To make your Movie Magic, the average feature film production will need at least a dozen crew members, and we’re going to show you who to hire, how to find them and what their responsibilities will be.
Contributing to this article are two independent filmmakers with amazing longevity in the industry. Both have written books on filmmaking and you should read them. With dozens of films under each of their belts, they know what they’re talking – and writing – about!
David Heavener has been in the film industry for more than 30 years. His talent for doing it himself caused Entertainment Weekly to name him “the one-man movie making machine.” David will be the first to tell you that the label isn’t exactly true, but he is often the director, producer, star and singer/songwriter in his movies, and there are rumors that he even runs the craft services table and works the boom mic! He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Full Force Filmmaking.
Lloyd Kaufman) is probably the only independent filmmaker who has been making movies successfully for more than 40 years. He currently serves on the board of the Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA) and was its chairman from 2007 – 2011. The IFTA is the voice of the independent filmmaking community. He is also the author of six books that mentor young filmmakers, including Make Your Own Damn Movie and Direct Your Own Damn Movie. His wife Pat was president of the New York Film Office for 25 years.
There are three stages to making a movie: pre-production, production and post-production. While we all know that the fun part is production — and post, for those of us who love to edit — pre-production is the most important stage. During pre-production, you’ll determine who will be making your movie with you. Your budget will be one very important determining factor in who you hire. If you are working with an extremely limited budget, then you’re going to need to find cheap or free help, which we will soon show you how to attain. If you are working a larger budget, you’ll probably want to work with more experienced personnel at the most critical positions, known as Above-the-Line crew. Check out the sidebar to learn more about Above-the-Line versus Below-the-Line personnel.
Have you ever sat through the credits of any major Hollywood film? There are hundreds of people involved — and not all in the production stage. Of course, you don’t need to hire hundreds, or even dozens, of crew. Many of those positions are a luxury afforded the big studios and production companies. We are going to teach you the basics of building a small indie crew and how to find them. If you have a larger production, you can — and should — add additional people to your team, as there is a lot of work involved in creating magic.
Let’s start with the essential personnel, and then we’ll work on how to find them and, most important, how to find the people who best fit your needs. The amount of personnel that you’ll need will obviously vary from one type of shoot to another; the larger the set, the more crew is needed. The three most important jobs in a crew are:
- Project Manager
As this is going to be your movie, you absolutely must take on one of these roles or it will not be your movie by the time it’s finished. It’s important that you hire competent, experienced people whom you know and trust for the other two positions.
On a micro-budget shoot, everyone is going to take on multiple roles. The producer is a prime example. Along with the standard producer roles, this person will also take on the responsibilities of location manager, location scout, set designer and usually casting director, although the director may be the one to take on this role instead, or you can hire a professional casting director. The producer will be the one who accepts overall responsibility for the film. He will be the one responsible for getting the financing, finding and arranging the sets, dealing with finances — both incoming and outgoing — marketing the movie and arranging distribution. It’s primarily the producer’s job to hire personnel and keep the project on-track and on-time from the very beginning of the project through distribution.
The director is the creative mastermind of the project. Aside from calling “action,” the director also works with the cast to ascertain that they are all on the same page — and not just while on-set. The director works with the actors in pre-production to help them understand the vision of the film and therefore their role in it. He will also be in charge of all read-throughs of the script and work with the camera team to make sure that the set and the lighting are done properly. The director will work closely with the producer so that they are both heading toward the same goal.
While the director manages the creative aspects of the film, the production manager is in charge of its technical facets. Budgeting, payroll, model releases, coordinating with the assistant director, scheduling and renting/buying equipment fall under her jurisdiction. In larger productions, many of the responsibilities of the PM fall under the domain of the line producer. As with the director and producer, the production manager also works on the project from pre-to-post.
The first crew position that the ruling triumvirate should hire is the Cinematographer/Director of Photography/Camera Operator. Yes, those are three jobs, but in a small production, they should be filled by one person, and this one person should be hired by the director, as they will be working so closely together that it’s best if they can read each other’s thoughts. It’s very important that the director is comfortable with the cinematographer.
The first crew position that the ruling triumvirate should hire is the Cinematographer/Director of Photography/Camera Operator.
