By now most traditional crew positions fit neatly into the union landscape of professional film production. Assistant directors are members of the DGA. Gaffers and grips belong to IATSE. Art directors join up with the ADG.
But what about those crew positions that are- shall we say- slightly less traditional? What about those crew positions that are brand new and highly specialized?
In this post, we’re taking a look at how unions handle the intersection of cutting-edge technology and film crew personnel through the eyes of the IATSE Local 600. We’ll break down what specialty equipment classifications are, what challenges they pose to unions, and how Local 600 works to meet those challenges head-on.
First, an important introduction:
The IATSE Local 600, also known as the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG), is the premier labor union for camera crew personnel working in the United States and Puerto Rico. It is one of the most critical unions and guilds keeping the American film industry running in the twenty-first century.
Local 600’s history of labor organization among camera crews runs deep. Originally operating as three separate union locals, IATSE (the ICG’s parent organization) sought to merge the trio into one entity in 1996, after noticing a trend of producers attempting to play the three locals against one another to drive down wages.
Today, Local 600 members can work anywhere in the United States with the full, coordinated power of their union behind them.
The mission of Local 600 is “to fight effectively for fair wages, sustainable benefits, a safe workplace, respect for craft, and retirement with dignity for our members and their families using every tool at our disposal.” The union has committed itself to focus every decision it makes and every dollar it takes towards furthering those goals on behalf of its many thousands of members.
To that end, Local 600 guarantees for its members:
On top of all that, Local 600 provides contract negotiation, employment facilitation, educational materials, networking opportunities, and a host of other valuable resources.
Like all unions operating in the film industry, Local 600 has to work hard to keep up with the ever-evolving state of emerging technology and its impact on Local 600 members at large. A major component of that effort involves integrating new, specialty equipment and its specially trained operators into the current ecosystem of film crew positions.
And that leads us to our next question...
Specialty classifications refer to job titles stemming from the operation, management, maintenance, or assistance necessary to utilize a specialized item or system of equipment.
That sounds like a mouthful, but it’s actually much less complicated than it seems at first glance. You’re likely already familiar with the concept, even if you don’t realize it.
That is to say that if you’re an attentive, studious member of the moviegoing audience, you’ve probably already noticed one or two specialty crew positions in the rolling credits at the end of a film.
These specialty classifications tend to be the more impressive, odd-sounding crew positions in the scroll.
For instance, perhaps you’ve come across one of the following:
The list could go on and on, expanding practically by the day with both brand new titles and new variations on old titles.
And why is that?
Each specialty job classification is attached to an item or system of specialty equipment, and on top of that, new specialty equipment is coming out all of the time.
Russian arms have come a long way since Ivan Drago.
Illusion and spectacle have always been at the heart of cinema.
Consequently, the drive towards technical innovation is and has always been encoded into cinema’s DNA.
Filmmakers are hardwired to seek new and unexpected ways of achieving the impossible.
But this brings up an interesting question when it comes to unions:
How do you standardize an industry dedicated to achieving the impossible?
Or to put it another way…
Specialty classifications present a unique challenge for unions because they’re unusual by their very nature. It’s hard to negotiate a union contract for a job title that doesn’t yet exist or whose responsibilities remain unclear.
If a union can’t adequately negotiate a contract, it can’t adequately protect its members.
And that’s a major problem.
The central conflict in these cases is between the producers that employ laborers and the unions that make sure laborers are employed properly. In best case scenarios, producers and unions enjoy a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. In worst case scenarios, their interests can be thrown into intense competition.
Fortunately for everyone, specialty classifications don’t necessarily create a worst-case scenario. They do, however, risk pushing producers and unions into a kind of grey area, a regulatory no-man’s land where the rules aren’t so clear and skirting them is just a little too easy.
The reason this risk exists is because individual specialty classifications, if left unchecked, can create an opportunity for producers to bypass unions entirely and hire specialty crew members as contractors rather than employees. This creates an opportunity for producers to undercut the crew member’s wages, which, in turn, creates the risk of a domino effect that could negatively impact the wages of other members of the crew.
The overall effect is that the union’s strength could be diluted, potentially leaving its members far more vulnerable than they were before.
Of course, the major unions are incredibly skilled at making sure this never happens. To get a glimpse into how one union manages this process, let’s take a look at how Local 600 handles specialty classifications.
Because they represent camera crew personnel, IATSE Local 600 faces the challenges of specialty classifications more often than most unions.
