Happy New Year, and the best of everything to you and yours during these next 12 months!
In the April 2006 issue of this magazine, I wrote a column addressing the problem of excessive working hours and its terrible effect upon those of us who make our living on set. Nothing has changed since then; if anything, the situation has gotten worse. Now, almost any casual chat with a crewmember will come to mention the weariness and exhaustion inherent in our way of life. It’s sad that everyone seems to accept this as necessary, because it’s anything but. Recent personal experience and discussions with colleagues across all the crafts suggest that it’s once again time to put this troubling situation on everyone’s front burner.
A good place to start is with a statement made by a man who was one of the most honored and respected individuals in the business, late ASC legend Conrad Hall. Speaking on behalf of all cinematographers, I can assure you his words are as valid today as they were when he issued them 11 years ago:
“Our responsibility is to the visual image of the film, as well as the well-being of the crew. The continuing and expanding practice of working extreme hours can compromise both the quality of our work and the health and safety of others.”
The reasons we work such punishing hours are varied and often illusory. Certainly, in many instances, poor planning and incompetent scheduling can be blamed. Unchecked greed on the part of studios and producers is also a default excuse. But what’s happening to us is much more insidious, and it’s similar in many ways to the story about the frog in the pot of water who becomes aware too late that the temperature has been incrementally turned up to a boiling heat. Just compare the amount of work fit into the average day on any production today to what it was a mere decade ago, and you’ll see what I mean.
We are doing more in less time than ever before. One popular weekly series with which I’m familiar spends seven days shooting an episode that plays for 42 minutes on the air. To achieve that, the crew commonly spends up to 98 hours a week on the job — not including travel to and from the set. In terms of page count, they’re completing the equivalent of a full-length feature every 10 days. Ten years ago, that would have been unimaginable, but today, we accept it. Short of those involved in waging war, is there another line of work that demands so much of people?
In a sense, we have only ourselves to blame. We’ve become so good at our jobs that we make the delivery of a first-class product look easy under any circumstances. Producers are keenly aware that people drawn to our profession are, by nature, Type A problem solvers. They know we will rise to any challenge and go to almost any lengths to complete the task. They also know we are freelancers and happy to be employed. This gives them a tremendous advantage, especially when they realize how easy it is to use our passion against us.
No one who does our job was ever a 9-to-5 person. None of us is lazy, nor did we get into this thinking our jobs would have any sense of normality as most people understand it. But at some point, our employers need to wise up and understand that what’s at stake is not only our safety and quality of life, but also the value of their product. Until someone high up in the food chain realizes how destructive unduly long working hours are, there is not much we can do. We should pray that it doesn’t take someone getting seriously hurt — or killed, like Brent Hershman in 1997 — to turn things around.
So, the beat goes on, at least for the time being: more work piled into less time than ever before, crewmembers walking around like zombies, exhaustion as a way of life. Perhaps this will change only after we force the people who impose these conditions on us to stand by our side for every minute of our working shift.
Then again, they probably wouldn’t last through lunch.
(For more on this issue, check out Who Needs Sleep?, an amazing documentary made by Haskell Wexler, ASC.)