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Last month, I was chilling at a friend’s place when suddenly one of my girlfriends said that she had to reply to a work email after checking her phone.

It was 11pm on a Friday.

“Do you really have to reply? It’s already so late. And it’s your day off anyway,” I asked.

“Yeah, I have to. The client wants a reply by tomorrow morning. Besides, I need to get up early tomorrow for a shoot. I don’t have time to reply to them in the morning. Plus, the executive producer (EP) texted me too, so I have to reply to the email,” she explained.

The video production industry has been in the spotlight recently with the allegations of a toxic work culture at local content producer Night Owl Cinematics. Aside from the accusations of oppressive work practices, it shone a spotlight on the stresses that many of those who work behind the scenes face when creating videos that we enjoy on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and other social media.

Thanks to the pandemic, there are many who feel trapped in their jobs, unable to leave for various reasons, yet struggling to deal with the pressures that come with working in a toxic workplace.

In some cases, these pressures have tragic consequences.

Looking at my friend answering her email at 11pm on her day off on a Friday before she had to work an early-morning weekend shoot, I recalled why I chose not to pursue that career even though I have a diploma in media studies.

Most media graduates will tell you they took the course out of passion or interest. But I remember a lecturer once sharing with us that only about 3 in 10 of us would pursue a video production career after graduation.

I am part of the remaining 70% who didn’t.

Dealing with stressful working conditions

Video Production Industry
Image source: Shutterstock / Skreidzeleu

No one really talks about the working conditions of a production crew. The amount of stress that goes on behind the scenes can be overwhelming.

For example, just planning a simple call sheet for a shoot can be daunting at times.

A close friend who works in the industry shared with me that she was super stressed out while planning seven-day call sheets.

Think of it as a project where every minute detail needed to be factored in. She has to anticipate disruptions, plan for every contingency, consider the budget and get the equipment and manpower ready.

And each video project is unique, with different talents and crew involved, different types of camera and light set-ups, and sometimes in harsh filming locations.

Production is already a stressful affair when everything goes to plan. But when something goes awry… the stress goes through the roof.

She once described the pre-production process as “trying to find your way out in a darkened room with a lot of obstacles”. More experienced production crew would probably have an easier time figuring it out, she said, but even then they would get a lot of bruises along the way too.

Production is already a stressful affair when everything goes to plan. But when something goes awry — from talent showing up late, to rain during an outdoor shoot, to equipment failure, to differences in opinions leading to tension between crew and talent, the list goes on — the stress goes through the roof.

And video production crews know: In each project, something always goes wrong.

On average, a production crew works at least 12 hours a day. Some projects get overtime pay, but not always, due to budget constraints.

Very often, the resting and working hours get blurred. There is a mandatory resting time of seven hours between end of a shoot and the next-day shoot, but this is often ignored due to tight deadlines.

It’s not just the production crew, make-up artists often have to do overtime when a shoot overruns.

Dealing with cancel culture

Video Production Industry Singapore
Image source: Shutterstock / eldadcarin

We all know about cancel culture on social media. But there is a low-key cancel culture in Singapore’s video production industry as well.

Apart from carrying out their duties, those in a video production crew often have to worry about working relationships, especially with the executive producer.

Production crew often have to manage the EP’s expectations on set, which can be mentally tiring as some might be difficult to work with.

Unlike in other industries, a video production crew is made up of a combination of regulars and freelancers, who get brought in for extra manpower if the shoot requires.

And unlike other countries, Singapore’s video production industry is a small community and people talk. One major mistake or blowup on set could easily get a person blacklisted and put their career in jeopardy.

My friends in the video production industry told me that before starting any project, the planning team would do reference checks with other managers in the industry. If there is negative feedback on a particular freelance production crew member, they get dropped.

Since the industry is so small in Singapore, production crew members with bad references slowly receive fewer project calls and eventually get cancelled completely.

One major mistake or blowup on set could easily get a person blacklisted and put their career in jeopardy.

Some would argue that this is how reference checks should be working: After all, reference checks are normal before anyone gets hired, right?

But some of these bad reviews could simply be a result of bad blood. For example, if an EP doesn’t like a particular person, it could spell disaster for that crew member’s future job prospects — which is why many don’t dare to speak up or challenge EPs during shoots.

There’s an additional issue for freelance production crew members. Unlike those who work full time, freelancers get to set their rates for projects.

But here’s the problem: If a freelancer refuses to budge on their rates and the mandatory seven-hour resting time, it’s very likely that they would be labelled as “difficult to work with” and get fewer call-ups. In other words, this system is ripe for exploitation.

Dealing with stereotypes

Video Production Industry Singapore
Image source: Shutterstock / gnepphoto

An acquaintance in the video production industry shared with me that while working overseas, he met many veteran crew members who are respected in their roles in a production team.

For example, in Singapore, a grip (the person in charge of setting up, rigging, and taking down the lighting equipment on set) is a specialty role and not every cameraman can just pick it up. Yet that person is often treated like a runner or an assistant, shouldn’t we appreciate these crew members for the industry experts that they are?

Then there’s the pandemic. These days, my production crew friends tell me that when they do an outdoor shoot, people would avoid walking past them as if they were contagious.

Some passers-by even approach them during filming and question why the talents are not wearing masks!

Production crew often have to explain patiently to them that they are following IMDA regulations closely, and that they do ARTs every time before a shoot — up to a few times a week. In fact, production crew members are probably the “safest” people to get close to during this time!

Dealing with no work-life balance

Video Production Industry Singapore
Image source: Shutterstock / DragosCondrea

I recently spoke with another professional who has been in the industry since the early 2000s. Due to his work schedule, I was only able to speak with him at 11pm. Talk about long hours at work!

He mentioned that there isn’t a day where he can get through without a text or call from work, unless he goes overseas for a holiday — which he hasn’t taken due to the pandemic. He even had his honeymoon staycation disrupted by work calls!

Another close friend in the industry told me that she is feeling burnt out from working from home as her boss shut down their office. Now, clients assume that she is always free to make last-minute edits to videos since she has “nowhere to go”.

Very often, these same clients don’t understand the technical aspects of her work — it can take more than an hour for a video to export — and demand changes at the drop of a hat.

Since last year, she has had to cancel multiple dinner plans as she had to make edits and re-export videos all because of minor comments from clients. Some unreasonable clients would even contact the EP or production company management if the post-production crew do not reply to their texts immediately.

She said: “There are times when we are on leave, clients would complain to our bosses and say, ‘Oh on leave? But they are not travelling anywhere right since now we all can’t go anywhere, right? Then why can’t they make these small changes?!’”

She continued tiredly: “You don’t order food from a restaurant after last orders. The same goes for editors, we are humans and we deserve a break. I feel so guilty at times for cancelling plans with my family.”

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The life of a video production crew is hard.

But as professionals, they are used to it and they have accepted that this is the nature of their job. Complaining is common and a way to blow off steam; some even wear it like a badge of honour. Still, the threat of burnout is very real.

Some aspects of the industry cannot be changed overnight, but taking baby steps in the right direction might help. An organisation, the Association of Independent Producers Singapore, or AIPRO, has been formed to address the interests of the freelance production crew here.

Nevertheless, some of the industry professionals I spoke to shared that there could be more to address the mental wellness of crew members.

Meanwhile, if we see any video production crew on the streets, do encourage them and give them a smile or a thumbs up to cheer them on for the day.

As do many of us, they are in need of mental support to keep them going in difficult times.

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