October 23, 2019

Are Film and TV Set Hours Still Brutal?

Is producer Gavin Polone's exposé on the "punishing routine" of life on set still as true today as it was back in 2012?

Anyone who gets into filmmaking knows that they're not facing a 9-to-5. 12-hour workdays are pretty standard in the film industry—or are supposed to be—and for those just starting out, working long hours is often considered a source of pride, or at the very least, bragging rights. You wear those dark circles under your eyes like badges of honor that signify not only your dedication to the craft but your induction into an industry that is often too brutal for those who "don't have what it takes."

But the shine begins to fade as time goes on. For many working on film and TV sets, an average workday can push 14, 16, 18 hours, and without the elixir of novelty and naivete there to dilute the growing physical, mental, and emotional fatigue, some days the realities of set life begins to go down like a shot of cheap wells, especially for those working below-the-line.

The "Punishing Routine" of Working on Set

Gavin PoloneCredit: IMDb
Zombieland: Double Tap producer Gavin Polone highlights this issue in an article he wrote for Vulture back in 2012, explaining, "It has always been difficult for me to understand how so many in this business put up with such a punishing routine."

He shared testimonies from several below-the-line crew members on one of his shows Jane By Design to reveal not only just how long these people were working on set day-to-day but also how these expectations had affected their lives.

Here are a few examples:

Kirsten Robinson: Script Supervisor

"At the lunch break, it’s like you have another regular person’s day ahead of you. What was the worst for me was the short turnarounds [the term used to mean the amount of time you have before having to be back at work]. We would work sixteen hours and then only get ten hours off and then be back for another long day. That was the real killer. Physically, you’re just exhausted. For me, it is very difficult because my job is mental. I never felt the money was worth it. I want to put my best effort forward: Fighting through and drinking as much coffee as possible doesn’t yield the best work.”

Steve D’Amato: First Assistant Director

“The worst day I ever worked on a show was 27 hours. It was the very last day of the very last episode of the series. We shot for 24 hours and I was there two hours before and an hour after.”

Polone asks him how his schedule affected his marriage:

“At first, she said it might not work out, but now she uses the time when she’s alone. She’s gotten used to it. I used to be happy when a production would go over and I would make more money. But now that I’m older, it is more important to me to be able to get home and do stuff with my wife. What bothers me most is you don’t have time to do anything else. It’s hard. It seems like it’s unnecessary: You could just add one or two more days [to the schedule] and spread it out over more time. We’re the only industry that is fighting for a twelve-hour day: That is what I find amazing.”

Ali Yeganhe: Transportation Captain 

“We’re talking about a fourteen-hour day if we’re local and as much as eighteen hours if we’re farther out. We have an eight-hour turnaround that is mandated by the department of transportation. It does take a toll on you as far as aging you. There is a high divorce rate in this business. Truthfully, I haven’t slept a whole night in three years. My wife and I were together before we got in this business. She was in wardrobe, so she knew.”

Farah Bunch: Makeup Department Head

“I’ve been doing this for eighteen years. The hours have always been the same. I started out in soap operas, which have great hours; then I went into multi-cams, which have even better hours; but once I entered the world of single-camera [meaning one-hour shows and feature films], I was in shock. I thought only in third-world countries people worked hours like this — a fourteen-hour day is the norm for the makeup department. You’re making more money, but it is blood money, ‘cause you’re trading your life. It affects me in the sense that I give up all of my personal life. When I’m in season, I don’t see my friends or family. The weekends I spend recovering. I think it has contributed to me not being able to meet people because I’m not out there in the world mingling. I dated someone in the military and he was in shock that we were working all of these hours and he was out there saving lives and he’d be home by 4 p.m.: He was in Afghanistan and his hours were better than mine. You feel trapped with the hours because you know that if you don’t do them, someone else will. And another thing, you’re given a ten-hour turnaround, which is just enough time to drive home, sleep seven hours like a normal human being, and go back to work.

