In North America, most film sets are unionized, so breaking into the industry isn’t always easy. The path I see most people take is to start as a production assistant, where you’re making minimum wage and at the absolute lowest position on the totem pole. You’re opening doors for people, getting coffee, you’re in the parking lot parking cars, etc. It’s a constant hustle, and you need to make the most out of your limited opportunities. The goal is to get someone to like you enough to give you a shot in one of their departments. I did this for three months, and the entire time I was asking anyone who would listen to give me advice.
My opportunity came in the form of a day call on a grip crew, and I was able to impress everyone enough to be called back. Generally, that’s how it goes; you need to make the most out of your opportunities. Once you have 90 days of experience, you’re eligible to join the union, and once you’re in the union, you’re in the system. It’s a weird industry in the sense that there are no job postings, no interviews, resumes; it’s all word of mouth and connections.
Before COVID, you would show up and eat breakfast with everyone (meal provided), have a meeting with the Assistant Director, review the call sheet (lists the scenes planned and the required specialty equipment), and let the actors rehearse the scene. Meanwhile, we set up the lighting and cameras, and all-day-long, we are taking directions from the Director. For example, the Director might say, “I want a 150 ft. dolly tracking shot from here to here,” the lighting director would indicate where the lights are going and set everything up. Essentially, our core job is to light the scene and to get the cameras set up where they want. Rinse repeat for 12-14 hours a day, 60-70 hours a week. A TV show can run anywhere from 6-10 months, a feature film might run 3-6 months, and nowadays, streaming services can last anywhere from 2-12 months. Because the work periods are so long, I will often space in extended 2-3 months breaks to travel and live my life a bit.
Within the grip department, there are different specialties: dolly grip, crane technician, rigging grip. The dolly grips operate camera dollies, maintain the track, and operate the camera cranes; rigging grips use ropes to hang cameras from ceilings, cars, buildings and often work from considerable heights.
The cool thing about working in the industry is every job you could ever imagine goes into making a film. From paints to construction, sculpting, costumes, makeup, camera, lighting, electrical, there’s probably 15 different departments on a set. If you don’t think gripping is for you, there’s always another area that might pique your interest. I’ve personally worked as a lighting technician and a camera assistant when there was a need, and the opportunity arose. You’re always one person away from being able to ask the question you want, and most people will give you advice on how to break into their type of work. Once you’re in the system, you can go anywhere, but getting in can be quite challenging.
To be successful, you need to get the timing right, it needs to be busy, and you have to be in the right place at the right time. Some of its luck, but if you’re there long enough, you’ll usually get an opportunity. I like to say, “stand next to the person whose job you want and wait for them to get fired.” Surprisingly, this happens all the time, and I got promoted on several occasions.
Once you’re in the role, the pay can be pretty well; I’ll typically make about $1,600 - $2,400/week (Canadian Dollars, after-tax). All of the films I’ve worked on have been out of Vancouver, Canada, but my understanding is that you can make even more for the same type of work in Hollywood. For a job that doesn’t require a university education or any prior technical training, it’s one of the best out there. If you did this straight out of high school, you could set yourself up for a great future.
There’s a lot of sub-par grips out there; it’s easy to be big fish in a small pond (be in the top 10%) if you’re motivated and have half a brain.
It might take longer than you think to get where you want. I got my union membership in 3 months, but it takes a couple of years for most people. The hours can be long and very draining, and there can be a lot of uncertainty with your next job, especially when you are just starting. If you get invited for a day call, do the best you can because if you don’t do a good job, you most likely won’t be invited back. It helps to know as much as you can so you make the most of your limited opportunities.
You need to be continually hustling, so if that’s not in your nature, it’s going to be difficult. Be prepared to have thick skin, don’t take things too personally if people criticize your work; it’s a high-stress environment. People who come in with a lot of attitude or big egos, typically don’t last long. Respect the old-timers, laugh at their stupid jokes, and do what they tell you. There’s a hierarchy present, and you need to learn to play the game.
It’s good to have a foundation of hands-on technical skills before you decide to get into it. Ask yourself, “do I like to build things?” “am I a practical problem solver?” Being honest with yourself is crucial. For example, you might have two pipes, an elastic band, and a piece of chewing gum, and you need to mount a camera to the side of a bus with just those materials. Do you feel confident you can figure it out? Is that type of work something you would enjoy? If the answers are no, it might not be a good fit.
It could be helpful to have a background in steel-working, hand tools, ropes, and a general interest in filmmaking and cameras. I think it’s cool to see how things look behind the screen, and my desire to understand how things work motivates me. You might find the same if you want to know how movies get made, work towards making your films, or climb the ladder.
Three months ago, I would have said the outlook for film/television was very strong. Everyone was competing to build the best content libraries to become the most prominent streaming service, and there hasn’t been this much TV creation probably ever. I don’t know how long this will last for and post-COVID, it’s tough to predict. There’s so much close contact required in film making, and it’s unclear how they’re going to solve these technical challenges. I think the prospects are still good because people are consuming more content than ever before, but there’s a lot of uncertainty.
Everything shut down because of the pandemic, and I don’t know what the work-life will be like when it restarts. The enjoyable aspects of it, the social interaction, the messing around/joking may change because of the new measures, and the heightened seriousness. I have a 4-month job coming up so that will be interesting to see. Historically, a lot of the money you make is during overtime, but I’ve heard rumors that hours are reducing to cope with COVID. We’ll see how much this affects compensation in the short-term, but it’s something to consider. I’m still very optimistic about the long-term prospects for the next 3-5 years, but the next 6-12 months might not be the best time to get into it. I can foresee the unions limiting how many new members they accept.
I could also be wrong about this, so take everything with a grain of salt. I’ll provide an update once I know more.
I think being a grip (film technician) is an amazing career for people who don’t fit into other professions. A film set is a bunch of misfits who can’t work in offices, and it can be a great place if you’re looking for like-minded people. You meet a full spectrum of brilliant individuals; in fact, I’m often amazed by how extraordinary some of these people are. The pay is excellent, and there’s a lot of flexibility if you want to take time off, travel, or live abroad for a few months. If you do it right, it can be a great job.