I am a huge supporter of volunteer work. I volunteered weekly at The Cinematheque for three years while in film school. I have and continue to volunteer on friend’s film sets, donating my time and expertise. And I continue to search for new volunteer opportunities to give back to communities I support.
However, I am also a strong advocate for fair working conditions and just wages.
The problem with filmmaking culture here in Vancouver (and I suspect worldwide) is that often the standard is to take advantage of the eager and naive, expect 12+ hour days, and be exclusive to workers with different abilities. I have been on countless sets where often young folks, who are volunteering on one of their first film sets, are taught that the standard is no pay, extremely long days, and a work culture that can often be unwelcoming.
For example, I volunteered on a old colleague’s film set last year as an background actor. They put out a call for young people who could pass as high school students. I had the day free, and respected the colleague, so I signed up for the set. It was a decently large set for a Vancouver-style independent film, and had a large crew + cast. Overall, the set was fine -- decent crafty and friendly crew, but there was a large problem with the lack of respect for the background actors. Lunch breaks were cut short, communication and direction were lacking, and extra long hours were expected after the estimated end time.
Now, if you work or volunteer on film sets, you have probably experienced something similar. You have had your rushed lunches, you have worked with difficult people, and you definitely have stayed late on set. The element that really ircked me about this set was that, aside from myself, almost all the background actors were literal highschool students. They were children. They didn’t know they could say no to staying late, or stand up against anything else that wasn’t okay on that set. They were learning that this is the norm on film sets -- that unfair working conditions is the standards and that you shouldn’t say anything against it.
I tried my best to stand up for these kids, but ultimately it was me against a crew that was just trying to make their day. I have so many worse horror stories, but this particular story really exemplifies the norms of film set culture.
It’s wrong to manipulate volunteers, especially child volunteers. It’s wrong to expect people to be on their feet, often working quickly, mentally pushing themselves for 12 - 15 hours a day. It’s wrong to take advantage of film crews and artists who are passionate about the craft and work them to the bone as volunteers.
Artists and others working on film sets deserve fair pay. As I mentioned above, I am a huge advocate for volunteer work. However, there is a big difference between volunteer work and paid work. When someone volunteers their time and skills, they should be treated not just fairly, but be shown extra gratitude. They are working for free after all!
When I volunteered at The Cinematheque, the management ensured we all felt appreciated. There was annual volunteer parties, free perks, encouraging management and more. Sadly, these sorts of standards are often not upheld on certain film sets.
On my friend’s sets, the vibe is consciously very different from the problematic sets we have all volunteered on before. We don’t kill ourselves with extra long hours. We respect each other on set. And we volunteer because we truly care about the project and artists behind the film.
A piece of advice to new filmmakers looking to gain experience on sets:
Know you can always say no, or walk away. Never risk your safety for anything.
You are VOLUNTEERING. You are not obligated to do anything. If someone tries to cut your lunch short, don’t be afraid to let them know you are not okay with that.
Make sure it is clear whether you are volunteering or working. If it is a working gig, then ensure you are being paid at least minimum wage (in B.C. currently $12.65, set to rise annually on June 1st).
In general, I would advise against volunteering on sets you don’t know much about. You shouldn’t waste your time on projects or people you don’t actually care about.