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A voice for the techies

Beneath the din of star talk, a caustic blogger speaks up for the town's well-shod crews.

December 04, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

"It makes me crazy when I hear some producer who's making $7 million say they have to take a movie out of the country because labor here is too expensive," she says. "I'm making $29 an hour, which is the lowest on the set, but it's electricians and construction guys who are doing the hardest work with the biggest risk of injury."

In a September entry, Archer explained how a permit worker (sets are allowed to use nonunion members with permits in busy time) nearly cut his finger off pulling cable.

"He should have: a) been wearing leather gloves, and b) grabbed for the coiled cable in the center of the coil and not at the rope directly under the pulley," she wrote.

"I understand the desire not to loop one's arm through center of the coiled cable. When you're 40 feet up in the air with the safety rail removed (so the cable can easily be swung over to the walkway), the last thing you want to do is grab onto the very thing that might pull you off the catwalk to your death, but that rope/pulley/hand combination is bad news.

"It really is true that you learn something new every day. Our permit learned how not to catch cable. We learned not to let a permit catch cable."

Humor aside, Archer found the incident upsetting. "This permit is the greatest guy," she says. "And he can't work now, hasn't worked for two weeks. The equipment looks simple, but it's deceptive," she adds.

In the past year Archer, like many below-the-line industry workers, has seen her work shift away from film to TV. While she is grateful for any paycheck, TV is harder on the crew because it is more work for less pay, worse food and fewer perks.

Or, as she wrote in August from the set of a television show: "The dimmer board operator told me that last week they had 3 9-page days in a row. That's got to have something to do with people leaving.... Movies shoot about 3 pages a day, TV shows shoot from 5 to 7 pages a day; a page being about a minute of screen time (with notable exceptions such as the infamous 'Atlanta Burns' from Gone with the Wind. 1/8th of a page, WAY more than that on the screen). A 9 page day is just sadistic, and more than one in a row ... is so far beyond horrible that I don't think a word's been invented to describe it accurately."

Making a movie involves a lot of hurry up and wait for everyone involved, especially the crew. If the techies aren't killing themselves to break down or set up, they're fighting boredom. Graffiti is a popular hobby -- the rafters and catwalks on sets are emblazoned with comments both useful -- "Hit Head Here" -- and humorously obscene.

"There's a lot of time in between that stuff, and most of it's spent waiting," Archer wrote in October. "Waiting for talent. Waiting on camera. Waiting on lunch. Waiting to see if they're going to move on. Waiting for the AD's to call 'cut' so I can turn the page of the newspaper. Waiting on the sun to go down so we can light the night exterior."

What really bothers her

STILL, ask Archer to list her pet peeves and her response has nothing to do with exhaustion or boredom or strained joints.

"Perfume," she says immediately. "People wear strong perfume on the set and they don't realize under the hot lights the people around them cannot breathe. If I could, I would ban Opium and Obsession from every set."

After that comes people who won't get out of the way. "Here I come, I've got a 60-pound light on one shoulder, a 20-pound bag in my hand and they're just standing there talking. I try 'excuse me,' 'coming through,' even 'free dental work,' and they don't move. It's usually the studio people," she adds. "Executives who haven't been on set much. Someone needs to give them a workshop or something."

It also makes her crazy when the set designers don't seem to be aware of the necessity of lights. "I've seen sets too small for the light bases, or the lights themselves," she says. On one TV show she recently worked on, there was no movable wall. "There were only two points of entry to the set. When the director calls 'rolling,' we all run out and when he yells 'moving on,' everyone runs in," she explains. "On this set, it was a bottleneck every time. It cost them a lot of money because it took so long for everyone to just get in to do their jobs."

She doesn't appreciate that she recently had to pay for her own hepatitis C vaccine, a protection necessary for crew members who often have to crawl around alleys and basements and hedges, coming in contact will all manner of garbage and vermin. Last month, Archer was on a downtown shoot; after a break, she came back to see a large rat sipping from her coffee cup.

"When you work downtown there is just no way you are going to stay clean," she says. "Everything is filthy."

Archer wears gloves every day on the job -- leather for hot work, a lightweight blend for the rest. ("Some grip invented these great gloves," she says. "Made millions. Now we all sit around figuring out what we're going to invent to get out.")

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