Archive for the ‘film’ Category

Hollywood Hullabaloo

The world was rocked last week by allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein and other members of Hollywood’s elite.

And by “world”, I mean “everyone not in the industry”. For those of us in the industry, it was just Tuesday.

Those allegations aren’t shocking to us. Hell, they’re not even news to most of us. We all knew what Harvey was up to. Anyone that says they had no idea what was going on is either adorably innocent, or lying.

And innocence has a short shelf life in Hollywood.

I never worked directly with Harvey Weinstein, but his predatory sexual behaviour was well-known, even as far away as New Zealand. Unfortunately, Harvey Weinstein isn’t the only one using his power and position to take advantage of the women he works with.

Almost every woman in the film industry – both in front and behind the camera – has her own Harvey Weinstein. Many of us have more than one.

For us, sexual assault is often the price of admission.

I worked with a guy on set. Lets call him “Doug”. Mostly because that was the fucker’s name.

Doug was the Executive Producer, and as such, he held the rights to the movie we were shooting in his sweaty, grabby little hands.

This made him untouchable – a sentiment he unfortunately didn’t extend to the women on set.

One morning, Doug decided that he should start the day by groping my breasts. There was no preamble. No flirty introduction to this. Hell, he didn’t even say “good morning.” He just walked up to me, and – before I could process what was happening – had his hands on my breasts.

What the actual fuck?!?

Did this happen behind the sound stage, where no one could see? No. Did it happen in a secluded area between two trailers? Nope. Maybe in the car park, where no one was around? Hell no. It happened smack bang in the middle of video village,* in front of dozens of people.

No one said a word.

No one could. No one was going to risk shutting down a $200M production that employed hundreds of people over something as minor as a little sexual harassment.

Other times, Doug would try to lure me into his trailer between set ups. Not at all surprisingly, I always had pressing business anywhere else whenever those invitations came up.

I wasn’t Doug’s main target though. That was reserved for our PA, Ashley.**

Ashley was young, sweet, and in no position to complain about the older man who kept trying to corner her in his trailer. By the end of the shoot, things had gotten so bad that the other PAs would cover for her whenever Doug was around.

But, other than the sexual harassment, Doug appeared to be a normal, older, married man. He was a born-again Christian who espoused the sanctity of marriage. He wasn’t what you imagine a sexual predator would look like.

This was confusing. Maybe he was just being friendly? Maybe I was reading too much into this? Maybe he was only inviting me into his trailer because it’s hot– oh, nope, he just groped my breasts. Definitely a creep.

A few days ago, I googled Doug to see if there were any whispers about his inappropriate behaviour.

There was nothing.

I was disappointed, but not surprised. I’ve always wanted to speak out about his behaviour,*** but it’s a risky move. It’s hard to be the first person to come forward, just in case you’re also the only person to come forward.

As I checked out Doug’s IMDb page, I noticed that he has another show in pre-production. Knowing that he’s going to be around other young women on set, I thought seriously about at least putting his full name in the blog post.

Part of me reasoned that, well, it’s been a decade, and he’s never going to stumble across a small blog run out of Canada, is he? Maybe I should just put it out there?

Another, larger, part of me pointed out that I have no proof and being sued for defamation, losing my job, and never working in this industry again would kinda suck.

Not surprisingly, I decided to err on the side of caution; there’s enough detail in this blog that others will recognise him if they’ve encountered him, but not enough to set off a google alert. Or a law suit.

I also reached out to a friend of mine who knows the production team on Doug’s new film. He’s going to give them a heads up about Doug’s behaviour so that hopefully he doesn’t get left alone with, well, anyone. Ever.

It’s not enough. It’s never enough. But hopefully it’s a start.

Doug wasn’t the first guy to harass me at work, and he wasn’t the last.

Hollywood has always been a boys club, run by rich, powerful men with barely any women at the top, and a tolerant atmosphere for creative people who don’t want to play by society’s rules. Everyone’s too scared to rein in the industry’s excesses, in case it somehow also reins in its successes.

They’ve excused rampant drug abuse as he’s just such a tortured artist, he needs drugs to cope. They’ve allow temper tantrums on set because he’s under so much pressure to realise his vision. They’ve let people get away with sexually assaulting women because they’re afraid if they try to stop it, they’ll lose the golden touch that brings in the box office.

All this in an industry that is infamous for its poor representation of women in media. Is it any surprise, when movies treat women like disposable objects, to find out that the men making those movies behave the same way?

But, it finally seems like things might be changing. With so many woman standing up and recounting their tales, maybe the industry will start to acknowledge and address its systemic problems.

I hope this doesn’t die down in a month.

I hope that the industry doesn’t think “well, we fired Harvey, so we’re good now, yeah?”

And I hope that women entering the industry now don’t have to put up with this bullshit any more.

 

* Where all the monitors are set up, a place second in popularity only to the Craft Services truck.

** Her name has been changed, not to protect the innocent, because it was a decade ago, and I’ve forgotten it. Look, I’m sorry, but it was a large crew, and apparently I’m a terrible human being.

*** Partly because it’s really not cool to sexually assault your employees, but also because his religious hypocrisy annoys the hell out of me. Don’t give me shit for living with my boyfriend outside of marriage, and then try to lure me into your trailer for a quick grope while they swing the lights, you two-faced fucker.****

**** Okay, yeah, I’m still a little mad about it.

 

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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.

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