Pioneer Film School: Craft Services (AKA Food)

I know what you’re thinking, “Hey! I thought this series was about how to make movies! This isn’t some cooking show blog, what does breakfast have to do with filmmaking?” The answer is simple: EVERYTHING. You only need two things to make a movie, a working camera, and a craft services table. Your normal 9 to 5 or standard retail job allows for a lunch break where you can journey off campus for a bite to eat. On a film set, meal breaks (sometimes its lunch, sometimes its dinner, sometimes its 3am and we don’t know what to call it) stay on location. This is done so that if you’re running behind or (hopefully) running ahead you can adjust and maintain peak productivity. Its also much easier to call out “end of the break” and get right back to work if everyone is together. Now, because of this “break-not break-you’re not working-but you’re not leaving” stipulation, the production takes on the cost, preparation, and presentation of the meals. Yup, that’s right, your highly stressful film set just turned into a restaurant.

Like everything else in the film world, there are a lot of things you must consider when preparing for craft services. Most importantly, how many people are you feeding? Whatever that number is, add 10 because no matter how much food you have, there’s always going to be someone who will cry, “I didn’t have enough!” And that’s where the problems start, but we will get into that later. Next, you have to think about, when are you going to eat? Its universally understood that meals on set happen every 6 hours. Normally this is handled by a breakfast at call time when people are getting ready for the day, and then a meal 6 hours later. If you are going into a 12 + hour day, that’s going to be another meal. Always consult with your production manager and assistant director in advance about the schedule and how many meals are expected on each day. Then you have to figure out, where are you going to eat? On larger projects you can have an entire area dedicated to meal service. On smaller productions, you should invest in foldable tables and chairs. The last big question is so simple yet so complicated, what are you going to eat? My advice? Cover the spread, make sure you’re able to have some options, especially if you’re working with a larger crew. You’re likely able to get 5 reasonable people to agree on something to eat. 20? 50? 175? Impossible. Its also key to get all food allergy or dietary restrictions worked out with crew days beforehand. The last thing you want to deal with is someone saying, “I can’t eat that.”

And that’s where the real purpose of craft services shows its face. It’s much more than the physical act of filling your tummies. Sure, everyone is working hard, and they need sustenance to refuel for another 6 hours of work, but a solid meal service is actually the biggest morale booster you have in your arsenal. It’s a moment to get the troops together and rally ahead towards victory. The various departments can intermingle and catch up with the small talk they weren’t able to get in on a busy film set. It’s a magical reset clock when every box is ticked, there’s plenty of food, it wasn’t delayed, everyone is happy with what they are eating. When one or more of these boxes aren’t ticked, well, its game over, man. You can have a wild animal released in the studio and destroy every prop on set, but the art department will carry on. You can throw the camera off a building and have to reassemble every tiny broken piece, but the camera department will carry on. The actors can forget all their lines, but the director will carry on. If you have a bad craft service, no one carries on. I’ve seen more “hey, we need to talk” situations arise over food than any other problem on set. I’ve seen a director of photography leave the studio to go to a burger place downtown, causing a 2 hour delay, because they were insulted by the ham and cheese sandwich at craft services. It is a tough road to go down and an even tougher road to recover from.

If you have the budget, I suggest hiring a caterer. The process is pain free: you give them a head count, mealtimes, dietary restrictions, and they give you a price per person. They bring the tables, the chairs, the silverware, the table clothes, and then they clean up afterwards. That’s hours and hours of work and mental gymnastics you don’t have to deal with. It may seem like an outrageous statement, but a proper craft services budget is more important than that beautiful 1970s vintage lens set that was used to shoot “The Godfather.” I know your director of photography has been nagging you about it, but its better to have one disappointed camera man than an entire cast and crew.

Simply put, craft services keep the film set going for another 6 hours. If it is done poorly, your next 6 hours are going to be done poorly. If you’re on a shoestring budget, your last option is honesty. Let your cast and crew know up front what they are getting into. Saying “I’m sorry, can you pack a lunch?” will always be better than “Hey, so I know I brought you out to a desert for this music video, but I don’t have any food for you.” A lot of the times with small budget projects, the cast and crew know there are going to be compromises. Don’t lie or make any false promises. You won’t be fooling anyone, and you’ll only hurt yourself.

A Few Tips:

  • Don’t forget your backup. Craft services isn’t just meals, its also having a solid snack and drink selection during work hours. Buying some bulk granola bars, bags of apples, and fun sized candy will get you far during the 6 hours between meals. If a grip can eat 3-4 granola bars while they are working on set, its unlikely they’ll cause much fuss if the meal isn’t 5-star restaurant material.
  • Always have coffee on set. If you don’t have a caterer, buy a coffee machine, get a production assistant, and have them keep a fresh pot ready at all times. Caffeine is your friend, always have it nearby! Shockingly, some humans don’t drink coffee. Its also good to have tea and energy drinks on standby.
  • Remember to educate yourself in local craft service customs. European crews might be fine with an apple and espresso for breakfast, but if a New York grip doesn’t have a bacon egg and cheese sandwich, there might be trouble. The same goes for mealtimes. Some countries believe the meal timer doesn’t start until the last person gets their food. Some countries think lunch should only be thirty minutes. If you’re working with a multi-international crew, make sure everyone is on the same level with what to expect from the meal break.

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