At some point in your career, you’re going to make what I like to call, “the jump.” The jump is a career transition so great that you’ll be essentially starting from scratch. My jump was when I stopped assisting and decided to work as a steadicam operator full-time. I had already upgraded my position several times at that point, going from PA to camera utility to second assistant camera in the span of around two-and-a-half years. Those changes were always incremental. My skills as a camera PA translated directly to the utility job and working as a utility afforded me the opportunity to dip my toes into the second AC role. Each job change was an incremental shift upward.
If we compared these job shifts to a distance traveled, changing from camera utility to second AC is like getting in your car and driving from LA to San Francisco. The drive is long and tiring, sure, but it’s not a difficult journey. You can have breakfast in LA and dinner in San Francisco. You’re still in California. People make that trip all the time. By contrast, the jump from camera assistant to steadicam operator is like flying from LA to Rome. The journey is long and you’ll probably have to stop somewhere midway through. You’ll land in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and you’ll be discovering how to handle the new environment on the fly. It’s tiring and intimidating, but incredibly rewarding.
“Ok, Kyler,” you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “I want to make the jump. I have a specific job in mind that I’m aspiring toward, but I don’t know how to get started. What do I do?”
In regards to getting started, the best advice I ever received came from my mentor in steadicam, Greg Smith. “You have to get in the game,” he said, “you can’t do a job sitting on the sidelines.”
By “getting in the game,” Greg means that the only way to do a job is to do it. If you want to direct, you must start directing. If you want to write, start writing. If you want to operate, start operating. That doesn’t mean your transition will be a black and white “today I’m an assistant and tomorrow I’m the boss.” Rather, tackle your big transitions the same way you tackle the smaller ones. For a time, you’ll be doing both jobs. I owned my steadicam for a full year before I became a full-time operator. The process was slow and methodical. For that year, I assisted to keep my bills paid and took any steadicam jobs I could find on the side. The first few jobs were the most difficult to book because hiring cinematographers and producers always wanted to see some sort of work sample. At that point in time, I had very little produced work to show. I got creative and made my own content. I shot my friends walking around a park during our steadicam practice sessions and used those videos as my work samples. The shots weren’t incredibly high quality or professional, but I wasn’t getting calls for big projects at the time. Those first shots were enough to get me hired on my first jobs which, in turn, provided me with more footage for my reel.
Let’s say you’re further along in your transition period and are wondering if you should commit to your new position full-time. When do you know it’s time to leave the old job behind? For me, I knew I had to move on because I was becoming a worse assistant. I had less patience for the demands of the second AC position and I wasn’t as tuned into my days as I had been. Simply put, I knew I had outgrown my usefulness as an assistant. I was also finally getting more consistent steadicam days. My philosophy has always been, if you’re consistently turning down work in your new job because of your old job, the old job is holding you back. I’ve also found that, when it’s really time for you to make the transition, you’ll be given a test.
The last job I ever did as an assistant was reshoots for the movie, Ad Astra. The project was two weeks long and the crew was a who’s who of big production names. I was the only second AC on the job, so I was watching over two film cameras and all the accompanying camera department gear for the run of the show. The key focus puller on the job, Serge, was looking for a new assistant and the door was wide open for me to step in and fill the role. Even with that opportunity in front of me, I knew my time as an assistant was coming to an end. Before the job even began, I let Serge know that I’d commit to the two weeks, but this would be my last job as an assistant.
We spent two weeks on stages and on location shooting fifteen-hour days. Though the work was exhausting, I had a blast working with the crew and being part of the team. I also got to interact with Brad Pitt quite a bit which, even though I don’t get starstruck, was an incredibly cool experience. At the end of the project, during the gear wrap, Serge asked me if I was sure I was done assisting. As I looked at him and thought about my answer, I saw the next three years playing out in my mind. I saw myself jumping from one huge movie to the next with Serge, stringing projects together for years at a time. I saw my career as an assistant exploding, but my steadicam career taking a backseat. I thought about my steadicam rig sitting in the corner of my room collecting dust while I worked as an assistant. In that moment, I knew it was time to move on. I told Serge I was sure, and we parted as friends. The next day I got a call for a steadicam travel job, a two-day hotel commercial. On that commercial, I made as much money as I had made in two weeks of grueling overtime days as a second AC. I made the correct choice.
When you’re ready to make your jump, remember, time is not your friend. These transitions are difficult and stressful. They’re much easier to weather when you’re young and without responsibility. At times during my transitions, I have been as close to broke as a person can be without being homeless. Even when you plan perfectly, transitions are flat-out hard. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Once you get to the other side, though, the rewards will be better than you thought they’d be.