breaking in below the line
|Pay close attention.
“I knew a PA who watched and paid attention. He had no training but he worked very hard; he schmoozed at parties. Now he’s a designer. He doesn’t draw but he knows how to put everything together.” — Maria Caso, production designer
Master more than one skill.
Don’t expect it to be easy.
Not everyone with dreams of Hollywood wants to be a director or a star. For those looking to get into the business behind the scenes, here’s how to break in below the line: Persevere in the face of brutal rejection. Exude easy likeability at every interview. Finally, parlay your go-getter attributes into a hands-on internship or P.A. gig, involving long hours of low-pay labor. Don’t stop smiling now. Work. Ask questions. Learn everything. You’ve got a movie career in the making.
Maria Caso, production designer on “Deadwood,” says she hires P.A.s with fun personalities, a dash of confidence and a willingness to start out working hard without pay.
How can below-the-line wannabes build golden opportunities?
“Find out which shows are getting ready to start,” Caso advises. “Don’t send letters. Call and ask for an appointment to get a P.A. job. Say you’ll work free.”
Caso, who multitasked on sets at 16, recommends that a P.A. familiarize herself with all creative departments on set, scoring a real-world education in the span of six weeks.
“Don’t be afraid of not knowing things,” Caso says. “Say, ‘Hey I’m just starting out.’ People will help you. Everyone had their first show.”
The set is a diverse training ground, quite different from film school, Caso suggests.
Insiders behind the scenes — the camera operators, the sound people, the editors, f/x artists and wardrobe team — agree.
Online editor Patrick Woodard graduated from the Brooks Institute of Photography in December. The only one among his friends to land a job straight out of college, Woodard says his internship at Digital Film Tree morphed naturally into a paying position. College taught him how to use Pro Tools. The two-month internship provided a second education.
“During the internship, I learned a lot more,” Woodard says. “Now I work in many different kinds of formats and outputs, whereas before, at school, I was limited.”
Woodard, who says easygoing social skills and an admirable work ethic helped him secure the assistant editor job, plans to become a picture editor. He sees his current post as a logical starting point, the beginning of a long tutorial.
Camera assistant Eric Anderson found a smart starting point on indie sets. He read thick manuals and accepted free P.A. gigs to learn his trade. Now he works throughout the year as first assistant cameraman on union projects — films, commercials and videos.
“Traditionally, you were a loader, a second (assistant cameraman), a first, then you were an operator, and then a d.p.,” Anderson says. “That’s happening less and less, because the directors and clients are a lot younger. It’s a youth scene.”
Many aspiring cinematographers attend film school, Anderson says. There they hone tech skills, build reels, and tour festivals. Most have to do time as assistants, he says, but film school gives them work samples and hands-on experience.
Anderson never wanted to be a cinematographer. He enjoys the art of being an assistant cameraman and likes to teach others.
He often hires a second assistant cameraman who’s hungry to learn. Frequently, a hard-working P.A. becomes his second.
“P.A.s should introduce themselves to camera and say, ‘Hi, if you guys need anything, let me know and I can help you.’ Invariably, we’re going to be short staffed,” Anderson explains.
Anderson also recommends that aspiring assistants apply to work tech at a camera rental house for a couple of years. This position, though hard to come by, provides hot connections and a great education in camera loading and focus pulling.
Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a few industry connections going in, you can always ask a friend of a friend to teach you his tech trade secrets.
Carey Milbradt, who owns Bigfoot Foley, learned sound editing from his former high school band mate.
“My friend taught me all the different aspects of sound,” Milbradt says. “ADR, dialogue, sound effects and foley, so I can pretty much go anywhere and edit in any venue.”
As for Hollywood hopefuls who don’t already have the connections, “Go get an entry-level job at a post house or an internship at a studio,” Milbradt suggests. “They want cheap labor. And people notice when you’re doing good work. That doesn’t go unrewarded.”