Working for Free

So I'm going to start posting sections of the book that I'm working on which is titled, Don't Do What I Did: How to Make a Career in Film and Video.

The book is written to be a handbook for those starting out or considering a career in film and video production.

What follows is a section titled, "Working for Free", which is something that I actually haven't done for a while, since I've been editing a feature-length documentary, as well as writing my first book. I'm focusing more on creating my own content, as you can very well see, but if the right opportunity came along - working on a cool, worthwhile project with good people - I'd definitely consider it.

Anyway, without any further ado:

Working for free

When you are starting out, you’re probably going to have to work for free(sometimes also called “working for credit” - I call it “working for pizza”). This is not such a terrible thing. I mean, if you’re a film major in college, you technically will “work for free” on more than a few films throughout your college career, hopefully.

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Working for free as 2nd AC on a short film titled Departure in Dallas, TX, 2011

Working for free is a good thing. You can avoid it if you somehow luck into a job in a studio or at a production company, but I recommend it. 

If you love indie film, working for free is practically currency. You work on enough other people’s films for free, they’ll work on your or lend you gear when you need it.

It’s rare that anyone gets a job in production without at least a modicum of experience already under their belt. Even as a production assistant, there are some things you must know, like how to properly use a walkie and how to do a lock-up. 

Here is an oft-repeated myth you may hear from film industry vets when they talk about how they got their start:

A young whippersnapper walks into a production office, looking sharp and with resume in hand.

“Are you guys hiring? Do you need any help around here?”

“When can you start?”, says the boss. “Now?”, says the young whippersnapper. 

And the boss puts him to work right then and there. The young whippersnapper hauled sandbags and wrangled cable all day and has been working in production ever since, or so the story goes.

Internships can be a boon to those that have the time to work in one(i.e. college students) and are a great way into the business. I got my first hands-on camera experience shooting concerts as an intern for a tiny Austin-TX web startup. Although that internship didn’t necessarily lead anywhere, I got the experience I desired and it piqued my interest in film and video. And, actually, it did - one of the guys who founded the web startup started another site called shortfilmtx.com, through which I book many a meals and credit gig, cutting my teeth in the process.

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Boom Op workin' for credit and pizza on The Keymaker, the very first short film that I worked on. Thanks, shortfilmtx!

"Smart" Working for Free, Not "Hard" Working for Free

Working for free, also expect to work long hours and eat a lot of pizza. Even if you’re young, single, and have enough money saved up to pay your bills for a few months, it will still be a challenge to get your foot in the door. Don’t worry. There are plenty of no/lo-budget productions that will happily utilize/exploit you for your free labor. This is how you get your foot in the door.

I didn’t get my first film production check until I’d worked on around 7 short film projects for free, in addition to also having shot countless low-production value comedic web shorts of my own. I worked for free off-and-on for a couple years more, working odd jobs, until I finally started to get enough paying work to pay my bills. 

It could have been a shorter process if I’d(pay attention, these are the shortcuts into the business): 

* Went to film school.

* Approached production companies directly about wanting to work as a PA.

* Worked at a rental house.

* Known somebody already in the industry who could’ve gotten me a job as a PA.

The reason it took me so long to become a full-time freelancer in film and video production is that I didn’t think it was possible to do this for a living. I didn’t know anybody who worked in TV and film. I had no idea where all of the electricians and set PAs and 2nd 2nd ADs whose names scrolled by in movie and TV end credits came from. I suppose I thought that there were only film technicians in LA or New York and that, to get a job in film, you had to go to a really, really prestigious film school, or have a family member working in the film industry to give you a leg up. Probably both. Those things definitely help, but they’re not prerequisites.

You just need to get that first job. Kick ass, and more jobs will follow. 

Another piece of advice is to “know where you’re going”. Always have goals that you’re working towards. Do you want to work in film and video for the rest of your life? Some people do. It’s an exciting profession, most of the time. If you have other skills, think about ways to incorporate those skills into your production life. If you speak Spanish, maybe start to look for jobs that need a bilingual field producer or cameraman. If you have programming skills, consider writing programs or apps for film set use.

This book is about using all of your skills to be able to work when and on what you want. The great thing about working in film and video production is that the only things that limit your opportunities are your own work ethic and creativity(in that order).

Honestly, all throughout your career it’s not a bad idea to keep working for free - but only for people you know and want to help. Once you are established, you can be a lot more discerning and only work on your experienced and genius film-friends as opposed to begging your way onto any and every set that will take you. You’re a professional now, so act like it.