Archive for the ‘film’ Category

The Life and Times of a Production Assistant

I once made my production assistant go and buy me new socks.

Now, in my defense, it was Friday morning, and I’d been at work (and awake) since Wednesday morning. I was producing the VFX for a film that was due to screen in Trafalgar Square in a few days time, and while I was holding up surprisingly well, the same couldn’t be said for my socks, which were a swampy morass from being worn for forty-eight hours straight.

Sometime around 4am, in a sleep-deprived fugue, I sat down, took my shoes off, and threw my socks away. I sent my PA (who was asleep at home) a text asking him to pick me up new socks on his way in to work at 9am.*

He thought I was joking and turned up to work without new socks.

I made him go back out and get them.

But you know what? This doesn’t come close to being the worse thing a PA has been told to do in the film industry. Heck, this is probably not even the worst thing I’ve told a PA to do. It’s no secret that production assistants get the worst  – and weirdest – tasks in the film industry, having to do everything from buying birth control, to babysitting the director’s children. Daniel Day Lewis famously made the PAs carry him around on the set of My Left Foot to help him stay in character.

There’s very few other industries that would get away with treating their junior staff the way the film industry does.

So, why do we do this? Do we have our heads so far up our own asses that we demand to be waited on hand and foot?

Well, maybe a little.

But there is more to it than that.

First, a bit about myself. I’m a visual effects producer. This means my job is to manage the budget, schedule and deliverables of high end visual effects for film and television. I’m ultimately responsible for taking the budget the studio has for VFX, and turning that into high quality VFX shots. The hours are long, the stress levels high, and the dollar amounts I deal with in the “lots and lots”. If I screw up, I could potentially send the company I work for under.

So, that’s fun.

When I’m in the thick of a show, my day normally starts about 3 minutes after I wake up, when I check my work emails as soon as my eyes can focus properly. I’ll head in to work early to catch up on any budget or resource issues I need to deal with, then, once the team is in, I’ll spend pretty much the rest of my day putting out fires before finally heading home sometime between 10pm and 2am.

I won’t take lunch. Instead, I’ll use that hour when everything is quieter to catch up on the less oh-my-god-the-world-is-going-to-end-if-this-isn’t-fixed-right-now problems.

There is never enough time in my day to do all of the things.

As you can imagine, that means that some of the not-as-urgent items slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, those not-as-urgent items tend to be things like paying my phone bill, picking up a package from the post-office, or taking my car into the mechanics. The bad news is, life doesn’t stop just because I’m on a film – the phone company still wants their money, my boyfriend would like his birthday present, and the car really probably shouldn’t be making that noise when I brake.

That’s where a PA comes in. They’re hired to take care of all the little problems, so that I can focus on the bigger ones. The little problems can range from restocking the office kitchen, to, well, anything. One time I got lost on my way to a location scout, so the locations manager handed me a PA for the day. All that kid did all day was sit in the car with me to make sure I didn’t get lost between locations.

I’m pretty sure that was not what he expected he would be doing when he was in film school.

On the plus side, spending six months as a PA is a great way to see if you really want to be in the film industry.

You see, a lot of people want to work on movies. It’s seen as exciting and glamorous, all Hollywood red carpets and mingling with stars.

In reality, it’s long hours and egos. It’s missed birthdays and divorces. It’s financial uncertainty and politics. I mean, it’s still amazing – we do get to paid to make movies, after all – but there’s definitely more to it than just the celeb-fest that Variety would have you believe.

And, because a PA’s skill set is pretty minimal, we’ll hire almost anyone who wants a job and can put up with being treated like a PA for six months. I’ve known baristas, waitresses and bartenders who have all gotten their foot in the door because they served a producer who was looking for a PA at the time.

Of that flock of PAs that we’ve hired, not all of them are going to want to stay in the film industry once they’ve seen behind the curtain. And that’s what makes being a PA a good entry level job – if you’re not okay with having to get coffees for a group of executives, you’re really not going to like some of the things coming up later in your career. Better to get out early, in that case.

But, for all that, being a PA can actually be a fun job. Sure, the pay sucks, but it’s (relatively) low stress, every day is different, and it’s a great opportunity to see the whole film making process. Also, most people on the crew were once PAs, so they’ll (generally) be pretty nice to you.

