Five minutes with ...
How do you get a foothold in your chosen sector? Here, members of BECTU give their views on how to get ahead.
Peter Cox, freelance documentary film editor
Welcome to five minutes with me, Peter Cox. I am a freelance documentary film editor and a long-standing member of BECTU; currently I chair the London Production Division (LPD).
Members of LPD work in the independent sector of the film and TV industry in the greater London area. Most work freelance but a minority have staff jobs in facility or production companies. If you are a new member in any of these categories the following is my welcoming advice for you to heed or ignore as you wish.
Firstly, take the work very seriously. Craft pride is very strong in this industry. You have to be fully committed to your chosen speciality, and to respect the knowledge and experience of existing practitioners before you can expect to earn theirs in return. Think long-term; it can take years to progress to the top.
Equal first, don’t allow your dedication and enthusiasm to be exploited. It takes a long time to build a good reputation but a short time to lose it. Don’t work for nothing unless it’s on your own personal project or one that you and your collaborators genuinely believe in (and in that eventuality, if you do need to hire someone, pay them). Keep away from the online slave-labour markets that masquerade as champions of the independent film industry. Any promise that your free labour for a director will be rewarded when he or she hits the big time is unlikely to be kept. If the project is a success they will get the credit and move up to the A-list. You, however, will remain on the Z-list. A-list people only work with other A-list people. Think about it; it isn’t rocket science. (See Your Industry > Film).
Maintain a wide client base
If you are freelance, try to build and maintain as wide a client base as possible. This is very important for your long-term work prospects even though it may not be obvious in the short term as it’s also important for your reputation to be seen to be getting repeat work from the same client/employer. The danger lies in turning away too much other work in favour of that one client. Your name and reputation can become linked to that one client and a dependency can develop. This has obvious dangers if anything happens to the relationship. Be a bit hard-nosed; always remember they don’t own you after the contract ends (this is one advantage you have over “permanent” staff).
Last but not least, make full use of your BECTU membership. There is a comprehensive range of services available to you (see the site's Your Rights section) which represents excellent value for your subscription. It is also a members’ democratic participatory organisation. It is there for you to participate in its democratic life and to change things. You will always be welcomed at your branch meetings, at the LPD social/networking evenings and at our AMF (Annual Members’ Forum).
I have a high standard of creative practice with 14 years’ experience of working in commercial and BBC Radio as a presenter, producer, journalist and reporter, with a brief stint in BBC local TV as a presenter & researcher. I launched a radio show on BBC Radio Berkshire 5 years ago that is aimed at the African Caribbean community - discussing topics, news and playing African Caribbean genres of music such as reggae, soca, afro beat.
I grew up watching vivid and loud music videos on MTV and this led to my decision to work in radio - because the thought of working in a musical environment seemed full of fun. During sixth form, I started my research into a career in broadcasting and I discovered working in radio involved A LOT more work. I've never grown tired of the intimacy and immediacy that radio has and I still enjoy working in it.
I often give talks and work with young people and when they ask 'how do I get my first job in radio' I say its a combination of things: hard work + determination + enjoyment.
Let's quickly look at each one:
1) Hard work because often at the beginning of your career you'll have to do the tasks that are time consuming, sometimes boring but necessary - this can include long hours with little or no pay. It's called paying your dues and getting experience under your belt - hence why it's called 'hard work.
2) Determination is necessary because you will have plenty of challenges thrown in your path. Working in the media involves a lot of problem solving i.e. how to find a story, how to find contributors, how to interview someone with limited availability and the list grows and grows. If you have plenty of what I call 'polite persistence' (afterall, no one likes a rude work experience person who won't take no for an aswer) aka determination then you'll do fine.
3) Enjoyment because you have to enjoy what you do. During my radio career I meet new people, learn new things and discover new things about my self (personal career development) that allows me to enjoy my profession. It's this enjoyment that has kept me working in the industry and it's necessary you have this when you start out - otherwise, you won't last long!
Good luck :)Email Louise Chandler
Anastasia Ahern, Wigs & Make-Up, Royal Opera House
There are a variety of training options for the wigs and make up industry from degree/HND to private short courses that can be done over 3 months or so, or built up over time.
