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Focus

Focus in writing and focus in general, both of which I’m struggling with these days.

The latter’s causes are easy to identify. Aside from the news about Susan and Barry, I’m in a new city (since New Year’s). Detroit is incredibly interesting and it is incredibly friendly. It is a very southern-like city in the upper midwest. Lisa and I think this has to do with the Great Migration, not that we have anything to support ourselves, proof-wise. It’s all anecdotal, trying to make sense of stuff. Friendly or not, we’ve been in a cold, long winter and moving around here pretty much demands the use of a car. I’ve been unemployed, which was great for the first six weeks as I was able to wrap up a bunch of physical therapy and lose the weight I put on while working on Betrayal, but since then – the last eight weeks – it’s been a haul. This is a consequence of decisions I’ve made. Stuck living with it now until I make some changes.

I’ve had a couple of good runs on new and old writing, but those runs come and go. I finished up Egg and began querying it – great! I sent Sovereign Palace to a top notch writer friend who liked it enough to workshop it with me. I can’t tell you how generous this is, given that she normally charges for such work. In any case, I’m back to working on that. I’m working on some short fiction. I’m studying German and brushing up my Spanish over at Duolingo. I even go to the gym! All of this sounds like I’m quite productive, but most of my days feel like slogs more than zips.

So – FOCUS.

I doubt I’ll get back into writing three times per week, but I’m going to try and return to some book reviews, maybe some more discussion of film work, and if I’m ambitious, something for the Bestiary. But I’d have to be really ambitious. Those entries take hours to write.

Though now that I’ve said that, ambition is probably exactly the sort of thing I could use to get my focus back on track.

Helplessness

You can only do what you can do. That’s not to say that there’s not room for improvement, but to think that you can fix something in someone else, that you can solve a problem that is not yours, is both arrogant (in believing in your own power) and unkind (denying that other person power of their own). There has to be a middle ground, good faith efforts on both sides.

I know this. I know this is true.

I know that being a good friend to someone on my terms does not necessarily mean that I am a good friend to that person on her terms.

A week and a half ago, Susan died. Barry called me on Monday afternoon nine days ago to tell me. She died at home, asleep. She’d called to him around 4:30 in the afternoon, he said, and was in good spirits. She wanted to know what the music was. There was no music that Barry heard, but Susan, for the twenty years that I’ve known her, has always been inclined to see and hear things outside of my experience. Not in a crazy way. Barry gave her some morphine to help her get back to sleep. The cancerous assaults of pain had been increasing in previous months, he said, which had motivated their return from California to Minnesota in January.

He wanted me to know how much our visit had meant at the end of that month. Given the progression of Susan’s cancer, Lisa and I had long planned on a visit. California didn’t work out, but Minnesota did. We ran errands for them most of a Saturday. A pharmacy. An art supply store for Susan – pens and pencils and notepads. Spiral bound for us 0ne-armed people! she said with a laugh, sounding so much like the person we knew and remembered. She was in hospice treatment at home and her meds made her anxious, however, so she would only talk to us through the patio door, unlike the person we remembered. We finished the day at a bar, drinking stiff liquor and talking about love.

And time. Because – of course. What else were we going to talk about?

Barry said that our time, even that one day, the phone call, the movies we picked up, the groceries, were important in her transitioning.

All of which is to say, when my phone rang with Barry’s name and number nine days ago, there was only one very likely reason he was calling. He was relieved in a way. He didn’t sound aggrieved or strained. Susan’s cancer, originally diagnosed as benign-ish and requiring only some radiation therapy along with the amputation of her right arm and shoulder, was only discovered a year ago. That’s a short time in some regards, twelve months, but even with her terminal diagnosis from September, seven months, that’s a long time to die. I expect that, as torn up as he was by Susan’s death, knowing that she was no longer suffering day to day was a kind of relief. Who wants to see someone they love in pain? Who wants to see someone they love gone forever?

That was really the two-choice option.

The memorial, he told me, would probably be scheduled for mid-April. Lisa and I talked it over and figured, between her workload and our lack of cash (I’m not working at the moment), we couldn’t afford to make it out. Barry completely understood and reiterated how much our earlier trip had meant.

And today Susan’s brother writes to say that Barry died last night.

And I can’t convince myself that if we’d said we’d be at the memorial that that would have made a difference.

But I can’t convince myself that I could have done more. Said more.

Even though I know I’d probably feel exactly the same way no matter what I might have done or said, however much.

Because – I think – in the end, when there is an end - it is never enough.

