It’s not as easy as it sounds. There are dozens of pitfalls clients and producers can fall into when hiring their first crew or working in a new location. Not knowing what you’re doing can be the difference between having a smooth shoot crewed by top-notch professionals or losing your investment to shoddy work, scheduling drama, and departments skyrocketing over budget.
Here are some insider tips to ensure you get the best crew possible:
1) Start with Referrals
There is no better way to put together a crew than to have someone you trust give a referral. It helps doubly if that person is going to participate in the shoot since no one wants to refer someone they can’t stand to work with. Choose that referral source wisely– “my kid is looking to break into the industry” or “my personal assistant is really sharp” are not adequate qualifiers.
Coordinators and production managers are usually the main people who give crew referrals, but professional production assistants, fixers, and department heads (such as DP’s and Art Directors) are also excellent sources. If you’re shooting in another state, see if someone in your local film community has worked there and ask who they like to work with. You often only need one or two knowledgeable locals to get enough referrals to fill a whole crew.
2) Take Advantage of Production Guides
Most states have some sort of film commission, and many have online production guides where you can see detailed listings for local crew. While a listing can’t always tell you how qualified someone is, it can give you access to websites, resumes, emails, and phone numbers to start feeling people out.
Once again, starting with production coordinators might be a good idea. For relevant departments, demo reels can give you insight into someone’s past work, and if you’re checking resumes, keep an eye on if someone has been hired multiple times by the same companies. There might be good reason for that.
3) Pay the Rate
Everyone wants to keep their budget low, but if you cut corners when hiring crew, you will pay for it later. On union shoots, certain rates and hour limits are required, but even for non-union shoots or positions, do whatever is necessary to pay your crew fair day rates.
What does paying the rate have to do with a quality crew? While the answer is obvious in departments where production value is visibly affected by mediocre work, the consequences of undercutting rates also becomes apparent when hiring below-the-line crew like production assistants, transportation, and grips.
You can hire ten film students as PA’s for $75 a day and save money, but you risk spending your whole shoot trying to convince them they are on set to work, not to job shadow or cozy up to talent. On the flip side, you can hire two or three professional production assistants for $200-$250 a day, and when a problem strikes on set, they’ll already know what to do to take care of it so the rest of your crew isn’t distracted.
Also, keep in mind that rates vary according to city. In a town like Los Angeles where the market is severely over-saturated, below-the-line rates tend to be lower, but in cities where you have a concentrated community of professionals, expect to see higher rates. If you call a crew member and they insist on a higher rate, don’t immediately dismiss them. That might be a good sign, particularly if they have a solid resume or reel.
Professionals want to be paid what they are worth. If you want to supplement your team with film students, that’s fine, but don’t
make them your primary people. Interview rookies thoroughly to make sure they have a professional attitude and know what will be expected of them.
4) Start Early
Too many productions try to hire crew immediately before a shoot. If you happen to be filming during a busy season in a location where there are limited crew available, you’re going to end up scrambling to compete for the best people. Book your crew early, and give them hard locks on shoot dates as soon as possible.
5) Ask the Right People
This comes back to referrals, but it is also a general rule for hiring. While many crew members work across genres, different film and television mediums come with different crew structures, strategies, and expectations. If you’re shooting a commercial, don’t get all your referrals from someone who only does low-budget art-house features. A producer in the reality TV world is not the same thing as a producer for a feature (the former might be a writer or field director while the latter might just be someone who contributed funds). There are some crew who work in commercials who may not be willing to lower their rates for reality TV or features. Some also only work on original programming or narrative pieces. Find a professional who has worked in the given genre you’re shooting and get the right people for the job.
The main takeaway? Don’t just patch together the cheapest crew possible on a day’s notice. Take the time necessary to get referrals, do your research, and find people with a professional attitude and the experience to back it up.
About the Writer – Jett Farrell-Vega
Jett Farrell-Vega has worked in production for over ten years. She runs Eyes of Fire Production Services, providing professional production assisting for commercials, features, and reality programming, as well as Miruvor Crafty, offering craft services for shoots throughout Colorado and the surrounding states. Her previous credits include Fox’s “The Day After Tomorrow”, American Idol, Food Network Challenge, Weather Channel’s “Prospectors”, and commercials for NHL, Range Rover, Chrysler, Coors, Budweiser, and Colorado Lottery.