it, I noticed one big, tall flame shooting up into the night sky. But, there weren't any fire engines around.

When I arrived, I saw that this "accidental" flame was intentional, and probably the most talked about fire pit on the last mile of the parade route tonight!

Sunday afternoon countdown to the T of R

OK, it's official. The crowds are arriving. The sidewalks are blocked. Traffic is horrible. And the sound level has increased by several orders of magnitude.

New Year's Day is coming to Pasadena.

Sunday morning countdown to the T of R

The "bustle" is coming to town, and by tonight, all those tranquil scenes I posted yesterday will be chock full of campers.

Most of the media coverage centers at the start of the parade route, but the last 1/2 mile or so is all residential. Families camp out on the sidewalks and traffic islands for years, sometimes generations. And, although camping is technically illegal until noon today, locals have already been marking their spots, such as below:

And just to clarify, in case some of you thought that the RV's didn't come out in convoys - take a look at this one gathering:

The one good thing about having hundreds of thousands of people camping on your city's streets overnight? If you really, really need "to go," you'll never have to search to far:

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Countdown to the T of R, Part 1

Saturday morning was really nice in Pasadena. Too bad it won't remain like that for long.

In just about 24 hours, parade viewers will be able to legally camp on sidewalks and traffic islands to secure a place to the view the parade come Monday morning.

Consequently, businesses are preparing for this public decampment, complete with chain-link fence, security guards, barriers - everything sans the concertina wire (reserved for federal buildings 365 days a year).

Geez. You know it's bad when even the Christians put up a blockade which shouts, "Stay Out!!"

Friday, December 29, 2006

Dueling reviews

One of the last seminars I took in grad school was by Margery Wolf, who wrote a somewhat-famous book on postmodern critiques of ethnographic research, whereby seemingly obvious and objective observations are interpreted, re-imagined, and disseminated through the particular biases of different observers. (See? Too much graduate school education affords one the ability to spew theoretical vocabulary with the best of them.)

I felt a bit like one such observer this morning, as I was bounced back and forth between two competing print reviews of Miss Potter, which opened this weekend in Los Angeles.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a SAG pre-screening with a Q&A by Christopher Noonan, Renée Zellweger, and Emily Watson. Frankly, I enjoyed this movie, and recommended it to my friends, even though biopics tend to bring out the notoriously fickle reviewer in all of us (i.e., “Did so-and-so really do that?” “Did people dress/act/speak like that?”).

Two reviewers - Carina Chocano in the LA Times, and Ella Taylor in the LA Weekly – obviously had their own list of fickle points to hit after viewing the movie.

For instance, gripes about Renée Zellweger:

LA Times

“Thirty-six and unmarried in 1902 (though, unaccountably, the movie makes her 32 the year she published "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," because, let's face it, nobody wants to see a movie about a 36-year-old spinster, there are limits)…”

LA Weekly

“Bronzed and russet all over, with quaintly autumnal production design to match, Zellweger’s Beatrix bustles about, flashing the Zellweger sour-lemons smile, dispensing maidenly charm and no-nonsense practicality as she shepherds her little tales from soup to nuts….”

And, the acting abilities of Ewan McGregor:

LA Times

“Still, the movie is redeemed by excellent performances. McGregor, in particular, lights up the film, and in her scenes with him… His Norman is a pure, puppyish innocent with a bounding enthusiasm for Potter's work.”

LA Weekly

“Smiling nervously as if not to unseat the mustache precariously affixed to his upper lip, this Mr. McGregor does nothing to convince us that the pallid swain is the love of Beatrix’s life….”

Take a read yourself, and perhaps even see the movie, then make up your mind.

On the other hand, I think Ella Taylor had her own Xmas wish-list for this end-of-year movie:

“Unfortunately for her, she has Emily Watson at her elbow, acting up a storm as the independent sister of Potter’s doomed fiancé. Which had me wishing the two actresses would either trade places and have done with it, or run with the promisingly homoerotic current that courses through most close same-sex friendships of that period.”

Oh, well. It is the LA Weekly that has all those costly-per-minute phone numbers listed in the back pages.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A native view of the parade

Since I am a native-born Pasadenan, I get asked questions about the Rose Parade all the time. (The most useful? "How do I deal with the street closures and parking?") That's for another time.

So, this year I decided before the weekend crowds decamp in the Rose City, I would show the readership of this small corner of the blogosphere what the "real" parade route looks like - instead of the one-dimensional example here.

First, the floats line on Orange Grove.

Then, they make the sometimes perilous turn onto Colorado Blvd. proper.

After the long trek down Colorado, they then head up Sierra Madre - on the "wrong" side of the street no less! Bet you didn't know that.

One of the last obstacles for tall floats is the 210 Freeway overpass. If you've ever wondered why all those really animated floats have to collapse down to a certain height, you're looking at it.

Finally, the parade ends at Pasadena High School/Victory Park. Years ago, float viewing was free on the grass at the park, but around 1978-1979 there were massive rainstorms, creating one big, festive mud pit, courtesy of the City of Pasadena.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Welcome to town. Now, obey the signs

There's not too much to report to my readership, given that I haven't been on set since last week.

There is, however, the impending arrival of the Rose Parade in Pasadena. (I'm a native - so please indulge me.)

Last year, we had a deluge of rain on Jan. 1st - causing teenage marching bands to be wet and gloomy, and seeds, petals, and banana leaves on floats to peel off and add to the general accumulation of trash on Colorado Blvd.

I walked to the end of my block and tried to watch for about an hour, complete with backwoods raingear, only to retreat when my fingers went numb, and I was completely soaked from the knees down.

But this rarely happens. The last time it rained on the parade previously was somewhere around 1949 - about the same year downtown Los Angeles had its last recorded snowfall.

But, things might change. Today we had a bunch of rainstorms blow through the LA Basin, and tonight we have (cold) Santa Ana winds gusting at around 40 mph, with occassional gusts up to 70 mph.

Next Monday might be very, very interesting.

In the meantime, the city is going a bit crazy with last-minute construction of bleachers, viewing areas (like this), and the general pandemic of "No Parking" zones, like in the pic above.

