Should you consider working for free?
This is a tough subject that after speaking to various people and reading other people's blogs and articles it has produced a mixed response. I suppose it all comes down to your attitude and philosophy about yourself and your work. Here's the short answer:
Well, this does of course depend on the project and budget. If the project has a small budget and the cast and crew are being paid no matter how small then of course, negotiate a percentage for your daily rate. If this is a project based at an established production company that make a profit from their work, then yes of course you should be paid. In some cases, projects have a small budget but it's all going on camera and lighting hire, so you have to take that in to account too. For you to charge your daily rate means there is no film. Also, it does depend on the length of the project. Being asked to shoot a film over 10 or 20 days is time you're not spending replying to emails, or actively looking for paid work, so these things have to be judged on their own merits.
So, the projects I'm talking about here would fall in to the category of low to no budget/student/personal projects lasting from anywhere from a day to a week. All things being equal and that the project in question isn't a large budgeted one, whether you are starting out as a camera person, writer, actor or any crew member, should you consider working for free on a project like this? Yes. No matter what level you see yourself.
Now, before the chorus of “yeah but as a professional...” “I have integrity and don't throw my talents away....” “It took me a lot of time and money to get where I am...” “They respect you more if you charge...” take the time to read this article and see if any of it applies to you.
Relationships and contacts:
This really is the biggie. Relationships are what the media/creative industries are built on. How you work with others is what gets you hired again. If you do the minimal amount, moan about lunch, and challenge others in a negative way then you won't get the call next time. So, you might do a new director a favour by appearing in their short film or music video, then in six months time that director gets a paid commercial/corporate gig come in and it's a chance then for them to hire and pay you for your professional services. The friendship/relationship you developed on the free gig proved you can work well together and the paid job is an opportunity for them to repay you for your kindness and time on the smaller project. I have had personal experience of this and it feels good to pay it back. It does give you a warm feeling when you get a call asking about actors for paid work and you put forward all the names of people that have helped you. Sometimes they don't get the jobs but sometimes they do, and that makes it all worth while.
It might not even be a project I'm directly involved it. I've had production companies ring me up looking for a sound recordist/art director/camera assistant, whatever. I have a list of many I can give them from past professional jobs. Maybe there's one who always moans when we've gone over by five minutes on a shooting day, one who always wants more money and the one who just gave me five days for free on my last short, had a wonderful attitude and never moaned a day in her life. Which name do I give over? Of course the crew members who didn't get their details passed on, never know their attitude and decisions five months earlier just cost them that job. “Yeah things are a bit quiet for me lately...” Really?
Another thing to remember, you never know who is working on the film or project. Maybe you get chatting to one of the extras in the crowd scene at lunch and it turns our she's an angel investor for small businesses and you have a feature film you're putting a business plan together for. Maybe the camera-person is also a director who is currently casting for the lead in their film. Friends and crew members have called me up before asking for the contact details of that actress from a project we made last year... rather than go through casting he thinks she's perfect for the role and offers it to her directly. Maybe the DP is an established feature film DP and is currently looking for a new camera assistant to join his team...? You've just shown him you're a reliable, hard working member of the team.
As a camera-person/camera assistant/crew member you might get to work with new kit. New cameras and modifications, lenses, recording devices etc are being released all the time. Even if you're an experienced established cameraman, maybe there is a new camera you've never worked on. But after shooting this small two day student shoot you now have experience of it. So when the BBC call next week and ask if you can shoot their new show on the very same camera, you can comfortably and confidently say yes. As an actor or crew member you also now have more material for your showreel. That's the magic of how these things work, that you don't know how far reaching this goes. That paid TV job you get in 9 months time, was down to the three clips from the student/low budget film you said yes to and shot over a year ago. And remember, the people watching your camera or acting showreel don't know that you weren't paid for that job, but they assume you were.
As a DP I might shoot a project for someone and as every single film and set is different, I learn something new. You might learn how light comes in through a window at a certain time of day, what can be achieved with a particular piece of kit, stumbling on a happy accident when you bounce that light off a coloured wall, having the opportunity to put that tip you read about in to practice with nothing major or costly riding on the outcome. One cameraman once told me even at 65 there hasn't been a day on set he hasn't learnt something. All this experience builds up to valuable knowledge that you can now bring to bigger and wait for it, paid jobs.
The late film director Tony Scott said he loved shooting TV commercials in between movies. It was a testing ground he said, where he tested new cameras and lenses, new cranes and dollies to see what they could do. It gave him confidence to then apply those things to the next big film he was shooting. Shooting smaller free films in our arena is akin as his commercials. Obviously Mr. Scott was paid for these commercials but his attitude is transferrable.
Even if you have a shoot where you don't think you've learnt anything (which is unlikely) you are using your skills and experience to help others. You're paying it forward. Helping young and new people coming up the ladder. And who knows you might even have fun and make a few new friends in the process.
Admittedly, you might find yourself working on projects that are poorly organised, with the director unprepared and they can end up being more trouble than they're worth. I've been there and it can be exhausting. So you might have to make that decision before saying yes after a few meetings with the people behind it. But if they are prepared and have done all their homework, then what have you got to lose?
I try to do as many films as I can as a DP for other film makers. People have and continue to help me all the time with my projects so the least I can do is do the same for others. If I'm honest it probably works out at 70% altruistic selfless behaviour and 30% selfish behaviour. I want to help others but also for all the reasons listed above; they're using new camera kit, new types of lights, and I might get to try that new technique I read about in American Cinematographer magazine. If I learn one new thing on a three day student film, then it was worth it. And here's where this whole approach pays off. That one new thing I learnt has then got me out of trouble on that paid commercial I shoot 4 months later when there's a bigger crew watching with time and money at stake. Phew, thank god I knew how to do that thing...
Maybe you're an extra who wants to be an actor. Hanging around on a film set, seeing how other actors and directors work, being around the process, all adds up and comes back to help you one day down the line. Maybe you're an editor who only cuts on Final Cut. A short film comes along where the director wants you to cut their new project on Avid instead. This might be a good opportunity to learn a new skill and a different (better) program. As an editor you need to be well versed in all applications.
Not all about the money:
I'll leave you with a story from business speaker and entrepreneur Zig Ziglar. He had a friend who worked on the railroad for 60 years. One day whilst out sweating in the midday heat digging trenches and laying track, a black limo pulls up and a voice from inside calls “Dave Anderson, is that you?” . The voice from the car turned out to be the President of the railroad. “Hi Dave, how are ya doing? Lovely to see you, how's the family?.” And after some more chit chat the car drives away. Dave's work colleague turns to him and says “Whoa, you know the President of the railroad?!” Dave says, “Yes, we both started working here when we were 16”. In the car driving away, the President's assistant enquires after how the President knows one of the workers in the fields. “We both started working together when we were 16.” “But how are you now the President and he's still working in the trenches?” the assistant asked. The President replied, “Well, at 16 Dave went to work for $3.25 an hour and I went to work for the railroad.”
So, I guess it's not all about the money. I think if you help others in their passions and their endeavours then somewhere along the line you end up helping yourself.
Your success comes from helping others get what they want. With that success comes experience, joy, learning and finally, if you really need it, wealth.