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How to Become An AC


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#1 Nathan Blair

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Posted 20 December 2009 - 11:48 PM

Hello all,

I'm just curious what paths Camera Assistants have taken to get to the positions they're in now?

Here's my story: I'm one among thousands of film school kids, trying to figure out what the heck to do with this seemingly worthless diploma. I graduated Savannah College of Art & Design in 2008. Since graduating, I moved directly to NYC and spent every day for four months responding to craigslist ads. Since then I've landed fairly steady work as Camera PA with a local DP (Jeff Turick), and have learned a huge wealth of info from him, but all of it is corporate, and I really want to get into film or at least high quality commercials.

I've also been PA on several sets including indie features and small commercials. I've shot with my own gear, and I've even done assistant editor jobs just to survive expensive NY rent.

After a year and a half of this I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever progress, and how the heck I'll ever afford things like health insurance!

I just don't know what to do to get onto a real set. They never taught us these things in film school... like how to file freelance taxes or how to get into the union. What's worse is seeing other guys who, instead of going to film school, just went in straight from high school and are now unionized and rolling in the dough.

I've been told to try and find an AC that will bring me on as a Camera PA, or intern. Sure, that makes sense... but where do I find this AC who will conveniently invite me onto set with them? If they're a stranger, how will they know I'm any good? It seems like they're more likely to write me off as some anxious NYU kid and ignore me.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to your stories!

Best,
Nate
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#2 Tom Jensen

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Posted 21 December 2009 - 02:22 AM

I started at a rental house called Armistead Camera and then moved to Otto Nemenz shortly thereafter. The experience was invaluable. If I had to do it all over again, I would have come up through lighting. It's harder work but it makes you more aware of lighting.
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#3 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 21 December 2009 - 03:17 AM

I started out working for free as a PA on a very low budget 16mm indie feature. I had taken a few film classes at my local community college, made some little Super8 and 16mm films and wanted to work as a DP but basically knew nothing about working on set. The DP on the indie feature was in the CSC and was a very old school guy, so I figured I would learn a lot by observing him work (which I did). I also learned how to wrangle cable, set up lights and monitors, basic set etiquette. I also made runs to get coffee filters and whatever else was needed.

Whenever I had a free moment, I hung out with the camera assistant and asked questions. There was no 2nd AC, so he was basically doing everything (for very little money). Naturally, he was happy to teach me how to load mags, fill out reports, slate and make his job easier. By the 2nd week I was the 2nd AC. I learned how to handle lenses, what the various bits of camera gear were, how to work fast and be efficient. It was pretty difficult and I made a lot of mistakes. But I learned a lot.

After the feature, I transferred to a 4 year film school and started AC'ing on student projects. Occasionally I would shoot my own stuff, or for other students, but I had a hard time figuring out how to put a crew together. It seemed like whenever I was an AC, the student DP I was working for had a huge crew who knew what they were doing, which made their work really stand out compared to mine. So I just figured I should stick to AC'ing at the time. I did that for free for about 3 years. Some projects were quite large, and I learned a lot on those.

Then I did a freebie short with another old-school DP who did a lot of corporate and industrial work. He liked me, and ended up calling me for a non-union commercial several months later. The gaffer on the shoot was another old school guy with a ton of connections and he liked me a lot, so he took me under his wing and hooked me up with a bunch of jobs. I started AC'ing on corporates, industrials, commercials. I learned about video engineering, and some techs took me under their wing.

Meanwhile my friends from the various local film schools were starting to get paying gigs and would call me up every so often, or refer me to other DP's. I got to know the local rental house people, who would hook me up with a job every so often. Made more contacts. I put together a resume, started investing in more expensive AC gear, got a car. It kinda snowballed from there. I'm still non-union, and I don't have any big features or tv shows on my resume. I would probably have done better in NYC or LA where there is more union work. But that's where I am now, two and 1/2 years out of film school.

I think you basically just have to keep working, keep making contacts, let people know that you want to be an AC, and learn as much as you can by reading, observing, and shooting. Get to know as many established film workers as possible, the more gray hair the better - let them know you're willing to be humble, keep your mouth shut, and work hard for them. THIS IS THE KEY. If you can project this attitude and stay positive, then someone will eventually take a chance on hiring you. As you find these mentors, they can teach you about rates, overtime, filing taxes, and all that - you pick that stuff up job by job as you go. Don't worry about the union yet, it's not worth joining until you're working regularly anyway.

While I was working for free, I had a day job and would take time off when I got a gig. I still have that job. I keep my overhead low and save as much money as possible. You may have better luck in a big production hub like NYC. But I don't think there's ever really a time when you think, "I made it!" At least, I always feel like a bit of a fraud when I take the next big step up, like I somehow snuck in the back door or something. You just have to project confidence and "fake it 'til you make it." Fear is a great motivator to step up your game...
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#4 Annie Wengenroth

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Posted 21 December 2009 - 06:29 PM

Hi Nathan,
Chiming in late...I remember you from SCAD (I used to work there and went there). I didn't know you were in NYC....Drop me a PM and let me know how you're doing!
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#5 Nathan Blair

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 06:57 PM

Thanks Tom and Satsuki. Its good to at least know I'm on the right track. I'll keep pushing! I've been considering a job at a rental house, but my worry is that it will take too much time from my career on set.
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#6 Chris Keth

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Posted 22 December 2009 - 11:36 PM

Thanks Tom and Satsuki. Its good to at least know I'm on the right track. I'll keep pushing! I've been considering a job at a rental house, but my worry is that it will take too much time from my career on set.


Not all of an ACs job is on set. An important part is doing checkouts and working with a rental house and working in a rental house is a great education for that.
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#7 Nathan Blair

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Posted 27 December 2009 - 08:58 PM

Not all of an ACs job is on set. An important part is doing checkouts and working with a rental house and working in a rental house is a great education for that.


Excellent point. Thanks Chris.
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#8 James Heyward

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Posted 09 January 2010 - 03:31 PM

well you went to scad. hmm i was actually considering going there just to get a 4 year degree. do they not give you opportunities to work on films? cause i know savannah has more opportunities than charleston.

im almost done with the 2 year associates at trident in charleston, sc. they do teach about what you were questioning. ive even gotten a ton of on set experience. i just worked on a feature called Angel Camouflaged. and the tv show "Swords: Life on the Line" ive also worked with a great DP David Insley (the wire, cry baby, hairspray). now i hope to be on army wives for season 4 as a camera intern.
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