My production manager, who has saved my butt many times with his encyclopedic knowledge of what it takes to run a unit, regretfully informed me that he had been put under contract full-time by one of those companies I often cite in this column as a positive example of a smart production shop. The ace still shooter for whom I helped open the door to this business over a decade ago had just taken a similar exclusive deal from the same outfit.
And these are but the latest examples of a worrisome trend that ought to concern everyone in the production chain of ambitious, high-quality video products. Good crew personnel, always in short supply, are getting harder and harder to book, and the companies that have the financial resources are finally starting to appreciate the value of keeping the best behind-the-camera-line personnel at their disposal, while denying other companies access to them. This compounds a silently growing problem that has plagued the industry for a number of years.
It's hard not to notice if you've been around here for some while that the faces in the background on BTS reels haven't changed much over the years. Speaking as someone who came up as a "crew hog" himself, I can attest to the fact that, while skilled production hands may be getting older, grayer and bigger over time, they aren't becoming any more plentiful. This is particularly apparent on the shoots of big feature companies, where it's understood that seasoned crews are insurance against the many calamities that can befall a large, expensive production.
They know where to find a replacement camera on a Sunday when the one you picked up on Friday decides it isn't in the mood to work, or a replacement player when one of those scheduled isn't in the mood to work either. Often, crews have shot in particular studios or on specific locations enough to know where to string lights without tripping breakers. A good make-up artist, informed of the cast roster in advance, will bring just the right kit for the particular performers scheduled.
All this adds up to hours saved, which means dollars saved and shots saved as well. Long-time directors and those who hire them count on these resources, and the bad news is that we're running short. That's why the companies that can are contracting for everything from make-up to camera work. Even crew people who aren't formally exclusive to certain companies are given so much work from one or two sources, they might as well be.
Before I set shooting dates for any production, the first thing I do is check on the availability of my cameraman, given the constant demand for his services (and no, I'm not about to tell you whom I use).
Of course, many directors of all-sex or gonzo products solve the vanishing crew problem by simply doing everything themselves. They bring in a mini-cam and a couple of Lowell packs, one PA, maybe someone for make-up, and DIY the whole show. That's fine for certain market niches. In fact, for the ultra-hard, all-sex format where the director's perspective through the lens is the key to creating a spontaneous, rough-cut, raw-edged atmosphere, the lone-gunman approach may actually be superior.
If you're shooting what news and sports producers call "actualities footage," the fewer bodies on the set and the less artificial the situation created, the better the result. For straight-to-Internet shooting, at least at this point, nothing works better. However, attempts to put Internet content on DVD and sell it as home video have already met with consumer resistance over poor-quality picture and sound, which points to inherent differences in these media and their markets.
And if cable sales or feature audiences are part of your market mix, you need some of that elusive thing called production value, and that requires a more complex division of labor. I don't foresee a return to porn on film anytime soon, or large numbers of the kinds of productions that used to employ crews of 20 or more becoming the norm again as they once were, but new technologies are likely to create an even greater demand for certain specialized skills that are unlikely to be concentrated in a couple of off-duty film students hired from the local university.
The coming of high-def brings with it more demanding standards for lighting, shooting, set dressing, make-up and wardrobe. Any technology that makes details more visible is less forgiving of sloppy workmanship on the set. Putting a high-def sticker on the packaging only to give the customer a clearer view of all our mistakes on the product inside turns that sticker from a point-of-sale closer to a warning label.
I always hate presenting problems without solutions, but this one is a bit of a stumper. We have no trade guilds to sponsor apprentice programs for crew specialists, or industry-subsidized instructional opportunities to help bring new behind-the-camera talent onboard. Worse, those who do desire to get into production work are likely to face daunting obstacles — long, long days of grueling, repetitive physical labor at low pay with no benefits and no assured prospects for advancement.
While much is made of the so-called exploitation of performers, it's the crews who really draw the short straw. A performer may work one or two scenes in a show, but the crew works every scene on days that can run 14 hours or more, which can lead to burnout long before new skill sets are mastered.
An aging production workforce whose most qualified members are either loping toward retirement or being snapped up full-time by aggressive, forward-thinking companies presents the whole industry with a challenge from which it cannot retreat. Even given a likely slowdown in the overheated production cycle of the past few years and the disappearance of companies that are no longer viable, the demand for skilled production labor is unlikely to decrease. And the supply is unlikely to increase, unless some thought is invested now toward preventing what may otherwise turn into a perfect storm for producers intending to make the kinds of premium titles that will draw more selective consumers into a tighter sales atmosphere.