Enjoy the view, but just don't park anywhere nearby, or pay $200.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

It's hiatus, and the nerds are coming to town...

OK, it's hiatus in the industry, meaning almost all production in town is shut down through the first week of January, cast and crew members go scurrying across the globe on vacation, and almost everyone opens up their unemployment file.

About the same time in Pasadena, Colorado Blvd. starts sprouting bleachers like a poorly tended lawn sprouts mushrooms, Good Sam Club RV's pop-up on side streets, and the No Parking signs go up.

Then, things get weird.

If you haven't heard, the 118th Tournament of Roses has picked George Lucas as the Grand Marshall, to be escorted on the 5.6 mile route by almost 200 nerdy Star Wars fans (courtesy of today's Pasadena Star News).

I'm sure the founding fathers of the city never thought they'd see that (nor, of course, the year that Kermit the Frog was Grand Marshall).

Keep in touch - "bleacher shot of the day" will be coming soon.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Vocabulary on the day

A couple weeks into December marks the beginning of winter hiatus, the inevitable slow-down in production as television shows cease taping over the holiday break, movies may or may not continue filming (one I just worked on wrapped their US filming schedule, and moved overseas), and agencies generally slow down. It's the time when lots of folk in the industry go on unemployment.

So, I was lucky to get a few days this week, including one today on a show I haven't worked for months - and they remembered me (!), which was a nice bonus.

Anyway, a DGA trainee was on set, learning all the ins and outs of a working set, and starting up the steep directorial ladder (Trainee, Production Assistant, Key Set PA, 2nd 2nd AD, Key 2nd AD, 1st AD, and Director). But he was really cool about watching the crosses and timing, no chips on his shoulder, no bossing the background (most of whom have been doing this longer than he has), etc.

And as we chatted between takes (we were deep - a long way away from the boom mike), he admitted that he tried to keep out of his "normal" conversations the peculiar vocabulary that we all pick up on set.

If you use terms like the following with civilians on the street, you know you're too far deep into the industry to change:

"Copy That" Almost everyone in production has a Motorola, and those on set have earpieces. There's an old joke that the AD's always hear "voices in their heads," which is true. So you might be talking to the Key Set PA, who will then cock his head to one side, grab a microphone clipped to his shirt, and say, "copy that" to whomever has asked him to do something. Funny thing is, you do this dozens of times a day, and it become normal, or at least, you think it's normal. On one gig, a PA told me she heard her roommate say "copy that" to her mother on the phone, in lieu of "yes." "

"Flying In" (A personal favorite) When something is "flying in," it's being rushed in."Honey, can you bring the salad from the kitchen?" "Sure. Flying in, Mom."

"Flashing," and "Striking" Wardrobe always wants to take polaroid or digital photos of background in their own clothes or costumes so they can match the shot, if need be. Inevitably, they will always say, "flashing" before snapping the photo. Juicers will also sometimes call out "flashing" or, I am told more commonly for arclights and the big stuff, "striking," before switching them on. (Don't laugh - stages are rigged to go from night to day with the flick of a switch.) One friend told me her boyfriend, a gaffer, has it so ingrained in his daily habits, that he says, "striking" when turning on the lights at home.

"On The Day" (My all-time personal favorite) When the cameras are rolling, and you are acting, it is "on the day." So if the PA says, "On the day, cross over to that desk, make conversation for five beats, then peel off, banana around the principals, and exit camera right" it's crystal clear. At least, to those of us who do this for a living.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

It's About Time

OK, so I'm spending my Sunday afternoon doing some serious housecleaning on the blog.

Frankly, it needed it.

Dead Like Me

It's little-known outside the background community that being cast as a corpse constitutes bragging rights (toe tag, versus upper torso, versus whole torso, versus chest-torn-open, etc), and endless discussions in holding about who was the "better" dead fellow.

So it was delightful to hear a piece on NPR's Sunday Edition this morning about this topic. You can listen to it online here.

Weekend Edition Sunday, December 10, 2006 · The number of corpses on prime time television is on the rise -- and it presents a challege for TV's casting directors. Playing the part isn't easy. It requires more than just holding your breath and being able to stay still for a long time.

And as for me? Nah, never been a corpse. Someday...someday.

Friday, December 08, 2006

How not to make movies

Great article in today's Los Angeles Times about the control author Clive Cussler had over the making of Sahara, from his novel.

The best line, of course, is from one of the writers hired to polish the doomed script:

James V. Hart (Steven Spielberg's "Hook" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula") was paid about $600,000. He found Cussler difficult, but not unlike many novelists — protective of their material and unable to grasp the transition to cinema.

"I've worked with a lot of live authors," Hart testified. "The dead ones are easier to deal with."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Down the drain

One of the first things you learn on set is that "not all is as it appears to be."

All those nice offices, airports, hospital rooms, and even small town Americana, are constructed for the "look," and ease in filming.

This means that for a certain coverage shot, a whole wall might be unscrewed, unbolted, and moved out of the way so the cameras can get a better angle, usually in a matter of minutes. I've also seen the gaffer make the decision to take a portrait off the wall and have a large hole cut to bounce a light into a shot. Picture goes back on the wall, and no one is the wiser that there's a big gap behind the nice painting.

And other things which you take for granted, such as electrical outlets, phones, televisions, and trash bins are probably just props, and non-usable.

For instance, on show I used to work with an airport set, newcomers would often throw trash into the "official" looking bins, only to have props yell at them - the "real" trash cans were Rubbermaid bins with plastic liners.

But sometimes, even the vets forget this principle.

So today, I watched one of the leads on a show throw a cup of cold coffee down a kitchen sink, only to get yelled at by the crews as if he was a newbie backgrounder.

The sink's plumming was non-existant. That drain poured that bad cup of coffee onto the floor.

At least, today, they couldn't blame the background.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

The British journalist Toby Young once wrote a scathing tongue-in-cheek book, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” about his experiences working for Vanity Fair. He landed a choice job with excellent prospects, and proceeded to take the goodwill of everyone around him, and throw it back in their face.

