Oh, The Hours You’ll Work!

Or, a cautionary tale about the film industry

Okay. So, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything to this blog. And, as my last post was all about joining a cannabis clinic in Vancouver, I can see what the natural assumption would be. But no, sadly I haven’t spent the last six months eating cheese puffs and playing video games while high. Instead, I’ve been in crunch time.

“Crunch time” for those not in the film industry, is not a delicious, nut-filled breakfast cereal. Instead, it’s when a major deadline for a film is looming, and it takes over our lives completely, leaving us with no time to do anything except work, sleep, and occasionally* buy new underwear from the 24hour drugstore rather than do laundry at 1am.

Long hours are an accepted part of film making. After all, it’s a creative industry, with a lot of money on the line. It’s natural that the hours should be long, right?

Right. Except… it wasn’t always like this. Back in the fifties, film making was just a regular job. People worked an eight-hour day on the film shoot. They saw their families and friends in the evenings, and in the weekends they made plans. They remained healthy. They didn’t die from falling asleep at the wheel of their car after a 22 hour day back then.

Then, in the sixties, things changed. The industry went through a major upheaval. It’s a pretty long, complicated story, but the gist of it is that Hollywood was in trouble and studios were on the brink of collapse. Some even resorted to selling off their backlots for housing development, or auctioning off iconic movie props to make ends meet.

This was because the industry hadn’t kept up with what people wanted to see. Hollywood was still making wholesome, family friendly films while their audience was getting high and going to Woodstock. Home televisions were also becoming A Thing, and, what with there not really being anything on at the movies that people wanted to see, audiences were staying away.

Luckily for Hollywood, a new generation of directors were on the rise. Brought up on foreign films, and embracing the counter-culture (and also definitely the drugs) of the sixties, these directors – directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, and Roman Polanski –  made exciting, dangerous films that resonated with the cynical movie-goers of the era.

The studios, faced with either letting these film school rebels in, or shutting down completely, gave the new kids the keys to the kingdom, and so began one of the most interesting times in film making.

Before this, studios had kept a pretty tight control over the process, keeping budgets, schedules and work hours within spitting distance of reality (with some notable exceptions – looking at you, Cleopatra), but now all bets were off. In some in cases, the studios were not even allowed to look at rushes.

Film production costs began to skyrocket, and shooting schedules blew out. Did I mention the drugs? There were also a lot of drugs.

Apocalypse Now (1979) was originally budgeted for US$14M with a six month shooting schedule. It ended up costing US$31M and taking a year to film.**

Eventually this party bus swerved off the road, rolled into a ravine and burst into flames with the 1981 mega-flop that was Heaven’s Gate (not the mass-suicide cult, but it does go to show that nothing called “Heaven’s Gate” is going to end well) and the studios took back control of the film making process. But things didn’t go completely back to how they had been in the fifties: working long hours on a film shoot had become normalised in this time. Oh yeah, and the blockbuster had been created – something both movie studios and audiences wanted more of.

So, that’s how we got to today: everyone is trying to create the biggest film they can, while spending as little as possible. For the crew on set, that means long shoot days to keep the overall shoot schedule shorter; it’s cheaper to work a crew for 14 long weeks, rather than 16 normal ones.

On one film shoot, I worked 15 hour days, six days a week for five months. I was so tired towards the end, I remember driving home from set one night at midnight (with a 7:45am crew call the next day) and almost falling asleep behind the wheel of the car. And I was okay with that – if I crashed, I’d at least get a chance to sleep while in hospital.

VFX is a slightly different beast. In VFX, the long hours are because of the film’s release date. Most films have their release date set before the shoot begins. In fact, I know of films where it’s had a release date before its even had a title.

There is a ton of money tied up in the release date. Studios want their film to come out of the gate strong, garnering headlines such as “XXX film made $100M in its opening weekend”. Headlines like that make other people go to the movies. Headlines like “YYY opened weakly to a $10M weekend” make movie-goers stay at home.

So, studios will position their films to open as strongly as possible; this means both opening when the target audience is likely to be going to the cinema, and also when there’s as little competition as possible. Studios want to make sure they don’t release Deadpool 2 on the same weekend as Avengers 3; neither film wins in that scenario.

Of course, if a film is really in trouble, a studio will move the release date, but it’s a last resort as they may well  have to wait a year (or longer) for the next good window to open the film.

There’s also a lot of stigma attached with moving the release date; critics often consider it a sign that the film is in creative trouble, and once that rumour gets out, the film is dead in the water. I know people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but try telling that to John Carter of Mars. Or John Carter. Or whatever that film ended up being called.

And, because VFX is almost the last department on the film, there’s not a lot of work we can do while the film is still being shot or edited. Maybe some character design, or start blocking out any fully digital sequences we might have, but otherwise, we have to wait for the footage to be shot and then cut together before we can get our fingerprints all over it.

So, by the time the film gets to VFX, not only do we already have a very short sprint to the finish line, but any additional delays end up getting absorbed into our VFX schedule.

The studio decides to reshoot a scene? Yeah, that shortens our five month schedule for that scene into weeks. Turnover is late because they’re behind in editorial? That quickly becomes our problem. They’ve recut a scene and add some significant VFX shots? Yup, still gotta turn that around before the delivery date.

There’s never the option to not deliver.

The longest day I’ve done in VFX was 60 hours. The longest week I’ve done in VFX (different project) was 120 hours.

VFX is not for those overly attached to their beds.

But, at the end of the day, it is worth it. It’s hard, and it’s the part of the industry that I wish we could change, but a fourteen hour day doing something I love, with colleagues I admire, is still more enjoyable than an eight hour day doing sales data entry for Cartridge World (true job).

So, if I disappear from this blog at times, it doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten it. It’s just that I’m probably still at work.

*And by “occasionally”, I mean “every other week”

**Of course, that film then earned US$150M at the box office, so all was forgiven.

This was a pretty compressed look into the changes in Hollywood during the sixties and working hours in the film industry. If you want to delve deeper into either of these topics, I’d suggest the book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind, for a look at the changes the film industry went through in the sixties. “Hearts of Darkness” is a behind-the-scenes look at the chaos of filming Apocalypse Now, and the excellent documentary “Who Needs Sleep?” by the Academy Award winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler looks at the dangers of the long hours in the film industry and the fight to change the culture. He made this documentary after a member of his crew fell asleep while driving home, and died. The crew member had just finished his third 16 hour shoot day in a row.

Holding lighting reference on the set of Narnia

Me holding VFX lighting reference on the set of Narnia


1 comment so far

  1. Beverley on

    Or trying to stay awake while knitting 26 pairs of socks but loved every minute, yeah seriously better than data entry at Porirua Library 😊

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