Film industry minions aren't just relegated to the popular "Despicable Me" series. Nope, for every one of those beloved, if largely incoherent yellow guys, there's probably a thousand real life worker bees currently slaving away on any given film. For such a megabucks industry, the film world is especially chintzy at sharing the love, both in monetary terms or sheer appreciation for a job well done. Responsible for the zillions of production moments that precede a red-carpet premiere, film workers in the trenches navigate a process that is often (sometimes exclusively) rife with many mundane and even downright unenjoyable details. Serious celebs, screenwriters, directors and the like command sick paychecks for their long workdays, whereas much of the remaining crew is paid pathetic (and I do mean pathetic) ducats by comparison. Tack on incredibly long hours and questionable work environments and you might wonder why people would take on those lowly roles – and even beg for them.
Most film enthusiasts completely expect to pay the proverbial dues for a while before moving onward and upward to cushier gigs. Others simply love movies and get a natural high from being part of the Hollywood experience in ways that most of us can only imagine. Whether you're considering making your mark on Tinseltown, or simply want to live vicariously through those who already do, check out our list of often thankless film industry gigs.
Matthew McConaughey. Shirtless. Passing out martinis. That's about what it'll take to get me to extra on another film. This girl had enough of long, often uncomfortable shifts paid at minimum wage in my teens and 20s, thank you very much. Of course, the moments when the cameras are rolling and celebs are strutting their stuff are pretty cool, if few and far between. The average extra experience simply features a lot of thumb-twiddling and sitting around, since production time is largely taken up by set and equipment changes.
Not everyone shares my sentiment, natch. I've met dozens of career extras on set who make full-time work out of the booming film and television industry in Atlanta, where I live. Many are aspiring actors, but plenty just enjoy the experience and ambiance, including my good friend Christina, who extras on big-budget films as her schedule permits. "For one major sequel film I walked outside in the snow for 14 hours in full and totally uncomfortable costume," Christina shares. "It was an overnight shoot and many of us ended up catching some shuteye on the floor of a CVS drugstore."
Pay for all this fun can vary from $50 a day for non-union extras to more than $100 for union extras; more money is added when your day runs beyond eight hours [source: TVTix.com].
To serve as a stand-in is to experience the teensiest step up from extra status, sometimes at an equally pint-sized pay bump. To be selected one must meet the basic appearance requirements (height, weight, hair color and skin tone) of the featured actor in question. In other words, if you're lucky enough to channel statuesque Angelina Jolie in appearance, don't bother applying to stand in for fair-haired, 4-foot- 11-inch (1.5-meter) Kristin Chenoweth.
Once chosen, a stand-in quite simply stands around while the lighting and camera crews sync equipment to suit the actor's specifications. The job can be very tedious and time-consuming, with most stand-ins pulling the same hours as the full cast and crew [source: Backstage]. By contrast, extras are usually released once their scenes are completed. On the upside, casting agencies typically reuse the same stand-ins over and over, leading to steadier work and paychecks, which can be difficult to come by in the fickle film world.
To truly thrive as a stand-in it's vital to maintain a sense of professionalism and solid work ethic. In other words, be on time, if not early and never snap a selfie with your celeb "other half" unless he or she initiates it. Film sets work on a tight, detail-oriented schedule and have a surprisingly low tolerance for on-set antics.
Widely regarded to be one of the most thankless of film industry careers, production assistant (PA) positions are nonetheless regarded as an important stepping stone for many aspiring film industry worker bees. This proverbial "foot in the door" position features responsibilities that often have little, if anything at all to do with filming itself but are nevertheless important. For example, fetching coffee, handling time cards, coordinating script pages and even scheduling the boss-man's vasectomy appointment, as one hapless PA had to do.
"It's a mistake to dismiss these tasks because they are also mini-tests," says Mike, a film industry insider who has worked on many major motion pictures throughout his career. "If, as a PA you are handed a menial task and that task gets screwed up, how can you be trusted with something more important?"
The PA position is the perfect example of film industry salary disparity. For their trouble (of which there is plenty) the average production assistant in Los Angeles nets a paltry $27,000 per year [source: Indeed]. Still, work hard enough and you'll make connections to propel you from the depths of PA Hell into a more reasonably paid position.
Visual effects today are unbelievably realistic -- probably because they require an equally unbelievable amount of work by a ton of people. Before said artists get to have any real fun creating terrifying prehistoric or supernatural beings, many visual effects employees start out as roto artists. Sometimes jokingly referred to as a glorified tracer, the roto artist uses computer technology to meticulously extricate specific components of many frames of animation or live action movies [source: Tech-Faq.com].
