Film Industry Jobs: Insight from the Inside

film industry jobs getting started in film

It can be a glamorous life on set – but when you are first starting out, you’ll pick up more cigarette butts than Oscar nods.

After conducting interviews my normal process is to go over the responses three to four times, write an initial introduction that answers some integral question and then structure the answers into a logical format.

I can’t do that with this interview from screenwriter Michael Bruce Adams.

I’ve read it four to five times now, gleaning some new piece of information about film industry jobs with each paragraph read and all I keep coming back to is his final response. I can proudly admit, there is no intelligence I can add to it.

It sticks in my head like some gleeful song poisoning, repeating endlessly with an end in sight that I don’t actually want to arrive. My question was five words long – ‘any final words of encouragement?’ – his answer was enduring.

“Nobody ever learned anything by not doing it. If you want to direct, direct, if you want to write, write, if you want to produce, produce. Don’t let resources stand in your way, don’t let not having the best gear or experienced actors or the right sets be excuses for not doing what you love. Don’t let the fear of making shit stop you from making… something! You know why? Because not a decade ago a bunch of kids with smartphones started flooding YouTube with some of the worst films imaginable. But they were fearless, they kept at it and they learned. Those kids are now directing features.

A thirty-second film shot on your phone is still a film… that you made. Go make something.”

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Here’s more with Michael Bruce Adams, writer of the short film ‘BOMBSHELL’:

If someone knew they wanted to work in the film industry – but really didn’t know in what role or form – what would you suggest they do to figure out more about what life on set is like and the various film industry jobs available?

Adams: Become a Production Assistant (PA). I know it doesn’t sound sexy, PA’s are the lowest of the low on a film set, but if you know you love film and you just don’t know what you want to do, there is no easier way to break in, or better way to see what each department does, than becoming a PA.

film industry jobs production assistant

If you get to be a production assistant on a film, you carry that blue folder with pride.

I started off sweeping up cigarette butts but within a few weeks I was helping the Special Effects folks on set, helping the grips pick up gear at the end of the day, helping the electricians lay cable first thing in the morning… okay, that doesn’t really sound sexy either but all these things are responsibilities that you have to earn.

The job of a Production Assistant can be as limiting or as broad as you make it. If you believe the job is about cigarette butts and car lots then it is, but if you believe the job is about creating a safe, clean environment for your crew to work in and creating a positive impact on the communities you shoot in… your world will change very quickly. It’s all about perspective and trust.

Work hard, learn quietly, be dependable and you will earn people’s trust… and trust is the only commodity that matters on a film crew.

By then end of my time as a PA, I had friends in every department willing to stand up for me… because I had earned their trust.

When did you decide you wanted to work in the film industry and how did you learn the business?

Adams: It wasn’t an immediate thing for me.

I loved writing stories in school, I loved movies growing up, but I never really made the connection of a career in film until I was out of university. I was working in a used bookstore for food money, after escaping the completely soulless advertising industry, and experimenting with really awful poetry and exceptionally crappy short stories. A friend of mine who didn’t know any better and who was trying to make a name for himself as a stunt person came to me with a story idea and asked if I could write a screenplay.

Like many great things in life, it all started with a terrified leap… I told him of course I could.

I went to the library and took out the only two screenplays they had in the stacks; RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC by Lawrence Kasdan and JACOB’S LADDER by Bruce Joel Rubin. Could have been much, much worse; could have been BATTLEFIELD EARTH. Actually it couldn’t have, this was 1993, BATTLEFIELD EARTH was 2000. No screenplay books being hawked on line (actually, almost nothing being hawked on line… nice!), no film school on every corner either.

So I write this epic screenplay using my library copy examples as format guides. Of course it’s crap, but I connect with the format immediately. Something about the lean structure, the impact of the language, the speed of it, speaks to me. I absolutely love it.

I learned the business by working in it. I knew if I wanted to learn to write better and had to work in production.

How did you get your first real opportunity on a film project?

Adams: Pure nepotism… the girl I was dating at the time was on the University gymnastics team. She got recruited to do stunts for a film that was shooting in town. She ended up breaking into that field very quickly so I coerced her into getting me a job on set. She stepped into a six figure a year stunt career while I swept up cigarette butts in the studio parking lot for 80 bucks a day. The relationship didn’t last.

But our friendship did! I’ll always be grateful to her for helping me get my foot in the door.

You have an incredibly impressive resume, a great deal of your work coming as assistant camera on major film productions – how would you define the role of assistant camera?

Adams: I had the privilege of working with some amazing camera teams. We created a philosophical approach to any project we worked on. We would break down the script and come up with plans. The technical aspects included tactics, logistics and mechanics, but the part that had to come first was the philosophical side.

film industry jobs camera operator

A film camera is a powerful piece of equipment, that when used properly creates beauty.

Essentially it’s a big picture to details thing. If we look at our camera team’s main goal as helping the Director achieve his or her vision, then we do that by doing everything we can so that all the Director has to worry about is the actors’ performance, and we do that by making sure that all the Director of Photography (DOP) has to worry about is lighting, and we do that by making sure all the Camera Operator has to worry about is framing, and we do that by making sure all the Focus Puller (or First Assistant Camera Person) has to worry about is distance, and we do that by doing everything else. The everything else part falls to the Second Assistant Camera Person (or Clapper/Loader).

