Learning Video Production and Making it as a Freelancer

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There have been numerous occasions where high school or college age people have asked me what degree I studied to get where I am today. I can’t help but laugh a little on the inside when I get those questions. Not because I’m laughing at the student, but because I know there’s a mind set today that says, “want to be a professional anything? Then you have to go to college”. Well I’m here to tell you that in some circumstances, including my own, you don’t have to spend four years in school or pay off massive amounts of debt in order to be successful.
Now right off the bat I’ll say that a well-rounded education is a wonderful thing to have. Video production, however, isn’t necessarily something you need to go to school for. Not these days anyway. In the old days it was good to know how to handle **film from loading and shooting to processing and cutting the finished product. These days there’s no film cost. No expensive and hazardous chemicals to deal with. With the plethora of blogs, videos and books on film and video production, just about anyone can learn the theory and business of production on their own. You can even get hands on experience simply by purchasing an inexpensive camcorder and editing software and begin cutting together your own videos for the purpose of learning the craft.
So what’s the alternative to going to school for production? How do you get from nothing to a freelancer that production companies rely on? In my case it happened very slowly. It’s a bit of a complicated story, so I’ll give you the cliff notes.
I had learned production and graphic design basics in high school. I knew I wanted to go into a creative field and even went to the local community college studying visual communications for a short time. I realized that video production was what I wanted to do, but because of financial circumstances, opted to learn from experience instead of going to a 4-year school. After contacting every production company in town, I found work as a PA – one of those “let me move your gear for you and learn a few things” sort of jobs. It didn’t pay much and work was scarce, but I learned a lot and got hands-on experience with industry standard equipment.
From there I purchased a Canon GL2 from a friend and shot videos for little or no money for friends and family. I even managed to put together my first demo reel hoping to find more work.
I never had enough production work in my hometown to make ends meet. I always had to have an hourly job on the side to get by. But often times that’s what you have to do when you’re getting started.
This brings me to my next point:
GO WHERE THE WORK IS.
I can’t stress this enough. I spent way too much time trying to make it in Dayton. I love my hometown, but there just wasn’t enough production work to be had.
Moving on…
I continued to shoot and edit, honing my skills (and reel) and gaining more trust with the production companies that I had worked for, eventually getting a shot as a shooter on a handful of projects. I even learned after effects on my own and much later was able to get some big motion graphics jobs after moving to southern Florida (again, going where the work was).
So at this point I had worked as a PA, continued to hone my skills any way I could (books, youtube, blogs, hands-on experience) and shot some things on my own. I knew what I was doing, mostly. But what about actually getting work?
It’s all about who you know.
Remember when I said I contacted every production company in town looking for PA work? That’s the first thing I did when I moved to Florida. It’s what you have to do as a freelancer. You can’t cross your fingers and hope someone finds you online. Make some calls, send a few emails. Invite producers and other freelancers to grab a coffee whether or not you think it’ll turn into work. Who knows? That other freelancer might need an editor or a second shooter down the road. That producer may lose a camera op and need a quick replacement. Never give up the opportunity to meet new people in the business. Occasionally you’ll find someone who’s looking for a go-to guy to shoot and edit. I fill that role with 3 different production companies.
Why 3? Why not 1? I wouldn’t work for just one company unless it was a full time job. Being freelance for one company is asking for trouble. If they go out of business, or worse, stiff you on a paycheck, you’re left with nothing and you’ll be scrambling to find work. It’s important to diversify when you’re freelance.
So what happens if a job from one production company overlaps with another’s? The companies I work for know that I’m freelance. They know that I have other companies that I do work for and if I’ve already scheduled a shoot for a specific date, they’ll have to call on a secondary person. This typically will happen only if it’s an event with an inflexible date.
In closing, realize that a well paying production job isn’t something you can just jump into from the start. It takes the desire to learn, experience, being in the right place (geographically anyway) and making the right connections.
**I love film. If you’re learning production on your own as I did and you want to play with motion picture film, start with Super 8. A great resource for Super 8 filmaking is http://www.pro8mm.com/ 

JoshMcDarris

Josh is an independent DP, editor and motion graphics designer in Austin, TX. You can read more about him and check out his work at joshmcdarris.com

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