There is never enough love to make up for the time we do not have.

In the Light

Susan died over the weekend. Her husband called to tell me the news yesterday. It was peaceful and in her sleep and roughly one year from her original diagnosis of a relatively benign cancer that could be addressed with chemotherapy and the amputation of her dominant arm. Not just her hand, but her arm up part her shoulder. It is roughly 6-7 months from when they gave her a 6 month prognosis after a routine post-op check-up turned up lots of cancerous growth.

Also on that same day, friends of ours gave birth to twins. They’re in NICU but healthy and well.

I believe that Susan would appreciate that conjunction of life and death. For me, it’s simply a juxtaposition of joy and sorrow.

Unexpected Writings

In 2008 I ended up at a month-long artists’ residency at the Blue Mountain Center, which was amazing. I worked on two stage plays while I was there, one of which never went anywhere and which I’ve only recently begun to tackle again as a prose project. The second became a memoir play that I continued to draft throughout the following months. That became Decaffeinated Tragedy, a one-man show that I took to the Prague Fringe Festival in 2009, and which won an award there. At the time, I was using Blogger and writing about the Prague Fringe in general – those updates are here.

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The script is about memory and friendship using art and coffee as the primary metaphors and devices for exploration. It focused on my friend Jen who died eight days shy of her 22 birthday back when I was a freshman in college. She was not only a talented artist, she was a really remarkable human being. She wore vibrant colors, made postcards to send to friends, and made jokes and comforted the people around her all the way to her final surgery that was supposed to keep her alive.

I’ve known and written about a couple of friends who’ve died here on this site, Anthony and Lucka in particular. It made sense and felt right at the time. I’m not writing about Susan in her current last months now for the same reasons – it makes sense and it feels right. We avoid death not simply as an end-of-life, but often as a topic-of-thought (The Order of the Good Death, rather irreverently, is trying to take a stand in the face of this nonsense).

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Jen, knowing that her life was perilously fragile – it always had been ever since she was born – approached it with much flair and with few reservations.

November 18.  Went to a bar in Dundas this afternoon with Sue, Darcy, Val, and Beth. I felt alive. I’m torn in half by waiting. I want to fall in love and wear my cowboy boots. I want to drive across the country, paint deserts. All these things I have to wait to do. There are so many things I want that take more energy than I have. But still, I’m coming to think that the peak of human experience is sitting around in a coffee shop, a truck stop, or a small town bar with a good group of friends. Today I felt just like I was dancing.

Her parents are currently working with a writer to see about publishing her journals. I don’t know much beyond that other than she hopes to be able to start querying this summer.

It’s obviously not my writing, but it’s still writing that is near and dear to my heart.

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Natural Clusters

Here’s some more on film work and how the departments break up.

There are natural overlaps between what we do. My department, Production Design, already consists of construction (carpenters build the sets), set decoration (the folks who populate the sets with furniture), and the art department (someone has to find or make posters, artwork, ticket stubs, and so on – if you can see it on camera, it’s not an accident). Another group in there is greens, the people who work with plants, trees, and so on. Also painters. I think that’s it. So we’re big and sprawling, and that’s important to know, because that’s not the overlap I’m even talking about.

We connect most naturally with props, and somewhat less so (but still regularly) with wardrobe. Here’s a simple example – let’s say a couple is on a date and it’s chilly outside. They’ve got jackets – so that’s wardrobe, right? Everything they’re wearing is the wardrobe department. Except their wedding rings, those are props. Why wedding rings and no other jewelry, which are considered wardrobe accessories? I could make a guess, but it’d only be a guess. In any case – that couple at that dinner scene involves wardrobe (the clothes on their backs), properties (all the food that they’re eating and the utensils with which they’re eating it), the art department (for the menus), and set dressing (for everything in the background, the color of the tablecloths, and so on).

Flash forward to the end of a good – no, we’ll call it a great date. They’re in bed. They’re making love. The camera pans across the floor, following a trail of shoes, pants, jackets, panties, bra, and so on. Because, yeah, we all get undressed like that. Sorry – where was I – realism? No! That’s storytelling! I was talking about departments! Those clothes on the ground? Who’s wearing them? The correct answer is nobody, which means they are no longer the responsibility of the wardrobe department. Now they’re in set dressing territory. On the set that I work on, one wardrobe people comes over to me with all of those clothes, carefully placed on hangers or in plastic bags, and then I dress them to camera, one breadcrumb-piece at a time. Things go the other direction as well. There’s a piece of set dressing just sitting and minding its own business when an actor and a director decide now would be a good time to pick it up. Now it’s a prop.

