“Family Ties”

 

I know it’s easy for the more senior practitioners of our craft to often regale younger camera team members with tales of how much this industry has changed. How we have all “benefited” from our years of hands-on apprenticeship training on sets, from mentors who took the time to pass on the knowledge they had gleaned in a system and workflow as old as cinema itself. I know it’s easy to say the “good old days” were somehow better than today’s more fragmented landscape. But that’s hardly the essence of this editorial.

Frankly, this is no longer the same industry we old farts love to tell stories about. It’s plain to see how much of a culture shift has occurred, and as someone who has personally experienced this sea change, I’m not here to pass judgment either way. In fact, this new era, built around digital technology, may well be more exciting and creative than any we have ever lived through. But what is of vital importance for our younger Guild members to understand is that specific aspects of the system I grew up within, namely etiquette, mutual respect and the creative hierarchies on a set, should not be tossed aside.

The great Conrad Hall, ASC, made a statement late in his life about how directors of photography are responsible for their entire crew. And what that means is that in this industry we call “show business,” there are practices and methodologies that create the notion of “family” on sets and locations. It’s a key concept that is certainly less present today, and due, in large part, to the lack of the kind of training that past generations learned by “coming up through the ranks.”

Since we are now a global industry, this sense of “looking out for our own” has become a much harder task – with crews segmented across many different regions and cultures. For a short period of time there was a wonderful program – sanctioned by the Producers Guild and run by Contract Services – that trained camera assistants. The problem was that the program only trained ten assistants per year. And that was the only skill set the participants learned. How terrific it would be if something like that could return to our Guild, notwithstanding the hard fact that, its being a national Union program, implementation in all jurisdictions would present enormous monetary and logistical challenges.

Still, the essence of what such a training program represents remains an imperative: to sustain (and in many cases, bring back) the idea that the filmmakers on a set are a working family, whose leader (the director of photography) is responsible for the safety, welfare and working conditions of the clan. I’ve always scheduled meetings with my crews (and anyone else who wants to join in) at the beginning of each production day to talk about the dangers and pitfalls that lie ahead, with the goal being to empower each crewmember to be his or her own safety officer, to really watch out for all of our Sisters and Brothers.

I remember how a veteran key grip took me aside on my very first day on a film set and said I needed to learn two things: “stay busy and never sit down” and “always return to the set with a piece of gear in your hands.” (And he wasn’t talking about a smartphone!) Sounds like folk wisdom, perhaps, but his message about respecting the set and always staying engaged – with the work and with each other – has never been more relevant.

Respect in my formative years was always passed down the line – from the DP to the operator, to the camera assistants, to the loaders – and now we can add job functions like DITs and digital data wranglers to that chain. And let’s never forget about unit publicist and still photographer members, who deserve the same civil discourse and attention to work as any other member of our crews.

Workplace unity, set etiquette, and civil camaraderie may seem like small intangibles, concepts from another era. But they have actually sustained this industry for more than a century and need to be integrated into this 21st Century culture, built upon new technologies and new ways of creating images.

The ties that bind us together must never fray.

 

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600