Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reader Question.

I'm short on time this week, so I'm cheating by reposting a question that was left in the comments last week:*

Reader JesseF asked:
I've been gobbling up every industry blog I could locate for the last month and I'm just starting out in the grip field.
Having yet to land a gig I have one concern and that's that most of the blogs I see flat out state most everyone is under the age of 30. I happen to BE 30, and though I'm sure not old (and I look much younger) would people look askance at me for being "over the hill" in terms of starting out fresh in Hollywood? I have no desire to write, direct, etc. I really REALLY want to get my hands dirty and grip.
I'm throwing myself at it full tilt, doing whatever it will take to land a spot no matter what I have to climb over on the way there.

Maybe age gave me more confidence and clarity, but my only worry now is could it hold me back in how others perceive me? Regardless I'm going to still try, but advice is always welcome!

My opinion? The simple answer is, as long as you can do the job and get along with everyone, no body gives a damn about your age. The not so simple answer is, people may care about your age as much as people care that I'm a female. Take that as you will.

Either way, if you really do look much younger than 30, then what are you worried about?

*Side note: While I love it when discussions are started in the comments, the OCD side of me was slightly miffed when I saw his comment because it was so far off the topic of the post.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"I Stopped Being Nice."

“How do you do it?”

I look up at my friend with an inquisitive look on my face. “What do you mean?”

“The stuff you’ve been working on lately has been pretty stellar gigs. And not only that, you seem to be working all the time. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing this just as long as you have and I’m still stuck getting paid less than minimum wage on shit shows. How do you do it?”

I put down my cup of coffee and look at my friend. Unlike me, he’s got a wife, a kid and a house to support. I don’t know how he does it working the kind of shows he does, but despite his usual upbeat, “anything goes” attitude, today, he’s looking worn down and dejected. Something tells me he’s getting desperate. I feel for the guy.

“A.J., you used to work on the same kind of no budget productions that I do. How did you move up?”

“You really want to know how I started getting better gigs?”


“You’re not going to like it.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“Okay. I stopped being nice.”


“I stopped being nice to productions.”

He looks at me, one eyebrow raised, as I continue.

“I got tired of Productions fucking up all the time and me having to cover their ass. So I started saying ‘No’ to them. If they were expecting me to be an extra, I’d refuse. Even if I wasn’t really doing anything at the time, I’d say no to doing an emergency expendable run. If they expected me to drive the g/e truck as well or hold the boom mic for a shot, I’d tell them to find someone else. If they wanted us to work over twelve hours with no OT pay or stiff us on our turnaround hours, I’d refuse to do it and either leave early or show up late. Basically, if it wasn’t in my job description, I wouldn’t do it.”

“And that worked?”

“Yeah… Interestingly enough, I started getting work from the people I met on those jobs.”

And it was true. Sometimes it was the Producer who’d call me for the next gig and sometimes it was the Best Boy or Gaffer who’d hook me up with my next paycheck. Either way, it wasn’t the jobs that I’d bust my ass and bend over backwards for that would call me back. No matter how much I tried to show them I was a “team player” and did whatever they asked of me, those were the ones who never called me again, adding to my frustration and leading me to my “enough is enough” moment where I started putting my foot down.

I could tell my friend was contemplating what I had just said, as he is definitely the “Sure, I’ll do whatever you ask me to and I‘ll do it with a smile” type of guy . So I continued on.

“It seems counter intuitive, doesn’t it? I mean, you’d think the people who you’d do anything for to please them and save their show would be the ones who call you for their next big job instead of the ones who you tell to fuck off and find someone else while you sit on your ass. But I guess, in a way, it kinda makes sense. I mean, if I was looking to hire a crew, I’m more likely to call someone who seemed the most professional. You know, the ones who stick to their job description; someone who’ll be there when I call for something instead of being a man down because Production needed more extras. By saying no to stuff that isn’t your job, I guess you’ll come off as someone who knows what their place is on set. You may come off to some people as a self centered jack ass, but if you think about it, on bigger shows, Productions don’t even think about asking their crew to help with a lock up or to fill in as background. I guess, in short, the key to landing the better gigs is to act like you belong on one.*”

We eventually finish our coffees and go our separate ways. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know quite what to do with the advice I had just given him. He’s one of the nicest guys I know and saying no to anyone, especially those who are connected to his paycheck, would be difficult for him to do. But at the same time, he also knows he can’t keep working the same low budget POS jobs that he has been for the past several years. He’s definitely aching to move up and something has to change in order for him to do so.

