In Ice We Trust

I have a fondness for twenty-pound bags of ice. They remind me of the different stages in my professional life. I’ve been a TV editor, writer, director, producer, and I’ve worked on TV shows around the country and the world. Ice has been a constant that revisits me on each and every TV endeavor, both the far-flung and the shows closer to home. A TV show needs ice, and for whatever reason, I become the Iceman. I began my career scared of the ice, then I became proud of the ice, then I resented the ice, and finally I embraced the ice. I found love and affection with the ice, and the ice helped me learn the producing game. The ice then humbled me. Now I have a deep fondness for my frozen friend as I remember all the changes we went through together.

I remember my first day as a production assistant, working on a TV comedy show in San Francisco. We were shooting skits with Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater in the backyard of a Victorian in the Haight-Ashbury district and my job was to do whatever I was told. Someone started a leaf blower within a half-acre of where we were shooting, stuck in a small yard between the tall homes. The director turned to me, handed me a twenty-dollar bill and said, “Find that person and make them stop.”  I crawled over fences and climbed up back staircases while people screamed at me, but I found the gardener, gave him the money and made him stop for 30 minutes. I earned praise.

After a long morning we went to the van for our snack break, but when everyone reached into the ice chest they discovered the drinks were warm. I’d packed the craft service, but I hadn’t gotten ice to keep it cold.

“You blew it,” the director said, immediately forgetting my heroics with the leaf-blower gardener. Thus my relationship with ice began.

As a lowly production assistant, the ice was the melting measure of my lack of experience. I had to copy log sheets, take notes, run errands, pack batteries, load the van, maintain the petty cash, buy lunch, arrange parking...while always maintaining a perfect amount of melting ice in the ice chest. It was a spinning plate that I had to keep in the air while all the other tasks had to be accomplished. I couldn’t buy it too early, or it would all melt. If I bought it too late, it stayed in a frozen block that took up too much of the ice chest, leaving too little space for the drinks and fruit. On a hot day I had to plan ahead so I could dump the water and restock the ice chest with new ice. If I waited too long the grocery store might run out, or they might overcharge me, or I might need to drive too far to get it. The ice was always a looming errand that I often got wrong, which created a cascade effect of other mistakes. I ran out of petty cash, I got parking tickets, I got the inside of the van wet, I disappeared for too long -- all because I blew it on the ice run. That’s when the ice scared me.

Then I got good at it. Like a chef who can monitor several simmering pots on the stove, it became second nature to me. I got all my work done, and then even got the time to contribute creatively -- and when the crew opened the chests, there was always the perfect amount of half melted ice keeping everything cold. I was no longer scared of the ice. I felt capable and proud.

As I moved up the ladder to other jobs -- directing, day producing, story editing -- I felt important enough that I had graduated away from ice. Yet I would still sometimes be asked to make the ice run!

“Hey, we need ice. Do you mind going?” 

I hated hearing that! Why me? Can’t that production assistant over there do it, like I once did? Why must I do their job? A year before, the ice had made me feel like a master chef. Now the ice was making me feel insignificant and under-appreciated. Nailing the ice run is like the perfect edit; it goes unnoticed, but it’s a detail that adds to the perfection of the project. But getting it just right so that it goes unnoticed means that you don’t get noticed either. That’s when I started to resent the ice.

Then ice changed for me again. The ice run became an icebreaker, and it helped me meet girls. I remember being on the road on bigger shows, and sometimes I had to stow the ice chest in my hotel room, or in the trunk of my rental car. I’d meet a young woman with her ice chest at the ice machine at the end of the hallway, and we’d load hotel ice into our respective ice chests, and chat and flirt. Later in the day, I’d volunteer to go on the ice run with her. It was a chance to sneak away from set and ride in a car with her, shop for ice, and share a bag of chips and some gum on the way back. We helped each other lift, carry, break, tip, and dump the ice, just the two of us. Then back at the production office at the end of the day, we’d go out into the parking lot and help each other dump out the cold water and clean the ice chests for the next day, and our flirting would advance to other things. I loved the ice then. Ice was my wingman.

Ice changed for me again when I became a producer and spent less time in the field. Ice became a line item, a cost to track, and a way to monitor what was going on in the field. If three TV crews are going out five days a week, and each crew has an ice chest, that’s 15 big bags of ice a week. In the hot summer it can go up to 20. A cheap 20-pound bag costs $5.00 to $10.00, depending on the store and the supply. That’s around $100 a week in ice, usually more. A show that runs fifteen weeks costs $1500 to $2000 in ice, but it can easily climb to $3000 or more. When the ice bill starts to climb, it’s a good indicator that bigger problems may be going on. Are the production assistants buying small $10 bags of ice at 7/11? Maybe they’re not planning ahead and they’re rushing at the last minute and just buying the expensive stuff?  Are they overworked? Are they buying bags and then wasting it? At the end of the production, a $5000 ice bill is way too high. That’s more than a week of editing on a show. Ice teaches you what’s going on.

I also produced and directed my own short films and sizzle reels, hoping to achieve creative and financial success on my own terms. That meant spending my own money, directing and producing my patient and underpaid crew, so it made sense for me to make the ice run first thing in the morning while buying coffee for everybody. And there I was, back buying ice in the grocery store and then taking it out into the parking lot and arranging the ice chest in the pre-dawn light. I had come full circle. 

It had been so long since I’d been the Iceman, however, that I made tyro mistakes; I dumped the ice into the chest before lifting it back into the car. That’s a beginner p.a. move. You put the chest in the car first, and then dump in the ice and arrange the craft service; otherwise, you create a forty-plus pound weight you must then lift off the ground. Granted, my mind was occupied with deeper thoughts, but it was strange to flash back to the younger me, in a cold parking decades earlier, making the same mistake. Here’s another trick that that I’d forgotten -- if you drop the bag of ice from the perfect height onto the pavement, it breaks the ice into perfect pourable pieces without breaking the bag. Then you can open one corner and pour it in the ice chest. Drop it from too high and the bag breaks. If you don’t do the “bag drop,” you end up freezing your fingers as you try to break up the ice with your hands. That’s when ice humbled me.

Now I am fond of ice. I spend most of my time indoors writing and editing at computer consoles, but when the crews return from the field and their ice chests line the hallways, I feel nostalgic...but only a little. I’d rather be home on time for dinner these days. And when I look out the window into the vast hot grey parking lot and see two young people flirting and laughing while they dump out the day’s cold water onto a thirsty palm tree, I remember when every shoot was still an adventure. Maybe it will be again, and ice will take me there. After all, I’ve handled the ice with the best of them, in the Mojave Desert, in Germany, England, Maine, Florida, Hawaii, on the beach, and in the mountains. 

I’ll be 90, directing some documentary on my own, and I’ll tow my little ice chest from my hotel room and load it with those excellent round cubes from the hotel ice machine at six in the morning, ready to meet my crew and shoot all day. I am the Iceman.