The Above-the-Line or Below-the-Line Difference

There are certainly a lot of moving parts regarding this issue, from budgetary constraints to scheduling conflicts to a simple acceptance of the status quo. However, most would agree that set life can be absolutely merciless regardless of the level at which you're working, whether you're a producer on a big-budget Hollywood picture or a gaffer on a local indie feature.

Polone points out something very interesting in his article about how these working conditions change depending on if you work above-the-line or below-the-line:

"These hours can be a bit grinding for me, but as a producer I have the latitude to show up later or leave earlier. Actors can have brutal days, but they also usually get days off, as most shows are ensembles and they’re rarely in every scene. And let’s face it, producers and actors are highly compensated for their work. However, the average below-the-line worker (the budgetary classification for those who aren’t producers, directors, actors, or writers) has to be there every day and make a middle-class wage. And, from my perspective, they are also the people who whine the least about this extreme schedule."

Behind the scenes of 'Zombieland'

Are Things Changing?

The experiences of Polone's crew are not new. Back in 1998, Filmmaker Haskell Wexler took out that full-page ad in Variety calling for "humane treatment of humans" after camera assistant Brent Hershman died after falling asleep at the wheel. Many experienced film workers have spoken up about these working conditions and are still trying to raise awareness about on-set safety regarding long workdays, especially after Riverdale KJ Apa got in a "drowsy driving" accident in 2017 after a long shoot day. 

In fact, after this incident, Deadline's Anita Busch explored the dangers of 100+ work weeks and 1-4 hour turnarounds pose for crew members, not only when they get behind the wheel of a car to drive home but also when handling heavy, dangerous equipment. And though many of the stories Busch shared revolved around drowsy driving, the heart of them sounded earily similar to those Polone relayed in his article.

So, why not take another pulse and ask the current community. Is there still an overworking problem on today's sets? Do the accounts from Polone's crew still reflect the working conditions of below-the-line workers today?      

Your Comment

12 Comments

Extremely long days are typically the result of an inexperienced producer, director or production coordinator.

I charge healthy overtime rates for days in excess of 10 or 12 hours, depending on the original quote.

For the first 2 hours of OT it’s 1.5x rate/hour, and over 2 hours is 2x rate/hour.

Meal penalties are also part of the equation.

So I’ll gladly work an 18 hour day, but I will be paid accordingly.

For those of you just starting out, it’s important that you charge OT or you will be taken advantage of due to poor producing.

October 23, 2019 at 5:36PM

6
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BD
679

It's a toss up between the rare two-hour/full-rate days, and the 16-20 hour days with short turnaround and no OT. Producers and production management know if they can find a freelancer a day or two before the shoot, that they need the money and are not gonna ask questions like "What it the rate?" or "Can you send me a deal memo?" I have actually been approached to work on network shows, and followingly admonished for asking these basic questions. NEVER LET ANYONE BULLY YOU!

At the end of the day, if you don't belong to a union, you have to be your own agent and negotiate against the BS. Or, you will be rubbed down to the nub. Many in the industry don't mind a 20-hour day for a passion project for a friend as long as they are respectful and offer a decent meal (and especially if they are compensated in even the slightest or given a copy of the final project).

I do hear tales there are good people above-the-line lol. For example, I'm itching to work on any Clint Eastwood picture... never over a 12-hour day and his company hires buses to convoy crew/talent back and forth from sets on location. A few decades of experience should not be the factor an employer's decision to offer decent day's living. And people need to be willing to walk off a job if their time and energy are not being reciprocated properly.

Also, oddly enough, sporting events will not even broach past 8 or 10 hour days. Everybody minds the clock there!

October 23, 2019 at 5:51PM

2
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Mattison
Producer/Director/Writer/Podcaster, iPhone Videographer
17

Also, forgot to add... Bollywood films are the most brutal of all. To go along with insane hours, they use people instead of sandbags (a.k.a. blood bags). And often, multiple employees at the end of the day are stuffed into tiny housing accommodations.

October 24, 2019 at 4:57PM

0
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Mattison
Producer/Director/Writer/Podcaster, iPhone Videographer
17

What's the point of a union if they can't protect against this kind of abuse? This is just a dumb way to run a production. You will get worse quality work, which will take longer, which will again lead to longer hours.