I guess kind of biting the hand that feeds you is somewhat of a risky thing to do. Saying “no” to Production may rub them the wrong way and result in burning whatever small bridges you have now. But saying “yes” all the time may prevent you from discovering another path that may get you to where you’re trying to go.

It’s a tricky thing, but it incidentally worked out for me. I just hope that if he does start putting his foot down, he’ll start moving up to where he deserves to be.

*Of course, this is based on my experience only. It’s also worth noting that if you have a shit attitude, you’ll most likely not be called back by anyone. YMMV.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ego Check.

I like to think of myself as a pretty valuable player in this game of Hollywood Freelancing. I know what I know, I know what I don’t know, and what I don’t know, I’m pretty confident I’ll learn. I pay attention to the details, think tasks through, and am an absolute delight to be around.

In short, I’m awesome and you want me on your crew.

Well, if you’re a low budge indie production anyway. I’ve been in this world for a while now and know how things work. I know what your low budget options are if you want a particular look without spending the cash. Need something ghetto rigged? I’m your gal. Want the inside scoop on new or specialized gear? I’m on a first name basis with a lot of the vendors and have amassed a sizable collection of product catalogs. And I, more or less, know how this stuff is put together and I know how it works (well, more than the average person on the crew anyway).

Over the years, I like to think that I’ve built myself a pretty solid reputation as someone who’s dependable and knows her shit. And in turn, I’ve made an okay living for myself in the low budget world and eventually, I found a tribe who took me in. Sure, there would be the occasional side job here and there, but I soon found myself in a situation where a good majority of my work came from them and it was a good situation to be in.

I felt like I had found a really, really good group of people to work with and I felt accepted and loved. I looked forward to working with them and other departments seemed to like having me around as well. There were times when my bosses would even turn to me for input on a particular rig and bounce ideas off of me. I even turned down some really choice jobs for them because I'm just that loyal.*

Eventually, there came some jobs that I absolutely couldn’t turn down and my Best Boy encouraged me to go after them. “Don’t worry about your spot here. You’ll still be my first call on the next one.” And true to his word, it was. But the amazing opportunities kept coming and he kept telling me to take them, assuring me that I’d always be welcomed back whenever I wanted.

Soon, the sweet sugar rush of new work ended and I crashed into a state of unemployment. Or rather, near unemployment. Because thank goodness for my old low budge crew, who had a spot for me when I needed it. And I fell back into the familiar rhythm of working with these guys who I had missed. It’s as if I had never left, but even better, I felt like I was even more valuable to this tribe now. During our time apart, I was on bigger, better shows with more equipment and different techniques and I soaked up a lot of knowledge and came back with a lot more experience under my belt.

The new production names added to my resume meant that I was now worth more, and seeing as how I was still willing to work for the same low rate on the same crew as before, a crew that enjoyed working with me as much as I them, keeping me on the payroll seemed like a no brainer.

Then, I got a call.

Actually, I was expecting the call. After going dark for a couple weeks, I had heard through the grapevine that these guys were preparing for another gig to be coming up soon and I was looking forward to slinging cable and touching lights again. I was anticipating getting a call any day now with a call time and location. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the call I actually got.

"Hey A.J.," the Best Boy started out with. It was good to hear from him and I was excited to get back to work. "Here's the thing..." And as he continued to talk, the smile faded from my face and my heart sank.

I was being dropped from the crew.

The Best Boy tried to explain to me the best he could that it wasn’t personal. Some of it was political and blah blah blah, but all I could focus on was the part where I wasn’t coming back. At least, not for a little while. He had mentioned something about day playing, but I think we both know how that will work out. If I can't get work from him, I need to get it from somewhere else, which will make it hard to sync my "available" days with his "extra man" ones (that is, if I'm able to find work elsewhere).

After the call ended, I sat there for a minute or so, staring at my phone, thinking, “Did that just really happen? Did they just dump me?!?"

