If you want it done right…

I recently 1st ACd a pilot for MTV that at its best was… Organized chaos. The rest of the time, well, don’t ask. 15-minutes scheduled for load-out the first day, 7 cameras (2 F800s, 2 EX3s, 3 go pros) and no prep day scheduled? Sure, I took a day to get into the gear room (ok, didnt even have a gear room until 8PM the night before we started filming, so it was a LONG night of cam prep, and they paid me for it later, but if I hadn’t demanded access…. Whooeee, it coulda been fun!) but that really set the tone for how things would be organized.

So, seeing a storm coming, I took every pre-emotive step possible. Production will be a mess, but cameras will be ready right out the gate at every location, charging stations set, and everything I can do to make sure it’s never my department holding us back will be done.

My 2nd AC was less helpful. In retrospect, even though he was a friends of someone higher up, I should have demanded a replacement. I’m not sure that I’d have gotten one, but sometimes it happens. He was more prone to be across the parking lot hanging out in the van with the PAs and spare crafty (what were PAs doing there?! No idea!) than anywhere near set.

One day in particular, showed me that if you want something done right, you need to do it yourself. It was a long day – we were into OT, and still had another scene to go. The producers decided to take the 2 EX3s and go shoot something themselves. The 2nd AC was to help them prep cameras, then send them on their way. Producers would tear down in the morning after leaving a camera rolling overnight. 2nd AC would help them, then meet all of us at the next day’s location 2 1/2 hours away, in another state. Recipe for disaster much?

After it was all said and done, I copied over media at the end of that 2nd day, and there was nothing from one card. The one that ran overnight. I was the media manager, with a fool-proof system, because you need one when you’re offloading, in OT, at the end of a long, grueling day. All cards, shot or not (and it was hard to tell the difference, as I couldn’t get the 2nd AC to label them *or* turn on write-protection. I was just handed a handful of cards and a couple of cameras) went on the table by the computer. Offload, file size verification, visual verification with EX Clip Browser, comparing the card to the 2 drives. Then pull the card, walk it over the the camera, re-visually verify that the media on it is the same as on the drives, format, pack it away for tomorrow. Start the next card. 8 cards, 8 times through the process, one at a time. Somehow, no media from one camera from the overnight.

Where did things get messed up? Was it the AC? Did he format somewhere along the way? Was it the producers who were shooting? I’m not sure, but every single time that I’ve allowed cameras out without operators or at the very least a competent AC, I’ve seen there be problems. Missing footage, out of focus footage, shaky footage, broken gear… The works. There’s never any explanation, and no one ever takes credit, but it happens every time.

There’s nothing worse than the “where’s that media?” call, especially when you weren’t allowed to be there every step of the way to make sure there would be media. I knew once I was done offloading that we had a problem, and informed them, but by that time it was just too late. Next time, I’d gladly skip sleep to make sure things happen the right way. Let me do my job and make sure you’ve got your footage. I know you don’t like making people work on a short turnaround, but I don’t like when cameras that are out of my hands wind up having issues.

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It’s the little things

As an AC, there are quite a few job-specific tools that I know I need to bring daily. Lens tissues, canned air, gaffers tape, a stubby screwdriver, and a whole lot more. It’s just part of the job.

You know what people really love me for? All the extra little things. Ibuprofen comes in handy all the time. Gum? Yeah, everyone wants a piece after lunch. A power strip for the producers, a cube tap or two to lend to audio or hair and makeup, and a couple of kinds of phone chargers for use by all. A card reader (oh, you have no idea how many times there has been a still camera on set but no reader… Except mine), some snack food to share, and more. All of these are things that it’s not my job to bring, but that make a huge difference for the people around me.

I don’t know for sure that they’re why I get called back, but the producers love them, the rest of the crew appreciate the extra little bits, and they come along everywhere I go. I’m always on the lookout for ways to make life easier so I can get out and make TV and Films happen!

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Bring everything everywhere.

Have you ever left your wallet behind when you’ve gone out shopping? Or the frisbee when you head to the park? Why in the world would you leave any tools behind when you go to work?

In my time as a shooter, editor, DIT and AC, I’ve accumulated a whole bunch of stuff. When I step out of my truck, I’ve got a small tape roll with a few common kinds of tape (black 2″ gaff and paper, white 1″ gaff, and one to mark shot rolls), a pouch with a thousand things in it, from c47s to lens tissue to BNC connectors and bongo ties, and that’s just the beginning. I also carry a backpack with #1s and #2s, cube taps, a couple stingers, gloves, munchies, a clipboard, and space for tapes, batteries, and more. Then I have a large toolbag full of grip gear and miscellaneous other gear. I’ve got a thousand other bits and pieces that are stuck away in one place or another… Or some things more. As an AC, I never need to bring my audio gear or gels… But on several occasions I’ve been super glad that I had some scraps of a few colors, and moleskin or 9V batts for the audio guys.

