I literally grew up in live events and recently have made the switch to film programming. Though I am by no means the most experienced film programmer, I’ve been doing it for over a year now and there’s something to be said for someone giving advice before they forgot what it was like to be new. If you also value this, and are interested in starting to program for film, hopefully you’ll get a lot out of this series.
I will attempt to place this series in a kind of chronological order from first call for the gig and progressing through production. There are going to be entries that could be reordered since there is no singular order to any production, but hopefully the progression will make sense.
It’s important to note that this is a series for people who already are live event programmers. This series will not attempt to teach you how to BE a programmer, but how to understand and perform what is expected of you as a film programmer. It’s a very different working method on set, so this is terms and process plus tips and tricks to make your experience better.
I’m a proud member of IATSE and have worked almost exclusively within the contract for film. I will only speak to my union experience since it’s the life I’ve chosen and I’m unqualified to speak of non-union work.
I will be speaking from the point of view of being a Main Unit programmer. Main Unit is the team that does all the hero work, working with the leads and doing all the key pieces of the film. Though I’ve been assigned to work with Second Unit (team that shoots a ton of stuff but usually without the leads), it was a “lending” process of me shifting to second unit for a few days. I don’t know enough about Second Unit to be helpful.
You will likely be contacted the last minute for your first several gigs. This is because they are trying to get a programmer they already know or is a local hire. Typically they have to run through the whole list before they get to a new person. Or that was the case for me. A friend suggested me to a production and a week went by without me hearing anything. On Sunday morning I received a call from the Gaffer asking when I was flying in that day! That was my first call. YIKES.
Since I basically had less than a day to get through everything, I immediately asked the Business Representative for a copy of the contract. As a worker it is ALWAYS a great idea to know the contract you will be working under. This is all the more important since you will be negotiating your rate and your gear rental rate for any equipment. Know what the minimum is for your position at the very least, since a UPM (Unit Production Manager) may offer you the minimum rate in a way that sounds like it is “special” instead of “the lowest thing they are required to pay you”. I highly recommend also speaking to your Best Boy (second in command of the LX team) IMMEDIATELY to ask what the range of rates in their area are for both your hourly as well as rental rates for consoles/equipment (referred to in film as your “Box Rental”). This is invaluable. It not only makes sure you don’t get paid less than you deserve, it respects the hard work the people in their community have done to get their rates up.
This is a good time to mention it is the “norm” for programmers to rent the production their personal console. If you don’t have a console and it’s possible for you to buy one in time for the production, you should strongly consider buying one. It’ll be worth it in most markets. (Worth it meaning very good money.) You may also need to provide a secondary console for your Rigging Programmer (the person on the Rigging team who tracks your interests on locations that need lighting installed prior to Main Unit arriving), assuming you are lucky enough to have one. It’s normal to provide them (in most cases) with a more compact console or even a PC-based version with computer and dedicated input keyboard or interface. Think of a programming wing in the ideal and enough address/parameter outputs for the size/scale of your production. This is also part of your box rental.
A powerful wireless access point, touch screens, additional fader wings, nodes, tablets for remote control of the console, network switches, DMXCat or other DMX tester, a cart for working on (though I always have the production rent me one), uninterrupted power supply, CRMX transmitters/receivers, pelican cases, etc are also common parts of a Box Rental. Do not forget a comfortable, easy to fold up chair. Things you don’t already own can easily be rented, but if you already own them- get them in there and make some rental money! Passive income is awesome and a major selling point for working in film. Typically they will send you shipping labels to get your gear to the location. The moment it leaves your hands, it’s under the Production’s insurance policy. Once it arrives, it will travel on the Truck Pack (a bunch of gear that travels everywhere the electrics team goes).
I’m sure many of you are outdoors people, but I liked Theater because I like the indoors. So I’m compelled to suggest you check out the environment you will be working in and bring the widest selection of clothing that you can fit into your luggage (assuming you need to fly, as I did/do). I had no idea (for instance) how cold the high desert gets on a summer night and WOW did I need more layers than I thought. Don’t go too crazy here, but bring a good “first draft” of clothing and weather protection gear for a wide range of conditions. Be ready for blazing sun, pouring rain, and freezing cold. You will most likely need to go shopping after the first week of shooting happens when you realize things the weather report didn’t make clear. Also, make sure you have enough clothing to go for two weeks between laundry days so you get more time to rest on the weekends.
If you are in from our of town, all transportation will be arranged for you. You’ll get a rental car, a hotel room and per diem. As you are likely looking at a two month or more length of contract, you have the option to rent your own AirBnB or furnished apartment and take a “Buyout”, where the production will pay you the monies for your living expenses and you can do with it what you wish. Take some creature comforts with you. I typically bring a small group of kitchen items since I like to cook plus some coffee stuff since I REALLY like coffee. But spare some space and time to make sure you have some things to make your stay comfortable. It makes a big difference.
Theoretically, this list should get you a rate you feel good about and get you to the gig and “settled” with the materials you need for your job. Next week, we’ll continue the series as we start to get oriented to who everyone is and how to prep your gear. Be sure to hit me up with questions in the comments or to offer anything from your experience. I’d like this to be a resource that can help as many people as possible.