I was in disbelief. I felt like the rug had just been pulled out from underneath me. I was crushed, confused, and kinda pissed at the same time. Working with these guys, these low budget indie guys, was supposed to be a sure thing. Not only did we mesh well and have a good working rhythm down to a tee, but I'm the one who was able to land some pretty high end gigs last year so to dump someone of my caliber doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Sure, I could easily just roll my eyes and tout it as the whole thing being their loss, but in reality, this was a good ego check for me. I thought I was going for a touch down, but instead, I got body slammed so hard I’m having trouble remembering which team I’m on. It’s a cold, hard reminder that no matter how good I think I am and no matter how much I think I’m an integral part of a team, nothing’s a sure thing in this industry. Things change all the time, often without warning. You’re hot and in demand one minute, and you’re in the unemployment line the next.

I guess in a way, I kind of saw this coming. While this business, as Michael Taylor says, is a tribal one, it's rare to find someone who's been a part of the same tribe for their entire career. Hollywood is comprised of a river of people, always flowing. People come, people go. We're always on the move, trying to find a place for ourselves and at the same time, trying to move up in the world. We linger in our familiar groupings until something changes; whether it be a Best Boy trying to be a Gaffer or you're the one who decides to make the jump. While I enjoyed my time with these guys, I always knew things couldn't be this way forever. I'd have to leave at some point. But I always thought it'd be later rather than sooner, and I always thought I'd be the one to leave them; not the other way around.

*... or stupid.

Friday, February 11, 2011

It Sucks When...

... you're on a show with such long hours that the sun's not even up yet when you get to work, but it has already set by the time they call wrap.*

*It's even more disorienting when the show's being shot on a sound stage and you don't get to see real daylight at all.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Choosing Sides.

Ladies and gentleman, I am a juicer.

For years, I've classified myself as a grip AND electric kind of gal. Whenever anyone inquired about my juicing or gripping capabilities, I'd make sure they knew I could do both jobs. The two positions are so intertwined (more so in the indie world than the Union one) that saying I could do both was a way of keeping my options open and accepting more work. But like any other facet of this industry, things started to shift and change, and I unknowingly found myself geared towards one department more than the other. This occurred to me a little while ago when I was doing my annual ritual of digging through pay stubs and sorting W-2s in anticipation of the upcoming tax deadline. I noticed that most of my jobs in 2010 consisted of me lugging around lights and cable and come to think of it, other than the occasional “swing” job on an ultra low budget/friend’s project/European crew, I haven’t been a grip for quite a while now.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll never (Kinos aside) touch a c-stand again, but it seems like I rarely, if ever, get those kinds of calls anymore. Most of my Key Grip/Best Boy Grip contacts have faded away into the ether during the will-they-won’t-they strike phase a couple of years ago when no one was even calling around for work anymore because it was a known waste of time to do so.  And apparently, my lighting contacts stuck around because I guess I make a better juicer than a grip (or maybe none of my grip contacts were strong enough to survive the work shortage). Whatever the reason, since it’s been a while since I’ve worn the grip hat and my skills in that area are pretty rusty, unless the job is really sweet, it only makes sense to market myself as a juicer here on out.

And so here I sit. An official juicer.

Is this a step forward? I think so. Not because I think juicers are better than grips (no comment!) but because this industry seems to have a job classification thing going on where the more “specialized” you are, the better the jobs you get.

I remember when I was just starting out, fresh out of college and so naive of the what this business is really like. I had just moved to L.A. and was replying to every crappy job listing there was as long as it put me on a set. P.A., grip, electric, 2nd AC… It didn’t matter how much experience I had in any of those positions. Shows that replied back to me after seeing my anemic resume were usually ones that were desperate for a warm body to fill those spots, actual skill be damned.

Eventually, I found myself landing more g/e jobs than anything else. I guess a P.A. who can’t drive a truck over 15 mph doesn’t really have a place in the indie world of low budget shoots, and well, let’s just say that camera never worked out for me either. All that was left for me was grip and electric, which were the departments that were usually scrambling to find enough people anyway.

 A turning point for me came one day when I got an e-mail from a Producer. An alum of my previous school, she was looking to crew up her next project and in a search for P.A.s, found my name through a directory of recent grads. She offered me a P.A. job. And despite work still being scarce at the time, I politely turned it down, citing that I was trying to focus on being more in the g/e departments. She kindly wrote back saying that while she couldn’t offer me a spot in another department, she understood where my answer was coming from. She ended her e-mail with, “It’s important to make those distinctions.” And she was right. How was I going to move up on the ladder of things if I was forever running around on the ground to whoever was calling? Sure, having multiple job titles under your name may land you more work in general, but as a guy who saw my overly cluttered first business card once said, “Jack of all trades. Master of none.”

