Sometimes the Day Job takes over

While most of us would rather pursue our deepest passions every day of the week. For me, that’s writing, be it oddball short story collections, novels, or even screenplays, but from time to time it becomes necessary to dip one’s toes back into the waters of the dreaded, “Working for Someone Else.” This usually means little time for writing, as television and film production, more often than not, leads to 14 or more hour days. Sometimes, however, the end result is so good it’s worth it.

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Oh yes. Weeks of sleep later, I’ve recovered from my recent gig for FX and I have to say, it is shaping up to be a really good show. If you’ve ever been interested in the origins of crack cocaine in 1980’s Los Angeles, John Singleton’s Snowfall is the show for you. Check out the FX trailer.

It’s coming July 5th, so please, give it a try. We put a LOT of hours into it, and the entire cast and crew sincerely hope you’ll enjoy it.

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Pitfalls of Shooting Digital

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Now that digital has more or less caught up to shooting on film, though some purists will still argue that digital isn’t quite there yet and that film looks better, we see many of the constraints of working with film gone, only to be replaced with problems of a new sort.

Exhausting the actors.

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When mags of film would roll out and require a reload, directors were forced to better plan what they wanted and then do their best to capture it efficiently. Unless you were a big production, the cost of film alone prevented doing massively long takes and shooting a dozen different angles just to have more to play with in the edit. Indecisiveness and lack of clear vision was shunned. Unfortunately now with the leeway of digital, we see dozens of takes from a multitude of angles as clarity of vision is often replaced with a wing-it “let’s try this” approach. Actors love to get to try different things, and many times that produces pure gold, but when this new flexibility is abused, actors can get worn down. An entire day shooting a 3 page scene over and over and over would tire even the most seasoned actor, and performances start to drop off. Then there’s crew. They get far less turnaround between days than actors do (9 hours on stage and 10 hours on location, including drive time home and back to work the next day… Teamsters only get 8) and safety and productivity can suffer greatly as your crew wears out. nap on set

Running up the budget.

Another problem stemming from the overshooting/underplanning issue is one directors often ignore, but one that keeps producers awake at night. Budget.

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Paying an entire crew for those extra few hours tacked on to each day because of a less constrained process can cost tens of thousands of dollars an hour. IATSE film crews get time and a half after 8 hours, which they almost always go past. Once you pass 12 hours your crew goes into double-time. If you go long, you’ve essentially hired an entire second crew (money-wise) for each hour you go over, yet you still get the output of one crew, and that’s an increasingly tired crew at that. Then factor in meal penalties (a union crew must be broken for meals every 6 hours, otherwise they are paid a penalty every half hour, which can really add up) and costs skyrocket. One way to avoid running long is by tacking on additional days to keep the overtime low, but we’ve seen in countless times, if you give an extra few days leeway, the 10 hour days will still often creep up to 14 or 16 hours, and now you’ll just have more of those overtime days rather than actually cutting costs.  Adult Supervision (i.e. a producer with balls to stand up to the director when need be) is vital on a set where money is an issue.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 1.21.05 PMIf you’re shooting on location, you may have to pay the location, neighbors, traffic control, security, rental bathrooms, and other equipment for extended hours as well. Long story short(ish), if you don’t rein in your director the budget can go out the window.

Those poor editors.

I worked a project recently that shot back-to-back takes of 38 minutes and 42 minutes with two cameras operating. That’s 160 minutes of footage shot in 80 minutes of work. These were unusually long takes, but are indicative of what can happen when a director goes off-book. The five most dangerous words in Hollywood are, “Hey, I have an idea.”

Marx Bros editors

If a director shoots with two cameras and averages three 10 minute takes per setup, then shoots sixteen setups per day on a 30 day shoot, you’re looking at (roughly) 16 hours of footage a day, or 480 hours of footage at the end of 30 days. That’s a month of non-stop viewing on an 18 hour day schedule, not including the actual act of editing.

