There’s often been cafe chatter about grievances and problems during production of Indonesian TV commercials, some made against crew, some against producers and others against the agencies or clients. So, we decided to conduct a poll of producers and directors who’ve worked in Indonesia and abroad to get their views on where Indonesian productions stand. The results weren’t surprising, but some hard truths were expressed which hopefully may lead to an improved environment for this industry to advance and compete regionally.

Ever since we started collating results, analysing respondents’ comments and trying to make objective inferences from what we have, we discovered the need for more research and consultations with industry veterans in both the production and advertising industries. We hope that this first summary — which nevertheless will be updated as more comments and research surface — will provide the valuable linsights we hoped for. We have no qualms about standing to be corrected by unbais professionals from here on.   

Of the respondents, 70% or 7 out of 10 have industry experience of 16 or more years and more than half are in the 36-45 age group.

(1) Indonesia rated 5.46 out of 10 in the region

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When asked to rate Indonesian productions compared to the region’s, they gave Indonesia a net weighted average rating of 5.46 out of 10, just above average. But 4 in 10 picked Thailand outright, while another 15% picked Thailand as part of a  few countries where they’ve had their best production experiences despite the language barrier (according to The Bangkok Post’s English Proficiency Index published Nov 2015, Thailand’s score is only 45.35 compared to Indonesia’s 52.91 and Singapore’s 61.08).

Peace of mind, professional crew and equipment, up-to-date knowledge of the latest technology, easy access to and import of equipment not otherwise available in Thailand, and the Thais’ inherently positive culture toward hospitality were reasons cited. If Indonesia were to match Thailand, much change is required; perhaps starting with the Government introducing quick, hassle-free means for bringing in professional technicians not available locally, and introducing uncorrupted channels and procedures for the easy temporary import of equipment for shootswithout hefty, under-the-table levies. “Innocent until proven guilty” is preached but not practised – Customs will assume you’re smuggling and evading duties rather than accept that you have a genuine cause for temporary import of equipment; followed by an objective assessment on a case by case basis.   

(2) Production crew don’t understand their job roles

Of the problems facing each production, 35% of respondents cited “crew not understanding fully their jobs’ roles and responsibilities”; 15% cited “under-estimating the project’s requirements” while 10% felt they just “didn’t understand the project’s requirement”. 

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And these problems are encountered time and time again” according to one respondent.

It’s not uncommon to see crew on set without a shoot board or shooting sequence in their back pockets. It’s also not uncommon for shooting sequences not to detail what is required of each department. Directors should share some of the blame as requirements written onto paper are often changed on the shoot.

The breakneck speed at which the Indonesian advertising grew in the last decade created mismatches between demand and supply. Productions were happening so fast and furious that there weren’t enough trained, proficient crew to handle all the jobs within a production unit. New entrants were brought into positions they were not up to handling, and certainly don’t understand why they’re there, judging by the responses received. Shoddiness and incompetence became the order of the day. Juniors who were not up to speed get away with that because the seniors had no choice but to excuse them for “undergoing on the job training” while breaking into an industry foreign to them. Now that brings us to the next issue.

(3) Crew have no motivation to excel

20% of respondents felt crew have no motivation or interest to perform well on their jobs. Why?

Nobody complains because if one does, one will not be able to get crew to work for them. Juniors get to boycott seniors or producers, not the other way around. If they fail to perform under one producer, there’s always another producer willing and eager to hire them. Accountability is not required nor exists.

We have art directors boycotting producers because the producer (not unreasonably) asked for a detailed Props List with estimated costs several days before the shoot; wardrobe stylists boycotting producers because they didn’t like being told off about their slackness and blatant mistakes caused by their own arrogance; crew boycotting producers because their expenses were queried and disallowed, and so on. This ABJECT and TOTAL disregard for ACCOUNTABILITY in an industry where TRUST is a key pillar the industry rests on, has not only permeated all levels of the production unit, but also those outside the production unit. Recurring tales of talents lying about their ages during casting, or previous commercial appearances for competing products are just the tips of an iceberg. Talents will even go so far as to sign pre-contracts or affirm on casting videos that they have never appeared in a competing products’ TVCs or print adverts, only for those lies to be discovered — painfully, for clients, agencies and producers — after the shoots.     

