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The Journey

Getting started, building your career and advancing below-the-line

Image: Luke Cyprian

Mapping your journey into below-the-line work

While the Motion Picture industry can be highly competitive, there are often timely opportunities and no “right” way to enter into work in this industry.

However, below-the-line work is highly “networked”, meaning that industry traditionally recruits new entrants that have been recommended to them, and often favours those willing to work in entry level postions, or those with focused skills, onto productions where they will work on “day calls”. Working on day calls helps build film work experience, which is most often required to become a union or guild member (a process which typically starts with a permittee phase).

 

Getting In

There are many ways to enter the below-the-line workforce in B.C.’s film industry. But sometimes it can feel like an invisible door for entry. This is because most work is not advertised on traditional job boards and the union and guild path has some nuanced complexities. 

The majority of below-the-line workers find work through networks and start as a Production Assistant (or PA), which is where the union and guild-style informal on-the-job training offers entry and exposure to production work.

Other pathways into work depend on your specialized skill set and certifications, such as working as a driver or carpenter – learn about skills in the Departments and Roles section. But all pathways in, from “brand new to working for a living” to professionals in other industries who are mid-career, depend on your being “set ready”, having a basic understanding the union and guild system, and getting to know other people working below-the-line in production.

Becoming "Set Ready"

For most – but not all – productions you need to belong to a union or guild to be hired, but you need to have film and television work experience to join a union or guild.

We know, it’s difficult to understand what this means and where to begin. But there are some baseline requirements and on-the-job work experiences that can position you to be more “set ready”.

The reason entrants need to be “set ready” is that whether you know how to be a carpenter, hairstylist or landscaper outside the film industry, you’ll absolutely need to learn how to adapt your skills to perform these functions within the highly structured and specialized demands of production.  For example, a hairstylist working at a salon does not need typically need to think about script continuity or applying dirt to hair, but a hairdresser working in film certainly does. 

In film there is a priority on safety – with their own Actsafe training organization. There’s also a clear “chain of command” that operates on all productions, so everyone who moves from show to show shares a common understanding of who, where, when, and how increasingly of complex levels of decision-making happens. Finally, there’s an intensity that includes both waiting patiently on alert and moving at a rapid pace with all hands collaborating – all in order to work effectively and to bring a script into reality on time and on budget.

BASIC COURSES

Prepare yourself with some basic training before you seek to get work. The minimum requirements to work as a PA and in most other departments are the following four courses:

  1. MPIO – Motion Picture Industry Orientation (mandatory)
  2. WHMIS – Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (required by many departments)
  3. MP 101 Safety Awareness (mandatory)
  4. BC Traffic Safety Control Certification (applicable for PA’s only)

 DO YOUR RESEARCH

Above all, be resourceful, take initiative and try every angle. Get to know the industry organizations, production companies, filmmaking initiatives, and other networks and events in your area of interest.

Links to the basic courses are part of the Opportunities section of this site where you can get immersed in the industry and discover places online and events in person to do your research and begin your outreach.

Use the Resources section of this site to build your personal toolkit.

New Entrant Pathway

Most who work in film start as a PA  

Whether you are just starting your working life or bring years of work experience from another industry, working as a below-the-line crew member often starts in an assistant role, most commonly as a Production Assistant (called a PA). 

This entry-level position offers work experience and a look into all the unique departments that make up a production. In B.C., PA’s are covered by the Directors Guild of Canada – BC and are most often hired by the Locations Department.

PA’s work on both “Union-Signatory” OR “Non-Union-Signatory” shows

A Union-Signatory production is a show whose employer must hire crew from various B.C.’s unions and guilds, depending on the master agreements.   In order to work on union-signatory productions as a PA,  you will want to understand the steps need to progress through the PA permittee and membership process with the Directors Guild of Canada – BC Chapter (DGC BC).

Alternatively,  some B.C. based productions are not signatory to master agreements. These are sometimes known as a “non-union production”, and can range from commerical production, documentaries and reality television, to indepedent films.  The crew (including the PA’s) can be hired through networking. It’s a good starting place to get critical film work experience –  whether you want to join a union or not.

Once you have some skills and work experience, maintaining strong relationships from project to project is an important part of hearing about and getting hired on your next production project as a PA. When just starting out, even if you don’t have all the skills, you’ll be remembered and hired again for your attitude and dependability. Read about the general Competencies desired by most hirers and Department Heads in B.C.’s film industry.

Mid-Career Transfer Pathway

Skilled Trades and Craftspeople Need to Gain Production Experience to Enter

While the Production Assistant pathway is often taken even by mid-career professionals transferring into the industry, skills, certifications and training from other industries are transferable into below-the-line work. Licensed drivers may find work in a production’s transportation department if it fits their career goals.

Bookkeepers can work in production accounting and carpenters can find work building sets.

