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Sunday, May 12, 2019

There is no such thing as a “half day”


From the "Excursus" movie poster
As I write this, it’s the day after Labeled Fest, where our short film, “Excursus,” was screened in the same theater in which it premiered in 2014. Reflecting on the single day of production that it had under the August sun on top of the “giant reflector”—Mario DeAngelis’ hilarious and accurate description—that is the Bonneville Salt Flats, I’m reminded of a point toward the end of the day when a few clouds were making some unscheduled appearances in the sky, blocking the sun from time to time. At one point, our 1st AC, Jonathan Judeen, looked toward one cloud in particular and said, “That cloud’s going to block the sun in about seventeen seconds.” His tone was matter-of-fact, showing no hint of sarcasm.

I’ll admit, there was a part of me that wanted to roll my eyes or offer some sort of incredulous response to his statement. Probably within the first second following Jonathan’s estimate, I thought, “Seventeen seconds? How the hell did he come up with that number? Why so specific? How could he possibly know?” But instead of saying anything, I started counting seconds to myself, “two, three, four… sixteen, seventeen,” and by that point, the cloud had completely covered our view of the sun. Jonathan called it… to the second. I was impressed.

That same year, I had worked on the pilot for Wesley Austin’s series, “The IP Section,” as a boom operator and witnessed something similar. Almost every time that cinematographer Wes Johnson and his team were working to set up a new shot, the 1st AD would ask for a time estimate for when they would be ready to shoot. As I recall, the response was rarely in minutes—even if multiple minutes were required. It was almost always stated in seconds, “One hundred five seconds,” “98 seconds,” etc. This was an experienced crew that knew what they were doing and knew the capabilities and limitations of the equipment they were working with so well that they could estimate how long it would take them to set-up a shot to within a few seconds.

Productions such as those are a joy to work on. A professional and efficient set—though not without it’s moments of work-related stress—is an atmosphere that instills confidence in all its participants and inspires the best work.

When I was hired for that pilot, I was told, “It’s only $***/day.” A more experienced boom operator may have accepted the role with some reluctance but I was happy for the opportunity, since all of the projects that I was working on that year were going to fund “Excursus” and the bulk of the compensation for my services would turn into paychecks for my crew.

When breaking down a polished screenplay for production, estimating the time it will take to shoot a particular scene or sequence is as much an art form as it is a skill and it requires experience to get any good at it. When I first broke down the screenplay for “Excursus” into a shooting script, I handed it to Mario and Jack Diamond—director and 1st AD, respectively—and said, “This isn’t written in stone. It’s just how I kinda pictured it in my head. Use what you like and what’s practical but if you have a better way of shooting it, then by all means, go with what you think will work best. This breakdown is just a suggestion.”

My breakdown was very much appreciated. On the day of the shoot, I did my best to let go of my role as Producer and focussed on my job as actor but I could definitely see where their decisions deviated from mine and how they worked better to accommodate the resources of the production. When we wrapped the location, Mario said to me, “You had a good shooting script but if we had shot it the way that it was written, it would have taken us three days instead of just one.”

Three seems like a magic number to me. Whenever I’m speaking with novice filmmakers on the subject of estimating the amount of time it takes to shoot something, based on my personal experience, I always tell them, “Take that first time estimate that you came up with and triple it. Because you never know what’s going to happen on the day of the shoot that’s going to cause a delay and there’s always something that’s going to cause a delay.”

I suppose it’s evocative of the exchange between Captain Kirk and Mr. Scott in Star Trek III, when Kirks asks his Chief Engineer, “How much refit time before we can take her out again?”
“Eight weeks, sir,” said Scotty, “but ye don't have eight weeks, so I'll do it for ye in two.”
“Mr. Scott. Have you always multiplied your repair estimates by a factor of four?”
“Certainly, sir. How else can I keep my reputation as a miracle worker?”

From time-to-time, I see job posts in our Facebook group that make statements like, “We’ll only need you for a couple” or “a few hours.” If an hourly rate is being offered for such work, that’s fine by me.

However, there are also times when I see posts that call for a specific job to be filled and the posters ask, “What’s your half-day rate?”

HMUA Heather Shelton
transforming the author
into a zombie
I can appreciate being mindful of budget limitations and needing to accommodate them but claiming that a job is “only” going to be a half-day commitment, suggests that the contractor would be free to fill the other half-day with a different half-day gig so they can get a full-day’s rate—which is within the realm of possibility but very unlikely. To suggest that there’s so much work out there that someone could make a living working two half-day gigs a day, for any period of time seriously overestimates the demands of the local industry not to mention ignoring important factors like crew meals and commute times.

No one ever really works for just “half a day.” The preparation time is going to vary from gig-to-gig depending on the demands of the production and for roles and positions beyond those of background actors and Production Assistants, rates are not determined by an hourly minimum but by the nature of the work that’s needed and the talent and experience that a contractor brings to the table. A “half-day” doesn’t necessarily translate into half the work. For specialties like hair and makeup artistry, the amount of work and resources required for it may be no different for a “half-day” shoot than a full day. It’s more likely to amount to the same amount of work but only with an earlier wrap-time. Since it’s unlikely that there will be another “half-day” gig waiting for that one person afterward—for which their energy and supplies can be significantly drained—they should just be paid their standard day-rate and kit-fee. There are other places in a production budget where a producer can be frugal without interfering with someone’s paycheck and—by extension—their livelihood.

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