Preamable: The following account is as truish as possible for a general audience.
Sometimes life is cinematic.
Picture this one: Las Vegas. A quarter mile of densely packed casino. Pulsing lights, a gentleman in a bow-tie every ten square yards to offer you a drink or see to your needs. A crowd bemused by a veneer of glamour, fuelled into cycles of sin by an endless run of free drinks and no windows to give them a sense of time or reality. Dense and dazzling.
And I am sprinting.
My phone tells me I'm doing 10 miles an hour. In my right hand is clutched a critical hard-drive of data that has to get to the ballroom within the next three minutes; in my left hand, outstretched, the identification card I'm waving at stunned security personnel as I run by like Forrest Gump on fire.
For the first time in my life I'm actually able to bellow into a crowd, "Make way! Coming though!" and see them forced to part in front of me. Nobody running that fast could be idly fucking around.
Shark-skinned scum, elegant sophisticates and stretchpants-clad aspirationalists demure to my urgency, staring at me wide-eyed as I fling myself between slot machines, hellbent on reaching the convention centre on time. Where the hell is Andre the Giant when you need him?
In the antespace outside the ballroom one thousand, eight hundred people are milling around waiting for the doors to be opened. I dance through them after using my jacket to mop sweat off my face. "Excuse me, pardon me, I'm terribly sorry, excuse me, urgent."
I flash my card at the guard and bust inside. Between me and the stage is a flotilla of latino wait-staff laying place at three hundred tables. I deek between them like a college football draft candidate on amphetamines while yelling apologies over my shoulder. I jump over a row of chairs and splash through the curtain, skipping over bundles of black cable snaking along the floor.
I arrive, heaving for breath, at the desk of the video op. He takes the hard-drive from my fingers and jams its sex into his system. Patience bars appear and mature. We both cast an anxious eye at the master clock.
"Holy shit," says the op. I agree, bent over and panting.
Headsets crackle. A countdown to doors open.
The patience bar lingers on screen, teasing us.
The op upgrades his profanity. "Holy fuck!"
It's 18:59:59 and the video op hits Play with just a second to spare. Doors open. The crowd eases forth into the room. The massive video screens are alive with content despite the rare congruence of multiple failures that had jeopardized it. The video op and I look at each other and fist bump. Everyone around us pulls out their phones to report to whoever was shitting themselves that the crisis has been averted. Standard Apple and Android "text sent" noises echo and overlap backstage.
This battle is won.
What do I even do for a living? I'm not sure anymore.
Goodness knows there are better whatchamacallits than me. There are scads are people with a more refined sense of such-and-such skill and a greater natural talent for so-and-so skill. But apparently those who can do it for thirty hours at a stretch without benefit of food or drink or sleep and not turn into a complete asshole are a marketable commodity. So I've got that going for me.
Live events have never felt so live. Or so deadly. This is my career now, I guess.
We work with Southerners. They say they've never worked with people who stay so polite under duress. In turn they're very sweet to me and my colleagues. Seems like Canadians and Southerners are a match made in Heaven. We stay genial, even when it's raining flaming shit balls.
Plus it's cool how they all talk like we're on The Dukes of Hazzard. One syllable becomes two and every sentence is a song. Splendid.
We're in another city. It's cold. Chicago, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia? Somewhere Yankee.
Irish and I stand behind a towering wall of LED panels arrayed into a backdrop for a concert. The LEDs shine the other way. All we see is a dense spaghetti of backside cables excreted in multiples of eight. It looks like Borg technology: modular, black, blinky. Irish looks at me sideways and says, "I think we're done."
"The concert's started. That's it. What else could we do? Let's agree to exhale."
"I think we can," he says. "I need to have a beer and then die. I'm beyond exhausted."
I nod. "Me too. I think I saw Tyler Durden at the airport."
"Oh shit, he didn't want to hire us, did he?"
"No, man. I was kidding. You know how in Fight Club when Dr. Banner keeps seeing flash-frames of Benjamin Button?"
