Monday, November 14, 2011

Hollywood 101

Last week I read Hollywood 101: The Film Industry.  Underneath the subtitle it reads, "How to Succeed in Hollywood Without Connections."  I was thinking it would be aimed at independent filmmakers and I quickly discovered I was wrong.

It was actually a book for people who want to have a career in Hollywood.  You know, some kind of career that gets your name up in the credits section of each film.

I almost put it away, since that wasn't what I was interested in learning about, but in the end I didn't.  I kept reading, because the writer, Frederick Levy, had just enough gossip and interesting anecdotes interspersed to make the read fun.  And, actually, I found I did learn a thing or three about the movie business, which I didn't expect to do.

Now, the last two books I've reviewed have gone over the different jobs in the movie industry and had a basic overview of who did what.  Dov S-S Simens gave me the feeling that as a producer in Hollywood, you needed to know who these different people were, you hired them and let them do their thing.  Goodell was writing from the indie filmmaker's perspective, and often indie folks wear a lot of hats, so he went into a little more detail as to what each one does.  But this book by Levy scattered some history here and there about the different roles in Hollywood, and talked about how they work together and lots and lots of nitty gritty detail about each job--not so much like the editor turns the knob here and clicks the mouse here, but more what kinds of skill sets a job needs.  And what kind of personality each job needs.  And what kinds of emergencies each job handles, and so on.  It was pretty interesting, actually.  For the first time, I actually really saw what each of those job titles in the scrolling title credits do.

For example, have you ever seen the movie credits and thought what the heck is a gaffer?1 What is a grip?2  What the heck is a best boy?3  And why the sexist name?  What if the best boy is a woman?  I already had a basic idea of what a gaffer or grip was from my limited experience on sets.  But I had no idea what all they were really supposed to do, since the no/low-budget indie productions I've been involved with are nothing at all like what they do in Hollywood.  I'm reading all of this stuff thinking, "Ohhhh."  And I'm also realizing why so many indie filmmakers make their films so....independently.  From everything described and all the union rules and guild rules and everything else that studio productions deal with on a daily basis, my head was swimming. 

I remember once watching an interview with Jackie Chan.  He was talking about how filmmaking here in America is frustrating because all of the work is so strictly segregated into different jobs.  He said that working on films in Hong Kong is very different because everybody pitches in.  If the set needs sweeping, whoever isn't busy at the moment does it.  But here in America, if the set needs sweeping, we have to go find that one person whose job it is to sweep it and if they are gone for whatever reason, the production slows down.

After reading the descriptions and how rigid the rules are for Union and Guild positions (and practically everything is in a guild or union), I can understand why he was frustrated.  In the productions I've been involved with, we were behaving more like the filmmakers in Hong Kong that Chan spoke about.  Everybody chipped in and whoever wasn't doing something at the moment would do whatever new task that needed doing.

I'm not badmouthing the unions and guilds though.  They are there for a purpose, like vigorously defending their members' safety and making sure they get meal breaks and all sorts of other things.  And who knows?  Maybe some day I'll be in a guild.

I've discovered some other great websites out there this week.  Raindance has a free e-zine and has tons of tips on filmmaking, the filmmaking business and all sorts of stuff.    I found one page where the author lists a bunch of free software that can compare (or almost compare) to the professional stuff that is used in the industry.  And not just stuff for editing or sound but other stuff, too.  That was sweet!

1  A gaffer is also known as the chief lighting technician.  According to Levy, back in the olden days in Hollywood, they might have been called chief electricians, but that doesn't really describe what they do. They aren't electricians.  They make sure the lighting is set up the way the director of photography wants it.  Though he never explains where the word "gaffer" comes from.

According to Levy, "Like gaffer, the name grip also comes from early Hollywood.  The workers on a set used to carry their tools in a sturdy bag, similar to what a doctor would use, called a grip bag.  Although such bags are no longer used, the name stuck, and the workers became known as grips."  Basically grips set up the stuff that is used to make the film run--special support equipment, dollies, cranes, scaffolding, etc.  They rig all the electric stuff, they tie things down, set up sandbags, and stuff like that.  The key grip is the head of the grip department, like the gaffer is the head of the lighting department.

3  A best boy is someone in charge of either the electrical (lighting) or grip department's crew and is the gaffer's or key grip's assistant.  The best boy electric is sometimes called a second electric (I'm guessing when maybe the best boy is female!)  Though Levy doesn't say if there are any other non-gender specific names for best boy grip.