I recently worked with someone like that.

“I don’t like doing this job.”

"Don’t like seeing my face on screen when I’m doing background.”

“I got something better to do tomorrow.”

The guy sure tried his best to channel his inner Toby Young. He refused to have make-up applied, until the 1st AD threatened to send him home. He kept folding his arms during the shot when the AD’s asked him not to. And at the end of the day, props was running around looking for him and his stuff to turn back in - he was nowhere to be seen.

During our downtime on set, they guy kept complaining, “I’ve been doing this for five years. I’m waiting for my career to take off,” then griped about not working enough days.

I said, “At least this time of the year you can see free screenings with Q&A by cast members, or the director, if you’re not working on a given day.” (Which is true: Voting season is approaching and all the PR machines in town are cranking up the buzz quotient to eleven.)

“Nah. That stuff is for wanna-be actors who suck.”

Wonder how our casting director will like hearing back from production that this guy took off without getting de-proped by the assistant prop master?

Oh yeah, and he was union.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sunday morning on film

Yes, Los Angeles in an industry town, just one without many meat packing plants. So the local papers are full of stories about "the business" that focus on things other than celebrity marriages, break-ups, and awards ceremonies.

Today's Los Angeles Times contains a couple such examples. Hidden away in the Business section is a highly informative article on the recent history of Panavision - one of the major manufacturers of motion picture cameras, including more recently, digital cameras.

Then, after throwing away a few pounds of glossy advertisements, I finally reached the Calendar section, which contains another good article on the travails of working with the new digital technology, specifically on Gibson's new flick Apocalypto.

Now, it's not just the inner nerd in me that likes to keep track on changes in cinematography, such as HD (high def), sometimes when on set, you need to know this is stuff is about.

Friday, I was on a late-night shoot, when the AD pulled out a few backgrounders from holding for the "HD sliver." A couple people asked, "What did he mean by that?"

If you've ever watched a football game on an HD television set, you know that resolution is much wider than "normal" feeds. Hence, when shooting the master shot in HD, the field is much wider than the so-called "Academy" ratio, so you need to fill those section of the room with people, otherwise the scene looks too spread or empty, and lacking in "atmosphere" which is what we are listed as on the daily call sheet.

In fact, if you ever get a chance to peer at the video feed monitor from a camera shooting in HD take a careful look - there will be two vertical lines showing the "standard" resolution covering about 80% of the screen, with the section on either side reflection the HD feed.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Have wardrobe bag, will work.

Sometimes in this business you feel like a medical intern; long hours, little sleep.

Because this week has been particularly slow for me, I went on the overnight rush lines last night (to fill vacancies created by the sick, wounded, or those with last-minute auditions in the morning).

I finally get the call around 2:30 am:

"Want to work today?"

(Duh...) "Ah, sure, why not? What's my role?"

"You're playing a doctor."

Told you.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Thank goodness for the union reps!

There's an old joke among the background community that we are the "cockroaches" of the industry. Most folks will think this stems from being the lowest in the pecking order. But on the other hand, think of this:

1: We will eat almost anything organic left on set. (Just ask crafty!)
2. We are largely impervious to extreme changes in temperatures in holding.
3. We appear, and disappear, into strange corners of the set, such as behind C stands, flags, wild walls, etc.
5. We work in smoke, water, and other maladjusted conditions for extra bumps in pay.
4. No matter how many times you try to eradicate us, we keep coming back.

So, early this week I was on a new feature in downtown Los Angeles. Location shots are always interesting, but on this day, the rain was pouring down.

You would think production would have things under control. Instead:

1. We waited in tents for wardrobe to approve our business attire for a full 45 minutes. You might think, “So what?” But, at first there were no lights inside, then the electricians ran some lines through standing puddles of water after a few complaints. By the time we were done, most of us were standing in a full inch of water, clutching wardrobe bags, purses, etc. Anything to stay relatively dry.

2. We were informed that there was “no holding” area for us, either at catering (across the street) or on set. Originally, they wanted us to stay outside, in the elements – which were now dripping atmosphere. Apparently, they hadn’t bothered to order more tents for the shoot. Eventually, we were shown a small room inside, near set, which would serve as a “temporary” holding. It was the size of a large broom closet, with about a dozen seats to serve roughly 50 union background, and another 25 non-union background. Now, the contract is quite clear on all these things:


The following shall be provided:
(a) Pure drinking water.
(b) A seat for each Background Actor.
(c) A stretcher or cot to be used as a stretcher.
(d) Separate dressing rooms for actors of each sex.
(e) Separate dressing rooms for children of each sex.
(f) Adequate provisions for proper and safe keeping of Background Actor’s clothing during work.
(g) Adequate, clean and sanitary, individually screened toilet facilities, toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, or individual towels. Sanitary napkins must be obtainable.

Background Actors may refuse to change wardrobe if not provided with a place of privacy and comfort. Dressing rooms with adequate lighting to be provided. Buses and restrooms are not considered acceptable places to change. Buses used as holding areas must have lights and proper seasonal climate control.

The final nail in the coffin was the “privacy” concern. Some shootsdon’t want cell phones that can take photos on set. Some A-list actors don’t want to be compromised and production companies, understandably, don’t want plot lines to be released before a movie has been fully edited.

So, we were told, “No cell phones on set.” Fine, “How about in holding, which isn’t on set?”

“No, all cell phones must be locked in your cars.” [This applied to background only – even union – crew was still chatting away their online minutes like a bunch of teenagers on set.]

Minutes later, a good fraction of the call was on the phone bothering SAG Production Services – the enforcement wing of the union for backgrounders – with the following refrain, “Production is taking away our ability to call you from set regarding labor contract violations.”

That piqued their interest.

Now, I was in the shot for most of the morning, but when I emerged, chairs had suddenly sprouted like mushrooms after a good rain, all the PA’s and AD’s were very, very friendly to us (what a change), our 2nd 2nd AD had a copy of the SAG contract stuck in his back pocket, and people were getting called left and right from SAG reps with follow-up questions.

Yeah, we’re cockroaches, but sometimes the union pulls through.