A production assistant in show-blacks runs toward us. Irish frowns. He picks up his headset and nestles it over his ear. "Go for Irish," he mumbles. His frown deepens. The production assistant arrives, panting urgently. "Need. Remove. Voiceover. Intro. Video. Big intro. Video. Music director says no. No voice. You're Quite Decent Productions. Yeah?"
"Yeah," I tell him. "Do you mean Legendary Producer's intro video?"
"But isn't the voiceover mixed over like a dozen songs synchronized to picture?"
"That's not ours."
"We didn't make that video."
Irish and the production assistant both look up into the lights as they mumble into their headsets. I don't have a headset so I just scratch my head instead. The skin under my eyes twitches dangerously.
Irish grabs my arm. "They know. They don't care. They want it fixed anyway."
"Jesus. How much time till the intro roll?"
The production assistant looks at his phone. "Seventeen minutes, ten seconds."
I nod. "We can do it."
We drop our briefcases and bust them open, laptops on our cross-legged laps as talent and wranglers dodge around us. Screens flip open. Irish is an audiophile -- he puts on his headphones and listens to each snippet of song, identifying it and finding it online. As he purchases each track he airdrops it to my machine so I can sync it against the singer's lips in the video montage. Eight songs snap into place, then nine. The tenth refuses to align until I realize I'm scrubbing the wrong chorus. I render out a new soundtrack with the same frame count as the original video. As the progress bar ripens I ask without looking up, "How are they integrating this change?"
The production assistant says, "They want a new video file. Um, three minutes now. Apple Pro Res preferred."
"No time. Off the table. I'm outputting audio only. AIFF. Who wants it? Master soundboard or video server crew?"
Irish discusses it on headset. "They're debating," he says.
I copy the file onto two USB sticks and hand one to Irish. "You run for master sound, I'll run for servers. We'll be covered however they want to wire it." To the production assistant: "Will you mind our gear? Back in a flash." I hold up the flash drive as I say this because I think I'm funny.
"Okay," he says.
I run away.
Narrowly avoiding tackling a rock star wandering out from the green room I skid to a halt at the server table and hand over the key. The op jams it into his console. "This is frame accurate to picture?"
"Zero is zero."
"Bless you sir."
The op runs it live, hitting the spacebar on two computers at the same time to sync picture and sound as if we are Neanderthals and not at all top tier video engineers sitting in the shadow of of a really super blinky bank of steroid-pumped GPUs capable of serving dozens of streams of frame-locked audio and video simultaneously -- but, you know, it takes a while to programme it. So the old double-spacebar trick comes to the rescue once more.
The legendary producer takes the stage in a bath of warm applause. The op mops his brow and slumps in his seat. I compliment his performance. He shakes my hand and gives me back my USB stick. "Never do that to me again," he begs.
"I'll pass that right up the food-chain, guy."
It's fine. It's all fine. My highlight moment of the experience has already come and gone leaving me with a heady enough buzz to survive even this most recent blast of epinephrine. During rehearsals I got to sit within touching distance of a celebrated blind opera singer while he ran some numbers through the sound system. The speakers were behind me, though -- I was just hearing the man's pipes live and direct. It made the water in my glass quiver and the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
That tenor syrup looked like it poured out of his face effortlessly, like his mouth just opened and he drooled beauty. I could feel it in my jelly. Unforgettable.
Now I was done. I had nothing left. I'd been forty hours on mission and finally my last reserves were tapped. Irish and I yawned while we dragged our gear back into our briefcases and jammed in the cables and to hell with the USB keys they can keep them and let's book.
"Thirsty?" asks Irish.
We step outside into the harsh winter air and strike a businesslike pace to the curb, briefcases swinging. Irish waves for a taxi. We fall inside of it. The driver turns in his seat.
"To the nearest Irish pub," says my business partner crisply, "and don't spare the whip!"
"Bar please," I clarify. "Near please. Beer now."
It's Christmas so there are twinkling lights on all the cactus. The desert wind carries a tinny echo of carols. Buzzards circle.
At our feet, on a square of grass, rabbits nibble. I smoke a harsh American cigarette with a stage hand who's telling me about an adventure of his. He trails off. The sky is a riotous canvas. "Is the sun coming up or going down?"
