HOW TO MAKE MONEY IN PRODUCTION: CAMERA

Cameras

Warning: This post got out of hand, but there’s lots to say.

The landscape

That got your attention didn’t it? Anyone working in production or wishing to work in production right now, fear not, there’s more work around than there’s ever been, the business is thriving, in fact it’s buzzing. Just look at all the new platforms for moving image currently around and even the biggest luddite around will see that video, as predicted in the mid 2000’s, really is the hot ticket right now. So, where do you start?

In the old days you could work in television, or you could work in film, or you could work in music videos and commercials, or you could work in corporate video or you could work in wedding videos. Corporate and wedding were two markets where the quality was very very low and the humble videographer was a wretched old soul. TV had huge markets, music videos and commercials had much bigger ones and film was ultra-exclusive, very long-term and nearly impossible to break into. All that has changed. Those traditional avenues have splintered, cracked or broken down completely. The marketplace is a bewildering, fragile environment where it’s becoming impossible to tell who’s a big player, and who isn’t. And even the big players aren’t necessarily the people you want to work with anyway. In many ways we’re in the middle of a goldrush for a brand new territory that sits between broadcast, online and cinema, a territory that Google (via YouTube) is very hungry to take ownership of, and vast. You may not care about what’s going on with “online” but if you have any interest in production I would keep just a small eye on what’s going on there because it’s about to blow up. Big time.

So… here’s what I’ve learned in ten years of working in this business. I didn’t go to filmschool, had no formal training at all, set up my own production company and busted a gut till I found myself in the position I’m in now. And where is that? I currently earn 6 figures (pounds not dollars) from video production. Not bragging, just the truth. This is an article about money. Any old monkey can turn out a ‘music video’ for an obscure band, but they will earn exactly nothing. No. They will actually have to pay to make the video. If you spend a day of your time working for free when you can earn money from those same skills then you are paying to work.

This kind of article has a broad audience. There will be camera folk, directors, producers, multi-hyphenates, and aspiring youngsters/oldsters. I can’t possibly cater to you all, but I will do my best to point out the opportunities. So, hold on… here it comes.

CAMERA FOLKS

You poor bastards. In the old days camera operators could earn a very decent wedge, for every job. Technical knowledge of digibeta cameras for broadcast used to carry a very tidy day rate. These days, it’s HD, whether Panasonic or Sony (mainly) and you can still earn very handsomely, but for non-broadcast jobs you’re going to get hugely undercut by the young punk with the DSLR. Those lucrative corporate jobs where you could clean up on account of owning the kit and there being no viable alternative, have fallen into the £250 a day category. I won’t work for any less than that, with my kit coming in as a £250 additional cost. Owning your own kit makes a big difference. A young DOP I work with started out just three short years ago (he’s now 26) but he invested everything he had in a RED One, lights and a van to put them in. Before long he was raking it in, and his natural talent, allied with an insatiable work ethic fast-tracked him to a very handsome day-rate, and more importantly, gave him a very solid reel. People hired him because he had all the kit and he represented good value. Owning a DSLR kit won’t be enough. An F3 with S-log, a set of PL primes, a set of legs, and a good HD monitor and you’ll be on your way. Do the maths, that’s a good chunk of change. It’s also an investment. With that kit you’ll be able to find work, even if your CV is a little light. People are desperate for a good deal and, particularly in music videos, you ought to find your services in demand. Invest in more kit as you work and you could quickly find yourself, like my friend Carl, high up in people’s first picks. I’d be very very wary of renting out your kit without you operating it. Things get broken and when it’s your own stuff it’s unlikely you’ll be able to simply replace it in time for a shoot you have coming up. If you’re thinking about buying a C300 or a Scarlet with a view to renting it out I’d think very carefully. If it goes out with you as a package that’s one thing, but maintenance is a cost no-one ever talks about but it’s a very real one, and it never makes you money.

DSLRs are just the beginning

There are many DSLR folks around who call themselves cinematographers because they’ve shot a few things on a DSLR. Stop stop stop stop kidding yourselves. You are not cinematographers. If you’d like to be a cinematographer then that route is as open to you as it has always been. Camera trainee, clapper-loader, camera assistant, focus puller, second unit, etc.etc. Going through an apprenticeship in the camera department is the best way to learn. Working with experienced crew, learning high end technical skills and developing your craft is, and always has been, the smart way to go about becoming a DoP. It takes time but the day-rates for crew are solid and improve nicely as you work your way up. Crew also tend to be very loyal, so if you work hard and keep your mouth shut you will see many more opportunities come your way. Check Mandy.com for opportunities in your area or go and make friends with a rental house, somewhere lots of kit is going in and out, to find out who’s working lots. It’s a very very small world.

