Film Production Jobs: Breaking Into Your New Life on Set

This article is a guest post from Devin Klos, actor, writer and camera tech at CBS, FOX, ABC and Comedy Central. Devin is a production lifer, and has recently launched the wonderfully informative blog IWorkInProduction.com

film production jobs entry level

Life on a film set can sometimes be a 10:1 ratio of people watching to people working. Oftentimes it’s ‘hurry up and wait’.

Credits scroll quickly across the screen as the movie you just watched ends. As the lights come up, you sit, still transfixed. Hundreds of names and jobs blur by as it dawns upon you: you want to do this for a living.

But how do you even get started?

Breaking in to film production is one of the great mysteries of our universe. Unlike other career paths like becoming a teacher, doctor, lawyer, or business person, there is no set path to embark on that will guarantee employment.

Instead, there are dozens, scratch that, HUNDREDS of ways to find film production jobs, but not all of them are obvious. Before we go further, answer these few questions about yourself:

  1. Do you enjoy getting little sleep?
  2. Do you enjoy having next to no social life?
  3. Do you have unlimited texting?
  4. Are you good under pressure?
  5. Are you OK with being under-appreciated?
  6. Are you OK with not always knowing when the next paycheck will come?

If you’ve answered a resounding YES to all of these, you are f**king crazy. However, you are also right for this lifestyle. If not, perhaps try something safer and more secure, the world always needs more accountants.

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Film Production Rules of Thumb

A film set is often compared to the military and while it may sound a bit of a stretch, it is said for a reason. There is a definite hierarchy to how everything flows, a chain of command that is strictly followed.

  • The Director is the General
  • The AD’s are the Captains in the field
  • The heads of department are the Sergeants
  • Everyone else are the grunts

There is technically an argument to be made that the Executive Producers are above or at least equal to the Directors but they generally handle content, not the technical.

Depending on the personalities involved, things can feel very democratic or like a dictatorship but really, it’s a results driven business. People will be assholes, but if they get results, they get away with it. Cultivate a thick skin right away.

film production jobs entry level

The Path to Film Production Jobs

A fair number of people study film production in school, getting a 2 or 4 year degree in film (more rare by the day), video production or in a specialty within the field, be it acting, writing, directing or editing. However, unlike many other fields, this doesn’t lead directly to employment.

You don’t just walk immediately on to a film set and get handed a job or even an interview. The degrees do certainly help though, as the more time you get to spend on sets or using equipment in school, the better.

The real education however is on the job.

Hurry Up and Wait

film production jobs

There is much hard work on set, but there are also times where the set resembles a gaggle of teenage girls

The days will be long and there will be a lot of downtime. It’s the nature of the industry.

With so many moving parts to get right, so much money at stake, sometimes it can take a while for things to actually HAPPEN. It’s slightly different in TV which has more of a time crunch but even then, there will be stretches where you’ll be on your phone texting your friends, girlfriend/boyfriend, family, literally anyone who will respond to make the waiting time pass quicker (hence the unlimited texting suggestion above).

Back in the day, everyone would go on smoke breaks and shoot the sh!t but now in the age of knowing better, everyone is on their phones to pass the time. It’s quite amusing to look around and see how EVERYONE is looking down at their phones when there is a break called.

It might be a lot less social but it definitely beats throat cancer.

Your First Film Production Job…Might Not Pay

Student films are the first, best place to work for anyone starting out, actors included. As an actor myself, I can say that student films and local theater are the first places to look when you want to work.

Until you have firmly established yourself, you will probably only get opportunities to work on these types of projects because they generally do not pay. Instead, the payment is in the form of experience and for many, the footage of their work. This will become your calling card along with the people you work with.

They are your new lifeblood.

Building a community of fellow workers who know your work, respect it and enjoyed working alongside you is essential to getting anywhere. If you really intend to last in this world, you need to cultivate your relationships. If you work on a project with a director or writer or actor or cinematographer who you really like, make sure to get their contact info.

Become Facebook friends, Linkedin friends, anything to stay in touch.

You want to make sure they don’t forget you when a new project comes along. The creative types are the real gatekeepers to this business as they generate the ideas and the ideas generate work.

Where to Look for Film Production Jobs

As you leave school, the opportunity for film production jobs will still be there, but won’t be as obviously accessible. Instead of just going down to the AV or Film Department, you need to scour the web for work.

Websites like Mandy.com, staffmeup.com and obviously, WorkinEntertainment.com are great places to start your search. Another good thing to search for are the local production companies in your area.

Shooting an email to them to see about entry level work can be worth your while as well. Be forewarned, you’ll probably just start out working at the check-in desk, as someone who makes sure gear comes and goes properly but it allows you even more time to get familiar with the equipment.

Eventually, you’ll get the chance to go on a shoot and the extensive time you’ve already spent with the equipment will prove extremely important. Nothing slows a shoot down more than an incompetent crew member, and knowing the ins and outs already will make sure that’s not you.

The Hierarchy Isn’t Always Fair

film production jobs

“Legacy kids” won’t be labelled this obviously, but you’ll figure it out quickly. (photo courtesy: theblackandblue.com)

A quick word about your fellow crew members: not all of them got there through hard work. In fact, a fair number got their just by being born in to the industry. Nepotism is a very real thing and while it is certainly not the norm, there will be people on set who are there JUST because they are related to someone else.

