For almost as long as I’ve been in this business, (I was called to the bar in 1982*), it seems there’s been a-mumbling and a-moaning about the length of freelance working days; but more recently, as often as not, it’s not without good cause. We’ve all experienced a shoot that turns into a 16 hour day, by the time you’ve added in the travelling to and from the location – and these types of bookings are usually preceded by the dreaded telephone call from a Production Manager, who “simply has to have you on a buy-out price”.
I remember well one particularly unpleasant experience a few years ago when the PM obviously had a thing about breaking the will of this sound recordist, by presenting a contract that stipulated a ’10 hour day buy-out, with occasional overtime included as and when required’; but with the added reassurance of “don’t worry, there will be rest days scheduled sensibly.” That all seemed fair enough on the face of it – it was an exciting assignment, a 6 week booking travelling around the UK, so they obviously needed to cover their bases; and frankly, I was freelance – I really needed the work.
Yes, you’re ahead of me. Pretty much from day one it was ‘required’ for us to work 14 hour days. Then to travel up to 2 hours to a hotel to be close to the next morning’s first location. Which wasn’t quite as bad for the camera crew of assistant, clapper-loader and cameraman – as they could at least take it in turns to drive and share the humping of kit out of the car and in to the hotel rooms at the end of the day. Meanwhile, soft-touch sound guy here, with no assistant to share the load, even had to set an alarm mid-sleep to change over the batteries in the charger. (Don’t get me started on how dreadful those voraciously power-hungry DAT recorders were.)
No, of course I never made it to the end of the 6 weeks. One week in, not unreasonably I thought, I took it upon myself to remind the Producer of our agreed contract. That week we’d worked seven 16 hour days: 112 hours, of which we’d worked at least 52 hours – well over anyone else’s normal working week – completely free of charge. These guys were calculating on getting 12 weeks of shooting out of us for the price of 6. By the end of week four, although still desperate for the cash, I was on my knees; and I’d become the shoot misfit: the one with a mark against him for complaining to Production, and at odds with a camera crew who didn’t have the courage of their convictions to vocalise to the Producer that these hours were unreasonable, and not just moan to me. The upshot was, we agreed to part company before the end of the shoot; and I then had a long, lonely drive home from Northern Scotland firstly wrestling with the schizophrenia of feeling cheap and dirty for staying on as long as I did, whilst simultaneously feeling thoroughly ashamed of my un-professionalism for not seeing it through anyway; and secondly, as I got ever closer to home, how best to tell my wife I’d be bringing less money in than we’d expected. Oh my, how we laughed that day.
I’ve enjoyed keeping a foot in both camps of location recording and post-production sound, and I can definitely say that as post-production folk – either pictures or sound – we’re no more sensible about what we’re prepared to commit ourselves to. The amateur psychologist in me suggests that those feelings of shame and un-professionalism I experienced by leaving the shoot early, is exactly why unscrupulous production companies will always try it on when they book a freelance crew; and how it is that we actually allow ourselves to get in to these predicaments.
Our industry culture is one that rightly espouses in us a professionalism that evokes unconditional loyalty to the final product; and it is precisely this which we extend – often from our own volition – into the void that is way beyond reason. At its simplest, most of us are so passionate about what we do, be it related to pictures or sound, coupled with having to carefully eke out a self-employed living from our precious craft skills, that this acceptance of unreasonable lengths of day has become the way of life, till the work be done; and tales like mine (every freelancer has them) are collected, and accepted, as battle-scars, acquired along the way.
Talk to friends outside of the industry and they’ll either not believe you or dismiss you as mad for putting up with it. And they have a point – ever employed a plumber, plasterer, electrician or builder on the terms you routinely accept? No, thought not. You’re lucky if you get an 8 hour day out of them. But that’s not what we do is it? So that doesn’t really work as an argument. I remember our standard filming day becoming 10 hours in the 1990’s – and that’s actually 10 hours on location, through the clever guise of moving the ‘unit base’ to achieve this. I now hear from American colleagues of a disturbing trend starting across the Atlantic for US location day-units to become 12 hours, for yes, you guessed it, no extra pay.
Protective legislation does exist of course and as far back as the 19th Century, in Britain, we enshrined the sanctity of the 10 hour day for workers. That piece of mid-1800’s legislation even pre-dated the political postings of the radical Karl Marx (for me, the least funny of all the Marx brothers) and his chum Frederick Engels, who were properly up in arms over the bourgeoisie by the time they wrote their revolutionary essay in an 1850 edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch-ökonomische Revue entitled ‘The English Ten Hours Bill’, in which they commented – ‘The Ten Hours’ Bill not only gave the workers the satisfaction of an indispensable physical need, by protecting their health to some extent from the manufacturers’ frenzy for exploitation, it also liberated the workers from their alliance with the sentimental dreamers, from their solidarity with all the reactionary classes of England.’
With a little less rhetoric, it’s fair to say that the real heroes of that first, embryonic 10 hour day legislation – The Factory Act of 1847 – were however Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who during his political lifetime worked tirelessly in both the House of Commons and the Lords, as a labour reformer; Richard Oastler, a militant Methodist who believed that reform could come from either violence or legislation; and John Fielden, a rather more gentle character, and a Quaker, who after the resignation of Lord Shaftesbury, carried the responsibility for the successful passage of the Act.
Nowadays, in theory at least, the Working Time Directive limits the number of hours that anyone can be forced to work; but every freelance filming contract I’ve ever seen, and many staff television contracts, has the contractor signing away those rights, by voluntarily opting-out. By voluntarily, read ‘like it or lump it’, as my Grandad used to say. So maybe it’s high time that we actually need protection from ourselves, especially if we voluntarily accept this retrograde step towards a standard 12 hour filming day.
Who can possibly point blame at those who eagerly look to engage us on such brutally cost-effective terms, in such a free-market economy? A move by Production Companies from 8 to routinely 12 hour days represents a cool 50% increase in productivity, achieved in less than 20 years; and at zero cost to overheads.
But is it really at zero cost? I remember an advertisement I used to see regularly on the back of trucks as I drove home bleary eyed from another early-start, late-finish, full-on working day on location: “Malcolm died peacefully in his sleep. He was warm, comfortable, dreaming of his home and family and driving at 65 mph on the motorway.”
Now that really would be a dreadful phone call to receive from a Production Manager.
(* The Central Television Sports & Social Club bar, Birmingham.)
Title picture credit: Will Weeks http://www.willweekssound.com/
Inset picture credit: Author.