Thoughts on the Long Work Hours of Film Production

So I got an email from one of my friends yesterday. He had to cancel an evening meeting with me because he was working on a music video. They had already been shooting for 12 hours. He half-jokingly said they’d be there until sunrise. It was 8pm. Do the math. That’s a 22-hour day.

While this is rare, the average production day for a film/television crew is 13 hours+. On student/indie sets, it can be really bad. I’ve heard of students pulling three 18-hour days back to back.

In 2006, Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler made a documentary called “Who Needs Sleep” that shows how sleep deprivation and long work hours in Hollywood are a lethal combination. Wexler recently wrote this article for the Huffington Post that talks about the health and safety dangers of “Sleepless Hollywood”. The article marks the 15th anniversary of the tragic event that led Wexler to make the documentary – after working a 19-hour day on “Pleasantville”, assistant cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car. He was killed.

On the short films that I’ve directed, I’ve tried to keep the days as short as possible (12 hours maximum), and give the cast and crew at least 12 hours of rest.  These decisions were partly driven by budget (the SAG contracts I used required overtime pay for work in excess of 10 hours in any day excluding time spent for meals, and rest period charges if performer is not given at least 12 hours of rest), but mostly driven with the well being of the cast and crew in mind. I, like Wexler, am an advocate of the 12 On 12 Off campaign. The campaign has “three basic rules of humane and responsible filmmaking”: 1) No more the 12 hours of work; 2) No less than 12 hours of turnaround; and 3) No more then 6 hours between meals. (Perhaps an exception would be shooting French hours on an 8 to 10 hour day.)

Not everyone in film and television has long hour production days inflicted on them. According to this article, Clint Eastwood is known for working 9-hour days. On top of that, Eastwood has a history of finishing a product early and under budget, and, in my opinion, his films are stellar. Talk about efficiency and excellence.

Thankfully, my friend mentioned above only had to work a 14 hour day. As filmmakers we are a committed bunch and we love what we do. We’ll work as hard and as long as it takes to get the job done. But to what end? Time with family, mental and physical health, and public safety are all sacrificed. Hopefully, it won’t take another tragedy or broken family to wake us up.

To close, here’s a comment from Sidney Lumet on long hour days in Hollywood – “Now I know that great movies have been done that way, and I know great performances have been achieved that way, but in my view they have been great movies or performances despite the hours, not because of them.” (From “Directors Speak Out” clip by Haskell Wexler, 12 On 12 Off Blog, posted January 29, 2010.)

Do you have any stories about working long hours (or short hours) on set?

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12 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Long Work Hours of Film Production

  1. When shooting, I try to make it a point to keep days under 10 hours if possible. No one works well when they’re exhausted, and I need everyone on their ‘A’ game. Another necessity: I always try to provide quality food. A crappy diet for a few days will not only prevent people from feeling good, but they’ll also be unhappy that they’re eating like crap. Happy crew=happy shooting=better films.

  2. This is actually something I have thought about a lot. Lots of the films we shot at SDSU went way over with time – and most of us, most of the time chalked it up to film school antics – war stories to be told to later generations. Eventually, though, this gets old – especially when you start to realize that consistently long days usually come from inefficiencies and people not doing their jobs on set. If you have a family its worse. I came to realize after shooting too many shoots where I felt abused for my generosity, that this is the exact reasons unions exist.

    I am grateful that the professors at UCLA have adopted this 12/12/6 culture that you mention. For the most part, they enforce it too. We would have professor-guided talk-downs after most film productions and it seemed to keep everyone honest. If anyone has to go a little over the 12 hours, the professors demand a good reason and make the producers/director promise that it not happen again.

    Don’t get me wrong. I, more than anyone knows that if anything can go wrong on set, it will. And this does not mean that when things get tough, we pack up and go home. What I have learned is that I as a cinematographer and key member of production have a responsibility to my crew to work efficiently – just as the director has the responsibility to be realistic with what can and cannot be done on set with the resources available to her or him. A lot of time, it requires a director that does not automatically see free labor (from the crew that is there to help) as one of her or his resource.