"I don't know," I confess. "I've been backstage for a lot of hours. I don't even know what day it is in this timezone."
"I hear that, buddy."
We stab out our smokes and return to backstage. My machine has finished rendering so I unplug a portable drive and stroll behind the screen past the humming projectors, ducking to avoid interrupting the beams. I interrupt the surly video op from watching something on his laptop -- it looks like Malcolm in the Middle but with more shooting and blood. He's especially surly to be interrupted this time. I smile. "I've got the dinner loops for you, sir, central and outboard screens."
"More video? You're killing me. They're not fucking MP4s are they?"
"Apple Pro Res, sir."
"Well thank fuck for that at least."
"Thank you very much."
Next I visit Irish at the multimedia desk. "You want me to bring you a Pepsi?" He shakes his head, tells me more about the evil bulldog woman roving the hotel looking for elements of the show to sabotage in order to vindicate her claim that we suck and should never have been allowed to take over this event after her friend's company had managed it for thirty years. "There's some serious-ass sour grapes going on," says Irish. "Oh shit, here she comes!"
I resist the urge to dive under the table. Instead I smile. "Hello, Bulldog! How goes the war?"
"Mr. Brown. Mr. O'Finnegan. We've got a problem."
"Oh dear. What's the issue?"
"The table assignments are a mess. People are going to be confused. So I want everybody's table assignments up on the screen when they walk in the doors."
Irish swallows a gulp of coffee with a surprised frown. "Um, they're on break right now, ma'am. Doors open for dinner in six minutes. There are over two thousand names."
"Yes," she agrees, handing him a hard-copy print out of 2,100 names assigned to 350 tables. "This has to be on the screen before doors open. It's non-negotiable."
Her eye twinkles as she turns on heel and goose-steps out. She thinks she's got us. She thinks we're boned. I turn to Irish, "We're boned, right?"
Irish is quiet. His forehead breaks out in a glaze of sweat. He closes his eyes, then opens them. "No," he says. "We're not boned. Time?"
"T minus five minutes thirty-three and counting."
We commandeer work lamps from nearby ops and hastily rig a photography area, then flatten out the bulldog's print-out and weigh the edges with hard-drives. Irish leans over and rapidly snaps pictures with his telephone, tapping the screen to focus on the 12 point type. "Next," he mumbles and I adjust the framing of the page to the next column.
He stabs the Dropbox icon on his phone and then jumps back into his chair and clicks on his desktop Dropbox. He draws a line around his selects and throws them at Photoshop. The splash screen is interminable. He inverts each image to white on black and slaps them on the background with an additive blend mode -- white type on corporate colours. He straightens the columns to true against rulers and spits the output directly into Keynote. He drops in some dissolves and, presto, two thousand seating assignments play gracefully on all three giant screens around the hall. Irish texts Bulldog: "Mission accomplished."
I look over at Bulldog down by the video switching table. She scowls at her phone.
Ha. This isn't art -- this is McGyvering. And sometimes it's really fun. Especially when you get to vanquish your enemies with a quick dash of awesome. I give Irish's shoulder a squeeze as he descends into headset, readying himself to cue the two hours of business presentations that start during dessert.
After the successful live streamcast of the big IPO in New York the CEO of a multinational concern sends a mass-text to a select cadre. I don't even reach for my phone. The show has wrapped and key personnel are sharing a moment to unwind and have drinks before packing up for the airport in the morning. All crises have been averted and there's no duty left in my thin, tired blood.
"It's the CEO," reports the teleprompter girl who is very prompt with her phone. "We've been invited to a private booth at some cowboy nightclub in Phoenix, for the VIP IPO party."
"VIP IPO with the CEO?" says Moo, one of Irish's multimedia mavens. "Hell no."
"The whole crew?" asks a producer.
The teleprompter girl squints at her glowing hand. "No. The text is to you, me, Irish, Cheeseburger, Moo, that drone pilot, Captain Phillips and the executives."
"Captain Phillips the pirate guy? Was he good? I missed him."
"Yeah, he was good."
"I'm so fucking tired," says Irish forlornly. Then he throws back the remains of his drink and stands straighter. "Let's grab a cab."
