The Camera Grip

A case study of the power of appreciation

Posted May 03, 2018

My brother Dennis, three years younger than me, is a writer, director and producer in Hollywood. Several decades ago, Dennis was running Buffalo Bill, a half-hour TV comedy series starring Dabney Coleman and featuring Geena Davis. Dennis was the producer of the series. He wrote most of the show’s episodes and directed some of them.

As the showrunner, his attention was not only on the actors, but also the crew, and even the grips — “grip” being the term for the man (and in that era, the crews for TV and movies were exclusively male, exclusively white) whose job it was to do all manner of heavy and at times even dangerous physical work on a film set. Grips were generally regarded as grunts and laborers, the lowest on the crews’ totem pole of roles, status, and respect.

The first week of the series Dennis noticed a grip who was pushing one of the show’s three camera rigs, which are cameras-on-wheels. Seated on each rig was a camera operator and focus-puller.

This particular grip’s rig carried the B camera, the most important one. It was the middle camera. It had a wider angle than the (side) A and C cameras; and so this man moved around the stage much more than the other two camera grips because he was continually trying for the best angle on the actors in the scene. And the actors were constantly moving around and forming new tableaus.

He was a burly middle-aged fellow who, despite his bulk, maneuvered the heavy camera rig with ease, wheeling it across the stage smoothly and swiftly, perfectly executing the appropriate moves, ballet-dancer-like, always hitting his marks, all the while laughing very hard at the show, yet silently because Dennis decided to shoot this show without an audience. Therefore the set was very quiet.

This multi-camera-but-with-no-audience technique of Dennis’ (which he’d use again for another half-hour TV series he later co-created and produced: The Larry Sanders Show) cut down on expenses by being quick. Dennis also believed that by excluding a studio audience the actors would play their parts more as the characters and less as performers pushing to get laughs from the crowd.

And so, for Dennis, this camera grip on rig B, tasked with listening to the lines, was the audience. And the shaking of the man’s big belly as he bent over and maneuvered the camera rig, told Dennis just how funny or not funny his writing was at every point in the script.

Dennis found the cameraman’s laughter inspiring. Late at night alone in his office writing the scripts for the show he would work very hard to come up with ideas and lines that were sufficiently funny they would make the B-camera grip laugh so hard he would miss his mark.

Dennis never succeeded. He thinks he came close on several occasions, but that’s as far as he got. 

Fortunately for the show.

And then one week Dennis showed up on the set only to see a new grip on B-camera!

Dennis asked the cinematographer, “What happened to the other guy?” Dennis didn’t even know the B-camera grip’s name. He was told that the grip had taken a job on The Bob Newhart Show. That series was filmed on the other side of the massive lot and was shot before a live audience, which meant the crew there worked three days a week, whereas Buffalo Bill only filmed two days a week. So the grip could make much more money by taking the Newhart job.

During the Buffalo Bill crew’s lunch break, Dennis walked all the way across the lot to the Newhart set. He went over to the grip, said hello, shook the man’s hand, and explained to him how much he’d enjoyed working with him, and how much pleasure he got watching him laugh. Dennis even confessed to the grip that he often thought of him late at night, writing his scripts, trying to come up with something so funny as to make the grip laugh too hard, hoping to trip him up. 

Dennis said he knew that the new job paid substantially better than Buffalo Bill, and he fully understood why the grip had taken it. Dennis said he’d come by only because he wanted to thank the man for his terrific work and wish him well at his new show.

And that was that.

Except that on Monday of the following week, when filming started on the new episode, Dennis saw that the grip had returned to Buffalo Bill and was once again muscling the B-camera.