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The Secret to Success on Your First Film Job

12.27.11 @ 1:28PM Tags : , , , ,

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

You step on set for the first time ever on day one of a shoot and you’re ready to impress everyone. You’ve worked hard to get to this point and it feels like now — finally — you’re where you want to be. From here on out, it should be easy.

Well, if that were the case, we’d have a lot more people working in the film industry. Instead, there’s no doubt about it: it’s tough to make a living in Hollywood.

Getting on set is just the first step in a long process. In the beginning, you need to “wow” those who gave you your opportunity in the first place.

Lucky for you, I’ve got a secret to help and it’s bound to make your first day a better one. But before I reveal it to you, let me tell you a story.

“This is My First Movie, What Should I Expect?”

I distinctly remember the first time I ever stepped onto a film set. It was a low-budget feature film shooting on location deep in the woods of Leesburg, Virginia.

As I drove my car along the narrow one-lane roads of the countryside, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, what would be asked of me, and frankly, I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it all.

Still, I pressed the gas pedal a little harder to make sure I wasn’t late. Eventually the roads became narrower and the pavement gave way to gravel.

Finally, after a 40 minute drive, I reached the entry-way to an old wooden house — the main location of the 20 day shoot — put my car in park, and got out.

I was the only one there.

It was a camera prep day, so there was no immediacy to the situation, but I felt an eerie sense of fear — like I had made the wrong choice.

That’s when Marshall turned up.

But he wasn’t working on the movie, just dropping off the equipment: a RED One, a set of Zeiss SuperSpeed Primes, and a few cases full of accessories.

We talked for a few minutes and when our conversation reached a lull, I asked him for advice, “So this is my first movie, what should I expect?”

He laughed. But not just a chuckle. He laughed in a way that made me feel dumb for even asking.

“On a low-budget feature horror film?” He gave a wry smile. “People will become friends, people will fight, then they’ll become friends again by the end.” Then he took a moment to pause and finish his thought, “At least, that’s the idea.”

He seemed to relish imparting this ominous message to me and could tell I truly had no sense of what was to come over the next month. It was, after all, my first real shoot and I was a camera production assistant — an entry-level newbie with no experience behind a lens.

And that’s what I was to Marshall, which is probably why he laughed. I was a wide-eyed camera P.A. about to embark on a low budget, month long shoot that he knew was going to be grueling. He probably thought I would get fired or lose my mind and quit.

As he drove away and the other crew showed up, I couldn’t shake that feeling — that Marshall didn’t believe I was cut out for the job. It’s part of the reason I remember this day so vividly.

So what does this have to do with your first film job?

Well, everything.

That feeling, coupled with experiences further on in my career, gave me insight to a valuable lesson I hadn’t yet realized that day.

Do This and You’ll Find Yourself On More Sets


So now that I’ve teased you long enough, what’s the dirty little secret? Well, not many of my peers in the film industry would care to admit it, but…

The expectations for a newbie on a film set are low. Very low. Surprisingly low.

Why? Because crew have seen so many first-timers step on set who can’t hack it. For a variety of reasons, they simply don’t meet the standards the rest of the crew have. And after dozens of encounters like that, crew don’t stay optimistic.

That’s why Marshall was so pessimistic when I asked him for advice and why he looked at me in a way that said, “Good luck, kid, you’re gonna need it!”

But that doesn’t mean crew won’t give you the benefit of the doubt — in fact, they want you to kick ass. It makes their job so much easier to have a P.A. to rely on or another grip they can trust.

You only have to work a little bit harder than the other newbies a crew has worked with to impress them.

You want to be successful in the film industry.

You want to prove to everyone you’ve got what it takes.

You want to make contacts who will hire you in the future.

But are you willing to put in the extra effort to get what you want?

Before you stepped on set with the professionals, there were dozens just like you who came and went. I bet most of the crew didn’t even bother to keep in touch with them. It’s not that they weren’t nice people, or that they weren’t capable of the job, it’s that they didn’t approach it in the right way.

The real secret is you can’t be satisfied with the job you’re doing.

That’s the key to your success – always ask what can be done and what you can do. Where people often fall flat on their first film jobs is by sitting around waiting to be told what to do.

The minute something has been taught to you is the minute some responsibility has been transferred to you. You only get one chance to learn something on a film set, maybe twice if it’s complicated. After that, it’s up to you to make sure it’s done right.

Crew are surprisingly forgiving on certain tasks, but they do expect — and notice — when there is marked improvement.

But the reason their expectations are so damn low for newbies is because so many show up, do what they’re told, and then wait to do what they’re told next.

Take the initiative and prove you’re worth working with again.

Rise Above Expectations If You Want Success

Establishing a career in the film industry requires a high level of perseverance while combating severely low expectations.

When you finally land that first gig, don’t blow it by being a lazy, complaining greenhorn. Shove your foot in the door willing to bust your ass as hard as possible.

I never did see Marshall again after that first encounter, but I’d love a chance to talk to him today about how I beat the odds and how hard I had worked on that first shoot to overcome the obstacles thrown my way.

You only get one chance at your first job and, if you execute it correctly, you can start the domino effect that leads to more jobs and more contacts.

That’s a lot of pressure, I know, but rest easy knowing that many have come before you and failed simply by not trying hard enough. If you’re willing to go one step further than them, you’ve got a real chance at becoming a solid crew member — just don’t tell anyone I told you, OK?


