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How Not to be Remembered

After finishing the short film, I went back to doing digital utility work with a few second AC jobs sprinkled here and there. Using union day waivers from Local 600, I started doing the occasional union commercial as an AC, honing my skills and getting my face in front of different camera crews. A few months later, I got another call from Jon. He had gotten a job as the camera department key on a union sitcom and wanted me as the B camera second AC. This was exactly the position I had been waiting for and, had I not done the short film with Jon, he would have never trusted me enough to hire me on the job.

When I got the call from Jon, I had been day-playing as a utility on the show “American Horror Story.” Their schedule called for a lot of extra camera days, so I could reliably count on a couple days with them every week. The week before I was scheduled to begin prep on the sitcom, the American Horror Story digital utility had a falling out with the crew and quit. She packed up her gear and left set during lunch. When she was gone, Brian, the crew’s A camera focus puller, approached me and asked if I wanted to join them full time. I badly wanted to work with Brian. He had been the camera department key on my first ever show, the one where I was the walkie/air conditioning PA. Brian and his team had around six months of shooting left on the schedule, so I’d be able to count on six months of steady income. By comparison, our sitcom was only a three-month run, shooting just three weeks out of each month. I’d make a lot more money joining American Horror Story. I knew, though, that I wanted to promote myself to the top of the camera department as fast as possible. Joining the American Horror Story team would pay wonderfully, but I’d be working as a utility for at least another six months. I had in front of me the opportunity to become a union camera assistant and never look back. I didn’t know when another chance like that would come along, and I had to snatch it before it disappeared. I thanked Brian for the offer and told him I had a project as an assistant coming up that I couldn’t cancel. He was surprised, but not because I turned him down.

“Wow,” he said, “you bumped up fast.”

Our first week on the sitcom went almost exactly as I had pictured in my head. Our production was based on the Sony lot in Culver City, but we shot scenes all over town. We did a lot of location work with elaborate setpieces and effects. I did my job well. I made mistakes, of course, but I always quickly corrected them. Jon hired Billy from Baby Driver as my focus puller, and the two of us got on like a house on fire. I was learning quickly and gaining confidence in myself in a new position. Immediately, though, I recognized one aspect of the job that would give me trouble. The trouble was our A camera second AC, Donny.

Donny had been a camera assistant for a long time when we met. He was in his 50s and had been a second AC for about as long as I had been alive. He’d worked on huge blockbuster movies in his time, but now was doing mostly long-running tv gigs. I was excited to learn the trade from somebody so experienced. Donny, on the other hand, was threatened by what he saw as a young assistant on the rise. He saw me as a spoiled industry child and treated me accordingly. He found fault in everything I did, answered my questions snottily, and generally made life on set difficult for me. His attitude was even off-putting to the rest of the department. At one point, my operator pulled Donny aside and had a word with him.

“You know, Donny,” my operator said, “Kyler is going to remember the way you’re treating him. We all are.”

I suppose that didn’t matter to Donny. He couldn’t see past whatever was going on in his head. And the operator was right. I remember how frustrated I was being made to feel unworthy of my position.

Ironically, as Donny continued to pout throughout the shoot, I was forced to shoulder more of the responsibility delegated to the A camera second AC. I ended up laying most of the marks and doing the common slates while Donny sat off by the carts. The director, DP and actors all thought I was the A camera second. I didn’t take Donny’s job, but I learned to do it out of necessity. If he wasn’t going to fulfill his role on the team, someone needed to be there to pick up the slack.

There’s a saying in the industry that applies to this situation: “Be kind to the people you see on your way up. You’ll pass them again on your way down.” I know it reads like some Mean Girls burn book, but it’s true. I’m now in a position where I could recommend Donny for jobs if I wanted. Do you think I ever have? Would you want to work with someone who made your life difficult in the past? Of course not. If you’ve worked in the industry for a while, chances are high you have a list of people you never want to work with again. I don’t keep that list to be vindictive, I keep it to make my job easier. Likewise, I've had people come up to me (not often) on set and tell me they remember how I was annoyed with them on a project two years ago. That's never a good feeling, so I'm always aware of my attitude when I walk on set.

I also remember every person who helped me on my way up the ladder. I remember the people who shared their time and knowledge with me, and I’m so grateful to those people for guiding me along. Those are the people I want to surround myself with. You have a choice of who you want to be in this industry. If I could impart a little advice, don’t be a Donny.

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