Being a set worker in Vancouver's film industry is rewarding, but what do you do when you're not called to set?

Writer, production assistant, costumer—it's good work when you can get it (and when you can't get it, it's important to have a backup)

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      Often, when you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, you’ll hear familiar responses: princess, spy, veterinarian, police officer—you know, the kind of Halloween-costume-type jobs that seem fantastic to anyone under the age of eight. Or maybe you’ll hear "movie star—a rich and famous, singing and dancing, Hollywood superstar". That one is pretty common too, because what kid doesn’t want to be on camera?

      Behind the camera, that’s another story. Something you probably won’t hear kids saying is, “you know, I’d really love a job where I can wake up way too early to spend a 12-to-15 hour day on my feet, keeping very quiet, while someone else gets all the attention.”

      While it may not be a wish of most kids, a behind-the-scenes job in Vancouver’s film industry is a dream for many British Columbians. To be on set of the next major motion picture or teen-soap opera, with the chance to rub elbows with the stars is exciting! And the most thrilling part is knowing that you get closer and closer to running your own show someday with each set you get to work on. When you can get work on set, that is.

      If you’re following along from last week, you’ll know that when it comes to pursuing a career in acting, a day job or side hustle is a basic requirement. Because an audition is basically a job interview—an interview where 100 people are vying for one position—the chances of getting booked is slim, which means a steady source of income needs to come from somewhere else. Ergo, a side hustle.

      Well, it turns out, actors aren’t the only ones. Aspiring screenwriters, editors, directors, and the like, must also navigate the wild, irregular waves of the film industry. On that front, having a second job where you can pick up a couple shifts in between calls to set isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity.

      Courtesy of Jasmine Wood

      A wide variety of jobs go on behind the scenes—more than we could cover here: makeup artists, set designers, producers, costumers, caterers, lighting, sound mixing, editing, screenwriters, script supervisor, and the list goes on. A common denominator between all of them is that the work can be anything but steady.

      This has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. Big-budget movies aren’t typically made from home, so when everything was shut down, those in the film industry had to either wait it out, or try to find another way to make some money before productions started back up again. 

      But even in non-COVID-times, you can find yourself out of work for a few weeks in between one production wrapping, and a new one starting up. Sometimes, you can find work on a different set for a different job. 

      Niall Cassin, a screenwriter from Ireland, is at a place in his career where’s able to support himself solely by writing and selling scripts. But it wasn’t always like this. Before landing this dream gig, he had a suit-and-tie lifestyle, working at a bank in Dublin, a career that he hated.  

      “I just figured nobody liked their job,” he tells the Straight. “I was unhappy—not depressed, per se, I just thought that was it: you graduate, you get a good job, and that’s it. What I didn’t see is that I could actually have more control in my life than that.” 

      “I just figured everyone in the film industry got lucky,” he continues. “But I said to myself, ‘Stop moaning. Stop complaining.’” 

      Cassin decided, having always wanted to write a screenplay, that he would give it a shot. He knew that in order to sell his screenplays, he’d need a foot in the door. So, after pulling together a few rough drafts of scripts, Cassin quit his bank job of 10 years, applied for a Working Holiday Visa for Canada, and moved to Vancouver to get a job on set. 

      Taking up residence on a friend’s couch, Cassin started looking for employment. After a brief stint as an office manager on a television series, the location manager noticed Cassin’s work ethic right away and offered him a different set job. He ended up working, for the remainder of his time in Vancouver, as a production assistant (P.A.). 

      George Mohan

      “The job is like a dogsbody, a human traffic cone,” Cassin opines. “You’re doing the worst jobs; picking up rubbish, stopping people robbing food off of crafty [craft services], stopping people taking photos, you know, things like that. And I did that five days a week, 15-hour days.” 

      His work as a P.A. landed him on sets of Deadpool, the Van Helsing television series, Supernatural, Riverdale, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Fifty Shades Freed, just to name a few. Although the tasks were monotonous, Cassin knew he was learning a lot, so made sure to never complain. 

      “I had never worked a day of my life on set,” Cassin says. “Next thing I know, I was straight into the deep end. I figured, you know, this was gonna be a crash course for two years while I’m here.” 

      “I didn’t go [to Vancouver] to socialize to have a good time, you know. I didn’t leave Vancouver—I still haven’t been to Whistler,” he adds with a laugh. “All I did was work, I had to be disciplined. I had a goal, this singular goal, and I was going to achieve it.” 

