Do Foreigners Have To Start Over?

Raúl writes in:

I’m an immigrant with a background in film production (TV Commercials). I worked in the films department of a leading advertizing agency for five years before going on to become a producer for a TV Commercial production company.

So here I am in Los Angeles, looking for jobs. My question to you is: should I be looking for / applying to entry level jobs or can I hope for something better – the kind of job that would take my previous work experience into account?

I don’t mean to skip any rungs on the ladder here. I just want to know where I might stand in terms of job prospects. What should my expectations be?

I don’t see why this would be any different than moving from New York or Atlanta. Every region has their own idiosyncrasies, to be sure, but honestly, every set does, too.

Were I in your position, I wouldn’t necessarily play up the fact that all my experience was outside of the US. That might give some potential employers pause. But it’s safe to say you probably have skills most other candidates don’t have, like speaking a second language.

Everyone has to start at the bottom,1 but Raúl already has. He’s paid his dues. As long as you present yourself in the best possible light, there’s no reason to pay them again.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Well, almost everyone. Sigh.
Posted in On the Job, The Industry | Leave a comment

What’s a Green Bed?

A few weeks ago, I mentioned “green beds” in passing, and Jess commented:

Okay, I’m stumped. What’s a greenbed?

I checked with Hollywood Juicer Michael, and apparently I’ve been using the wrong term for, like, eight years.

“Perms” are the permanent walkways built into the soundstage itself. They’re not really use for production so much, although you’ll often find cable run up there on permanent sets. These are what I meant when I referred to my alma mater’s green beds.

Green beds are, in fact, walkways hung from the perms, around the set. It’s so the grips and electrics can get around easily adjust lights and flags easily, without having to be on the floor. This is especially helpful on a mutli-cam set, where you don’t want to distract the audience while you’re working.

Nowadays, green beds are uncommon. Lights are hung from pipe grids, which are exactly what they sound like. This forces G&E to drive around in a man-lift, raise up to the correct level, adjust the light or flag, drop down, then drive to the next light or flag. It’s tedious and slow.

Green beds are more expensive than pipe grids, but man-hours are the most expensive thing in any production. It seems to me, the shows are being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Now, why are these walkways called “green beds?” I have no idea. I think they used to be painted green for some reason? Whatever. None of the terms in this business make any damn sense.

Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What A New PA Needs

Film school is done and the new TV season is upon us, so a lot of recent graduates are writing me emails about what they need to have on set or in the office.

Truth is, there’s not a lot that PAs need which the production doesn’t just provide. Especially if you’re an office PA, you’ll probably be ordering the office supplies anyway. That’s how I always get my favorite pens.

But it’s a good idea to come to set prepared. Occasionally you’re on a shoot that literally has no money– a student film, your friends’ short, or just a shitty, unprofessional movie. That happens more than I’d like.

So, here’s a few things that you might want to have, as a PA:

  1. Always have at least two pens on your person– one for you, one for the producer who will borrow it and never return it. I like to get them in assorted colors, but definitely make sure those colors include blue or black.
  2. Sharpies. It’s hard to overstate the myriad uses you’ll have for sharpies. Personally, I like the twin tip Sharpies, because they cover both 1 and 2.
  3. A notebook is always handy. It’s how I make sure not to forget key information, and it’s also a to-do list. Now, you might think, “I have a cell phone that can store an infinite amount of notes. Why would I write on paper? Might as well use a hammer and chisel.” The thing is, pulling out your phone on set is poor form. The person you’re talking to may know you’re jotting down the lunch order, but the producer on the other side of the stage just sees another lazy millennial checking Friendster (because this fictional producer also thinks Friendster is a thing).
  4. Even as an office PA, I find a multitool comes in handy pretty much every day. You’ll definitely want to have one if you’re a set PA. They range greatly in price and quality, so shop around a little bit before committing to one.
  5. Speaking of set PAs, you’re going to need a place to keep all this stuff. A lot of people wear belt pouchs to hold their stuff. Or, you could be like me, and wear cargo shorts with big ol’ pockets.
  6. You definitely need a really, really bright flashlight. Not just for night shoots; sound stages are surprisingly dark outside of the set itself.
  7. I also recommend surveillance mics for set PAs. The production doesn’t always provide them (since Burger King headsets are cheaper), but even if they do, I don’t trust those earpieces are clean. Ew. Just… ew.
  8. Another set PA item– work gloves. You shouldn’t be pulling cable or moving set pieces on a union show, but you’ll still be getting your hands dirty and ripped up on occasion.
  9. People often forget to wear a hat and sunscreen when they’re on location. Remember, you can get a sunburn even on a cloudy day.
  10. A copy of Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet. C’mon, you don’t want to be a PA forever, do you?

