PRODUCTION CREW CAREERS
Are you thinking about a career in film and television production? One of the first things you need to do is to understand how the industry works and to get to know the various occupations in it. This type of overall understanding can help you to identify career goals that are most appropriate and desirable for you, given your particular educational and professional background and interests.
The occupations in the production crew category are commonly known in the entertainment industry as “below the line” production jobs. Generally, the production crew works on the production set before, during and after the filming of movies, television series and shows, commercials and other filmed products. The production crew, therefore, works in the phase of production that is commonly known as “physical production” or “principle photography.” You can learn more about specific crew occupations in Reel Jobs: Physical Production Careers in the Entertainment Industry available at www.eidc.com or www.entertainmentcareers.cc.
Production crew members work in the following areas, also known as departments:
The production department is responsible for constructing the project budget, establishing a shooting schedule, hiring the crew, authorizing equipment purchases and rentals and acquiring the soundstages and/or places to film. In addition, the production department oversees the entire project and makes sure that the project is proceeding on schedule and within the planned budget.
The location department finds ideal locations for filming, secures the locations and manages the location during filming. There are many more tasks in each of these steps. For instance, finding a location involves taking photographs of the places and consulting with the creative team, especially the director. Securing the location, whether it is a university campus or a private home, involves negotiating with the owner so that both parties are satisfied with the arrangement. The location department also has to make and provide maps to the location so that everyone in the crew knows where to go on the day of the shooting. On location, the location department “manages” the location, which means solving any problems related to the location that might arise. The location department, along with the security department, deals with the public and residents in the immediate community by informing them of what type of activities they can expect while the production crew is there shooting on location.
Set Design and Construction
The set design and construction department creates new sets and modifies the existing set or environment where the filming will take place. The set design crew has to know how to design a set appropriate to a particular scene by taking into consideration things like the time period and the specific setting such as an office or a home. The set construction crew has to work fast and has to know how to construct all sorts of structures in such a way that they look “real” on the screen. They have to have conventional construction skills, but also creative and problem-solving skills to do their job.
Set Dressing and Props
The set dressing and prop department, by working with the art director, does extensive research to select the right props for a particular scene. All the furniture, fixtures and objects that are on the set are acquired and placed by the set dressing and prop department. They also handle hand-props used by the actors. The props are bought, rented or created. After the shooting, they have to remove the props from the set, inventory each item, and if it is rented, return the props to the rental shop in the proper condition. Wranglers are also part of the set dressing and prop department. Special licenses are required to handle weapons and explosives. (See next section.)
The special or “physical” effects department creates all of the effects actually filmed for movies and TV shows, such as a bomb going off in a building, gusty winds, or rain. Pyrotechnicians are members of the special effects crew. They are licensed to handle explosives. The special effects crew is generally on the set only to execute the special effects. But they may be working prior to the shooting day to create and plan for the special effect, especially if the effect they want to execute is complicated. Physical effects during filming should not be confused with effects created and added in post-production, either optically or digitally (often known as “visual” effects).
The camera department must work closely with the electrical and the grip departments. This is because capturing an image requires appropriate lighting and camera operation. The Director of Photography (DP) oversees the lighting of the scene. So, the DP normally hires the gaffer (chief electrician) and the key grip. In addition, the DP and his camera crew select, operate and maintain the camera equipment. There are many other tasks carried out by the camera crew including renting and returning the camera and related equipment, maintaining the film stock inventory, loading and unloading the film magazines and sending the exposed film to the processing lab.
The electrical department is made up of 1) the rigging crew who works on the set before and after filming and 2) the on-production crew who works during filming. The rigging crew is responsible for setting up the electrical equipment and wires primarily associated with lights and light operating devices. The on-production electrical crew is supervised by the gaffer and maintains the lighting conditions specified by the DP during filming.
The grip department is responsible for taking down and putting up the basic set structures, so they work before, during and after filming. They are an important part of lighting because grips are in charge of the shadows on the set during filming. The dolly grip is responsible for moving and positioning the camera during filming.
“We may not be melting steel, but we are making something for the first time. It is basically a repetitive process, but each time it is done, it is going to be in a slightly different way. For example, the other day we did something with people talking in a garage, so of course the door had to come down on cue. So there is a lot to it in terms of being able to think on your feet and solve problems.”
- Michael Kenner, Grip.
The sound department on the set is responsible for capturing the sound, including dialogue and other types of sound during filming and producing a video recording of the shooting. They are also careful about detecting unwanted sound. Sounds from various microphones are mixed and adjusted at the mixing console and the microphones are moved according to the actor's position.
Costume and Wardrobe
The costume department handles all the costumes needed for production. The costumes may be purchased, rented or custom-made. Those who work in this department need to know periods, various types of fabrics and how to sew. They also inventory and return rented costumes. On the set, the wardrobe crew is responsible for managing the costume inventory, mending torn clothes, maintaining the clothes in the condition required for the scene and dressing the actors and extras between scenes.
