By Greg Smith
Most of us who work as crew in freelance film production at least start their career loving their work. It’s a good thing too because it can be very hard to build a stable career in the film business. Working as a freelance crew person you have no control over when work happens, how much work a production may bring or whether or not you’ll be the one hired to do it.
If you’re committed to carving out such a career you do what it takes to get hired and keep getting hired. Hopefully you have or develop a skill-set that keeps you in demand but no matter what, at some point the need to get hired and stay hired comes with a certain amount of sacrifice. It’s a competitive environment and the reality is that if you’re not willing to put up with something, somebody else will. In an environment with those characteristics the potential for degraded working conditions can be quickly realized.
For the most part common sense, strong leadership and in some cases union contracts keep most conditions fairly tolerable. Especially when working alongside similarly enthused colleagues. One area that continues to defy common sense and contracted wisdom is the 12-hour work day. Actually, it would be enough if the 12-hour work day were considered a rare limit. However, on many productions and especially in movie-work, the 12-hour day is essentially thought of as a minimum with consecutive days well in excess of that.
The economics of content production have changed dramatically over the past 20-30 years and especially in the last 5 to 10 years. Budgets have been slashed while expectations and demand scale without limit.
This issue is industry-wide. In fact the issue has been taken up by Oscar winning Cinematographer Haskell Wexler in his documentary called Who Needs Sleep? This film illustrates the pervasiveness of 12+ hour days strung together day after day and week after week with very little down time. It goes on to talk of the obvious danger of fatigued crew members having to drive often long distances to begin and end these extreme days. And sadly, it tells the story of Brent Hershman, a camera assistant who after working a string of too-long days fell asleep while driving home from set. He died in the crash that followed. A petition titled “Brent’s Rule” came from this tragedy and has garnered some influential support, but has failed to reverse the trend.
In an industry getting ever more accessible and subsequently oblivious to long-standing protocols and practices, I don’t see the workforce ever gaining the leverage necessary to alter this trend. For my part, I say a 10 hour production day is an optimal standard. A production that plans on a 10-hour day would allow for an optimal balance between quality of life and work-day productivity. If a production plans on consecutive and ongoing 14 to 16 hour days then there’s something wrong or something that will go wrong, in my opinion. The fatigue of the crew will show in a degraded output and the compromise to safety that fatigue introduces is inexcusable.
On these projects, everyone involved is heavily invested either financially, emotionally or both. It makes the most sense for the team in charge of the production to foster a safe, productive environment for the benefit of their project, their investment and the crew helping to realize the dream.
For all involved… embrace the 12-hour (maximum) day.
Gregory D. Smith
President, IATSE Local 488
About Greg Smith: Greg Smith currently works as a Key Grip on feature films, television commercials and video productions, and serves on the Board of Directors at Washington Filmworks. As a 20 year veteran of the local film industry he has seen the business adapt many times to the evolving economic climate and production priorities. Greg also serves as the president of IATSE Local 488 which represents many of the crafts employed in the region’s film industry. A lifelong resident of Washington State, he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in communications.