On Set on a Low Budget Short. Photograph by Louis Domaille

Why You Should Work For Free

(And When You Definitely Shouldn't)

How can I be a film-maker? It’s simple. No, really. All you need to do to be a film-maker is make films. It really is that easy!

The happy fact is, you don’t need to work in the film or television industry to be a film-maker, in fact, all you need is some basic kit, a passionate and driven crew and a desire to create and you’re good to go.


There’s a tricky Catch 22 which anyone starting out in the film industry is faced with: How can I gain experience as a film-maker when people will only hire experienced film-makers, and how can I gain experience when no-one will hire me? This conundrum troubles  those that have broken their way into the lower ranks of the industry as well as those making their money outside of it. Working as a runner or trainee gives you wonderful and invaluable insight into the inner workings of the industry , but you aren’t actually making anything, except, perhaps, tea.

Herein lies one of the best indicators of whether or not you ought to work for free; If you have been asked to work pro bono in a role in which you have no creative input or control, are neither learning nor practising role-specific skills, or the role is for a registered company or commercial client. Steer clear. In the words of runner-rights advocate Mark Watson:


“Short collaborative ventures where no-one is making a profit and the work is done with true collaborators who share the benefit to learn and develop are a very different situation to commercial companies getting free labour!”

To boil it down to it's simplest form: Making films with friends and fellow students = good, unpaid labour which happens to be in the vicinity of the media industry = bad (more about how to figure out which is which later) So that's what we're talking about here, and a great example of a “true collaborative venture” is Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. No, not the feature film, but the 13 minute, self-funded short of the same name. You can bet that nobody involved got paid, but this venture garnered Anderson enough attention to secure a $7million budget to make the feature which launched his directorial career and those of his initially unpaid stars, the Wilson brothers.

Had Anderson refused to initially write or direct without a hefty pay packet attached then it’s doubtful that he’d be the six time Academy Award nominee success story he is today. It all comes down to the number one rule of film-making; Show, don’t tell.

1. You Get to Make Films


If film-making, whether that be writing, directing, prop making, makeup artistry or any of the myriad pieces that go into making movie magic is your passion, then why not spend your weekends on set doing what you love?


Although you may not gain any financial reward (yet!) work on low, micro or no budget shorts gives you something concrete to show off to potential employers or commissioners. There’s no use telling someone how flawless your focus-pulling is if you’re unable to prove it.

Jess Sparling is a costume designer who frequently works as a Costume Trainee on high-end TV drama and feature films, but finds time to collaborate on passion projects:


"From an outside perspective it looks impressive that you can take the initiative and have the confidence to commit to micro-budget projects around working as a trainee. It shows that you have the drive to learn and develop your craft. I have the opportunity to make costumes and see them come to life on screen. I now have a really solid portfolio of images which demonstrates the level of professionalism I’m capable of working at.”

On the flip side of this, if you’re making a low-budget film and not paying your collaborators, it’s your responsibility to get high quality stills or footage for portfolio use to your crew as soon as possible.

28 February, 2018

Bottle Rocket. Directed by Wes Anderson

Costumes by Jessica Sparling come to life on set. Photographs by Louis Domaille

2. Practice your craft.


On every set and every shoot, from professional to passion project you will learn something, even if it’s what definitely NOT to do.


Practice makes perfect and the more chances you give yourself to collaborate and create in a real-world environment the better you will get. Whether this is gaining knowledge of a specific tool like camera kit or a lighting rig you’ve never used before, or more social-based skills like working with tricky cast or crew, you’re going to take something useful away from the experience. What’s more, crews on this kind of shoot tend to be as tiny as the budget so it’s all hands on deck! It’s not unusual for Make-up Artists to end up pitching in with costume or the Production Designer to jump in and load the clapper board. Getting stuck in is what working at this level is all about and gaining a good working knowledge of all the departments will only serve to make you a better film-maker.


3. Be the Boss


Paid work on a professional shoot is a good way to watch and learn from the experience of those a little higher up the ladder than you. If you’re watching your boss and thinking “I could do that” then get involved in a short film. Whether it’s a daunting or exciting prospect; You will be head of your own department.


This is where micro budget shorts become a key part of building your CV/Portfolio and gaining an understanding of your department as they allow you to explore the demands of decision making roles and have your say in the creative process. Here you have opportunities to bring your ideas to life and start to understand from your own experiences, be they positive or negative, what works and what doesn’t. You also get to have complete creative control, developing and establishing your own personal visual style. 


Maddie Dale is a runner in a post-production facility:


“ All of us on the running team have our own skills and aspirations, mine is screenwriting. We all collaborated on a short film, using our evenings and weekends around our full-time work hours to develop and shoot. Now, instead of saying “I want to be a screenwriter” I can say “I am a screenwriter ” I can pull up the Vimeo link and say – look, here’s what I can do.  Video evidence is much more compelling than a script. It was also a good lesson to write something with a bit of a producer’s cap on. There would be no point writing something unmakeable with our limited resources  that would require 20 actors and set changes and SFX. Use your limitations!”