It’s not the only way of course. You could happily blast your way through hundreds of DSLR shoots, going indie-ga-ga on everything but I still maintain that the best way to learn the skills is by working with people better than you. Take those learnings onto your own shoots but do it in parallel.

Camera op on smaller productions

If you have no ambitions towards DoP’ing big feature films or commercials then there are plenty of opportunities around to sling a camera for smaller productions. Sports and music productions in particular tend to need multiple camera units and they tend to have less money so you can often pick up work in those areas. What you won’t do is earn much money. As always, the more kit you own the more attractive you’ll be. At the basic level, owning a 550d is at least something, but people want the 5D and they want all the trimmings. If you have that then music video b-roll, EPK, corporate video, sports and web tv channels are all places you can happily approach for work. We live in an age where the quality of the content is secondary to the need to pump out lots and lots of it. So, dig around your area for the production companies who work in the above areas and get in touch. Don’t email them, call them. Make them feel like you really love their work and you’re passionate about what they do, even if you’re not. Be innovative, offer them a day’s free kit hire from you (never offer to work for free, ever, ever, ever). Production companies have very short memories, we simply forget about people unless we’ve worked with them. Even if you think you’re nagging, just having someone keen to work with you, who owns their own kit, is good for a producer’s soul. If you get hired once and you work hard, turn up on time, have a professional attitude and generally know your stuff I guarantee you will get another phone call. Whether that makes it as far as another job I can’t promise anything, but you will be considered.

Can you edit?

Editing is the true currency of moving image production. Editors are often criminally underpaid because there are so many shit ones prepared to work for a crappy rate. The number of times I’ve been brought in to rescue edits and pull producers back from a nervous breakdowns beggars belief. Just because you have FCP, or Premiere Pro, does not make you an editor. On the flipside, if you’re the guy who shot something and you can also edit, then suddenly you’re going to be mighty attractive to that producer again. Drop it into the conversation when you’re on a job and you might find yourself picking up more paid work. Whatever you do, don’t get stuck just working for one company. It’s fatal. Try and continue building relationships with other prod cos because a) you never know when your pet company will hit a lean patch, and b) you will get complacent and lazy.

Religious about your work?

Last but not least, there is more and more religious programming being created. This may not be your cup of tea but the budgets seem to be pretty good in the US, the work is regular and there’s no requirement for you to be a regular churchgoer. Experience is everything and time on the ground is far more valuable than all the flowers and bees tests you could ever shoot. Fact. Again, do your homework in your local area and go and knock on doors.

There are lots of very good cameramen around. Lots and lots. There are very few good directors of photography around. Directors of photography can earn very large amounts of money but earning your way up to that lofty position takes a lot of time and effort and you have to be clear whether that’s actually what you enjoy doing or whether you’re better off working your way into the very unsexy world of broadcast for those nice juicy day rates that’s entirely up to you. Just be realistic and remember, many may say they’re not in it for the money, but they’re idiots. I’m very much in it for the money, and I’m quite happy where I am right now, thank you.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention crewing agencies in this post originally. While they will be unlikely to provide you with non-stop work, there’s no doubt they can be incredibly useful for getting you in with companies you might not otherwise have worked with. Yes they’ll take a percentage but if you’re doing your job right you’ll be regularly rehired by companies. Whether you actually want to keep working for them is another story but the more you work the more work you’ll be offered seems to be the norm.

Next time: Directing

PS: This is just the tip of the iceberg, chip in with comments and we’ll add them to the list.

Find me on Twitter @aka_skid for more terribly unhelpful, long-winded crap

Blogger?

One thing I completely neglected to mention was blogging. Believe it or not, you can actually earn a living from blogging. Planet Mitch (planet5D), Koo (nofilmschool.com), EOSHD (eoshd.com) all do it and while Phil Bloom’s main income won’t be the blog there’s no doubt it contributes greatly to his overall earning power. You may actually find the business of cameras and technology much more interesting than production and find yourself passionate about sharing your passion. I’ve learned that your CV counts for exactly nothing when it comes to the wider world of the blogosphere. If Roger Deakins was blogging regularly we’d all bow down and worship but he doesn’t, because he’s doing his job. If you’re a camera blogger talking about production chances are you probably won’t have time to make this a full time job to the extent needed to make money from it. However, if you do make this commitment then you will suffer from a lack of credibility in the greater world of production and you’ll enjoy the kind of vitriol messrs PB and Koo have seen, from time to time. The blogosphere is stupid. And don’t forget, tech explosions like DSLRs come along almost never, so unless you’re right on the curve chances are no-one’s going to care.

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.
  • http://twitter.com/NelsChick Nels Chick

    I’ve been trying to move from a corporate gig to my own company for a few years now. What I’ve found is that it’s hard to serve 2 masters. Any tips on how to start a biz, even with a full time job?