These are just the basics. Leave suggestions in the comments section for anything I forgot to mention!

Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Managing Background Actors

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have heard some of my frustrations with background actors on a small shoot I was helping out on.

First of all, bear in mind that I definitely did not say any of these things on set. That would be even less professional than the extras1 I was complaining about. Besides, no one likes a complainer.

More importantly, saying “You suck. Try not to suck so much next time.” isn’t a very good management strategy.

And make no mistake, when you’re the background PA, you’ve suddenly gone from the bottom rung of the totem pole to the second-to-bottom rung. You’re not necessarily making the creative decision of where the extras should or shouldn’t be. The AD or director2 will most likely make that call, depending on just how important they are to the scene.

But often a PA will cue specific background at specific points, if the scene calls for it. (This is a situational thing. If the shot is MOS, the AD will most likely call it out herself; if the leads are having an important scene and an extra needs to cross in the background on a certain line, there’s probably a PA just off camera cuing him.)

Your job is more than just on set, though. You have to shuttle them to and from extras’ holding, catering, possibly wardrobe. It can be surprisingly tricky, especially when dealing with a crowd of dozens or hundreds.

The vast majority of extras on a big show will be totally professional, but there’s a rotten apple in every bunch. Some idiot who wanders off, doesn’t pay attention to your instructions, steals stuff.

Losing your cool will not help in those situations. Just like you don’t enjoy being yelled at by the UPM when the other PA is late with lunch, don’t tar the entirety of the background with the brush reserved for that one asshole.

Be as clear and friendly as you can, with the group and individuals. Give them whatever information you’re allowed (everyone wants to know when lunch is), make sure they’re comfortable, give them a heads’ up when you’re about to bring them to set.

When somebody does give you trouble, be calm and rational. If they still cause problems, well… you don’t get paid enough for this shit. Bump it up to the 2nd (or 2nd 2nd) AD. They can decide whether to send someone home, reprimand them, or give Central Casting a call to never let this particular extra come back on your set.

Also, try to look at it from the background actors’ point of view. You’re a PA, still wet behind the ears. You’re under 30, you’re still excited to be on set. Many extras have been doing this for decades; this is their career. They’ve seen and done it all, and you’re not going to surprise them.

So, don’t act like a know-it-all. You know this shoot, right now. Don’t talk down to them. In fact, you could probably learn a thing or two from the background vets.

Except for the asshole who tries to talk a selfie with the lead actress. Fuck that guy.

[[1]]That link is an older (original?) TAPA complaining about using the term “extra” rather than “background actor.” While I sympathize with the point in theory, 16 characters is too much to type over and over in a post about extras.[[1]

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Fun fact: the director is not actually allowed to direct background… directly. If she does, they become “actors,” with the commensurate pay bump. Nobody wants to pay for that.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Is Multicam?

Last week, I answered a question about film school that contained within it a big error–

Is there much overlap in the skills and techniques used in multiple camera television productions and those used in single camera television productions? I am wondering if the skills taught in these classes, as well as experience working on multiple camera productions such as reality shows, would be transferable to working on single camera scripted dramas, or whether they are just too different?

Despite what the name implies, “multicam” doesn’t mean “more than one camera.” And “single cam” doesn’t mean “only one camera.”

