Labor Day, Unions and Me

15 09 2010

It was Labor Day in the United States a few Mondays ago and this seems like a natural time for me to talk about what film unions have done in the scope of my career.

I remember, one day when I was working as an assistant editor on a documentary that was struggling to meet a crazy and imminent deadline, its producer pulled me aside and complained that the overtime pay that I was going to make working that weekend was going to make it difficult for his company to turn a profit on the program. Now, let’s leave aside the reality that he was probably making about 25 times what I was making on the film. And let’s also leave aside the reality that I didn’t create his schedule or his lateness with “locking the picture” (this means finishing the editing so you can hand it over to the sound editing team and the composer).

Nope, what galled me about his attitude was that he felt that he had every right to suck away my weekend so that he could finish his film. Without so much as a thank you.

Late nights, weekend work, and crazed deadlines are (unfortunately) a reality in the film business. There never seems to be enough money to do a film right, until there’s not enough time to do it at all. And then all of the stops are pulled out — mixing stages are kept open on Saturday and Sundays, extra visual effects teams are added, and more studio executives tend to show up at all hours to “help solve problems.”

So I’m not complaining about the hours and the overtime. That’s just a part of life.

What I do object to — then and now — is that this producer felt that we should be invested enough in that film to add extra work into the project without any extra compensation whatsoever.  It wasn’t in my original contract discussions with him, and it had never occurred to him to mention it until the day before that weekend.

On that film, however, we had a union contract and I was able to tell him — “If you want to take away my weekend, you can. But that’s why the extra overtime pay is called ‘penalty time.’”  On a film without a contract, I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I’m not blind.  I know that large unions can become as oppressive as large companies. I also have heard the cliché of on-set regulations so restrictive that tables couldn’t be moved because the crew was waiting for a grip to come back from the bathroom.  I’ve heard about those situations, but I’ve never actually been on a film like that. But I’m sure they exist — on very rare occasions. On most sets, everybody takes pride in pitching in to help — so long as it doesn’t take away from their own job (which is a very crucial distinction to anyone trying to make a deadline).

But I know that the constant struggle between those who get paid and those who pay us is often won by the people with the most clout, and that is rarely the workers. Most of us are normal people who are trying to make enough money to support families and take them out to eat once every few weeks or so. (There’s actually a great blog, written by a woman who writes under the pen name Peggy Archer, called Totally Unauthorized, which documents her life  as a set lighting technician, and it’s a great read for everyone who thinks that filmmaking is all about glamour and lush parties.) If we often feel that we could use some help, every now and then, at getting a tiny bit more leverage in that struggle, who can blame us?

So, I’ve always been a fan of unions, even when they get too excessive. There are people on both coasts who felt a few years ago, for instance, that the Screen Actors Guild has gotten entirely too caught up in its own politics to see the overall industry picture. They feel that SAG would rather bring everyone else in the industry down with them, in order to make their own points. Frankly, I am not one of those people, but that’s not really my point at all. My point is that the excesses of a union are usually a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the excesses of the studios.

So, on this Labor Day weekend, it’s helpful to remember that film unions are neither pro-film or anti-film. They were formed originally to be pro-people-who-work-in-film.

For all of you who want to be good editors and good filmmakers, we want to ally ourselves with good producers, good studio people and good and healthy business practices. And, sometimes, a little help from our unions is vastly appreciated.

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One side note here and it’s going to be a bit of a rant.  My apologies. If ranting is too much for you today, please skip the rest of this post and return next time.  Please.

On every film that I’ve worked on, I got completely involved and treated the film as if it was my own.  I got invested in more than just the editing of the film, but its very creation.  So, I’m not stepping back from involvement in a film. But the reality is that those films were never my films! There is no way that I could possibly reap the benefits of the great successes in the same emotional ownership way as the producer, director, writer and actors. I was as much a part of the filmmaking process as most of them, but they weren’t my films.

It’s always amused me that the producers or directors on the lowest budgeted films, were often the ones who expected every single person on the film to give as much sweat, blood and overtime as they did. And while I’ve seen them thank their editors, cinematographers, production designers etc. at the premieres, I never saw them hand them an equal amount of credit as they took for themselves (justifiably, by the way — they were usually there for years before a single frame rolled through the film cameras).

I understand why it’s difficult for them to believe that not everyone thinks that their films are the most incredible working and creative opportunity, but it just ain’t so.  We need our directors and producers to be the most passionate members of the team. They lead us. But the other side of the coin for this is that our desire to head home to our families might be a little stronger than theirs at the end of every day.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t give 150%. It just means that we can’t give the 1,000% that they are expected (and want) to give.

And that’s why having a union to protect us from that 1,000% level of commitment is a great thing for the Rest of Us.

Rant over.  We now return you to your lives, which are already in progress.

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Oh, okay, I lied.  One more note.

After I finished the above entry, I was surfing around the Web (Hmmm, “surfing”.  Does anyone say that anymore?) and I reading Peggy Archer’s blog I was talking about above, “Totally Unauthorized.” She has a rather depressing, but realistic and open, discussion about workers in the film craft and how they’ve been affected by the slowdown in Los Angeles film production. I don’t recommend reading it if you are just starting out in the industry because 1) it’s depressing and 2) you will be moving up in a very different world than Peggy and myself did. Your work outlook will be different, and the way in which you get and keep work will also be different.  This is a Very Good Thing, and you should pursue that path. And then you will definitely survive.