    Besides the restrictions from professors, one of the great things UCLA has done is promote the importance of the Assistant Director – one that advocates for the director and production but serves as a time clock that constantly, yet tactfully, reminds everyone of what was agreed upon in pre-production in terms of time budget. This gives me a great advocate in the production key triangle (director, AD, Cinematographer) to make sure our schedules are realistic and give me enough time to light in an efficient manner. In pre pro, we decide what is priority in terms of coverage, and aim for that. If things work out well, then we have an additional list of things that would be extra nice to get. If we have all decided that a certain shot is absolutely crucial, and are finding in production that we need more time to pull it off, we then only need to talk very little about what we can lose in the next setup and still have a movie. If there is something on set that is getting in my way of staying on time for my crew (such as a producer that adds a ton of new ideas to the shooting schedule), a good Assistant Director will either take care of it, or empower me to handle it – all for the sake of having the proper time to tell the story.

    A well prepared crew that takes responsibility for their jobs, along with a great plan developed in pre-production, and a great AD all contribute to great storytelling. Everything else is just about making a movie – and putting everyone else in danger while doing it. Thanks Stephen for thinking of us!

    • Angel, Thanks for your well written and educated response! Agreed on the antics and inefficiencies related to film school that result in longer production days. Most student films that I’ve been on go long because of lack of preparation, lack of knowledge (not giving enough time for a location changes, set-ups, shots, etc.), or lack of decisiveness. The professors should be there to educate and guide filmmakers through their films (not on the set – but in the background, explaining the reality of the student’s script/shooting schedule/etc). My professors at SDSU (and my fellow student filmmakers – you being one of them ;)) did this for me; but I also went in asking a lot of questions, listening, and knowing that I would only get out of film school what I put in (not to say that everything I did was perfect – I had my moments of indecisiveness on set!). By contrast, I saw a few students get in over their head – their projects were too ambitious, they had too many set-ups in a day, their egos were too big to make compromises – and it seemed that no matter what the professors said, their minds would not be changed. And yes, Murphy’s law often came into play for these films (I like what Prof. Greg Durbin says – Murphy was born on a film set). These films had long production days and ended up on the editing floor (or hard drive) and haven’t seen the light of day. Yes, it all comes down to a well prepared crew – being ready for Murphy’s law to strike, and being ready to handle it efficiently. And the big part of being prepared as a film student, or someone starting out, is knowing your limitations, knowing your responsibilities, not taking on the responsibilities of others, and trusting every crew member to be professional in their role. I also agree with you that it’s easy to feel abused on sets. A strong AD and Cinematographer makes the world of difference for me as a director, and for the entire crew. I would advise beginning filmmakers to find experienced ADs and Cinematographers who are creative and efficient. They add so much to the creative process. Share your vision. Listen, learn, and collaborate with them. After all, filmmaking is a collaborative process. One lesson I learned quickly was that you can’t make a film on your own – so find the most talented people you can to join you. I love UCLAs firmness on the 12/12/6 rule. Thanks again Angel!

  3. Great post – I really like that 12 on 12 off rule – as an actress, that makes it a lot more feasible to prepare for the next day. I’ve worked before and behind the camera and my take is that after 12 hours a lot of people start making mistakes, concentration suffers and productivity diminishes quickly. I’m sure creativitiy takes a major hit after 12 hours; and it’s that creativity and spontaneity that sometimes adds a genius moment to a film imho 🙂

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  6. My first ever experience on a film set was as a runner. On day 1, I was awake for 25 hours straight… with 4 undiagnosed cancerous tumors in my body!!! Imagine that. (I’m ok now!).

  7. I’ve been working on a tv serie for the past couple of months. Worked on short films before, but this time I think the long hours got to me, so i started questioning if the big budget series/films are like that. Usually here its 14 hours a day (give or take 7am-9pm), by the time we pick up all our stuff and drive home, its already 10:30pm-11pm. Get yourself some food, because at the end of the day, catering services are the least of your concerns and you just want to get home and relax. Lets go easy and say 11pm its the end of your day, and go to sleep fast because you need to wake up at 5:45am-6am.

    Was working on “The Dark Knight”, “Lord of The Rings”, “Game of Thrones”, “Lost”, “Breaking Bad”, etc etc… like that???? I’m really wondering that!!

    • Thanks for sharing Mario. I like to hear what other people’s experience has been. It’s good to know what you’re in for if you’re looking to go Hollywood. The schedule works for some people, and the love of the work keeps them going. Hopefully you fall in those categories. All the best to you!

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