They didn’t study anything, spend time on smaller projects or learn the ins and outs of anything, they just needed work and found their way there thanks to their connections. To be fair, these are extreme cases and a good deal of these “Legacy Kids” do take the time to get good at their craft, but there will be certain times when you are working alongside someone who has no business being there.

However, don’t make the mistake of causing a huge scene, because you just don’t always know who they are related to and the last thing you want is to get fired because they went crying to their mom, dad, uncle, cousin or whomever that turns out to be the Executive Producer.

Life isn’t always fair, that’s just the truth.

You just have to find ways to deal with them. Everyone on the crew KNOWS these people suck but they also want to keep working, so they keep their heads down and band together against them.

Save your bitching for drinks after the shoot, not between takes.

film production jobs entry level

How to Stand Out and Advance in Film Production

When on a shoot, take pride in your assignment. Even the most insignificant film production jobs have value and if you take the time to get good at them, you will be noticed. Sure, you might just be laying down dolly tracks, setting up rigs, lights or wrangling cable at first but these jobs are the proving ground. Like a rookie who has to buy the coffee and donuts first, almost everyone has had to do this at some point.

Take these responsibilities seriously, because plenty of people won’t and you’ll stand out. You want to be counted on for your good work. In a lot of ways, these are the foundation jobs that everything builds off of.

Poorly laid dolly tracks or messed up cables will ruin a camera move, lights that aren’t properly set up could ruin a take as well and you DO NOT want to be the reason a shot gets ruined if a little extra time could have prevented it because you’ll be gone before the day is done.

Climbing the Ladder

film production jobs learn new skills

The more skills you develop, the more likely you will advance in your film career (does this picture creep anyone else out?)

Moving up the ladder in the film production world can be a time-consuming process as not everyone moves at the same speed or at all. Usually it’s a mix of ambition, attention and luck. You need to ask the right questions of those above you, take in information like a sponge and prove adapt at helping out. Like most job help columns say, you need to make yourself indispensable.

Going from a Grip or Utility to a Key Grip can take months, years or one single shoot depending on the circumstances. Oftentimes, it amounts to proving you can handle more responsibilities without the results falling short. Being well organized and able to take direction quickly is essential. You may have multiple set-ups to worry about at the same time or in rapid succession and only the best and most organized will keep it all in order.

Oftentimes, the best time to move up in this world is to show interest.

If you want to get more responsibilities, take the time to learn new skills. Arrive on set early and see if you can mess around with the camera a bit, ask if you can pick the brain of the cinematographer or sit in on their meetings once your responsibilities have been squared away. Learn what exactly the audio department is listening for to get clean sound.

This may seem like obvious advice but not enough people utilize the chances right in front of them. It might be a drag to get to a shoot even earlier than a 6 or 5 am call-time, so ask questions while you work as well. Most people are happy to show what they are doing once you’ve proven yourself a useful member of the team.

However, don’t be an a$$hole and ask questions during lunch or dinner. That’s just bad form.

Keep Building Relationships

After a shoot wraps, make sure you get your thank you’s in to everyone and again, stay in touch with them. It might be a lean couple of days right after something ends but if you carry yourself like a pro, you’ll find your cache has gone up and sooner rather than later, other gigs will come.

Each new job brings new people and new opportunities to learn and expand your production empire.

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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. Janet M. Brown says:

    What I lack in experience, I make up in creativity and common sense.
    I don’t need to be told most things more than once and I pick up things….I “get it”….whatever “it” is….because I’m smart and….oh yeah….I CAN WRITE!!!

    So, are there any jobs for me in TV or Film??? I have worked in the radio business before…

    So, if anyone is interested or reading this…..please respond…and I’ll follow directions. I am looking for positions in TV or Film in writing, technical or acting.

    You will definitely benefit by my hard work and ingenuity..
    Thank you very much.

  2. CJ Sartor says:

    Brian: Congrats on a fabulous article! Finally someone is honest about breaking into the business. It’s sometimes hard to put 30+ years of experience in a thorough, yet concise form. I am posting this to my Facebook page as the “Cliff Notes” version of what I tell people when they ask me this question. Thanks for putting it down in a way anyone can understand!

  3. C.F.Thomas says:

    In 1983.I walked on my first filmset as an extra in Chicago.In 1999 I finished my last film employment gig in Chicago entitled,”Soul Survivor” as security on set.Over those yrs I racked up 42 films of employment,playing a cop…thug etc.A friend of mine used to argue,Tom Cruze ain’t been in that many films.I always laughed,adding that my goal wasn’t to be him, just only to prove I could do the impossible! My upcoming book “Legally Omitted”, is another side of the advice given here…hope u all get to enjoy it.

  4. Thank you for everything. There was so much essential info crammed into those two days it was unbelievable. I got hired 2 days later as a day player and it was great to know how to play the part.
    I love it.

  5. Nick.Baird1296 says:

    I am getting out of the Marine Corps as a public affairs specialist. I was offered a job as a production specialist at KGUN9/ABC out of Tucson, AZ. Would this article go along with what I will be doing at the ABC studio room? They mentioned I will be running cameras and editing.

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