New York can be a tough town. Even Frank says “If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere,” and it's his world, for crying out loud. Yep, the city so nice they named it twice can be a cold, gray place. Business dealings can be cutthroat, and eking out a living can be difficult at best.
Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love it here. Couldn't think of living anywhere else, with the exception of Belize or Bora Bora. Outside of Ulaan Baatar, New York is probably the only city in the world that you can have Mongolian barbecue delivered to your door at 3am and, for an extra $3.00, the delivery boy will probably be willing to stop by Rite Aid and pick you up a bottle of Nyquil to wash it down.
However, there's a specific problem that can pop up here at the most unlikely of moments. (I'm not talking about rats. Rats will always be here, with the possible exception of 42nd Street, where they've all been chased away by a giant mouse.) What I speak of today are gremlins.
I've found that there are all species of gremlin in all parts of the city, but the worst of the bunch seems to be the wily Production Gremlin. These nasty little critters pop up at all the wrong moments and work their way into equipment, creating havoc at the most inopportune of times. They work their way into cameras, followspots, consoles, cable runs, breaker panels, editing trucks, dimmer racks — virtually any type of equipment. In fact, the only pieces of kit that I've never seen them attack are coffee makers. But when they get into the other stuff, boy, you do NOT want to be a part of the mess that's bound to follow closely behind.
Now, given their abundant numbers, it seems odd the inhabitants of this city don't see them more often. They're a pretty elusive group, and, for the longest time, I couldn't figure out what it was that actually conjured up their presence. After years of research, however, I think I finally nailed down what brings out these mysterious creatures. The production gremlins always seem to magically appear when a member of the production crew is administering blatant disrespect. Amazingly, these critters seem to have an ultra-sensitve sensory gland that can pick up the scent of condescension from several city blocks away; the stronger the superciliousness, the stronger their attack.
Evidence of their existence in the borough of Manhattan was proven on a recent show. A fellow designer had asked me to handle the lighting direction on this particular event, and he had hand-picked several key personnel. This outdoor show was being run with clockwork precision. Between lighting, sound, set, staging, video, camera, catering, Parks Department, and heavy equipment crews, there was not an unworkable problem to be found. Everyone was playing nicely and, more importantly, staying on schedule.
Everyone, that is, except for one crew member who stood out from the rest: the gaffer. This guy was an out-of-towner whose bedside manner was a bit, shall we say, undesirable. In fact, I've never really seen anyone talk to other human beings quite like this guy did. It wasn't so much that he was unpleasant because, in fact, he was a pretty fun person to hang with and very good at his job. But none of that excused how he was addressing the very crew members on whom he was relying to complete tasks.
His worst sin: calling out electricians over the radio and hanging them out to dry for not completing tasks as quickly as he liked. The fact of the matter was that none of these guys were ever sitting idle. Perhaps a task here and there wasn't as perfect as it could be, but overall, these guys were busting their butts to keep the show on schedule. Nevertheless, names were thrown around and public complaints thrown down for all departments to hear.
As a New Yorker, I tend to feel as though I've seen it all. There's very little that shocks folks in this town, and it really takes a lot to make me raise an eyebrow at something. That being said, after the second day of load-in, even I was astounded our gaffer in question wasn't treading the waters of the Hudson with a pair of Syncrolite water wings! I give the crew a lot of credit for putting up with the outright verbal abuse that this man was freely doling out.
But a crew's outright forgiveness is one thing, and those pesky gremlins are an entirely different issue altogether. Sure enough, when the cameras started to roll and the first artist stepped on stage to perform, the nasty little critters slowly crept out from the flotsam of the Hudson River and started their blitzkrieg.
They went for the followspots first. One spot op suddenly found himself with pieces of correction gel falling off. Almost immediately following, the iris on another spot started to jam. The gaffer had spent a good three hours the night before making sure those spots were absolutely perfect, but all had been lost in a matter of moments. Now, it was his job to make it better, right there and then. This, in turn, did not make my life any easier, being that I had to figure out how to cover all of this mayhem between camera takes.
You'd think those gremlins would have given us a break at this point, but no! They quickly figured out that my communication to the spot ops was saving this poor gaffer from being hung out to dry in front of the director, so they managed to jam the spot ops headsets. No worries there, because I knew that I had ample amount of backup key light in the form of automated units mounted FOH. The programmer could easily dial them into some proper correction on the fly and give me something useable. But no sooner had he done that than the DMX line to those units was mysteriously broken. Well, thank goodness for a quick programmer and fixtures that don't close their shutters when they lose DMX.
All seemed like it would be fine for the moment, and I thought that we might be able to get it rectified before the next blackout. A quick scream for the gaffer, and he should be right on that. In the heat of all this, however, I had forgotten that the gaffer was already climbing a followspot tower to correct our first debacle. No worries, because he got right on that fancy Motorola to get one of his crew members on the task. Unfortunately, those gremlins had somehow swapped his freshly charged radio battery with one that was recently placed on the charger. His calls for help were to no avail. The radio simply beeped back at his screams as if to say “your call requires a 25-cent deposit…and…oh…wasn't it you who yelled at someone for not putting enough clothespins on that BlackWrap?”
Through the excited cheering of the youthful crowd, I could almost make out his calls for help from inside the video truck. Perhaps the mics onstage were picking him up from that followspot tower. No matter, because nobody else could hear this poor soul, and the spot ops couldn't even relay a message to me so that I could send help. It's a shame that the gaffer had dropped and broken his cell phone earlier in the day. Maybe he would've been able to use that.
As his sanity slowly withered away, the gremlins continued their assault on other aspects of the gear, keeping him just busy enough to make life uncomfortable without being detrimental to the show. They wrapped up their battle with one final blow to the distro rack that was handling power to all the fixtures on the deck. It wasn't anything major and, in fact, they didn't blow anything up. It was simply that somehow, some connections had come mysteriously undone somewhere on the mid-cable run underneath the stage. The gaffer figured it out just in time for the encore, and the finale of the show looked great.
The gremlins seemed to have gotten what they came for: taking a few years of sanity away from the gaffer. The most telling aspect of it all was that they never seemed to do anything that brought the show to its knees. Everything they did was covered up so that the audience never knew the difference. Still, those nasty little creatures sure put that gaffer through the wringer. What are the odds? In the end, he seemed to leave a bit more humble from his encounter. He apologized to some of his fellow crew members, and he never really complained about what had happened. Perhaps he knew that the events that had unfolded were out of everyone's control and that the gremlins had taken over.
Others I have spoken with confirm the existence of production gremlins in just about every other city in the world. I find it comforting to know that they aren't just living in New York. I guess the moral of the story is that playing nicely with others always seems to keep the evil away, no matter where you are or with whom your working. There's simply no justification to be nasty to your co-workers. Unless of course you can legitimately point at them and loudly whine, “But he started it!”