Following recent upheavals in our industry over crew work conditions we reached out to colleagues to ask for their thoughts on keeping us all safe and motivated.
Rand Abdul Nour
"Stand united against unfair protocols."
"The most important step would be to have a strong union system in place."
"The best place to start is with our own behaviors and attitudes."
"Encourage discussions about our industry, in order to promote exchanges at a global level."
November 4th, 2021
How can we foster and advocate for better work conditions in our industry?
Rand Abdul Nour
Rand Abdel Nour is an artist, set decorator and production designer based in Amman, Jordan. She has worked on several local and international projects in Jordan and around the region. Her most recent design work was the hit Netflix teen drama " Al Rawabi School For Girls".
Coming from a country where the industry is still on the rise, there has definitely been progress in reaching international standards relatively fast and it continues to develop steadily.
Unfortunately, there is still an evident lack of organized unionization. As a consequence, I have and continue to experience the struggle and, at times the injustice, of such an unstructured and non-regulated industry. On a personal level, I believe that the behind-the-scenes workers are the beating heart of the entertainment industry; without them, the magic we see on screen and on stage could not exist. At this present time, these individuals are combating hardship in order to secure livable wages and acceptable working conditions.
As an example that portrays the reality, rates and wages do not follow a standard scale the majority of the time. This is often the case where a production house and its producers offer rates that are not analogous to the job requirements nor the workers' experience levels. Another example is not providing workers with medical and accident insurance as well as retirement plans. During the pandemic, countless filmmakers were struggling financially and did not receive any support from neither private nor governmental institutions. Moreover, a few production houses resort to the exploitation of workers and have them work overtime without the proper compensation.
If there is no organized movement to endorse us, it becomes our duty as filmmakers to support one another and oppose production houses that are not offering lawful chances. The strikes occurring in Hollywood have been crucial in applying pressure on the change-makers. Our role in this must be to stand united against unfair protocols and create safe spaces for filmmakers to speak up against unjust practices. When it comes to my specific case, it is important to strive to establish a union that can enforce just regulations.
Todd Fjelsted is an Emmy-winning production designer known for his work on period comedy "GLOW", horror drama "Helstrom", and LGBTQ dramedy "Looking". He recently completed historical drama "The First Lady" and anthology series "ROAR" - both premiering in 2022 - and is currently in Toronto prepping sci-fi thriller "Beacon 23".
The question we should all be asking ourselves right now - alongside the questions of how our unions should operate and negotiate - is ‘what can I personally do that will help to ensure fairness and basic humanity in the work place?’ Because just like any other movement - be it labor, civil rights, equity, or a host of environmental concerns - the best place to start is with our own behaviors and attitudes.
“Think globally, act locally" as it were.
As department heads, we are in a unique position to foster change and create support systems for our crews, our collaborators, and for ourselves. One of the key factors I’ve found in this equation is transparency. There should be nothing our team cannot discuss with us openly, full disclosure. That includes rates. This antiquated taboo is over now - we have to discuss rates. I want to know what the art dept coordinator is being paid so I can demand a better rate for him/her when it’s too low. I’ve won that battle a few times, but if I’d never asked the rate I wouldn’t have even known the battle existed. If your PA is quietly making too little money, how can you be sure they won’t have to take on energy-sapping side hustles to make ends meet, or jump ship when a slightly better financial opportunity arises? I want to know that their needs are taken care of, that they can afford to work on our team, and that they aren’t being exploited for cheap labor as has been the longstanding issue with these entry level positions. Ask your crew if they are stable and if they aren’t, go to the line producer and hash it out. The money is there, you just have to fight harder for it - which can be uncomfortable. But when it comes to the needs of your team, get out of your comfort zone. They’re worth it.
What about your crew members who are parents? Are they struggling to keep up with a workload that is preventing them from being part of their kids’ lives? Are you aware of this problem - and can you help? Can some of their work be done remotely or during hours in which they can simultaneously be with their families? Is there a way to stagger your crew’s hours so there’s always someone available to production - but each team member still gets enough downtime to actually have a life outside of work? I’ve found that art directors, asst art directors, and coordinators are quite adept at figuring this balance out once given the opportunity. Giving your team the agency to make these kinds of decisions together not only increases their morale but encourages a whole other type of collaboration in which one team member can provide relief to another at crucial times in their personal lives. And then return the favor when they need it themselves. One thing we’ve learned in the recent studio negotiations is that our employers rarely care whatsoever about our lives outside of our jobs. So we have to find ways to work around that lack of empathy and we have to do so together. As a team.
