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Seven Thoughts About Work Experience in Media / Film / Video

We receive, on average, about 5-8 emails, phonecalls or (increasingly rarely) letters per week from (usually, but not always) young people who have become possessed by the idea of building a career in proximity to any kind of moving images. Despite the quantity and occasional naivety on display, we love receiving these emails because they are full of enthusiasm and excitement and a sense of limitless potential. They inspire me to keep going and to work harder.

Although I never personally sent out emails of this nature when I was a recent graduate, I can relate to their senders nonetheless. Following graduation, I spent over a year working part time for Sheffield Libraries. I was essentially a highly literate shelf stacker and occasional leader of storytime for the ostentatiously middle class kids of Broomhill, Sheffield. During this employment, I wrote screenplays, I made friends with other filmmakers, I shot short films on a zero budget (most of them were technically incompetent drivel but their hearts were in the right place) and I daydreamed.

Daydreams produce ideas and often help to organise those ideas into legitimate, constructable entities. One such daydream eventually became Sort Of…Films. It was always intended as a vehicle through which I could bring other daydreams to life and to audiences and it has achieved that to a small extent. One thing I have learned, however, is that 10 years is not a very long time..particularly if you’re as easily distracted as I am by tangential projects and ideas such as making music (Early Cartographers), setting up networking organisations (The Film Pool) or small festivals or continually satisfying the unsatiable desire to consume more cinema, more art, more literature, more music, more nature. It flickers by. I’ve achieved about 10% of what I imagined I might have achieved by now. I guess that’s better than 0.

And so it makes sense to get started as soon as possible and to get started with the kind of intensity that you might not be able to sustain into your 30s when other aspects of ‘real life’ start to rear their often very beautiful heads. Maybe this (far from comprehensive) list will be useful to one or two of you as you set out on the project of bringing your life into professional proximity with moving images. Maybe it won’t. But if nothing else, please know that I am always at the end of an email and if you have any specific, concrete questions about specific obstacles you are facing, please do drop me a line. Please note, I can’t help with questions such as “how do I ‘make it big’ in the film industry?”

One. Work experience is all around you.

You just have to connect your brain to it.

If you’re struggling to get replies from top production companies or even small outfits such as Sort Of…Films, it MIGHT be something to do with your approach (more on that later) or it might just be that these companies simply do not have time to respond because of the backlog of requests and the intensity of their current projects. Do not despair. You will get countless knockbacks in this kind of field, forever (I got one myself but yesterday). Your success will depend upon your ability to accept this, not take it personally and to continually adjust, improve and ‘go for another take’. This does not mean bombard the same companies with emails to ‘prove how relentlessly keen you are’. That’s just annoying and you’ll be moved to the bottom of the list.

No, the best thing to do while waiting for companies to get back in touch with you is to CREATE your own work experience. How you do this will be individual unto you but some examples might include:

a) setting yourself up as a freelancer and creating the marketing materials for yourself (skills: web design, photography, showreel editing, graphic design, working with printing companies, working with social networks etc)

b) making films (or theatre or whatever is relevant to you) with your peers, all of whom will be in a similar boat, will work for free and might become life-long collaborators who continually send work you way once they’re successful.

c) set up a ‘group’ of some kind and organise weekly meetings, workshops, discussions etc. This shows great initiative on the CV. In my case, this group eventually evolved into The South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network which is now run by Rob Speranza.

d) volunteer to make a film for a local charity. I still do this about once a year, every year. I’m currently setting up a project with Learn for Life Enterprise for example. I will not earn a penny from this, but it’s a chance to hone some skills, use my imagination, get to know some new people, add something to our track record etc. Find a small charity you admire and drop them a line. Let them know that they don’t have to use the film if they don’t think much of it when it’s done. As long as they understand that you’re new to this and that’s why you’re free, they should be fine with it!

e) get a job (or training) somewhere that will provide you with transferable skills but without consuming you to such an extent that you open your eyes and you’re 45. For instance, if you want to work on a crew, understanding electrics and health and safety might be of great use. If you want to work in a production office, spreadsheets skills will really come in handy. If you want to direct….well, just be patient and eat your vitamins.

Two. Think about projects rather than careers.

This might just be me, but I’ve always found that I’ve ended up feeling fitter, happier and more productive (rather than like a pig in a cage on antibiotics) when I focus on specific projects rather than on my own career. It’s very easy to become very self-obsessed, particularly in an industry that is built on the idea of a collaborative realisation of individualised ‘dreams’. Thinking in terms of ‘the realisation of meaningful projects’ being the end goal rather than the means to the end of your own ‘realisation as a human being’ is, I think, a bit more noble, a bit more decorous and a bit more generous too.

Three. First impressions are OBVIOUSLY essential.

If the first time someone sees your name, it is associated with an email such as the following, you need to reconsider your approach…

I am currently looking for a job immediately and am interested being a photographer or videographer. I am wondering if there are any open positions.

The above is a genuine email CC’d to about 20 local companies (we could all see each other’s email addresses). About 10 minutes later, we all received the following reply from one of those companies.