10% of our respondents said crew are put in roles they’re not ready for. “We lack standardisation in terms of skill sets and job titles” was one comment. Again the demand and supply mismatch mentioned earlier is perhaps the main reason for this.

Under normal circumstances, apprentices and new recruits go through some form of training before they assume more important roles. But in those hectic years of growth, seniors can’t get around to training juniors as they’re overwhelmed and overbooked, jumping from one job straight into another. Many even have to multi-task between different jobs at the same time. Although with the pace of growth slowed down somewhat in the last few years, the practice of proper apprenticeship and training seem to have been totally forgotten. A real shame for an industry which must continually rejuvenate to keep up progress and competition. 

The avalanche of jobs flooding the market in those haydays of growth gave rise to opportunists or hungry entrepreneurs rushing in to start Production Houses (PHs). These newfound “Executive Producers” themselves may not have the experience to run productions or production companies. Many enter the trade because of connections or networks to advertising agencies, possibly because they’ve worked a few years in an agency or related business. But these new PHs will immediately start getting jobs awarded because of their networking and relationships, rather than merit andtrack record.

Jobs are quoted with limited understanding of what are actually required of those jobs, a kind of “win the job first and worry about how to do it later” attitude. Or simply, just to fit the clients’ budgets and get the job confirmed.

So, we have a case of an experienced producer in an established PH properly quoting the job based on what it will take to get it done, and some inexperienced so-called EP shooting in the dark guessing what the job needs,  with an overhang of “must win” that job. When apples are not compared with apples, it’s an easy decision for an inexperienced agency producer (covered in a later section), a budget conscious client, or an indifferent Procurement division.

Good news to the new PH. But to make ends meet on an underquoted job and squeeze some margin out of the job, meagre and most certainly inadequate resources are made available to the director. Juniors are hastily “promoted” to senior positions at juniors’ wages, post production facilities are squeezed and all sorts of unfair deals are cut. Hence the emergence of numerous horror stories from directors who’ve worked under such circumstances. Sadly for those directors, swearing that they won’t work for those producers again “is a bridge too far” while building their reputations and careers.   

From a junior’s point of view, that’s a good, lucky “break” despite the low wage on the job; for that’s an ascent to a higher title and better wage on the next booking. Another classic, but sad example of how people end up in roles they’re not ready for.

A very experienced director once narrated this story about how proud his assistant was in showing him a commercial he’d just directed, while showering praise on that producer who gave him the break. After viewing the ad, the experienced director said to him: “Is this producer trying to push you off the cliff, or is he really trying to help you in your career? You’re not ready to direct yet, my friend! Go spend more time understudying others before you take that leap of faith”.

Did that assistant heed the advice? “No” is the answer we found out some years later. As of the writing of this article, that director-wannabe is still swimming in an ocean infested by shoals of sharks made up of inexperienced producers preying on the next person willing to ruin his/her reputation and career in exchange for a job in hell.

(4) Art & Producing Depts are most problematic

When posed with the question: WHICH DEPARTMENT DO YOU OFTEN ENCOUNTER PROBLEMS ON A PRODUCTION, 3 in 10 respondents cited the Art department with another 3 in 10 naming the Producing department. Casting and Location also came under criticism although to a lesser degree.

Among comments about the Art Department are: (1) they have no knowledge of lenses when designing sets; (2) props often don’t work like they should under shoot day circumstances; (3) wasting money on items which won’t add production value to the film; (4) not understanding lighting and not co-ordinating with the lighting department when building sets; (5) art departments generally comprise a group of undisciplined, disorganised workers who are poor time keepers; (6) budget estimates only arrive when there’s no time to make amendments.

