Film Programmers Should Program a Musical

I’m nearing the conclusion of a four month film project and my show file is getting larger and larger.  Why do I mention this?  Since I spend a bunch of time looking at the loading screen, it’s given me many opportunities to see how much content I’ve created over the course of this shoot.  In general, I think I’ll finish this project having written about 500 cues and 150 effect submasters.  When I compare that with the amount of content I used to crank out for live show- 300-1000 cues over the course of a week- it occurs to me the best way to become a better film programmer may be to work in a theater once in a while.  Hear me out.

Obviously, there are work flow differences between the two.  But for me, the best way to learn something is to do it over and over again.  If you are only writing 500 cues over 4 months, how much more would you learn doing 300-1000 cues a week?  It would give you opportunities to get deep awareness of tracking, effects, how to press fewer buttons to get the same result, etc.  And if you are fortunate enough to do several theater projects over the course of a month, you won’t have had time to forget as much of what you learned on the last programming gig, and hopefully be able to go further in your exploration.

So how to do this?  Well, the easiest way to do it may be to volunteer at a community theater.  Paid programming positions can be hard to come by and if I was presented a choice between hiring a film programmer or a theater programmer for a live event gig, I know which one I would choose.  Also- volunteers aren’t expected to crank out content at the speed of light because the working environment isn’t incurring massive charges on an hourly basis.  This means you have the option to perhaps spend an hour or more before rehearsal starts learning new techniques or trying to solve a problem from the day before.  As it is building out your skill set, I would regard taking this theoretical volunteer gig that same way I would paying for training.  It’s an investment in your future.

When you are choosing projects and theaters, it’s helpful to be aware of a few things.

  1. Plays tend to be easy.  If you are brand new to programming, get a few of those under your belt.  To me, a play is equivalent to “normal” programming on set.  No effects usually, illumination with a bit of sculpting.  Can be between 50-200 cues.
  2. Dance and circus and movement arts tend to be a great middle ground for complexity and volume.  Effects are common, very expressive visually, so there is a deeper and more overt use of color.  100-300 cues usually.  Be advised that movement forms tend to be created and executed VERY fast.  Most of my career, I was given a day to get eh show loaded in and create the content before being expected to run the show.
  3. Musicals and rock shows are the trickiest and most demanding.  (And each is a VERY different programming style from the other.) As you gain experience, be sure to favor any theater that has moving lights, as they are becoming common on set, and I know several film programmers who struggle with operating them quickly.  Many cues, moving scenery, overt use of lighting with live moves, effects, spots, and 300-1000 cues.
  4. Smaller community theaters may have very old gear.  It may be worth it to program their console to get used to listening to someone call for channels if you aren’t used to that.  At a certain point though, you’ll probably going to want to convince them to let you program your own board.  Be aware most modern theaters use Eos family consoles.  Also be aware they are used to paying rental costs that are FAR lower than film.  I typically rented my console for $250 a week in theater.  I get far more than that (and have far more gear I provide besides the one console) in film.  Remember this is a skill building experience first and foremost.
  5. Theaters tend to build a show over a week (could be longer, could be shorter) schedule with at least two twelve to fifteen hour days to get tech built, then shift to rehearsal/run throughs at night with tech notes during the day.  Those tech notes days are where you want to come in and try things you’ve not done.  On a separate save of the show file.  NEVER put data in jeopardy, not matter how little you are being paid.
  6. Unless you have TONS of time, make sure you get out of running the shows (the exception is the movement shows, which will usually only be one weekend).  You won’t learn much at all and you’ll lose too much potential income.  The good stuff all happens during “tech week”.
  7. Many lighting designers have a fair knowledge of how the console works (specifically the Eos family).  This is a great help to newer programmers.  In my experience in film, people have no clue how a console works, so there is no one to help you on set if you are confused.
  8. There is often a position that doesn’t really have an equivalent in film (perhaps it does in “live event” film, which I’ve never worked in).  This position is the Stage Manager.  A good SM is worth their weight in gold.  Even if they aren’t good- treat them with respect.  The culture of theater is very focussed around the SM position that is similar to the First AD meets the UPM but with TONS more hands on and no access to money or budgets.
  9. During rehearsals and previews, you will be listening to the SM call the cues (they tell every position what to do and exactly when throughout the show) while listening to the lighting designer giving you modifications to the cues you are running.  This is a skill.  Never roll the next cue without updating any changes to the current cue.

I built all of my skills in live events.  Even after I got into more professional, higher paying venues, I still kept connected to lower paying jobs as a way to build out skills I didn’t have.  Once I had them, there were high price tags offered by other companies that made the lower/no wage work well worth the time.  I hope this either works for you as well or inspires you to think of something that will!  What do you credit for the opportunity to build your skills and craft?  Hit me in the comments.

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