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Five Tips to Find Professional Crew Members for Free

06.16.11 @ 3:19PM Tags : , , , , , ,

This is a guest post by Evan Luzi, a camera assistant who runs The Black and Blue.

The most amazing part of the digital cinema revolution isn’t the streamlined workflows, 5K resolutions, or the high dynamic range. It isn’t even the versatile cameras available for a couple grand. What is truly remarkable about digital cinema is its impact in the democratization of film. In theory, right now, you could take your film school money, grab a kitted out Canon 7D and go shoot a movie that visually holds up against the films playing at your local theater. The opportunity is there and while you might not need a crew for a self-made film such as a wintry montage or short landscape piece, to really dive deep into a project like a narrative feature or short film, you still need a crew. And while the technology is cheap, the people aren’t.

As a below the line crew member, I started my career on a freebie and still actively work for free every now and then. I have spent hours scouring sites like Mandy for gigs and I always find tons of filmmakers asking for professional grade work pro bono. Most of these listings I click-away from, but I am more than willing to pass on the paycheck for the right project.

Your project could be the right project.

There are so many talented people out there looking for work if you know how to reach them. No one’s saying a crew isn’t worth paying, but if you absolutely can’t put together an adequate budget, here are five tips to help you find a quality crew to work for copy, credit and meals:

1. Understand their job

If you are producing or directing a project, you should understand the dynamic of a film crew. Especially if you seek to hire professionals, don’t think they won’t see through your lack of experience.

I have seen so many job listings for “sound guys” or for “a lighting person.” These jobs have specific titles and the fact that you aren’t using them makes it seem like you might not understand what a “lighting person” even does. I’ve speculated before whether certain directors even know what a camera assistant is, but there are red flags. When you offer up clips for a demo reel to a grip, electrician or production assistant they will scoff at you. Nobody working underneath the key department heads is going to have a demo reel for those jobs. I don’t send out a video of my best focus pulls as a 1st assistant camera (AC) or most beautiful slates for 2nd AC gigs.

You need to genuinely understand what below the line crew do and why they work.

In the end, almost every crew member loves movies and being a part of the collaborative medium, but many also work because they make good money doing it. If you are going to ask them to do it for free, you need to at least respect the professionalism they are used to being a part of everyday.

2. Pitch them the project, not the results

Everybody making a movie thinks they are making a hit (if you don’t, go back to the drawing board until you do). While passion is admirable and necessary, the statistics just don’t hold up for every film to be the next Juno or Paranormal Activity. That’s why it’s silly to see a crew call that advertises “will be submitting to Sundance” and a chance to “be part of something big.” Everybody submits to Sundance and everybody thinks they’re part of something big, but the odds of getting in Sundance are small and the odds of being something big are even smaller.

So what makes you different? Claims like that only increase skepticism and, worse, these listings rarely describe what the film is about.

If you really want a crew to work for free, pitch them the project and not the results. If you really do have the next big thing, it should be an easy sell.

Even though below the line crew aren’t directly involved in major creative decisions, they do like to work for projects that reward them creatively. Commercials, company internals and other dry material will often drag down a person’s psyche. Offer them a chance to work on a sci-fi character driven short film and you might have no problem staffing a crew.

3. Be transparent

Another deal breaker for me when I see listings for low/no paying jobs is a lack of transparency. The listing will provide minimal details and a cryptic description of the film like, “a short romance about love.” Again, this breeds skepticism.

Why aren’t you telling me about the film? Who are you? Why is your project something I should be interested in working on? It’s simply not fair to ask people to send you their personal information and resumes without providing some information of your own.

Further, be honest about payment and what expenses will and won’t be covered. It’s better to have people know up front what they’re going to be involved in rather than trying to spring it on them and negotiate down the line.

4. Don’t ask for help, provide them with opportunity


People are notoriously selfish and crew are no different. When you’re used to banking over $350 a day doing your job, why should you do the same thing for free? When job listings ask for help because “it’s a great film and I’m a student” or something else, nobody cares. It’s harsh, but it’s true. If I don’t know you, why are you asking for a favor from me? To counter this, you shouldn’t be asking for help from crew, but instead offering them an opportunity.

This approach works phenomenally well if you target crew members looking to move up the ladder or enter the game entirely. I took my very first job as 2nd assistant camera for free to get my foot in the door and again worked for free for an opportunity to be 1st assistant camera on a low budget feature film.

Those looking to further their careers in some form are willing to take a severe pay cut to prove they have the chops to do the job. In this scenario, you aren’t paying them with money, but experience instead.