Many art directors are just visualisers, with no organisational training, often graduating through the ranks of props masters or as art department runners/assistants. Not many are photography enthusiasts save for Instagram photos taken off smartphones. They dream and visualise set designs after flipping through the Wallpaper magazine or Google images without lenses in their minds. Shoot boards are rarely memorised and shot objectives rarely probed.

A bad habit or practice which producers hate is that everything has to be customised, like a mega movie out of Hollywood. Using an existing rent-able sofa is unfashionable, unless rewrapped with another coloured fabric handpicked by the art director or director. Existing walls on the location are just too boring, unless repainted or overlaid with flats of their chosen colours. It’s just too troublesome to source for existing props to dress the set with; let’s just make them. Insufficient thought is given to what the job needs as the over riding prerogative is a still picture one can boast on Instagram or portfolio, if he or she even bother to maintain a portfolio.

What about professionalism and work ethics? Decisions are expected of the director by showing them tiny colour swatches. Same for wardrobe department fond of showing directors tiny swatches of fabrics. Props are asked to be selected without proper scale drawings or pictures. For some, showing the director or producer a completed Prop before shoot humiliates them, for that is distrust which hurts their feelings and affects their self esteems. Questioning the cost of a prop or its necessity in the design is also an insult. To most, having a near perfect picture of the master wide shot is a job well done, although in fairness, there are a discerning few who will ensure depth and texture in all angles boarded.

On the Producing department, among the most common issues raised are:- (1) producers actually acting as directors’ runners rather than being the directors’ trusted partners on jobs; (2) producers perennially crying out “we don’t have the money” without even thoroughly evaluating requests from the directors or DoPs; (3) poor organisational skills, not actually managing the production or know how to properly manage a production; and (4) having poor or inadequate knowledge of the production process.   

Most directors respect and trust their producers, especially incoming expat directors who rely on local producers to guide them on local norms and sensitivities. That’s when producers become ambassadors of our industry. An efficient producer giving a director both the good and bad news in an emphatic manner, and always ready to discuss and find solutions to the problems faced, will leave good and positive impressions on the director, and almost always result in a smooth production.

It was the norm for someone to be promoted to producer only after having worked in the industry for at least 7 to 10 years; but these days, producers are sometimes made after a 3-year stint. Again this could be another one of those undesirable by-products of that glut of productions spurred on by economic growth.

It is no surprise then that they have poor or inadequate knowledge of productions, plus all the other problems highlighted about this department. “A title can be given, but respect will have to be earned” seem to have eluded the mindsets of the current generation of producers and production professionals and technicians.   

The influence of personal relationships, networking and connections discussed earlier in point (3) has also obscured the meritorious considerations normally practiced or expected when bidding for jobs. Hence, hiccups on a previous production will easily be forgotten and forgiven, and poor performance has no bearing on one’s chances to bid on the next job. Rather, many a times, it’s the quality of meals or snacks served at pre-production meetings and shoots which determine one’s chances of the next bid.     

Incompetence in producing is often the result of over-delegation. It’s mandatory to have division of duties and responsibilities within a production unit, but producers must realise that the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of a production rests squarely on their shoulders.   

When capable producers delegate or divide up duties, they closely monitor and check the work of each sub-unit at regular, timely intervals. That’s when alarm bells are rang before the production hits a snag. Potential problems can be addressed and resolved early without undue costs or delays. Producers need to be control freaks, but a fine balance must be struck between senseless control and proper division of duties and responsibilities.

Directors are not blameless when it comes to under performance of the producing department, especially those directors who’ve had a bit of experience in production, such as roles as 1st AD or Art Director prior to directing. A bit of knowledge is sometimes more dangerous than no knowledge at all. These are the directors who will, especially during their early days as directors, least trust their producers, always questioning the motives of each decision and always suspicious they’re not being given the optimum resources. That has a counter-productive impact on the workings within the production unit. Time is often wasted on justifying a producing decision or proving that the director’s suggestion or proposition wouldn’t work. For those directors, they will do themselves a huge favour if they work more with better, more experienced producers so as to get over that distrust sooner rather than later in their careers, and free their minds off to fully focus on directing. 

