Upping Your Career Opportunities in Film Production

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5 Important Tips

By Pamela Jaye Smith & Monty Hayes McMillan


Pamela and Monty attended the University of Texas at Austin film school. They’ve spent decades working on all sorts of media in Hollywood and around the world, including the Arctic, the Andes, and SE Asia. Here are some tips to make working in film production work for you and your career.

Do It All

The more experience you have the more effective you can be when you’re in charge. It makes you facile, valuable, and empathetic. You also build strong relationships, which is essential to career success.

Pamela was once directing a documentary on construction in the morning and working craft service on Pizza Hut commercials in the afternoon. From hard-hat to hair-net and back. Prove that you’ll do your job to get the job done, and they keep hiring you for the jobs.

Also, you know when someone’s trying to pull one over on you. They say it can’t be done for that budget, but you know it can because you did it two weeks ago on another gig.

It’s like in the military: someone who’s been in the trenches and come up through the ranks gets more respect from the rest of the crew.

Be True to Your Word

When you take a job, do the job. You don’t leave and go to a better job. If you miss one, you’ve missed one. But the people you’re working for, and the people you turned down, will both know that if they hire you, you’ll show up and do the job. You’re expressing honour and loyalty, which in a business known for flakes, really makes a difference.

Every now and then, there are jobs you shouldn’t take. We only turned down two. We were working on an industrial/military project featuring the Navy. Though promised footage from them, the deadline loomed, and it still had not arrived. Realizing we could not accomplish the job to our standards because they were unable or unwilling to fulfill their obligation, we respectfully explained the problem and bowed out. The film turned out okay, though we like to think not as great as if we’d been able to complete it. The same people hired us again and again for a number of years — they knew our dedication to quality.

The other one we turned down was an offer to do a tourism promotion film for Pakistan. We thought it was a bad idea, but we considered it. After due consideration, we decided it was indeed a bad idea. However, we each got a very large and very impressive Pakistani dagger. Better those hanging on the wall than showing up elsewhere…

Fix It First

The first response when something goes wrong is find somebody to blame. That’s counter-productive when time is money and the clock is ticking. A better procedure is

(1) Fix the problem and continue shooting.

(2) Then, figure out what went wrong and why.

(3) Then, put policies in place to prevent that particular problem from happening again.

There will always be problems, mistakes, and emergencies on a shoot. The trick is not to make the same mistakes again.

Top-Down Talking Pyramid

Especially when talking to a department head, AD, or Production Staffer, you first need to get their attention and get them focused on your topic. “So, Jason says if we really need it on Tuesday, he can sub-rent that drone for us, and it’ll cost a bit more, but if we can push the shoot to —- “.

You’ve just wasted precious seconds. Start at the top of the pyramid with the topic, then work your way down:

About the special drone. [You got them focused.] It’s not available Tuesday. [You’ve stated the problem.] They can sub-rent one, but it’ll be more expensive, or we can wait two days till theirs is available. [You’ve given the choices.]

Effective, efficient communication is essential on a busy film set.

If You See Something, Say Something.

Sometimes crew members see things the director, AD, and script supervisor just don’t see. You could go to your department head, but if the problem is not in your  department, you’re best off going to the 1st AD and letting them decide whether to go to the director. If you don’t speak up, it could lead to delays or to reshoots, which means more money. But always respect the chain of command; it’s your best way of being heard.

You’ll learn so many fascinating, useful things in this business and no doubt have many amazing experiences, meet some great people, and contribute to creating fine media. And along the way, you can pass on your insights to others and help us all improve ourselves, our creativity, and our careers.