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February 2018 | Georgie McGahey

Starting out as floor runner is a popular choice for many who want to get their first experience on a professional film set. So what experience do you need and how do you get a job?

If you are considering a career in the film industry, then you could be thinking of starting out as a floor runner. I caught up with floor 2nd, Stephanie Jolly, whose credits include Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Spectre, Solo: A Star Wars Story and the recently released Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, to chat about her career and what she is looking for in new recruits. 

What advice would you give to graduates and school leavers contemplating a career in the film industry? 

It’s the same way in regardless of what you want to get into, and a lot of people do try and go into running by default, because it's a good chance to see, from the ground up, what everybody does. When you're a runner you have to talk to every department, so its a good route in for everybody to get a taste of what there is. Because there are so many jobs that people don’t even realise exist and it's only when you get on set when you say “Oh my god, I didn’t realise there was someone responsible for Greens", for example. That’s someone's job, to make sure all the greens - plants - are organised and positioned correctly in the shot.

But if you at university, doing a media degree, you should know your degree has no bearing on your ability to find work in production, it makes no difference. Don’t assume because you are doing a media degree that you are any more capable or wanted than anyone else. If you're fresh out of school you could still get a job; we're an apprenticeship industry where we train people from beginning to end.

Looking back, with your degree, would there be anything that you would have done differently?

I went to a really small university, I was in the north-west, and there weren’t that many opportunities to gain professional experience at university. But if you are in an area where you can get experience, you have to maximise every opportunity and go and get it. Otherwise, you can just enjoy your three years at university and think about the skills you're going to get from that, such as working with others and applying your self to something. When it comes to being an AD, these are all useful life skills because being an AD is all about working with people and organising situations, and - not even being a leader - but managing expectations and problem-solving. As long as you can do those things, you can get that from any degree, so I guess a degree is useful in that sense. If you don’t have a degree, it doesn't mean that you aren’t eligible, because there is nothing I learnt on my degree that I use now in my job - at all. 

When I did my degree, they naturally pushed women towards producing, perhaps its because they thought we were naturally bossy, but I never quite settled there. What I was good at was being on the shoot and making stuff happen, solving the problems that arose. So when I went into the real industry, I realised it’s all condensed into a small role, and that is the role of the AD. So when you go to uni you can find your path, it's a good thing to do, but by no means necessary to get into the film industry.

So what made you want to pursue a career in the film industry? What was your journey?

I fell into it - I really fell into it. I didn’t do very well with my A-levels, I actually got the results I deserved to be honest. So I went and worked a little while waitressing and ended up choosing media as a degree. When I took an art A-level I made a little film, which was well received. I always wanted to work on films but never really allowed myself to think that was a possibility. As everyone tells you “ it's so hard to get into the film industry - it's impossible” so I thought, why even try. But when I was presented with an opportunity to study media, I thought, well let's give it a go.

I enjoyed the practical experience of working on a film, so when I finished, I had an opportunity to take some work experience on a really small BBC drama. I went and did a weeks work experience on The Cut for the BBC, and it was so much fun!

The blisters I got on my feet from wearing plimsoles will haunt me for the rest of my life, but, I learnt my lesson. I wore slippers home that night and the next day I have never been so tired in all my life - even now. So I went back the next day and just enjoyed every minute of it, even with the blisters. I was thrilled to see everything that was going on, and even now - and I’ve been doing this for ten years - every single day I find myself learning something new. I’m still learning. It’s the kind of job where no day is the same; you are always presented with new challenges, new challenges and scenarios that you can solve.

So where did you go from there, how did you start to become an AD?

So when I was doing my work experience on The Cut, I helped out the electrician, there was only one spark. It was a tiny crew of about 15-20 of us. From that, the producer approached me and said how impressed they had been with me, and they would love to offer me a position as a camera assistant. They knew I didn’t have any experience, but they would train me up. Camera was never anything that I had taken an interest in before, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I thought, this is a chance to work - maybe I can give up waitressing - and I can see where it goes. 

I spent a year and a half doing that, and I started to pick up runner jobs towards the end of it. Working with the camera gave me the chance to be on set more so than some of the runners. So I knew everything that happened with the director and the 1st and how everyone acted and behaved when your turning; if you're a runner on a lock-off you would never see all of that. So when I went onto my first project as a runner, I was streets ahead of everyone else because I had figured it all out. I knew camera wasn’t for me, I kept on looking at the runners and the 1st and thought, I could do that, that looks like fun!

When you start out, you're obviously not going be working on the big budget production that you work on now; you'll be working on lower budget indies. Do you have any advice when you get your first feature film?