As such, they’ve developed a distinct, two-pronged approach to meeting those challenges.
Let’s take a look at each of their strategies individually.
Like the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.
The first part of the Local 600’s approach to handling specialty classifications is essentially a conceptual shield that prevents producers from easily taking advantage of specialty classifications by creating room for them within the bounds of the union’s current contract.
When it comes to specialty classifications, Local 600 follows a very basic rule:
If a given crew member’s job has anything to do with using camera equipment for the purposes of capturing images for the movie (or television show, commercial, etc.), that job falls under the jurisdiction of the camera local, even if the job title itself is not specifically covered.
And just like that, Local 600 reduces an incredibly complicated problem into an incredibly simple solution.
Once it’s decided that a specialty job title is covered by Local 600, the concept of the basic rule is extended to provide the job a specific classification within the union’s system.
Specialty job titles are classified by analogy to more traditional job titles that are already named within Local 600’s contract. I’ll explain.
Let’s illustrate how the basic rule works by taking a quick look at two examples:
Drones have quickly become a staple in the filmmaker’s toolkit. To meet their remote-controlled rise to prominence, authorities have had to make a mad dash to put proper regulations in place.
How did our friends at Local 600 tackle the sudden appearance of drone pilots and technicians on their union call sheets?
First, Local 600 applied the basic rule:
The job of a drone pilot is to pilot a drone. A drone is basically a flying robot camera. Because they’re basically working with camera equipment, drone teams fall under the jurisdiction of Local 600.
Bingo. Good luck hiring a drone pilot as a contractor now.
Second, Local 600 classified individual drone team members by analogy:
The job of a drone pilot is to pilot a drone. A drone is basically a flying robot camera. “Piloting” is analogous to “operating.” Therefore, drone pilots are classified as camera operators. Drone technicians are likewise classified as assistant camerapersons.
Double bingo. Now there are union-sanctioned rate guidelines by which drone pilots and technicians must be paid.
In many instances, the exact classification of specialty jobs is a matter of some debate, but the rule itself is surprisingly flexible.
To demonstrate, let’s take a look at our second example.
With the normalization of digital filmmaking at a professional level, new crew positions have proliferated to meet the demands of the digital world. Now practically ubiquitous, DITs and “data wranglers” were once specialty job classifications of the not-so-distant past.
But how could Local 600 possibly handle these wizards of the techno-verse? There’s absolutely no way you could argue that a bunch of hard drive-slingin’ desk jockeys belong to the camera local, right?
Actually, that’s exactly what Local 600 did, and turns out it was a pretty easy argument to make.
Just apply the basic rule:
DITs work directly with digital files. These digital files contain footage shot by a camera for a movie (or television show, commercial, etc.). Because they’re basically working with footage directly from the camera, DITs fall under the jurisdiction of Local 600.
In this case, the basic rule becomes even more clear when you classify by analogy:
DITs work with digital footage. DITs get this footage out of the camera and prepare fresh memory cards that go into the camera, where they collect more footage. Therefore, DITs are directly analogous to film loaders, a classic camera team position that was once equally as ubiquitous as DITs are today.
If this isn’t your DIT theme song, I just don’t know what to tell you.
Local 600’s basic rule and its classification by analogy are powerful tools, but it’s the second part of Local 600’s strategy for dealing with specialty classifications that allows these tools to be effective.
The cutting edge, that is.
With the second part of their strategy for handling specialty classifications, IATSE Local 600 goes on the offensive. Rather than constantly playing catch-up, Local 600 stays ahead of new specialty classifications by keeping a finger on the pulse of technology.
And they don’t do that by reading magazines, visiting trade shows, or lurking Roger Deakins’ forum.
Instead, business representatives for Local 600 are in direct, frequent contact with designers and manufacturers of innovative filmmaking equipment long before it ever hits the market.
This allows them to both give input for the equipment’s construction (to prevent problems before they happen) and to prepare themselves well in advance (for problems that simply can’t be prevented).
In this way, monitoring emerging technology before it even has the chance to emerge is a critical component of efficiently and effectively meeting the challenges of specialty classifications.
Their approach to specialty classifications is only one of many reasons to join IATSE Local 600, but it demonstrates a forward-thinking mentality that puts Local 600 in a league of its own when it comes to protecting its members.
And if you’re a producer who, like Local 600, has an eye on the future, consider using Wrapbook for your next production.
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At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.