Top 5 of the newbie mistakes I did (and how you should avoid them)
As many people of my generation, I have done a lot of internships before landing my first “real” job. I had worked in theater and opera before but my first paid experience on a professional set was on the second season of a famous French TV show.
After years of internships, non-paid gigs and many types of side jobs, including working at a costume rental place, teaching art classes for kids and working as a night receptionist in a hostel, I was finally getting a foot in the door of the “real” Industry (at least the French one...). It was a great, tiring and demanding experience and I learned more in 6 months than I learned in 2 years.
When I started to work as a Costume Supervisor then Designer, I realized I could see the assistants I was working with doing the same mistakes I did when I had my first job. I don’t think I truly understood why the HOD where being annoyed sometimes toward something I did or said because I was not very aware of my own mistakes. I’m still learning to be a professional HOD and I could still work as an Assistant because I believe I have a long way to go in order to know everything about the industry. I learned that being a professional is about 80% of learning through experience and 20% of studying technical knowledge. So this post is not about teaching you how to be a professional because you can only master it on your own by falling along the way and learning from your mistakes. However, if you want to get some tips and share experiences, you are on the right page.
Here the top 5 of the dumbest mistakes you will do as a newbie in the industry (because trust me, I have done them) :
THINKING YOU KNOW EVERYTHING ALREADY
So I had my Master’s Degree in Costume Design and I did lots of internships, short films, music videos, theatre and opera productions assistantships. I also had these experiences in different places such as NYC, LA and Paris. I though I knew my craft and that I didn’t have so much to learn. I had been on a set before, I even had my portfolio started and I studied in the best school in France. I wanted to show that I knew stuff and that I would be able to be more than just a PA.
The truth is when you work with new people you have to learn to work their way. Nobody actually wants their assistant to take too much initiative. As an assistant you are hired to execute things that your HOD doesn’t have time to do. You are not here to take any responsibility - unless they ask you to. Being flexible and understanding how the crew works is way more important than showing off your skills. Your knowledge will be greatly appreciated after you can prove your ability to listen, adapt to every situation and be humble.
If you have worked on a set before, you already know that being on time is being late. You don’t show up at your call time, you come earlier. Call time is not the time for breakfast or making yourself a coffee, it is the time you start working and dressing people.
However being reliable is more than just being on time. As a Costume PA I was doing a lot of pick ups of costumes and various shopping errands around the city. I was driving so I was stuck in traffic all the time. The Supervisor was calling me every hours and after three months of work I was wondering why she was still doing this because I though I had proven my reliability already. But when I became a Supervisor I did the exact same thing ! When you work with an assistant, the pressure is all on your shoulders because if the costume is not on set at the right time, it is going to be your fault no matter what the person under you did. As an assistant, it is important to be reachable all the time (at least by text or talkie if you are on set) and to always pick up your phone/talkie when your boss is calling you. Remember that someone is responsible for your work and your behavior.
I think this also something good to remember when you are looking for a job because if you don’t pick up your phone or answer your email quickly, you won’t get the job.
THINKING YOU SHOULD BE DESIGNING
If you have an interview to get an assistantship gig, don’t tell the Costume Supervisor/Designer that you want to design. Of course you may have some design works on your portfolio and it’s fine as long as you don’t advertise them during your job interview. The same thing happens for any other interview : if I’m meeting a Director to work on a Comedy show, I’m not going to advertise my Action movie past work. Each gig requires different skills and level of experience. If the person in front of you is looking for an assistant, she/he is not looking for a co-designer. Period.
ASSUMING EVERYBODY IS YOUR FRIEND
Being on set and working with a good crew is a lot of fun (sometimes). That’s one of the many reasons I like working in the industry. When you work under a lot of pressure and you are away from home (or because you work fifty hours a week), your crew starts to become your family. However when your HOD is being very demanding because the schedule changed or something went wrong with a costume, you should not feel the right to be casual, complain about it or tell him/her that you need a break just because you had a beer with him/her last night. No matter the level of “friendship” you are sharing with the HOD, this person will always be your boss and you need to meet their expectations to the best of your ability.
Now you are working with fun actors, they are getting used to be around you and to make jokes. You clean their costumes and you know exactly how they look like in their underwear. No matter how friendly they are with you, you need to keep being professional. You can be nice and friendly with them (and you should !), but the talents will never be your friends. If they do, chances are you won’t be called again.
AVOIDING THE CHAIN OF COMMAND
The way a Costume Department works is intensely hierarchical, as much as every other crews on set. Each department has a HOD and people with different skills and responsibilities.
This is what a classic Costume Department looks like on a film :
Remember that each problem has to be discussed with the right person. You have to report directly to the person right above you because it is not your job to determine what’s important enough for your HOD to deal with. On the other hand, don’t do something that is related to the position above you - unless this person asked you to do so. Each person has his/her own responsibility in the chain of command and you could make someone look ineffective or incapable if you were taking his/her job.
Everybody does mistake, especially when they are starting. This is actually part of the industry and it’s fine as long as you know you’ve made a mistake, apologize and ask for help to improve it. If there is something I wish I knew when I started my career it would be to understand that nobody learns how to be a great Costumer without failing along the way