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Crew Expectations

Contributed By Fred Ginsburg

It seems like, on any given day, a person can flip open a trade magazine and read all about what producers should expect from their free-lance video crews. I think that’s well and good for many of the new producer/directors, and those articles may help them choose competent teams. However, this article deals with the flip side of the issue --namely, what experienced freelancers expect from their (often novice) employers.

Video has brought with it many changes in the realm of corporate and commercial filmmaking. Not only are there the obvious differences between motion-picture cameras and their electronic counterparts, but the new technology has ushered in alternative ways of thinking.

In the old days of Spectra light meters and changing bags, it was difficult for a person to advance to the rank of producer/director. Unless it was a family-owned business, the aspiring applicant had to demonstrate a solid background in the medium. Resumes boasted of experience: behind cameras; over flatbed editing consoles; pounding out page after page of scripts, and even of years spent chasing after what seemed like the all-important graduate degrees. People worked up the ranks. And those with the right blend of experience, creative flair, corporate conservatism and dynamic leadership eventually were rewarded with the directorial reins.

Today’s corporate way of thinking is different, though. People are being dubbed producer/director on the basis of good company politics, fine intentions and a pleasant personality. They surface, it seems, from every department except film/video production. It is unbelievable how many of this new directorial cadre know hardly anything about our industry! I don’t know where they all come from, or who approves their hiring, but it is frightening.

Similarly, there once existed a time when free-lance crews were selected on the basis of proven ability. Production companies looked for impressive credits on resumes, flashy demo reels and a good reputation. If the people were competent, it was taken for granted that their equipment would be up to the task.

Somewhere down the line, corporate and cable video has changed all of that. Now, in the producer’s eyes, the most important factor in hiring a video crew is the equipment. But since the new people in charge hardly understand anything about technology, they make a decision based on the video camera the prospective cameraman owns.

If the cameraperson possesses the one brand that the producer has heard of, he or she is considered eligible for employment. If he owns a different type, even one of comparable or superior quality, that cameraman has one strike against him. Critically important working tools such as a good lighting and grip package seldom enter into the initial conversation. Unlike his film counterpart, the question of this individual’s ability and experience only arises after the equipment category has been dealt with. The human being is considered merely an accessory that comes with the camera.

The plight of the production sound mixer is even worse. He or she has been ignominiously named the "video tech," and his/her sole responsibility is thought to be "to keep the cameraman out of trouble and to run the VTR." In his "spare time,’ he may be called upon to put a lavalier or radio mike on someone in order to record sound. (Of course, the soundtrack is always expected to be perfect, since sound editing is complex and costly in video.)

In terms of sound-recording equipment, the only "important" consideration in hiring is that the soundman have radio microphones. Other things, such as a mixing panel and a nice selection of microphones, don’t seem to matter. Like the cameraman, the soundman is something that comes along with the camera package.

As for the rest of the crew members—camera assistant, boom man, gaffer and grip - they only exist after forceful negotiation by the cameraman and re-submission/approval of the original budget. Somehow, companies are under the delusion that two people can accomplish what normally takes a film crew of at least four or five.

There is a consensus that, because television news is video and because news teams are only two people -- two are all you need for quality production. Of course, they expect better lighting than that of news, and the sound should be feature quality. Yet, only two bodies are supposed to accomplish this great feat.

But once the crew has suffered the humiliation of realizing that the primary reason for their hiring was not their Emmy nominations, but rather the fact that the cameraman happened to own the right camera, the real fun starts. In addition to doing our jobs, it all too often becomes our responsibility -- out of dire necessity -- to turn the production set into a classroom.

Point number one: The crew must be told what the upcoming shot is supposed to be. Not the history and planned future of the entire six-day shoot, but just the next shot. It sounds simplistic, I know, but describing only the single shot for the crew usually stumps a lot of the new directors. Of course, without that little tidbit of information, all we can do is stand around with our hands in our pockets and make snide comments.

