Crew 101: Everything You Need to Know About Getting Your First Job On Set 

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

The film industry is notoriously hard to get started in, and nowhere is that more true than behind the camera. Yes, there are a lot of jobs that need to be done on a set, but landing that first one can be difficult, especially if you don’t know where to start. Luckily, we’re here to help. 

Below, you’ll find information on everything that’s fundamental to getting your crew career off the ground: who’s who on set, actually getting jobs, networking, money, and more.

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Departments + Jobs

While every production is different and the number of people working behind the camera will vary depending on budget, timeframe, and myriad other details, you should be familiar with every job you could find on an extremely robust crew. Not only will this knowledge help inform your future career path, but it’s also extremely useful in understanding how departments work together to make something come to life. 

Below, we break down each of the major crew departments, the most common positions within each, and the hierarchy. Click through for details including career trajectory, earning potential, and what skills you need for each job. 

Production 
The production department handles the actual operations of the project:

Direction 
While the director literally calls the shots, the rest of the direction department is on set to make sure operations run smoothly via scheduling, reports, and call sheets:

Location
These are the people responsible for finding the right locations for a shoot, as well as managing the logistics of the location once shooting begins: 

Transportation
As the name implies, this team provides transportation to and from set for cast members, set elements, props—anything or anyone that needs to be moved: 

Camera 
The hands that literally handle the camera, this department prepares and operates the cameras and monitors, and manages footage and media: 

Grip
If any piece of electrical equipment (cameras, lights, etc.) needs to be supported or moved during filming, this team handles it: 

Electric
Responsible for anything that needs power, this department runs every electrical cable on set: 

Continuity
A department of one that observes and monitors pretty much everything to ensure every piece of the production puzzle comes together properly: 

Sound
The ears of a production, this team captures and records everything from dialogue to background noise: 

Art 
The art department is responsible for ideating and creating the actual look of a production:

Props
If an actor touches or uses an object (not part of a costume) on set, it’s the responsibility of the prop department: 

Costume + Wardrobe
Responsible for the design and procurement of every piece of clothing and accessory work by the cast, from principal talent to extras, as well as dressing actors day-of: 

Hair + Makeup
Exactly what it sounds like, this team handles the hair and makeup (and prosthetics and special effects makeup, if necessary) of all the on-screen talent: 

Special Effects
Any “effect” that has to take place live—smoke, weather, pyrotechnics—is planned, prepared, and executed by the SFX department: 

Visual Effects
Though most visual effects really come to life in post-production, this department is needed on set to make sure the live-action sequences are shot in a way that allows the VFX to seamlessly integrate:

Stunts
The minds and bodies behind any anything considered risky to someone not trained, this department coordinates, choreographs, and performs stunts:

Post-Production
When principal photography ends, the post-production professionals get to work editing, adding effects, mixing, and coloring so the finished product is as close to perfect as possible:

Getting Your First Crew Job

Let’s get this out of the way: There’s no one, clearly-defined path to getting your first crew job. If you’re used to following a linear career path, this may feel discouraging. But it can actually be a good thing: rather than one doorway everyone is trying to get through, there are many you can use to get your foot in. 

But before you start going after jobs, it’s a good idea to have a few things in order. Crew positions are competitive and fill quickly so while there’s no guarantee you’ll be asked for any or all of the following—and certain things will depend on the department—it never hurts to be prepared.

Resume: Your resume should serve as a solid snapshot of who you are, the job you’re applying for, and why you’re qualified to do it. The people in charge of hiring entry-level crew rarely have time to thoroughly read every resume that gets submitted, so make sure yours is clear and the relevant information is easy to find, like your availability (“I can start right away”) and any skills/qualifications you could lend. (A production shooting in two locations on opposite sides of town may need a PA with a valid driver’s license.) And make sure it’s in film production format—anything formatted like a traditional resume is an immediate giveaway that you’ve never worked in film before.

Reel: If you’re applying for a job in the camera department or as part of post-production team, a reel of your work is important. It'll help effectively communicate your skills, experience, style, and aesthetic. 

Portfolio: For visual jobs—art, sets, SFX, costume, hair and makeup—a portfolio of your work may be required. 

Website: Do you have a personal website that’s easy to find by searching your name? Does it feature your credits, past work, reel, etc? Great, you just made it that much easier to hire you. 

Where to Look for Jobs

Like we said earlier, there’s no one way to get your first crew job but here are a few tried and true methods: 

Hit the streets: According to Reddit user Jota769, if you’re serious about getting crew work, head to a production hub like New York, L.A., or Atlanta. Wander around until you inevitably stumble upon shooting permit signs. Call the number on the signs and “ask to be connected to the production office. Pitch yourself and ask if you can send your resume.” An anonymous New York-based 1st AD says that while this is one route, it’s not a hugely successful one since the number on those permit signs is for the location manager, who is likely too buys dealing with location logistics to hire you. 

