Cinematographers Want Overly Long Workdays Addressed in Contract Talks
Recently fourteen top film industry cinematographers and the president of the Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600, signed a letter urging The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) member producers to address the brutally long workdays commonplace in the industry. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a pervasive safety issue that many of us who work on set have been complaining about for years. Maybe now this issue will finally get some traction.
Somehow, the producers have avoided addressing the long workdays for one round of contract talks after another. It’s an institutional workplace problem that threatens everyone’s safety, both on set and off.
The likelihood of accidents at work increases significantly after a twelve-hour workday due to cognitive impairment. Imagine what happens after a sixteen or twenty-hour workday. They’re increasingly common in the film industry, and I’ve worked abusively long hours like this numerous times in my career.
Several departments on set, such as stunts and special effects, are especially prone to accidents if the people setting up and making decisions are too tired to make clear-headed judgments about safety.
And then we have to drive home. It’s impossible to avoid being a drowsy driver at the end of a fourteen-plus-hour workday.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy driving isn’t just falling asleep while driving. It’s a profound impairment that mimics alcohol-impaired driving. Anyone driving in this state poses a severe threat to themselves and others on the road.
We can go into periods of microsleep, which is sleep lasting less than thirty seconds when we’re driving while exhausted. Many people in the industry have experienced this. We get home and can’t even remember the drive there.
That is if we manage to make it home without having a vehicle accident. And worker’s comp doesn’t cover accidents driving to and from work.
The grueling hours the film industry considers typical are an institutional problem that producers and the industry unions need to address now. Yes, filming shows during COVID-19 has cost significant sums of money. But it hasn’t put a dent in the bloated above-the-line budgets that have become the norm at the expense of realistic shooting schedules with humane work hours.
The pandemic cannot and should not be an excuse to ignore long workdays that endanger everyone.
Over the years, shooting schedules have shortened while the scope of the material being filmed has grown more complex. More work gets crammed into less time. Shorter unrealistic shooting schedules mean more extended workdays.
Some directors, particularly inexperienced ones, plan unrealistic shot lists. It’s obvious as soon as they get to set that they have not prepped well.
One new director I worked with years ago even had to call the Executive Producer down from his office to help direct what should have been a simple two-person scene. The result was an eighteen-hour workday.
Shooting schedules should reflect the time needed to film the work with workdays no longer than twelve hours. It’s not an undoable task, and it would save lives.
The producers and film industry unions showed visionary leadership in coming together to form a successful plan for filming during the pandemic. Those of us who work in the industry have had numerous tests for COVID-19, socially distanced on set, and showed our vaccination cards as needed.
Considering how many people work in the constantly changing landscape of our industry, the number of positive virus cases has been low. Implementing the Industry-Wide COVID-19 Return to Work Agreement laying out set safety protocols has been a success.
The industry has found a way to adapt and get everyone back to work safely. Now it’s time they do the same for excessively long workdays.
Some of the industry’s top cinematographers have decided to step up and lead the way. It’s a wake-up call to the rest of the industry to join them to support safe, reasonable work hours.
Enough people have sacrificed their sleep, their cars, and even their lives for the industry. Overtime is great, but you have to be alive to spend it.