It took twenty years of working in the entertainment industry before I started feeling more comfortable saying no to producers who suggest (or mandate) at the last second that my already exhausted crew will now have to work the weekend. Your unrealistic budget and/or schedule cannot be fixed by working my crew to death. No. Please look at other options like rewriting, cutting, rescheduling, etc. We are here to make your project look great, not your poor planning. And the dreaded “Can’t the builders just work overnight?” The last time a producer said this I looked him square in the eye and said “Do YOU want to work overnight?” It pissed him off but he didn’t fire me — he changed the schedule.
Obviously there will be times when we have to work longer hours. There will be weekends when we have to complete a set for Monday’s early shoot. There will be night shoots. But as designers who represent the efforts and talents of multiple departments, we have to set boundaries. This industry already has too few. We have to check in with our team members and know that they are okay. We can’t guess or hope, we have to know.
A few years ago, I had a wonderful PA who I found sobbing at her desk one afternoon. I asked what was wrong but she refused to tell me. “I can’t bother you with this, you’re too busy” Yes, you can. Please bother me. “It’s not a big deal” She shrugged it off, I let her — and we both went about our days. A few weeks later, I was made aware by others what it was she was dealing with, all on her own. A member of the accounting team had begun to harass her, insulting and demeaning her regularly. It had turned into text messages which continued after hours that became sexual in nature. She was afraid to tell me because she was worried she would somehow be blamed or embarrassed or further humiliated. This was a huge eye opener for me as a boss. I was determined from then on out that no one should ever feel they cannot come to me. Especially with a situation as untenable as sexual harassment. I went to the producer and reported the incidents, which were not a surprise. And when the guy attempted to speak to her in the cafeteria later that day, I let him know the jig was up. The relief on her face in that situation, her sense of safety visibly returning, was exactly what I needed to see. I knew I had been neglectful in my awareness of where the crew was at — and that I would strive to never let that happen again.
We often talk about how the long hours spent together in intense collaboration turn us into a family of sorts. As I’m sure is true for most of you, many of my closest friendships are former and current coworkers. This is one of the hidden strengths of filmmaking: our familial bond that reaches beyond gender, race, cultural differences, financial disparities, and politics. Both by necessity and through the communal experience of world building — which regardless of budget, is a monumental task every time. We need each other.
Over the course of most projects, the art department naturally develops a shared bubble of information, multitasking, and mutual effort. There’s a safety net built in. The overwhelming becomes doable. The impossible becomes possible. We have to protect that sacred alchemy, and each other, and ourselves, at all cost.
Parul Sondh is an Indian production designer living in Paris. Her projects include "Titli" (Uncertain Regard, Cannes ‘14/ Amazon Prime), "The field guide to Evil" (SXSW ’18), "Monsieur/Sir" (Semaine de la critique ‘18/ Netflix). She was awarded Filmfare (Indian Industry Award) in 2018 for her work on "Daddy" (Amazon Prime).
This subject is huge and speaking from where I am at right now, based in Paris and working on international projects shot in India or projects produced in India, I feel that we (Indian Film Industry) might be one of the biggest film industries in the world, churning hundreds of film projects every year but we lack the infrastructure and organization required for a better working environment.
Many a times, on many levels, it seems we -PDs, set decorators, graphic designers, assistants, art directors - are functioning without any real defined support system.
To bring a about a change and foster better working conditions, I feel, the most important step would be to have a strong union system in place – unions that care, guide and can be held responsible and accountable, backed with a systemic distribution of wages according to the budgets of the projects, time, genre and designation. To introduce a parameter-based structure regimentally followed by the industry that protects the interests of technicians might lead to less exploitation and a sense of equality and security.
Even producers need to be more empathic, address crew concerns rather than dismissing, cut the right corners, invest in safeguarding the safety of all on a set.
I think to demand this for us, for our teams, is a collective responsibility for forging a better, progressive, inclusive environment.
Rafael Blas is a production designer, architect and lecturer, based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has been working across the motion picture industry over 17 years. His completed work includes “Under the Heavens”, “Dead Volume”, “Music for Bleeding Hearts” and “All the Reasons to Forget".
It seems to me that class organizations, as well as local, state and national councils have fundamental importance for film and TV professionals to gain strength and legal support in their claims.
I would also enforce the relevance of associations such as PDC, which encourage discussions about our industry, in order to promote exchanges at a global level. Although each country has its own laws and labor rules, we realize how precarious conditions in the sector can be extremely similar, all over the world.
We have just followed the tragic death of Halyna Hutchins and are aware of so many other fatal accidents in the industry. The defense for better working conditions is urgent!
Dialogue should not end in the context of associations and councils, it is necessary to naturalize conversations about better working conditions, making processes healthier, more transparent, which, in a way, directly impact on the quality of the productions themselves.