Film Production, Incompotence or Cunning?

I think I’m now unemployable

I recently finished on another film. This one was actually a television series called Terra Nova . The first four episodes are approved to go ahead and if successful they’ll continue to produce an entire series. It’s a sci-fi about a dystopian future that is dangerous to live in so they transport (time travel) some people to the past. Basically it’s cars, guns and dinosaurs. Plenty of action but no real substance and I think it’ll probably be a success for many reasons. One of them is the production that I saw happening and what I’ve continued to realise from my previous post about the addiction of work.

As usual the standard of work that we were all doing was outstanding. I mean everyone, all the technicians on the ground and what they were managing to achieve says a great deal about the professionalism and expertise of the person on the shop floor who puts all the stuff together for the shoot crew to work with. It’s the reason that the work is of such a high standard that I find it interesting that dispute the difficulties, the job still gets done and the production gets what it wants.

Stage 7 Roadshow Studios

Different to as it appears

Now my caveat – I only know my one little section in the art department and I don’t have the big picture so this is just from one of the grunts in the trenches. The reason such great things are done is:

  • Excellent high base skills
  • Dedication and pride to producing quality
  • Love of working in a creative industry
  • Desire to be called onto the next project
  • Camaraderie and working as a team
  • Relatively high income and matching standard of living

At first glance these all seem motivating and good attributes but there is a dark side.

I’m still not sure which way to feel about this and it seems that it may be becoming the standard these days within the industry as the Australian dollar strengthens and production moves away from our shores to cheaper countries but either production companies are incompetent or shrewd, in the way they manage their workforce.

Instead of planning an appropriate timeline and budget, the standard seems to be to have no time, no money but expect outstanding work as would normally be expected with proper preparation, planning and funding.

What has happened of late is we have a third of the prep time and no money to set up workshops or buy materials but production wants all the whiz-bangery that they can think of – So… “Go and make it happen, Oh, and if you have any gear at home you want to bring in feel free as you’ll need it to do your job but we won’t reimburse you as it’s what you need, thanks very much.”

The workshops are makeshift without the proper infrastructure to work efficiently and safely and no preparation or stocking of the most basic materials to create things from. Often the sheds are poorly ventilated, lit and without the necessary equipment but it’s still expected that the work is performed by the deadlines. On this production I saw some of the worst working connotations that I’ve ever seen in all my time in the industry with people performing tasks that will shorten their lives due to dust and chemicals, maybe not today or even this year but it’s accumulative and these technicians were working 12 and 16 hour days for weeks at a time. Reports of people falling asleep driving home were mentioned to me. Production wouldn’t care if someone died (and in productions overseas they have), it would just be that’s a tragic accident but the show must go on, now back to work and keep cracking the whip. The whole project is driven by the accountants with no regard for the greater cost.

The real question is “Why do the workers in the film industry put up with it?”

It’s the same list as above but instead of looking at those points as positive attributes they are actually the shackles that bind people to the production company as wage slaves.

I heard it said around the workshops, “Suck it up and just do your job.” but why? – Because they have no power, they are sold into servitude because of the above list.

They care about their craft and want to do great work out of personal pride. They care so much they will put up with all the difficulties because they are all pulling together to create something bigger than themselves. Something that will show their skills and stay after they are gone. Yea fine, those are some of the idealistic points but it’s more pragmatic also.

They have grown accustomed to the income that can be earnt when you work stupid long hours, often away from home without a break for months and sometimes years at a time. Complete breakdown in a social life with anyone outside of the industry creating a monocultural lifestyle. With that income, their families develop a dependence on a certain lifestyle, mortgage, cars, education… those sorts of things. But the cost is absence from the family and many dysfunctional relationships. Like many industries with similar traits, the film industry is littered with affairs and broken relationships, often due to absence in my view.

There is always a certain desperation in everyone that we have to make good on this production despite any difficulties, not to make waves and show that we are a good little worker bee so that we can milk this production for as much as we can because it won’t last long, they never do and always have a finish date looming and if we are good we’ll get invited back onto the next production. If their is a gap of work between productions (which is the norm) and some lean times this makes things only more desperate. When there is a whisper of a job everyone looks after themselves first, not letting too much be known about it until their position is secure. Then they may help others to be seen as a good guy but really the work is so scarce and desperately needed, due to the commitments that they have created that no real favours are done and it’s every man for himself.

So what we end up with is this cycle of earning good money due to the huge hours, family pressures to maintain that lifestyle, while the family often learns to live without you. When there is no film work, you could be an inconvenience at home because family aren’t used to you being around and as you have no other social life or career prospects the worry of when the next job is going to turn up creates stress. Then when the next production starts there is relief that at least for a time, income is secure and home life goes back to the norm. But it’s necessary to work hard, don’t complain and keep your head down to stay on this production as long as possible and get invited onto the next. The income rolls in the money is spent the lifestyle maintained and the cycle recommences. Desperation and relief, around and around time and again.

So how does production use this to their benefit?

Is production being shrewd or incompetent?

I don’t know if they have no idea what they are doing and we’re picking up the pieces using dedication and skill and they never need to learn how to manage better because they still manage to get the job done on the backs of the technicians but I’ve seen it so many times I’m now thinking it’s an actual strategy by the production. I’m talking about at the very highest levels here not at the level where I could actually ever meet a real, living, breathing person on the ground.