Instead, if you come across a shoot that’s in progress, consider asking a current crew member if they need more help on set. Reddit user gambalore suggests asking someone to point out the Key PA, wait until they’re not busy, then “let them know you’re interested in working as a PA doing whatever, then give them your number and move on…. Sometimes, when all you need is a warm body to ask people to walk on the other side of the street, you just want to know that the person you’re hiring isn’t a complete moron. The next time they need a whole bunch of PAs for a day, they'll remember that not-a-complete-moron who politely chatted them up and maybe give that person a call.”

For a roundup of productions filming near you that might need to crew up, check out Backstage’s Now Filming. Our Greenlit dispatches are also a great way to keep track of productions that may be coming to your city in the near future. 

Contact the local film office: Any production bigger than a single hand-held camera will likely require a permit, which means the city's film office has a running list of everything that’s about to be or is currently in production. This information may not be available to the public but the film office may have a training program with direct lines to open crew positions, like New York City’s “Made in NY” Production Assistant Training Program or Atlanta’s Georgia Film Academy

Approach camera and gear rental houses: If you know you want to work with cameras or specialized gear, seek out the big rental houses in your city and pitch yourself as a trainee. You’ll likely be working for free, but when productions need to rent equipment and they do so through your rental house, they’ll may need crew to operate everything. 

Apply to job postings: Yup, sometimes it’s as simple as that. From no-budget student films to studio blockbusters, the internet is your friend when it comes to finding crew openings on productions filming near you. Check out resources like Backstage, Production Weekly, Production Bulletin, US Production News, Mandy, and Production Hub to find crew calls and production breakdowns. 

Building Your Network

Unlike most other industries, film and TV jobs don’t really follow the traditional path of finding a long-winded job description, tailoring a resume to the job, crafting a specific cover letter, applying, interviewing, and waiting for an offer. While you do need proof of your work (see the section above), crew jobs are temporary and competition is fierce; when it comes to landing jobs and staying employed, your network is critical. 

What’s your network? It’s the group of industry contacts you amass over time who can vouch for you, hire you, recommend you for jobs. Bottom line: they keep you employed. 

When you’re just starting out, your network will likely be pretty slim; you build your network through professional jobs and you haven’t really had many yet. But the minute you get that first gig, it’s time to start making those connections that will lead to your next job and the one after that and the one after that. 

How + Why You Need to Build Your Crew Network

Not convinced this is really how crew gets hired? One New York City 2nd AD told us that when he needs to hire PAs, the first thing he does is text a group of trusted former co-workers to ask if they know anyone looking for work they’d be willing to vouch for. If that first group can’t come up with enough people, they then go out to their trusted circle, and so on and so on until that 2nd AD is swimming in hardworking, trusted PAs. 

The further you get in your career, the more invaluable this group of people will be. Just look at Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who started as an assistant to Martin Scorsese and now runs his production company. Or Nat Sanders, who went to film school with Barry Jenkins before becoming his go-to editor. Or Ruth E. Carter, who met Spike Lee while she was working as a backstage dresser in an L.A. theater, and then went on to design costumes for 12 of his films. 

Life as a Freelancer

Once you get that first job—and hopefully many more after that—you’ll quickly have to learn how to live life as a freelancer. Yes, there are some crew positions that are considered staff or full-time, but the majority of crew members—especially in the early stages of their careers—are freelancers. As such, there are several things to consider and be aware of as you get into this line of work: 

Money: For a good idea of what you can expect to make as a crew member, click through the job titles above for annual earnings information. 

Taxes: As the saying goes, there are two things that are guaranteed: death and taxes. As a freelance crew member, you’re about to get very familiar with the latter. Unlike full-time, salaried employees, freelancers have to jump through a few extra hoops when tax season rolls around so it’s helpful if you understand what’s coming and what you’ll need before that time arrives. To hold your hand through it all, check out The Black and Blue’s series on doing taxes as a freelancer

Healthcare: As you get further into your production career and likely join a union, you’ll reap the benefit of the organization’s health insurance plans. But until then, you may be left to find coverage on your own. Sure, major studios typically offer health insurance as part of an employment agreement, there is no industry standard—for example, Universal Studios does not offer health coverage to assistants on shows that are in their first season and employees must work for one year to be eligible—but what if you’re working on an indie? Or a low-budget feature? Or a web series? Or a digital media video? If you’re younger than 26, you can remain on your parents’ plan (if they’ll have you). After that, you’ll have to purchase your own healthcare. Here are several resources to help you navigate the process: 

Lifestyle: If there’s a common thread that runs through every crew position, it’s a lack of work-life balance. Yes, the work is interesting and exciting and no two days are the same, but the work is also hard—mentally and physically—and requires very long hours,  backbreaking labor, a lot of standing around, and work that is rarely acknowledged. (Don’t believe us? Check out this video of a day in the life of a PA.) There are no vacation days during production; but once a job has wrapped, all you have might be days off—when you′re not making money. On location? That can mean weeks or months away from home and your family. 

“If you don’t like long hours, hard work, and a lack of personal time, though, then it’s probably not for you,” says location manager Jason Allen.

But if you love being part of a team and working with likeminded individuals to produce something; if you’re obsessed with film and TV and video of all kinds; if you’re willing to put in the hard work for immense payoff years down the line...there’s no better place to be than a production crew. 

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!

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