On your usual search for gigs and opportunities in the film industry, you might come across more than a few posts like this:
“Looking for camera operator. No budget, sorry, but we’ve got a great project!”
“Student film in need of actors. Unpaid. Copy/meal/credit.”
Depending on what stage you are in your film career, you might consider working free gigs. The thing is, not all these opportunities are created equally. Here’s a quick guide on how to decide whether to volunteer on someone’s set.
Why you might want to volunteer:
- Completely new to film industry.
- Trying to move up a position.
- Working for a friend.
- It’s a good project.
- You need it for your reel.
If you’ve never worked on a film set before, volunteering on a few productions might be a good idea. You’ll get the experience you need while having less pressure since you’re not technically any sort of employee. Plus it’s very difficult to get yourself noticed as a production assistant in a very competitive job market without prior experience and/or a contact on the production.
Or maybe you’re already working on films, but you’ve really like to level up your skills. Maybe you’re a well-practiced 2nd AC looking to move up to 1st. Volunteering as a 1st on a project is helpful. Again, less pressure, but gaining experience.
Most of us are pretty cool for working on a friend’s project. Plus it’s a small world and people tend to like to do each other favors like this.
#4 and 5 go hand in hand. If this project looks like a good quality project, plus you’d like to add it to your reel? You’re still benefitting.
Why you shouldn’t volunteer:
- You have plenty of experience.
- The project sounds like a hot mess.
- The project asks above and beyond what they should get for free.
- Particular skills required. (Examples: DP must have drone/Steadicam. An actor needs to do a nude scene or stunts).
- “It’s only going to take four hours!” Trust me — it won’t.
You need to value yourself enough to be paid for your skills. You don’t need to do someone’s project “for exposure” especially since exposure means hardly anything. Anyone asking you to do something for exposure should be treated with caution.
A feature shooting in 4 days? All overnights? The previous crew bailed? The job poster is nasty about the unpaid situation IN the job post? These are all red flags and indicate a project best worth avoiding.
A project asking for an inordinate amount of equipment — a DP with a specific camera and lighting package, a specific drone – are also ones I say to avoid. I also keep seeing posts asking for makeup artists for free. Makeup artists are using up their materials to do your project. They at the very least need a kit fee to cover expendables.
Maybe it’s a gig that’s mashing too many jobs rolled into one (Camera PA/Media Manager). This happens on paid gigs too, which can still be a problem.
I’ve worked on enough films that I can tell you if a project says they only need you for a handful of hours…it’s likely not true, or they grossly underestimated how long it takes to put together a shoot. Always figure a 12 hour day in.
Working for free is your decision. If you think it will benefit you in the long run with experience on a new skill or you want to help somebody out — that’s great. Not volunteering is also your decision. Weigh your pros and cons list on each unpaid gig you see and make the smartest decision for you.