If they (the producers) say we have no money and a ridiculous timeline there is always someone out there who will compromise themselves for “just this one job” and take it on. This goes all the way down to the bottom of the crew. There is always someone who wants to get in the door and bust an arse. Those in the industry see the job start and as I’ve mentioned they’re in this lifestyle/income cycle and have to compromise and take the job, so dispite the lack of time and resources to produce, they collectively suck it up and get to work using their own personal life energy to make up for the discrepenticy of the producers. And the producers know this is what will happen so they plan accordingly. They know that if they screw everyone from start to finish, top to bottom, they will get what they want using those thousands of workers life energy to off set the balance sheet.

What makes me think this?

Well I’ve seen all the above playing out now a few times. Years ago there once was a time when there was great facilities, time and budget to get excellent work done with limited stress. That has not been the case for a few years now.

The main sign though is the apparent compromises that production makes when they push too hard. The problem with this model is sometimes they will be so extreme with budget and timing, things just can’t be done, it breaks down. If the reality was as production have always said, when the deadline arrives or more finances are required and it’s not there, then the whole house of cards would collapse… But No!

Every time we couldn’t deliver on time I saw schedules moved, if we couldn’t find the materials, they would find the money to get more, if we needed to work more or get more staff they always managed to find just enough money to get what was needed done, by the skin of our teeth. Funny that! Doesn’t matter how desperate they said it was, they always managed to find more. They are so deep in the hole they have to and if they can’t it would turn into The Fountain that was six weeks into pre production and was pulled to go overseas. That’s often remembered as a threat.

If things are so bad that the production is going to fail, hiring more help, putting in better dust extraction equipment and allowing people to have some rest wouldn’t be an issue as they’re insignificant, the problems are far bigger than we on the shop floor. The production would fail, simple, that’s bad management and incompetence.

What I think we have here is concerted manipulation to create a sense of lack and desperation to achieve excellent return for minimal outlay. That’s good business I hear you say but it’s on the backs of those who work in the industry, strip mining their personal life energy. Yes I’m talking about people actually dying at a younger age.

If you’re going to say they have a choice. Well, yes and no. There are other jobs out there sure but as I’ve hopefully shown, many of these people have become addicted to the lifestyle and if they do leave, there are always more who are prepared to join the industry and that is what the producers are relying on. There is and will continue to be more people who will choose for whatever reason to throw themselves into the machinery, to grease the wheels of the film industry.

I’ve tired of this cycle now that I can see it for what it has become. I may continue to return to it from time to time for a cash injection but after this post I may well never be invited back because I’m saying the Emperor has no clothes. Unfortunately those who create these issues are at the top of the production and don’t care as they look up from their spreadsheets in their ivory towers. Those I deal with (and that is everyone actually making the film), who are addicted to the lifestyle, would probably rather I don’t mention these points as it’s what’s eating them up inside and they would rather just continue to live the dream. Sadly it a bad dream.

PS I know I’ve made many gross generalisations here. There are always going to be exceptions to everything I’ve said here. There are people with passion and purpose, with balanced lives and great relationships but what I’m expressing is what I’ve observed and from what I’ve seen is the norm albeit a generalisation. To those who have it all together, congratulations and keep an eye on the industry so it doesn’t suck the life out of you.

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About Ian

I'm in my late forties with a teen age daughter living in the eclectic area of West End in Brisbane Australia. I've 30 odd years skills in manufacturing within the trades and film industry. I'm deeply involved in exploring how people connect and communicate both intellectually and habitually. Interests in Science, Personality, Empathy, Evolutionarily Psychology and Attraction. I'm interested in peoples thoughts on life. By understanding others we learn about ourselves and others, so forging community. Ya!

4 thoughts on “Film Production, Incompotence or Cunning?

  1. Hey Ian,

    That is such a trick to be able to balance passion, dreams and ambition with the practacle, sensible, and the almighty dollar.

    Keep living the dream my friend, keep living the dream 🙂


  2. Thanks Russ, I’m chuffed that you took the time to read my little personal blog. It’s all a part of an experiment called “My Life”. Some thing’s I have some idea how they will turn out, others I listen to the non-conventional ideas and consider having a crack at and seeing where they might lead. This is one of those things. I’ll get back to you to let you know if I have any success but at least I’m happy and that’s the main thing I think.

  3. The printing industry is in a similar spot. Publishers want all the “whiz-bangery” they used to pay for 5 years ago, but now they don’t have the money to pay for it. Oh, they still expect it, but they’re not willing to pay for it.

    Companies are now also hiring “Graphic Designers” and specifying that the candidate should bring their own computer with them, oh, and make sure you have the $5000 worth of software installed you need to do the job too. So wait, you want me to bring my own computer AND my own software to sit at your desk while you pay me a substandard wage? Yeah, sure.

    Print Designers are also rabidly undercutting each other because Publishers point at countries like India and say, “They only charge us $X per hour for this job. That’s all we’re going to pay for it.” So North American companies take $X per hour while they end up spending $XX per hour just to keep things running, and this is why Print Design has all but collapsed in North America. Quality is gone because nobody wants to pay to have a job done right, they just want the job done cheap.

    You know what? You get what you pay for. If you send all of your money and jobs overseas, you’ll have nobody left at home who can afford to buy what you’re selling.

  4. @herne Unfortunately I think this is a problem across the board with a lot of industries.

    My concern with this post was if there was some malicious abuse on a very conscious level compared to what I think may have been unconscious behaviour previously

    Either way I’m doing what I can to not have to be in these types of jobs any more. *fingers crossed*

I'm sure you've got some ideas about this? Eh?