Evolving Roles

No, not those kinds of rolls. We’re talking job roles. For those of you who have been in the production business for more than a few years, you probably came up through your career primarily focused on one or two disciplines. You found a role that appealed to you, honed your skills, made connections, perhaps obtained some education or even a degree in your chosen position and hopefully you made a success of that role.

For me, it was always photography. I started out in middle school and somebody thought I’d like to become a photographer. That was too many years ago to recall exactly who it was who gave me a gentle push in the direction of photography, but I do recall my Yearbook teacher, Mr. Winters, put a camera in my hand, a 35mm Nikon with a few rolls of Tri-X Pan film, then gave me a few minutes of rudimentary instruction and told me to go out to shoot some pictures for the yearbook.

Tri X Pan 400 was always my favorite B&W film, but I don’t have an image of what it looked like in the late 1970s when my story takes place!
Tri X Pan 400 was always my favorite B&W film, but I don’t have an image of what it looked like in the late 1970s when my story takes place!

I did so, casually snapping some boys shooting baskets in the gym, some girls learning how to bake in their Home Economics class and a few landscape shots of a new building that had just opened on campus. When I brought the film back to class, I asked him where we sent it for developing. He replied, “We do it ourselves. Ask John to show you the darkroom, how to develop the film and how to process some contact sheets so we can see what you shot.” Darkroom? My school had a darkroom? A few hours later, I found myself in that mysterious space, lit only by a red light bulb.

Many hours were spent under the warm glow of one of these as I learned to not only process negatives but also to make prints.
Many hours were spent under the warm glow of one of these as I learned to not only process negatives but also to make prints.

The chemicals we used to process the negatives smelled bad but were bearable. Once I laid the developed negatives on the photo paper and exposed the negatives to magically create the contact sheets, I was hooked. For life. Photography was so cool.

My role as I grew older became one of observing, conceiving, shooting and post-producing images. Much later, I evolved into the role of cinematographer, a fairly different way to of telling visual stories, but still, photographer and cinematographer are closely related. My role was cast. But years later, I find that my own personal roles have evolved and changed radically. Besides photographer/cinematographer, over the years I have served as a salesperson, writer, producer, director, editor, production assistant, gaffer, grip, sound mixer, and lately, I’ve taken on the role of director of public relations for a large corporate project. My point in bringing this up is I’d like for you to consider your own role.

Production in 2018 is a very different animal than it was even four or five years ago, much less 10 or 20 years ago. The technological changes wrought by the Digital Revolution continue to reverberate throughout our industry. As most production gear has become higher quality, smaller, lighter and much less expensive, so too have roles within our industry radically changed. Years ago, I recall seeing a filmmaker at a user group that I used to be a part of present a short film that was very well made. Great cinematography, lighting, the sound was good; editing and motion graphics were also very nicely done.

As the credits rolled, I noticed that other than the actors and a final sound mix, the guy who presented the film basically had done the jobs of eight or 10 people. He lit, shot, sound mixed, directed and produced the film as well as edited it and even did the motion graphics and visual effects. And it was good! Granted, this person was obviously a talented filmmaker and could fulfill most any crew position. In my experience, there are very few people who are this talented.

Visual production is a collaborative medium and I don’t want to imply that being a one-man band (OMB) is the best way to create quality productions.

Me, on set, collaborating with just a small part of our crew, shooting a makeup ad with Olympic Star Chloe Kim
Me, on set, collaborating with just a small part of our crew, shooting a makeup ad with Olympic Star Chloe Kim.

But small crew or even one-man band is a valid way to work on certain kinds of low/no budget projects and still end up with a credible work if you have the skills and talent to step into multiple roles. What I like about what I saw this filmmaker do was to experience and then gain skills in many different roles. This is a strategy that I feel would benefit more people in production.

I constantly meet both newer and more experienced filmmakers and production people who, upon having a conversation with them, I discover that while they feel they’re “good” at a given role, “I’m a decent camera op/sound mixer/writer/director, etc. etc., but I’m lousy at ‘insert another role here,’” which is a shame. There is the school of thought that it takes 10,000 hours to master a discipline. I don’t dispute that, but I’d encourage you to consider what you feel are your best skills and compare and leverage them against what you think are your areas of deficiency.

Often, it ends up something like this rough example:

Area of Perceived Proficiency                    Area of Perceived Deficiency

Lighting                                                                    Hair and Makeup

Camera                                                                     Sound Mixing

Grip                                                                           Production Design

I’d like to break this down a bit. First of all, which inherent characteristics do we see in the roles in the left-hand column?

Area of Perceived Proficiency

Lighting – Changing/enhancing/degrading an environment with light.

Camera – Recording a factual or fanciful visual representation of a storytelling reality.

Grip – Creating a mechanical architecture that supports the tools and environment used to create the same visual representation.

What about the right-hand column that many people who are good at the roles in the left-hand column feel they’re deficient at?

Area of Perceived Deficiency

Hair and Makeup – Changing/enhancing/degrading an actor’s appearance.

Sound Mixing – Recording a factual or fanciful audio representation of a storytelling reality.

Production Design – Working with the gaffer and cinematographer, creating an environment that supports the same visual representation.

If we break down what each role is doing to achieve their goal, while the jobs are obviously different, I find that almost every job on a set or in post-production shares at least a significant amount of similarities or in some cases, the two roles are very much alike, it’s just the mechanics of the role are different.

Another way to examine roles and your aptitude for them is to look at your own personal characteristics. Are you more introverted, extremely patient, detail oriented, able to concentrate for long periods of time? Or does doing these things drive you crazy? Are you higher energy, more outgoing, team-oriented, hyperactive or even ADD? What I find most interesting about the roles in our industry is that in my experience, I’ve worked with all personality types and I’ve seen almost all of them thrive and be very successful in all roles in production. I’ve worked with directors who were so methodical, calm and introverted that I was amazed they could consistently obtain great results from cast and crew and create wondrous works of cinematic/televisual art.

I’ve worked with writers who were the most outgoing, gregarious, fun and team-oriented people you’d ever want to know; yet they could buckle down, stop socializing and turn out great work on the page. My point is, I feel that success in production in 2018 is heavily dependent on the roles you can expand yourself into. While I’m mainly a producer/writer/cinematographer, I feel I could achieve at least a level of fairly high competence as a sound mixer, production designer or even a makeup artist if I set my mind to it and worked at it.

Yes, even though I am a DP, I could figure this out Sound Devices 633 and CL 12 in a matter of an hour. Visual people, audio gear is not that different!
Yes, even though I’m a DP, I could figure this out Sound Devices 633 and CL 12 in a matter of an hour. Visual people, audio gear isn’t that different!

Perhaps not a high-level, world-class artist in each discipline, but I feel that with knowing myself, my skills, gifts and viewpoint of the overall picture of production, I could become competent in less than six months for each position with the right training and guidance.

Why is this important for me? As a producer, I feel that it’s my job to know what as many of the crew roles as possible actually do, how they do it and if they’re doing their job well. Knowing this makes me a better, more effective producer, spending the budget wisely and creating an environment on set where everyone is operating at their best because everyone is a pro and everyone complements each other as they do their jobs. This is just for me. What about your role? What other roles do you want to study or possibly even take on to make yourself a more competent production person in any position? Consider it and devote some time to thinking it through. You may end up trying on some roles in production you never thought you would be good at, and in the end, you’ll be better at several roles instead of just one.