In video and film production in 2017, success is measured differently than it was 10 years ago. Our business can be cruel—I know several colleagues who are quite skilled in various facets of production, but these colleagues have chosen to leave or have been forced to leave the business, not because they weren’t good at what they do, but because the business landscape shifted around them and they weren’t able to adapt. Think about the jobs in production that have shifted in the time you’ve been in the business. I’m sure you can think of several jobs that either were eliminated by the ruthless march of technological innovation or were modified to the point that the task itself changed so considerably that people who formerly did the task weren’t able to or didn’t want to adapt to meet the requirements of the new position.
I’ll use myself as an example. Ten years ago, I was making a living producing and directing projects, primarily for a moderately successful small production company in Burbank, California. I had some success, but generally, I stayed pretty much at status quo in my role at a production company. I got a raise and bonus each year, traveled to some cool places to work, had a lot of fun, won a few awards and generally enjoyed my job. If you would have met me in 2007 and asked me what I did for a living, I would have told you, “I’m a producer,” because that’s what my primary job was and that’s what it said on my business card.
Of course, if you look back, 2007 was the leading edge of what would soon become known as “The Great Financial Crisis.” In 2008 the world economy faced its most dangerous crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The financial disaster, which began in 2007 when sky-high home prices in the United States finally turned decisively downward, spread quickly, first to the entire U.S. financial sector and then to financial markets overseas. Our clients were the big studios, and just as you would expect in a global crisis, the studios cut back their work drastically. This, in turn, resulted in downsizing and layoffs at the production company. I found myself out of a job, reforming my own small production company.
In reassembling my own small production company that had been on hiatus during my gig as a producer at the company in Burbank, things had changed in the business. No longer were smaller budget projects as numerous as they had been a few years before, but many of my client contacts had moved on to other companies, retired or changed roles. Frankly, it was very challenging to build a new book of business without rethinking everything. I began to realize that in order to survive, I was going to have to think of myself as more than just a producer. In my role at the production company, I had also stepped into different roles, as a cinematographer, as a writer and sometimes as a director. I reached a point where I was shooting my own projects, as well as producing them, along with occasionally shooting interviews for the other producers at the company, so I knew I was a reasonably skilled cinematographer. In a pinch, I’m also a decent video editor, not in the same league as most pro editors I worked with and hired, but skilled enough to edit together selects, rough cuts and refined cuts of other editors’ projects. I had been writing for a few websites as well as for HDVideoPro Magazine, so I knew I had some skills with the written word.
Fast-forward 10 years to 2017. Today, I still produce projects. I also edit some of them, shoot and light most of them, and I served as DP on two upcoming Netflix documentaries. I still enjoy writing; I had a recent job writing promotional ad copy and training for salespeople for a popular auto manufacturer, and it was highly satisfying work. My title these days would be “Producer-Writer-Cinematographer-Editor-Director.” That’s a lot of hyphens, isn’t it? I’m of the belief that, generally, the people in our business who are the best at their jobs have focused and refined their skills on one specific skill set over a long period of time. There’s no substitute for aptitude, mixed with confidence and skill. But making a living with just one specific skill is rare these days. Our business, by default, continually evolves toward the people in it needing to have a relatively large set of diverse skills in order to stay employed enough to pay one’s bills.
The challenge today is not only increasing the number of skills you have in your production toolkit, but also refining each skill into a higher level of competency. Author Daniel Pink wrote a brilliant book, Drive, which examines what really motivates people to succeed in their work.
Here’s an excellent whiteboard video that explains what Pink discovered about motivation:
In Pink’s opinion, it all comes down to Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Autonomy means that people like to be self-directed (many of our jobs in production are self-directed, aren’t they?), and often are more productive and achieve a higher skill level at their work when they can work on their own terms. Mastery comes down to practice, repetition and building your skills. Once you’ve mastered a discipline, whether that’s camera work, lighting, editing, writing, doing hair or makeup or whatever you enjoy in production, you’re free to then innovate, to become not only better at your job, but to invent new ways of doing your job that often evolve to new paradigms in how a job is accomplished. The most important motivating factor is purpose. In our business, the end product is usually a film or video that tells some kind of story. Many of us find purpose in producing a film, TV show, YouTube video or other work that has a purpose, whether it’s art, a communication tool or a sales tool. Creating great work gives many of us our purpose for being in this business.
Bringing this back around to your skillset, I encourage you to take a good long look at what you currently do in production. Think about how satisfied you are with the job. Do you really enjoy what you do? Even if you like it, what other skillsets can you use to branch off and try something else to add a hyphen to your job title? I know gaffers who have branched into editing, directors who went into producing, cinematographers who went into writing. It doesn’t mean that you’re abandoning your main skill; it means growth, challenges and a new mindset and way of working. From a practical sense, if you become highly skilled at a new task, it makes you much more employable. If work is slow in your main skill, it can really help to have another skill or two that you can work in. There’s truth to the old saying, “jack of all trades, master of none,” though.
So be careful about how you go about mastering your new skills. Devote time, study, and practice. Don’t be afraid to volunteer for nonprofits or do spec work with your new skill. After all, it’s new, and you need time and practice to master it.
Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.