The dirty truth behind the camera

Things we know but don’t say:

Every young filmmaker dreams of working on a high-budget project. Yes it’s true that much of what you will learn in film school correlates, but the fact is that nothing you learn in college will prepare you for the personalities and varying protocols on each production. We all got into this business for different reasons, I myself fell into the business by accident. So my attraction to the industry is not as significant as those who have aspired to become a Producer, Director, DP, Gaffer, Art Director, etcetera. Therefore, the following opinions are skewed based on my experience in other professions both in the civilian sector and armed forces.

Industry Traits:

There is a distinct personality trait related to each position of any industry, this is no different when you are thinking about the professional film production industry. It’s something I’ve discovered after 4 years of working as a production assistant in Kansas City, Missouri. Of course, I will not generalize people because that is not fair to all working professionals in the business and I won’t single out anyone by name out of respect for the trade.

The competitive nature of the business is understandable, the market is saturated with cut rate production companies who will promise the clients and agencies anything to be able to retain the contract for the job. The issues surrounding the film production industry typically come down to five (5) things:

Lack of Industry & Business Knowledge

  • Excluding intellectual merit, many individuals who decide to start a film production company typically lack standard business skills, namely, financial competency necessary to accurately project expenses for a production.

Insufficient Trade Experience

  • Though an individual may have experience in one or multiple positions in the business, it’s necessary to understand every role thoroughly to establish expectations for each person working in such positions. This is best established working in the entry level positions, such as a Production Assistant. Some will advance or market one’s self as a Producer or Director and successfully retain contracts based on said position, but this sometimes has adverse results based on misappropriation of task assignment which can result in unnecessary overtime expenditures.

Professional Negligence

  • This inherent issue is habitual, many “industry professionals” will intentionally perform wrongful business practices that take advantage of a client or agency. This issue takes many forms, most often companies will overspend, disguise expenses, or inflate labor costs to justify a budget.

Labor Law Violations

  • Production companies will intentionally employ crew members on contract to dodge legal responsibilities such as workman’s compensation and employer taxes. Production companies will employ young unskilled labor as “Production Assistants” to take advantage of a “flat rate” pay schedule, which results in excessive overtime for said workers and poses potential safety concerns.

Market Exploitation

  • Production companies from larger cities, who are well aware of standard costs, will intentionally execute productions in smaller markets, without union representation, to exploit the local workers. In other situations, production companies will travel city to city, like gypsies, to perform work in other markets to take advantage of tax incentives. After a production is completed, it’s not uncommon for a production company to abandon a town after a tax incentive is used.

Local Market Issues

As stated, being from a small market, it’s hard to get all of the industry professionals in the area on the same page. Many people in the Kansas City film production market are starving artists, there’s not enough work in the city to keep everyone employed. So many will take lower rates just to get the job, which feeds the issue. Entry into the market for new talent is also incredibly difficult, many college graduates or interested persons will be blocked entry strictly based on lack of opportunities. This issue enables local production companies to cut rates for all positions to a point where hours worked will, at times, equal or be below that of a federal-standard minimum wage position. For those individuals who establish self worth, and defend oneself from these predatory business practices, are blacklisted by market leaders.

Potential Solutions

These issues can be resolved in a three (3) part process:

  1.  Production companies need to be responsible employers:

    • Production companies need to be responsible by abiding by the standardized union rates and rules. This will not only aid and protect their crew but it will help with providing data that will be equal to that of competitive states.
  2. The local industry professionals need to unionize:

    • To hold the production companies accountable the local workers need to unionize.
  3. The local governments need to intervene and implement industry specific regulations:

    • The local governments need to intervene by establishing instate tax rebate incentives and rules that will hold both the unions and in/out of state productions responsible for employment guidelines.

We all know that this is a long term game and it’s apparent that due to the technical advancements, and demand for online media, the visual marketing service industry will only continue to increase in the future. However, this is a double edged sword because costs adjust according to the technical advancements. This can mean that labor costs for equipment operators with technical expertise will increase, which will offset budgets meaning that production companies will justify lowering rates for “unskilled labor” even more into the future. Therefore, starting now will help to protect employers and employees in the future.

Call to action:

If you agree or disagree with my statements above please let me know in the comments. Please share with those who have insight or input in this matter.


The Kansas City Kansas Fire Department

It wasn’t my intention originally to work on this project with the Fire Department. In December I purchased a Matterport camera to diversify my service options in the film production location scouting area of my business. The 3D Visualization works by using photogrammetry to seem images together with measurements collected with infrared lasers. This technology is typically used for Real Estate Tour marketing but I decided to use it in a different way for film location touring for production companies.
I met with Morris Letcher, Public Information Officer of the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department, to discuss the project that would tie the two services into one fully-immersive digital-experience that would revolutionize the way that the KCK Fire Department was seen by the public and new applicants. Therefore, the reality of a 3D and Virtual Reality recruiting program was born, and we were on our way to taking the first steps.
Fast forward a few months and we began shooting in July, on the 10th. We started with the 3D scan, where we had all of the Fire Department staff hold a single position for several hours while we scanned foot by foot throughout the entire station. All of the Fire Department wouldn’t move or blink, including the Dog (Live-Find-K9). Afterward we moved on to the interviews. We performed 11 talking head interviews on Tuesday the 11th, 2 interviews on the 14th, and then one this week on the July 2nd. The team I had on the crew discounted their rates to help us achieve this goal because we all believed in this project since the beginning. I had a total of 7 crew members: my young brother and personal assistantAnthony Monson, my cousin and Audio Engineer Charles Lutz, my best friend and Director of Photography Wayne Gassmann, my favorite Hair & Makeup Stylist Kate Webb from 7th Row Productions, and my Assistant Director and favorite musician Jean-Jacques Corbier.
Monson spent hours editing the footage, and during this project and gained more and more inspiration to put extra time into the project because he felt the Firefighters (and really all EMS service men and women) deserved to be shown in the best possible light. The to my team and I we all agree that these men and women are modern day Superheros. Therefore, during this time we decided to go one step further by customizing every component of the project. I began by spending nearly 200 hours reviewing, editing, and re-editing the videos and the 3D tour to make it as close to perfect as possible. In addition, I customized all of the color for each of the interviews to make it as visually appealing as something you would see on National Television.
Charles Lutz took care of all of the audio for the production. He recorded the on-set-sound for each of the interviews at the department, edited the dialog, then composed, recorded and mixed the music heard during the final videos. The music score (custom sound track) highlights several of the instruments he plays including Cello, Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Bass and Piano, as well as many synthetic/electronic elements he found fitting for the tone of the interviews. Anthony Monson (my brother) can also be heard playing the Saxophone near the end of the tune. Charles also created the intro graphic using features in Adobe After Effects to bring the original KCKFD Logo to life. He used particle simulation, 3D camera movement and many other layered elements to create the graphics fiery look. Lastly, he created custom sound design to match the CG video. The timing of all this was tight, with all of these elements coming together in only about a week and a half, but they added greatly to the overall production value.
Here is the link to the tour:
Upon release this first article was written on the 2nd of July, but didn’t shine the right light on the topic.