PAs also work across departments, meaning they get to know everyone on the crew, in a way that most department specific crew won’t. Not only does this make the PA role a lot more social than other crew positions, but it’s a good chance to decide which direction you want to go in your career. And because you know everyone, it’s usually not too hard to wrangle a gig in that department on the next film.**

If you get the opportunity to work on a film as a PA, don’t be put off by some of the stranger jobs you have to do – the person getting you to do that job probably had to do something worse when they were a PA.

And don’t worry – the pay does get better.

* Fortunately for both of us, my underwear was surprisingly okay.

** Just don’t be a jackass. In fact, that’s such good advice, I think I’m going to do a blog post on that topic.

The Geeks in the Basement

VFX artists tend to be seen by the rest of the film industry as the geeks in the basement.

Okay, so admittedly, we are all pretty nerdy and into computers. And, I guess our desks do tend to be covered with Lord of the Rings figurines and light sabres. And, sure, due to the light sensitive nature of our jobs, we do work in blacked out rooms… So the name isn’t all that inaccurate.

But it still says something about how the rest of the film crew sees the VFX artists.

And that comes down to how the films are made.

Okay, bear with me here as I go into a little bit more detail than anyone ever asked for on how a film gets crewed, but it is relevant.

You see, when a film is greenlit by a studio – say, Paramount – the producer doesn’t just go out onto the Paramount lot, grab the Paramount film crew, and start shooting.

Instead, the film will be crewed by freelance crew members, brought together by the production just for that one film.

The first person to join the film will be the director (often having a known director attached – along with some big name actors – is part of getting a movie greenlit). Once he or she is on board, the production will start to bring on the heads of departments, people such as the director of photography, the editor, the art director, and so on. These are the people responsible for the creative vision of the film, and they’ll often be people the director likes, has worked with before, or has heard good things about. This will be done in consultation with the studio and producer, who ultimately have final say, but generally want to keep the director happy.

Once the creative HoDs are in place, they’ll start filling in their departments, hiring assistant editors, camera assistants, gaffers, grips, chippies, sparkies and woofies.* As these will often be local talent, most of this round of crewing will happen after the production decides where to shoot the film. These people will be found through networks and friends – hire the 2nd Assistant Camera in Vancouver, and they’ll know someone who can come on as the focus puller. 98.75% of the time, this is someone they’ve worked with before that they like. The other 1.25% of the time, it’s someone they know from film school.**

And that’s it. We come together, spend 4-6 months making movie magic and getting heartily sick of each other in the process. Then, once the film is complete, we have a massive wrap party, grab our crew swag (which is useful, since we probably haven’t done laundry in the last month), and go our separate ways. Until the next film, where we’ll either know half the crew already, or figure out who we know in common.

So, that’s how the film crew works. VFX is a little different.

You see, our software is pretty complex. And, our software also doesn’t like to talk to other software. Even other VFX software. And since every department in VFX uses different software, this can make things tricky.

Say we’re doing a shot where a CG dinosaur runs through a CG river. On a high end film, each step in the pipeline – from building the dinosaur, to adding the CG water, to lighting the shot, before finally putting all the elements together to fit seamlessly within the plate – will be done by a different specialist.

Most of those highly specialised jobs also have highly specialised software packages, and none of them talk to each other. Because apparently that would make too much sense.

So, we have to write a lot of code to move shot information from one department to another. It’s expensive, time consuming, and constantly changing as software packages get updated. All VFX companies have a dedicated pipeline department whose job is to make sure information gets from one place to another.

Another thing that happens along the pipeline is something called rendering. The computer scenes that we work with are very complex, and require a large amount of computer power to process.

Take, for example, a lighter working on the scene with the dinosaur: the lighter will add light sources to mimic the on-set lighting, and then the computer has to go away and think about just what exactly that means. How hot is the kick off the water? Where are the shadows, and how long are they? How do the dinosaur’s scales react to this light? Is there anything causing a bounce light in the scene? These calculations can take hours per frame, so when you’re dealing with a 200 frame shot, that’s a lot of computing. Especially since it takes multiple (and I mean, in the hundreds of) versions to get a shot pixel-perfect.

If we were to just render on the machine we were working on, we’d basically get one render of one shot done every couple of weeks. Oh, and because it would take the entire computing power of that machine, we wouldn’t be able to work in that time. Which sounds like fun, until you have to pay rent.