Make-up and Hair
The stylists working in the make-up and hair department use their artistic and technical skills to transform actors and actresses into believable characters. Through years of experience on the job, they acquire effective techniques to make actors look older, injured with cuts and bruises, or as if they were aliens from outer space. Hair stylists are equally skilled in making actors look the part. One of the most important skills for make-up artists and hair stylists is to be able to recreate the same look when the character appears in scenes that are filmed in different days.
The production security department is responsible for securing the set area so filming is not interrupted. They also protect the equipment on the set during breaks between filming. On location, they perform a public relations role by informing interested spectators of what's going on.
There are all kinds of motorized vehicles used during the production. These trucks and cars are maintained and operated by the transportation department. All drivers must be properly licensed by the state in which they reside for the types of vehicles that they will be operating.
As you can see, production work is very much specialized among the different departments. This means you have many different career tracks to choose from. Detailed descriptions of crew occupations are available in “Reel Jobs” (located at www.entertainmentcareers.cc). If you are an inexperienced job seeker just starting out, you may want to pay close attention to the descriptions about responsibilities and skills associated with different crew jobs. All crew occupations require creative, technical and organizational skills, but each job involves a different combination of these skills.
One useful way to think about your career path is to think about where you want to end up in the future. You might find it difficult to switch occupational areas once you become established in a particular occupational area. Although a few people do work in several related areas, for example, in grip, camera and lighting, having multiple occupations is not common in this industry and may not even be desirable. However, there is movement up and down the career ladder. For example, a camera operator on a large film project may work as the director of photography on a smaller project.
Whether it is a feature film, television or a commercial project, production crew work is typically challenging in the following ways:
“The higher up the career ladder you go, the more difficult a crossover becomes from commercials to features.”
- Michael Kahler, 1st Assistant Director (Commercials).
In addition to different occupational areas, there are differences among the three areas of feature film, television and commercial production. Just as it is difficult to switch occupational areas, it is also difficult to move from feature films to television or commercials. Most people in this industry tend to stick with one of the three areas, as much as one occupational area. This seems to be strongly influenced by the complicated contact networks and hiring patterns of each sector.
One of the defining characteristics between feature film, television and commercial production is the duration of the physical production phase of the project. This is an important distinction for the production crew since the number of filming days typically determines the length of employment for them.
Within the television arena, the schedules of network shows, cable and made for TV movies are different. Even different kinds of shows such as sitcoms, soaps, weekly dramas, talk and game shows have varied schedules and staffing patterns.
The Entertainment Industry Development Corporation (EIDC) keeps track of the number of location production days for each month in Los Angeles County for feature films, TV shows, commercials and music videos. This information is one general way to gauge production activities in Los Angeles, which are linked to employment opportunities. You can get this information on the EIDC web site, www.eidc.com.
In general, the three main sectors of the industry have the following characteristics and they are briefly described below.
The production days for feature films tend to be distributed throughout the year. So, production work in feature films is available most of the year. In the U.S., the number of feature films produced annually has been increasing. For instance, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, there were 762 feature films rated by the MPAA in 2000. Five years prior, in 1995, the number of feature films rated was 697. Since investment risks are high for feature film projects, producers look for an experienced crew. A production crew uses a wide range of creative, technical and organizational skills. Film production crews also tend to go out of town more often than television production crews. The time pressures are not as great in feature films as in television shows.
There are variations of production techniques, organization and employment patterns among different types of television content, such as drama series, talk shows and award shows like the Academy Awards. Except for made-for-cable shows, television production days tend to follow the network seasonal programming. So, the number of production days goes up starting in August and tapers off in December, finishing in mid-March. The production days go back up in April and May for about a month when pilots are produced. Compared to feature films and commercials, there is relative stability and continuity associated with working on a continuing television series. Directors and actors often change from one episode to another, but the office staff and production crew tends to be more stable. This enables the production crew to develop a close relationship. People who prefer a more routine schedule and financial security welcome this type of stability and flexibility in television production. However, television production is quite demanding in that they might shoot seven to eight pages of a script per day. In contrast, feature film productions may shoot two pages.
Typically commercials are short-lived projects persisting throughout the year and filming takes from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the project budget. Therefore, a commercial production crew has to find new employment more often than a feature film or television production crew. This may also mean that a commercial production crew may have longer gaps of unemployment between jobs. However, they tend to be paid more per hour than other production crews. Some people also find fulfillment in seeing a project through to its completion in a relatively short period of time and then moving on to new projects. Commercial filming is dominated by the director who often works with the same DP and art director as a team with their own crews. The director of photography is in charge of camera and lighting, so he/she usually selects the camera operator and the gaffer, who would bring to the project their crew. So, in this way, the hiring is done in a rather hierarchical way. Another distinguishing feature for commercial production is that there is greater emphasis on personal presentation than in feature films or television. This is because the final client, e.g., IBM, Ford, or United Airlines, is often on the production set and expects a corporate standard of behavior and dress. So, you might consider whether you are the kind of person who does not mind taking extra care on your appearance and dress.