Some weirdness for the day....

This choice piece made into the main section of today's LA Times. Big, bad food companies adultering organic food products, such as guacamole? I'm shocked, shocked that there could be food manipulation in agribusiness.

Try making it yourself.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ontological Nihilists On Set

Hope all the readers of the AAGH are binging on baked poultry and overly-starchy side dishes today and taking the rest of the week off.

Here in Hollywood land, the industry is basically on hiatus until next Monday, so yesterday afternoon was a busy time for casting directors. In the space of about two hours I was (1): called by my service with details for the regular show next week; (2) then called an hour later and told that day’s shoot was cancelled; then (3) 15 minutes later booked on a feature for the same day; and finally (4) called out of the blue by another casting agency wanting to know whether I owned a dog or not (for the record, I don’t), and whether I was booked for a certain future date.

Consequently, I am enjoying this day of rest in full recovery mode.

But I also need to recover a bit from a thirteen-hour gig on Tuesday on the semi-regular show.

If you’ve ever done background work, you know holding is a bit scary: nervous, twitchy, anxious actors waiting to be called to work at any moment, people dozing away in their Coleman camping chairs (mostly SAG folks who’ve seen it all), or people chatting away and a mile-a-minute pace, who really, really need to switch to decaf.

So, on Tuesday I was stuck listening to a guy going on for over an hour on why his 1970-era car should be used in more auto calls, and how he had calculated estimated payments based on said bookings if he purchased a car from the 1980’s, 1990’s, etc (and this was all the way across the room!).

Just when I thought I was going to get some rest, he then pulled out his outline for a sci-fi script and began to debate – loudly – the finer points of the genre, movie by movie.

That’s when I began to think about looking for a nail gun from the carpenter’s truck.

Luckily, I got called into set, but, as the old adage goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The PA set a few of relatively deep in a scene, just on the edge of frame. No hero shot, but then most background work isn’t.

However, just as the cameras and sound were rolling, a loud buzzing sound began to emanate from a woman’s purse on the ground.

It was a damn cell phone going off on vibrate mode!

Since the rest of us knew who the culprit was, we told her to turn off her phone on set. “Oh no, it can’t be mine. No one has my phone number, I don’t give it out.”

Fine. It was a wrong phone number then.

Even after we told her repeatedly to turn it off, she simply refused to it was “her phone” making that buzzing noise coming her purse, on the floor, near her feet.

Thankfully, the gates were good after that take, and sound didn’t make an issue of it.

I can take PA’s screaming at you because they made a mistake (but you get the blame), DGA trainees who set background to make complicated crosses and then cause traffic jams behind some C stand, but this was simply the case of an ontological nihilist: someone who has issues with “reality.”

So, the lesson is, turn off your phone on set!

[By the way, AAGH looks like some type of curse word or anguished cry, but that’s for another post.]

Monday, November 20, 2006

How To Act "Naturally"

There's only been one television series I've made an effort to follow this season - Heroes. So I was pleased to attend a screening tonight at the SAG offices with a Q & A by nine cast members afterwards. Since it's on Monday nights, thought I might miss one episode, but the folks at NBC aren't that mean, so we saw the same episode tonight as everyone else.

The show obviously has a following, and it seemed as if some of the more energized fan base in the union attended tonight. But I and the guy sitting next to me were really surprised to hear about the casting process for those present; most received a callback for their screen test while driving away from their initial audition. One guy was walking back to his car at Universal when he got the call to immediately go over to a wardrobe trailer for a fitting.

Is that rare? You bet. Only one cast member reported having a "normal" experience with his audition. It took him several days to hear back from the producers.

Now a "normal" aspect of background work is that you don't often get to do bona fide reaction shots - that's when you are either asked to express some emotion to actions made by a principal, or interact with them. It all depends on the director and how he/she envisions the shot.

Luckily, for the "regular" gig I work almost every week, this happens a lot, especially with those of us established as regular office people, but sometimes weird stuff happens.

And that's what happened a couple weeks ago.

In one bar scene (now this wacky, screwball comedy), one of the leads vies for the affection, and a date, from a very attractive employee - and so does his archrival, who doesn't stop at hitting on her, or other women in the bar, even after he rips off his shirt to get her attention.

So our 2nd2nd AD told us this hilarious story about the reaction shot that we all thought would survive the cutting room floor.

It was a relatively big call for this show, so holding had lots of background waiting for turnaround shots, etc, most being non-union and new to the show.

When the director changed the scene to include the archrival guy hitting on other women in the bar, he asked the 2nd to "get some nice looking girl."

Therefore, our guy goes marching through holding on a mission to find "the one," and found a young, blonde woman sort of snoozing while waiting to be called to set (don't snicker - we all do it - especially the union folk).

So on set he tells her, "Oh yeah, this actor will come up and ask you something at the end of the scene," but nothing more.

Naturally, when she was waiting to do some pantomiming before the director yelled "cut," she never envisioned having a naked torso guy dancing around in front of her, yelling and singing, "Hey babe, where you from?"

Of course, her eyes popped out of her head at this sight, and the director shouted, "Cut! Print that one! New deal."

She will probably remember it as a somewhat horrible day on set, but I would bet good money her face makes it to Fox TV next year.

PS - In case you always wondered about those crew job terms where in the final credits, Peggy Archer has given a brief summary on her blog. And if you ever do stand in work, you need to know who these people are, since you are helping the DP, CLT (gaffer), and - usually - two camera OPs block the scene.

PSS - Am trying to update this blog before heading out to an early morning call tomorrow with the TV tuned to What About Brian. Great! I finally get to see myself doing a few key crosses and sitting next to William Devane. Funny thing is most of the union background on that call are regulars on the "other" show we work - basically every episode (but more about that when we all learn the airing date). The casting director works both shows, so we were literally picked-up from one set of skins and cast on Brian for a location shot.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Even the lowly get photo doubles....

Last summer, before the series season took off, I was lucky to nab a fitting for a big emmy-winning series, with the promise of a couple workdates when shooting began.