Now consider that continuous rolls means no slate to break up the action and mark a moment. Unless the director is very good at telling the script supervisor which moments they really like on the fly as they happen, the director and editor will later have to re-watch all that footage to find what they want to use, searching for that needle in a haystack. Amusingly I’ve heard from several editors that almost always in this situation the director will use the first take that they come across that they like, even if there may have been something amazing further down the line.   needle haystack man

I love digital. I believe digital opens up many opportunities to be creative and efficient, but it is also important to not allow the benefits of shooting digital be erased by poor filming practices. Directors need adult supervision to keep them from shooting 2 hours of insert shots of hands from 7 different angles. I’ve seen a director (who happened to be the showrunner, so he got away with it) shoot multiple masters from different angles. The guy had so little clue how to shoot or what he wanted, he was just getting a master, then closer, then closer, then closer from every angle. no_idea_by_workisnotajobIt was a shit-show and the actors (not to their head honcho’s face of course) were even breaking composure and bitching about it.

Use digital as the amazing tool it is, but plan ahead and use it well. If you treat digital like film and follow at least some of the same production practices (for the most part, after all, flexibility of digital is a big plus) then you should still be quite able to shoot excellent material at a much lower cost in terms of money, time, and frustration, than film.

Lastly, Always Remember the 5 P’s: 

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Surprise, High School Actually Prepares You for the World of Television Production

You’re 17 years old. Life is amazeballs, there are tons of fun things you and your friends want to do, but at the end of first period you walk out the door with an hour of homework assigned to you. “No problem” you think, “I can bang out an hour and still see my friends.”  Then you head to second period.

Another hour of homework.

Then you head to third period.  Lather, rinse, repeat, until by the end of the day you’ve got a workload that may just take you until the wee hours of the morning to complete, effectively barring you from post-school activities and any semblance of sleep or a real life.  Funny thing is that unlike the actual lessons being learned, the exhausting work schedule is preparing you to cope with another part of post-school existence for those hoping to enter the entertainment industry.

A bunch of higher-ups who think their homework is “just an hour” and who ignore the fact that there are five others assigning tasks who think the same way… Welcome to the world of television production.

In TV-land, directors will typically rotate through episodes, often having weeks or even months between their gigs. Same often goes for their right-hand men, who handle the scheduling duties for them.  They come to their episode fresh and vital, excited to make the best product possible.  Sure, it may mean a few 16 hour days, maybe working a Saturday or two, but it’s worth it for the art, right? Of course the crew will be OK with a few weeks of long hours, it’s only natural that everyone’s thrilled to be here even if the days get a bit long.

What is so often overlooked is the crew.  We the tired minions of production-land do not get weeks off. We are there day in and day out, often working 70+ hour weeks with a 10 or even 9 hour turnaround.  For those not in the industry, turnaround is the required time between wrap and crew call the next day. 9 hours may sound like a lot, but when you factor in driving to and from work, as well as little sanity-maintaining things like taking a shower or just sitting on your couch for a few minutes, people will often wind up surviving on 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night. Sometimes for a 6 day work-weeks. This can go on for months.

Not too long ago, I experienced a show that had people on a Monday through Saturday schedule for nearly a month while working 15 hour days. Finally one of the cast put their foot down and the insanity stopped, but if not for them, the crew would have been driven until they dropped like an overworked buggy horse. We were lucky to have actors who recognized the insanity and stood up for the more easily replaceable crew. And speaking of dropping from overwork, on another project one of the crew actually fell asleep and crashed their car on the way home. They didn’t die, which is why none of you heard about it, and hours finally tapered after that happened. It’s quite sad that it takes something so extreme to get the attention of the higher-ups. Even then it is often more a liability concern than a true concern for the welfare of the worker bees.

Union rules exist for a reason, but far too often people waive their “forced call” (you are paid a premium for getting less turnaround than required) to be “production friendly.”  The problem is this undermines the entire reason for those rules.  It’s not about making huge overtime, it’s about making the act of overworking your crew so expensive that the production won’t do it. Sadly they often just factor that into the budget these days.

Don’t let this all deter you from the industry.  It’s a great life most of the time and you’ll meet and work with some pretty amazing people. Just remember, if you are going to join us in TV-Land, someday you may thank your former teachers who worked you so hard, oblivious to the workload you were already under. They may have unintentionally prepared you for a career in entertainment.