For example, let's envision a film that might require Russell Brand to be placed on Pluto (the former planet, not the dog). Brand shoots his scene and then the roto artist is handed the largely unenjoyable task of tracing the actor's likeness, down to each and every errant strand of hair (of which Brand has many). In the next frame, Brand moves ever so slightly and the artist repeats the task in painstaking detail ... over and over again until the scene is finished. This glorified cut-and-paste probably isn't all that bad for a frame or two, but one can imagine the unbelievable tedium of completing this task a hundred times.
Once that's complete and the roto artist heads out for a much-deserved happy hour, someone higher on the visual food chain gets to actually place Brand on Pluto, where he will undoubtedly wow Plutopians with his trademark British wit.
Affectionately known as "scripty," this position calls for noticing and managing the minute and seemingly inconsequential set details that are actually a really big deal. For example, a glass of water that goes from half empty to totally full in the middle of a scene by way of multiple takes is considered a major gaffe, sure to be torn apart in film blogs.
Famous examples of continuity calamities are easily found in pics like "The Shawshank Redemption," where bullets go from strewn about on a table to neatly placed to scattered again, and "The Godfather," where a car windshield is scattered one moment and miraculously undamaged the next [source: Movie Mistakes].
The script supervisor must take copious notes on the scenes, record the numbers and duration of the takes, as well as whether the actor had his jacket buttoned or not in the shot. Most will supplement their notes with some digital photos.
"No one thanks them for all their work, but they do hear about every single mistake they make, whether it's a mislabeled take or a B camera that is on roll B134 and not B135," explains Mike.
Although they're usually not physically on set, assistant editors typically pull as many or more hours as the cast and crew. Once scenes are shot they must be digitized, organized and coordinated to the hilt, often before the head editor arrives for the day. Detailed logs are also kept to manage various tiny film details, like scene timing and sound and visual effect info. Some assistant editors will be given creative license to put together rough cuts and other creative jobs, but this really depends on their experience level and how much of a micromanager the lead editor is [source: Get in Media].
The true challenge of editing is taking the thousands of frames and turning the director's vision for the film into reality. Mike, an assistant editor himself, likens it to building a designer home, during which the metaphorical wood, flooring and other materials are dumped in editorial's lap and told to get 'er done. "We build the whole thing from scratch, and it has to be done a couple weeks after you finish shooting," he says, "It's a lot of work from start to finish, with incredibly long hours that span well into the night and most weekends." It's a lofty, demanding order, but assistant editors seem to enjoy the challenge, especially if it leads to actually becoming an editor.
First Assistant Director
The preproduction period is hugely important to a film's creation, and the first assistant director (1st AD)'s ability to plan, plan and plan some more is critical to long-term success. Obviously, certain uncontrollable factors will screw things up from time to time, like an unforeseen rainstorm during an outdoor shoot or the death of an actor during filming, like Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, the 1st AD's ability to organize and rework the schedule as efficiently as possible can make or break deadline dates, saving money, time and sanity all around.
On top of keeping the ongoing schedule, the 1st AD must also create and maintain a database of who worked when (for pay purposes), comb through the script to identify prop or special effects needs, and then make sure they come to fruition.
Once production begins, the 1st AD has the unenviable task of keeping the crew aware of the day's production points and on track, time-wise. He must also make sure union rules and location agreements are followed. Blocking (where the actor stands as he would in the scene and the lighting and sound people figure out where they need to be), rehearsal and on-set communication are also critically important job responsibilities [source: How To Film School]. Although this is a high-visibility role with lots of opportunity for growth and advancement, it's also a high-stress position with opportunity for ulcers and anxiety.
Visual effects have whittled away at the number of truly life-threatening film events that require staging, but stuntmen (and women) are still the go-to folks for on-scene antics most actors prefer not to attempt. Sure, some stars do their own stunts, like "22 Jump Street" heartthrob Channing Tatum, but most are willing to skip the danger altogether in favor of a well-qualified stunt person. And who can blame them? Although most stunt-related injuries are relatively minor, major accidents do happen, as evidenced by serious and ongoing brain-injury suffered by an Australian stuntman during the filming of "The Hangover: Part II," and a bayonet incident on the set of Brad Pitt's "Fury" [source: News.com.au].