It was only afterwards when I sat down with the key 2nd that I learned they wanted to give me a featured background part (the difference between featured and regular BG roles? If you can recognize yourself on screen, instead of a swoosh in front of the camera, that's kind of featured role).

Nice, but some weeks later I got the call, "Shooting schedule has changed. We'll be in touch."

Eventually they did, some ten weeks later, and when I showed up on set the other guys kept asking, "Hey, where is (Gilan)? And who are you?"

When we got around to filming, it was reshoot and everyone knew where they had been placed the previous week - everyone but me.

And then I learned that I was there to photo double for a fellow backgrounder who couldn't make it that day. Apparently, the two of us look similiar, and surprisingly so from the back of the head.

Consequently, the 1st AD asked me to keep showing the "back of my head" whenever we rolled, which made for some interesting poses (ex: an elevator with everyone looking out, except me, standing with my back to the camera).

Some weeks later, I worked a four camera show, and actually met my mysterious photo double! He had been sick, so couldn't shoot that day, but our heads and hair are close enough for film. He was returning to the other set the next day, so I'm sure that crew had a bunch of laughs about it.

Oh yeah, and when I turned in my wardrobe, they said, "See you soon." Hmm. Ten weeks and used once for somebody else. I think not, and I'm happy to work my other regular shows instead.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Geez, Thank for Your Support....

There's nothing quite like working your tail off on set for 2+ weeks, then finally turning on the laptop only to have a newbie blogger flame you.

I was thinking about putting the Angry Anthropologist on a short-term hiatus when work got busy, but orignally thought against it.

I think it's time to reconsider.

One of the nice things about being a regular on a full-run, or near full-run television series is the constant work and the peculiarity of seeing the same people on set day after day.

That was last week, when we shot a full episode in five days - five days with plenty of OT that kind of burned me out on writing at night. Obviously, this hindered my writing since the vainglorious day of professional background actor last week went something like this:

2 hrs morning LA traffic commute to 20th Century Fox studio
12.5 hrs ave. workday
1 hr lunch
1 hr evening LA traffic commute home
16.5 hrs total

That leaves a whopping 7.5 hours in the day to wash clothes for matching shot the next day, eat something, and actually try to sleep, and in the battle between blogging and sleep/food, the latter wins out.

On top of that, on Saturday I got to sleep at 12:30 AM, only to get up early, and promising myself a hike trekked up Mnt. Pacifico on the backrange of the San Gabriel Mountains (only 12 miles), rushed down to a wine tasting with friends from high school, then watched the World Series on the couch with one eye proped open to ward of sleep, which I did for much of Sunday.

On Monday? Back to the lot for the start of the next episode. And so it goes. Even as I write this I'm off to a location shot downtown, and expect to be back on the regular gig tomorrow.

Last Friday was also noteworthy in that we worked with a chimp, who I suspect was paid more than the SAG background. For those of us in that scene, we had to negotiate these two conflicting cultural frames:

Trainer: "Don't look the chimp in the eyes - it's a threat."

1st AD: "Be sure to react off the chimp - make sure your eyeline is on the chimp at all times."


Next time, a story about meeting a fellow backgrounder who I photo-doubled for.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My 10,064 ft. Saturday

Sorry for the dearth of posts this month, but I'm burned out from the last two weeks.

First, I worked most of the last two weeks on a tuxedo, fancy ball shoot which entailed both dancing to the same number repeatedly, or sitting for multiple shots pretending to like the person sitting next to you. Long hours, lots of OT, plus the always welcome formal dress pay bump outlined in the SAG Background Contract. (BTW, "formal dress" for men also includes a "white, Palm Beach suit" although I've never heard of a Palm Beach suit casting call.

It's just that the parental units in town took off on a long trip, and asked your truly to help with watering and other domestic chores, less the little green plants die on them. Others, namely my brother, was also asked to assist, but then had a sudden business trip out of state, leaving me to conduct midnight to 1AM watering sessions in my old neighborhood complete in a formal, black tuxedo.

Someone down the block must have been thinking, "Even the burglars are upscale in this part of town."

Then, I got the call last week for a show which I had been offered a featured, regular background role. Nice. Then the CD called and said, "Shooting schedule's changed - I'll let you know." That was more than ten weeks ago. Upon arriving to set, I then learned that I was photo doubling for another backgrounder. The other regulars chimed in unison, "Gee, you look just like [Bob]! You could be brothers!"

Obviously, Bob got the part weeks ago, but no great loss. Starting Monday I'm back on my regular gig, which bodes well for the rest of the shooting season. And for that day? The 1st said, "Be sure not to show your face too much, since you're another guy in this reshoot"

No what about the figure above?

I've been trying to retrace some of the more spectacular hikes in the San Gabriel Wilderness that I did in my youth. Today, with a storm system blowing through the southland, I trekked up Mt. San Antonio, also called Old Baldy to locals. Thirteen strenuous miles, 3,800' elevation gain, but better yet, blustery wind conditions (i.e., 40-50 mph gusts at the summit), with snow! All the way up to 10,064 feet after traversing the Devil's Backbone.

And what was at the summit, apart from a sign - four very cold, yelling Japanese tourists who insisted on having me snap a phone camera image of them, huddled together and beginning to show signs of hypothermia!!!

And I thought I just worked in a weird industry.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Time-Space Compression On Set

How do you work six days of work over five days? Easy - Do what I did this week.

I was recalled on the regular gig today; only three union backgrounders waiting around for hours and hours. The call sheet indicated that we would be working most scenes, and the key 2nd AD told one of us, "Hope you brought a book."

But, as things happen, they changed the shooting shedule and wrapped us early, just in time to fight rush hour traffic through Los Angeles. Bleh.

And it was on the way back that I got a call from the big casting agency, "Hey, we'd like to know where you are since you are booked to be on show X at this hour." "Woah!" was my reaction, since I had been recalled for show Y that day.

A recalled background actor, you see, takes the highest precedence: If you are established in a scene, and they need to shoot an additional day, casting directors can pull you off other shows, even if booked long in advance, so as not to ruin the continuity of a scene. It's one of the golden rules of the business.

