Confessions by a former IATSE film technician

Hi. My name is Karethe and I am a Best Boy.

Though this might sound like an introduction at Sadomasochists Anonymous, this was as a matter of fact my work title at one point in the past.

It was back in the last century, when Seal’s Crazy was reverberating through canny cassette players across the globe and when film producers walked around sets with cell phones the size of Cuisinart blenders, only twice as heavy, with more radioactivity than a present day nuclear plant. It was a time when we used books for research and when photographs had to be developed before they could be seen (thus my lack of photos from the era). At the time, no one would have been able to even fathom the future concepts of Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. Selfies hadn’t been invented. We are talking way back in 1989…

I haven’t thought much about that stage of my life until I recently reconnected with some of my old film buddies. As we started reminiscing, places and faces came back to me and I decided that it was a story worth sharing. So, here is a tale from my bygone lamp-op days.

I became a film electrician in spite of myself. Just like I had studied theatre because nobody in my family acted and I hated public speaking, I got into the electrics department because I knew nothing about technical matters, had never had an interest in the subject and was afraid of the whole wiring thing. Later I justified my decision by claiming that I wanted to become a director who understood the technical part of filmmaking, but truth is that I hadn’t though that far ahead at the beginning of my electric journey.

I got to Vancouver in my 20s, when the city’s film industry was just budding. Not yet the Hollywood North it later became, it was quite cliquey and one had to know someone to get into it. When I volunteered to jump from a logging bridge with an elastic band tied around my feet (this was before I knew it was called Bungi jumping…), I got connected with a camera operator who became my ‘in’ to the industry. My first film gig was as a video assist. I was awful at the job and should have been fired. My salary was 50$ per day, and I thought I was living the dream. (Coming from a theatre background, I was used to slim pickings…)

Being quite the tomboy, I was hired by a production company as a run-between for the grips and electrics departments on TV commercials. I began to assist an enormous Scottish gaffer and his smaller, rounder Best Boy sidekick. Though I was terrified of the former, these lads gave me my first training in electrics, as well as my baptism-by-fire lesson in driving a 5-ton truck full of valuable equipment back from set on nights when the other crew members were too drunk to do so. This might seem unthinkable today, but things were different back then. The hours were far too long, the stimulants were much too plentiful and the producers would often walk around set with a wad of bills, paying us cash at the end of the day.

The guys who really trained me for the film trade were a couple of tall, gangly electricians in yet another truck. For all my time in the department, they were probably the only guys I worked with who never came with smutty remarks and rude proposals. And that is saying a lot, particularly in an industry where the F word seemed to be the favoured qualifier, and where every f…ing piece of f…ing equipment had to be brought to set as f…ing fast as possible.

While I did a few shows as a grip, I found electrics more exciting and challenging. As a natural progression, I signed up for the IATSE union film electrician exam so I could become an officially ordained ‘lamp op’. In between working and asking my mentors questions, I read all I could find on the subject. There is an enormous amount of technicalities, rules and equipment detail to be learned when one is to light a temporary installation, which a film set is, often outdoors, frequently in the dark and more often than not under unfavourable weather conditions. If it weren’t raining for real, we would have rain towers and snow machines making the misery for us. Added to the challenge were thousands of Watts and Volts and what have you not going through cables the size of one’s wrist. Just one wrong move and you might be fried, possibly along with anyone who might be standing near said cables at that moment.

The exam was held in the union office and I was the only woman to partake, certainly that day, possibly ever. I later was told that I was the first working female film lighting technician on the Canadian West Coast. To everybody’s surprise, I not only passed, but got the highest score of any of the examined students. I was sworn into IATSE local 891, became a ‘sister’ and put myself available for work. This is what one had to do when one was new to the trade. The seniority system assured that anyone with more experience got first dibs on jobs, so I could only wait for the call from the union hall.

On my very first day-call on a feature film set, I showed up bright and early with my tool belt, rain gear, new steel-toed boots and all the stash and stuff one needed to survive a long and hard day on set. Walking onto the film lot, a production assistant stopped me, asking abruptly where I thought I was going.

To work, I blurted out.

The extras tent is over there, he pointed arrogantly.

But I am looking for the electrics truck… I replied.

If I thought the reaction of the PA had been odd, you should have seen the faces when I entered the electrics truck. Trying to cover how nervous I felt, I slammed open the door of the giant semi-trailer style truck, only to be faced with a poster of full spread female nude. Peaking into the truck, among murky shelves of heavy metal lighting gear, I detected more of the same centrefold ‘art’. There was also as I later discovered a full bar and an almost unlimited supply of drugs, which I never partook in as the whole hanging off ladders thing was enough of a ‘high’ for me….