You will need stamina for the long hours and the patience of a saint to cope with difficult artists! That said it is a very rewarding job and great fun, especially in the theatre environment (in my opinion) . You will meet a great bunch of people and learn lots on the way. There are so many aspects to the work that you rarely get bored and you have the opportunity to specialise in certain fields if you wish to do so.
It is always good to keep your portfolio up to date, go to the trade shows, network like mad (without becoming a nuisance) and be prepared to update your skills throughout your career (short courses as mentioned earlier). Roll your sleeves up and prove you are keen but don't be a pushover (keep your BECTU subs up).
Some of the courses place too much of a bias on make-up skills so if you want to stand out, work on your wigmaking and wigdressing/ hairdressing too. Speed is also necessary so once you have mastered the highest possible standard, work on your speed (although you must balance this with not causing yourself injury). This sector is great for the variety of work you can be involved in, the experimental element of new products/ techniques etc and the satisfaction of seeing your work on stage/ screen. Good luck with your career!
Tom Wakeham, Stage Technician, Wales Millenium Centre
There are so many things that you have to take on board when you start in this industry.
For me the most important thing for any entrant to the industry is flexibility. This one word covers a morass of different situations and circumstances. If you work in theatre, you’ll have to flexible about something at some point. The other main personal skill I value is communication. If you can communicate well with people then it makes everything ten times easier. I studied at the Welsh College of Music and Drama (WCMD) between 1997-2000. I learned a great many things while there. I liken my degree to learning to drive; you pass your test, then you learn how to drive!
That said, I think that all routes into the industry are as valid as each other. Welsh College was right for me, but there are plenty of people I know who have simply turned up at their local theatre, started as a cassie and have moved on and up very easily.
After WCMD, I worked at the Sherman Theatre which is a producing house. I was a stage technician and later the deputy technical stage manager. After five years at the Sherman, I moved to the Wales Millennium Centre which is a much bigger receiving house and I am a stage Technician and the BECTU rep.
I have been very lucky at the Wales Millennium Centre (a receiving house) to be allowed time out to pursue outside projects (two Edinburgh Shows and the Cardiff Comedy Festival). The one thing I really miss about my previous role is the producing aspect of theatre work.
I’ve worked in both producing and receiving houses and both have their pros and cons. The trick is to find out what kind of balance you would like in life and take it from there. As for the differences between receiving and producing houses; it is very much about the individual. A person with a passion for lighting/sound or set design, props and show realisation, might find it more rewarding in a producing house where those opportunities are more likely to be available.
The most important thing I can think of to say is to have a lot of fun. Ultimately, it’s a lot of work for comparatively little money. You’ve got to really enjoy the job and the life that goes with it. I’ve had a fantastic time for the past ten years or so and plan on carrying on doing so.
Michael Carmody, writer/director, freelance.
When I set off on my long and winding road it was as a trainee in Pathe Labs, Elstree. When that was completed I was made sensitometric controller. (Only colleagues in the labs will have a clue as to what that means; perhaps that job too has long since gone). I then jumped across to ABPC Studios as a sound trainee becoming later a sound camera operator: shooting/location, post sync (dialogue replacement), EFX (Foley) and scoring theatre. I was promoted to 2nd assistant dubbing mixer, working on The Saint, French Dressing Ken Russell's first feature, Summer Holiday and Wonderful Life, among many others.
I left the industry in 1965, to return in 1974 to the then Thames TV as a freelance sound assistant. A permanent position followed in 1976 and I was later promoted to assistant/dubbing mixer. At the Euston base the output was mainly news, current affairs and docs. I made redundant in 1992. Amongst all of this I wrote and directed two non-exhibition docs: The Dresden Story and It's Not Magic, the latter an introduction to filming for trainee PAs at Thames. I am currently on the 5th re-write of an original screenplay for the cinema.
My advice to new entrants?
1. Decide where your real interest in the process of film/TV, production lies and focus on that. "I want to be a film/programme maker" is not enough. Then make a beeline for where you can best prise open a door: easier said than done.
2. Personally, I don't think it makes a blind bit of difference whether you have a degree, or not. There are more ways to skin a cat.
