Sunday, March 30, 2014

"How To Get Trained."

While this blog was mainly started to chronicle my journey / vent my frustrations in the industry, I also try to make it helpful to those who are possibly starting out on a journey of their own. I know I learned a lot from reading other industry blogs (still do) and their stories helped me seem a little less lost on the job as my career took on momentum.

However, my success is my own. There was no one telling me how to land my first job or what to do when I got there. There was no one telling me what warning signs to look for as I took shitty job after shitty job. No one to tell me what to do if I felt the conditions weren't safe.

No one told me anything.

So I spent the first several years of my career bumbling about, figuring it out as I went along. I watched, observed and learned. I learned from the fucked up jobs I did and quickly learned how to spot trouble. I learned how and when to say no.

It wasn't easy. It was pretty brutal at times. Long story short: I learned everything the hard way.

Which is why my jaw dropped when I read an article online called "How To Get Trained" by a man named Don Starnes. Honestly, I've never heard of the guy and I'm not entirely sure what makes him qualified to write such a piece, but the second I started reading it, I couldn't stop nodding my head in agreement with pretty much everything he said.

If only he had written that article several years ago. It would have saved me from a lot of heartache.

I was going to paste some highlights from it here, but then I realized I'd pretty much be copying and pasting the entire thing. So here are some highlights of the highlights just to give you a taste:

 On how to NOT get trained:
  •  Buying gear and trying it out
I own two great guitars. I'm a terrible guitar player. Buying movie gear doesn't make you a filmmaker or get you trained.
  • Working on hobby films
Unlike professional films, they lack necessary resources and don't absolutely need to be finished or be good. The primary endeavor is to have a good time. There is little opportunity for proper training here.
  • Camera demos at trade shows
Their main focus is sales; what sells and what is helpful training are very often different things.

On what to look for on a job:
The first sign that you are on an amateur set: there’s no call sheet. Other indicators: no permits, no real job titles, a walking lunch, an auteur. No pay is a big clue.

On the caveats of "volunteering" just to get started:
A lot of people will advise that you get on a set as a gofer, for free or cheap, and build your career from there. The problem with this is that there are really no entry level jobs in movies: a Production Assistant is an actual, skilled job, as is Loader, Camera Assistant, Background Actor (AKA Extra), etc. People often ask me if they can come on a set and carry things. “The carrying of things takes about 15 minutes,” I reply. “What will we do with you for the rest of the day?”

On when/why you shouldn't work for free:
As soon you get some experience, a good reputation, contacts and referrals in one of these jobs, you become more valuable. At that point STOP WORKING FOR FREE. Three reasons:

  • You aren't very valuable if you are working for free or cheap, no matter how good you are. The object is to become more valuable.
  • You will soon stop working with and learning from people who know what they are doing, because those people usually pay pros to do these jobs.
  • You undermine the work of pros who do these jobs. They don't appreciate it.

Do not take pictures. Do not look at your phone. Better yet, turn it off. Do not attempt to do anyone else's job. Keep your mouth shut. If your presence seems unwelcome, step back. Be aware of where the camera is being pointed and will be pointed. Put your stuff where it will never be in the way. Ask permission.
See a power vacuum that you can jump into? Bad idea. Why? First, it’s probably not your job. Second, and most importantly, if you manage to wrest authority over something then you probably won't be able to learn anything. Do not try to be an impromptu department head. Just obey, listen and learn.

By the way: if something doesn't look safe, refuse to do it. There is a safe way to do it, the way that you would be doing it if the production knew how to. If they can't do it safely then they can't do it.

And lastly, when to walk away:
If you find that professional filmmaking is not for you, then stop. No hard feelings. Many people discover that they prefer filmmaking to be a fun, if expensive, hobby. It is ok to be one of those people.

Mr. Starnes' article is straight and to the point. And while, as it states in the beginning, it's not a substitute for getting out there and learning the trade on your own, it dishes out some pretty accurate advice for those who are looking to get their foot in Hollywood's door. 

There's some things he says that I may not necessarily agree with 100% (for example, joining a union is infinitely easier said than done) and like most things, there's a big difference between reading about something and actually doing it, but he makes some damn good points and I think it's definitely worth checking out.



Jesse M. said...

Don Starnes...I knew I knew that name! He's a DP up here in the Bay Area. I was an extra in an indie short he photographed. That's where I first learned about the piece of grip equipment known as a "pizza box."

A.J. said...

Jesse - Awesome! I'm waiting for the day I get called for a job up in S.F. :)

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