Becoming A Specialist VS. Jack (hack) Of All Trades!

Cameras

The DSLR revolution has been beneficial to most starting out in the business and to existing working professionals it has caused some distention.  Affordable, compact, high quality cameras have opened up doors to many and has encroached on the turf of others. We have always seen the jack of all trades filmmaker in our business.  The director/actor/writer/DP/camera operator/composer/editor/producer, etc etc etc has been around for decades but this amalgamation of roles has certainly become more prevalent over the past two years.

Now its great as a beginner or the only game in town to diversify your portfolio of offerings.  It will help you find your niche in the end and in the interim will make you some dough to get you started on your way.  What it doesn’t allow you to do however is to become something more.  Someone of high demand, a way to stand out of the crowd.  I am often asked by many how they can break into the business and make a living as a shooter, director, editor etc.  My response is always the same.  You need to specialize.  You need to offer something others do not.  Everyone can offer twenty different roles with a varying degree of mediocrity, but reality is we all know that expert ________ who is the resident pro at what they do.  Be it the professional crane operator in town, the Steadicam go to guy, the Resolve or Smoke editor in midtown, etc.

You need to find your calling in a time where everyone claims to be an expert at every aspect of filming.  In the world I live in only a focused professional gets the gig and when they do its at a prime rate.  There is no bartering rates as a specialized pro. Your rate is your rate and because there is only a handful of you (the expert) doing it the rates are protected in your field.  I happen to be a jack of all trades who happens to specialize in two categories.  Steadicam and high-speed.  Yes I have been a DP, shot rigger, editor, producer, director, yada yada yada in the past, but there are a few things that I do well and decided I needed to focus on what the clients know me for and what I excel at.  By specializing in Steadicam for example, I have been able to command a rate of $3,500/day that includes my rig and myself operating.  I do not dry hire and I do not work for a penny less.  The reality is that as a specialist I am afforded, and take advantage of the fact, that I am one of a select few in my state (New England area) that offer Steadicam services.  Having been established over the past 15 years as an operator, calls come to me.  I do not have to hustle and ask for work.  When a steadicam job comes to town, they call me and four other guys, not fifty etc.  They also do not call jack of all trades or guys who have operated steadicam and could probably pull off the shots.  This is just one example of why you should have a focus on what you do.

There is a great opportunity for you to take advantage of the playing field and become an expert.  Look at what you enjoy and what you would like to do for a career or focus and go full force.  Becoming a high-speed specialist or tech is a great example.  There is a very limited amount of high-speed techs and operators, which means big money opportunities for you.  Train up or buy the piece of equipment you want to focus and be expert on and live, breath and obsess on it as much as possible.  Make it your everything.  How do you do this?  Take a job at a rental house or make friends with someone who has the equipment you want to be proficient at.  Offer your time even if its free to get whatever time you can with the gear you want to master.  Do whatever you can to be “one with the trade” you are planning to be the resident pro at.  Couple that with a focus on verbal, social and event marketing to get your name out there and in a matter of no time you will be the go to guy (or gal) at _________.

The business is becoming clouded with people who all claim to be pros at everything in the business.  The few who stand out are the ones who are undoubtedly unquestioned in their knowledge set and making real money in the business.  Yes you can make money being a “do it all” but the reality is that its only a fraction of what you true earning potential and professional potential yields.  Look to industry vets and others and think about why there are where they are and why everyone calls on them when they need a professional.  Stop bargaining yourself down and driving down the rates for everyone. Its a temporary solution that will pigeonhole you into a hack of all trades role.  Time to be taken seriously.  Save the do it all roles for personal projects and focus professionally on paid gigs. Don’t be a hatchet man (or woman).

Mike Sutton @MNS1974

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Jared Abrams
Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • Digitalcinematographer

    Excellent post. $3500. Makes me chuckle at the guy offering a full Red Epic package (and I mean full, everything needed for a shoot) for $750 a day! Even funnier was the guy on Craigslist offering 2 DSLRS, lenses, tripods, follow focus, a jib, a crane (?), a glidecam AND his services as…wait for it… a DP!…for $200 a day!!!

    Becoming a jack of all trades has become the norm for staff jobs. I’ve applied for no less than 15 salaried positions across Boston in the last 3 months. Every one of them was for a “Producer/Editor” demanding a candidate who can write, produce, direct, shoot, edit, and do post graphics. Still not a bad gig for salary + benefits, just so long as the expectations are that if a jack of all trades/one man band does it…it will look that way.

  • http://twitter.com/stenderz DJ Skeez

    I wrote about this a few times when I was a blog dog and it’s certainly tough. In order to earn a crust you naturally diversify and I think it’s good to get experience across a wide number of disciplines as it gives you a good sense of the production pipeline. I used to have a CV with a list as long as your arm of all the things I could do, but I also had the showreels to back up my claims to be pro. The biggest issue was actually time. The specialists have time to gorge on blogs in their fields, experiment with software, or techniques and get time on the ground. By being a multi-eventer you are in danger of never actually fulfilling your potential in the one place you’d really excel. For me, my specialist chosen area is, and always has been, directing. An understanding of all the departments is more useful than in other areas when you’re a director but it’s not a prerequisite. For me, now, with all the technical marvels at our disposal, a knowledge of how they work and what can be accomplished during or after a shoot does a number of things: a) it saves me money as I know exactly what is unnecessary b) it frees me up to shoot on my own terms and remain independent when I want to be. 

    So I live this odd life where I spend three quarters of my time doing everything myself, staying in shape, practising, experimenting, learning, and the other quarter I just get paid for directing and I let focussed pros do everything they’re good at. The best thing is I can talk to them about what they do and they’ll know I know what I’m talking about. Which means better work all round. 

  • http://twitter.com/EricDiosay ッDiosay

    Understanding the various disciplines across the production pipeline actually allows me to do my job better as a producer. This knowledge helps me make money, save money and more importantly, communicate what I want to my peers.

    I suppose I’m not really a Jack-of-all-trades, but I do like it. Everyone’s job is so interesting.

  • http://twitter.com/jdwiden Jeremy Widen

    Coming fresh out of film school, I was trained to be the jack-of-all-trades do it all production professional. But, the more I’ve worked in the industry, I’ve been able to widdle  down the list to a few related positions. Yes, because of my training, I can work in other positions. But, now I don’t HAVE to work in the unrelated ones. I’m not to the point where I can say that I am only a DP or only a Director, but I’ve learned that it’s a process. The more experience you have, the better your overall skills will be, and the easier it will be to define yourself as a specialist.