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Down Is Up

When you do a job long enough and impress enough people, you’ll eventually get an opportunity to bump up positions. When that opportunity materializes, you have to maintain a certain amount of perspective. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been on set daydreaming about your first job in a higher position. You’ve thought about how, one day, someone is going to call you and invite you onto a big movie in an upgraded position with better pay and more responsibility. Life works out perfectly like that sometimes, but those perfect moments are the exception. It’s more likely that you’ll be offered an imperfect opportunity.

I had been bouncing around Los Angeles as a digital for a little under a year when I got a call from Jon, one of the focus pullers I had camera PA’d under on Baby Driver. At the time, Jon was transitioning from a B/C camera first AC to an A camera first. He was stepping out of a supporting role and looking for key department roles. By taking smaller projects as an A camera first, he was proving to cinematographers that he could be trusted to run their camera departments.

When Jon called, he offered me the job of 2nd AC on his upcoming project. He was focus pulling on a non-union short film shooting in Encino. The pay was terrible, less than I was making as a utility. The days wouldn’t count for my healthcare hours, and the tiny project wouldn’t make me any union contacts. To be honest, I felt the job was beneath me. Nothing about the project appealed to me. I didn’t like the idea of leaving the big tv and feature world to do short films. I told Jon I’d think about it and hung up.

Looking back on that conversation, I’m almost embarrassed by how delusional I was. Why did I think I was better than this job? What had I done to prove myself worthy of a union camera assistant position? Nothing. I had never worked as a camera assistant before, and here I was turning my nose up at my first opportunity to do so. After I hung up the phone, Justin’s advice rang in my head: “Just get on set.” I called Jon back and told him I’d do the job.

This story exemplifies a principle that has carried me through my entire career and allowed me to continually promote myself up the ladder: you have to go down to go up. Every time you want to move up a position, you’re going to experience a dip in project quality. Nobody is going to give you an A-list position immediately. Those positions are filled by more experienced and established people. In the beginning of a position transition, you’re getting the scraps. You’re getting the jobs nobody else wants. Doing those jobs is how you build up your resume and experience. You’ll be making money in your desired position and building a list of contacts who see you handling that new position competently. Once you do enough of those scrap jobs, you’ll start getting opportunities to do higher quality ones. Suddenly, you’re back on a union set and you’ve bumped yourself up.

It’s difficult to stress how much easier saying all of that is than actually doing it. Position transitions will be the most challenging events of your career. You’ll be learning an entirely new job and set etiquette on the fly while keeping up with the demands of a chaotic set. If it feels overwhelming, don’t worry. It should feel overwhelming. You should feel like you’re barely hanging on and you’re doing poorly. That’s how you know you’re paying attention. You should strive to be as perfect as possible in your new job every day on set. Recognize and accept that you’re going to be making mistakes but take those mistakes and lessons to heart. Don’t make the same mistake twice.

In addition to the difficulties involved in learning a new job, you’ll also be dealing with the frustrations of low-budget filmmaking. These projects are, invariably, run with an almost improvisational feel to their scheduling. The days are too ambitious, there aren’t enough days scheduled to shoot everything comfortably, locations become a hassle and the food is usually terrible. You’re going to be working long days. My short film was two weeks of fifteen-hour days. I came home every night exhausted, covered in sweat and dust. Everyone deals with the exhaustion in their own way. I eventually just stopped caring about being tired.

These small projects are your training ground, and you should arrive at set every day with the objective of getting better at your job. One day, you’ll look back at your transitionary times and laugh about how green you were, and how difficult you thought your job was. You’ll only get to that point, though, if you put your head down and work as hard as you possibly can.

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