Busting 3 Myths About Career Paths in the Film Industry
The film industry can be confusing.
You might assume that starting as an assistant director would set you up to become a director. Or that operating a camera is the first step on the path to becoming a Director of Photography. You might hear the term ‘producer’s assistant’ and think one day, they’ll be a producer.
Nope! It happens, but it’s exceedingly rare.
Here are three common film career misconceptions that I hope will save you some headache when you begin your journey in film!
Assistant Director → Director
First things first: there are assistant directors (ADs) and there are assistants to the director. We’re talking about the former.
Despite their title, being an AD has little to nothing to do with actually directing — it’s all about liaising between the director and the crew. ADs run the set. They make sure everyone is where they need to be, when they need to be there.
When I interviewed to join my city’s AD program, one of their big questions was, “are you becoming an AD to pursue directing work?”
It isn’t a silly question—people just entering the big union world are often right out of school, and sometimes they don’t know that ADing is not a path to directing.
When unions vet people for AD programs, they try to avoid those with grandiose aspirations of directing. The idea is that these people might overstep and suggest some ‘brilliant idea’ to the director…ADs aren’t paid to make suggestions. Stepping in like that is a sure way to get yourself fired, and you won’t be invited back to set.
Starting as an AD often means that you remain an AD for your career. And that’s nothing to sniff at—ADs are some of the most important and valued people on set, and their pay rates reflect that. Plus, if an AD is experienced and involved enough in a show, it isn’t uncommon for them to get some sort of producer credit.
Camera Operator → Director of Photography (DOP)
A lot of people assume that by joining a camera union, they’re suddenly on track to becoming a Director of Photography, or DOP. Not the case!
When you join the union’s camera department, here’s a rough idea of what you can expect of your career trajectory: camera trainee, 2nd camera assistant, 1st camera assistant, camera operator. That’s the ladder — it tops out at camera operator.
Similar to AD unions, camera unions tends to weed out people with ambitions of becoming DOPs.
In order to work in the union world, a DOP must work their way up in the freelance world. They need to acquire enough experience to meet the requirements of the DOP-specific part of the camera union—once they’re accepted, it’s up to them to find their own work, though. The union doesn’t find gigs for them.
Sometimes a senior camera operator will be promoted to the role of DOP for a day or two, but it’s in the rare circumstances where the DOP falls ill or has another kind of personal emergency.
Producer’s Assistant → Producer
A producer’s assistant is literally that: an assistant to the producer. You might assume that the acronym for ‘producer’s assistant’ is PA, but PAs are production assistants—not producer’s assistants.
A producer’s assistant has an entirely different set of tasks, including but not limited to: finding the wireless router and setting it up in video village, managing the producer’s schedule, and other miscellaneous things like picking up the producer’s dry cleaning and grabbing them a coffee.
Sometimes an assistant will get the opportunity to do something creative but it’s pretty rare. I know someone who has been a producer’s assistant for more than ten years! But I also know a producer’s assistant who recently got a show writing credit. It all depends on your aspirations and circumstances.
Okay, so how do I get where I want to go?
In the film business, the rule of thumb is to figure out what you want to do and pursue that thing. Directors, DOPs, and Producers all work their way up in the freelance world before sidestepping into the union world, already in that coveted role. It’s incredibly hard to do—you need a lot of grit, good connections, and sheer dumb luck.
That being said, not everyone can afford to be super selective in their gigs. It’s hard to dedicate yourself only to DOP gigs, or director gigs, or writing gigs. Those roles are very demanding, and they don’t tend to be well paid. Sometimes people don’t have a choice—they need to go where the money is. I know it’s not ideal.
Some people do manage to strike a good balance. What I’ve seen work best is when people choose a role completely unrelated to their passion in order to pay their bills. So if they’re a director, their public image portrays them as a director—but they pay rent by working as a gaffer. It’s a win-win because they’re still on set, still learning, but they get hired as a freelance director.