Hello! My name is Rebekah Cook. I’m an actress. I’m also a casting director, script supervisor, acting coach, and occasionally serve in other filmmaking capacities as needed.
For a long while I’ve felt a subtle (and at times overt) pressure to choose just one aspect of filmmaking, do it, and let the rest go. In many ways this advice makes sense, and I don’t close off the possibility that at one point I may focus exclusively on a single facet of the puzzle. But up to now, it has served me well, and in unexpected ways, to occasionally accept opportunities that don’t come wrapped up in the shape I was looking for.
I’ve come to think of it as cross-training.
Cross-train: To undergo or provide training in different tasks or skills.
The term is typically used for athletes who alternate sports regimens in their training strategy (like running, bicycling, and swimming), but is a useful technique for other industries at well – including, I believe, for filmmaking. Cross-training at its best consists of intentional learning and practical experience in multiple disciplines that use complementary skill-sets.
I have an admission to make: When it comes to making films, I didn’t pick cross-training; cross-training picked me. I had my narrow sights set on acting for the screen, not being a crew member – much less trying on so many hats. It wasn’t even on my radar, until God practically threw it in my lap. Looking back now at the past six years, I am so thankful He did!
My own “accidental” cross-training has centered on a near rotation of acting, coaching, casting, and script supervision. All of these explore, strengthen, and build upon my strongest skill sets. Other positions I’ve held on crew along the way are 1st AD, 2nd AD, production coordinator, casting assistant, extras casting assistant, extras casting coordinator, set PA, 2nd AC, on set dresser, and property master.
The diversity of my film experience continues to do several important things:
1) Cross-training helps me appreciate and understand each department/position and how they support one another
When I supervise continuity, my job description entails interaction with nearly every department. So I get to see what helps, and some of what doesn’t, for various set dynamics. However, there’s nothing like walking a mile with someone else’s tool belt to deepen your sincere appreciation for the unique contributions of that position. When I subbed as a make-up assistant for a few hours on Beyond The Mask (to help with latex aging of Benjamin Franklin’s character), I saw firsthand why certain processes can’t be rushed, and the peculiar difficulties of temperature and humidity as they affected the “looks” department. On future sets, I was able to empathize better with this department, and be on the lookout for ways to encourage them and watch their backs.
I’m not suggesting that if you’ve been a grip your whole career to go apply for the assistant hair stylist position (“But, the clips are just smaller, right?” “GO. AWAY!”). Electric, camera, construction, or even AD team would be better bets. Try to branch into adjacent departments if possible rather than leap clear across the board. Remember, it’s about serving the team, not hijacking it!
2) Cross-training shapes my character by tackling tasks outside my comfort zone
I once applied for a volunteer position in the art department with a regional production. I wanted to stick close to home for a few months, and nothing else seemed to be going on. When they got back to me, they asked me to consider coming on as a camera PA! Um…what? But I prayed about it, and felt peace, so I said sure. Turns out, their camera PA was having to leave unexpectedly, and they needed a quick replacement. I had never been on the camera team before, but my set experience helped me learn quickly (not that I didn’t ever make a mistake!).
The open positions in a crew call may not be in your area of expertise. You can simply pass on the project…. Or, if you don’t have or anticipate any schedule conflicts, you can ask if they would like your help anyway. Be aware that this constitutes a learning opportunity for you, and don’t expect full pay rate for the job. In fact, that’s a great way to get new experience – by assisting a production that literally has no one else who is willing or able to take on that position! That way it’s a win-win situation.
Be careful not to undermine your integrity, though; if you gave your word to do a project, don’t jump ship when you see a bigger cruise come along (unless you’ve discussed and cleared that possibility with production beforehand). And if it turns out not to be your favorite thing to do, that’s not a valid excuse for slacking on your work ethic, or having an obnoxious attitude. Professionalism is much more than simply doing what you’re told; strive for excellence, and honor God through your faithfulness.
3) Cross-training highlights which roles and responsibilities I best fit in and most enjoy
There are certain film jobs that I’m actually pretty good at, but don’t like doing as much. I’ll still serve there if I’m really needed, but I don’t go around asking for those. And there are some I find quite fun, but I realize there are other people who would do a much better job of it.
Thankfully, I have also discovered a few that I both excel at and find consistently enjoyable! For me, those are acting, coaching, casting, and script supervision. They make good use of my balanced right-left brain, detail-oriented memory, puzzle-solving instincts, and creative communication skills.
If you are diving into this industry, but not sure what your specialty stroke is, don’t worry! As you develop your skills and explore the possibilities, you will start settling into a comfortable rhythm within the sphere that’s right for you.
4) Cross-training alternately stimulates and rests my creative skills and energy
Just like a great workout regimen, exercising alternate creative muscle groups helps the growth process. But if worked too hard for too long, you risk the creative crash of burn out. When I focus in on a project, I’m all in. If a project is back to back with the next one, I have to be careful not to deplete my energy reserves (physically, yes, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually).
For some reason, though, I don’t find it nearly as difficult to keep pace if I’m switching from one creative burner to another. To continue the athlete metaphor, it would be like doing a triathlon instead of a marathon (to be clear, I don’t mean that one is harder than another…though opinions abound, I am sure). Both expend massive amounts of energy, but the triathlon varies the course more, breaking potential monotony.
Another thing I’ve found in “taking a break” from any one crew position and going back to it later, is I tend to have a breakthrough in my workflow each time around. I attribute this to the cross-training principle as well.
5) Cross-training keeps me usefully and sustainably employed in the industry
You’ve probably heard that “it’s who you know.” To an extent, that’s true. And cross-training will help you build your network – or, as I think of it, cultivate friendships! As you know more and more people in the biz, you’ll hear of more and more opportunities to be involved. It’s really a nifty cycle: if I work, I get to know more people, and if I get to know more people, I find more work. And really, if you aren’t locked down to a single position or department, it’s much easier to stay working. :)
I don’t advocate marketing yourself as a Jack or Jill of all trades. If you’re willing to do “anything” it’s hard to imagine a sharp and specific skill set. But especially in the independent side of the industry, layering is totally in style. As you develop your niche circle of skills, I believe that you’ll discover a “sweet circle” of ways to use them in adjacent or tangential job descriptions. And that circle will become a sturdy foundation for the pinnacle of your career.
In future posts, I’ll go more in-depth on the various positions I’ve held on
a film crew, and explain the scope and responsibilities of each (as I experienced them). Stay tuned in the following months for your virtual crew tour!