Standing in the central aisle and squeezed onto a provisional cot were a handful burly guys, grinning at me. What do we have here, their smirks seemed to be saying, as if I was Little Red Riding Hood. Slightly less brave this time I explained that I was their day call lamp op. The smiles just got bigger. Of course you are…

I can assure you that I performed my work tasks with utmost professionalism in spite of jeering looks and snarky asides. When you are a woman in an exclusive male world, you have to prove yourself by working harder than any of the other crew members, often combined. When other women tell me that they have been subjected to sexist remarks in the work place, I never compare notes as I have lived through them all. Try working in the most physically demanding job you can imagine, and every time you bend down to pick up a cable (101 time a day in my case) a co-worker will murmur “ Hey, you. While you are down there….” Everything about the industry was sexist, at least in those days, even some of the lamp names, which were referred to as blonds and redheads. I had to learn a whole new lingo. When someone told me to ‘kill that baby’, it really meant that I had to turn off a lamp.

Like all the guys, I would wear a giant tool belt. This contained every implement one might possibly need when stranded on a mountaintop, a selection of screw drives, cutters, tapes, nobs, pegs and wires. In addition, of course, we would carry the heavy crew radio that after 8 hours, and we never seemed to work less than 15, cut off the circulation of the leg it was hanging by. My clothing, like everybody’s, was usually of the dark paramilitary film technician style. I owned five sets of rain gear, all of which were of the best quality and breathability possible, and all of which eventually got soaked through by the incessant West Coast rain.

In the course of time, most of the guys became my friends. Though rough around the edges, they did look out for me in an alpha-male sort of way, particularly if a US actor or a male from another department tried to accost me. When I almost fell asleep while standing during one of my first night shoots, the gaffer told me to ‘piss off and go to the truck and get some shut-eye’. However macho they liked to appear, they could be almost sweet. As my day-call turned into weeks, I began to feel more at home. One day, I showed up early and plastered the truck with male nudes. Not that I cared much for homo-erotic art, but after that we managed to come to a compromise, with a centrefold free zone at least for a few weeks. When the testosterone-laden environment got to me, or when my fingers were so frozen that I couldn’t bend them, let alone unplug one of those darn behemoth plugs, I snuck off to visit my friends in the makeup or wardrobe truck, where there was warmth and light and carefree conversation.

Our workday consisted of pulling cables the size of dead anacondas through Vancouver’s back alleys, neighbourhoods and suburbs, and then hauling the same gear back to the truck at the end of the day. We would carry, mount, plug, light, focus, dim and kill lights, lift 12 000 W lamps onto enormous stands, plug and re-plug cable boxes that could illuminate a whole town, run up and down sky-ward ladders and fight with light bulbs that didn’t want to leave their sockets, all while the assistant director would be yelling to get the shot ready. But most of all I recall the heights…

We worked in some studios on the North Shore, that probably since have changed names a dozen times. Using a cherry picker, we would get up into the rafters above the stage. I guess it would be some 80 feet up, certainly enough that a fall would do some serious damage. I remember first time I had to climb out of the cherry picker basket, as I did not want to, nor could I tell my boss that I didn’t dare to do so. Making sure not to get my tool belt stuck on anything, I climbed onto the top rail of the basket, reached my foot as high as I could and then leaped onto the rafters, hoping I wouldn’t miss. The same procedure had to be repeated in reverse on the way down, but by that time I would usually be too tired to care. We had no safety harness and there were no safety net below. Only the lamps had safety cable in those days, so they wouldn’t fall down and kill someone. (Maybe lamp ops were seen as more expendable than the lights themselves?) We would walk, no actually almost run around the rafters hunched over because the ceiling above was too low, attaching dozens upon dozens of lamps to pre-light a toy shoot or a yoghurt commercial. When exchanging a dead bulb, particularly when working at the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) TV stages, we could sometimes open up the Mole-Richardson lamp carcass and find an obsolete 5K or 10 K light bulb. It was like discovering an antique, as even then the bulbs were becoming smaller, lighter and more powerful. We were at the end of an era.