Problem is, the agency recalled on one show, but forgot to take me off the skins (i.e., background actor rosters) on the other show. Whoops! Not my mistake, thank goodness.

Since I was en route home, I said I could work this other show, even with the traffic and a wardrobe bag packed for formal clothes - not what was requested on this gig. "Perfect," he said, and so I turned around and headed back to the westside of LA.

So, I show up "technically" two hours late, but the AD informs me he heard all about it from the CD, so I'm off the hook. In fact, I'm they guy who looks good, since they didn't have to put out a rush call to fill the slot.

And what would that be? Well, it was a four-camera show, so today was rehearsal day, and I'm recalled for the live audience shoot tomorrow. Quick stuff, a simple cross, to be done on tape in front of an audience. Not even close to eight hours either today, or tomorrow.

But, according to union and non-union rules, you get your eight hours mininum in anyway.

Ergo, I'm looking at two full-day union pay vouchers for one hectic day of driving and waiting.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Late Night, Early Morning

So, the regular gig finally pays off. Worked 12 1/2 hours with wardrobe changes and meal penalties. Many reading this little corner-of-cyberspace blog would hate to work such long hours, but that's what background actors hope for: it's all about the penalties and overtime which can turn one day's work into two, or three day's pay.

Then the agency calls, "You're booked on a four-camera show tomorrow."

A different casting director who hasn't worked with me much. Nice, a good chance to get some feeback to him.

Perfect, that means a day of quick rehearsals, and one day shooting in front of a live studio audience (preceded, as some of you know, by an early-evening freebie bing at the commisary - it's tradition).

Then, a few hours later, another call, "You're recalled on XXXX, per the casting director."

OK, change is the norm in this business. But then I learn that only three backgrounders are recalled - lots of camera time, but a quick turnabout after trying to wash laundry to match clothes for two days of shoots this week.

So, the CD likes us, the 2nd 2nd AD likes us. Feel free to do so until the paychecks pan out.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Never A Quick Exit....


I had a good day on set, a lengthy drive to and from a location shot, went to the gym for a hard two hour workout, then set down to write my previous post and watch some of the premieres, including "Smith," where I worked the wedding reception scene last spring.

Then, the phone rings...

"Hi Stephen, this is xxxx Casting, your call time has been pulled by one half hour tomorrow morning - early."

Yeah, it's 10:00 PM, and that's a relatively early call, thank goodness. Typically, they'll call in the early AM, just in time to disturb you quality-time sleep.

Pushes (meaning later call times), they don't care about, but earlier times, yes. The worst are features (i.e., films) where a call time might be pushed by three to four hours. When you get that call, start driving to set, because they will inevitably ring one to two hours before the new call time with an, "Get to set ASAP!" call.

This means you rush through check-in, wardrobe, then pour yourself a nice cup of coffee because you're going to wait for three to four hours before they actually shoot. But, hey, you're still getting pay.

So, much as in the previous post, learn to be flexible in this biz, otherwise you will be a deflated tennis ball, wacked to and fro across the net.

Welcome to the movie and TV business.

Being Flexible

There are certain adages in this business which help you negotiate the craziness and keep your brain cells intact.

The first is, "you never actually watch the shows you work on, you just collect a paycheck."

How true.

You can tell a newbie backgrounder by the frisson they exhibit when walking on set, "Oh my God! I can't believe I'm working with so-and-so," etc.

They are actually excited about doing crosses behing a big A-lister.

Give me a break.

I've worked long enough now in this industry not to be impressed by that stuff. In the real world, you can tell a backgrounder vet by the following:

1. They want to to know if the crew is good.
2. They want to to know if this gig will get them loads of overtime.
3. They want to know if crafty is noteworthy.

I'm having a wacky week, so pardon the crazy post. First, I go to my season-regular gig on Monday. Wardrobe asks for two complete clothing changes (that's two pay bumps), which also means overtime. After a morning of face-on hero shots with the 1st team, we had lunch, then got the word - "you're all wrapped." Crikey! Where did the OT go?!

No matter, spent valuable time today on a stand-in gig on a yet-to-be-released show with A-listers: Four hours of work for eight hours of pay with mileage and saw a bunch of fellow stand-ins and production friends. It was a nice reunion.

Then, I get the call: You're booked on the season-regular gig for tomorrow with another wardrobe change! Go figure. I'll let you know how it turned out.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Be Careful What You Wish For...

Last week was great - a full four days with overtime on two gigs (one is a regular - I'm on almost every episode for the season, the other was new).

And being back on a soundstage was a nice bonus. See, just before the holiday weekend, I did a location shoot out near Palmdale. It was sunny, and over 100 degrees, which isn't bad in and of itself, but when you're the featured person that day, playing with kids, lifting stuff, it makes a difference.

Of course, since we were all sweltering in the dry heat, this episode takes place in Arizona, at Christmas time. Lots of heavy coats, boots, hats, etc. Everything to part you from the water you need to survive as a biological entity. One BG had a tire blow out in the heat, and my old car needed the resevoir filled when I got back home.

So, the soundstage sounded like a really nice change, until I got to the second gig of the week. Our holding was directly underneath a large, meanacing, HVAC duct, spilling out cold air on top of us. The second day, most of arrived wearing wintercoats at the studio gate, which made for a few strange looks. Late that night, some of us were noshing at crafty when one of the principals notice our out-of-season garb. "Hey? You guys cold or something?"

Yeah, another tale from a background warrior. At this rate, I'll be happy to report on an "average" temp on set

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Fox aired the premiere of Standoff last night, and I was watching, but this time, not just for myself. When we shot this back in March, I was pulled out by the technical advisor and placed near the command tent with the backgrounders portraying FBI technicians. While waiting for the next shot, one guy approached and said, "Hey Steve, remember me?"

It was one of my high school classmates, who does background work on a part-time basis.

And that's how weird the business can be at times, if not most of the time.

The other interesting factoid about Standoff (originally called Primary when filming the pilot) is the opening scene. It took place on 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles near the 110 Freeway. We shut down a whole city block and dealt with pedestrians and curious on-lookers while rolling. Such is the case for location shots.