When explaining a shot, especially if the director has made any slight changes, it is important to include the sound mixer -- not merely the cameraman -- in the conversation. Although the assistant cameraman, gaffer and grip can take their instructions from the cameraman, the sound mixer must formulate his own strategies for getting the best sound. A "small change" may affect his plans quite radically. If the mixer is not kept abreast of each situation, additional delays should be expected.

Point number two: Please allow us to see a rehearsal of the action before we shoot it.

Rehearsals are a funny topic with some of the new breed. Whenever the schedule is a bit behind, they think they can save time by skipping the rehearsal. That makes about as much sense as stopping your watch to save time. The crew needs a rehearsal in order to see what the shot and blocking are going to be. Without that preview of the action, we can’t guarantee the little things -- such as lighting, lens focus and miking. Yet, a lot of directors become impatient and insist on rolling the tape anyway -- even though no one, not even the talent, fully understands what it is that’s supposed to happen. What is the sense in wasting tape on something that everyone knows is going to be useless? (Note: I am not referring to those rare occasions when rehearsals are recorded for reference guide only, which can be a legitimate tool.)

Point number three: You can stare at your script until tomorrow and the shot still won’t get any better.

A director is supposed to direct. Good blocking does not happen by itself; it has to be created. A surprising number of new directors take it for granted that things and people will just naturally fall into place for the camera.

Foreground action and background action have to be choreographed for those dynamic master shots. If you want a mail cart to pass through the frame, tell the mailperson what you want him to do and when. If the worktable in the back is empty, then ask one of the woman workers if she could temporarily move to it. Wishing and looking at storyboards won’t make a good shot happen: It requires getting out there and making things happen!

Point number four: "Action? The tapes not even rolling!"

Someone has to shout "roll" and "cut:’ Crew members are not mind readers. They do not know what is going on in the mind of the director, and they work with many different directors each month. It is not always obvious when a director is satisfied with the blocking and is ready to lay down a "real one:’

All too often, we hear "Action!" before anyone has bothered to say "Roll!" Nor did anyone wait for the reply, "Speed!"

In videotape, there is a 10 to 15-second delay between the time the tape operator starts the machine and the time it is okay to begin recording the scene. Not only does it take a few seconds for the VTR to stabilize, but in the event that anyone actually plans to edit the videotape, it is essential to record several seconds of "leader" at the beginning of every take in order to allow "lock-up time" for the editing computer to do its thing.

Point number five:"Tape’s still rolling:"

"Cut!" is a very important word. I don’t know why, but directors hate to shout that word until long after they have had a lengthy conversation with the cameraman. Sometimes, they’ll even rush off to call the office first!

I realize that it may be asking a lot, but it would he nice to hear "cut;" so that the crew would know the take is over, especially in the event that the take is being stopped early.

Many times, a director will interrupt a take in order to discuss the scene with the talent. Some directors will only interject briefly, and then prefer that the tape continue rolling, since it takes fifteen or more seconds to start up again. Or maybe they just like to watch themselves in action back at the editing bay.

Sometimes, the pause turns into a long summit meeting. The problem is that the crew usually doesn’t know on which interruptions that will happen. So the VTR will continue to roll, either until the director belatedly decides to announce his intentions, or the operator has to stop anyway to reload tape.

Tape operators have been threatened with slow death for having once dared to assume that a take was over when, in fact, the director claimed to be pausing only momentarily as a ploy to achieve a once-in-a-lifetime shot. That is why they all prefer to wait for the official word before punching the stop button. Only when the director specifically instructs the crew to "roll at their discretion" will a crew take it upon themselves to make editorial decisions as to content.

Point number six: "According to the provisions of the Geneva Convention…"

If you took your best pet dog out to the desert for an afternoon, you’d probably bring along some water for it to drink. Well, If you take a crew out to the desert, don’t forget to bring water for them.

Cold drinks are very important to the crew. Video production is very hard work physically, especially if you have to lug around equipment that weighs more than a clipboard. Every shoot must have a supply of cold refreshment on hand. There should be sodas for a "sugar fix," as well as diet drinks and plain water to quench a thirst. Fresh fruit and candy are also good snacks. Cold drinks are as important to a production as tape stock—never forget that fact!