5. Keep the terms — and your wallet — reasonable

I once read a job listing for a feature film that was well-suited to my abilities. It was in an area close to me and was for a position I was trying to get more work for. I thought I would apply and even though it was a freebie, at least I’d get the experience. Then the bomb dropped: the film was to be shot on weekends for almost 3 months straight. I immediately thought, “no deal.” The terms of the shoot just weren’t practical or appealing at all. If you want a decent crew, you need to keep your terms reasonable. Terms include:

  • Working conditions
  • Working hours/days
  • Crew size
  • Kit and equipment rentals
  • And more…

I couldn’t have been the only one to pass on that listing. For one, I doubt anybody with a day job wants to do a weekend project for 3 months straight. Secondly, most professional crew aren’t going to be willing to drop that amount of time for a freebie. What happens if a feature film that pays comes on the radar?

But it’s not just time that is a major issue, it’s also money.

A location sound mixer once told me when he is asked to work for free with no compensation for travel, food and tools, he would reply, “I don’t have the money to invest in your film.” Food, gas (travel), and tools all cost money. When people work on your film, those expenses increase for them, especially if you have them working on location.

Don’t put your crew in a position where they will lose money by working on your film. You should strive to help crew pay for these expenses so what you’re getting for free is their labor — the most valuable part.

People Work for People

It’s possible to get a quality, professional crew to work for free and if you do any one of the five tips above, I promise you’ll get a better response than you did last time you tried. And yet all of the tips above could mean nothing if you don’t understand this: you are the main selling point of your project. People work for many reasons including money, opportunity, swag, and favors, but ultimately, people want to work for people they like.

Especially in the film world, everyone wants to be a part of something special. The best script, the coolest camera, and a killer actor are all great factors that contribute to your success, but people will only buy into your project as much as they believe in you.

Coming from somebody sitting comfortably below the line, working for free has provided some great relationships, rewarding creative goals, and opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I pick my freebie projects carefully and the ones I have worked on are mostly because I believe in the people attached and trust they won’t use and abuse me.

If you can get someone to trust you and believe in your creativity, they won’t be able to resist your project.

And in the future, if your film is the “next big thing,” they’ll follow you to the ends of the Earth.


This guest post is written by Evan Luzi, a camera assistant who shares his passion for the craft at The Black and Blue. He recently designed the Arri Alexa Pocket Guide, a no-hassle PDF that puts the most important details of the manual straight into your pocket. You can also follow him on Twitter.

COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Very well written. I will be using those guidelines myself shortly.

    Thanks-

  • Great advice,
    We have found an amazing crew for our web series by doing many of these things.
    We encourage crew to try other positions on set if they want experience (for instance letting one of the sound recordists do a short guest appearance or the art director run 2nd camera)
    Doing this we discovered that our art directors has a photography background and can come up with amazing shots. (we shoot DSLR so it was remarkably easy for her to learn)
    People may scoff at our “Do what you want attitude” but as long as they don’t want to hop on lead camera for an important fight scene everything has worked out well.
    We have gotten some great monsters out of our wonderful makeup team because they wanted to make monsters and we wrote it in.

    We’ve ended up building something that feels a lot more like a community of friends then a group of volunteers. Everyone feels like the project belongs to them.
    A big point is making sure you repay the favor. If your loyal crew needs help on their projects you should help if you can. A good filmmaker can easily shoot a quick interview with a makup artist that she can use to promote herself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6Gd05jW_O4

    When looking for other directors to work for I tend to shy away from no pay projects that make big claims.
    Any directors who is making claims about how they low budget project is going big is either unrealistic or exxagerating at your expense.
    I would rather help out on someones project if they were up front that it was just to learn and have fun.

    Cheers

    Rob

    • “If your loyal crew needs help on their projects you should help if you can.”

      Yes that is definitely one way to substitute for pay. Also, if you hire the same crew later on but for paying gigs or recommend them for paying gigs also will return the favor.

      “I would rather help out on someones project if they were up front that it was just to learn and have fun.”

      I agree. I get suspicious of people who have something to hide. I’d rather people be up front with me and lay out the realistic possibilities.

  • Alec Sprinkle on 06.16.11 @ 5:14PM

    I’d like to see more articles like this.

  • I wish Craigslist forced people to read your article before they post looking for crew, have worked for free on many projects but I have seen so many people who want you to work on their music video “that will be submitted to MTV” or other such nonsense but are looking for people with equipment or experience without stating why it would be a good use of your time its amazing. Thanks once again and I will look forward to any future articles.

