Sunday, September 2, 2012

Volunteering Skills

I was practically born backstage. Both of my parents were actors, each with their own 15 minutes of fame to boast. I made my first on-stage appearance at age five and started working behind the curtain before I hit my teens. I started learning about special effects and was doing them for stage productions and haunted houses by the time I was thirteen. I had a bit of a setback for a few years while I worked as a costume designer, but then got back on track with my preferred art form in my mid-20s. Finally, in 2008 I made the switch to doing FX for film and have been working on as many projects as I can ever since.

And I'll wager that most people have never heard of me.

I cringe every time I see someone posting a rant on Craigslist or some other gig-seeker forum about how it ruins the industry when people volunteer to work for free on projects. I've seen some pretty nasty essays that go so far as to accuse new film-makers of being scam artists and frauds who make tons of money off the blood, sweat, and tears of their volunteer casts and crews.

This might be true for reality show programs. (I don't think those folks get a paycheck while being on a widely broadcast show, but I may be wrong.) But I know from first-hand experience that nothing could be farther from the truth when in reference to micro-budget film-makers.

Aspiring film producers who don't have the benefit of influential friends in the biz, a big trust fund, or a leprechaun often make unbelievable sacrifices just to get the bare minimum needed to put a film together. The chances of their film becoming the next Paranormal Activity success story are extremely poor. (Odds are they won't even make it into one of the bigger festivals.) They generally offer their cast and crew the only things they can... experience, credit, and demo reel footage.

I think that the nay-sayers have forgotten just how important those three things are to anyone who hasn't already made a name for themselves.

I know.. I know... conventional wisdom says you learn everything you need to know about something while in school. I want to spit every time I hear about a kid fresh out of film school expecting to start on his first film at a $500/day salary. I can usually pick out the fresh-from-the-schoolyard crew members by the look of confusion on their faces when they walk on to a micro-budget set. They are used to having all the finest equipment available for their use and careful by-the-book execution of all the stages of production. I've worked on many low-budget projects, and I've never seen any of them stick to that book for longer than a week before they adopt the more effective motto of "Make it work!"

Many independent film directors and producers will tell you that working on your first film from scratch is your real film school.

People volunteer for non-paying gigs because they want to gain that experience and build their resume. It's very unlikely that they'll ever find paying jobs without having some kind of experience under their belt. Would you hire a surgeon to take out your kidney the day after he graduates from medical school, or would you look for one that has at least put in his time in residency?

But there is another thing that working volunteer gigs offers that many people often don't think about. You never know what kind of connections you'll make when meeting other volunteers. First of all, not everyone on a no-pay gig is a novice... some people sign up because they just like the project or they love keeping busy between bigger projects.

Secondly, people tend to recommend their friends, or at least people they know to be likable and talented on a set. Many of the projects I've worked on in recent years never sent out a crew call for my position - they called me on the recommendation of others who'd previously worked with me on no-pay gigs. (And yes, most projects I work on now are paying jobs.)

I still do some volunteer work when I have the free time. I find it to be a very pleasant way to meet new and talented people, as well as gaining even more experience with new challenges. I believe that the idea that volunteering on no-budget projects lowers my street value professionally is plain rubbish. I've developed some of my best techniques by having to get extremely creative on a shoestring budget production.

However, the downside to working on volunteer productions is that there are still so many people out there who don't take the work seriously. It's very rare indeed to work on one that doesn't have at least one actor or crew member drop out at the last minute (or worse, right in the middle of production.) Some say that it's no big deal and that no one has the right to get mad about it because it wasn't a "real job". I strongly disagree.

If I know that someone has dropped out of a volunteer production without a seriously legitimate excuse* to do so, I mentally put that person on my list of people who aren't reliable and I'm not going to jump at the chance to recommend them for anything in the future. I also know that I'm not the only one who does this.

It is indeed a "big deal" when someone decides to drop out of a production that's well underway and throw the entire cast and crew into a tailspin. Often it results in rescheduling, prolonging production time, or even completely derailing the whole production altogether... which is terrible for everyone else who has put their hearts into it. Personally, I've been on a couple sets where I would have loved nothing more than to jump in my car and drive as far away as possible, but I also keep in mind that I promised to do the job and remain firm on seeing it to completion no matter what. I have no desire to be put on anyone's list of "Unreliable People".

* As in, someone died.