Summing it up: “the biggest failure is one of communications. People still don’t understand that a production consists of many moving parts, and if one part isn’t done well or on time, the other parts start to falter.This is where good production management is required to hold the ship steady and make sure all those parts move in tandem. Producers must understand that they shoulder the ultimate responsibility for success or failure of a production.

Next in line is the Casting department, although some problems are not entirely their fault, such as the unprofessional conduct and lies told by talents or the talent agencies mentioned earlier. Most of the problems in this department arose from inadequate training and lack of standard operating procedures. Among the main complaints are: (1) they don’t understand photography and lighting; (2) they aren’t inquisitive enough when checking talents’ histories and previous exposures to other products; and (3) they are not observant enough to pick out and “red flag” talents with bad or the wrong attitudes.

Most of the problems can be resolved with a proper checklist which must be ticked off on every talent casted. For the experienced hands, it’s often a mental checklist, but the less experienced or careless ones must be given a written checklist and made to diligently tick off each item.

Photography is the more difficult area for that is a discipline which can be learned but perfected only if one has a genuine interest. It’s not uncommon to see casting photographs or videos done with the talents standing right beneath a down light casting ugly shadows on their facial features, or fitting photos taken with the extremely wide angled lenses of pocket cameras resulting in squishy, distorted photos. That’s why we’re seeing more and more directors insisting on taking their own workshop or fitting photos with DSLR cameras to make sure they can confidently and smoothly “sell” talents of their choice at pre-production meetings.   

The next department under scrutiny is Locations, with comments like:- (1) the same old locations being proposed; (2) location people only want an easy job with minimal effort.

All comments point to stagnating standards which will be covered in the next section. 

We mentioned briefly about Art Directors’ portfolios earlier and it’s worth looking at how negligent our professionals are when it comes to maintaining portfolios, which also points to the pride, or lack of, they take in their work. DoPs, make-up artists and wardrobe stylists are no exceptions either. Every time an in-bound director or producer asks about portfolios, we end up having to send them a bunch of YouTube links of low resolution uploads often by 3rd parties, as showcases of these so-called professionals we are trying to “sell” to those directors or producers. The Thais are equally notorious in that aspect. The only decent portfolios we’ve seen on a regular basis are those of Art Directors from Hong Kong and, less regularly, those from Malaysia and the Philippines. Stories surface regularly with the so-called professionals telling producers to look at director so-and-so’s reel for he/she worked on  most of that director’s films, period. Or a make-up to tell you that he/she has worked with this list of regional celebrities without naming jobs or directors, agencies and clients. Of DoPs, the Aussies maintain up-to-date reels, but those from Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are notorious in this aspect.

The excuse most often cited is “I’m too busy and haven’t found time to update my reel”. Another one is “I haven’t gotten around to asking the producer for a high res copy of the finished film”, one which even directors are fond of using. When our supposedly professionals don’t make efforts to show that they take pride in their work, and when they see scant value in maintaining an up-to-date portfolio of their work, that is a worrying trend for the industry.

(5) Complacency the main cause of stagnating standards

Almost 5 in 10 polled said crew complacency is what’s causing industry standards to be where they are now, including lacking motivation to improve and wanting maximum pay for minimal effort.

Others cited team leaders accepting and tolerating sub-standard work while some others attributed poor production management as a cause, both areas of which have been covered in earlier sections.

While some cite a lack of training opportunities for crew, others added that even if training opportunities were provided, crew had little incentive or motivation to partake in skills upgrading and training. All fingers pointed squarely at the lack of accountability as the main culprit behind complacency and other problems which surfaced in this survey.

In a system where accountability is absent, failures go unpunished, no clear rating or accrediting of crew proficiencies exists, demand and supply continues to be mismatched, and personal relationships and networking rank above meritocracy, nothing will change.

To be continued in Part 2….