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Leadership Sets The Culture On Set

There was a great letter from the ASC president Richard Crudo to the ASC members following the February death of Sarah Jones. You can read the whole thing here. What I want to focus on is his admonition that it is indeed the cinematographers – the leaders – who set the tone and the culture on a set. A few key quotes:

Those who make motion pictures for a living work long and hard at jobs we love, sometimes making significant sacrifices along the way. But we’re not curing cancer. We’re not even curing a hangnail. Twisted individuals for whom money, power, ego and prestige are the ultimate goals, however, treat the obsessive pursuit of these superficial rewards as being tantamount to conquering a fatal disease.


As directors of photography, we have always been responsible for the safety of our crews, and it is incumbent upon us to find ways to be more decent…

I take it one step further. The entire leadership team, from Producers, to Directors, to First AD, and Cinematographers must engender this culture of safety. But it’s not really about safety. It’s about the value of humans. Human life, at it’s simplest; but also human thriving – quality of life, if you will. It’s not about a base set of rules that are bureaucratic and boring and hinder-some. It’s about an all-encompasing culture that values people and their enjoyment of their job.

Film (and also theatre) is by nature a creative industry. As Crudo says, we are not curing cancer. We are making entertainment, and if we’re lucky, sometimes we’re making art. Entertainment and art are valuable, but these are not a real cause for holding the same hours as the medical profession. Do we really need to work 12, 14, or 16 hour days? To save money? Sometimes. But on a regular basis? No.

Indeed, studio television shows have come to the realization that they need to find a work-life balance or their best crew members will almost certainly burn out and the turnover ends up being more costly than simply shooting an easier schedule. There’s something to be said for the shorthand that develops on a set like that.

But a different mentality exists for many studio and independent film producers.

As film producers, we can tend to think that because our shoots are more limited – anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks to 3 months – we can ask our crew to PUSH. REALLY. HARD. It’s a limited time, right? They can rest when we’re done, right? No. No, because many of our crew are not about to go into post-production. They are actually, likely – hopefully – heading to their next gig. I say hopefully, because we hope for them that they are all able to make a full-time living at this film thing they love, right? Someone of them might even have less than a day to recover before hopping onto a flight or into a car for their next gig. That is the life of our below-the-line friends. For producers and directors to ask them to push really hard for three weeks straight is honestly kind of ridiculous and unreasonable.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying, “Don’t ask your crew to work nights.” I’m also not saying, “Never ask your crew to work long days.” I AM saying, “Don’t ask them to treat every single shooting day as an emergency.” If they know you value their health and their sanity, then when the REAL emergencies arise, they will be more willing to sacrifice. They will trust you, producers and directors. They will. I promise. Especially if the culture that has already been engendered on the set, by you, is one of quality of life.

It really is true that the leadership of a team sets the tone and the priorities on each set. While it’s great for camera crews to take ownership for their own selves and their crew members, as many have been quickened to do in the wake of Sarah’s passing, quicker, more permanent change has to come from the top down. I know several DPs who take that responsibility seriously and who treat their crew like family. They are leaders of integrity. They treat their teams like family. It’s time that producers and directors across the board embrace the culture of quality of life. And set that tone on their sets. 

On the sets at which I’ve been a First AD, a producer, or a director, I have indeed tried to do this. There have been times when I’ve asked for more from my crews (humbly). And there have been times when I’ve lost my temper (and apologized). But since I hate when my time and my worth is undervalued, I am loath to do it to others. So when I challenge other indie film producers to do the same, it’s not coming from a pie-in-the-sky perspective. I know the cost of valuing people’s quality of life. I’ve actually done the math as a line producer. It’s not that much more money at the end of the day. But it is worth so much more to your crew, and to your integrity.

1 reply »

  1. Well said, and could be said of any organization or workplace. Even attempting to cure, or even treating, cancer cannot be done effectively for long periods by exhausted people, or, as you indicate, in a toxic non-life-affirming culture.

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