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11.30.2007

When It's Better to Work Alone

I just got booted for the first time from a film set.

Oh sure, there have been times in the past where I wasn't needed so I got put outside to watch the equipment or make sure a 5k didn't fall through a window. That's rather typical on sets. But, no, I was asked to leave a set I had volunteered my help for and spent a considerable amount of time helping them out.

When the director (who was also acting as producer) first contacted me, he mentioned that he normally works alone and for his upcoming big project he knew he needed help and wanted someone like me who knew my way around film to help. Sounds cool.

A month later I still hadn't heard anything else. I had asked for any information he might have to help me prepare for assisting. Then, the day of a meeting I was told that there was a meeting about the film shoot. So I dropped everything for this guy and went to the meeting. I was rather shocked to find out that filming began the next day, and they wanted people all day for three days this week. Thankfully I was able to get out of my other engagements to help them out.

Lesson 1: If you want to work with others, communicate with them a lot. Some people say you should be in "constant" communication, but that's a tad overkill. At least give your crew the dates you want to film as you figure them out... not the day before.

Lesson 2: If you are typically a Director type, you will need to work extra hard on communicating with everyone on your team because you are not a Producer.

The first night of filming the director showed up 15 minutes after "call time" when he had made it clear that he would show up an hour early to make sure we could just start setting up right when we got there since he did not have storyboards or lighting setups. The next morning he rolled in an hour late.

Lesson 3: Show up on time, especially if you're working with volunteers. If you're paying me my going rate to sit around for an hour because you can't get your act together, no skin off my nose. But abusing volunteers is never a good idea.

Then, when we asked him what he wanted us to do, he would typically tell us to wait until he had thought about it.

Lesson 4: Pre-Production is important. It allows your crew to begin work right away which translates into less time on set.

When we finally got around to setting up lights for him, he never communicated what he wanted. Instead, if we asked him what he wanted he would go off and move the lights himself. Nothing wrong with getting involved, but things would go much better if you let your team do their jobs and merely direct.

Then this morning he pulled me aside and told me, "Luke, I asked that people just talk to me if they had a suggestion. You have been talking to the whole set, and I would appreciate it if you would just talk to me."

Confused, I tried to explain that all of my comments had always been directed only to him so he could make the call. I ended by saying, "I guess I've been too loud. I'll make sure to just make comments to you from now on."

From that moment on, when I had a comment I was sure to speak it in a low voice so only he would hear me. Things seemed to be going fine.

Lesson 5: Just like this director demonstrated, it is always good to pull people aside if you have a problem with them. It was great that he just talked with me so things could get fixed.

Then I was helping set up a light that he had not specifically asked for so we could ask him if he liked it. He came into the room, noticed what we were doing and suggested that instead of "just doing" things, we should be more "inquisitive" and ask the director before doing things. I tried to explain that we were setting up a light to ask him if he wanted it (so he could see it rather than just try to imagine it). He told me to come out into the hall to chat. Once there he said, "This is an attitude thing. You've just been throwing around your film terms and acting like you know everything, and that's not working for me. So, you should just go."

I said, "Thanks for letting me be part of your set, and if you ever need help let me know." I collected my things and walked out.

Once outside, I started laughing.

Lesson 6: It was very good of him to recognize that he was not happy with people doing their jobs without his express direction. It was also good of him to mention that the reason he was letting me go was because it wasn't working for him. The fact of the matter is that I am not a jerk (I can be at times, I know) and that was not the reason for kicking me off the set. It was a conflict with his style, and he recognized that. Perfect. May we all be so gracious.

Lesson 7: Return the courtesy, even if they don't give it to you. Never leave a project making a scene or yelling. Just move on and thank them for the opportunity. Take what lessons you can away with you, but don't try to "win" anything by arguing.

Lesson 8: If you prefer to work alone, do so.

If you are considering making a larger production and you have a history of working alone, I will offer just a few more tips before I close this post:

Tip 1: Utilize people's skills. I have worked with a director who has truly grasped the idea of surrounding yourself with people smarter than you so you look better. If someone knows how to do something that you do not, let them take over. It will only make you look better in the end. And watch those talented people and see what you can learn from them.

Tip 2: Be humble. You know you are not going to be doing this perfectly. Admit your shortcomings, ask for feedback, and stay in a posture of learning. This can be hard to do in a situation of stress, and so all the more reason to be conscious of personal pride that will leave you alone.

What lesson do I need to learn? The big one is probably this: If I volunteer to be on someone's set, I may need to leave my ideas behind. I should have been more attentive to this director's frustration with me "taking over" his set by trying to be helpful. If people don't want you to be helpful you will be much more helpful if you sit back and wait for them to tell you what they want. If they feel like they need to be in control, I need to be respectful of that even if it is inefficient, ineffective, and inane. I signed up. If I truly am there to serve I need to be happy to serve in whatever way they want.

Oh yes, I have a lot of learning and growing ahead of me as well.

~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor

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