You’ll need experience, contacts and persistence to establish a career working behind the scenes in TV, film and video, as well as talent and technical skills. Careers in this area are often freelance, and you might find yourself moving between jobs of different lengths on different kinds of production – for example, you might work for a few days on an advert and then take up a longer-term job on a feature film or TV series.
To gain a foothold in the industry, you’ll need to know where you want to specialise and how to get experience. You could also consider taking a relevant course at postgraduate level to develop the technical skills you’ll need.
Working in film, TV or video production gives you the chance to showcase your creativity, use your technical skills and work in a closely knit team.
Why pursue a career making films or TV shows?
A career in film, TV and video production gives you the chance to showcase your creativity, use your technical skills and work in a closely-knit team. It can be exhilarating to know that you’re involved in producing something that’s going to be seen by others – maybe even something award-winning.
Careers in this area also mean plenty of variety and suit people who want a changing work environment, as you can move between very different projects: for example, you might work on a noir short film, a music video and a nature documentary within the course of a few months.
From director to editor: six key roles
Here are six key behind-the-scenes roles in film, TV and video production. In smaller productions, the same person may do several of these jobs. In bigger productions, the people in these roles will be supported by assistants, who will gain experience that will enable them to develop their careers. So, for example, you could work towards becoming a director by taking a job as an assistant director.
All the people in these roles play a part in turning a script or concept into the finished product.
The creative overseer. It’s the director’s job to visualise the script and to bring together the work of everyone in the production – actors or participants, camera, lighting, sound, art and costume teams – to realise that vision.
This is a more organisational role than the director. The producer oversees all parts of a production, from securing the rights to a script, to agreeing a budget, to organising filming schedules, to assessing the editor’s cuts.
3. Camera operator
Camera operators are hands-on with the filming equipment, moving and angling cameras to get the right shot. They may have a camera script, which tells you which shots to take, or they may be able to exercise their judgement and creativity in choosing their shots. A camera operator will typically start out working as a camera assistant, who helps set up the equipment for the camera operator.
The cinematographer is the head of the camera and lighting crews. This role involves working closely with the director to produce the desired visual effect by selecting the right camera, film stock and lenses, and shaping the shots taken by the camera operator. Digital formats are widely used both for TV, video and feature films, but some productions are still shot using traditional film stock.
5. Sound mixer
Sound mixers maintain and operate sound recording equipment. They’re responsible for recording all the sound for the production, and then, in post-production, collating and mixing the audio content and creating certain sound effects themselves. The boom operator also works on the sound team, holding a microphone on a pole (the ‘boom mic’) as close to people speaking as possible while keeping it out of frame. Sound assistants help with setting up and maintaining equipment, check mic placements and work as second mixers/boom operators when needed.
In post-production, the editor takes the visual footage, the sound mixer’s audio and other elements and works with the director to cut and shape them into the finished product.
Other roles in film, TV and video
There’s a huge range of other jobs involved in making TV shows and films, from hair and make-up to set design, location scouting and casting. There are also more commercial roles in areas such as marketing and distribution.
Knowing what you want to specialise in is good, but all the parts of a production are connected and working in any role will help you to understand the other roles. Depending on how your career develops, you might move into different roles; for example, some cinematographers and editors go on to become directors.
If you are working on your own projects, you may need to do the writing, directing, filming and editing yourself.
Finding a way in
Speculative applications are very useful, because many jobs aren't advertised.
Most people entering the industry start out with various intro jobs. Those with enough experience and the right skills can enter as sound or camera assistants. It may be helpful to put together a showreel of videos that showcase your skills, which could include amateur productions (especially when you are starting out).
Another way in for fresh graduates is to find work as a runner – a jack-of-all-trades job where you help with small organisational and logistical jobs on the production (for example, buying lunches, helping different departments liaise with each other, organising actors).
There are some trainee schemes and work experience programmes available, such as from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, as well as various independent TV companies.
Be open-minded when looking for experience. You can email suitable businesses to ask if they’re interested in promotional video work, or offer to do sound-check for local musicians. Get involved in student or local theatre. Watch and read everything film-related you can find, and get to know other people who are interested in film. While you’re at university, look into joining relevant societies – for example, is there a uni film society? This could provide access to equipment and opportunities to gain experience, as well as putting you in touch with other people who want to work in the same area.
Keep up with industry publications such as Broadcast, Media Week and Audio Visual, which list vacancies. However, speculative applications are very useful, because many jobs aren’t advertised.
Should I go to film school?
Many big names in film gain a film degree – usually an MA or MFA – though some don’t (for example, Quentin Tarantino left school at 16). If you don’t have a BA in film, a masters in film may be useful. Film schools give you access to equipment and to a pool of other filmmakers, as well as a grounding in filmmaking technique. Directors such as Stephen Spielberg and Kathryn Bigelow kickstarted their careers through creating well-reviewed short films while at university.
There are postgraduate courses available in all aspects of film, TV and video production, from cinematography and digital effects to composing for film and television and directing animation, natural history or entertainment.
Gaining experience and contacts
Regardless of whether you decide to take a postgraduate course, you can pick up experience and contacts through directing small-scale advertisements, or through theatre work, or by financing and producing videos with a group of friends. The important thing is to proactively seek out work, to use any connections you have, and to make a good impression on the people you work with. Many a position has been attained through people suggesting their friends and previous colleagues for jobs.