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Be Open To Opportunities

March 2023 | Cian O'Leary

Accepting opportunities that come your way is a must when you are trying to break into the film industry - here's why...

Most people think they are open to opportunities that come their way, but sometimes can actually be quite closed-minded. Really they are only open to the opportunities they like to imagine coming up, eg: “If I can get a job as a Runner in a Camera Department then I’ll be able to become a Camera Trainee and work my way up to becoming a Focus Puller or 1st AC and hopefully, one day, a DoP.”. But they won’t see the opportunity they really have if they are offered a job as a Runner with the Art Department and will turn it down or not apply in the first place. They’ll think if they work in the Art Department they’ll never get hired to work in a Camera Department, failing to see that they’ll be on set alongside the Camera Department and can simply introduce themselves at an appropriate time and gain some contacts. Yes, it’s important if you think you know what you want to do to go for those roles, but don’t ignore other opportunities.

I moved to London from Ireland when I was 24, wanting to work in Film and TV, ultimately as a Director. I applied and interviewed for Runner positions at Production Companies and one particular Post-Production company. While I was able to edit (not very well at that point) I was convinced “I don’t want to be an Editor” and so when I interviewed and even did two full trial days at this particular Post-Production house, I didn’t go out of my way to sell myself as someone who they could take on and train up as an Editor. I was interested in the process but I didn’t recognise the opportunities that were really there in front of me;

  1. A lot of Directors are also Editors or started as Editors. It’s an amazing way to learn how to structure a film or TV show and to see how actors perform and what subtle changes can make to a story.

  1. I absolutely failed to see that while being a Runner, I would’ve come into contact with countless Producers and Directors who I could try to get to know and build a relationship with.

I only saw the position as being something that would eventually lead to me being an Editor and that’s it, full stop. 

One of the biggest problems facing anyone who isn’t sure exactly what they want to do, they just know they want to work in Film, is getting those all-important first few roles. And it can even be more difficult, or at least feel that way, if those roles you have managed to get have all been with different departments. So how do you convince someone to take you on in the sound department when your previous experience has been in hair and makeup? Of course, the answer is going to be different for everyone, but there are some constant truths;

  1. Use the experience you do have to your advantage. So you were on set with the hair and makeup department? Great. You have on-set experience. Sets are fascinating places to work, but there are so many moving parts and things to be aware of outside of the department you’re in that people will look favourably at someone who has been there before, even if it’s with a completely different department. It’s one less thing for them to think about. You’ll already know the cues to look out for, when to be quiet and when to get a job done. Also, no one, in this instance, is going to be handing you a boom and telling you to record the dialogue in their most important scene. If you’ve been a Runner in one department you can be a Runner in another. Talk up all of the on-set experience you have and make it work for you.

  1. What if you don’t have on-set experience? Make the experience you do have work for you. If you worked in a multi-storey car park while you were in school then you have experience directing traffic and who needs that on a set? The AD Department. They will be delighted to take on someone who can say from experience that they have no qualms with dealing with disgruntled drivers, telling them they can’t go down the road they usually do and have to go a longer route, rather than sending someone who’s never done it before and therefore needs that bit more attention to make sure they’re doing it right. That attention is time away from what they themselves need to be focussing on, so anything that can alleviate that will be a big plus. Ever made a coffee for someone before? Put it in your Cover Letter just how amazing your cups of coffee are. I don’t drink tea or coffee, but I’ve made countless cups for people on sets and in production offices. Apparently, I’m quite good at cups of tea in particular. No idea why, I still wouldn’t want to drink it myself, but when an Executive Producer comes up to you and says “There you are. I’ve been hoping to bump into you. Can you please make me a cup of tea like you did yesterday? That was perfect.” then you know you must’ve done something right and this person now knows who you are.

  1. Enthusiasm. This is key no matter what you do, but especially when you’re trying to get your foot in the door and get your first roles. One job I had for about a year, and still get called by my old boss to do now from time to time as a freelancer, is filming and editing Behind The Scenes packages for TV productions. And the thing that got me that role wasn’t that I said I could use a camera or edit, it was how much I spoke about how obsessed I’ve been since I was a teenager with watching Behind The Scenes bonus features for films. I said it in my Cover Letter and I absolutely spoke all about it in my interview and trial days. It was one thing that I was enthusiastic about Film, but the fact I already had such a love for BTS featurettes and content showed that I also had an opinion on what makes good BTS footage. Of course, I had a lot to learn, but I already had an idea of what I myself always looked for in BTS and what I thought was good and what wasn’t. I also had on-set experience so that was something they didn’t have to worry about. And if you’re thinking “But that’s just filming people working on sets as opposed to working with them, how does that help me get to work in Film?” the answer is simple; You meet everyone on set and you talk to people from every department, especially the AD and Sound Departments. This brings me back to the overall point of this article…

