Steven Poster, ASC, President, International Cinematographers Guild IATSE Local 600 Presentation to the ICS at the ASC Clubhouse on 2018-06-07
As many of you may already know, the International Cinematographers Guild IATSE Local 600 is the labor union that represents directors of photography, camera crews, still photographers and publicists on all union productions in the United States and Puerto Rico. Under our contracts with the major studios, all camera department members and still photographers must be members of Local 600 when working on union productions.
We’ve grown to have more than 9,000 members. Our national office is just a few blocks here on Sunset Blvd. In addition, we have offices in New York, where we’re expanding into the entire floor of a building the Local recently bought in Manhattan, as well as offices in Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans.
As a labor union, we’re concerned with securing fair wages, working conditions, safety and benefits for our members. In the United States, we have essentially no government provided healthcare for the average worker and retirement benefits and minimal. As a result, these are things that we must provide for ourselves. Having one of the best health care programs in the country and healthy pension funds is very important to our members.
As a guild, we’re concerned with the art and craft of cinematography. That has been my passion since I first picked-up a camera. In response to technical change, our members have voted to support an extensive training program and we recently added a full-time training director to our staff to help coordinate these activities.
We see new technology as bringing new opportunities for our members. Our members believe that if we don’t lead the dialog of technical change, we risk being left in the dust as the industry evolves. The ICG is engaged in a wide range of industry events to embrace change in ways that reinforce the position of the director of photography, find new work opportunities for our members, and enhance our ability to shepherd the artistry of our images from the set to the screens, large and small.
Our members are very active, and they want their union local to be active as well. Last year we staged 148 events across the country, ranging from unconscious bias and sexual harassment training, to pedestal camera operations and camera assistant training, to our Emerging Cinematographer Awards, meetings in preparation for our current round of contract negotiations and even the occasional social gathering. Being president of a union local like Local 600 isn’t for the faint of heart.
We make jokes about the jobs we take on for free as cinematographers being the toughest. This is true in spades for union positions. But, I sincerely believe that an active union local, working in solidarity with all of the other crafts is a powerful tool set for a securing a promising and rewarding future for our craft.
Our Safety Committee is one of our most active and outspoken groups. Camera department members have earned something of a reputation for being sticklers about safety. Here’s a video that our members made that pokes some fun at our obsession with on-set safety. (Run: 01 “Fire in the Hole” video.)
Our Local 600 Safety App is available free to anyone, anywhere. It’s on the Apple App Store and Google Play for android devices. The phone numbers are good only for productions within the United States, but our Safety FAQ’s, Safety Bulletins, and Safety Articles are solid information for anyone working on a production anywhere in the world.
That video is funny, but our focus on safety is based on real life tragedies that occur on the set.
In February of 2014, our camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed on a train trestle on the production of “Midnight Rider” in Georgia. Her senseless death sparked outrage and sympathy from production crews across the globe. Local 600 members are committed to never allowing tragedies like this to occur again. There is no movie, no TV episode, no shot that is worth the life of a crew member.
The breadth and depth of our crews’ response to this tragedy was breath taking. This video clips sums up the industry response. (Run: 02 Sarah Jones 1 Year Video)
We cannot allow this message to become “old news”. Crew safety is the responsibility of every one of us. As cinematographers, our crews look to us for leadership and guidance. We can never shy away from the responsibility to help in any way we can to make our sets safe places to work.
Another threat to our safety that has costs lives on our sets is “unsafe working hours”. Local 600’s members formed a working group to research and build industry awareness of the dangers inherent in working long days, day after day. I’ll turn the mic over to Rebecca to fill us in on the Local’s work in this area. (Run: 03 If Not Now When Video)
Last year, one of our members asked an excellent question about the potential dangers of filming while free driving where a camera is being operated handheld in a non-towed vehicle that is being driven by an actor or someone else. This is something we’ve all done, maybe hundreds of times. While having a working actor operate the vehicle is a concern, of greater concern is what would happen to a camera operator in the front seat if the airbags were deployed. For a number of years airbags could be switched “off”, at least on the passenger side.
Now, with many of the newer cars in the US, this can only be done at a car dealership, if it can be done at all.
When this question was brought up to our Safety Committee members, we quickly issued some guidelines, but in the process, discovered that there was much more to learn. We contacted a medical research group at USC and I authorized funding of tests using crash test dummies. This video summarizes the results of that testing. (Run: 04 Handheld Filming in Vehicles – Free Driving Video)
We began with the hope that simply showing this video to production would have the necessary effect. The dramatic images in this video proved to have a powerful effect on the industry.