Compared with a lot of the film industry jobs we've featured, this is one that can be well-paid. In fact, depending on professional reputation and the level of difficulty of the stunts being performed, the stunt person can command a six-figure annual salary, although inconsistently, since stunt work is sporadic, at best.
Ever watch a movie and see a large microphone accidentally in the corner of the frame? That's the boom microphone, the one recording the sound of the scene. Boom operators (sometimes they end up in the shot too) are the ones holding up the microphones at uncomfortable angles for a long time. They will also position smaller mics to achieve ideal sound. If the dialogue is clear, that saves the actors from coming back to rerecord themselves [source: Media Match].
This is a job that requires strong shoulders and biceps, and a good memory as you have to know the upcoming dialogue and action so you can anticipate where to place the boom. Operators often go on location, spending significant periods away from home, and of course, the hours are long. But, great workers will move up the sound team ladder in time, probably faster if their equipment doesn't make a surprise appearance in the background, as it has in huge films like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Mallrats." Whoops.
To the surprise of absolutely no one who's ever labored as an intern in any industry, this position is probably the least enjoyable and rewarded of all film jobs. Typically unpaid or compensated at far below minimum wage, interns are the bottom of the film industry barrel, and are typically treated as such. "They are usually out of sight of everyone and everything going on," Mike says. "They are given the tasks that absolutely no one else wants to do." This includes things like guarding the film equipment to make sure it doesn't get stolen, or fetching the director's lunch.
However thankless a film internship might be, everybody's gotta start somewhere, right? Film legends like Steven Spielberg got their start in this most junior of entertainment industry roles and it's safe to say that they're sitting pretty right now [source: Huffington Post]. So smile, work your butt off and strive to replace that PA who finally got promoted. In an industry as huge and action-packed as this one, the opportunities are limitless, if tough in the beginning.
The HowStuffWorks podcast The Soundtrack Show looks at the movie life of the 13th century Latin hymn 'Dies Irae.'
Author's Note: 10 Most Thankless Jobs in Film
My thanks to Mike and Christina for their insights. They asked that their real names not be used – since they want to keep working in the film industry. I bet plenty of people who go to work in movies expect it to be all glitz and glam, and are understandably shocked when reality sets in. But even if the average entry-level film gig is underpaid and unappreciated, my bet is that it probably beats a standard desk job any day. No insurance salesman ever had his name in the rolling credits, right? Hooray for Hollywood!
- Christina. Interview via e-mail. Aug. 17, 2014.
- Courtney H. "Working as a 1st Assistant Director." How To Film School. March 1, 2012 (Aug. 19, 2014) http://howtofilmschool.com/working-as-a-1st-assistant-director/
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- Get In Media. "Assistant Editor." Aug. 20, 2014 http://getinmedia.com/careers/assistant-editor
- H., Christina. "The 5 Miserable VFX Jobs That Make Movies Possible." Cracked. March 27, 2010 (Aug. 18, 2014) http://www.cracked.com/article_18486_the-5-miserable-vfx-jobs-that-make-movies-possible.html
- IMDB. "Kristin Chenoweth Biography." Aug. 19, 2014 http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0155693/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
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- Lipson, Debra. "17 Incredibly Successful People Who Started As Interns." Huffington Post. Oct. 3, 2013 (Aug. 19, 2014) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/03/celebrity-interns_n_4031608.html
- McCarthy, Erin. "10 Things to Know About 22 Jump Street." Mental Floss. June 13, 2014 (Aug. 19, 2014) http://mentalfloss.com/article/57276/10-things-know-about-22-jump-street
- Media Match USA. "Boom Operators." Aug. 18, 2014 http://www.media-match.com/usa/jobtypes/boom-operator-jobs-402683.php
- Mike. Interview via e-mail. Aug. 11 and 14, 2014.
- Movie Mistakes. "Mistakes in the IMDb top 250." Aug. 18, 2014 http://www.moviemistakes.com/imdb250
- News.au.com. "Horrific Hollywood movie accidents." Oct. 16, 2013 (Aug. 20, 2014) http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/movies/horrific-hollywood-movie-accidents/story-e6frfmvr-1226741038291
- Peitzman, Louis. "16 Mic Slips That Should Have Been Caught By An Editor." BuzzFeed. April 5, 2013 (Aug. 19, 2014) http://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/mic-slips-that-should-have-been-caught-by-an-editor
- Warner, Brian. "The Largest Acting Paychecks in Hollywood History." Celebrity Networth. March 1, 2014 (Aug. 16, 2014) http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/entertainment-articles/the-largest-acting-paychecks-in-hollywood-history/