So, instead, we send all of these scene off to the render farm. This is a stack of computers dedicated to rendering. They have no keyboards or monitors, and their only job, all day, every day, is to render shots. Companies can have hundreds, or even thousands of these dedicated, high-spec computers on a render farm (although still never enough come crunch time). And of course, once you put hundreds of processing computers in a small, enclosed space, putting out a massive amount of heat, you also need to add some heavy duty air conditioners to make sure they don’t do something silly like catch fire.

All of this adds up to one big, expensive nightmare that film studios don’t want to deal with.

Fortunately, they don’t have to. Instead, they can outsource it to a VFX studio that is  already set up with a pipeline, render farm, and artists, and have them make the whole VFX problem go away.

This does, however, create an interesting situation. It means that when I sign on to a film, I’m actually signing on to work for the VFX company, rather than the film production. And this leads to a couple of problems.

The first – and the one that often rankles VFX artists the most – is film credits.

The film studios determine how many credits each VFX company will get. Because credits add to run time, and run time in the cinema costs money, the film studio wants to keep the number of credits to a minimum.

Everyone on set is guaranteed a credit.

No one in VFX is.

I’ve worked on shows with almost one hundred artists, only to be told that we get twelve credits. I know everyone thinks that credits are already waaaay too long, but they mean a lot to people that worked on the film.

But that’s not the worst problem that the division between VFX and the production can cause.

Because VFX and the film making process have become so separated, the director often has no exposure to the process of VFX. After all, it’s not like building a film set where you can walk on the stage day after day and see it take shape. VFX often happens in a different country, and the director only sees a few select stages along the way.

This means that when the directors asks for a change, they don’t always know what they’re asking for. If the director walks on to set and says “yeah, I know I asked for a library, but what I’m actually thinking would work well is a bedroom. Can we change this to a bedroom?” they know just how much of that set is salvageable, and how much is going to be torn down and thrown away. They can see a tangible cost in terms of materials and time.

A lot of directors don’t know that in VFX. Is the change something as simple as loading in a prebuilt bedroom, or is it something much harder? (Hint: it’s something much harder). And, unlike on a sound stage, where the director would arrive at set the following morning to see the haggard, sleep-deprived faces of the set department who had worked through the night to change the set around glaring at him, with VFX, the director often won’t know what the human cost of their changes will be.

(A side note: sometimes, if the revision is large enough, the VFX studio will issue the production with a change order. This is basically something that says “So, you paid us to build a library. We built a library. Then you decided you wanted a bedroom. Now you need to pay us to build a bedroom.” This can also cause problems, as the director, without having a real library to touch and feel, doesn’t understand why a second virtual set costs more money. It’s hard to argue the value of something that – to many people – isn’t real because it only exists in a computer.

Also, this isn’t applicable to all directors. Some, like Peter Jackson, George Lucas, and James Cameron are very VFX-savvy, having owned their own VFX houses, while others, like Neill Blomkamp used to be VFX artists themselves.)

It’s hard to say how this ignorance of the biggest department on most films has come about. I suspect it’s a combination of the directors not being able to be a part of the process, and the VFX houses wanting to shield the director from the daily crazy that is VFX.

I would like this to change, but it will be tough. Ideally, the director would be embedded with a VFX studio for post so they could see the daily rhythm of visual effects, but the director is already spoken for by editorial, sound and music in that time. Besides, with multiple VFX studios in different countries working on the same film, which studio would the director go to?

Maybe over time, as more directors come of age in a time where VFX is as common on a film is as sound, things will start to change; directors and film crews will see us more as equal contributors to the film, and less as anonymous geeks in the basement.

I’d like that. I really would.

Just as long as we don’t have to give up our lightsabers.

*Okay, that last one isn’t really a job, but the others actually all are.

**Which leads to the big catch-22 of the film industry – how do I get a job in the industry without knowing someone, and how do I get to know someone in the industry without working in it? I have no idea, sorry.

How McDonalds Broke the Canadian Film Industry

Canada’s film industry is going through a tough time, and it’s all thanks to a bank and two fast food joints.