Typically on ultra-low-budget shoots, this person will provide the camera package and sometimes ask to bring their own gaffer along. The way that the shoot generally works is that the director will tell the DP what he wants the scene to look like and the DP will set up the lighting and camera angles to make this vision work.
Although, as we’ve discussed, it is common that the cinematographer will supply the entire camera package, you should always have a backup camera and lights, as Hollywood horror stories abound. One morning, around 2:00, I received an email from my DP that he would be unable to make it to the shoot — with a scheduled crew call of 8:00 that morning. I was fortunate in that my sound guy (aka Production Sound Mixer, but we’ll get to that shortly) brought extra help and we ended up having just enough people to make the shoot happen. Others aren’t so fortunate. David Heavener warns us that on the movie “Fugitive X,” “I hired a Director of Photography who brought in all of his camera crew friends, the soundman and the script supervisor. After two days … I had to fire him. Guess what? He left and took his friends with him—half of my crew! Even worse, it was his camera package! If you hire a DP with his own equipment, just understand your vulnerability.”
Another crew member whom the director needs to hire is his assistant director. The AD is very important to maintaining order on the set. She will be the one to make sure that cast and crew are all aware of what they need to do each day. Preparing call sheets, checking personnel, keeping the director and producer aware of any issues that only they can solve and taking care of logistics are all part of the AD’s job.
The gaffer is the head of lighting and he’ll work closely with the director of photography to make sure that the lighting is to the director’s liking. Again, if the DP has someone that he really likes working with, you should probably hire that gaffer; otherwise, the director would be the best person to hire this position.
Another important role to fill is that of script supervisor. A scripty is the person who ensures continuity and without continuity, you are looking directly at serious trouble in the form of reshoots and those are about the scariest thing that you can have happen. Because of exactly how important this is, I am going to reiterate: if you don’t use a script supervisor in your shoot, you are begging for disaster.
A script supervisor who takes her job seriously will have learned her craft from going to a scripty school. If you’re fortunate, you’ll find one who also has a few shoots under her belt, but this is one of those positions where you don’t hire your mom and expect it to work out fine – it won’t! The good script supervisor will keep a large binder in which to write her notes and make notes on every shot. She will also be the one who makes sure that every scene gets shot and that the clapperboard operator has each scene and take written properly on the clapper. As a director, I never call for a teardown on any shot until consulting with my scripty – never! It’s her job to make sure that every last thing is in place from one shot to the next, from the actors’ makeup to the props to the lighting angle. A good scripty will stay with the production through post, assisting the editor with continuity the way she helped the director during production. Some directors feel that they don’t need a script supervisor. They’re wrong.
Because sound is every bit as important as video, a good production sound mixer should accompany every video that you make. The PSM will work with the boom mic holder and take care of all mics, as well as the sound mixer. You will also need a post-production sound person, known as the sound designer, so before hiring your sound mixer, make sure that he’s available for that work, or find someone else who will be able to. However, it’s best to have the post-sound guy on set, so if your PSM can also work post, you’re golden!
Just as every army needs privates, every set needs production assistants! To continue the army analogy: the more PAs the better — unless your set has PAs tripping over each other, then you’ll want to send some people home. Use your PAs to do all the small tasks around the set that would otherwise keep your key personnel busy doing tasks that are beneath them. Some examples include:
- Taping down wires
- Operating the clapperboard
- Getting model releases signed
- Checking mics
- Standing in for actors during sound and lighting checks
Also, do your best to keep them from hogging the craft services table. We’ve all had to work with PAs who seem to think that it was ordered exclusively for them.
If you are shooting people, and it’s almost certain that you are, you should employ at least one person who is skilled at hair and makeup; preferably someone who understands the difference between “real world” makeup and film/video makeup. This way, you’ll have someone who understands what will — and what won’t — work under the lights of the soundstage. Even if you’re running a zero-budget production, please be ready to pay your MUA a “kit fee” because a good artist will bring her own tools to your shoot. She deserves to get something back for her investment. If you are taking your production seriously enough to hire hair and makeup, remember that more actors in a scene equates to more stylists. It’s cheaper and safer to have MUAs waiting around after the shot begins than to have actors in full makeup waiting around for the other actors to get readied for the scene – it also keeps the actors from mutinying on the set — not pretty. Once you’ve hired your lead stylist, work with her on how many people she’ll need to help and seek her advice hiring assistants. People don’t learn hair and makeup in a vacuum; they know plenty of others and they should know who can cut it and who can’t!