Be open to and make the most of the opportunities you get. If you find yourself working for a department, be it on set or in a Production Office or wherever, and you think it’s not the right one for you, use the time you have to make contacts within the departments you are more interested in. But that doesn’t mean don’t try your best and your hardest in the job you’re in. Just because you’ve made contacts elsewhere doesn’t mean you know when they might call you. And likewise, when you’re just starting out you might think you’re working in the wrong area for you, but if you work hard you’ll be given more responsibilities that could lead to you realising you love the area you’re in and want to progress at it. 

There is one answer everyone starting out hates to hear when they ask someone how they came to be in the position they’re in, and that’s; “I don’t know really. I just sort of fell into it.”. It feels like they’re not giving you any tips or help to get you to where they are, but they actually are. The more you hear that answer the more you’ll realise how common it is. Yes you have people who knew exactly what they wanted to do and they got there, but a lot of people in the industry start out just trying something and even move around until they find something that sticks for them or something they realise they’re good at. And that only happens when people are open to the opportunities that present themselves.

If you want to give yourself the best chance at taking advantage of the opportunities that come your way then go out of your way to learn and develop skills that could be useful, even if you don’t think they’re skills that you’ll need for that job you eventually want. Learn how to use a camera. You don’t need to want to be a Cinematographer, but if you know the basics then you are useful to a lot of people, like Casting Agents who may want an Assistant for their office. Most of the work might involve admin, but if you can show you also have the skills to be able to turn on a camera and film auditions for them then that’s something that will make you stand out. Learn video editing software like Premiere Pro or Final Cut. You don’t have to want to be an Editor, but if you can cut something basic together then you are instantly more useful to people. One of my early jobs was cutting up performance clips from The Voice UK to post online. I didn’t need to be an editor to be able to do it. I wasn’t editing the footage as such, just taking individual clips out of the show and sticking titles at the end. But it was something the Producer needed to be done. The same goes for Photoshop. Learn as many skills as you can, even just the basics, to make yourself more appealing to potential employers.

With everything that’s going on in the world right now not everyone is going to have more free time than usual, but a lot of people will. And companies will be hiring again when this time has passed and one thing you will not regret is when that time comes, you’re able to apply for a role and say “I learnt this new skill while I had the time. I thought it might be useful.”, or “I already knew some of the basics but wanted to learn more about this piece of software / about how to use a camera / how to light / how to record audio”. No one should be putting anyone under any pressure to “better themselves” during this time, but if, if, you do have the time, the energy and a mindset that will allow it, why not try to see some of that time as an opportunity? 

Ultimately my career has gone in the direction it has because I said yes to opportunities that I hadn’t even considered when I was starting out. I met a Producer who made corporate videos and she got me to shoot and edit some for her. No, they weren’t films, they were people in suits talking about things to do with the business that I couldn’t even attempt to understand, but I learnt an awful lot about shooting and editing (that thing I thought I didn’t want to do). And how to conduct interviews. 

These skills are what helped me when I found myself, by chance, with an opportunity to work for a group of YouTube channels at a time when I used YouTube exclusively to watch music videos and had no idea of the entire world of YouTube that existed. Again, it wasn’t making films, but I got to use cameras I hadn’t used before and film in a studio working for one of the biggest TV Production Companies in the world, Fremantle Media, where, because they needed someone and I was sitting right there, I also got to work on digital content for shows like X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Celebrity Juice. And those YouTube channels I was working for? Well, they were all about football, combining the thing that had been my whole world from as far back as I can remember to when I was about 16 and realised I probably wasn’t going to become a professional, with the thing that has been my obsession since. I started as a Junior Shooter / Editor, filming, editing and, to my bewilderment, vision-mixing multi-camera live streams. Three years later I found myself as one of just 2 Producers / Directors on the main channel, deciding what kind of content to make, including Producing, Shooting, Directing, Editing and even Presenting Documentaries for the channel. That role led to some incredible experiences for me personally and professionally, especially getting to travel to places like Naples, Miami and Shanghai to film documentary-style videos.

Right now I am a freelance Shooting Producer / Director / Editor, which is a long title, and now more than ever I will take whatever opportunities come my way, even if at first they don’t appear to be in line with the path I’d like to be on because you never know where those opportunities will take you, who you’ll meet or what projects you might get to work on because you said Yes to that one thing. 

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