"Do we really have to?" moans the producer.
Irish sighs. "Yeah. I think we have to. Come on, folks. Let's do this."
The club is surreal. But then I guess they aim for that, don't they? It's a swank downtown nightclub with a hillbilly theme. Young women wearing Daisy Dukes gyrate on the bar and dance on little platforms between the tables. The place is packed with some kind of metrosexual cowboy variant with slinky strapless by-the-numbers beauties on their arms. Video screens on all sides run a continuous Keynote loop of aphorisms about how sexy and dangerous country girls are. The air thrums with dance mixes of new country songs. A grotesque assault upon the senses.
We wend our way to the private booth raised up on a higher platform. Top executives from the multinational are squeezed in beside one another surrounding a giant ice-table whose middle has been chipped out and filled with black bottles of Dom Pérignon alive with self-illuminated green labels. Where do they put the batteries? Somehow I am the first to be seized upon by the CEO.
He shouts in my ear, "You're Cheeseburger Brown from Canada!"
"Yessir!" I shout in his. "Thanks very much for inviting —"
"You were responsible for fixing the branding in all those videos from Philadelphia?"
"Well, yessir, all in the line of -- "
He thrust his hand at me. "Grace under fire. I respect that. I want you and Irish O'Finnegan on every show this company does. You got that? From now on."
"Yessir. Thank you, sir. And congratulations on the IPO."
We shake hands. He paws past me to speak to the drone pilot. I stumble into the ice table and a half-naked young woman pushes a chilled glass into my hands and contorts her face at me playfully while she fills the glass with champagne. I think she's trying to be sexy. Doesn't work.
"Well?" shouts Irish.
"CEO likes us!" I shout back.
As the key crew leaders drink we become sentimental and endlessly congratulate one another on being super. The Southern Belles hug us and shout compliments in our ears. They pet my velvet jacket and play with Irish's hair. We wander to the furthest edge of the booth away from the live band and talk to Captain Phillips about Somali pirates for a while. What a swell fellow. Not a drinker, though. As the drinking gets more zealous he quietly takes his leave. Moo falls into our arms and tells us he loves us. "Irish is the best in the business," he somehow manages to say. "And that's not the alcohol talking. I mean that, man. You're the best, Irish."
Later, ears ringing, Irish and I step outside for a smoke. We chat with the bouncer so he knows it's cool to let us back in again despite the long line behind a velvet rope. Irish untucks his smokes and sticks one in his mouth. "Why does everybody keep being so nice to us?" he says around it.
"Beats me," I shrug, shielding my lighter as I flick it. "Can't explain it."
"We're nothing special. I mean, no offence, but there must be hundreds of guys like you and me in this giant-ass country. Guys better than us. Way better. How'd we ever find ourselves in this position, eh?"
"It's your client, brother. You developed the relationship, you made this happen."
"Shit. I'm a lucky moron."
"No, man. You're a good business partner, and you're a good friend."
We toast, which makes the bouncer realize we're still carrying our drinks. He takes them away. We finish our smokes and head back inside, the velvet rope clicking behind us.
I'm running again. These days I get to run all the time. It's like I'm on Doctor Who.
I hit my hotel room and throw open my laptop. Skype gurgles. I've got India on the line. "My friend, how are you faring out there in America?" "Vijay, dude, we're in a pickle."
"Big challenge. We need to produce thirty-six minutes of high-definition animated content about professional league baseball for three screen formats within the next thirty hours."
Vijay's eyes widen. "Man, vat's the plan?"
"I need your boys rotoscoping. I've got an editor compiling footage of key plays now. He's in Utah, in Mountain Time, he's going to have his material uploaded by local midnight. I've also got style frames for three looping backdrops I'm going to need -- I'm emailing you the specs now. How's your grass? Have you got good grass? We need grass for the field."
"No problem, man. We can Phong shade this?"
"Yeah, definitely. Phong it. No ray-tracing. To hell with rays!"
"And, may I ask, listen man: vat is to be the budget?"