From that day forward, I never took a job that didn’t involve a c-stand or a stinger in it’s job description, and the rest, I guess, is history. I started enjoying the work I did more. I started landing more jobs since I was no longer trying to schmooze everyone that was in a hiring position. I didn’t have to worry about impressing anyone but the Best Boy. And, more importantly, despite the jobs still sucking, they at least were getting a little better, bit by bit.

And the best jobs I had in the past year were the ones that classified me as an electric before I even knew I really was one. It seems like the higher you get on the food chain of productions, the less the lines between departments are blurred. To put it another way, if you’re on a show where a juicer only juices and a grip only grips, it’s probably a higher budget show that’s paying a better rate than another show that has it’s g/e crew do both grip AND electric.

Either way, it only seems logical that distinguishing myself as belonging to the “set lighting” department of things is a step forward. And despite the decision kind of being made for me (the transition from “g&e” to just “e” happened so organically that I didn’t even notice it until recently), I feel okay with it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Oh, The Places You Will Go...

It’s a gorgeous evening in Southern California. The kind where the air is cool and crisp without being chilly. The sun is slowly but surely creeping towards the horizon and while L.A. may be known for its smoggy air, you have to admit that all that haze sets the stage for some pretty magnificent sunsets, often turning the sky ablaze into a plethora of fiery reds, oranges, and cotton candy pink as night approaches.

To make the sight even better, I’m enjoying the view while lounging next to the rooftop pool of one of Hollywood’s swankiest, overpriced hotels. And the best part is, someone else is footing the bill while I'm here. As I lean back and take a sip of my drink*, I’m feeling like a rock star. Ah yes, this is the life…

How did I end up here? Two words: Music video.

Some band I’ve never heard of  was shooting part of their video here and guess who got called to be on the crew? Me. Luckily, it wasn’t a very strenuous day, which lead to ample time for my cohorts and I to enjoy the location. How often do you get to spend the day in the VIP lounge in one of L.A.’s most exclusive clubs? I don’t know about you, but I don't get to do it very often. And as I watched the sun disappear and the night lights of the city start to twinkle on below, I realized that damn, I’ve experienced some pretty cool shit because of this job.

I’ve been in the middle of the desert with a flame thrower. I’ve ridden around in pass vans with actors I've admired. I’ve climbed on the walls of City Hall. I’ve helped make it rain in the middle of summer. Hell, I’ve even made it rain indoors. I’ve been in bars past two in the morning. I’ve seen some amazing musical performances while standing less than ten feet away from the band. Mansions in Beverly Hills? I’ve been in quite a few of them. I’ve had in and out privileges at an airport, explored closed down historical buildings, and had free reign in one of Malibu’s hot spot restaurants. I’ve been in prisons, both working and abandoned. I’ve seen circus acts up close and personal, horses inside a house, and a fat guy squeeze into footie pajamas. I’ve walked around a zoo at night. I’ve “surfed” on dollys in empty parking lots. I’ve been in Porsches, buses, trucks, RVs, ambulances, cop cars, and Santa’s sleigh. I’ve stood, by myself, in the middle of the road on a bridge in downtown Los Angeles without a single car in sight. I’ve seen the sun rise and set over mountain tops, sky scrapers and the ocean. I got to do all that and more because of this job.

Thanks to the locations being called for in any given script, I’ve had the opportunity to go, do and see some pretty awesome things that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. No one in my family has ever set foot in a $10,000/night suite, and I’ve spent a few days in a couple. None of my (non-industry) friends has ever seen Christmas in July. I have.

But on the flip side to that, there are some things that I wish I didn’t have to experience. Like lugging heavy gear up the fire escape in the rain. Or shivering in the cold while fifty feet up in the air. Or working in a place so vile that you’d rather face the bums and drunks peeing on the sidewalk outside.

And as I sat on that roof top, admiring the skyline below, I thought about all the places I’ve been and things I’ve gotten to do all because I work in the film industry. Despite the long hours, back breaking work and bad pay with the occasional shitty (sometimes literally) location, it’s times like these when I’m reminded why I love what I do and how I’m glad I didn’t settle for a better paying office job somewhere.

Eventually, as the band got ready to shoot again, I snapped out of my thoughtful state and got back to work. But this time, with a slight grin. Because let’s face it. While I may often bitch and moan about this business, this job can be kind of cool.

*Non alcoholic. I'm still at work, after all.
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