Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Once again, I arrived at my first day on a new job knowing absolutely nothing about what I was supposed to do. We were prepping a full feature camera package of Millennium XL2s, old school film cameras. I barely knew anything about digital cameras at the time, and film was completely foreign to me. I was nervous, but excited. Even though I knew absolutely nothing, I made it my mission to learn as much as I could.
For two weeks, my focus puller, RJ, and I lived in a 30x20ft room in the back of Panavision. I learned so much about preparing a camera package, from the absolutely essential to the important but optional. I learned how to test film magazines to make sure the film didn't get damaged scratch while cycling through the camera. I learned that every piece of equipment needs a backup, and a second backup if possible. I learned that bike handle wraps make great wraps for cold metal camera grips, and each one can be color coded to quickly identify each camera. I also learned that, when your boss decides to go surfing instead of coming to work, you sit at work and cover his ass as best you can.
“Oh hi, Ms. (Producer),” I’d say nervously into my phone, knowing my boss was catching waves 100 miles away, “RJ isn’t picking up his phone? Yeah he’s busy projecting lenses right now, I can take a message and pass it along to him though.”
I never learned what projecting lenses is and, at this point, I don’t particularly care. I was just happy to be of use.
I made my fair share of mistakes. At the end of week one, RJ asked me to do both of our timecards and turn them in to the UPM. RJ asked if I knew how to fill out a timecard and, not wanting to seem unprofessional, I told him I absolutely did. This, of course, was a lie. I had never filled out a timecard before, but I had seen my boss at my old job do it, so how hard could it be?
I messed up the timecard so badly the UPM called RJ and threatened to not pay his full rate. My numbers were all over the place, I didn’t know what a ten-hour guarantee meant, I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to find out I misspelled both of our names. RJ called me while I was driving into work on Monday. Judging by his tone, I was sure I was about to be fired. Who could blame him for getting rid of me? I had hurt his credibility with the higher-ups, and was making his job harder. I walked into Panavision with my head down, my future in film crumbling before my eyes.
Instead of firing me, RJ gave me a piece of advice I think about every day I’m on set. “If you don’t know how to do something,” he said to me, “just tell me and I’ll explain it.”
The advice is simple enough, but it represents a powerful sentiment. When I showed up to work as RJ’s assistant, I felt like a fraud. I thought to myself, “Why is he hiring me? I know nothing about cameras or the camera department. Once he realizes how little I know, he’ll fire me and get somebody with more experience.”
Let me be clear, and hear me when I say this: I have never, ever, EVER heard of someone firing their assistant for being too inexperienced. Think about the situation from RJ’s perspective. Do you think he wants an assistant who thinks he or she knows everything already? I can tell you, from personal experience, there is nothing worse than a know-it-all assistant. Experienced men and women in the industry have gotten to where they are because of years of hard work, and they’ve picked up a lot of knowledge along the way. More often than not, they’re thrilled to pass that knowledge along to the younger generation coming in. By imparting as much wisdom as they can, the old guard keeps professional standards high in the industry. These people have given huge chunks of their lives to their craft, and being able to help a fresh face is personally fulfilling. It helps give their lives meaning.
In order to accept this teaching, you must be willing and excited to learn. Don’t be nervous for not knowing something. If you don’t know how to do something and try to press forward, chances are you’re going to mess it up. You’re not going to get fired for not knowing how to do something, but you might get fired for messing up too badly. Ask a lot of questions. If something is unclear, ask for clarification. If the explanation is confusing, ask to have it explained again. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not above stretching the truth to get a job, but once you’re on set, owning up to your inexperience can help you out.
Besides the one hiccup with the timecards, my two weeks of prep were easy. RJ and I were nearly finished; he’d be heading to Atlanta in a few days to start the movie. Three days before we wrapped up the prep and shipped all the gear across the country, RJ introduced me to his friend Billy.
Billy was a tall Englishman with an enormous smile and a personality to match. His medium-length light brown hair sat messily on his head, giving him the impression of having haphazardly arrived in the room. His wardrobe combination of skinny jeans and a t-shirt stretched too tightly over his beer belly exaggerated his shape and, when paired with his goofy, boyish smile, he put me at ease immediately.
