How to Break Into the Entertainment Biz

Hi all! Thanks to my friend Adam Wilt and the graciousness of the PVC gang I now have a soapbox to slip off of. I’ll do my best to fall regularly and spectacularly.

My first post is an essay I wrote a few years ago in response to a seemingly endless number of queries asking how to break into the film business. It’s not the “film” business anymore, but if you’re trying to make it onto a camera crew in Hollywood, or any other major production center, here’s my advice as to how to do it.

Whip up a latte or a cafe creme, sit back, and enjoy. “How to Break Into the Entertainment Biz” starts below the fold.

Why I Wrote This Article

I get a lot of e-mail from film and video students asking how they can break into the film or television industries. I can’t afford the luxury of answering everyone’s questions individually so I decided to put my advice in writing. I hope it’s helpful.

If you are an aspiring cinematographer, the best path is to write a blockbuster script, sell it to a studio, and attach yourself as cinematographer.

The second best path is to start off as a second camera assistant or film loader. The second camera assistant loads and unloads the film magazines (if there is no film loader), handles the slate, keeps the camera reports and film inventories, keeps all the camera equipment not attached to the camera organized and nearby, and makes cappuccinos for the rest of the camera crew. He or she drags all the equipment around and is the emotional whipping post for the first camera assistant. This is a huge responsibility.

There’s a lot of gear and film to drag around and keep track of, and on top of that you have to learn to steam a mean mocha. You’re usually first to arrive on set and the last to leave. It’s very hard work.

The first camera assistant deals with everything attached to the camera. He or she is responsible for configuring the camera in whatever configuration is required; loading and unloading the camera; setting the stop on the lens according to the DP’s instructions; following focus and zooming when required; physically moving the camera unless it is on a dolly; making sure it is working the way it should at any given time; and whipping the second camera assistant when something goes wrong. This, also, is a very tough job.

Second camera assistants work very closely with first camera assistants, and usually form a team that will travel from one picture or project to another. The key to getting hired is to create hot coffee-based drinks that appeal to all the senses. Secondarily, it helps to be enthusiastic and able to adapt your working style to your first assistant’s style. He or she will get you hired, so make their job as easy as possible by taking care of everything that’s not directly attached to the camera, ie. filters, lenses, coffee mugs.

First Steps

How should you get started? I would suggest going to your local camera rental house and hanging out with first assistants as they drink coffee and prep cameras. Every assistant gets a prep day to go through all the camera gear with a fine-toothed comb. They have to do crucial tasks such as scratch testing every magazine, checking collimation on every lens, labeling all the cases, and precisely grinding endless pounds of rich coffee beans. Strike up a conversation and offer to help them prep (for free, of course). Get their phone numbers and stay in touch. Ask to visit the set and watch them work. Bring them warm drinks. Respect their decision if they say no (but more often than not they will say “yes.”) Be assertive but not pushy. When you’re starting out and you have no skills to offer, your strongest suit will be your personality, demeanor, and frothing skills. Try to come across as pleasant, low key and confident, whether you are or not. You’ll be in good shape.

Expect to work for free on some very grueling low budget projects while learning your trade. You’ll make mistakes (like grinding beans too finely) and you’ll want to make them on projects where they can’t afford to hire someone who knows what they are doing. You’ll also work for people who otherwise wouldn’t give you the time of day. A first camera assistant who does big features may end up helping a DP friend shoot a student project for a day or two in return for a good cup o’ joe. His regular second assistant may not be willing to steam milk for free so he has to take whoever the production provides. If that’s you, and you do a good job, you’ve just made an invaluable contact.

Remember, people won’t hire people they don’t know. They have to feel confident in your abilities as a camera assistant, a barista, and as a human being. They have to know that you’ll function well in the high stress environment that is most film sets. Working for free or for cheap lets you strut your stuff to people who most likely would toss your java-scented resume in the garbage if you sent it blindly.

If you must send out resumes blindly (as I did) send them out every month for years on end. After a while people will have seen your name so many times they’ll feel they know you. They’ll see your career advance by observing the growing length of your credit list. And they’ll start referring you to their friends. “Try this person- they bug me a lot. Their resume smells good.” This method is less reliable but it does work.