Possibly so they wouldn’t be accused of favouring the singular female lamp op, some of my bosses would constantly yell at me. I particularly recall a Director of Photography. We were shooting at Riverview, a closed down mental hospital. The place was like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, only a century older. From the parking lot, the DP pointed to a tiny window on the uppermost floor, telling me to get my ass up there with a lamp. I grabbed a stand, a 2K and several length of cable from the truck and hurried inside. The building had been abandoned for years. The hallways had an eerie echo. The walls were a yellowed institutional bisque colour that had gone grey. Passing treatment rooms and isolation rooms where unspeakable horrors must have been taken place, I could certainly see why people said that the place was haunted. I finally bolted up the last set of stairs that lead to some kind of attic. All the rooms on this floor had been boarded off with DO NOT ENTER caution tape. I grabbed my radio and I told the DP as much, but he ordered me to break in anyhow and get the light into the window in the next 10 seconds, or else…. Of course, by the time I had it lit, it was in the wrong place. I later heard that the caution tape was due to the asbestos used in the construction. Like I said, we lamp ops were sometimes seen as expendables.

My least favourite part of the job was something called Condor duty. A Condor is one of those crane style contraptions they use in construction. The base is a small heavy block on four wheels. From it, an arm will extend in some 150 feet up in the air. This was the way of illuminating night scenes and of course the electrics were the one to be sent up in the basket to adjust the lights.

So, lets go up there…

Imagine. It is pitch black around you. The wind is howling slightly. It is at the beginning of your shift and you are already freezing. The basket you are sitting in is quivering with every gust of wind. If someone where to give a kick to the tire of the condor way down below, you would feel it as a whiplash up here in the air. At a distance you might see the light of the city, and way below you will see the tiny moving spots of crew members running about like ants. Two enormous lights are winched onto the top railing of the same bucket in which you are sitting, each worth at least 10 000 Watts. You are completely alone, other than your radio. Well, that and your pee bucket. This is something one needs when one is on Condor duty and has to be hours on end in the air. Nobody had thought about this part the first time it was my turn to go up, as no female lamp-op had ever ascended into the air. Guys have a certain advantage when it comes to urinating, as they do not have to peel off jackets and rain gear pants with suspenders before you can sit down on the bucket. When the guys would radio me and ask if I needed something, (there was a secondary bucket for this purpose), I was always tempted to say Yes, send me an herbal tea, a new radio battery and two Tampax please.

Back in the air, just as you have managed to get yourself remotely comfortable, tucked into a couple of damp moving blankets, the radio will crackle. Put a half shadow in on the left bottom and then tilt the right lamp down and pan it a tad downstage. Again, the film lingo… On the ground, this is something one would do on a ladder or in a team, but in the bucket, you are on your own. You reach around to the front of the enormous light to add a screen, hopefully without dropping it or burning yourself to a crisp. Never mind the sizzled new Gortex rain gear… While the gaffer breathes impatiently on the radio below and the Director of Photography shouts instructions at him, you use all your might trying to untighten the side wing-nuts of the other lamp just enough to move it without dropping its head and killing the bulb. You hold onto the monster with one hand, while tilting it into position with the other, all while using your legs as counterweight as you lean out of the slowly waving heavenly contraption. Even if we did have a harness on for this job, one wouldn’t want to flip out of the basket and test the stability of the Condor.

In the end, I never became a gaffer, though I did become a Best Boy (Best Girl wasn’t an option…) by the time I retired. Actually, it wasn’t as simple as that. I was riding to work one day. On the six-lane ramp onto Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge a truck squeezed me off the road, pulling my bike underneath it’s tyres. When the guys at work heard about the accident, they immediately asked how the truck had fared. One certainly couldn’t blame them for being too soft hearted.

Life went on and I never switched on a film-light again. Now, many years after, I smile to myself when I climb our 6-step ladder to clear the eaves here in our Andalusian home and my husband grabs hold of it and asks me to be careful. I recall all the rickety 12 steps I have ascended and descended through the years, with my tool belt, a couple of ‘babies’ and three lengths of 50 feet cable coiled around my arm – Just another day on the job.


5 comments Add yours
  1. Enjoyed reading this vivid description. As someone who has worked with a few big ‘foreign’ crews, I can relate to situations and personalities here. Admired your rich and varied journeys knowing something about the other careers, places you have been to. All the best for your new book.

  2. great story! i actually never knew what kept you so bizzy in film. 🙂 how lucky were they to have such a beautiful & positive soul on set! so proud of you L! Love ya!

  3. Thanks for these remembrances of working on films in a male-dominated dept. Loved the condor section and the PA stopping you. I am sharing this link with Boston, Massachusetts area women just prior to our Basic Grip workshop entitled “Demystifying the Grip Truck”. Female grips are treated better now than they were in the 80s’, and far more common, too I’m happy to report.

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