Archive for the ‘film industry’ Tag

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.


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

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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