The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Presidents Desk
ASC Master Class
ASC Technology Committee
ASC Close-Up
President's Desk

If any good is to be derived from the death of Sarah Jones, it must include a renewed sense of purpose toward guarding the well being of crewmembers. While our work is rarely conducted under overtly perilous or unsafe conditions, whenever occasions of negligence occur, each of us must be courageous enough to step forward and call them out, regardless of the consequences. But even as it seems that a page has been turned, every crewmember currently remains subject to an insidious form of abuse that’s potentially as deadly as any train thundering down a track: the practice of working excessive hours.

I have written about this topic several times in this space, and since nothing has changed yet, it’s well worth bringing up again. Working excessive hours is an industry-wide and industry-approved policy. Speaking from my own considerable experience, it’s a miracle that the extreme exhaustion my fellow crewmembers and I have endured on innumerable occasions hasn’t led to disastrous consequences. I shudder to think of what yet may come to pass, starting with the next job.

“As directors of photography, our responsibility is to the visual image as well as the protection of our crew. The continuing and expanding practice of working extreme hours seriously compromises both the quality of our work and the health and safety of others. It is our obligation to oppose a situation that threatens the well-being of every member of the crew." When the late ASC legend Conrad Hall expressed those sentiments in 2002, he had just survived an arduous — but not particularly uncommon — schedule on the feature Road to Perdition. He returned home with a desire to alert the industry and incite reform of the practice that had taken an enormous toll on his health, and he put forth the notion that excessive hours had become a form of officially sanctioned abuse.

We all know that feeling of walking around without having had proper rest; it’s like living in a state of constant, impenetrable jet lag. But beyond the sluggishness, you might not be aware of the serious toll it takes. Reaction time is slowed, thinking gets foggy, and physical health declines. Personal relationships and quality of work suffer. And safety on set is compromised.

Everyone is aware of what happened to Sarah Jones, but they should also remember assistant cameraman Brent Hershman. In 1997, he was killed while driving home from a shoot in a sleep-deprived state. Countless others have avoided a similar fate merely by luck or the hand of God. It remains a black mark on the industry that no substantive action has been taken to rein in these punishing hours.

The reasons we put in such draconian amounts of time on the job are varied and generally uncalled for. Certainly, poor planning and incompetent scheduling are major factors. Unchecked greed is also a big part of it. But what’s happening to us is similar in many ways to the frog in the pot of water who’s unaware, until it's too late, that the temperature is being incrementally turned up to the boiling point. Just consider the amount of work fit into the average day on any production a mere decade ago, and you’ll see what I mean. We’re now doing higher page counts in less time than ever before, so something has to give. That something, of course, is the amount of time we devote to proper rest.

Another ASC legend, Haskell Wexler, screened his documentary Who Needs Sleep? to great acclaim at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Haskell and his co-director, Lisa Leeman, came to the same conclusions as Conrad Hall. You would think that in the years since, the industry would have made some progress on the issue. It hasn’t. And that’s why it’s imperative that we keep the subject in the forefront of people’s minds.

When you strip away the emotional attachments and artistic pretensions surrounding what we do, this thing we spend so much time on can only be seen for what it is: a job. Perhaps Richard Jones, Sarah’s father, put it best: “No TV show, no movie, no job opportunity is worth the sacrifice of a human life.”

Plainly, something needs to change. And it needs to change now.

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