    • Thanks James, you nailed the inspiration for the post — Craigslist postings that make ridiculous claims. I, too, wish some of those posters read this article and here’s hoping a few of them do. I’ve gotten some great gigs off of Craigslist — free ones too — so I know the potential is there, it’s just some misinterpret what crew are looking for in a job.

      • On the other hand, a lot of what are probably totally legit lo/no posts on Craigslist get flagged within 30 minutes by trolls who apparently just sit on CL to do just that. It bothers me that a production who genuinely can’t afford to pay an art PA or props assistant or 2nd AC can’t offer someone a career-boosting job on CL because they’ll get flagged immediately. I’ve worked on several low budget features with name actors that have gone through Sundance and on almost every one those features, I’ve needed unpaid help and wasn’t able to go through CL. And on 2 of those features, I WAS the unpaid help. And it was just what I needed. I wish the trolls would let people navigate for themselves.

  • MARK GEORGEFF on 06.16.11 @ 10:59PM

    Agree with you on all this on the basis of simply…agreeing.
    In the course of doing this trailer made up of 60 shots, based on my script for some interested investors; it’s pretty much going to be me and my DP and maybe — MAYBE — a few interns / PAs from a local university.
    And I’m doing all the pre pro. work myself on every level.

    Why?

    I don’t have money to pay.
    And I know what it’s like crewing as a gaffer and set carpenter on indie features and even helping out some first time directors who were friends of friends…and didn’t know ANY THING about what they were bragging about doing.

    And they treated all of us free workers like crap.
    And after a few of those — it’s done. Over.
    You truly learn how important it is to pay some one.
    And you also learn, that just because someone has a script and can quote lens brands and sizes;
    doesn’t mean they know anything about directing, let alone doing it. Correctly.

    Rather just do stuff solo for a bit more and prove to these investors that I know what I’m doing.
    Believe me, coming from a screenwriter’s and working crew member’s backgrounds; it’s not going to be tough.

    • I understand where you’re coming from and wanting to do more yourself rather than ask crew to work for free. You learn quickly which jobs smell bad from far away and which are doable. A lot of times it helps if you have a director who used to do crew work and has done a few freebies themselves. They are always much more appreciative and understanding.

  • Same goes for getting actors.

    • Somewhat. I think getting actors for free is a different game because the benefits for them are much more tangible — facetime and a clip for their reel.

      For below the line crew, the grey area of opportunity is a lot larger

  • I agree with most of these points. You can feasibly shoot an indy type film with a skeleton crew and minimal lighting(not taking into account the actors)/guerilla style. If you don’t have any money you will have to do more with less. I came into film production at the dawn of the HDSLR movement from a photo background. I worked on many shoots for free simply cause I needed to learn. I still need to learn more but now i occasionally get paid. I refuse to be treated like shit on a set if I’m gripping/ac’ing ect for free. I have been in the past. Most work goes nowhere special. Pay people and feed them well(feeding them is almost as important as paying them).

    Craigslist ads asking for an experienced DP or Gaffer or sound guy with his or her own equipment to work for free is bullshit.
    I’ve worked on two features that were shot on $1000 per day/10 day shoots. Both were disasters but could have worked. Thats a number that I tell a lot of people for a production. 1-grand per day that can pay a crew get food and a few actors. Stop thinking about getting people to work for free. Just stop. Unless they are unexperienced then pay them. An unexperienced person like me will work for free for a little while then its done.
    How do you expect a sound guy with a $4k rig to work for free.
    Don’t even get me started about actors/…Trust me its better to pay them, get professionals, some times they’re really cheap. If you don’t you will be sorry most times.
    Just pay people. Even if it’s $80/day just pay them. Or get people and let them learn on the job. When you pay them they have to do the job plain and simple!

    • You raise a great point which is that paying somebody forces them to be accountable. When you’re working for free, you can slack off a bit because what’s the worst that happens?

      I think paying someone a little bit a day is better than completely for free. Even gas money is a huge help to those who travel a lot.

  • Thanks for not making this seems a frustrated post out of spite after browsing Craigslist. Amazing restraint though, lol. Great post!

  • Thanks for the wonderful information. But if I may offer one suggestion, please pick an easier color to look at online for the links. It really makes it tough for some of us who are trying to read all the information you spent a lot of time researching.

  • Edward Westerhuis on 07.21.11 @ 9:03PM

    Did Koo ask you to do this post as a freebee?

  • There is something my business partner and I call the favor bank. If you want people to work for free, you need to be on sets working for free too. This allows you to network with people who are just as bootstrap as you and you can see their skills in first person instead of risking some craigslist film school kid.

    The other is to pay them anything. It shows you’re risking something on this project and that you value their contribution. Lunch is not acceptable payment (it’s a basic human need), gas or stipend is highly preferred in this realm.