Point number seven: "Whadda you mean, ‘Maybe we’ll have time for lunch?’

They say that an army travels on its stomach. A crew travels in the van, but it still gets hungry. Lunch is very important to working laborers. To a producer/director who is only out in the field one day a week, the midday meal may not matter much. For a day, you can rough it. But to a professional crew that is out working most days of the week, performing hard work 10 or more hours each day, the lunch break is sacred ground.

The crew needs a chance to sit down in a clean, comfortable environment and to relax over a healthy meal. Crew members need to nourish their bodies at the same time they clear their minds.

No matter what the temptation, no matter how much you are behind schedule, never try to cancel lunch. Not only is it against the law, but your crew will get very angry. Fatigue will affect the quality and speed of work. And besides that, they will be busy figuring out ways to "get even." One way or another, the production will pay the price!

As long as we’re on the subject of lunch, it is professional etiquette for the production company to pay for the meals. When you figure the budget add a few dollars per person for lunch. Let’s face it, the production company is going to end up paying for the meals directly or indirectly, so they might as well be nice about it and earn a lot of good will with the crew.

Bathrooms are also nice to have around. Usually, small production companies only think about personal conveniences if there are important actors. Crews are just supposed to fend for themselves. If you are planning to be out where there is nothing but ugly streets and locked buildings, or in the boonies somewhere, then arrange for a motor home or honey wagon.

Point number eight: Don’t tell your doctor how to hold a scalpel.

A professional crew likes to be told what they are supposed to do, but not how to do it. A director working with an experienced professional—cameraman, sound mixer or gaffer - must trust in that individual’s ability to do the job in the best manner possible.

Professional freelancers practice their trades day in and day out, under a wide variety of conditions. They know the limits of their equipment, and they’ve executed exotic techniques more times than they care to keep track. A professional knows what tricks will work, and when. He or she has the experience to eyeball a situation without a monitor or a set of headphones and intuitively predict the end product.

As an experienced production sound mixer, I hate it when a director tries to tell me how to mike a situation, especially when it is clear that he doesn’t possess more than a student’s rudimentary knowledge. I’m not impressed when a director tries to show off by saying "shotgun mike" or "RF mike" There’s a lot more to this job than knowing a little vocabulary; or of having played soundman once or twice on a student project. Ask me polite questions, and I’ll be happy to educate. However, try to tell me how to do my job, and you’re on thin ice and could come out looking like the fool.

All of this is not to imply that a director cannot ask the crew for something other than what he is getting. We all have different tastes, or perhaps the scene description was a bit vague. It is fine to ask for a change in lighting, or makeup, but communicate in terms of the end product. If you want more of a low-key, shadowy look on the face, just relay that to the cameraman. Don’t tell him where to move his lights, or tell the grip how to flag it. Describe to them the effect you want, and let them figure out the best way to accomplish it.

If you don’t have confidence in a professional’s ability—fire him! Otherwise, let him do his job.

Point nine: A shooting schedule can be easier typed than done.

It is amazing how simple it is to make movies on paper. Kodak and Sony really ought to manufacture word processors instead of film and tape.

For instance, some of the things that a producer can accomplish with a few ink marks often leave working professionals speechless. Not enough money for a six-day shoot? Turn it into a four-day shoot by adding twenty more setups per day. Need to have the crew shoot in one location in the morning, and then be way across town for an important interview? Just pencil in one hour for wrapping out of the first location, loading up the truck, driving forty miles in heavy traffic, stopping for lunch and being set up and ready to roll at the second site.

By only allocating a single hour for what, under the best of circumstances, would actually require at least two and a half hours, a producer can keep his show "on schedule;" even if it means delaying some unimportant transplant operation.

