Most films require a wide range of expertise and thus call for fairly extensive crews. The size of a film crew varies according to the budget, just as its composition depends on the requirements of the specific film. For example, an action thriller may require a large number of stuntmen, whereas an intimate drama would need few if any. Historical blockbusters depend on sizable camera crews and extensive wardrobe departments. For instance, the historical saga Ben-Hur (1925) called for forty-eight cameras to shoot its sea battle scene, and the wardrobe department of Quo Vadis? (1951) had to prepare and manage 32,000 costumes.
The crews of low budget and short films are likely to be far smaller than those of major Hollywood productions, with people often doubling up to perform more than one task. Such labor-saving practices are usually not possible on big-budget productions, which tend to employ unionized film crews. To protect the interests of their members, unions insist that the crew members work within the strict limits of their job descriptions and that an appropriately qualified union member is hired to perform each duty. This restriction may extend all the way to the director. For instance, when the British director Ridley Scott (b. 1937) went to Hollywood to make Blade Runner (1982), he was not allowed to act as his own camera operator and had to work through the director of photography Jordan Cronenweth (1935–1996) and his unionized team instead.
Some short films and experimental films, as well as certain types of documentary such as direct cinema, are made with incredibly tiny crews. There are even films that have been made entirely by one person, which has normally happened when the film is composed of animation or found footage. One of the most impressive single-handed achievements is surely José Antonio Sistiaga's feature length abstract animation, Ere erera baleibu icik subua aruaren (1970), for which he painted each frame directly onto the film stock. Because he did not use a camera, he did not need a cameraman, lighting crew, actors, or anyone else to create this film. Similarly, Bruce Conner's (b. 1933) compilation films, such as A Movie (1957), relied on the re-editing of "found footage," thereby eliminating the need for a conventional filmmaking crew. Even films entailing purpose-shot cinematography have sometimes been made single-handedly. For Notebook (1963), Marie Menken (1909–1970) took her camera out into the street to film interesting images, such as reflections in a puddle, and cut them together to create a short non-narrative film.
Although the occupational categories described above have remained relatively stable since the advent of synchronized sound in the late 1920s, a cursory comparison of twenty-first century films, based on onscreen credits, compared to those of the late 1920s or even the early 1970s would suggest that crews are not only becoming larger but also more diversified. One recent example will suffice to illustrate this trend: The Matrix Revolutions (2003) credits over 700 participants. This observation, however, may not accurately reflect reality. Screen credits may provide a guide to the main participants in creating a film, but they are not necessarily a reliable guide to the exact makeup of film crews. In particular, they are a poor index of the way in which crews have changed over time. A lengthening credit list does not necessarily mean that films now employ larger crews than before, but rather that a higher proportion of workers are named, whereas in earlier years many remained anonymous. Unions have been a powerful force in this regard, working hard to ensure that their members receive onscreen credit. In an era in which most film workers freelance, rather than work under studio contract, it is especially important for their career that they receive credit, since this may affect their remuneration as well as their future employment prospects.
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