So many times I hear from other people that “Well, I’ve got a (insert what we need here) at home… But what good does that do us? Sure, I haul a lot all over, and decide what to leave in the truck some days or just how much to carry for a run-and-gun ENG day, but if I’ve got it, I try to have it along, and it all comes in handy when it’s along with me way more often than it would if it were at home. And while I like making money at this, as do all of us, I love working in film and TV. That love is at more important than the couple of bucks i spend on the gear that I bring along.

If you’ve got it, bring it, or it doesn’t do anyone any good.

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Staying Focused

There are days as a Camera Assistant that everything is crazy, you’re running everywhere, and every time a producer changes their mind you take off again. There is never a down moment, from running batteries, tapes, sticks, and lights, to making sure chargers are up and running, tomorrow’s specialty gear is ordered, and explaining to the PAs what a “stinger” is. Those days, there is a lot to concentrate on, and as long as you’re in shape and your mind is in the game, you’ll probably get through alight.

You know what’s hard? Interview days. I’ve seen ACs label tapes, hand them off to the operator, and walk away for the next 4 hours until lunch. Who’s watching the Op’s back? Who’s making sure you don’t need to swap out .9ND for the .3 on the windows when the sun comes out?

When you commit to a job, it should be a commitment to be there, rested (or as much as you can be in production), and ready to be focused. The whole time. Sure, text the Coordinator for tomorrow’s job to make sure things are set. Take a quick stop by crafty. But the rest of the time, stay where you belong – with camera, focused on making sure you’re getting the shot. Just because its not moving doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there making sure everything is still perfect.

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Making the move

On making the move…

I recently worked a job for VH1 for a new series, tentatively titled The Grand River Singers Project. Right before it started, the lease ended where I was staying, so I didn’t have a place to call home in Madison after the 7-week shoot ended. One of the shooters from the show convinced me to move to Atlanta, after taking a month to wrap up projects back home.

Within 3 days of arriving, I was working for Real Housewives of Atlanta, and within 3 weeks was busy on multiple shows.

Why was my move so successful? And would it have been if I had tried to move earlier in my career?

Some of the factors were the same as the ones that let me make the transition to freelance. Being hardworking and knowledgable about my craft really make it easier to find work.

I don’t think that making this move earlier would have been possible. I didnt have any major credits as an AC prior to GRS, and while I had experience ACing, every market has different needs and expectations, and I didn’t know what they would be in Atlanta.

After this show, unlike Battleground, I had contacts who I knew would bend over backward for me. One person in particular called up several of his connections, who, trusting his word, and not having even met me, connected me to production companies all around Atlanta, and those are the ones that I’m working for so far.

What if I hadn’t made these connections?

Well, I sent somewhere around 50-80 emails, phone calls, texts, Facebook messages, and the like to different people who I thought may have connections in Atlanta. Not a single one had anything that helped me out – and that’s not their fault, it’s not them that do the hiring! It was really one person who connected me to the local community. Without him, I’d have arrived, searched, searched, and searched for work, but who knows if I’d have found anything.

So the major factors, the reasons I’ve been able to be successful, have been experience, and the right level of experience, and connections. I didnt have the right kinds of experience previously, but I was unlikely to get any more in the Milwaukee area. There aren’t many ACs there, and there isn’t really need for any more. I worked short films, sure (and a lot of them!), but there was no real work as an AC. Moving was my only option, so I put myself to being the best AC possible, and to finding the connections and area that would be best. I’m not sure that New York or LA would have worked for me. I know people in both, but there isn’t a lack of ACs there like there is here, and with a word of mouth industry like this, having people who can spread your name is key.

Since arriving, I’ve gotten quite a bit of work from people who I’ve worked with, and I’ve even had offers for full seasons instead of just day playing. Being heads-up, respectful, and knowing what you’re doing pays off – connections are worthless if you’re not great at your trade!

So what advise would I give to someone who is young, working in a smaller market, and thinking about moving?

1: Work everything you can! You may not have, say, reality AC experience, but if you’ve done Doc, Film, TV, Pilots, etc, *and* have shooting experience, *and* know how to do DIT work, *and* have a couple other skills, as soon as you work with someone, they’ll see ways that every single one of those skills, which weren’t what you were hired for, are coming in handy, and they’ll keep hiring you back.

2: Make connections before you try to move. Want work? Find people who know how to find work.

3: Stay positive! Believe me, being positive will make all the difference, whether you’re looking for work, or are on set and things are getting a bit crazy.

4: Get ready for a wild ride! You’ll have the time of your life, you’ll have some down times, you’ll fake knowing what you’re doing, you’ll stay up all night researching how to do something that, looking back, will look silly, and hopefully, if all goes well, you’ll quickly be too busy to worry about anything past the current shoot.

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