So, with floor running, you need to throw yourself into it 100% and be polite and courteous. When you work on indie, and you work hard and quickly with enthusiasm, you will be noticed. And it's a small world, the independent world, so you can progress quicker working on indies than on the big features because it's easier to get noticed. 

Actually, people on the independents and the large features cross over slightly. For example, I met the 1st AD I’m working with now on a small independent feature, and now we are working on a big budget film. You never know the history of the crew, so go into every single job like it is a big budget feature, and you care about it that much. Because at the end of the day, if you want to be an AD, you have to have the same passion for organising a small job and a big job, the systems the same, it's just the scope that changes. So if you work with people on the small films, they will take you to the big films, because a good AD is a good AD regardless of the budget of the film.

What about the guys who first set foot on the lot at Pinewood?

Get a map, turn up early, make sure you sign in with security on time. Make sure you introduce yourself and smile at everybody.  Lots of runners on their first day become overwhelmed by the whole process. It can feel like chaos but make sure you smile and politely put out your hand and introduce yourself. People mention this to me a lot, such as “oh, that runner came and said something to me, but I didn’t know who they were or what they're doing”. So always introduce yourself. Absorb everything, take on board the scale of it and then try and find some order in the chaos.

The power of the handshake it much underrated by new members of the industry.

Completly. It doesn't matter if your shaking hands with the lead actor, or the director, or your fellow runners. The fact you have taken the time to acknowledge them or pay them some respect because you realise the hierarchy - and there is always a hierarchy in these things - will stand you in such good stead and set you up for the rest of the day. And that person will remember you and potentially mention you to their superiors, which would help you out. 

What do you hope to see from new members of the team, someone who has never worked on a feature before?

Turning up on time and being eager to learn is a good start. Nobody is ever going to mind if you ask questions; what they would be concerned about is you making decisions without asking questions. So always ask if you don’t know, especially because we use a lot of jargon, usually on the radio. Also, always be busy, there is always something to do. One of my pieces of advice, if you want to be a runner, is going to offer water. Offer water to the crew, teas and coffees, speak to your floor 3rd to see if you can offer the 1st a cup of tea, or if they need anything. If you do this from the smallest film to the biggest budget feature film, you will always be appreciated, because you have thought someone may need some help. Plus it's a good opportunity to have face to face time with people.

Being a runner has quite a parental element to it, hasn’t it?

Certainly, you're there to support your team and the crew. Your not only there to help run the day and make sure everyone knows whats going on, you're also there to look after the crew. You can be working long days, long hours and everyone needs a bit of looking after. 

You mentioned jargon on the radio, are there any key phrases everyone should know about?

One of the things that many new runners do is, when their given instruction, they will go off and just start doing it, which is brilliant, but the first thing you should do when given instruction says ‘copy’. Because if I’m standing somewhere and I can't see you, I need to check you have heard what I’ve asked. And I say that because when I was a runner, I was terrible at that. So I learned that the hard way. So when you are given instruction say ‘copy’ and move on. I do often answer my phone saying ‘go ahead’ then realise I’m not on the radio I’m using a phone and it's very rude. The jargon is all very logical, so when you're in actually there, doing it, you understand it. The best bit of radio advice I would give is to hold your radio button down a beat before you speak, we call it clipping because otherwise, no one is going ever to hear what you are saying. 

When you're asking a question over the radio how would you start it?

‘Steph to somebody’. Always say your name first because if you do clip, the other person is always going to know it's for them and they will still say ‘go ahead’. The other phrase is 'go to 2', which is changing to the personal channel. No one wants to hear about who is asking for a coffee, what's happening with lunch and where it's been left. “Steph on 2” means switch your radio to channel 2 for those discussions. It always helps to say “back on 1” when you have finished that conversation, so the production knows your back on that channel. 

Knowing what you know now, after ten years in the industry, what would you say has been the most important thing you have learnt?

Enthusiasm and perseverance. You have to go into each job with the same energy as you went into the last one. So I used to work in TV and drama and then I got into film. So to start with I was doing loads of dailies on TV drama to increasing my 3rding experience. How I got into film was because I took a daily role on a feature called Heart Of The Sea, and from that one film, I was taken onto Star Wars: The Force Awakens, James Bond: Spectre, all from that one day. 

Because I had been working on TV dramas and comedies, I managed to make a good enough impression on that one day for them to give me six weeks on Star Wars. You have to go into each job not knowing where it's going to go, so you have to approach each one with enthusiasm and energy. The saying 'it’s not what you know its who you know' is perfectly true; and that's not just about family connections, it's about the people you meet when your working.

What would you say are the key things that made you stand out in that one day on set?

I think it's a quiet determination to work hard and to show energy and keenness without being too overwhelming. Also understanding the role and the hierarchy quite quickly. You need quiet confidence, so you're not overwhelmed by the whole process and know you're there to help, so if you see a job that needs doing - do it. 