    Be real with equipment too. If you want to invest in the quality of your film, get some lighting or a grip package. I know I wouldn’t mind busting my butt as a DP if I knew I could walk on-set and light it in a way that’s good for my reel but you’d be hard pressed if some guy offered me the position and said “oh, sorry we don’t have a budget for any rentals, we were going to use available light for our exterior night shoot”. I’m a DP, not a gaffer, I don’t roll with $20k in lighting.

  • Great advice Evan! I have put London, UK crew notices on mandy, starnow, filmcrewpro, shooting people and on my facebook page. Are there any other places I could be placing my London crew notices that I may not know about?

    • Hm.. I’m not sure what the London market uses. It sounds like you’ve hit some major ones though. Facebook is a good platform that I think a lot of people forget about — ask your friends to share your post if they know anyone.

  • Nice article. I’ve been a line producer for a long time, and rarely ask for crew for free, but when there is an unpaid position, I’m always upfront and looking for people for whom it will be a good fit., and often at least offer opportunity to learn EP or Gorilla software, which I will take time to teach them in return for time. In the end, it comes down to respect, and the ad will show whether its about your vanity or whether you respect the people you are asking a favor of.

    • I completely agree. The least you owe somebody working for free is that they get something out of it as well. On the face of it, it seems like an unfair deal, but that person will feel like it was worth it if they take a step in the right direction for their career.

      It’s very admirable that you take the time to make it worthwhile for them. I wish more line producers took that approach.

  • Wow… Finally, an article on how to get and retain crew for free or little money that sees it from the crew person’s point of view. i.e. Why should I spend my time working for you? When I regularly get paid infinitely more to work on more mundane jobs?

    I like the fact that you explained that when this situation arises equal footing must be given to the crew member, and that more allowances need to be made considering the imparting of skill, experience and, potentially, equipment they can give your project. Too many of these kind of articles come across with the line of how to persuade, i.e. con or trick professionals to work on your indie film set. It’s never about this small things, it’s about the idea, whether I (or they) like that idea and can see the scale of opportunities that can arise out of it (not you “telling” us that it is a great opportunity. Every gig is an opportunity), and whether I will benefit from working with the people on set, what will I gain?

    Too many writers/directors/producers are so close to the project that when an outsider, i.e. a professional technician either asks to be reimbursed for costs or declines to work on the film, they either lash out and take it personally or explain, often condescendingly, that this is a form of art and that bringing payment into it is “selling out” (I get that line very often). Yes it is an art form, but it is also a technical endeavour and a business proposition, to miss any of these facets in film-making is to doom your project to failure.

  • Thnks for posting such a helpful article. I shall try out this given tips myself. Im sure it will help.

  • LUIS CENTENO on 06.13.12 @ 10:52AM

    WOW: That was a very good and honest advice. I am trying to do my first project and that by it self is hard, not to mention all the negative people around me. However i’m determent to make my project, so if you know anyone wiling to help me in the CHICAGO area, please e mail me. at luicpd@yahoo.com.

  • Isn’t it illegal to have people work on your feature film without paying them minimum wage, being that the idea of making a film is to sell it/for profit?

  • OMG! I just want to tattoo that article on my forehead! Amen! I have to copy and paste this article. Thanx Evan!

  • I’m a film school student in my third year. I tend to work mostly as G&E and want to move into some more camera work. The bulk of projects I work on are student projects, (or projects with tons of alumni, but independent from the institution) which means no pay. I just had a director and producer message me who are looking for a key grip for a short independent experimental project.

    After a first meeting, the project seems legit, the other crew seem highly professional, budget looks good. However, the only thing I’m worried about is that the producer asked me to send him a reel. (He has my resume, and I have a stellar reference letter coming.) I’m just a little confused why they need to a reel from their potential key grip. I don’t have a key grip reel showing off some awesome rigging I did. And a gaffing reel isn’t a “real thing…” Since I have little camera work under my belt, I feel my reel would look pretty poor.

    Do I send it anyway or do I ask the producer why he wants to see a reel from his key grip? Is this standard business practice that I’m just not use to having mostly only worked on student projects? Or is this just a producer making an odd request?

  • Hi,
    I’m a newbie, just getting into all of this so am finding this site and your guide invaluable! Thank you!

    Question: Since I’m just getting into this, what’s the best way to find out exactly what different crew members do (dp, focus puller or A.d., sound recordist) technically during a shoot before I jump into the fray (ie, try and find work being as production assistant on a project.)

    Thanks!

  • I got two movie scripts I wrote that I want to start working on but I need a pro bono film crew

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