"Doesn't matter. Just get it done. Let me worry about extracting money from client later. In fact, let Irish worry about that. I don't care. Twenty-nine hours, fifty-nine minutes. The clock's all that matters. You know I won't rip you off, dude."
"I vould never think that about you, Cheeseburger! Ve are friends!"
"Splendid. I love you, Vijay. See the specs?"
"Yes, I see. Yes, okay. I must make some calls, gets some guys."
"Roger that. Burger out."
And I'm on mission again. I'm on mission within mission. Mission the first is to survive the show; mission the second is now to produce a half-hour of television in a day. My first major challenge is that I don't really know a damn thing about baseball. Not exactly a sports fanatic, me.
I call room service for a cheeseburger and two beers and open a window on Google. Make me an expert in baseball you decentralized bastard. Now!
I stuff my brain with baseball information then take a pill so I can go to sleep. In the morning I'll write the script. "Siri, set an alarm for four thirty AM."
Crispy hotel sheets. Deep, deep pillows.
And the unfettered power of dream to organize the noise…
Four point five hours sleep. Decent! I'm awake and into the boot up routine. Shave my head, shave my face, ask Siri after my messages. My clothing is packed chronologically so I have only to grab the uppermost fold of show blacks. The script is written before the sun comes up. I check in with Vijay in Mumbai, the editor in Provo, the compositors back in Toronto.
Americans can't reliably do tea so I boil mine in the clothes iron because this room doesn't have a coffee maker. Like a barbarian I squeeze the bag with my fist to intimidate every last tannin to extract itself and get into my cuppa. I slaughter that tea and steam up another. The iron clicks.
I count the hours until my deadline and the days until I can go home. Take a breath.
Pack down laptop and snap briefcase shut. Run a pocket inventory: wallet, room key, security badge, gum, granola bar, Thunderbolt cable, USB stick, telephone-sized supercomputer-like gadget, silver flask of rye. Check, check, check. I charge out into the fray again, gathering my jacket close against the Sonoran Desert's unseasonable Christmas cold.
It's the middle of the night but you can't tell, because it's Las Vegas.
I'm running. My flat feet slap against the treadmill, thudding rhythmically and making the water in my water bottle hop. I'm the only person in the hotel's cardio room. Everyone else is out there in the strobing gaudiness, partying like it's 2099. What a city.
It's too much for me. Too many people, too many flashing lights, too much music and ballyhoo and hurrah. Las Vegas makes me want to curl up into myself and make for the nearest singularity. The air tastes like an airplane and the depravity is turned up to eleven.
I turn the treadmill up to a sprint. I fly for a while, pelting with abandon, high on endorphins and victory. But my body doesn't last long -- not after weeks of this kind of punishment. My shins burn and my knees ache as I slow it down and yank the earbuds out of my ears, the mumble of CBC's current affairs show As It Happens fading into farts of transitional jazz.
Three miles. A poor overall time. I'm sweating like a cartoon character. It's hard to be properly motivated without an impossible deadline to keep you on your toes, I guess.
The morning will be all about airports. Friendly, cheerful, helpful TSA agents. Long lines. Bad, expensive food. Crowded shuttles. Weather delays. Assholes trying to jump the queue in the zone boarding system. An unexpected detour to San Francisco for a sandwich and a beer. Irish blinks, dazed. We are totally burnt out. We have nothing non-random to say.
He asks, "Did you know there was a cardio room at the casino?"
"Yeah, I saw it on the map."
I feel guilty stealing away an hour to work out when he was against the wall. But there was nothing I could do to help him. So I ran away and ran.
Our food arrives. We both express surprise at the quantity of the bounty. The young waitress laughs, hunkering down close to us. "Are you boys from Canada?" she asks, flirting for a fatter tip. "How did you know?" asks Irish. "Our accents?"
"No, it's always the Canadians who comment on the portions. You're just going to have to put on your big boy America pants and deal with that plate or I'll be disappointed. Okay?"
"Yes ma'am," says Irish.
Announcements, changed gates, running through the terminal. There's always more running to do. There's always a clock counting down against us.
I read Michael Chabon. He watches Elysium on his laptop. Engines drone.
We're in a car. We've been in a car forever.
