Thursday, February 26, 2009

Your First Time on a Film Crew

So you’ve got yourself a job on a film set. That’s great news. Even if it is unpaid, that’s still great news. In fact, most first time film gigs are unpaid production assistant work, or intern work. This is to be expected. It’s a means to get your foot in the door. After all, if you have no experience working on a film set, you have little bargaining power, frankly. That is, unless you possess a specific set of skills (like make-up design, or set design, or costumes, or special effects) that you have acquired in other work—such as the theatre—that makes you a bit of a hot commodity to a given production. Most of us, however, don’t start off that way. And that’s to be expected. So embrace that and get in there. There is a very specific flow to working on most film sets, and being able to be introduced to it without the added stress of being a head of specific department is usually a good way to go.

My first experience on a film crew outside of school was during my final weekend in Los Angeles where I had spent the semester at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center in 2003. My filmmaking professor was directing a short film at the time, which was shot on 16mm. She’d put together a crew with experienced people at the helm of the various departments and the production was slated for one day (one long day) that final weekend of the spring semester. I was faced with the option of working for free on her short film as one of the crewmembers, or having one last weekend to wonder around LA. It was tempting to just be a bum and go do something very LA-ish since I’d had quite an intense semester. However, and I now recognize this, what could be more LA-ish than working on a film? I chose to be on the crew. It was totally worth it!

After a semester of learning theory, of shooting student projects, of staring at my computer screen wondering where the next page for my feature script for screenwriting class was going to come from, of immersing my mind in the history of Hollywood, it was the most satisfying thing to just be on a set, with a very specific job, and watch people who knew a whole hell of a lot more than I did at the time do their thing. I was the production’s dolly grip. And seeing as the camera spent an awful lot of time on the dolly, I was pretty busy.

I would call this experience my first real film set experience. And, as I have alluded to already, after a semester of studying filmmaking, this was a wonderfully solidifying experience for what I’d been learning—for what at the time was only beginning to germinate in my mind: that film is a magical medium of collaboration and careful execution; that no one person makes a film, but one can sure break a film; that the process is as much a part of the storytelling as the final experience of viewing the film.

This is why I feel it is important to get onto film sets and work as much as you can afford to (obviously you can’t just keep taking unpaid work if you are to pay the bills). But those first few times of working on a set are so highly educational that the experience is worth so much more that mere cash. For one thing, if you prove yourself a worthwhile crewmember, you’re very likely to be invited to work on more films, hopefully in paid capacities. But also, if you are hoping to become a filmmaker yourself, watching and understanding the process is so very important.

Hands-on learning in filmmaking is invaluable. Weather you get that through making short films and student projects, or by working on crews for short and feature films, what you can learn will only make you a better filmmaker. And I really mean that. I’ve worked on a wide range of projects, some great, some quite short of greatness. What the good projects show you are the right ways of accomplishing things. What the not so good projects show you are the pitfalls to avoid. An astute new filmmaker makes careful mental notes (or even literal notes) of these things and seeks to incorporate the good and evade the bad in her own projects.

In fact, it is for this very reason that I pity the poor unenlightened soul that decides to embark on any sort of ambitious filmmaking venture without first amassing some experience by working on film projects (either by making doable short films or working on the crew of experienced filmmakers). Don’t kind yourself. Filmmaking is art, business, and teamwork all rolled into one. Those are all distinctly different aspects of the process of filmmaking that no one person fully grasps alone. And because of that, no one—and I mean, not a one of you out there reading this blog—is a born filmmaker. Sorry, but you’re not. I’m not. None us are. Martin Scorsese wasn’t either!

So embrace the learning experience! Don’t be in such a hurry to become a filmmaker that you destroy your film career before it starts. So if you need more experience, seek out those opportunities to gain that experience. And if you do get such an opportunity, here are some helpful tips to help you make the best of it.

What You Should Expect On Set

For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume that the production we’re talking about here is a pretty good-sized production with a mostly experienced crew. A few years ago, after I’d directed several short films of my own, I got the chance to work as a production assistant on the set of a feature film being shot on 35mm, with SAG actors, and an experienced crew. I was there for the duration, day one to wrap. This experience was so educational that it has allowed me to take some big steps forward in my own filmmaking, as well as taking on tasks such as being the 1st Assistant Direction for a feature film the following year. Without this experience, I highly doubt I’d be where I am today.

With that in mind, here’s some advice I’d share with anyone walking on to a set for the first time to be an intern or production assistant:

1. Jump in with both feet. Interns and production assistants (often the same thing) are there to help things move along and keep production going. So be prepared to take on the menial tasks. In fact, jump at the opportunity. It only took two days on the set of that first feature film for my self and my friend Dan to become known as the “Uber Interns.” If it needed done, we were on it! It didn’t matter if it was helping to move gear, set dress a location, fetch a cast member from the trailer, or make a Starbucks run. We were there, we were willing, and we did it with diligence.

2. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. You’re going to mess up. Get over it right now. In fact, the best thing you can do is to take full responsibility for your mistakes. If you do something wrong (and I made loads of mistakes on that first feature), admit it. Own up to it. Apologize and ask how you can help correct that mistake. In my experience, most people on film crews are quite willing to forgive you for a mistake and to help you understand how the process works and how you can avoid the same mistake again.

3. Now avoid repeating those mistakes! You’ll find that most people on a set are quite gracious. But don’t push your luck. When I was the 1st AD for a feature film, I had one particular individual who was simply not on top of his work, and he cost us precious time on the set waiting for him to get his act together. Eventually he was fired. He kept making the same mistakes. He was quite apologetic about it. But in the end, if there’s no change in such a person’s behavior, nothing is being learned. It’s not worth the production’s time to keep someone like that around. Don’t let that be you!

4. Don’t expect to always be around the action. As a crewmember at the bottom of the pecking order, you might be spending most of a night stopping traffic during takes and you may not be anywhere near the actual shooting. Don’t let this get you down. The work you are doing is making the filmmaking process for this project possible. So do it to the best of your ability. Trust me, it will be noticed. And if you do well with the menial tasks, it won’t be long before bigger and better responsibilities are entrusted to you. But you have to be prepared to earn that trust!

5. Ask questions. When appropriate (and be sure you know when it is and isn’t appropriate), engage people above you on the crew in conversation and ask them questions about their jobs. It’s amazing what you can learn (things like if you plug in the banded cable from the generator into the distro box in the wrong order, you can electrocute yourself to a quite dead crisp). Learn all you can. In fact, don’t pretend like you know more that you do. If someone asks you to do something, say, to grab a half CTB and some C-47s, and you haven’t a clue what those are, just say so. This is an opportunity to learn. You’ll actually help thing move along faster if you just admit you don’t know what those are rather than walking out to the grip truck and standing there like idiot hoping some voice from heaven will tell you that CTB is a blue gel and that C-47s are just regular dumb old clothes pins. In fact, there are so many specific names for the vast variety of tools and techniques used in filmmaking that even with several years of experience I find that I’m still learning an awful lot every time I go on set. Even on projects that I’ve been the cinematographer for I’ve had to stop at times and ask my gaffer or grips for a clarification on what they’re talking about. So, the lesson here is, don’t let pride get in the way of learning.

6. Use your brain! Observe. Keep your eyes peeled. Watch how the set works. Know things like, the 1st AD is head of the crew. Most questions you might have that seem like something the director should answer, those actually should be asked to the 1st AD. If the AD doesn’t know the answer, he or she can ask the director when appropriate. Never bypass the AD and go to the director unless you have established a working relationship with the director on that set (such as when my friend Dan became the official Video Assist PA and worked closely with the director for where to position the video monitor so the director could watch the takes being shot). As a PA or intern, don’t try striking up conversations with the director during shooting. The more you observe, the better you can understand how a set works, why certain creative choices are made, and why certain business choices are made.

7. Keep a good attitude. If you have a positive attitude, this will be noticed and appreciated. And remember that a positive attitude doesn’t mean always being talkative. There are times to talk and joke around with your new friends on a set, and there are times when that is not at all appropriate. So, common sense here is the name of the game. And know that filmmaking is an awful lot of “hurry up and wait.” You’ll be scrambling to rig up a light, or finish set dressing, and then suddenly you have nothing to do while actual takes are being shot. Just how it works. But through it all, keep a good attitude and work hard.

Okay, so those are more or less my basic seven things I’d suggest you keep in mind if you’re setting foot on a set for the first time. If you manage to do those, you’ll be in pretty good shape. You’ll be in a great position to learn more through the experience. I certainly hope you have a great experience and that you learn a lot. Don’t be afraid to have a little notebook with you so you can jot down observations during down times on set. And ultimately, have fun. You’re helping make movie. How cool is that?


R.K.O said...

Great advice.
However, when it comes to working on the set (or with a production company) as an intern (and for free), I recommend listening to your gut.

There are many directors/producers/companies that are just going to take advantage of your labor.

Given today's economy, receiving a pay check for your work is downright impossible. Promises and false handshakes are currently the norm.

Whatever you do, even if it is for free, I recommend signing a contract.

Good work, enjoy reading your blogs.

Mikel J. Wisler said...

That is an excellent point! Thank you for posting this comment. Yes, I neglected to mention that you should always sign a contract!!!

When I was an unpaid intern on a feature film, you better believe I signed a contract. Always ask for a contract that spells out your duties and how long you will be performing them. Then stick with it.

And yes, trust your gut. If you don't feel good about a project be it pro-bono or paid, you need to evaluate why that is. Some times it just means you need to get out of your comfort zone. Other times is can be a good sign to move on and keep looking for experience and work elsewhere.