4. The Network


Networking is a scary word. It sound like the sort of thing  done by suit-wearing city types. Really, it’s just meeting likeminded people with similar goals that you might make films with. 


Film-making is a team sport. The most nuanced, compelling script is nothing without a decent Director and careful DoP. Jess Sparling, costume designer says, “Micro-budget film-making is fun! Micro budget shorts often bring together a group of creative people with the same drive and passion as you. They are all there out of want, not necessity and through showing you're willing to working hard and giving yourself creatively to a project often leads to more projects and also great friendships.”


To return to Wes Anderson and the Wilson brothers; Cut to 20 years after Bottle Rocket, Owen Wilson still appears in Anderson’s films. Likewise, Robert Yeoman, the DoP of Anderson’s first feature has shot every one Anderson’s live action films. These are creators that have learnt and grown together; the professional relationships and true friendships that you will make whilst working on shorts will last you a career. As the saying goes, if you can’t handle me at my Bottle Rocket you don’t deserve me at my Grand Budapest.

"Sorry, my landlord doesn't accept IMDB credits."
- Spotted in the comments of a Facebook crew page

There are plenty of reasons to get involved in collaborating creating, but when does taking the initiative turn into being taken advantage of?


An easy rule of thumb is to look at who’s doing the asking. Is the company advertising on a jobs site? Are they a production company who will make money from the finished product? Is it a piece with commercial interest? For example, an independent restaurant may have commissioned an independent filmmaker a small budget to make them an advert. The director is being paid (albeit little) but the commissioner, in this case the restaurant, will definitely make some money off the back off the advert. In all of these cases working for free would come under the umbrella of exploitation and is, in fact illegal. It can be difficult to discern the fine line between a collaborative, not-for-profit passion project and a commercial project with a very low budget, but it is very important to do so. It might be tempting to take an unpaid role on a professional shoot, or internship for a well-known company to pad out your CV, but by taking on work of this kind, you're not only selling yourself short but undermining the position of industry entrants as a whole. In 2008 Nicola Vetta, an unpaid art department assistant won charges against her employer for unpaid wages:


"There is a need for genuine work experience but it is wrong for employers to exploit the aspirations of young people as a source of zero cost labour... In today's difficult jobs market, this practice seems to be increasingly common. Working for free is becoming accepted as a necessary investment to securing a paid job.  I hope that publicising this case will help to reverse that trend." 


 We asked Mark Watson to explain why you should never offer unpaid work to companies:


 "1. Because the law says (very clearly) that you should be paid so it is your right.


2. Because if you work unpaid for a company it gives them a great incentive not to pay the next person who comes along - why pay for something if you can get it for free? It may be that one individual can afford to work unpaid but that person then pulls up the drawbridge for those that follow who may be less wealthy.


3. Because companies that use unpaid workers are often a little bit shady when it comes to their other practices. How can you be sure that their lack of stringency doesn't extend to other areas of their work - like health and safety maybe? 


4. Because being paid is a measure of the value that a company attributes to you as a person and a worker - are you really worthless?” Smaller production companies taking on people for "work experience" and simply using them to do real work. Budgets on productions are tight - unscrupulous companies are often able to exploit the desperation of young people to break in to the industry to support their bottom line and many people are fearful of standing up for their legal rights for fear of "getting a bad name". (And incidentally that is a massive media myth - people don't get "bad names" which follow them around the industry!)"


If you’re unsure as to whether a job is kosher or not, there are plenty of places to seek help and advice. The People Looking for TV Work: Runners Facebook group is a goldmine of information and good-willed helpers. Don't be shy about posting a job or asking the admins if you're unsure. Similarly, BECTU details industry guidelines and what to do if you’ve fallen foul of an unscrupulous employer.


Now that it has been made clear that you should never work for free for a company, what about when micro-budget film crosses the line?


First of all, health and safety is non-negotiable. Whether you're being paid or not. If you don't feel safe, get the hell outta there. Secondly, If you are not being paid you should not incur expenses, for example any props or makeup bought for the project ought to be covered by the production budget, provided you have agreed this with the producer first. Similarly, it’s not unreasonable to ask that you ask the production to cover your travel expenses.  Days shouldn’t exceed 12 hours, although, on low budget shorts the hours and pace tends to be much less strenuous than a professional shoot. And lastly, you should be fed. It may be that entire budget of a short consists of the cost of a meal for the cast and crew. If you're considering joining the crew of an unpaid short but unsure about something, NEVER be afraid to ask!