Archive for March, 2010

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The Seven Deadly Truths

March 30, 2010

Okay, it’s a bit of a misnomer.

They’re not deadly and they’re not exactly truths either. But there are seven of them. These are my (and my friends) experiences, observations and opinions in finding work at the bottom rung of the industry, distilled into seven points. Points that can hit you quite hard when you encounter them.

You see, they can teach you a lot at film school (or in my case University) but they are usually quite disconnected from what the real world is like for those fresh out of school with a certificate in their hands. It was different when your lecturers did this and you’re often ill-prepared for how the industry works. The following are a list of little things I (and my friends) realised within the first year of trying to get work, that up until that time we had harboured under various illusions. I have to reiterate- these are not solid facts or definitives, they’re opinions. But they are opinions you might encounter too if you start your career today.

1. Your degree isn’t worth anything- your skills and experience are.

The fact is your degree means fuck all in this game. Like degrees in general, every bugger has one and thus they aren’t a distinguishing element on your CV. So don’t rely on it.

Practical, on-set jobs don’t require a degree, they require skill at whatever you’re doing. Think about it this way, if the powers that be want the project to work (and if there’s money involved, they will) they won’t want someone on set who’s going to have a learning curve at what they’re doing. They want you to know right away and be able to deliver quality work immediately. As such, for on-set work, it’s your skills and previous experiences that count, so have a packed CV and good showreel on standby.

The only role with an accepted learning curve is a runner. Anything more and you need to know what you’re doing and be on form by the time the clapper board comes out.

Your degree will only help if you want to get into more corporate jobs- working in a production office for instance, but the competition is fierce for executive roles and this degree is actually less useful here than one in business!

Use your degree as an opportunity to learn and build up a showreel of work. This way you can blag your way into work easier.

2. You need to specialise!

If you don’t develop a speciality, the only on-set job available to you is runner and while that’s a good place to start, pay sucks (if you’re lucky enough to get any) and it’s hardly a career is it?

Specialising is important. If you’ve started to develop specialised skills in the camera department, you might be able to get into a Camera Trainee or low-grade AC job for instance. The generalised nature of a production course is good, but if you don’t develop a specialist skill, you’re not the sort of person they’re going to want to hire- whether they’re paying you or not.

3.  Regular salary jobs are few and far between- everything else is freelance.

If you’re after a regular salary job, you’re pretty much in the wrong place. Regular salary jobs only exist from production companies or service providers like editing suites and hire companies.

Most on-shoot work is freelance- on a per-job basis. In the beginning, you’d apply for posts when they appear on Production Base or Mandy etc and be paid for the days you’re involved or per job based on your daily rate. As you gain experience and contacts, people are more likely to come to you. Freelancing is risky and competitive, but if you play the game well, you’ll be your own boss and can get quite a lot of work out of it. You effectively work for yourself, so it’s up to you to find or generate work that pays. Some freelancers invest in their own equipment- something you might want to do once you know what sort of income you’d be getting and what equipment is a good purchase for the work you do.

The only exception to this freelance on-shoot rule is if you get employed in a small production company where everyone mixes in. You’d do a bit of admin, a bit of on-shoot work when jobs come in and a bit of editing. Word of warning though, the small production companies usually do corporate commissioned work, so it’s by no means exciting.

4. Be prepared to bullshit a little. Or a lot.

Never underestimate the power of bullshit. A bit of exaggeration here or there can significantly increase your chances of getting the job. I’m not advocating out and out lying, but allowing for some mis-interpretation can do wonders.

Know your skills though. If you’ve operated a DVcam broadcast camera before, operating a DigiBeta broadcast camera isn’t that different, so if asked “can you use a DigiBeta?” say “yes not a problem” because it’ll take you about three minutes to work out where everything is the moment you get your hands on it. If they ask if you can use an Arri SR3 35mm camera, don’t bullshit. You won’t be able to pick that up and fudge your way through it that easily. This is where your experience comes in. If you know that you’d be able to do something with a bit of effort and a little time and it won’t affect the production, bullshit might be an option. In many cases, it’s probably worth downloading the manual for kit like cameras, lights and mics anyway, meaning you won’t need to bullshit as much and it saves a few minutes of inward panicking on set.

Some people thrive on bullshit, others shirk away from it. I’d suggest walking the fine line between them.

5. It’s all about the contacts

There’s so much money and reputation riding on work in this business that people don’t want to take risks at all. They don’t want to hire inexperienced people just in case they set the production back. So what do they do? They hire the people they’ve worked with before. And if they can’t do that, they accept recommendations from those they’ve worked with.

You might be lucky and have an uncle who works as a gaffer on Deal or No Deal, or you might have to forge that initial connection yourself. But once you’ve done it, keep in contact with them.

6. Know what you know and know what it’s worth

Know what you know, know what you don’t know and know what you will know if you put the hours in. Too many people put their own abilities down or on the other end of the scale, think that the little they already know is more than enough. The former won’t get anywhere and the latter are a liability. Know your own skills and know your current place in the grander scheme of things. Don’t assume you know enough to make it professionally (not to be harsh, but fresh out of film school, you probably don’t!) but don’t think you’re useless and unskilled either. Find out what you need to know to do the job better and set about learning it- from people, projects, books or DVD special gubbins- this is the only way you’ll move forward.