Setting up camera and lights takes time. Changing locations -- even if it’s only two doors down the hall -- takes time. Loading and unloading the truck is no split-second feat of magic. Getting through traffic, and then trying to find a suitable place to park (producers hardly ever pre-plan for convenient parking) also eat into the clock. You can’t schedule a shooting crew to be in two places without an ample interval.

 

Point: number ten: Just because we get our hands dirty doesn’t mean we’re not educated.

There is a common practice for producer/directors to think of their crew as nothing more than glorified ditch diggers. Because we work with equipment, some people assume that (while they went to college) all we ever did was read comic books and learn a mechanical trade.

Surprise! An awful lot of us attended film school, and we have our bachelor’s and/or master’s degrees hanging on our walls the same as the producer/directors do! At various times in our careers, many of us have worked in an assortment of production capacities, perhaps including editor, writer, cameraman and even producer or director.

So why are we working as specialists on the crew? A number of reasons, varying from individual to individual. The money is good. The freedom of not being dependent on one employer. A lot of us enjoy working in a creative technical capacity.

Not everyone plans on remaining a specialist, either. Many of us are struggling along with the great unsold screenplay or are in the midst of producing our own pet projects. In the meantime, though, we make decent livings by supplying the chiefs with Indians.

A director should feel free to ask questions or solicit advice from members of the crew. An inexperienced individual will find that his or her crew knows a lot more about good filmmaking than might be suspected.

In fact, one novice director that I know recognizes her own limited television background, so she frequently turns to her crew for advice. Many times, the cameraman will select the angles and choreograph the action while she just sits back approvingly and concentrates on content. We don’t mind helping her and it’s easier on us to not be running around repeating setups. Because she knows when to step back and ask for help, the stories tend to be shot in less time and with better overall coverage. Her shows are considered among the best that any staff director in her parent company has delivered.

 

Point number eleven: We’re not in it just for the fun and glamour. We expect to get paid.

We are professionals. That means that we do this sort of work for a living. We really don’t care why a producer wants to make this or that project, nor are we impressed by the chance that it might lead to future work. We were hired to do a job, and once we have done that job to the best of our abilities, we rightfully expect to be paid in return for our effort.

As for overtime. we get time and a half (or more). And the crew is entitled to every hard-earned penny. We did not invent the schedules, nor is it our fault that the call sheet reflected someone’s unrealistic fantasy of what a crew can get done in a 10 hour day.

Ten hours is a long time. If you did nothing but sit home on a couch and watch television for that long, you’d be exhausted. Working can be even harder! Travel time is another bone of contention. Many producers don’t seem to feel that a crew deserves to be compensated for hours spent getting to and from a location at the beginning and end of a day. If the location or meeting place is more than a half hour’s drive, we expect to be paid for our time and mileage.

I have a simple rule of thumb for determining when I’m on the clock. Either I’m free to make plans and do as I please, or I am constrained in the service of the producer. That includes traveling, working, production meetings, site surveys, arranging for out of the ordinary rentals, and sitting idly by the telephone all morning waiting for last-minute instructions. Depending on the specific circumstances, I may not charge him full rate, but I will invoice him for the loss of my time and freedom.

A free-lance crew assumes that they will be promptly paid. If a producer is not in a financial position to guarantee immediate payment, he should make that known up front to the people he is hiring. We are not large corporations that can afford to wait 60 or 90 days to be paid. Quite often, not only are we out our salaries, but we’ve had to front money for rentals and expendables. Had we planned to become investors in the project, we would have asked for agreements of limited partnership!

If the shoot is on speculation, for charity, or for a client that is slow in paying the production company -- tell us before you contract our services. Give us an opportunity to work out a deal that is fair for all parties involved. Who knows, maybe we will be moved enough to donate our services to a worthy cause. But, unless negotiated otherwise, a crew expects to be paid in full, promptly. Please, don’t hire us if you can’t pay us!

Believe it or not, your crew wants the project to be as good as it can. We like to be able to take pride in our work. Have trust in our abilities, treat us like flesh-and-blood human beings, and your crew will go to hell and back for you!

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