On the technical side, tactics are how we approach physical and psychological challenges inherent in the project. For example, what would we need to safely shoot on helicopters or at sea, or if there are dramatically heavy aspects of the story that require great concentration from the actors, how can we do our work as stealthily as possible.

Logistics is about planning; it’s breaking down the script to see what special gear we need, studying the schedule to see when we need it, and keeping up with call sheet changes so that, as much as possible, we’re flexible and ready for anything.

Mechanics is about knowing the gear we work with; getting new gear early in prep so we can test it, preparing the gear to work in whatever environmental conditions we will be in, and understanding how the special mechanics of each piece of gear can be used to achieve certain effects that the DOP is looking for.

Put all that together and you get something like this: the job of a Camera Assistant is to ensure that the correct gear has been prepared to work in whatever conditions required to capture the images that the director needs to tell their story, and to manage and operate that gear on set.

And how did you gain the camera skills necessary?

Adams: Curiosity, research and perseverance.

Skill for me is about identifying need and understanding how best to fill that need. Much of the job is learning what the people above you are doing so that you can predict and anticipate what you might have to accomplish. As a camera person you’re dealing with gear that has to work or nothing else can work… the production grinds to a halt. There is a huge ‘what’s at stake’ factor involved and what’s at stake is time and time equals money.

Acquiring skills to do specifically with gear is about practice. If you’re working with film, you load hundreds of film magazines each prep… you get so that your ritual is automatic, and any deviance (mistake) from that ritual… which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars on set… fires off alarm bells in your head. If you’re learning to thread a camera you haven’t worked with before, you take an exposed film end or ‘dummy’ role and thread that camera hundreds of times… imagine threading that camera in the rain or during a desert windstorm, prepare for the possibilities. Practice is an alternation of goals; faster then better, faster then better, faster then better… it doesn’t end. But a lot of people forget the better part!

The Second Assistant Camera Person’s job is all about time; how much time does it take to load and unload the gear, how much time to set up a second camera, how long is each take, how much time is left in the film mag or on the tape, how much time is left if we shoot at 120 frames per second.

As a Focus Puller or First Assistant, our job is all about distance and space. We need to be able to move the plane or range of focus in space accurately for distance in order to keep the actor’s eyes in focus as they move about the set, or trade off between several actors moving at varying distances from the camera.

We try to become as accurate as possible and as intuitive as possible with how we move that focus around.

We study film stocks, how forgiving they are, and compare them to the resolution fall-off of digital formats. Rather than use depth of field calculators, we memorize the depth of field mathematical equations and how light, distance and focal length affects the depth of field for any given format. We study how different capture formats affect how precise we have to be, but also how different display formats affect it. We understand that as image capture evolves so does display. If you are working in TV and you’re watching TV screens get bigger and resolution get better, we know that this is becoming more like shooting for the big screen; we have to be that precise.

film industry jobs cinematographer roger deakins

Cinematographer Roger Deakins staring down a shot

Above all, as in most film jobs, you learn on the fly.

I joined the camera department before film schools were popular, I don’t think we had any practical film programs in Vancouver at the time, so you are dependent on the crews you work with to show you the ropes. From that point on you have to really dig in to your vault of common sense, identify needs, learn what you need to learn to fill those needs.

Knowledge is a weapon, and in camera if you don’t know a bit about lens theory, how different format cameras actually capture image, battery technology, and how to manipulate camera mechanics to create certain effects… you are unarmed.

With film, we would break what was happening down into its base components… film cameras in North America run at 24 frames per second. That means a motion picture film camera takes 24 individual still frames per second. Because half of that time is spent moving the film into position and half the time is spent exposing that piece of film to the light, each motion picture frame is equivalent to taking a picture with your still camera at 1/48 of a second exposure speed. It’s theoretically that simple… 24 still pictures per second… so shooting with a still camera is essential for understanding the basics of working with motion picture cameras.

We can adjust different things on the camera and lens to create different effects. For example if we run the camera at a higher frame rate such as 48 frames per second, so the camera motor is working twice as fast, we can take 48 still frames per second. If we then run that film through a projector at 24 frames per second, the photographed action will seem to run twice as long… or what we perceive as slow motion.

All those principles are almost exactly the same with digital formats, you’re still dealing with time and light and how you manipulate the capture of light.

Every change we make to the mechanics of the camera has an effect visually in what we capture, and that in turn has an emotional effect on the audience. Developing skills is about identifying what we want to achieve emotionally and reverse engineering to discover what causes that effect mechanically… and then practicing until something bleeds.

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About Brian Clapp

Brian Clapp has worked in the broadcast media for over 14 years as a writer, editor, producer & news director. After beginning his career in Atlanta at CNN/Sports Illustrated, he switched coasts to Seattle to work at Fox Sports Northwest. In 2010, Brian began pursuing a new found passion on the digital media side, launching a successful website and then taking on the role of Director of Content for WorkinSports.com & WorkinEntertainment.com.

Recently Brian has become addicted to Google+ and LinkedIn so add him to your circles and make him a contact. No seriously, you should.

Comments

  1. shaquawna says:

    amazing story

  2. Thanks, It was clearly described the roles and their requirements and how to gain the skills for them!

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