Almost all television series (and most movies) shoot with more than one camera. It’s just more efficient. If you’ve gotta shoot 8 pages a day, you’re going to need as much coverage as you can get. This is doubly true of non-fiction, whether you’re talking about Oscar nominated documentaries or low-rent reality shows.

But none of those are “multi-camera shows.”

Fifty years ago, most movies and television dramas were shot with a single camera. These were distinct from sitcoms, which were shot with multiple cameras. That’s the etymology of the term, but it’s not the only distinguishing feature of these types of shows.

The main thing is, multicamera shows were (and are) filmed (almost) entirely on a single sound stage, in front of a live studio audience. It’s more like a play than a film set. The director has to block the actors and cameras in such a way that entire scenes can play out in their entirety, entertaining both the audience present in the room, and the TV audience watching from home.

The production cycle is incredibly different, as well. On a single camera show (drama or comedy), the crew is filming pretty much continuously, day in, day out, all season long. On a multicam, four days are spent rehearsing, blocking, re-writing, and re-rehearsing every scene. It’s only on the fifth day1 that cameras actually roll.2

Some old-timers might refer to multi-camera shows as “three camera series;” that’s because, you’ll be surprised to learn, these shows used to be filmed with three cameras. Nowadays, it’s usually for. The cameras are labeled, naturally, A, B, C, and X.3

In short, just because you see a two-camera setup, doesn’t mean you’re on a multi-camera show.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. With some pre-shooting on day four, if there’s anything that’s technically tricky to film in front of an audience.
  2. Another anachronistic term; nothing is actually rolling in modern cameras.
  3. “D” and “B” sound too similar over the walkie.
Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

What Classes Should I Take?

Natasha writes in:

I’ve been enjoying your blog and I wondered if I could ask you for some advice. I am an aspiring writer living in LA, ideally hoping to write for hour long television dramas. I am currently considering taking classes in television production. I figured it would be a good idea to learn about the production side of things as this would give me some more options (like writing and shooting my own projects, or pursuing production assistant jobs). Also I’m sure a better understanding of the production side would help me to write more effectively for television, especially in the future if I was ever to become a showrunner.

I’ve been looking into the Television Production Certificate at Los Angeles City College. Apparently the classes are mainly focused on multiple camera studio productions. Since I’m really interested in working on single camera television dramas, I’m not sure how relevant this course would be. Is there much overlap in the skills and techniques used in multiple camera television productions and those used in single camera television productions? I am wondering if the skills taught in these classes, as well as experience working on multiple camera productions such as reality shows, would be transferable to working on single camera scripted dramas, or whether they are just too different?

There are plenty of skills that carry over from multicamera to single camera productions. You just won’t learn any of these skills in the classroom.

A lot of parents teach their children how to read and do math well before they’re in kindergarten. The first couple years of school are more-or-less refresher courses for these kids. So why send them to school at all? Socialization.

Twelve years later, you’re once again in the same boat. College, or at least film school, isn’t about learning skills. It’s about about getting out of your parents’ house, meeting people your own age, drinking all night and suddenly realizing you have a paper due in the morning. It’s about learning how to fulfill your responsibilities even though nobody honestly cares if you succeed or fail.

Whatever minimal production skills you learn will be eclipsed by your first day on set. So don’t worry about what classes you’ll take; worry about networking and landing internships and being your own person.

Also, you’re way too youn to worry about where your career will take you. Maybe you’ll like multicam, maybe you’ll hate it, but you’ll have no idea until you do it.

So why not try it?

Posted in The Industry | Tagged | 2 Comments

You’ll Never Get It Right

A long Twitter exchange last week reminded me of a great, probably apocryphal story1

A famous director was being driven home from Paramount after a long day’s shooting. As they inched along Melrose, the director pointed at a burger joint on the corner and said, “I hate that place.”

I mean, I doubt a vegetarian would find much there, but still...

It doesn’t look that bad.

The driver asked why. The director said, “It’s when we drive past that I suddenly figure out how I should’ve shot today’s scenes.”

