Changing times: working on a film set

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The realities of working on a film set? A social life isn’t likely to be an optional extra.

Amy Clarke (@AmyClarkeFilms

It was the fear of a normal life that pulled me in the direction of a creative career. When I decided to pursue a life in film, I had only a romantic understanding of the job role and what it entailed. I thought that working on film sets would be fun, interesting and gratifying. It was. But after a year, I was burnt out. In short, the long work hours were the main reason I left the film industry.

Long overtime

Throughout my education, nobody had mentioned to me the reality of the film crew work ethic. Film sets are run on 12-hour work days, and six-day work weeks. All of this would be acceptable if work days didn’t go over schedule, and there’s an inherent assumption that overtime is a given. A 14-16 hour work day isn’t an unusual day for the crew of a feature film. It isn’t just the hours included on the call sheet, either. Depending on your job role, there may be hidden hours after a day’s wrap, such as next-day prep, de-rigging or additional admin tasks. The problem with film work is that it’s advertised as being a glamorous job, so people are willing to work all hours for low pay, especially when first starting out. Sadly, this leaves a lot of room for exploitation. After all, there’s no lack of filmmakers in this world, and if you aren’t willing – or able – to do overtime, it’s not hard for you to be replaced.

These work hours haven’t always been commonplace. In the 1950s, a film crew would work a traditional eight-hour work day. If you worked on a studio film, you could go to work and be home for dinner in the evening. However, as the world began to progress, the hours increased. In the 1980s, a ten-hour work day became acceptable. From the 2000s onwards, 12 hours became routine. People did once protest for the eight-hour work day, but in the fast-paced capitalistic world, time is money. Film has fallen victim to this pace, taking advantage of freelance insecurities to increase the daily workload.

Technological progression

I’d argue, too, that the rise of digital cameras is also to blame. In the past, filmmakers would be restricted on how much they could shoot per scene. This led to more careful planning, being certain to capture only what was needed. Without such restrictions, filmmakers now shoot more than ever before, capturing scenes from every angle imaginable. This, inevitably, takes a lot longer. These work hours don’t necessarily mean more productivity, either. Work days often feature slow starts and plenty of waiting around, sometimes due to a simple lack of organisation and miscommunication. These situations could be improved with more planning and better care during preproduction. Working more doesn’t mean that you’re working better. Long work hours don’t benefit creativity or help make a better film. Great films have been produced before, whilst sticking to labour laws, staying on time and on budget.

Outsiders might mistake film work as fun and see little problem in overtime. As filmmakers, we sometimes forget ourselves that it’s a job like any other. The majority of cinematic job roles aren’t creative, but laborious, technical and administrative. Film directors, in particular, can become blinded by their creative ambition, forgetting that for the other crew members this isn’t their passion project but their life. Bluntly, film crews want to be able to do the best job possible, but also have free time at the end of the day and a decent night’s sleep.

Health matters

Long work days also endanger your health. Whilst on a feature film set, you’ll be unable to exercise, pursue hobbies, and your relationships will be put on hold. There are serious consequences to also consider. There have been multiple fatal car crashes involving film crew, where drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel of their car after a long day of work. A person’s health and safety should be worth more than the product they produce. Sleep debt is a serious problem for filmmakers. I was once in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a drowsy driver after a gruelling 20-hour work day. My driver was racing through traffic, fighting back exhaustion, desperate to get back to the hotel and catch any sleep before the next work day began. Being exhausted at the wheel of a car is just as dangerous as drink driving, and I have no urge to be a passenger on such a journey again.

What’s the answer?

There are alternatives to the 12-hour work schedule. ‘French hours’ is the term used for a 10-hour work day. It’s a slightly different setup, where a film crew works continuously for 10 hours without a break. To offset that, food is available to be eaten all day round. This way, scenes can be completed without a midday interruption, with the intention of no overtime. A lot of well-known filmmakers are taking into account how working less can improve work quality and increase crew morale.

As for me? I might have left the film industry, but I haven’t left film. I intend to keep writing about film careers, letting others know what to expect, and encouraging filmmakers to consider the health penalties of long work hours. When I produce my own films, I’ll schedule a more accommodating work day. The good news is that there are people out there fighting for change. More crews are becoming less tolerant about working overtime. The hope is that, in the future, the work hours go down rather than continue to rise. It’s something all filmmakers need to consider when planning their own film shoots or working for others. Filmmakers, in short, need to find a work ethic that doesn’t interfere with having a healthy lifestyle.

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