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.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Advice, Part III.

"He's a fucking asshole."

I look at my friend in shock. He's usually pretty calm and mild mannered, but when the topic of a mutual colleague came up, his words and demeanor turned vile.

Apparently, the two men were on a low budget feature together a long time ago, and some crew members tried to flip it.* When the production company wouldn't budge, a picket line was formed with most of the crew walking off. One of the guys who stayed, however, was our mutual colleague.

On the surface, it seems like a shitty, shitty thing to do. Here your colleagues are, willing to walk off a job as a form of protest to the menial pay and crappy working conditions, trying to make things better for everyone involved in the future, and here this guy was, staying behind and fucking it all up by continuing to work on the other side of that picket line. He was called a lot of things by doing that, with "scab" being the only one I could post on this blog. The situation was ugly.

I hadn't met him until well after the un-flipped show had wrapped, but I had heard many battle tales about the fight to turn it union by that point. It wasn't until a couple weeks into the current show that I found out not only had he been part of the whole ordeal, but he had performed the cardinal sin of crossing the picket line. When the topic came up in conversation though, he just shrugged and said, "Look, I know I pissed off some people. But I had to do what I had to do. I had bills to pay. A family to support. And if I stayed, the production company offered me a higher position with more pay for every show they did after that one." Knowing how often this company had a show going, this meant practically having a full time job. Shitty pay still, sure, but he'd get more than what he was making before and it was a livable wage if you weren't stupid with money.

I nodded. While I personally wouldn't have done what he did and I can understand why others would forever refer to him as a "fucking asshole," I also understand why he crossed that picket line and continued to work. He saw an opportunity for a promotion, raise and a promise of future work that would keep the bill collectors at bay for as long as he needed. So he took it.

That, my friends, was a business deal. Plain and simple.

I get that. What continues to flabbergast me though, is how personally some people took it; to the point where they're still calling him a "fucking asshole" years later. It's not like he looked each and every person on the picket line in the eye and said, "Fuck you, fuck you, and especially you" as he crossed it; it's not like he purposely did it to take money out of someone's hands; and it's not like the producers wouldn't have found someone else to take the deal. But I'm sure he did think that if someone was going to get a deal like that, it might as well be him.

Sometimes we get so caught up and passionate about our jobs that we forget it's a business. He needed the work and money and found a legal way to get it. It wasn't a personal attack on anyone. It was just business.

I repeat: It wasn't personal. It was just business.

I think that's one of the hardest lessons to learn in this industry. It can be hard to watch someone cross the picket line you're on and not take it personally. It's hard to watch the Best Boy hire an incompetent crew member over you and not take it personally just because the kid happens to be the Gaffer's nephew. And a Producer once told me he felt like he was being personally attacked when I took him to the labor board over penalties for paying me late.

But you have to keep in mind that everyone has bills to pay. That not everyone can give up a promotion to walk a picket line. That by hiring the idiot nephew, the Best Boy will stay on the Gaffer's good side. And that Producer should keep in mind that what is a "passion project" for him is a business deal for the rest of us and he should be prepared to pay if he can't honor that deal.

I find that those of us who can't differentiate between the two concepts hold on to bitterness and anger a lot longer. And on the flip side, those who can differentiate the two tend to go further in this industry because they think more in terms of a business sense and less on personal level.

Granted, it's can be a thin line that's often blurred, but it's also some of the best advice I've ever gotten.

"It's not personal. It's just business."

Advice, Part I
Advice, Part II

* For those who don't know, non-union shows of a certain size and budget can turn union if it's "flipped." Meaning the crew members contact a union rep, who then contacts the producers and see if a deal can be reached. If it can, the show turns into a union show, meaning the crew gets a few perks including benefits and if they're not a union member yet, their "days". If they can't reach an agreement, more often than not, a picket line is formed.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sarah Jones.

I've been mulling over in my head the past few days how to write this post. What to say. How to say it. What it all means...

I wanted to say something insightful. Meaningful. Beautiful.

But the truth is, I'm at a loss. I still don't know what to say. How to say it. What kind of structure or format to use to give it life.

So I'm just going to ramble. All these thoughts and more have been going through my mind this past week.