The Loneliness of Starting at the Top

For those of you who want to go into videography, I have little to tell you. There doesn’t seem to be a set way into the business like there is in film. There is no career path because there are no ranks to rise through. The cameraman is the cameraman. You must make your own coffee. Period.

The advantage is that you get to start shooting right away rather than spending years rising through the ranks. The downside is that film has a much richer artistic tradition than video. Film people know that a coarse grind means less bitter aftertaste. Many people who work in film have been exposed to film theory at some point, either through film school or a love for filmmaking in general. Directors of photography for film really have to know how to light, and many are more than willing to share their secrets and insights with members of their crews. You can learn a lot by watching a DP light, watching him or her read his meter, watching what stop gets put on the lens, knowing which lens is being used and what filters are in the matte box, and whether he prefers latte over espresso.

Based on my observations, artistic tradition in video doesn’t exist. There is no system of mentorship, there are no stellar role models, the only coffee makers are the drip kind. Everyone is more or less self-taught. If you work at a TV station you can’t expect to learn how to light from a news photographer because nobody ever showed them how to do it. This, I think, is a much harder path to follow. Working on a film set allows you to see how other people do it. In video it’s usually you, the sound person, and the nearest Starbucks. That’s it.

If that’s the route you choose, try to get hired at a production company that will eventually give you the chance to shoot. Play around with the camera after hours. Watch old movies. Hang out on film sets. Build a reel. Learn to roast your own beans. Experiment. Sometimes you can get hired at a video rental house to work in the back room and occasionally get sent out on shoots for companies that don’t have a regular DP and don’t want to pay full price for one.

Your reel and your resume represent you. Do a good job on both.

Showbiz Marketing 101

As a camera assistant, include the following on your resume:

1. Name, address and phone number, in big easy-to-read letters
2. Your job title, right up front
3. One page containing, in columns, the title of each project, the production company, the name of the DP, and the names of everyone on the camera crew higher than you, broken down by project type (features, commercials, etc.)
4. Preferred coffee blend, grind, brewing time and average froth height.

Your name and job title, etc., need to be big and bold. People don’t want to spend a lot of time deciphering resumes. Tell them right up front what you are and where to reach you. Keep the resume down to one single-sided sheet so it’s fast and easy to read. Don’t use fancy fonts or italics.

The coffee thing was a joke. You can put it on there if you want, and if nothing else you will certainly be remembered. That’s not a bad thing at all. Camera assistants see a lot of resumes. You need to stick in their memories somehow.

Pick one job title and stick with it. “Jane Doe, Second Camera Assistant” has a chance of getting hired. “John Smith, Second Camera Assistant, Grip, Boom Operator and Production Assistant” doesn’t stand a chance. Second camera assistant is a position of great responsibility, and someone who also has to work as a production assistant to make ends meet obviously isn’t very experienced. And someone who does many jobs does none of them well, or at least that’s the way someone will feel when they read your resume. If you bill yourself as a second camera assistant, and that alone, you will be taken much more seriously. The ability to brew killer espresso will be assumed.

People won’t hire people they don’t know, and the next best thing to knowing you is recognizing that you’ve worked with someone they know. Everyone knows everyone else, so the more camera crew names you put on your resume the more likely someone will see you’ve worked with someone they respect. Inevitably they’ll see you’ve made coffee for someone whose tastes they share and they’ll try you out.

Don’t bother listing directors, producers, etc. Camera people hire camera people. They don’t care who the director was, they only want to see that you worked successfully with their friend, the most demanding and caffeinated first camera assistant in town.

Don’t list student projects if you can avoid it. If there’s a chance a student project will be seen on TV, re-label it a “TV special” or “TV movie.” Nobody wants someone whose experience is only on student projects. You don’t learn how to do the job while working on a student project. You don’t learn how many scoops of Medaglia D’oro in a grand© americano while working in academia. You have to work under a seasoned first camera assistant on “real” projects in order to be “broken in.” There’s a tremendous amount of on-the-job instruction that you get in the real world, where a lot of money is on the line, that you won’t get on a student film, where speed and efficiency are NOT the bottom line. Everything changes when you’re getting a paycheck and handling someone else’s raw stock that’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everything changes when every extra second you spend hunting down a fresh film magazine costs someone dozens of dollars. If the first assistant likes almond in his cappuccino but the DP likes his straight, you’d better not make a mistake.