  • http://www.flyingradish.com/ Alec @Flying Radish

    @twitter-404782411:disqus @Nels, as someone running my own company on the side and working a day gig I can tell you from experience that it SUCKS.  There’s a few things off the top of my head that I keep in mind and that I’ve done to help myself along:  
    1.  Save up your vacation and sick time at your day job and be fully prepared to use it for side work. Also, learn to lie. Is it wholly ethical? Absolutely (I’m not kidding). Why? Because your day job doesn’t own you and frankly any good intentions I’ve ever had in telling an employer (even my current one who knows I run a side business) that I’m honestly taking off work, sometimes at short notice, to work a gig, has bitten me right in the ass. At the end of the day even the most lenient and new-agey company expects to be your significant other, and side work is viewed as the tarted-up more attractive mistress who you’ll find way more satisfying in the sack.

    2.  Squirrel your money away because (as I’ve found from being part of a number of failed start-ups), you can’t start your own business when you’re broke.  Unemployed? Thinking it’s a good time to pick up the camera and pay rent? You’d probably be better spent looking for a solid day job because at best you’ll be marginalizing your services and reputation as you take lower and lower pay just to make rent.

    3.  Ask for a higher rate than you’d expect to be paid.  Everyone negotiates you down.  I like to start with a 10 hour day and a trim 2 hours off along with the extra bit I was trying to ice my cake with. Works well. Also, starting your day rate at something ridiculous like 40% of the going rate and thinking you’ll work your way up with existing clients, will get you pissed off clients who won’t care that as you’re more experienced it took you half the time and cost them twice as much. You’re worth what you charge, stay on your hustle, stay on your grind, and fake it til you make it.

    4.  Rent equipment you don’t own, buy only what you need for the next shoot.  It sucks because we all (or just me) want to blow a huge wad of dough on a $1000 matte box and a set of cine-modded Duclos primes. Know what you can do with the equipment you have, know what you can do WELL with the man-power you have, and don’t be afraid to take home less cash because you hired a friend to assist.

    5.  Be prepared to go all-in.  Had I landed the $28,000 gig last month I’d have given serious consideration to quitting my job unless I could pull it all off without compromising the gig. But be prepared to risk it big.

    Anyhow, I’ll leave it at that because my advice is getting as long as this article!

  • http://twitter.com/Mikespins Mikespins

    Great post Robin.

    And spot on for mentioning religious programming. I came from a broadcast cable background as a shooter and editor. Got offered a job working for a national church and took it. That was twelve years ago. I’ve been able to be far more creative in this role than I would anywhere else. I built my staff, choose the camera platforms and tell the stories I find interesting. Sure there are religious things that need to be shot but again the creativity comes in with how you shoot them. I have been able to tell stories that matter. I’ve been on Death Row, in New Orleans right after Katrina, traveled the world all for this job. Despite what people may think of working for a church I’m paid very well and I work for nice people. My first question in the initial interview was “Do I need to be religious in general or a member of your church?” They didn’t want someone from within. They wanted someone who saw the world from the outside. Obviously I am happy there or I wouldn’t have stayed for so long :)

  • http://twitter.com/Brighter_Lights BrighterLightsMedia

    Nels Chick, you may want to have a watch here: http://blog.chasejarvis.com/blog/2011/12/get-schooled-best-business-advice-for-creatives-chase-jarvis-live-rewatch/

    It’s a video interview from Chase Jarvis and Ramit Sethi, a marketing and financial genius. Very great for professional creatives. Give it a look.

  • http://twitter.com/Brighter_Lights BrighterLightsMedia

    Awesome post. I like the honesty and real life examples. It’s helpful to know how much some are making in this community, this way it gives me a target to one day strive for. Thanks for your work!

  • http://twitter.com/NelsChick Nels Chick

    Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/NelsChick Nels Chick

    Thanks! That sounds like solid advice.

  • Rocky

    Weddings too, if you own your own kit they can be an amazing source of income. All you need is to get that first one in the can. Volunteer to shoot a friend’s wedding for free, do an amazing job and put together a reel from it. Use those social networks like Facebook and tag every person you know in it. Either one of your friends or a friend’s friend will be getting married and if they like your work enough you’re in. While weddings can be very boring, they can make you enough money to get better gear and pay your bills. Like everyone else says work your ass off!! Act like every wedding is your first day working for 20th Century Fox and you won’t be out of work any time soon. 

  • barry

    What about someone who dont have the money to buy a red one and just stuck with a t3i. How would I ever move up in the ranks

  • http://www.nybmedia.com/what-we-do/ video production services

    According to my knowledge .first you have to started offering a free production to a small local business that I thought would make for a good demo video, then I used that one to show to other business owners.

  • http://www.nybmedia.com/ Video Production Toronto

    Thank you for your recommendations, I think that is a great way to learn more about the camera production and making money.

  • yesica

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  • Andrew

    Good examples, thanks for sharing!