Sarah Jones will be missed. I didn't know her. Never met her. Never heard her name until last week. But I mourn her passing anyway. She was one of us. She toiled away below the line; one of the many thousands of unsung heros of the film industry. Those who help enlighten and entertain the rest of the world without ever being in the spotlight; without any more acknowledgement for a job well done than a paycheck. She was one of us. A family member I had yet to meet.

She deserved better. Her death was 100% preventable. It wasn't an accident. It was negligence. It was entirely stupid. I don't think I have to go into the reasons why. It's pretty obvious which idiotic decisions were the ones that led to her death, which makes this whole thing even more shocking. THE POTENTIAL FOR SOMETHING TO GO WRONG WAS. SO. OBVIOUS. I first heard about the incident when a co-worker showed me a Google image of the tracks and trestle.

"See this?"
"Do you think it'd be a good idea to be working on those tracks if it was live?"
"Do you think it'd be a good idea to be working on that truss?"
"Good. Because someone thought it'd be a good idea. And then a train came trough when they were shooting. Some crew members got sent to the hospital and a girl died."

Those were all the details I knew at that point. But I knew enough to see that the whole situation was stupid. I was thousands of miles away and looking at a satellite image on a damn iPhone, and even I knew the situation was as stupid as it could get. Who in their right mind there thought it was a good idea? That it was worth the risk? Why didn't anyone speak up? Why didn't anyone stand up for their fellow brothers and sisters? Somebody failed her. And it wasn't just the Producers, AD or whoever it was that told them to set up the shot on the tracks. It was also everyone on that crew who saw the potential for danger and didn't say a damn thing. It was everyone who continued to work on those tracks after two trains had already barreled through. It was everyone who didn't care enough to ask the appropriate questions; everyone who thought they were immortal to life's tragedies. We're supposed to take care of our own. We failed.

And what angers me even more is the fact that this wasn't some "student film" or someone's "passion project" where the majority of the crew is just starting out and trying to get their foot in the door. This was a fucking professional project with an experienced crew, production team and studio backing with notable talent attached. They make movies for a living; it's not a hobby. If anyone should have known better, it was them. All of them.

While I don't necessarily agree with the campaign that's been going on to get Sarah Jones an "In Memoriam" mention in tonight's Oscars, I do hope that her passing will be mentioned during the broadcast. The majority of us do the jobs that we do because we love movies. We love this industry. We're passionate about what we do. We wouldn't be able to survive in this business if we didn't. And most of us are hurting right now. We lost part of our family in a tragically senseless way and if tonight progressed as if something wasn't missing; as we didn't have a hole in our collective hearts, then it'd be like a slap in the face. It'd feel like nobody "important" cares about what we go through. We can't pretend this didn't happen. We can't pretend that movie making is all fun and games, despite what the general public may believe. Our jobs, what we do, and the sacrifices we make are just as important to a piece of film as what you see on screen and now would be a good time for the "glamorous" part of the industry to acknowledge that.

And I'm sad to say that she will be forgotten. Unless you knew her personally, the majority of us won't remember her name in a few years. Who, without looking it up, remembers the name of the kids who were killed on The Twilight Zone?* And even more recently, who remembers the name of the camera assistant who crashed his car and died after too many hours working on Plesantville?**

The truth is, a few years down the line, we may remember the incident, but we won't remember the name, which saddens me. For most of us, we'll refer to her as "that girl who died on the train tracks". For those that come into this industry after us, they won't know who she was at all.

But hopefully, her legacy will live on. There are rules already in place to prevent tragedies like this, but those rules were obviously ignored. The only saving grace in all this is that hopefully stronger and more stringent rules and regulations will be in place so something like this won't happen again, ever. Maybe now, it'll be harder for those in charge to say "yes" to stealing shots and putting crew in dangerous situations. Maybe now, it'll be easier for those of us below the lines to say "no" when something is unsafe.

I don't know what will happen in the future. I don't know who will be held responsible for her death and I don't know how they will be punished. I don't know if Sarah's death will actually change the way we work on set. But I do know that most of the safety rules we have now are written in blood. Somebody had to die or become seriously injured (and/or prompt a lawsuit) before any of the powers that be would acknowledge there was a problem. I just hope Sarah's passing wasn't in vain. I hope that whatever may become of all of this, that her story is what prevents this from happening again.

R.I.P. Sarah Elizabeth Jones.

*Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen.
**Brent Hershman.

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