Keeping Organized – A Free Webinar

8 09 2010

One of the things that many low budget productions suffer from, as well as nearly all student films, is a lack of organization. It makes those tougher films even harder, but no one ever feels they have the time to set up their systems.

This is crazy shortsightedness and to give a few examples of what I mean by organization, I’m going to take some examples from my book, THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, 4th Edition, and present them (in my usual rambling fashion) during a webinar being given by the good folks over at New Media Webinars.

Every editor does things differently, and Shane Ross has done a pretty good DVD on the subject within Final Cut Pro. I’m going to toss my own thoughts into the ring  tomorrow, Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 10am Pacific time.

There are some good things about this webinar — the first is that it’s free, if you can make it at that time (NMW will be making the webinar available for a fee afterwards, along with some added content — a video where I’ll talk about organizing a VFX  workflow, as well as a copy of the glossary from my book). You’ll also get a chance to win some prizes, always a good thing.

Finally, I think that you’ll learn some things and, if you haven’t, you’ll have a chance to ask questions.

It should be a blast.  And you don’t even have to be in LA to see it.  So, c’mon down.  Just click on the link below.

Editing Bootcamp. Get Organized!!



Why Jobs’ Intro of the new Apple TV is Bull

8 09 2010

Sue Huang USC Presentation conclusion

I’m not saying that the Apple TV is bull, mind you. I’m talking about one or two of the points in the presentation.

But let me backtrack for a second. You’re going to have to bear with me for several paragraphs here, as I meander to my point.

It all started earlier tonight when I was down at USC (the University of Southern  California, for those of you who aren’t sure) watching a fascinating presentation by artist Sue Huang of the collective knifeandfork, which is doing some really fascinating interactive installation pieces which are site and audience specific.

Huang was showing samples of her work and discussing her influences using a PowerPoint (nope, not Keynote, but what are you going  to do?) presentation.  At the end, running out of time, she quickly put up a number of slides which discussed the various roles that different factors played in their work. One of them, at the left, was the “Role of the Audience” which was fascinating and very dense.  I reached for my iPhone (I was taking notes on it) and snapped the picture you see.

Now that I’m back home I can check out what I didn’t have time to read then.

Pretty obvious, right?  Pretty easy, right?

Well, then, why was the woman four people to my left frantically typing away on her iPad, taking the notes so she could read them at home?  My guess is because the freakin’ iPad doesn’t have a camera in it! I’m sure that some day that God-like device will have a camera in it — and then I’ll buy one — but for now, it’s one of the many things that it doesn’t have. Why? Because Apple decided that the public didn’t want a camera on this sleek, incredible, God-given device.

Uh, right. It would  look stupid, holding an iPad up to take pictures of Mom, Dad and your dog. Correct?

So, let’s leap back a few days. Last week, Steve Jobs introduced the new Apple TV (see this MacRumors report, one of about eight zillion stories written about it) by saying that they had listened to what their customers had said they wanted and they didn’t want. They wanted “Hollywood movies and TV shows whenever they want them.” — check!  Makes sense. They wanted “everything in HD” — uh,  okay.  Check, maybe.  My Mom still can’t tell the difference between SD and HD, but let’s give this one to Steve since given a choice, everyone wants something better quality, so long as they don’t have to pay for it.

What else?  “They like to pay lower prices for content.” – check!  Makes sense.  Cheap is better than expensive.  So, score another one for the Steverino.

Next two? “They don’t want a computer on their TV.” and “They don’t want to manage storage.” — check.  We don’t like things that are complex. I get that. (though one could argue that people do rather well managing their music storage on something called iTunes, which Jobs managed to introduce a new version of just twenty minutes earlier). So what did Apple do?  They took out the hard drive and made the device completely streaming. Check!  Makes sense .. uh no. Wait a minute.

Wait a minute.

I get the “no hard drive” part. It makes it too much like a computer. And people don’t want that, right?

Maybe. But let’s phrase the question differently. Would you like to watch anything that you have on your hard drive, whenever you want to? I’ll bet you do. And you’d  like to watch things that might not be available from the few partners that Apple has lined up for the Apple TV, right?  You might like to watch something from the Net that isn’t on YouTube or Netflix, wouldn’t you? I bet you would.  But Steve Jobs doesn’t think so. If it ain’t on Netflix, YouTube, your MobileMe account (hah!) or Flickr, then you’d better stream it over their own proprietary Airplay connection from your computer.

Wait a minute!  Your computer!?  The one with a hard drive in it? Doesn’t that make it hard?

So, what’s my point here?  It’s easy to knock any shipping product for what it doesn’t have.  Almost every product has things missing that would be on your “Must Have” list.  That’s  simply a reality of the design process. You need to compromise. But the desire to dress up these missing items in a ball gown and call them God’s gift to Prince Charming is  laughable.

In fact, it’s almost as laughable as filmmakers that I’ve seen look out at an audience that fails to laugh at a joke that has been planted in a film, and chalk it up to audience stupidity. Just as it’s easy to tell everybody that they should run out and see CATS AND DOGS IV because it’s in 3D!! Because you really really want 3D, don’t you?

It’s very easy in our business (as well as technology, I suppose) to get caught up in our thoughts, reactions and desires and ascribe them to everybody. If we feel that something is necessary, than everybody must feel that way, right?

One of the greatest talents that a filmmaker can possess is the ability to step outside of his or her own reality and question themselves. It’s hard, and it’s rare as a result.

“They don’t want to sync to a computer.”