How should people handle themselves on set?

I think there is something to be said for taking a step back and observing your fellow runners. Understand that they are more experienced than you, and if they have been on that job for a while, you should be helping them out. You don’t need to try and step above them to impress, you need to work with them and then you will get more work. But do take a moment to assess who is who, what goes where and help out within the department. 

Be wary of helping out in another department, because that can cause problems. They usually have enough people to help, but you can always verbally offer. Your floor 3rd is the best person to advise, so ask them if there is anything you can be doing for them and if that fails, fall back on the tea and coffee order.

What’s the best bit of set etiquette that you have learnt?

Don’t talk too much. Sad as it is, there are a lot of people on film sets that are very busy and concentrating, trying creatively to put their energy into their work, so they don’t want to be chit chatting with you. Of course, if someone brings you into conversation don’t feel like you can’t participate, but AD's are in the shadows organising, were not there to be social. It's about getting to understand when it's appropriate to join the conversation and when it's not. Don’t get me wrong, even as a floor second, if there's a moment where it becomes apparent I shouldn’t be in the conversation, I will walk away, it's about understanding the moment.

Because our department is very much about keeping the day moving, sometimes keeping people quiet, we're there to be the voice of order. Often you can't have too close a relationship with people because we're often the ones telling them to be quiet or please stop moving, and it's about protecting the actors as well. If they are trying to get into character or trying to remember their lines, chatting with them at inappropriate times can catch them off guard, AD's and runners need to preserve that space.

You mentioned respecting the hierarchy. What is the hierarchy in the AD department? Is a floor 2nd equivalent to the American 2nd 2nd?

Yes, a floor 2nd is a 2nd 2nd. You have the UK system and the American system, and they have sort of merged. 

So the standard AD department on anything up to a big feature - starting at the bottom of the hierarchy - is; floor runner, floor 3rd, a 2nd AD and the 1st AD. That’s your full AD team usually. They all have a role to play. 

Once you get into bigger stuff, those jobs have too much responsibility to be delegated to one person. So, on the big features you have a couple of floor runners, often called set production assistants, set PAs. You can have two to four floor runners, and they are your core running team. You will have more floor runners on various big days and for lock-offs and things like that. The role of key PA does exist, but not in a monetary sense; it’s more present in the hierarchy. You generally have one runner who has more experience - or has more gumption - than the rest, so when the floor 3rd is busy, the key PA will relay everything to the other runners. Also if the floor 2nd has to step off, the floor 3rd fills that role, and the key pa steps up too. There's always a right-hand person to step up and make sure everything is running. Often the key PA role naturally evolves in a team, there's always one go-to person who will be given more responsibility and they are often more experienced. It’s also a good way to become the floor 3rds right-hand person, because when they go off on another job, you're the first person they are going to call. When they step up, they will call you to fill their previous role. 

Then you have a floor 3rd and a base 3rd.  The difference between the floor and base is that the base is behind the scenes. They get the cast ready in the morning, they plan the next day, they handle most of the paperwork for the department, make sure the time sheets get done. They help the key 2nd with their scheduling tasks and planning the rest of the shoot. It's a very supportive role for the key 2nd.  The floor 3rd looks after the radios for the whole crew, so my floor 3rd manages 150 radios, they also manage the running team, giving them things to do throughout the day. 

Then you have the floor 2nd who works very closely with the 1st AD on the floor, that is the American 2nd 2nd role. They make sure messages get back to the 2nd AD appropriately; they keep base up to date with what's happening, make sure the crew know what's going on and work closely with the floor 3rd to keep the day running smoothly. Then you have the key 2nd at base, who plans the next day, gets the schedule sorted, makes sure the actors have everything they need and are ready for the next day, anything to do with hair appointments, wig fittings, stuff like that. They also make sure any changes that happen throughout the day happen smoothly. It's an incredibly busy job making sure everyone is where they need to be, and everyone knows the plan for the next day, which often changes last minute, so it’s a very key role. 

Then the 1st runs the whole set with the help of the team. As a floor 2nd, I’m there with the 1st AD making sure he has everything he needs, and if he needs to step off to do something the floor 2nd steps into that role and makes sure the work is still carried out for the next shot, and everyone is in the right place. 

Do you have an average day as a floor 2nd?

There is no average day, just to caveat this. But you work alongside the 1st very closely and as the 1st is involved in so many responsibilities, of the main job of the floor second is to make sure the set stays running smoothly. Even if the 1st needs to step away to have conversations about the schedule for the next day, you are always there as their backup. I’m always next to camera, so when everyone is ready, I make sure the 1st AD knows. When we are setting up for a scene, I’m making sure the actors are where they need to be, so if they need to take off some costume that is done in time, and I'm running the schedule, so when the 1st AD calls people, they are good to go. 