If union or guild membership is a fit for you, consult these labour organizations’ own websites directly, to understand the certification or licensing requirements from your chosen field (such as a Class 1 unrestricted drivers’ license).  In the meantime, the illustration at the bottom of this page provides an overview.

With some exceptions, the path to union and guild membership requires that you work towards gathering the requisite days of paid work experience in below-the-line motion picture production. This can be gained by working on the production of commercials, short films or independent feature films.

Knowing the right people

Networking and knowing the right people in the industry is often said to be the single most important factor to getting work, and this can be your biggest challenge or your greatest opportunity. Because people often have small social circles, many people seeking to enter have not been able to see the way in or had access to these networks.

Creative Pathways seeks to offer information to all British Columbians about how to get started and get experience while making access more equitable through programs and opportunities for people from underrepresented groups.

Education and Advancement

Beyond the basic courses that prepare entrants to be “set ready”, plenty of on-the-job informal apprentice-style training is available within the industry.  Many below-the-line positions require appropriate licenses and/or certification to enter the workforce. Once hired, training on new technology and work processes makes for a lot of active learning on the job.

While the below-the-line workforce is highly educated, formal education is not needed to enter.  A recent labour market study found that 72% of B.C.’s below the line workforce possesses further education (vs. 61% in B.C. overall) and 64% possess higher education (vs. 52% in B.C. overall).

Most of the training available for the workforce is through their union or guild and third parties. Union-sponsored workshops, informal coaching and mentoring and workshops offered by third parties are all accessible. For union members, courses are often subsidized, and some courses such as Motion Picture General Safety and  Climate and Sustainable Production training is free for members.  See what training is available for permittees and members through ACFC West and IATSE Local 891.

 

“A Production Assistant can become a Producer by showing up to do hard work. The opportunities for advancement are immense.”

~ Production Manager

Taking the Production Assistant Pathway into Below-the-Line Work

Begin your below-the-line journey as a Production Assistant (or PA), where you will gain paid film work experience and form a network of connections.

Unlike most below-the-line positions, this entry-level role requires no previous film work experience.

On many B.C. productions, the PA role is covered by the Directors Guild of Canada – BC (DGC BC).  However, PA’s are needed on all types of productions (commercials, shorts, independent films) and are hired through informal networks such as Facebook Groups (BC PAX is one such group that many PAs are hired from).

A PA role typically has two paths for advancement:

    1. Work as a PA with a goal to becoming a member of the DGC BC (as detailed in Steps 1 through 3 here)
    2. Work as a PA with a goal to joining another below-the-line department (not covered by the DGC BC).

Start as a “Production Assistant Helper” (a PA Helper)

    TWO DIFFERENT PATHWAYS DEPENDING ON YOUR GOALS

    Path A: If working in departments covered by the DGC BC are your goal (Assistant Directing, Locations and Production Management), then

    Path B: If roles covered by other unions are your goal

    • Work as a PA, securing freelance work using the DGC BC Production list and your network of connections
    • PAs often use their qualifying days of paid film work experience and network of connections to seek opportunities in other departments covered by the unions

    If you don’t know what you want to do in the industry, but you like working below-the-line, the best practice is to apply for the DGC BC’s Permittee Logbook Holder program so your options remain open.

    DGC BC – PA Associate Member

    To progress to “Associate Member Status” as a PA, Permittee Logbook Holders must work a minimum of 150 days on 3 separate DGC BC signatory productions.

    While accruing work days, the following courses (only available through DGC BC) must be completed:

    1. DGC Fundamentals
    2. TAD/TAL Training
    3. Film Leadership Essentials

    Every position above Production Assistant and/or Trainee Assistant Director (TAD) or Trainee Assistant Location Manager (TAL) must have full DGC BC Member Status.

    The DGC BC covers roles in Locations, Assistant Directors, Production Management.

    Directing positions have unique requirements.

    Many productions in B.C. are “union signatory shows”

    This means that the majority of B.C. productions seeking to hire crew must hire them from within the membership of one or more of B.C.’s six motion picture unions and guilds.

    Almost all below-the-line workers are freelance workers with benefits provided by their respective unions or guild. Work is not guaranteed by any union or guild and is instead subject to market forces.

    Many union and guilds workers are hired for the duration of the production, with some specialists working a set number of scheduled days.  Some unions and guilds also provide workers for a single day of work (known as day calls) using a dispatch system or “hiring hall” to meet increased labour needs.   Only one union (Teamsters 155) uses a seniority system for hiring below-the-line workers.

    Top picks within this site for further action and learning

    Learn about entry to unions and guilds

    Discover equity programs

    Check out relevant opportunities

    Build your freelance toolkit

    Training on the job in a guild-style industry

    “Skills are teachable, but attitude is paramount.”

    ~Special Effects Supervisor, Labour Market Study, 2019
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