      He worked on his screenplays on the bus ride home and on weekends when he had downtime. 

      “I was the first to get on set and the last one to leave every day,”  Cassin recalls. “I was just so eager. I wanted to be there to learn, you know? I was like, ‘I get to watch and learn as if this was a trade, like this was an education.’ On set, I would constantly be taking notes.” 

      “Being a production assistant on set, while being an aspiring screenwriter, really informed my writing, and made it better,” he continues. “I got to see things through a different prism. a different scope. So, I’d be handed the sides [the script] and I’d be like, ‘Okay, these are the words, these are the directions and so on.’ I’d see these, the words, and then I’d look up and I’d see what was happening, physically.”

      By paying attention, he was able to see what made a script work, and, importantly, what kind of scripts were inexpensive to produce. He developed a know-how for what made a script strong and marketable. When it was time for him to market his own screenplays later in his journey, he was successful. 

      “So I didn’t mind standing there for 15 hours at Video Village, listening to how the director talks and what the D.P. [director of photography] is saying to the camera man, ‘cuz I’d go, ‘Oh here, this is in the script here, that’s the way they’re doing it. I can use that.’” 

      When set work wasn’t available to him (and over the course of two years, his phone wasn’t always ringing) he took on a number of other, non-film-related odd jobs. He picked up any work he could find to support his screenwriting goals. 

      “Some weeks would be leaner than others, so you’d have to make ends meet,” he says. “I did a lot of labour work, I’d look after cats, look after people’s houses, you know—not film-related at all. I was willing to take on jobs like, ‘Here’s 50 bucks, clean up my garage.’ And I would look at it like, ‘Okay, this 50 bucks helps me pay my rent. I know that I’m getting this job in two weeks on this movie set, so I can do it.’” 

      “You know, some people are goal-oriented, and my goal was to make it in the film industry,” Cassin continues. “I was willing to sacrifice my time to do it. That 50 bucks would help pay rent or buy me rain gear to use on set.” 

      Whenever a new type of on-set job presented itself, he took it on. Cassin assisted as a camera operator, helped a friend with craft services, and even worked as a costumer on an independent horror film. With each new role, he developed a new skill he could draw on for his screenplays. 

      Today, back in Ireland, Cassin is able to fully support himself by the scripts he’s sold and the ones he’s developing with American producers. 

      “I feel like I’m in a very privileged spot,” Cassin says. “But it took a long time to get here. You’ve got to be very patient.” 

      Cassin’s path to success had been paved by becoming a jack of all trades, wearing a variety of film industry hats until he wore the crown as “screenwriter.”

      Making yourself as useful as possible on set is a thing that many people do to get their start in the film industry. Enter the multi-talented Vancouver filmmaker, Tom Belding. 

      In 2003 at the age of 17, Belding moved from Fredericton, N.B. to Vancouver in hopes of pursuing a career in acting. He’s since created a thriving career both in front and behind the camera. He’s been an actor, writer, director, editor, digital designer, photographer, and the list doesn’t stop there. Think of any job in the industry, and he’s probably done it. 

      As an actor, Belding was enthusiastic about having side hustles: taking on a job at a nightclub, offering headshot photography, and guest mentoring at Vancouver Film School on end-of-term final film projects. He explains that while balancing various jobs while pursuing acting was challenging, it allowed him to save money to support himself for future artistic projects.  

      Tom Belding shooting photos of actress Meganne Young, 2021
      Tom Belding

      “I did a lot of creative side gigs,” Belding recalls. “I was doing some photography work—shooting headshots and shooting portraits and doing a bit of business branding stuff. I was doing a bit of graphic design work. I did a little bit of everything. Sometimes I would be, you know, working at the bar, and then maybe the next day I would be designing an album cover, and then the next day I would be teaching at the school.”  

      “I do recall being tired,” Belding continues. “When I booked [an acting] job, I remember getting up early in the morning was difficult for me because I was on such a routine of working really late. But I made good money at the nightclub. It allowed me to invest back into myself. I was always making sure I was able to buy lenses or buy camera gear, you know, having some money that I could put money towards business expenses.” 

      Belding has, for the past six years, been more focused on a career behind the camera as opposed to in front of it, but the side gigs haven’t disappeared. Instead of working at a nightclub and making a profit off of photography, he now shoots music videos and documentaries and creates commercial content in between his own short videos and projects. He still also occasionally takes on a mentoring or directing role at Vancouver Film School. 