Would I be right to say the AD department is very collaborative, it seems like you are all looking out for each other.

Definitely, I can help with anyone's job in the department. I’m very much on the ground logistics, the key 2nd AD is behind the scenes. Essentially the AD department is making sure no one is ever waiting for anything. No ones left waiting and everyone knows what's going on. Anything that causes a delay is a problem. 

How have you found the moves up to the next position in the hierarchy?

When I stepped up from being a runner to a 3rd, I was working on TV dramas, and it was the scariest thing I had ever done. I had been a runner for a while watching how the 3rd worked and I thought ‘I could do that’. But when the responsibility is on your shoulders, it's a whole different ball game, and actually, learning to manage so many things at once -and it's your fault if it goes wrong - is quite a lot of pressure. But it's a fantastic challenge and once you have done one job as a 3rd AD, you're like ‘this is brilliant - I’m in charge’. When you step up, again and again, it can feel like an overwhelming pressure, but you learn to cope with the responsibility. Once you get to the top of your discipline, you're so used to dealing with challenges you become bored quickly, so you need to be challenged. 

The same advice about being a green runner should be applied to every day of your career. If you turn up, and you don’t know something, but you ask and learn and don’t make the same mistake twice, then no one can fault you. 

What makes you take a runner onto the next job with you?

I would say personality does have a big bearing, but don’t be disheartened if the team you are working with doesn't take you to the next job. There are teams I’ve worked with where we’ve had a good time but I haven’t gotten on particularly well with, and I’ve moved onto another team. It's just the way it always works. I think that if someone turns up on my set and finds ways of helping out, asking questions, finding jobs that need to be done and being busy all day, without me having to tell them how to keep busy, they are part of my team for life. 

Do you get the chance to pick the running team and look at CVS?

Yes, when you work as a 3rd you will start to look at CVs, generally, on the big films, a 3rd will book the running team, which is why it's always good to make yourself helpful to the 3rd AD.  So I do look at CVs, and I also look at a lot of terrible CVs. 

Just imagine you are looking at CVs, and you are incredibly busy and you’re working 15 hour days, and think about twenty people applying for a job when they all have three pages on their CV versus 20 people who have got a 1 page CV and consider what you would prefer. 

One page CV, get rid of the fat. If you haven’t got any work experience that's fine, put down the short films you’ve done, the other projects you have been involved with at university. Another key point - don’t lie. It's a small industry, and I’ve personally picked up CVs that have pertained to do the job that I actually did! So they are instantly dismissed. 

I’ve had people call me up and say “do you know such and such on this film, they were your assistant”, and I have to respond, "no I’ve never met them in my life". Never exaggerate. If you were a daily, say you were a daily. There's no shame in that; it just shows us what experience you’ve had. It doesn’t mean we're not going to employ you, but if you lie, we’ll know, and we won't employ you.

If you were a location marshal, put location marshal don’t put Set PA because we know people who would have worked on those jobs, and we will call and ask. You may have the skills that we need from being a daily or location marshal.

What do you want to see on that one page?

I want to see your experience, I want to see your contact details, that’s it. I don’t want to see a date of birth or national insurance numbers; you don’t know where it's going to end up, so protect your data. As long as you can get yourself to work, I don’t mind where you live to an extent, unless its a location job. Try and keep it short and sweet so we can see if you're experienced or inexperienced - don’t put a picture on it! That can cause you more problems than it can solve. The one other thing that’s really awful, do remember to tailor your CV to the job. Don’t send a CV saying you're a 2nd AD or a 1st AD if your applying to a major feature film and you have only worked on small independent films - because you are not. It's a real problem. If you want a position as a floor runner, send me a CV with the title 'floor runner' don’t send it as a 2nd AD, because you're sending it to a 2nd AD whose worked on multimillion-dollar films. They are not going to have the same experience and you're showing your lack of knowledge.

What the greatest lesson you’ve learnt so far in your career?

Not wanting to go on about this too much, but it’s being polite and talking to everyone. I got my job on Star Wars from talking to the local boat crew on Heart of the Sea and trying to learn Spanish for left, right, port and starboard, because we were shooting on a boat. My 2nd AD walked past at the time and saw me interacting with the local crew, and that might not be the entire reason he chose me, but he chose that moment to tell me he would like to bring me on board for Star Wars. So I always think, if he hadn’t have walked past and seen me trying to make friends with the local crew, with the mindset to help us when we were out at sea, then he may never have asked me. 

Be genuine, be nice, because you want to be nice and not to just progress your career, and someone will notice you eventually. 

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