It’s not that we squabble about who has to touch what – there may be shooting crews like that, but we’re not one of them. What it means practically is that one department is responsible for management of said item. Costume pieces are cared for by wardrobe, no questions asked, but I dress them to camera. Someone picks up a chair and shakes it, sets it back down? It’s still my department, but now props has to track that item and know when it was used, scene and episode, in case they have to do re-shoots or match it for a later episode. So: dressing, props, wardrobe. We’re a natural cluster.

Grip and electric form another one. The electrics department puts up the lights and runs power for everyone who might need it – for video village (where everyone watches the monitors and sees what the camera is seeing), for the dollies should their batteries be running low. They drop “lunchboxes” all over the set for easy access to power, but of course what that means is that the rest of us are charging our smart phones on them all day as well. It’s probably pretty annoying. If the electrics department is in charge of producing light, the grips are in charge of shaping it. They put up the flags (dark fabric for shuttering light), the bounces (light or reflective fabric for re-directing it), the tree branches (for dappling with shadows), and so on.

And here’s an awkward overlap some days: greens and grip. Basically, the rule of thumb is that if you see the leaves on the screen, it’s greens. If you see the shadow, it’s grip.

Anyway, grip and electric. Those guys have to work together all the time. On commercials and small shoots, they’re basically one and the same.

Hair, make-up, and wardrobe are often called “the vanities.” They have the most direct connection with the actors most frequently. They’re all involved with the presentation of a character and how we as an audience understand who that person is. But imagine that person applies make-up in a scene? Props! And how that person keeps their house? Set dressing.

Camera and grip interact pretty tightly. Grips move stuff that’s not dressing out of the way for camera – walls, ceiling pieces, and so on.

Dressing works with the sound department to minimize reflections from boom poles so that you, the audience, can’t see that we’re filming. We don’t want you to think about the fact that we’re filming, right? Camera and sound do the same thing, working together to look for reflections.

All of this makes for lots of potential friction. What if we don’t like one another? Play nicely? What if I’m swamped with a full re-dress of a tricked out office and the sound guy is bugging me about raising a chandelier so that he can run his boom pole more easily? Not that that’s ever happened. The thing that it all comes down to is that even though we’re structured like a machine, we’re still a bunch of people.

What I said last time – we’re built for speed, not efficiency. We could collapse departments. We could be leaner. Instead we cluster.

Leaner is not faster.

On-Set Dresser and Production Design

Here’s why I’m largely silent these days, in spite of being at a point in the fairy tale that I’m rather enjoying, and in spite of continuing to collect what I think are interesting Internet things: I’m super tired. This, in spite of the fact (again! so much spite!) that our hours average between 60-65 now per week. No more of the 96 hour work week, or the 88 hour, or even the 72! We should be coasting! Fact is, we’re also nearly 12 weeks in. Weekends always feel to short and when I can drag myself to write, it’s usually to focus on EGG. What I can focus on easily, however, is what I do.

So here is my job description, along with a bit of the structure of working on set.

The first thing to understand is that the crew is built for speed, not efficiency. That means there is some redundancy and overlap, but when we’re all going all full-tilt, we get serious work done in a ridiculously short time. Think of a car. How often do you use the ignition? Once per session, ideally, but without it, the car doesn’t go. Not all parts of the engine work at once, but they all have a job to do.

The dresser has nothing to do with clothing – that’s wardrobe (although heads up! overlap!). I am the representative for scenery. My departmental boss is the production designer, who comes up with the overall look for what the [show-movie-short] will look like, and who coordinates with the locations department and costume designer for when those locales indicate personality, for example, in someone’s apartment. If a character has a very spiffy wardrobe but lives in a dump, that says something about him/her. Gotta know what that is.

The set decorator is responsible for implementing the production designer’s vision, picking out furniture, artwork, appliances, light fixtures and window treatments (more overlap here – with photography). The “set dec” is the guy who hired me, so he’s my immediate boss, and the production designer is his boss, so I report to her as well.

And yet! In addition to departmental separations (set decoration, camera, grip, electric, props, etc.) there is a second and in some ways more important division, which is off and on set. Our department’s prep work is done by construction (building all the damn stuff) and, prepping just in time for shooting days, by the swing gang. Swing makes sure that the room we’re about to enter is dressed appropriately. Grip and electric both have rigging crews that work in advance of them as well, making sure there’s power where they need it, lighting grids for hanging fixtures if appropriate, and so on.