When people hear the words “film industry”, they normally think of Hollywood, of movie stars, and studios cranking out movie after movie on the back lot.  Except, that’s not all that accurate any more. Sure, the big studios are still based there, but now, due to the ease of international travel, films are shot in whichever location makes the most sense.*

Need a giant pool for Pirates of the Caribbean 5? Australia has one of the largest in the world. Looking for sweeping sand dunes an hours drive away from a town? Ouarzazate in Morocco has been the backdrop for everything from Prince of Persia to Game of Thrones. Want spooky forests and untouched nature? Welcome to Vancouver.

Over the years, the city has become one of the top locations for films and TV series. In fact, we have so much filming going on here that horror films have all the bite taken out of them – it’s no use trying to be scared by the cabin in the woods when you’ve been to the Starbucks around the corner.

All big film locations have a stable bedrock of local talent, however as films bounce from location to location, many of us follow.  Of course, to do this, we need work visas, but that isn’t normally too difficult to arrange; we’re skilled labour in an area where there’s always a shortage. Plus governments are often a little bit dazzled by Hollywood – if not by the stars, then by the money.

Up until recently, Canada was the one of those countries. The visa process was quick and painless; the film production would put in an application for a “Labour Market Opinion”, a statement swearing they couldn’t find anyone local to fill this job, the government would approve it, and we would trot ourselves off to the border get a new visa. It was about a week from the LMO application to the border visit, and while technically the visa wasn’t issued until you arrived at the border, unless you’d accidentally killed someone drink driving, there was little chance you would be denied a visa.

Then that changed.

The first ripple was a year ago. The Royal Bank of Canada had applied for visa permits for a number of Indian nationals to come to Canada to work at the RBC. The local workers trained up their foreign counterparts on how to use the systems, only to then find themselves laid off shortly afterwards. Following that, the bank sent the newly trained Indian workers back home, before declaring that they would now be outsourcing the work to a brand-new branch of RBC. In India.

This did not go down well.

Then, in June this year, McDonalds and Tim Hortons were in the firing line, accused of hiring foreign workers over locals. Now, I have no idea how these franchises managed to claim with a straight face that no locals had the necessary skills to sell french fries and doughnuts, but apparently they did, and it was discovered that they’d been paying the foreign labour less than minimum wage and violating about a dozen labour laws.

As a Canadian work permit is tied to the company that sponsored you, the workers couldn’t just quit and look for another job. They had to either suck it up or leave Canada.

This was a field day for labour unions and journalists, while the right-wing political parties called for an end to foreign workers all together.

The government – apparently deciding that the best way to fix a broken fingernail is to cut off your arm – tried to resolve the issue by shutting down work visa processing entirely while they decided on a new approach.

That was it. No more work visas. For anyone.

It hit VFX at the worse possible time. Most of us work project to project and summer tends to be a quiet time; we’ve finished all the big blockbuster films, but the Christmas releases are still being shot. VFX facilities ramp down during that time, before crewing up again when the next slate of films land.

Unfortunately, the timing of the freeze came when many people in town were between jobs, and, as such, between visas. Suddenly, many of my colleagues found themselves unable to work in Canada until the government sorted itself out. Everyone expected it would only be a week or two. It turned into three months.

Finally, in August the government came up with a new process for work permits. As far as I can tell, apart from banning the fast food industry and hiking up fees, not much has actually changed. Except for the turn around time. That’s now two months.

Two months is an impossibly long time in the film industry. It’s a very fast sprint from greenlight to the first take, and the mad dash in post is even quicker. Sometimes, we don’t even know what film we’ll be working on in two months time, let alone how many people we’ll need on it. To ask us to crew up that far in advance is… optimistic.

Of course, VFX isn’t the only industry hit; approximately 300,000 foreign workers apply for a visa every year in Canada, in fields as diverse as the oil industry and cruise ships, all of which are going through staffing shortages right now.

What RBC, McDonalds and Tim Hortons did was clearly wrong – indentured servitude is Bad – but the government’s reaction wasn’t the most well-thought out plan. Sure, it addressed the short-term scandal, but it’s hurt Canada, in ways that probably won’t be seen for a while.

I know the film industry is trying to get the government to revise the immigration policy before films stop coming here, hopefully they’re successful, and things can go back to how they were before. Except, you know, without the fast food industry.

* Cheapest. Where ever is cheapest.

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