This guest post is from Evan Luzi, a camera assistant who runs The Black and Blue. Grab his free 145 page eBook, “Becoming the Reel Deal,” for tips on launching your film career and getting your first film job today.

[photo by Koji Minamoto]

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COMMENT POLICY

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  • This all rings true – I came in to my first “proper” paid gig a couple of years ago at the very bottom of the ladder (locations department), working above and beyond what was expected of me. After 9 months of gruelling work (and endless hours stuck on the M25 around London) I have now worked on some of the biggest films around and have a couple of teams I regularly work with.
    It does seem strange now when I am given a group of newbies on set that are my responsibility. I can usually tell straight away who’s eager and who isn’t. The worst kind of runner (aside from the 1st AD’s brother-in-law’s nephew) is what I like to call the Misunderstood Genius: that person will stand around doing nothing, and will then deem the tasks that are handed to him/her to be beneath his worth.

    • Haha! I love the Misunderstood Genius term — I’m gonna start using that myself.

      There is a tendency to judge newbies straight away and it’s important to resist that urge and give the benefit of the doubt. Though, most of the time, your intuition turns out to be right.

    • I admit that I was once a Misunderstood Genius.

      • Acceptance is the first step towards change :)

      • Misunderstood Genius – excellent. I can see it becoming a catchphrase, a phenomenon of sorts.

        Although in Koo’s case “Misunderstood Genius” was probably stripped of it’s sarcasm… it was, more than likely, a phrase that carried literal significance.

        • Hah, nope! In my case I was just a Terrible PA.

          But it was many years ago and it was a learning experience that led me to realize I didn’t want to climb the production latter… not that way, at least.

  • John Jeffreys on 12.28.11 @ 3:47AM

    Keep in mind that is not necessary to “climb the ladder” by being an assistant and so on, instead just make films and films and films every month and become more and more recognized as your work matures. They will start out very amateur but trust me you will learn very, very fast.

    • Definitely. There are many paths into the industry, including the “just do it” method.

    • I would argue also that while things are changing because of the web, the experience and expertise learned while climbing the ladder on real sets, where you are not the boss, are vital to being a good boss later on when you are in charge of other people. Being a good leader means you were once a good student.

      Don’t underestimate the power of the dark si… *ahem* I mean… the ladder.

      • I currently work as a corporate video producer and when I started the job I thought I knew it all, I got my ass handed to me and have been learning my ass off since. I call this a great paid “internship,” I am always learning new stuff.

  • Study/read widely; work on as many things as you can; always be polite; get stuck in…

    That was pretty much my route into the business (9 years ago, or thereabouts), and most of it is still relevant for me now. I might not work on anything and everything any more, but back then it was the best way to learn – even the rubbish projects teach you a lot. After working for a year or so (learning on the job and doing odd bits of freelancing work here and there) I got picked for my first proper industry job as the assistant editor on a massive documentary project. I was picked because I’d got known through the other projects, was keen, got stuck in and kept trying to learn more. During the course of that project I let the director know I had a bit of experience with a camera too, and ended up as B-camera – shooting cutaways, extra coverage and several of the interviews. I wasn’t the best available and I certainly wasn’t the most experienced – but I was reliable, enthusiastic, etc. etc…

    I’d agree that it is possible to completely circumvent the ‘ladder’ route (though those that successfully manage this are still a rarity) but it’s not always of benefit to do so – a thorough grounding in the working of one (or more) departments is immensely valuable in itself and can’t really be gained without putting in the hours. It’s also incredibly interesting to really get stuck in to the work of a particular department, learning the lingo, the nature of the work and so on.

    Of course, this often isn’t as attractive as going straight to the top of the pile, and because of that pretty much every company I know suffers the ‘lazy/disinterested runner’ curse – some more regularly than others. When someone with a bit of intelligence and a proper work-ethic comes along they’re seen as a blessing and they tend to rise up the ranks very quickly – they don’t even have to be great at what they do (that can come later) it’s just a relief that they’re useful!

  • Yea, this is going to apply to me soon. I’ll be moving out from Alabama to to Cali or New York for work.

  • The most annoying thing for a DP/cameraman/director/etc. is an assistant who is not paying attention. There’s these guys who seem really enthusiastic about being an assistant at first, but every time you turn around in need of some help, your assistant is chatting with a cute girl, having a smoke with the actors or doing something else except paying attention to what needs to be done.

    Then there’s also a lot of wanna-bes who think they are really excited about all the film work, but after like 4-6 hours their excitement is pretty much gone and they just don’t get that you need to work hard continuously on a film set.

    I don’t even have much experience with bigger film sets, just small indie productions – but I work in television and it’s the same thing there with the assistants. It’s harder to get a good assistant than you’d imagine… :)

  • David Dearlove on 01.21.12 @ 2:06PM

    Thank you for this post.

    I’ve been working for 2 years free lance in the film industry and haven’t had my break yet, though the work is regular, I’m still working for free and not complaining. I’m keeping my head down and busting my ass until it falls off.
    I came close to giving in late december then I found this article and my passion once again.

    This is one of the hardest industries to get into, however it’s one of the most virtuous and rewarding and you’ve really, REALLY inspired me to keep on going and to not EVER give up.

    I want to eventually fit the bill of a cinematographer, and I’m getting there. Slowly, but surely.

    Thank you.

    I cannot express that enough.

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