Our safety bulletins are written and approved by a joint Labor Management Safety Committee, a group where representatives of each of the union locals and studio management meet to discuss safety topics and policies. This is typically a slow process at best, with safety bulletins often taking years to be drafted and approved. Think of it like this: when studio attorneys and union labor representatives sit down to jointly draft policy and write guidelines, what could possibly happen to slow things down?
Anyway, when Rebecca shared the dramatic images in this video with the committee and encouraged the process a bit, a new safety bulletin was drafted and approved by the studios in 4 months. That has to be an industry record.
Another significant area of member concern has been RF (Radio Frequency) Safety. All of our cameras are now wirelessly linked. But, what does daily exposure, for often hours on end, really mean to the camera operator? We started by looking for the easy answers, and soon discovered there weren’t any. In the United States, workplace safety guidelines are established by a federal government agency known as OSHA. OSHA regulations said, and I’m not kidding about this, that if you start to feel warm while working in a high RF area, you should leave. That’s it for government guidance. So, again we retained a highly respaced authority to help us understand how to think about the safe limits of RF exposure for our crews.
This is still a work in progress, but one of the things we’ve come up with is this. (Hold up black ball.) With this placed on the antenna of the typical US FCC approved digital video transmitter, the camera operator will always be kept at a safe distance from the RF source, with some margin for safety.
That’s one way of thinking about it, but RF units sometimes come in higher powers and, as we discovered in field testing, some transmitters have been modified to put out higher levels of RF than originally specified by the manufacturer. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to provide our members with simple relevant and reliable information in light of these variables.
Trying to go “international” with RF safety guidelines gets even more interesting. Safe exposure is determined by power and frequency, which changes from country to country. Our expert steered us toward the measurement procedures and exposure guidelines developed for the US cellular phone industry. I would suggest that as a great place to begin when thinking about guidelines applicable to your part of the world.
When I was president of the ASC, I formed of the ASC Technology Committee, now the ASC Motion Imaging Committee, which has made invaluable contributions to the industry under the capable guidance of its long-standing chairman, Curtis Clark. The push for proper StEM (standard testing and evaluation) materials for the DCI project, the ASC CDL, the long incubation of ACES, and the Camera Assessment Series are just a few of the committee’s outstanding contributions to our craft.
Local 600 has always enthusiastically endorsed the ASC’s work in this area and is deeply engaged in promoting the long-term interests of cinematographers and their crews as we respond to technical change. Altering the industries dialog and its perception of how and when cinematographers should be engaged in the production process is a long fight. But, we’re making some headway.
Five years ago, Local 600 made its first presentation to an organization called the HPA (The Hollywood Postproduction Alliance, now HPA/SMPTE) on the importance of using calibrated on-set monitoring and the position of the DIT. We were treated as something of curiosity, because the thought at that time was “shoot it in RAW and we’ll take care of the ‘look’ in post”. But now, after numerous panels and industry discussions, virtually everyone who talked about the artistic look at their last annual conference said that the “look” is determined on-set by the director of photography with the assistance of the DIT. Even when they don’t always do the right thing, at least saying the right thing is a start.
We can’t claim exclusive credit for that victory, because we were just some of the many voices driving the argument home. But Local 600 was a loud part of the chorus.
Now the big issues seem to be getting the industry to recognize the cinematographers rightful place in post production, Previs, VFX, the handling HDR and SDR as separate aesthetics and the vast new area we’re calling computational cinematography, where the image is not realized until it has gone through extensive computer processing. These will not be short battles. But, we can win.
One of the keys to winning these fights in solidarity across the global community of cinematographers. Studios and producers may resist our message, but when they hear the same demands from every cinematographer everywhere the world, they will be more inclined to listen.
This Sunday I’ll be speaking at the Producer’s Guild Produced-By Conference about shooting for HDR. My message will be that HDR is its own aesthetic, and that we must monitor and shoot for it on set, with SDR conversions being accomplished in post production under the supervision of the cinematographer. I believe that we can no more shoot for HDR and SDR simultaneously without serious compromise than we could shoot for 16:9 and protect for 4:3. It just won’t work. I expect to hear complaints about the cost of monitoring for HDR. My response to that is simple: “You’re spending millions of dollars on a production and yet you’re willing to risk it all over the cost of HDR monitoring?” I have similar response for producers who balk at the extra cost of having the cinematographer present to supervise both the HDR and SDR outputs in post. They’re skipping over dollars to pick-up dimes and I’m going to call it out.
I’m a union president, and I believe in the collective power of individuals gathering together to speak with one voice. We all face the same issues and the same future. The more we can face them together, the better we all will be.