In a smaller production, a producer may handle the props and wardrobe, but in most cases, it’s best to hire one or two people to handle these tasks. Many costume designers also make good props masters, so you can often save a salary if you get the right person to handle both. You should keep your costumer on set in case any emergency adaptations need to be done, as it happens more often than you think.
Once you finish filming, you’ll need a video editor. Sometimes this is the same person as the director, but if it’s not, he’ll have to work with the director to make sure that the final product fits the director’s vision. Some editors are capable of adding in special effects and color correcting as well as cutting the film — and some are not. If you find an editor who is good at making the cuts, but not adding in the important nuances that will add greatly to the final product, then you’ll probably want to hire someone to add those finishing touches, as well.
Unless your shoot is going to be very small and very short, you should also hire security. The more people on the set, the more security personnel you’ll need. Ensure that the security personnel are loyal to you, so either hire close friends and family or pay them well. Oh, and don’t even think of telling them to stay away from the craft services table, but do try to limit their access to it. I once had a security guard who thought it was his job to protect everyone else from the evils of the craft services table and had to go over there myself between takes and explain to him what his job actually was!
One more important note: if your production includes stunts, you must include an experienced stunt coordinator and be sure to carry at least $1,000,000 insurance and have EMS on hand. Stunts often go wrong and lawyers love to sue. David tells us that, in one of his productions, the stuntman was supposed to jump off the bridge and land on a mattress in the back of a moving truck. He missed. His lawyer sued everyone from David’s production company to the company that made the mattress — the one that he failed to land on. Don’t do stunts without first seeking professional help.
Of the positions described above, you should request a demo reel from the following people:
- Assistant Director
- Hair, Makeup
- Wardrobe, Props
- Script Supervisor
- Production Sound Manager
Where to find Crew
When you hire crew, your main goal will be to work with competent people who can get along. Who do you get along with best? The same people who will have your best interests at heart — friends and (sometimes) family. The big advantages are that you know what to expect of these people, so that you don’t toss them in over their heads, and they’ll work cheap — because they want you to succeed. The disadvantage is that they are probably not very experienced, so be sure not to give them positions that they can’t handle. David Heavener recommends that, if any of your friends or family are big guys, make sure they are on the security team.
Lloyd Kaufman says that the number one thing to look for in a crew (or cast) member is passion for making the movie.
Lloyd Kaufman says that the number one thing to look for in a crew (or cast) member is passion for making the movie. “Everyone you hire must be 100% dedicated to the cause. If they’re not willing to sleep on the floors and eat cheese sandwiches every day of production, then they’re not the people you want working on your movie.”
He goes on to tell us that while making “Class of Nuke ‘em High” I and II, the entire cast and crew slept on the floors of an abandoned funeral home that was formerly owned by a mafia don who allegedly carried out hits in the basement. Multiple people reported seeing ghosts and some of the lucky ones got to sleep in coffins when they weren’t relegated to sleeping on the floors. But Lloyd explains that it wasn’t all bad — working that closely with people forms lifelong bonds and several marriages have come from cast and crew who met on Troma sets, including the funeral home!
Let’s start with the obvious. We at Videomaker have a job board located at https://www.videomaker.com/forum/employment. Other resources include www.Mandy.com, www.Backstage.com www.Variety.com, and www.Craigslist.org. These all have free job listings, although you have to sign up for most. Lloyd Kaufman also suggests that, in addition to these resources, you maintain an online presence where you can post available jobs to your fans, who will be more passionate about making movies with you than someone you find on Craigslist. Of course, since Lloyd’s been in the movie business long before the Internet, it is much easier for him than someone trying to make their first movie. The good news is that you have an entire career ahead of you to build your fanbase.
One other problem with Craigslist is that hiring Below-the-Line crew is very difficult. Many of these people are only in it for the money, so if you’re not offering union scale, they’ll be offended and, rather than ignoring your ad, flag it so that your perfectly legitimate ad will get deleted multiple times per day. The same isn’t true when looking for producers and directors.