We pass by other cars overturned or turned backward at the sides of the highway. This winter is mean and it has slapped these people aside with slick, transparent ramps of ice and befuddling volleys of windblown snow coming at unexpected intervals like washes of hyperspace. Who the devil ordered this winter? Fringe climatologists craving a talking point? Stinking vortex.
As we're funnelled into Detroit it becomes apparent that not all of the cars have met misadventure -- many of them have simply been abandoned, covered in way too much snow to have been going concerns any time recent. Many are spray-painted with police tags, or gang ones.
It gets worse as we realize the bankrupt city cannot afford to keep the streets plowed so significant stretches of municipal highways have simply been closed. Others are littered with crowded accident icons on Google Maps. All traffic indicators are red. "This sucks," announces Irish, chin resting on the steering wheel.
"Don't fret," I say. "I'm sure Robocop'll be along any minute now to sort this out. This is his town. He's programmed for justice, just like Gandhi."
We escape to the snow-choked side streets. We drive past block after block of boarded up stores and dead big boxes. Vagrants wander into traffic, hands outstretched, hunkering against the frostbiting wind. Another block and we pass through a stretch of affluence, where if you confined yourself to looking only in certain directions could pretend you weren't witnessing a megalopolis in freefall.
Siri guides us turn-by-turn to the offices of the one percent. Free water and fancy coffee. Italian lunch with fresh-baked bread. Comfy chairs.
The meeting is five hours long. It's the future so we talk to Moo on a wall-sized flat panel display, making his face larger than life-sized. We discuss staging diagrams and grapple-points for projectors and lighting rigs. We count pixels and measure angles so we'll know how to wrap the video around the set pieces, trying to guess where the performers' choreography will take them. Agents, riders, transport, hotels, rehearsals. Approvals, schedules, share-points in clouds.
My phone grumbles in my pocket. I look down. Southern Belle squeals in emoticon-laden triumph to announce that the Bulldog has been terminated by the CEO because of how she F'ed with our S on-site. I meet Irish's eyes on the other side of the table. He grins. The wicked witch is dead.
"So what do you guys do?" asks the planner at the party. This is supposed to be one of those coveted networking events we've always imagined we'd hate and do.
"I don't know," says Irish, sipping his fresh pint then shrugging. He looks over at me. "I guess we're fixers. We rescue live events when the situation's gone full potato."
"The service we ostensibly supply is motion graphics and presentation support," I explain/confuse; "but the truth is there are plenty of people who'll do that for you for cheaper. You'll call them before you call us."
The planner squints. "That's…an interesting sales pitch. So why would I call you guys?"
"Call us when somebody else has affordably mucked it up for you, and you find yourself in need of emergency firefighters to recover the situation it in time for curtain, despite."
Irish salutes solemnly with his pint. "Despite whatever."
She smiles. "Actually that's not such a bad pitch after all."
"That's why we don't have a brochure," he continues; "Mr. Brown and I feel there's no better way to convince you of our company's value than having it save your ass. So -- here, um, take a card -- and then stick it on your fridge for some dark day you hope never comes. Um. Actually I don't have any cards."
I look over at him sideways. "Dude, you didn't bring cards to the big networking event?"
He hangs his head. She eats it up. Man that Irishman is charming. I find a card in my jacket and hand it to her. "Quite Decent Productions, hmm?" she says, turning it over.
"Is what it says on the tin," nods Irish.
"I hope I never have to call you!" she beams, laughing, and we all get to share in on the recycled joke from Irish's anti-pitch. Business chuckles all around. Break scrum. Wander on. Next!
"Let's swing past the drinks table again," says Irish. "Networking makes me thirsty."
I nod, turning confidently to go the wrong way.
"You know how we asked you for all those animated composites of children playing on summery grassy hills? We're going to have to go ahead and ask you to take out all the green. We really should've mentioned earlier that green is our competitor' colour. So no green clothes on the children, no green grass, no green trees. Will that be a problem to fix for tomorrow?"
The clock starts rolling. There's got to be a way. There's a way to do everything. And if there's a way there's a short-cut. A route to time compression. Victory, and so on.