I’ve worked professionally, on and off, as a lighting technician in film and television since 2007. I’ve been a union member since 2009. The key to the above statement is “on and off”. Another phrase we affectionately attribute to this phenomenon is “feast or famine”.
Working in the film industry is a roller coaster ride. One month, it will be so busy we’ll be pulling people off the street to work as technicians. The next month, it will be so slow that technicians who have been at it for twenty years can’t even get work. The month after that, it’s crazy busy again.
There is no perfect solution to this. You can’t always predict when it will be busy or dead. Shows come and go without warning. The longest dry spell I lived through happened in Vancouver, I think happened between 2011 and 2013. Two years were the number of productions was at a severe low. I had to beg for film/tv work and I made a big chunk of my income by working as a stage hand on rock concerts and live events. I have fond memories from my “rock and roll” days, but it’s not a line of work you want to do long term.
Things became so bleak, that film employees in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia in general, created a campaign called “Save BC Film” in order to convince Hollywood Studios and American Networks to bring shows back up to Vancouver. I won’t go into the politics of what went down, or how tax credits played into it, but Hollywood came back and in force.
Because of the uncertainty, there can be a lot of anxiety in crew people. We have very little sense of security. It’s really tough for people with families and mortgages. The cost of living in both Vancouver and Toronto are beyond ridiculous. I lived in Vancouver for eight years and I have lived in Toronto for five years. Not the easiest of cities to live in. For an english speaking Canadian film technician, those are my two choices. I live below my means, so that helps.
The anxiety gets to a lot of people. Some technicians latch onto a specific Gaffer (chief lighting technician) and crew, who get a lot of work. I’ve seen crews work three shows in a row, or more, without a real break in between, while working 60-80 hour weeks. It keeps the money coming in, but leaves no room for hobbies or time spent with family. It’s the nature of the beast.
Personally, I don’t take “show calls”. I can’t commit to a single show. What I do, is accept “day calls” or “dailies”. I work as an extra tech when extra techs are needed, which is most of the time. This is a regular thing. It gives me more freedom. I can work when I want. The problem is, when we are hit with a lull, I don’t have any job security.
I choose to work as a day call because life doesn’t follow the ups and downs of the film industry. Also, and this is ironic, being an independent filmmaker and a film technician at the same time, don’t really compliment each other. If I have a short film to shoot, and all the paid work pops up at the same time, I have to turn down the work and shoot my short. After months of planning, you can’t just cancel your own shoot, even if you are in desperate need of cash. The show must go on.
My life is a game of Russian Roulette, and I’ve developed strategies to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty. It doesn’t make it easy. Most filmmakers who start working in film/tv as technicians, assistant directors, carpenters, or any other trade/position eventually give up their creative endeavours. It’s just torturous to balance the two. A filmmaker is almost better off working a normal nine-five job while continuing to shoot their own films on the weekend. Then again, there are no perfect solutions and most people don’t get “discovered”.
Working on feature films, pilots, MOWs, and television series can be exciting, and you get to see a lot of crazy shit, but it is a roller coaster ride. Sit down, strap yourself in, and prepare to vomit up your insides.
You can learn more about the author at About Me.