At one point, a semi-deluded homeless man kept screaming at the crew from the next block (now, this isn't particularly strange or unusual - the homeless in downtown LA tend to scream a lot, especially at film crews). The director, Tim Story, kept looking up the block, along with the other crew members in video village. I thought he was going to send someone to quiet the guy up, but instead he told the others, "No, no... I'm just interested in what the guy is trying to say.

Recalled on one of my regular gigs for later today.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Week in the Life

Nothing is more pathetic, or typical, of LA than an actor helping another actor move boxes when one has a truck. And that was how I spent a couple days this past week when not on set. Hence, the lack of posts to the literally dozens of you who tune into this blog from time to time.

What's a working actor's life like during the week? Well, one day I worked a nice gig on location: great crew, good PA's, excellent catering (always important). But it just so happened that I was staggered in with a bunch of non-unioners who gawked at my union voucher (the PA had to run to the truck to get mine - I was the sole one at the midday call). The result? Hours of "How did you...," "How can I...," "What recommendations can you give..." and so on.

Another day: Rushed to make a interview for a featured role with the 1st AD of the show. I arrive after battling traffic, changing shirts, and trying to make my tie look sharp in 100 degree heat. Upon arrival I heard, "Oh yeah, the interview. Umm, they changed the script on me. We don't need you this episode, but maybe....." followed by an inquisitive look. Anyone who's survived an audition (which could fill an army), know this was the moment to sell yourself. I tried, we'll see, and I'll keep you all informed.

Then, near the end of the week, had a call out in the desert. I arrived early, grabed some breakfast off the truck, and checked-in. Turns out this was a nice featured role for a popular cable show just starting the new shoots for the season* (won't say which, read disclaimer below). However, it involved a family scene with a Christmas tree, heavy parkas, and couple of lively boys portraying my kids. Try lifting kids on film for 3+ hours in 103 degree heat in a parka and you will know what dehydration feels like. Did a half-day of work, paid for a full eight hours (union rules), plus mileage and a car bump. Not too bad, given that I beat the weekend traffic back into LA.

Lastly, it's nice to turn on the tube and get a nice surpise, when it's not your face on screen. The battle over the California propositions has just started, but it's paid off for at least one fellow actor. Imagine my surprise when I turned on the tube this weekend and saw a "typical California voter" outlining reasons against one particular proposition - surprised because the last time we worked together was a recent gig as stand-ins on a yet-to-be-released pilot with a roster of A-listers. She was preping for an audition in the morning, and I was watching the hours tick away towards 3:00 AM, knowing that I had a 7:00 AM call time at another studio, and wondering if I was going to get any sleep that night (I did - two full hours). Clearly, she got the part! By the way, if you are shocked that political ads use union actors to depict voters, my recommendation is: Time to wake up, smell the coffee, grow up, and get a life!

* As a rule, I don't announce which shows I've been on until they have fully aired. There are a couple reasons. First, as a professional actor you are involved in production - story lines change and information to which you are privy might not want to be released by the studio. Once they have done so, then it's public. Two, even the choicest featured role sometimes gets left on the cutting room floor. You never really know if the footage they took will be included until the darn thing is aired on the tube, or released on screen.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Workin' Hard

I know I'm not the most compulsive blogger in the world, but my laptop's OS went AWOL this week, and I'm waiting for the disks to come in so I can be fully connected again. I'm borrowing a sibling's Mac for this post, which makes me feel like driving on the other side off the road.

The other reason for the delay in posting is, well, work, and lots of it. I'm starting a couple shows as a regular and recently completed standing in for a couple week for an A-lister. The turnarounds have been tight - last week I had one gig wrap at 2:30 AM only to be booked at another studio at 7:30 AM. Ouch is the operative word.

Working full-time like this is what background performers wish and hope for, and ironically is one of of the arguments against going union (i.e., joining SAG): With fewer union slots, albeit for higher pay and benefits, union roles are harder to get.

And this is what a friend of mine ran into several weeks ago. He earned his fourth SAG voucher and is therefore a "must join" background performer, if he wants to continue to receive SAG vouchers. Since he's been working for that moment for well over half a year, it was a happy day. That is, until one of the malcontents in holding cried out, "Don't join - you'll never work again!"

Upon hearing that, several of us wheeled around and announced that we had our busiest hiatus in years, much to this fellow's surprise. It's a common complaint heard on sets. I worked with one woman last week who hasn't worked since May.

Now, that is a surprise. But, when you pry deeper, you begin to pick out a few facts.

First and foremost: Acting is a business. You must sell yourself. You must get a good reputation among the casting directors and - most importantly - they have to know you are! A lot, probably most of the "complainers" I meet have never met the casting directors that book them, nor written them letters, thank you notes, or updates from the set. They don't make an effort to know the production team on set. And even with excellent training and looks, it takes a bit more to get steady work.

Think about it. If this were any other business, say sales, you wouldn't get much of an income by waiting for the phone to ring.

Just my two pennies off a borrowed iBook and the neighbor's WiFi.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Going, Going, Gone Hollywood

So much for the field of education and research – all that grad school, dead-end teaching and part-time managerial stuff. Some of those close to this site know by now that the former Happy Valley College elected to go with another Director of Assessment Services with no previous ties to the college while I was toiling away in the office, leaving me to do…what?

Well, for some time now I’ve had another part-time job which is now a full-time gig with income, pension contributions, and health benefits. Friends of TAA, such as Todd, have already “outed” me.

But not that type of “outed” you’re thinking of.

See, my part-time work was working as a background actor in television and film.

A lot of aspiring actors eschew the background route – they consider it demeaning, not worthy of their talents and training, nothing more than an amorphous face in the crowd.

And a lot of these same people aren’t members of the Screen Actors Guild, and won’t be for a while with that attitude.

On the other hand, if you are serious, and responsible, strange things can happen. Almost every day player and freelancer I’ve spoken with has said, “Oh yeah, I started out doing background, it got me into the union and helped me get my first few breaks.”

