Tuesday, May 7, 2013

False Idols.

I remember when I was just starting out in this business, sometime between eons and not too long ago; back when I didn't know what labor laws and 4/0 were; back when all I carried on me was a pair of gloves and a pocket knife. I remember it'd be a rare treat to get a real "professional" on our crew. A guy who not only made more than minimum wage on a regular basis working on set, but managed to eke out a pretty livable income.

These guys were usually on these "passion projects" (aka: no pay gigs) as a favor to a friend while we were there because we needed the work experience (and "copy, credit, meals"), and oh, how my colleagues and I would clamor towards them. We'd often try to network with them and chat them up in our downtime in hopes that they'd like us enough to bring us on to their next paying gig. We'd work harder if we knew they were around, possibly watching.

These were the guys you wanted to impress. Not because you thought you had something to prove, but because you kind of idolized them. They were doing what you've dreamed of and have been striving for years to do: make a living from this business.

These guys were viewed as knowing their shit. Hell, they have to if they're good enough to be generating an income, right?

(You can kinda see where I'm going with this...)

As time went by and I climbed the ranks, I found myself often surrounded by idiot colleagues. Some of them above me in rank, and some who are considered my equals. But the cool thing was that I was finally reaching that part in my career where I was making money. And not just any money, but enough to live on.

Eventually, I was making enough where I could offer to work on a friend's "passion project" without feeling burnt out and resentful. I was now doing those freebie jobs as a favor, and more importantly, a choice; no longer having to to pay tribute to the Hollywood Gods by working for free in order to "pay my dues."

The funny thing is that when I got there, I found a whole crew of electricians and grips who are just starting out, looking up at me with wide eyes and hopeful dreams that one day, they could be like me. I found them working harder when they knew I was watching and passing me their phone numbers at the end of the night in hopes that I'd bring them on my next job. They were trying to impress me.

Somehow, I had become the hero I had idolized not that long ago.

Realizing this was a weird feeling. Sure, I'm making an okay living, but I still never know where my next paycheck is coming from. Or what my next career move is. And I'm still trying to impress others when I'm on the job, hoping they'll bring me on to their next one.

And even scarier, while on a "big show," I'll notice my colleagues doing something stupid and think to myself, "Really? How did this guy make it so far?" And I'll realize that someone just starting out may idolize him because he's set foot on jobs that they've only dreamed of. I know I would've all those years ago.

And I'll wonder if those guys I used to admire and tried to impress with my work were just as clueless as I am now.

These kids just starting out look at people like me as someone they want to emulate. And I look at them, paycheck aside, still feeling the same way I did when I was in their shoes. Not knowing what's going to happen. Looking busy if my boss is around; trying to network myself into the next big job... Only I don't tell them that. That I'm just as lost as they are, but only on a different level.