Make no mistake, Billy is a seasoned veteran of the camera department. He began his career in 1995 as the film loader on the Michael Mann film, “Heat”. Since then, he’s worked on blockbuster after blockbuster. The Hunger Games, Contagion, Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen, Billy was on the camera crew for all of them and more. When RJ introduced me to Billy, he was at Panavision prepping the second unit of the same movie we were doing. He only had six days of prep, but would be there after RJ left for Atlanta.
My job was ending, and I needed a way to stay connected to the camera department. I also needed money. PA work pays minimum wage, so I couldn’t be out of work for too long without being in dire financial straits. My old job was wrapping up, so I couldn’t go back there. My only camera department connection was leaving town in a few days. I needed a plan.
When you’re first starting out, your most important task is building connections. Like I said earlier, Hollywood is all about who you know. If you’re not networking, you’re screwed. If you don’t like networking, learn to like it. If you already love it, great, do more of it. Get in the habit of asking new people for their number. If you’re not comfortable doing that, offer yours. It’s easy, I’ll show you.
When I met Billy, I knew I wanted to work for him. In fact, my end goal was to get a position on the movie. I didn’t care if it was a first or second unit position, I wanted to be someone’s camera PA, and this was a fantastic opportunity. Billy and I had a brief polite conversation, he told me about the work he was doing, I told him how I was just starting out. Just before he left us and headed back to his prep room I said, “by the way, Billy, let me give you my number. I’ll text my phone from yours so I have yours too. If you’re ever looking for a camera PA or any kind of help, let me know.”
I took Billy’s phone and typed in my contact info. I sent myself a text and boom, connection made. It’s that easy.
I texted Billy the next day.
“Hey Billy,” the message said, “great meeting you yesterday. What can I do to help with your prep after ours ends? I’d love to be a part of your team.”
Billy’s reply came a few hours later.
“Hey Skyler (he forgot my name), thanks for your offer, but we aren’t budgeted for a camera PA.”
“You don’t have to pay me, I’ll come help for free.”
I needed money but working for free was the only way I could stay around the camera department at the time. I probably wasn’t getting any paid work in the next week regardless. If I already wasn’t going to be making any money, I might as well learn and make connections.
The offer of free labor worked beautifully. Billy agreed to have me on and, when RJ and I finally shipped our camera package out and said our goodbyes, I turned around and walked right back into Panavision. I tried to be as helpful as I could possibly be to Billy and his crew. That meant doing all the menial work RJ had taught me and more.
When you’re first starting out, everything is exciting. When I showed up to RJ’s prep, I was fascinated learning about what everything was and how different aspects of the prep needed to be handled. Keep that excitement as long as you can because, after the initial glow of a new opportunity wears off, you’ll realize how mind-meltingly boring a camera prep can be. As a camera PA, a position I affectionately came to call , “camera bitch,” you are doing the necessary work that sucks, but helps the department run efficiently. I spent hours sitting hunched over lens and equipment cases, coding each case with different colors of gaffer’s tape and printing out labels from the brand new P-Touch labelmaker I had bought specifically for this prep. Each label has to be printed individually, and each case has a set of unique tags. Once a label is printed out, I trimmed the edges with scissors so the words were centered, then stuck it on the case. I then covered that label with clear packing tape to protect it from the elements, then trimmed the packing tape with an xacto knife. I repeated the process for the front and sides of each case, and there are dozens of cases.
Two incredibly important skills to develop early in your career are the abilities to stay on-task and be detail-oriented. When you’re new, your boss is watching to see not only if you did what they told you to do, but that you did it the way they said. Are the lens cases labeled exactly the way the focus puller told you to label them? Is every single piece of equipment color coded by camera? Did you build the battery cart neatly? If your boss can’t trust you to print out the correct labels and put them on cases in the right way, how can he or she trust you when you’re on set? Those early stages are where you establish trust with the higher-ups, so pay attention and work hard.
If I were to look back at my career now, my journey would look something like a police precinct wall during a long investigation. There would be a collage of different decisions and experiences climbing up the wall like a tree, with miles of red yarn showing how each moment created the next. I can look and see how this one connection got me this other job or how one choice led me down a certain path. Somewhere at the bottom of the tree, near the root, is my decision to help Billy for free. During our prep, Billy put me in contact with the cinematographer for his unit of the movie. He said that, if I could get myself out to Atlanta and put myself up, the production would hire me. I’d be the camera PA on a huge movie, exactly the springboard I needed to get my career started in earnest. As quickly as I could, I found a place to stay and bought a plane ticket. The next week, I was in Georgia.