And that’s what happened with me, not just the SAG card, but more than a few featured roles. And after a while I started getting the phone calls, “Stephen, you’ve been photo selected by the director,” and offers of print jobs, and the voicemail numbers of casting directors who said, “If you want to work tomorrow, just drop me a line.”

Sometime you do just do crosses in front of the camera, and then, sometimes, you get the hero shot – like wrestling Eva Longoria on Desperate Housewives last season (I was the cop who took away Gabby’s adopted baby and drove off with the birth parents). And, if you’re union, the offers start rolling in: such as working as a stand-in, or a getting a stint as a regular on a returning series (guaranteed three to four days of work per episode).

So, what’s up for the future of this site?

As a professionally trained anthropologist, I approach most social settings with an eye to social organization and cultural frames that people use to categorize and negotiate their social universe.

That’s precisely what I did when I first landed on set – to me, it’s one big research project that never ends being interesting. Most people envision “Hollywood” as the product they see on a screen or DVD, or an abstract entity pushed by PR types on the nightly celebrity news shows. To me, the minutiae of daily life on the set is what’s interesting. Take a peek at Peggy Archer's blog on being a crew member in this town for one such view.

For me, however, it’s about being that face in the crowd, and sometimes that face you see clearly on the tube.

So, from time to time I’ll provide you all with some good stories from the set, personal notions (or rants) about what makes a good/bad background actor, and decorum in general, in a classic ethnographic sense, or at least a good story.

Stay tuned….

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Changes Coming... Stay Tuned

Yes, after a long hiatus, the Angry Anthro will soon be back online. The career trajectory took a weird, unforseen angle, albeit one that is highly entertaining (those of you in the know will forgive the joke). So, stay tuned and check back periodically, if only for the copious links to your right.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Hollywood Reality, Hollywood Gloss

Yeah, yeah, the whole world is anxiously awaiting Sunday's Oscar bash, or the day-before antipodal Independent Spirit Awards, but if you really want to learn about what's going on in Hollywood, skip the glossy, front-page of the daily paper, and take a look back in the Business Section of today's LA Times:

For 18 years, Mark Karen has worked behind the camera, carefully framing shots on movies and television shows from "Titanic" to "Star Trek: Voyager."

But the 45-year-old Los Angeles resident sees a bleak picture of his own future.

The reason: a proposed contract change that for the first time would remove a requirement that camera operators like Karen be used on feature films. Instead, the new contract would allow directors of photography, commonly known as "DPs," to operate cameras on features and episodic television shows.

The seemingly innocuous concession — contained in a draft contract for Hollywood's so-called below-the-line workers — has roiled the ranks of camera operators, who have worked hand in glove with DPs since the days of talkies."

It means I'm going to be out of a career," Karen predicted.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

What the?....

Some mornings - most mornings in fact - are horribly quotidian: Same breakfast foods, same coffee, same egotisitical nut asking you for your morning paper, then complaining when you refuse (see previous post).

And then, occassionally, out of the blue, you open the paper and are given the wake-up call. That happened today when I read this:

A False Note to the New Year in Pasadena

A lawsuit contends that school officials tried to cover up importing musicians to march in the city district's band in the 2006 Rose Parade.

By Bob Pool, Times Staff WriterMarch 1, 2006

Did a group of ringers secretly ring in the new year at Pasadena's 2006 Rose Parade?

The answer is yes. But that hasn't resolved a lawsuit over whether officials at the Pasadena Unified School District tried to cover up what they did.

And then this:

Amid growing criticism, the executive producer of KTLA-TV's "Morning News" defended the show's decision last week to accept free accommodations in exchange for broadcasting its morning program from the newly renovated Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena.

And finally, this item:

A Chinese dissident facing felony charges that could have led to his deportation pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was released Tuesday, a Los Angeles County official said.

Zhang Hongbao, the leader of a Chinese spiritual group with an estimated following of 30 million, had been accused of five felony counts related to the alleged beating of his housekeeper in his Pasadena home in 2003.

So much for the boring news from a little city in the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Hands Off My Morning Paper!

Back in the pundit saddle, albeit on a part-time basis.

For those of you who – amazingly – still find your way through the cybersphere to this crass corner of complaints, thank you for visiting. I’ve had a few unexpected turns in recent months (mostly for the better), and will update you all in the near future. Basically, I’m looking at a complicated fork in the proverbial road, and have to choose which of the many tines I’m going to continue on for years to come. No doubt, many of you have experienced the same thing.

But, to get back into form, my rant du jour centers on coffee house etiquette. To be brutally honest, I need and covet my morning caffeine. To that end, I hang out with a bunch of regulars at Peets in Pasadena (Starbucks sucks, but is a necessary evil when conditions warrant), and have done so for years.

Now, I’m a plain coffee type of guy, so I can’t imagine spending $4.50 on a latte with more flavors and calories than most milkshakes. But, if you’re going to spend that much, don’t you think you could spend an additional 50 cents on the damn paper?!

See, my friends joke that no matter where I am sitting, or doing, someone will invariably approach and try to take my LA Times paper away from me, as if I’m the communal paper basket. This happens at all times of the day, and even outside (one time, a guy came off the sidewalk while I’m still reading a section and asked, “Hey guy, you done with the paper yet?”). They’ll even try to yank out a section from under my seat, with my foot on it! (And it happened again this morning.)

Who knows why this happens – I think it’s akin to what the British writer Toby Young calls his, “negative charisma,” when he enters a room, people immediately hate him before they know anything about him. Somehow, I must have the look of, “Take my paper – please….”

My jaded advice: Peets isn’t the Union Rescue Mission. If you there to buy the expensive coffee and more-than-expensive snacks, you can reach down into your pockets and shell out an additional two quarters. Get the damn paper yourself.

Another Pasadena Passing....

FYI, reknown Pasadena-born science fiction-writer Octavia Butler has died.

From the front page of today's Pasadena Star News:

PASADENA - Octavia Butler, the Pasadena native who was one of the nation's leading science-fiction writers and whose first novel, "Kindred," is Pasadena's 2006 One City, One Story book selection, died Friday. She was 58.

Butler died after falling and striking her head on the cobbled walkway outside her home in the north Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park.