No one ever does.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post, as it addresses many things. I think that it's important to have a mentor because often when you are starting out and all you know or work with are the "I hope I get in" guys, your mentality is shaped that way. When you are green you can often forget the long term, the 'after I get in, then what?'. Some people do get in via luck or because they're charming..it happens. A great teacher of mine said you should never idolize, but go with the mindset that this person has something that you can learn from them (even if it's just perspective). Also, dedication to the craft should be number one. There are LOTS of electricians who get in, but there are those who are ALWAYS working. I went from an environment of the 'looking in' people to the people who everyone looks at, and I realized that their mentality is different. They also mostly have unique skills that they're very very good at, and push the envelope of the craft. One such rigging gaffer (who often works for big features) was called on as an electrician one day as a day player and he thought why not?ONE day on set was enough to convince the gaffer that they needed him because of his skill level and experience, and they kept him for the entire show! I think you'd want to be the guy that people fight over to be on their show (even when the work is slim), not just a generic pair of hands who 'just wants a spot'. If you're just a random electrician, you can also be forgettable, which puts you in line with everyone else. On a recent show a friend was bragging to everyone that he had worked on X feature, and I knew the BBE. I asked him if he remembered the guy, and the BBE said he did not and shrugged "he was probably just one of the 'small army' we had on set". Lighting is evolving and I think if you have a good eye and a good hand a person who really has a passion for it should try to get their hands (especially when they're not working) on as much as they can. Certain people at the top of their game are called upon by name to do shows every year because of their unique skill (whether it's problem solving, board opping really well/ doing previz and board opping, moving light tech, projection mapping, balloon tech really well, underwater lighting (being PADI certified), knowing Vectorworks or CAD) and dedication to the craft.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and another thing. I was thinking about this this weekend. Why is it that on the lower rung/entry level of electric, NO ONE seems to talk about equity/assets/ owning gear? I've noticed on the top tier of features, a LOT of the guys (and girls) either own their own gear or have access/ good relationships with people who have access to gear. You see it on their tshirts; they will even custom make tshirts with the name of the show and their company logo and their business cards have their name AND their company! It's a bargaining tool. It's something that a young electric could work on, which allows them to up their rate, gain a good reputation, etc yet no one talks about it. Yes, there is a risk in owning gear (it may sit around and not get used) for the most part I've noticed this hasn't been the case. A lot of people who work quite often have either owned their own gear or even also custom made specific lights *cough Lumapanel* which can be used a bargaining tool with an APOC on productions..just saying. Rather than 'just wanting to get on a bigger set/shoots', I wish there were people who would be educating the new crop of G/E that they have SO many options to getting to the next rung! They don't just have to sit there and cling to the hope that someone will just 'notice' them..they can make things happen for themselves, too!

The Grip Works said...

AJ - thats a great post, and rings true for so many people in this business. Even for some of us who have been doing this for 23 years.

Anonymous, not to rain on anyones parade, or be pessimistic, but why would any Production Manager hire gear from a rank beginner ?
As a novice electrician, Grip or Camera assistant, how do you plan to buy your own gear and rent it on the show ?
Usually as a Grip assistant, the PM is not going to approach you for equipment rentals.
He isn't usually the guy who hires you either.
That would be the Best Boy Grip.
I am just curious about how your plan would unfold.
Please elaborate.

Unknown said...

I agree - Anonymous, further elaboration is needed.

On the "bigger sets" that many of us starting out want to get on, they have no need to rent gear from the individual - they have a massive budget and an entire rental house at their disposal. The only thing having your own gear is good for is for the smaller shoots - low budget music videos, interviews, reality tv - ie, the kind of jobs we're trying to escape from!

Nothing is wrong with owning gear - or if you want to be an owner/operator - but you have to invest a lot of money before you have a decent enough package that people will consider renting from you - more money than a noob just starting out can hope to earn in their first two years in the industry.

And where I am there's too much competition. I can think of at least 20 local owner/operators with one-ton vans off the top of my head. And then there's the 4 or 5 major rental houses with entire warehouses of gear on top of that.

And most of the "lifers" I've met, the guys who work the "big sets," came into the industry with nothing more than a tool bag and that's still all they roll with. Granted, these guys probably work as shop hands at the rental places too when not on set and probably can get any gear they wanted for free...

For what it's worth, I believed in the owning your own gear thing for the longest time, I guess, influenced by the camera department school of thought, where someone who owns and is proficient with, say, a Steadicam - or whatever high-falutin' camera system people are currently drooling over - could make their money back ridiculously fast.

Truth is, I've got about seven lights and a bunch of grip gear sitting around collecting dust. I plan on selling most of it soon...

A.J. said...

Anonymous - That's a lot of very different topics you're touching on. I don't believe the comment area for this particular post is the proper venue to discuss them, but seeing as how there's some interest, I'll put up a separate post soon that will hopefully be a better suited forum.

The Grip Works - Thanks! Though I'm not sure if it's comforting or disheartening to hear it'll be this way no matter how many years you've been doing this. :)

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