      Tom Belding directing actors on green screen at Vancouver Film School, 2015
      Tom Belding

      Ask him if having a creative side job gives someone an advantage, though, and Belding argues no. As long as you’re able to put money aside for your filmmaking pursuits, it doesn’t matter what your side gigs are. 

      “Whether you’re in the industry as an actor or a filmmaker, you, yourself, are the business,” Belding explains. “So whatever side jobs you have can allow you to invest back into your business while you're supporting yourself, whether that means going to classes, or buying some headshots, or whatever it is, I think as long as you continue to invest back into your career, then I think a side job can be whatever it needs to be.”  

      While Belding and Cassin both have found side gigs rooted in the film industry, there are those who find day jobs completely separate from their showbiz endeavors. 

      Cora Burnette.

      Cora Burnette, a costumer in the Vancouver film industry is also the owner of Little Miss Vintage, a vintage thrift shop on Commercial Drive.

      Born into a family of seamstresses, and growing up as a theatre performer, Burnette developed a love for costumes, and for vintage fashion. In 2001, she began selling vintage clothing online. 

      “I usually tell people I opened the shop because my husband made me,” Burnette jokes. “He was sick of all the costumes crammed into every closet and corner of the house.” 

      In 2006, she opened Little Miss Vintage. There, she would meet and befriend costumers shopping for their work on set. Ten years later, and her chance would come to be one of these costumers herself. 

      “The industry was getting increasingly busy, to the point where the costume department was having trouble crewing up most shows,” Burnette explained. “I started doing day calls here and there, and was eventually approached by a friend who knew me through the shop that needed someone for a period show.” 

      The show was called Timeless, a television series which needed all hands on deck coming up with vintage costumes.

      “I went on to do all of season one," Burnette says. "Each episode was a different time period—not just the 20s. ‘30s ‘40s and ‘60s...we went all the way back to the 1300s at one point. Definitely a career highlight.” 

      Since then, her body of work has included Deadpool 2, Hulu original television program Woke, and her favourite production to date, Julie and the Phantoms

      “The costume designer Soyon An was absolutely brilliant and created some really incredible costumes,” she says of Julie and the Phantoms. The show went on to win a Daytime Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design for a Drama Series.

      While Burnette's ultimate goal is to design an entire show, Burnette says she’s in no hurry to accomplish that. 

      “I feel I am still paying my dues at this point, learning all aspects of the job, which is critical for big projects," she says. "The beauty of the costume department is there are many roles to fill within the team to make the dream work, and most of us will, or have played, every part at some point or another. This way, everyone can wear any hat at any time, creating a strength and camaraderie like no other.” 

      Burnette suggests that her day job is crucial, and she enjoys having one which lies outside of the grind of the film industry.

      “It’s definitely important to have something to fall back on, no matter what industry you are in,” she offers. “Film is especially challenging because of the long hours, so sanity breaks in between shows is a good idea regardless of whether they happen organically or by choice. Having another gig can help create that life/work balance which can keep you from burning out.” 

      Despite the at-times tedious tasks, long hours, and the struggle of juggling multiple gigs, the chance to work on a film set is something that attracts flocks of people to Vancouver each year. Over 70,000 people are employed by Vancouver’s film industry—the third largest motion—picture industry in North America. Movie-making, both in front and behind the camera, continues to be a dream job for many. Even if that dream job comes with an extra side helping of alternative gigs. 

      “For a long time, I thought no one works their dream job,” Cassin reflects. “I said to myself, I’d give it a shot just to see if I could do it. Then, if I don’t get anywhere, I can tell myself that at least I tried. But what I didn’t count on was falling deeply in love with writing.” 

      When it comes to pursuing a career in the film industry, you can’t say “failure is not an option” because failure is going to happen, repeatedly. Instead, the saying should be “not trying is not an option,” because as long as you’re trying, you’re successful. 

      “It is hours, and hours, and hours of hard work and rejection," Cassin acknowledges.

      But that shouldn't discourage anyone from pursuing their dream. Flashing back to the first words he ever wrote for a screenplay, Cassin has a bit of advice for anyone working two jobs while hoping to make the film industry their full-time gig. 

      "All you have to do," he says encouragingly, "is begin.”

      Courtesy of Jasmine Wood