When we shoot, that’s when I start working. Here’s the breakdown of events for every scene:

The director rehearses the scene with the actors (for performance) and the director of photography (DP) for camera angles, where they determine how many angle they’ll be using. The director is already thinking about how to cut the scene together here in the edit.

The “first team” (actors you see on screen) are released, and the “second team” comes in – stand ins, who share a similar height, weight, skin tone, and clothing choice – so that they can be lit.

The DP works with the camera operators to figure out where they’ll shoot in the first set up. We have two cameras, A and B, each of which has a crew of four (camera operator; focus puller or “assistant camera”; and “second assistant” who runs the slate, keeps paperwork, etc.; and the dolly grip, who is from a different department). The camera dolly will almost certainly need to sit in a place where there is furniture.

I move the furniture. My job – here – is to make sure that the camera crew has comfortable room to work and do what they need. At the same time, I’m making sure that they don’t hurt the set, since I am the set’s representative and caretaker. If it’s a bookshelf or a couch that needs moving, I almost always rely on the props department to help me out, and in fact, my little cart travels on the props trailer when we’re on location. Props and set dec, we’re like cousins.

Once cameras are up and know where they’re pointing and what they’re seeing (i.e. what you’re going to see on your television screen), I work with the camera operators to frame a pretty shot. We make sure that it doesn’t look like that wall sconce is growing out of an actor’s head, or, as earlier this week, that an actor’s crotch is sprouting a fern. That’s a strategic choice, but there are plenty of aesthetic ones as well – sliding a lamp over a few inches so that the camera catches its red base, or turning a plant clockwise until a frond catches the light just so.

Then there are reflections. We don’t want you to see a boom pole hovering in that window, or a camera in that mirror. Everything has to tweak and move and I’m the guy that tweaks and moves. If I can’t take the glass out of the picture frame, I may stick a tape ball behind it to make the reflection point another direction.

I take exhaustive pictures of the set ups and off of the monitors – generally about 50-60 per day, so that my department has its own record of physical continuity and can dress the next day’s sets appropriately. Depending on the action, I may have to do re-sets between each time we shoot, say, re-setting a clock, or cleaning up broken glass. Depending on accidents, I may have to do sudden repairs of broken furniture.

I’m a bit of a janitor and a bit of a handyman. I am not a painter (different department – paint!), nor do mess with trees (greens). I might drill a hole in a wall in order to hang a picture, but anything more means a carpenter comes in. I move doors and windows, but grips move walls (in other parts of the country, grips do doors and windows as well). I adjust blinds for the camera department when they want particular shadows created by the set. Some of this is job specific and some is crew specific – this is how we’ve grown together. And we’re a pretty good crew. Minimal sniping. Lots of mutual support.

It’s a good job.

Got questions?

Weekend links, 6 Oct, 2013

Wasn’t it just last week I was bemoaning it was September already and now we’re already a week into October? And I’m late getting these links posted as well?

It hasn’t even been that rough of a week at work, not in terms of hustle or demand or hours (a mere 65ish! Cake!).

Enough of that – on to the interesting stuff.

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Nick Brandt is a photographer and Lake Natron, pictured above, is the most alkaline lake in the world. Ever take a swig of Milk of Magnesia for heartburn? It’s an over-the-counter antacid. Well, with a pH of 10.5, that’s what Lake Natron can hit naturally, along with temperatures up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot of Milk of Magnesia. As inhospitable as it sounds (and is – apparently there are precisely two species that live in the lake – one is a fish and the other is a bacteria), lesser flamingos breed around the area, which is, go figure free from predators. But death is death and Nick Brandt comes along, poses the bodies, and takes his pictures. Will it surprise you to know that ancient Egyptians used natron (the chemical) in their mummification processes?

Okay, so that looks like a monstrous flamingo up there. How about a real (“real”) monster?

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Artists Chris McMahon and Thryza Segal buy up landscape paintings at thrift stores and then add monsters. It is so ridiculous I can’t even say how much I love it. Click the picture or here for the article.

Next – are you tired of stupid arguments on the internet? Do you need a guide to identify bad or faulty argumentation? Or are you simply sick of political discussions with extended family at the holidays? If so, then The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments is for you!

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The online book (I’d buy a hard copy of this…) is by Ali Almossawi and goes through a variety of problems with logical reasoning. You’ll recognize all of them, I’m sure.

And that’s it for this week. I thought I had more, but nope.

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