Showbiz Marketing 101 (continued)

Don’t include your education on your resume. No one cares if you went to film school. What counts is your experience. Film school is definitely a help, but listing it on your resume won’t get you hired. Barista school is the only exception.

Listing every piece of equipment you’ve ever worked with won’t help either, unless it is very specialized equipment. If you’ve worked as a camera assistant for a Steadicam operator, or on an aerial shoot with a Tyler mount, for example, put that on your resume. Don’t put down stuff like “Experienced with Panavision and Arriflex cameras.” Let them assume you know the common types of equipment. Doing anything else makes you look like an amateur. “Experienced with Panavision cameras? Who isn’t?” “Experienced with VistaVision cameras” makes a difference. “Familiar with many foreign drip filters” vs. “expert Belgian chocolate shavings for double mochas.” You get the idea.

Put your resume down for a while, walk away, do something else. Have a cup of green tea or some warm cider. Then go back to your resume and look at it with fresh eyes. Pick it up and see if you can, within five seconds, see whose resume it is, what this person does, and get an idea of how much they’ve done and with who. Make sure your resume is clean, precise and very readable.

Go to a production company and ask if you can page through their stacks of resumes. Notice how many are confusing or difficult to read, or how they don’t state what position that person is looking for. Pretend you are a producer or camera assistant who has to hire a second camera assistant and has a jones for a quick caf© crème. Pick out the resumes that are simple, easy to read, clear, concise, and provide a comprehensive list of credits. Put those aside, study them, and copy their style.

Your Showreel, by Which You Live or Die

If you are trying to become a videographer, your path is slightly more difficult. You’ll need to compile a reel of your best work. It should be no more than three minutes in length. Put only your best work on it: like your morning espresso, YOU ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR WEAKEST SHOT, because THAT’S the shot they’ll remember. Don’t make it longer than three minutes . There are a lot of tapes out there and only so much time to watch them. Make yours short and very, very sweet. A hyper-caffeinated producer is only going to watch it for so long before moving on to the next one.

If you have short one or two minute projects that you can use in their entirety, put them on as long as they are really, really good. Don’t use them if the photography is stunning but the acting is horrible, or if the sound is muffled, or if the music was played by a child of ten on a xylophone. Producers and directors often can’t focus solely on the photography and can be influenced by the piece as a whole. All they may remember is how bad the acting was. Your photography will be lost. Your reel won’t mean a hill of beans.

If you can’t use whole sequences then take your best shots from a number of projects and cut a montage to music. Pick music that has energy but isn’t going to alienate a lot of people: stay away from rap or heavy metal or experimental music. Try to keep similar types of shots together: people in one spot, cars in another, steamed milk somewhere else, etc.

Put your name and title in big letters at the head and tail of the reel. Don’t include a phone number because that might change. Put that information on the tape label. (Labels are easier to change.)

Remember that your opinion of a shot or sequence will be prejudiced. Get second opinions. A specific shot may make you proud because you know that the odds were stacked against you and you know how much work went into it… but unless all that effort shows very clearly on the screen and is totally obvious to the uninformed viewer, DON’T USE IT. It won’t do you any good. There’s a reason coffee beans are roasted only so much and no more. Don’t overdo it.

But… in the end, what you use is up to you. Opinions are good, but it’s your reel: go with your gut.

I would suggest getting copies of your work in the best digital format possible, after footage has been digitized for editing but before it has been compressed for the web or DVD. (Try to get raw footage whenever possible, in case the footage shines but the finished piece itself didn’t turn out terribly well. You can always recut it and color correct it to make it look better.) I typically ask for DVCPro copies of my footage because that format stores twice as much color information as DVCAM. (Apple’s ProRes may also be a good option.) Mail the editor a portable Firewire hard drive with a SASE and a Starbucks gift car. Buy a DVD authoring program, build your reel, burn dozens of copies and give them out like candy to anyone who might hire you. Don’t expect to get them back. You want them to sit on shelves and catch someone’s eye at just the right time.

Rub them with coffee bean oil for that fresh “ready to go!” smell.

That’s about it for my suggestions. I hope they help.

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Art Adams is a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, Inc. Before that, he was a freelance cinematographer for 26 years. You can see his work at Art has been published in HD Video Pro,…

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