Accruing Your Crew

A note about crewing:

I image-searched “sad craft services”.
Dang. Can we get a vegetable up in here?

Projects cost money. A little or a lot, they are going to cost you money. Even if you’re doing something small and creative with your friends, if you can’t provide them with abundant filtered water and a solid meal on any day longer than 4 hours, you’re not ready to shoot. Obviously the more money you can put into something, the better cast and crew you can get. This isn’t because of greed, this is because we’re all professionals trying to support ourselves and we all need to keep our schedules available for work that will keep a roof over our heads – I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. So crewing for the independent, low-budget filmmaker usually comes down to cost and availability.

There’s another important factor though that I have seen get the short end of the stick on a few recent productions, so I think it’s worth discussing. That factor is budget perception, or approaches to spending money.

Over time we all develop crews that we like working with- people who we enjoy being around, and who seem to mesh well creatively. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, but we start to fall into certain patterns, mainly with department heads. As we continue to do bigger and more ambitious things with more money involved, the people we’ve grown accustomed to working with can have serious impacts on the money it’s going to take to get your projects finished, because you’re going to be relying on them more to figure out how to get certain things accomplished and how much it will cost. Depending on where the bulk of their experience and education has come from, in addition to general personality characteristics, there are a number of ways a department head will approach the budget available. Here are just a few:

  • The DIY’er – Why would we need to rent a jib? I once made one out of leftover bagels from crafty.
  • The Happy Indie – Jibs are overrated. Let’s just go handheld on the whole thing! Adds drama.
  • The Wistful Indie – We can get by without a jib no problem, like we did last time. And the time before that. And before that. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a jib once? Just once… just imagine… maybe we can get a little more money. Is there time for another Kickstarter? One day we’ll have a whole fleet of jibs.
  • The Networker – No worries, my buddy Kevin has a jib I can borrow on Tuesdays, Saturdays and the third Sunday of every other month.
  • The Fancy Boy – I mean… we cooouuulllddd shoot this without a jib if you want a shitty, destroyed movie everyone will make fun of you for. Oh and by the way, here’s my bill for several hundred dollars in gaff tape- they weren’t in my department budget but you factored that in, right? Give me two jibs.

Yeah you are.

The crew heads that gel with me the most right now are definitely The Forced Indies. I love these guys/gals. We have big, beautiful aspirations and one day our budgets will match. In the mean time we do the very best we can with what we’ve got and constructively discuss compromises for what we don’t. I’m less a fan of The Fancy Boy, even if they are usually bringing a different level of experience and some pretty fantastic work to the table. As one person I know put it so perfectly, “He will never mix red and blue to make purple. He needs the purple.” A lot of times these guys have really grown up on larger-budget sets, or are so far removed from the low-budget world that they can only scale their budget down so far before the project becomes uninteresting to them.

This is really where the problem is. Hiring a Fancy Boy on a $3,000 short film shoot isn’t just setting yourself up to be annoyed- you could also potentially be setting yourself up for subpar work. Just think about it- most people working on a job feeling like two hands are tied behind their back get tired before long, and care less about the end result of what they’re doing*. If you try to humor the squeaky wheel by cutting back in certain other departments (and by that I mean the sound mix, it’s always the freaking sound mix), your project is going to suffer unnecessarily.

There are plenty of fantastically talented department heads that thrive on the challenge of doing more with less. In addition to your aesthetic and temperament, you have to match your department heads to your resources.

*I’m writing this assuming you are a reasonable, level-headed person with a realistic perception of what’s fair to ask of your crew. If you’re one of those crazies who pops off because you can’t have your Roger Deakins-esque train robbery sequence on your peanut butter and jelly short film budget, please make no reference to this blog post.

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