Once you’ve hired your team, it’s a great idea to have at least two sessions during pre-production to go over important information. While holding these meetings, get a feel for how well the crew gets along with each other; this should show you how well they’ll work together. If someone is acting diva-like or you smell a conflict brewing, now is the time to take action. The movie’s production may only last a few weeks, but they will be intense, often 12-hours-per-day, so you do not want conflict.
Film schools! If you are looking for people who will gladly work for credit — and maybe a few bucks to help them out with gas — and who will be eager and creative, there is no better place to look for all of your movie-making needs than your local film school. It’s also a great place to get actors and post-production help — and sometimes editing facilities, too.
Personally, I think of my crew as my team and cast as hired help, but David suggests that you also use your actors as crew on your film. His theory is that all of the people on the set should think of themselves as movie makers and not simply directors, PAs, actors, or — yes, actors should also think of themselves as movie makers and as such should involve themselves in the process of making the movie by getting involved in the crew.
Local shoots. Getting on set is a great way to pick off crew, but don’t look to hire the department heads if your movie isn’t going to have a large budget. Instead, get to be friends with their assistants and, if you get along, offer them a position as the department head in your next film. They won’t expect the same pay as the department head on a larger film, but they will be eager to get closer to their goals and excited to have the title and the responsibility.
Lloyd Kaufman tells us that, in order to learn how to make movies, he would work with directors whom he admired — and not just on film sets. He would be their errand boy when they weren’t shooting and that would get him jobs that kept him close to the director when they were shooting. Not only did he learn his craft from the best in the business, but he would also come out with a letter of recommendation from a master.
Film Commissions. These are the same people that you’ll need to work with on other important matters such as permits and tax incentives. Most states and major cities have a film commission and their job is to get you to film in their area, so they will be very willing to work with you, even as a novice video creator. They are also likely to have free job listings on their web sites. While shooting in Philadelphia, I turned to www.film.org and they were wonderfully helpful, even though our productions were small! If you’re shooting in or around Los Angeles, you have the California Film Commission (http://www.film.ca.gov/) and the Los Angeles Film Commission (www.FilmLA.com) to work with. These are all great resources. Do a search for the film commission in your state or municipality; it’s well worth the effort.
Network, Network, Network!
If you’re serious about getting into the business, you’ve heard all three of those words before. That’s because they’re true. Networking is the key to making it in this industry. Whether you’re looking for executive producers to finance your film, actors, producers or PAs, you need to meet like-minded people who are also looking for a break in the industry — or for those who’ve already made it. In L.A., you can find myriad movie networking events at least 360 days every year if you try.
While networking, remember that the people whom you meet also know other people. Let’s say you meet a camera operator and you learn to trust her abilities and skills, but you’re not looking for a DP on your upcoming shoot. Although you may not need to hire her, she could be the one who can recommend a great gaffer, so ask her opinion. Quality references in this industry are pure gold!
Sidebar: Above-the-Line vs. Below-the-Line.
There are people within the industry who believe that “Below the Line” is a derogatory term; it isn’t. The “line” refers to how a crew member gets paid. Those who are “below the line” get paid a straight salary that is based on only two factors: budget and position. In order to improve their pay, people in BtL positions need to work their way up to movies with larger budgets.
Those who work “above the line” get paid according to the budget and the amount of money that the project earns, along with their experience/skills. Once you have paid your dues by working on lower budget productions, you will start getting a reputation. If it’s a good rep — and you’ve networked properly — you will be asked to work on higher-budget films. The top directors and producers make millions of dollars per film because they are usually paid in “points,” which is a percentage of the film (one point = one percent). If the film flops, the AtL people won’t make anything more than their base salary, but if it’s a success, these are the folks who reap the financial benefits. Although not mentioned in the article, the screenwriter is also an “above the line” person.
However you choose to make your living in the industry, networking is always important. No other business is as collaborative as making movies, so keep your name, face and reputation out there.
Of the positions we discussed in this article, here is a breakdown of where they fit:
Above the Line
- Production Manager
Below the Line
- Script Supervisor
- Production Sound Mixer
- Assistant Director
- Hair, Makeup
- Wardrobe, Props
- Stunt coordinator
Although these positions are “below the line,” the top cinematographers, editors, wardrobe, hair and makeup artists and stunt coordinators are paid very high salaries.
John McCabe is a Los Angeles based freelance screenwriter and director.