3. I had the advantage of a three year traineeship, and when I changed course another of two years, but crucially in a working environment and at professionals' elbows. Today, that seems to be nigh on impossible. If you can find an appropriate niche, be prepared not to be "top dog" too soon: look, listen and learn.
4. This is perhaps the most important. After you have got a toe-in, or indeed, a shoe-in get to know as much about your specialism as possible, and go on learning. Make yourself aware of other people's skills and contributions to a production (all grades, trades and skills). And if your ambition, in production, is to become one of the "top dogs", do not forget that you are still one of a team; treat your colleagues properly and they will work wonders, play the big "I am" and you could find it a very lonely place. From other positions, you're not a doormat either! You will have good times and bad times; either way embrace a union membership around you, especially in today's industrial climate and practices.
5. When the job is done I hope you'll be able to take pride in your work and anticipate being asked to work again --- hopefully.
6. As one who, thankfully, no longer has to rely upon being perpetually motivated, there is, nevertheless, always more to do.
David Smout, IT Administrator, Horsecross Arts Ltd
David has over 20 years' experience in the theatre sector and has worked as a lighting designer, lighting technician and in stage management. He has spent the last five years working in IT systems for arts organisations.
What ever way you choose into the Arts and Entertainment sector the best thing you can do is get as much experience as you can. This isn’t hard at all, start with school productions, amateur productions and Youth Theatre. Volunteer to help out and run the technical side of things. Gain a grasp of what is needed for each job, the skills and the language. Even amateur productions use local professional theatres and employ designers for their sets, lighting and sound. You can quickly learn a lot and also get your face known to the staff there. Ask for paid crew work and build it up from there.
This was my route, from amateur and school shows my first paid job was as assistant prop maker at Birmingham Rep for a busy Christmas show. At the same time I had joined their new Youth Theatre and started working as a Youth Theatre member with their technical team to produce the lighting and sound for the Youth Theatre shows. A bunch of us pushed to take one of the shows on a small tour of Arts Centres and Schools, once that was done I was given a paid job to take another Birmingham Rep Youth Theatre show to the Edinburgh Fringe. All the bits of experience ended up with paid work and from there I had other options. I could choose to stay in paid work, a tour of Russia, or using the experience and some qualifications from school I could go into higher education and study in greater depth my chosen career.
Having the backing of an organisation like your local Arts Centre or Theatre can help you access the higher education which might have been denied you if you had to rely solely on your qualifications. It certainly helped me, I chose the higher education route and studied for 3 years in Edinburgh, a handy place to pick up extra work too. A consideration when looking for courses. That isn’t the end of it either, it’s continuous learning, it is all about change. Every new production or job is different to the last and there are great resources from BECTU to help you keep up, keep interested and stay connected.
Successful people in this business can keep calm in very stressful environments, stay positive and have high standards. You’ll be working on your own initiative a lot and generally as part of a bigger team. Getting on with others is essential and have the self discipline to work hard and to tight deadlines.
This multi-disciplined team is one of the best parts of the job, you spend weeks/months and even years together all focussed on bringing together different elements into one or two hours of entertainment. It can become your second family.
Chantal Pierre-Packer, Usher, Young Vic Theatre, London
Every person working in a theatre is important and the ushers are the 'face' of the theatres. You should join BECTU as soon as you can. The earlier the better. Being forewarned is forearmed.
If you are in a career in theatre, any training relevant to your role you can get is a bonus and will help you stand out from others and show your commitment to your field. Be enthusiastic, eager to learn and willing to be guided by others with more experience than you.
On the whole, everyone wants everyone else to do well and be the best they can be at their job, so be the best you can be and be ready to grow and learn to develop into the kind of professional you want to be. You can find a mentor in a friend/colleague, seek advice from others and just chat. Talking is essential. Friendly chat at work, in the green room, everywhere.
I learn new things every day and keep building upon current skills. I enjoy meeting new people, seeing the shows, being a union rep and helping my colleagues and I really enjoy theatre so it's a beautiful job. I'm motivated by God. I'm motivated by hoping to see something wonderful, powerful and well written. I'm motivated by the kind words of others and the drive to never stop and to always maintain high standards in everything I do.
I hope you do well in your careers. Do what you love and love what you do.
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