Like many of you, I write and direct short films on the side. For me, it usually takes about three months to figure out what I did wrong on set. I’m not sure whether it’s heartening or disheartening to know that, even when you make it to the big leagues, you’ll still not have any idea what you’re doing.

But there is a takeaway from this for everybody, from the lowliest PA to the biggest producer– don’t stop reflecting on the work you did. You might not be able to correct that day’s mistakes, but you can be sure not to make them tomorrow.

Tomorrow, you’ll make all new mistakes!

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. I think I read about it in Sidney Lumet’s fantastic Making Movies, but I’m not sure.
Posted in The Industry | Tagged | 2 Comments

Keep Copies of Everything

Andi followed up on yesterday’s post:

Total bummer though about the mileage. I’ll definitely be claiming it on my taxes however. Should I still keep tracking my mileage on a mileage form in case I’m audited?

Absolutely! In fact, make copies of everything you fill out around the office– mileage reports, petty cash receipts, petty cash envelopes, time cards, start work, call sheets, production reports, everything.

You never know if, when, or why you’ll need this stuff. It’s good to have on hand.

Technically, the show will keep a copy of everything, too, but a fat lot of good that will do you if it’s cancelled in May (RIP my show), and you’re trying to do your taxes the following April.

Also, eeeeevery once in a while, you’ll get a paycheck that’s a little light. If you think you got short-changed, are you going to trust the time card in the accounting office, or the copy you made immediately after filling it out?

Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Are You Getting Mileage?

Andi writes in:

I’m an Office PA working on a low budget feature film in LA. I’ve typically worked on bigger features that have their own rented production vehicles for me to drive.

Must be nice. I’ve worked on massive budget television series, and always had to drive my own car. Film has a different way of doing things than TV.

Due to the nature of this film, they want me to drive my own car for runs, which was fine until they told me that they would not pay for my mileage, only gas receipt reimbursements. My question is, is it legal for them to deny me mileage reimbursement if I’m using my own vehicle for job-related tasks?

I’ve racked up over 200 miles in the 7 days I’ve worked on this show, and if they are legally obligated to pay me that 57.5 cents per mile, I definitely want that.

I was surprised to learn that no, your employer does not have to pay you mileage, or even reimburse gas. Almost everybody does, because, come on, what kind of asshole doesn’t pay mileage?

Well, the assholes Andi works for, obviously.

This is why you should always check, before accepting a job, if they’ll be paying mileage. At the rates PAs get paid, your miles can be a significant portion of your paycheck.

Besides the fact that everyone fudges the reporting on their mileage sheet, mileage is not taxable. That’s because it’s a business expense, and technically, they’re just reimbursing you.

Which is why they don’t have to pay it. If they don’t, you can write it off on your taxes. In fact, if they pay less than the IRS rate of 57.5 cents/mile, you can calculate the difference and write that off, even though you got paid something.

Don’t forget to copy your mileage forms every week before you turn them in!

Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Be Personable, Not a “Personality”

Genevieve commented on Tuesday’s post about cover letters:

I can’t tell you how many resumes I get that have an overly familiar, joking type of “cover letter” where the writer tries to be witty. Things like “Coming soon to a set near you!” and the entire cover letter is themed like that. I had one submitted like a script where they wrote out how their job interview would go.

They go straight into the trash.

Oh, God, I hope none of my readers took that from my post. Let me be clear: a cover letter is not the time to try out your open mic material.

It’s nice you have a sense of humor, but we need to know you’re serious about a job first.

The best submissions have the position listed in the subject line, a cover letter that introduces the person with a bit of background (that applies to the position!) and has a resume attached. I tend to keep those ones on file for future productions too.

This is exactly correct. Your cover “letter” is the body of your email.1 It should be direct, to the point, and tailored to the specific job you’re applying to. If you do those things, your cover letter can’t help but reflect your personality. It’ll demonstrate what you think is important.

Don’t try to be cute, or “entertaining.” Be yourself, and you’ll get the job.

Unless you’re an asshole. Try not to be such an asshole, next time.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Unless otherwise specified.
Posted in Finding a Job | 1 Comment