Hello ‘Phil’,

I am sorry to say if that is your best attempt to get into a creative sector, you need to seriously think hard.

Is that how to approach a business for employment? that has to to be one of the worst job applications I have ever seen. Our sector is currently overloaded with students and videographers desperate to gain entry into this holy grail we call home. What are you qualifications? how old are you? what is your experience? Where are you based? What are your skills? Do you own a camera? Examples?

Truly for anybody to catch our attention they have to be ‘Creative’ and ‘Different’ in their application let this be a lesson learned we receive around 5 a day currently.

Applications like this only go to one place > the bin, and if that is all the effort you can muster may I suggest a different career path.

All the best.

Now, I would probably slightly disagree with ‘Bob”s description of this industry as a ‘holy grail’ as it makes it sound very exclusive. But it kind of is I guess in the sense that people who work professionally and full time and to a high standard in this arena are normally very hard working, good at communication (unsurprisingly for an industry that is ABOUT communication) and know where to exert effort and to put in extra time. And they all know the value of first impressions and good word of mouth!

Keep your emails short and to the point, attach a short CV, make sure your contact details are all present, be polite but not OVERLY polite or sycophantic, spell check, punctuation check, grammar check, don’t CC lots of companies – personalise it if possible. Most of all, be realistic and humble about where you are at but also show that you can be creative, confident and easy to be around. Follow these basics and you should be OK!

Four. Network (even if you hate the word ‘networking’).

You need to be in touch with what’s going on in your field so that whenever you have a spare moment, there’s something for you to attend. Every city has filmmaking groups, networking evenings, special screenings and events, festivals. Get to as many as possible and talk to people.

Remember the number one rule of networking:
Don’t go in there trying to sell yourself or explain your life to people. Go in with a genuine curiosity about other people’s projects and ask educated questions to find out more.

Showing an interest in other people is the best way to get people to like you. Faking such an interest will be transparent. If the interest in genuinely there, then a great colleague you will make…and other people will be interested in you in return.

Oh and the other big rule – remember people’s names. 🙂

Five. When you DO get some, make the most of it.

A commonly stated rule of film/media production is ‘if you’re not 5 minutes early, you’re 5 minutes late’. Punctuality is absolutely the most essential thing you need to master or you will piss people off. And if you piss people off, you won’t get invited back. You should feel the fact that you’re running 3 minutes late in the pit of your stomach.

Being punctual, not taking excessively long breaks and not asking to leave early are just some of the ways in which you make the most of any work experience opportunity you get. On top of this, you should pay careful attention to all instructions, writing things down if necessary, so that you can avoid making mistakes, missing details or having to ask for instructions to be repeated. At the same time, asking questions for clarification is expected and an important part of the learning. Don’t plough into something without being clear on it.

Use your initiative. Sometimes, this can take a lot of courage and sometimes it can backfire. I would therefore recommend a ‘cautious application of initiative’ when in work experience contexts. I came back to the office from a shoot once to find that the work experience guy had organised all of the cables in the cupboard and labelled them and had put labels on all of the plugs throughout the office to let me know which is the printer, which is the monitor etc etc. Absolutely brilliant initiative and he went on to do paid work for me. So it doesn’t have to be HUGE examples of initiative, just little acts that help with efficiency. You’ve done your list of jobs but before asking for more – can you see anything that OBVIOUSLY needs doing without having to ask? Even if it’s taking the bins out or doing the washing up.

Six. Don’t be exploited.

Don’t let companies take advantage of you unfairly. Make sure you know what to expect in advance and they know that you’re not coming in as a dogsbody. You need to be getting something out of the deal. If it’s not a minimum wage, then it should be a legitimate and substantial learning opportunity.

Seven. Let them come to you.

The best work experience candidates that I have worked with have always gone on to paid freelance work for Sort Of…Films. And of the best, I’d say that 80% did not come to me by sending me a generic email about their 2:1 in Media Production and great passion to work in Film and TV.

By the way, it’s worth noting actually that we don’t produce films or TV programmes, we produce marketing and communications films, mainly for charities and the public sector. Many people approaching us for experience don’t seem to notice that!

The best candidates have come to me via some form of word of mouth. That is, they had already done something that was so cool or so impressive that one of my trusted colleagues or contacts has actually spoken about them in the pub or during a job. One guy had set up and run a small festival at his university and his name just kept getting mentioned by people all over the place. He has been one of my most regular employees for the last 4 years. Another guy organised a huge warehouse arts event with live music, film screenings etc. I went, it was great, I noticed on his facebook page some mention of filmmaking plans and I invited him to come and do some work experience. He’s now a full time locations guy on major TV and Film projects.

Create a buzz around your name (without being a relentless self-promoter), do valuable and meaningful things and make people remember you. Surely getting INVITED to take some work experience without ever contacting that company must feel like a bit of a compliment. 🙂

Feel free to drop me a line through the website if you have any questions about any of the above. I’m also happy to meet people for coffee (assuming we can find a time) to discuss this sort of thing.

Also be sure to check out:
Ideas Tap
Creative England
Film Agency for Wales
Scottish Screen
Northern Ireland Screen