A career in physical production often means managing a series of short-term jobs and therefore, production crews are usually made up of freelance workers. A crew is often hired and paid by an independent production company or a studio. In some instances, a crew can be hired and paid through a payroll company. More importantly, production workers are expected to work in a set time and place. So it is accurate to say that production crews are employed on a short-term or project basis.
Project-by-Project Basis Employment
A production crew, such as a grip or a camera operator, could be employed on a project-by-project basis. This means he or she will be employed for the duration of the filming of a feature film, a television show or a commercial. The filming phase involves both off-production and on-set work. For instance, a set dresser might work weeks before filming to select the items for the set, during the filming to dress the set and after filming to take the items off the set for inventory or to return them to the rental house. Grips, who are involved with the lighting crew and generate shadows, work only during filming. So, the length of employment would really depend on the project and the occupation.
The term “day playing” is used to refer to employment for one to three days. Often this type of arrangement is done to fill in for an absent employee or to hire someone to do overflow work. Sometimes, a producer may hire someone he or she doesn't know only a day or two to see if this person would work out on the project. Another instance where day playing is used is when the producer hires a second unit to shoot “inserts” or other types of scenes, such as the actor catching a cab in the city. A second camera (or more) may be used on the set to shoot the same scene from a different angle. The use of both the second unit and the additional cameras provides opportunities for employment.
Contract Suppliers of Crew
Catering, security, costuming and other work on set or location are provided by contract supplier companies who provide their own crew. Some of these workers will be regular employees of the company while others, for example food servers, are hired by day or project.
Internships provide students with opportunities to learn about the business and production jobs first-hand from professionals working in a real project environment. It can be either a paid position and/or for school credit. Usually, internships are arranged through film schools, colleges, universities, training providers and community-based organizations like Streetlights or Hollywood Cinema Production Resources.
Some professionals point out that music videos are like “boot camps” where inexperienced people can learn a lot about production work. Music videos tend to be smaller productions and they provide opportunities for individuals willing to work for little pay. Student film projects also welcome “volunteers.” Sometimes, they will cover the basic cost of travel and meals.
In such “volunteer” situations, you should try to learn as much as possible. For instance, learn the industry jargon frequently used on the production set. The ability to do the job well also depends on the ability to understand industry jargon like “day playing,” “forced call,” or “striking.” A lot of equipment used in production is referred to in shorthand or by jargon.
The production crew occupational areas are usually organized hierarchically. This means in each occupational area, such as camera, grip or make-up, the occupations tend to be distinguished by skills and responsibility levels.
The entry-level jobs are those positions that require the least skill and experience. There are two types of entry-level positions in crew occupations: the first is the production assistant position and the other is the lowest position in each occupational area.
Production assistant is the lowest level production job. PAs work in the production office, in different production departments and on the set. Regardless of where you work, you can be assured that you will learn a lot about production and meet many people. Therefore, if you are an inexperienced job seeker, you might think about securing any PA position. You can learn about different crafts, see how production works and meet people who might help you get a job in the future. A career minded PA knows that nobody starts out as a director of photography, producer or director.
Production assistants working in the different departments are basically runners and gofers. For instance, they take orders and pick-up lunch, make copies, answer the phones, file, go on errands and deliver things.
A set PA is typically responsible for the following tasks on the production set:
The second type of entry-level position in physical production is the lowest level position in each of the crew departments. Crew departments are composed of keys or department heads and assistants. The size of the department may vary depending on the size of the project and departmental function. For instance, the location department is usually made up of the location manager and his or her assistant. The camera department is typically larger and made up of a camera operator, 1st and 2nd camera assistants, a camera loader and a technician. So, there is an opportunity for someone with little experience to start out in one of these or some other departments. Some of these jobs are covered by union contract and are only open to members or those permitted by the local. Many small productions as well as documentaries, educational films and the like will hire inexperienced but serious people in such occupations. The experience is good and makes a fuller résumé.
The entry-level positions in the crew departments generally demand less experience and skills specific to film and TV production. However, most departments require a few basic skills. For instance, it is desirable for an entry-level person in set construction, prop and grip departments to have basic construction skills such as the ability to use hand tools and make basic calculations.
Here are examples of entry-level positions in the crew departments:
|Production||Office or set production assistant|
|Location||Assistant location manager|
|Set Dressing||Swing gang or laborer|
|Sound||Sound utility technician|
|Wardrobe||Assistant set dresser|
|Make-up and Hair||Assistant make-up and hair|