Once you know what you know, you’ll have a better idea of  what you’re worth as well.

What you’re worth is a tricky one because you’re worth whatever someone is willing to pay for your services or skills. There is a union payscale for pro work, but chances are you’re not going to get a foot on that ladder yet. Do a few jobs for peanuts just to test your skills out- if people start to see you as professional then you can start to think about charging professional rates. And what are professional rates? Much same as in other professions. Have a look on Production Base to see what’s being offered. A pro rate is essentially anything from £100 a day upwards. Depending on the project, the budget and what’s required, that £100 might be for a lowly Production Assistant on a feature film or broadcast drama or it could be for a Lighting Cameraman on a low budget indie short. Professionals working in production areas where there’s a lot of money (advertising, TV drama, features) earn a lot more than their indie/corporate equivalents. And above-the-line jobs like Director and Producer can earn stupid money. Obviously, rates are very loose and vague, but the general rule is the same:

If your job requires little to no skill or low responsibility then your daily rate is similar to the rate someone in a normal job of similar scope would expect (like a sales assistant or receptionist). The more skill your job requires and the more responsibility you have, the more money you’ll get. The only other factors to take in to consideration are that you might get paid more if you contribute equipment or a car to the production and professional rates on union work are often slightly higher than their normal job counterparts because most film folk work on a freelance basis and rarely have a full month of work like normal people.

Now you know all this, what should you do when the question of payment comes up? Well, early in your career, it probably won’t. You’ll find that most entry-level work is for expenses only or a pittance. Professional money will only come if you get on to a shoot where there’s a distribution or broadcast destination confirmed for the project- meaning they know how much the piece will fetch and thus how much they can pay everyone. If you do get asked what your rates are, make sure you have something worked out in advance so you’re not caught on the spot.

My advice? Do different types of work- paid, low-paid, expenses only- to broaden your skills and network. Don’t do something for nothing at all (unless it’s low budget runner work or a student film), no matter how promising it sounds- always get them to pay expenses at least. This saves you from looking like an amateur- professionals get paid for their work, even a little- and if you want to be seen as professional, talk money before the job. Don’t be afraid to bring up the subject of money- if this is going to be your profession, it’s your way of earning income, so talk payment with your employer or client. Don’t throw aside expenses-only work though- it could give you the valuable experience you need (like say working on a 35mm or RED shoot)- just make sure they know that that’s why you’re taking the job.

7. There is little glamour in this work- most people in the industry do it as a job.

This is the one that usually surprises people. And after the surprise comes disillusionment and then a career in another industry. But it’s a fact. Take a look at the point I make above about pay and you’ll start to see that the difference between “normal” jobs and one in the film/TV production world is quite small. It would stand to reason then that people who earn their living from doing this work might just think of it as that- a paycheck. We all hope to do a job we love, to do it for more than just the pennies, but sometimes the pennies are all that matters. When you take into account the fact that most industry work is on a project by project basis you’ll see that if the project’s uninspiring, then money is all it’ll be about. And there are plenty of uninspiring projects out there- especially if you work in the corporate sector.

But you have to become inured to this. Have to. Because if you don’t, it’ll bring you down and you’ll lose the desire to work in this game at all. Thing is, if you do start to earn your living this way, you’ll have shoots that you think of as earners rather than opportunities to do what you love and you have to be able to cope with this. Try to keep your interest and enthusiasm up on projects and if you can’t, keep them up for the potential next one. As Samuel L Jackson says, do one job for the money and then the next for the heart. While he’s a millionaire and can easily pick and choose his work, try to keep the idea in mind. Make a point of doing a project every now and again that you’re interested in.

As to the glamour- that goes away the first time you step on set. Film work is chaotic, messy, sometimes stupidly fast-paced and often laboriously slow and pedestrian. It’s also usually something of a shambles. There is no glamour. That sort of shit is what the tinsel town brigade put about to make their own into celebrities. If celebrities, parties and glamour is what you’re after, quit pursuing a job in the film and TV industry now (or become a paparazzi). Just save yourself the time, money and disillusionment and stick to reading Heat magazine (or Empire if you’re focused on the film-related glitz)- there’s fuck all glamour on a real film set.

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Okay, so I’ve now got a blog…

March 30, 2010

Yeah, so I resisted this for a while.

I’ve never been one for jotting down my day to day thoughts, but I’ve come to realise that I rant and analyse and comment on everything to my friends anyway and rather than irritate them, I thought I’d irritate the world at large.

But this isn’t going to be just some personal “this morning I ate Frosties” kind of blog. No sir. As the title would imply, this blog is all about film. More specifically, my attempts to forge my way into the film and TV industry in the aftermath of a video production education. Perhaps other students might learn from my experiences (there are a hell of a lot of things I thought or was taught that are, in my experience utter bollocks). Perhaps it’ll prove to be a good way to share experiences and network.

Or perhaps it’ll just be a way for me to get film-related stuff off my chest…