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How to Move Up Quickly

There’s an established path for career advancement in the film industry. You start as a PA and figure out a way into your chosen department in an entry level position. Typically, a department head will make you a part of his or her team, and you’ll do subsequent long-term projects with that same team. Department heads don’t have time to constantly train new people, so teams tend to stick together for long periods of time. Over time, show after show, you’ll hone your skills in your given position until there’s an opening in the position above yours. Maybe your boss’s assistant will bump up into a more lucrative position; maybe somebody above you gets an opportunity elsewhere. Whatever the reason, you’ll take that opportunity to move up, and the cycle will repeat years down the line. You’ll work consistently for a long time, but your upward mobility is slow.

If you’re more focused on aggressive upward mobility, you’ll need to shed the stability of a team. Before I go any further, let me be clear: THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG WITH STABILITY. Consistent, stable work is fantastic. Following a team from project to project will keep you employed for years, but you may not feel like you’re moving forward. The best way to move up quickly is to day-play on different projects, meeting a lot of different teams and making a good impression wherever you go.

If you’re looking to day-play, be warned, it’s tough sledding in the beginning. When I first started out, nobody knew who I was. How would they? I was a brand-new digital utility who had just come off of my first show. I didn’t yet have the connections necessary to get consistent work. For the next few months, I did whatever I could to keep money coming in. I worked primarily as a PA and took the occasional utility job whenever a call came in. Eventually, I ended up working on a show called Colony.

I’m not sure what Colony was about or if the show was any good. Truthfully, I never watched it. What I did know was that they’d call me every week and bring me on for at least two days, three if I was lucky. Working with that team, I got experience on set, union hours toward healthcare and enough money to pay my rent. I finally quit PA work for good, which opened my schedule to more digital utility opportunities. Calls became more frequent, and I started getting busier. You’ll reach this point in your career as well. When you do, you need to put all your effort into mastering your craft if you want to stand out from the other people in your field.

As you progress through the ranks, the competition gets stiffer and you’re expected to know more. When you’re a PA, there are a lot of open positions and your boss expects you to, to a certain extent, not know much. Once you start specializing within a department, there are fewer opportunities and department heads expect you to do the job you were hired to do. While questions are always welcome, there’s less time for training. When you show up on set as a day-player, your boss should be able to familiarize you with the gear at the beginning of the day and forget about you.

When you’re day-playing consistently, you’ll learn one of the most vital skills in the industry: how to adapt your work style to different environments on the fly. When you work with one team for years, you get into the rhythm of that team. You also make yourself unavailable to other opportunities that may come your way. When you’re day-playing, you constantly have to adjust to fit the rhythm of different teams. Every day is different, and every day is a new opportunity. You don’t get to have a bad day or show up late because you may only get one chance on a show before they move on and call someone else next time. You always need to put your best foot forward. Show up forty-five minutes early (I’m serious, that’s how early you need to show up), have your equipment in order, smile, be polite, work hard, go above and beyond every day. You are in constant competition for work with every other person in your position. Day-playing can be extremely stressful. Work cycles ebb and flow. You may go weeks without a call, but one call could turn into months of work. You never know.

When you’re day playing, always talk to the people who have the position above yours. For me, when I was a utility, I constantly spoke with the second ACs. I always told them I was looking to move up and be a camera assistant and asked how they got into their position. These conversations served a couple important purposes. First, I heard the stories of dozens of camera assistants. They told me what had worked for them and what hadn’t, which gave me a reference for my own career. Second, it subtly shifted our relationship. When I asked assistants for advice, I stopped being “Kyler the utility” and changed to “Kyler, who wants to be a second assistant, and is asking for help.”

When you ask someone above you for help or advice, you’re putting them in the role of “teacher.” If people see you as a student or someone to mentor, they’ll be more inclined to help you. Think about it from the assistants’ perspective. Would you rather help the guy who showed up, did his job and said, “give me a call next time you need a utility,” or would you help the guy who came to you and said, “I really admire people in your position and want to do what you do. What can I do to get to where you are?” Who is getting the call next time you have an extra camera day and need a utility? You and I both know the answer.

There’s a delicate balance to be struck when day-playing. You need to blend-in while standing out. Do your job well, but don’t call too much attention to yourself. Ask questions, but don’t be needy. Be attentive without pestering. Most importantly, always keep your eyes open for opportunities to bump up in position. Remember, if you’re trading stability for upward mobility, you’ll need to jump at every chance to move forward in your career.

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