October 23, 2019 at 11:22PM

0
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Batutta
317

This MO is stupid beyond description. I'm mainly in postpro and experience this nonsense sometimes. And most of the time, when there's no proper compensation I make a major fuzz about it. To be honest, I actually want the client to shy away from paying more and make the job on time. There's a life outside from this industry, regardless how much fun it can be at times.

But on another point the ugly truth is: human beings working in very intricate or physically or mentally demanding jobs can't really keep up their full attention and full capabilities more than 8 hours or so, I'm inclined to say that in a lot of professions it's even just 6 hours or less. The nonsense practice of going 10, 12, 14 or how many inhuman hours is compromising the product terribly and a proof that those in charge either don't have the slightest clue what they're doing or, probably the main point, they want to save money and hope that as many crew members as possible just shut up and work for too little compensation.

And I'm wondering how producers can live with something like that on their minds.

October 24, 2019 at 2:38AM, Edited October 24, 2:44AM

0
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DingDong
1574

You make a great point: for me, the purpose of overtime pay isn't to punish the producers, but to incentivize them to stick to a 10 or 12 hour day in the first place.

October 24, 2019 at 4:05PM

0
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BD
679

After doing a 20hr day then getting to my next gig with 1hr to spare and doing another 13hrs, I realized that the money for my labor didn't mean shit compared to the quality of life I was losing. I would gladly take 1/3 rate cut to work an 8 hr and tag out with someone else and go home to my family.

October 24, 2019 at 2:42PM

1
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Sean
Assistant Camera
91

Sean, I'm stating the obvious but this is fucking dangerous! Like Randall Wilkins commented below, the health risks are long term while the only thing that gets discussed in the open is the danger of driving home after a long day or working while completely tired. It's very hard to even get the numbers on this, so who knows how many of our colleagues die way too early, get a stroke or other health issues because they did this grind for way too long...

October 25, 2019 at 1:41AM, Edited October 25, 2:25AM

0
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DingDong
1574

Easy solution. Take a vote then approach IATSE to organize your production.

October 24, 2019 at 6:30PM

0
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Steven Cohen, SOC
Camera Operator
113

Only a very small percentage of people working in film & TV are union. So no, there is no easy solution.

October 25, 2019 at 10:20AM

1
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BD
679

Whether a non-union show or a union show, even a 10-hour turn-around isn't enough if you've just done a 16 hour day. On a non-union show a 25-hour day nearly did me in but I wasn't yet smart enough to see the possible outcome of that self-abuse. I was on Pleasantville when Brent was killed and it changed the industry for about a minute. I ended up in the hospital many years later from stress and exhaustion on a show and the doctor said it was a miracle that I was alive, much less that I was able to walk at all. You must take care of yourself. No one else will.

I can tell you after 35 years in the industry that the shows you work on will be footnotes in your life story, full of good times and great people. But for those memories to exist, you need to be alive. Lack of sleep will at the least shave years off your time here. Have a real life, don't let the industry be the totality of your existence on earth. Live, create, sleep.

October 24, 2019 at 8:23PM, Edited October 24, 8:33PM

1
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Randall Wilkins
Filmmaker / Set Designer
18

I'm an independent filmmaker. I've directed 6 features. My most recent film Confined is currently on Amazon Prime. I NEVER work 12 hour days. As a matter of fact, we never go over 8. I keep my crews small because we're making micro budget but even if I had bigger budgets I would utilize that money and still keep the crews small but shoot over more days. We have an art form that became an industry. Why we're still doing things the way, "they've always been done" is beyond me. Light less, shoot more, give your actors more takes and spend the entire time on set actually filming instead of setting up. Most of our days are between 6-8 hours. 8 hours max unless it's a major exception but it's very rare for us. Everyone has the point where they're done and you should never make them go past that. You're not getting their best work anyway.

October 25, 2019 at 10:39AM

6
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avatar
William Chaffin
Filmmaker
19