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Sarah McLauchlan shares her experiences and offers advice to help you find film jobs in Vancouver.
When I was seven, my brother rented a VHS of An American Werewolf in London for his birthday. My parents, not quite grasping the concept of film classifications, let me watch it with him.
I remember witnessing the lead character turn into a werewolf on screen. That wasn’t something that could happen in real life, yet . . . I’d just seen it. This was incredible. That was when I realized that anything was possible in the movies.
I knew then and there, I was going to do that when I grew up. The only thing I never quite knew was how.
You see, I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles. I grew up in a rural town in New Zealand in the 1980s. Heck, to even see a film I had to walk half an hour to the nearest public transport. Hollywood was an unreachable dream for a country kid from the bottom end of the earth.
Fortunately, reality was never my strong suit and eventually – through luck and pig-headed determination – I managed to claw my way on to a film crew.
Finding film jobs in Vancouver
Of course, Vancouver these days is a far cry from Plimmerton in 1985. There is so much filming going on here that it’s greeted with the same level of enthusiasm as roadworks; sure, I may like the end product, but can’t you do it without closing off my street for a car chase?
This makes it an excellent place to break into the industry, and contrary to what most people think, it’s not that hard to do — it just requires determination, persistence, and (often) the ability to swallow your self-respect.
Wait, sorry, what?
The film industry – similar to soylent green – is made out of people. A large number of these are talented professionals who design the look, sound and feel of the film. An even larger number, however, are people who make sure the coffee pot is never empty.
These people are called runners. It’s possibly the most thankless job in the industry, and almost everyone starts off as one*. The runner’s job is to do all the menial drudge work that no one else wants to do. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of shovelling sh*t at a zoo. Unless you work on a film with lots of animals. Then it may not be metaphorical.
Along with making coffee and picking up rolls of camera tape, I’ve heard of runners being asked to do everything from buying the emergency contraceptive pill for a producer, to breaking up two homeless people having sex in an elevator. I even know of one person who had to stand in a parking lot from 4.30 a.m. to 2.30 a.m. the next night to guard a light.
It can be the most mind-numbingly tedious of all the film jobs in Vancouver, bordering on disgusting or morally questionable, but oddly enough, it won’t matter. Why not? Because you’ll be part of making a movie. It will be the most exciting time of your life.
Plus, the catering is awesome.
Great. I *love* photocopying petty cash receipts. Now what?
The film industry is a small, close-knit – some would say incestuous, nepotistic** – industry. We would much rather hire friends and family members than complete strangers. This means that the best way to find film jobs in Vancouver is to know people already in the industry.
Admittedly, it can be tough getting to meet people on film crews until you actually work on one, but there are also a number of independent and short films that shoot in BC. As they don’t actually pay people, they get to be a lot less picky about who they hire. Luckily, many people who work on indie films also work on A-List productions, and if they don’t, they will know someone who does. Filmmakers are a very sociable bunch (well, we drink a lot), so once you know one person, it won’t be long before you know the rest. It’s a basic version of networking in Canada.
If that fails, you can always try cold calling. BC is a pretty good place for this as, unlike many other film locations, both Creative BC and the Director’s Guild of Canada are kind enough to publish the contact details of all the production offices crewing up.
This approach is much harder, and may take a lot longer. As the information is public, you can bet that every recent film school graduate is also sending in their resume. A lot of it will come down to the right person seeing your resume at the right time, something not helped by the fact that most production offices are just organized chaos. If you hear nothing back, it may simply be because your resume is buried under several call sheets, a crew movement order, and the latest petty cash receipts.
I went to film school. Does that help?
Sure, it shows you’re passionate. If you’ve put three years and thousands of dollars towards a career in film, we’re pretty sure you’ll turn up at 4 a.m. to set out parking signs.
But the first of your film jobs in Vancouver will probably still be as a runner.
Some of Hollywood’s biggest productions (Godzilla, Man of Steel, and the X-Men trilogy) shoot here, making the Vancouver film industry one of the most lively of its kind. If you long to be a director, you might want to keep working on lower budget films where you can have a larger role, but if you want to work on the big shows, no one is going to trust you with anything more than stocking the tea bags the first time around. On the plus side, these film sets are fun to be on — you get to blow things up, use cutting edge technology, and work with some of the best people in the industry.
Also, did I mention the catering? The catering is awesome.
Okay, that does sound kinda cool. What else do I need?
You need the right to work in Canada. Unfortunately, a runner’s required skill set is hard to justify sponsoring a work permit for.
It will also help if you’ve paid taxes here in the last financial year. Production companies get a tax credit for hiring locals, so if you don’t have much luck when you first get here, wait until the next tax year and try again. You may find you’re suddenly much more employable if they get $.30 cents back for every $1.00 they pay you (which, as a runner, will be about your hourly rate).
Um, okay. Thanks. Any other words of encouragement?
Working on a film set is demanding work, and the film jobs in Vancouver are no exception. I’ve gotten up at 3am for a crew call, worked during a dust storm in a quarry until 4am, and spent eight hours on set with the knowledge that there was another full eight hours of shooting ahead before I could go home.
But at the same time, I go to work every day and make movies. For that seven-year-old girl who longed to do nothing else, it’s a dream come true.
*Unless you’re the producer’s nephew. Then you get to go straight to being the director.
**Those people would be right.
Sarah runs a blog, Vagabond Days, about being a Kiwi working in the Canadian film industry and all the unexpected adventures she’s had since arriving in Canada. Among others, she has worked on the sets of Lord of the Rings, and Gravity.
My mother’s journey immigrating from China to Canada
In Our Place – Dan & Taya’s IEC Working Holiday in Banff
My year in Canada on an IEC work permit