Everything you ever wanted to know about becoming a Freelance video crew

Everything you ever wanted to know about becoming a Freelance video crew
Patrick Bryant, Operations Manager • Go To Team

Patrick BryantSo, you want to go freelance?

About once a month I get a call from a crew member who is working for a production company or local television station, researching the idea of going out on their own. Sometimes they ask really good questions, “How many days a month should I hope to work?” or “Is it odd to say I’ll work as a Grip or a Camera Operator?”… Other times they’ll ask less insightful questions, “How many days a week will you work me?” or “Can I have a list of the people that you guys work for?”

Either way I respect the person’s desire to jump out on their own. It’s a big step to leave behind a steady paycheck and to rely on your marketing skills to ensure that the bills get paid. In a nutshell, my advise is: During your rise to the top, don’t forget the people who helped you get that first gig, gave you that good piece of advice, or helped you choose which format camera to buy. You will find that the freelance community is very sincere and rarely attacks its own members, as long as you mind your manners. One of the best ways to limit the amount you work is to bite the hands that feed you. Always be mindful of other members of the freelance community and help them out when you can.

I hope that I can provide a little insight into the freelance production world and answer some of the basic questions future freelancers may have.

What you need to know before going freelance:
What is a freelance video crew?
Do I need to own my own gear?
What format camera should I invest in?
How quickly should I call clients back?
What should I charge?
Should I bill per hour or by the full day?
Do I bill for travel time to the location?
What travel expenses can I bill the client for?
What does it mean if I’m on Standby?
Can I count on the same amount of work each month?
Should I learn multiple positions?
Do I need a Crew Vehicle or Truck?
What is freelancer etiquette?

Freelance Video Crews
Freelance Video Crews, a common practice throughout the television, corporate, and video production industries, is booking freelance video camera crews or videographers. Producers, production companies, and news bureaus rely on video crews to capture footage that either is too far away to be captured by a staff crew, or they sub-contract out entire shoots to the expertise of other directors of photography, (DP’s).
In the case of those that own staff photographers and equipment, they realize a very important budget reduction by using freelance video crews… No travel expense. Many times the travel cost alone can cost as much as hiring a local crew. For example, a staff crew from Atlanta, GA that needs to shoot for eight hours on location in Jacksonville, North Carolina would spend $800 in flights, $200 rental car, $100 meals, $200 hotel, and at least two full days for labor. A local crew in Wilmington, NC could have traveled roundtrip to Jacksonville, NC in 3 Hours and only cost $1450 total. Assuming, the crew provided the same level of quality, the client would have a significant cost savings. If the client doesn’t own staff crews they can expend significantly more costs traveling a sub-contract video crew, than if they hire a team located close to the actual shoot location.
Many feature films rely on this same mentality by traveling their key talent to a location where the local crew base can support the majority of the positions. On the other hand many freelance video crews are staffed by some of the best camera operators or DP’s in the US. These DP’s are specifically sought after to produce glorious video for multiple clients in the same month. They may work for National Geographic one week and then NBC Dateline the next. In this case, the client is so concerned with the quality level that they are willing to pay for the associated travel expense with moving the video crew from their base in Charlotte, NC to Birmingham, AL.

Gear
A freelance video crew must decide to rent or own gear. Clients expect that either you own or you have worked with the gear many times. In larger markets there are rental houses that rent entire packages. This can be a good way to start. It will help you decide on format issues and form preferences. Of course, over the long run, you can make more money by owning.
Many times freelance camera operators will own the camera gear and team up with an audio operator that has a full sound package. Either way it should include: camera, tripod, monitor, lighting, audio, vehicle, light grip gear. Many times the audio items will be more robust if the video crew is two man vs. the one man band.
In addition, many video crews travel with additional gear that is billed only if used on location. These extra items include wide angle lens, HMI lighting fixtures, and additional decks.
Producers may make specific requests for other gear including:
Video Wireless Transmitter – allows the producer to view what the camera man is shooting on a handheld monitor.
Time Code Encoder – allows the audio operator to record an audio cassette version of interviews with time code that can be sent to transcription services.

Format
There are so many varying formats in the video crew market it is sometimes difficult to know which one to choose. Clients request the following formats on a regular basis:
HD – High Definition – The highest quality video format available today. Cameras are still very expensive. This format is perfect for very high end video footage. It is being adopted for many uses in feature film work, as well as, major network programming.
Digi-Beta – Digital Betacam – High quality digital format that has been adopted by many production companies and rental houses.
Beta SP – BetaCam SP (Not BetaMax, a lower end failed format of the 80s) – This was the industry standard for many news organizations, production houses, and high-end video producers throughout the 90s . While it is a high end format it isn’t digital and is slowly being phased out.
DVCam – Medium quality digital format used by most Sony products that is widely accepted.
DVCPro – Medium quality digital format used by most Panasonic products that is widely accepted. It is becoming the standard for local news rooms.
DV or MiniDV – Medium quality digital formats used by tons of products, including those by Sony and Panasonic. MiniDV is the format of choice for lower end camcorders on the consumer market.
It is crucial to be able to shoot on the format you have chosen to market to your clients. Another option to consider is to own one or two formats, and then rent any additional formats.

Communication
In today’s competitive market it is wise to carry a cell phone and a pager. Always try and call clients back ASAP. When a client has an immediate need for crew it is an excellent opportunity to impress when you respond quickly. Also, clients call multiple people for the same assignment and you don’t want to be the last one to return their call.

Rates
Video crew rates vary based on region, market size, gear included, and experience. A common rate for a two man video crew with Beta SP video gear, working a full 10 hour day, in an average size market is $1100-$1400. Normally, crews charge more than half for working a half-day, assuming that they will not be able to work the other half.
A common rate for a two man video crew with Beta SP video gear, working less than 5 hours, in an average size market is $800-$1100. To save on cost, based on quality and specific needs, many clients may opt to use a one man band crew.
A one man band full 10 hours day rate with Camera Operator and Beta SP video gear should run around $750-$900.
Of course, these are just estimates… you’re the boss now… charge what ever you’d like!
Certainly be prepared to negotiate rates with your clients. It is good idea to have your client sign a deal memo. This is a simple document that you prepare BEFORE the shoot outlining the length of day, overtime amounts, travel related costs and additional gear that may be required. Every client appreciates a deal memo.
It is a common practice to offer a discount to Booking Agencies or other Production Houses that can provide a higher volume of work. The discount range is typically between 10% to 15%.

Work Day
Most video crews offer full-day rates and half-day rates. However, some crews will offer hourly rates. Make sure to specify to the client whether your full-day is 8 or 10 hours. This will make a big difference in pay if overtime is involved!
For instance, if a shoot is booked at a half-day rate, for working 5 hours or less, and you roll over into 6, you should automatically bill your full day rate. Shoot days typically start at first crew call of the assignment and end when the assignment is wrapped, even if small breaks or lunch were taken in between. Overtime is defined as work time performed after the end of a full day. Overtime is typically billed at time and a half for labor, but no extra charge for gear. Many crews will offer discounts on travel and other items, in exchange for multiple full-days of work.
The rates mentioned above are not considered union. In general, union rates are stricter. Verify with your client if the assignment is union or non-union prior to accepting it. If the job is a union assignment, bill in line with the specifications outlined by the union agreement.

Local vs. Portal to Portal
Clients will book crew “Local” or “Portal to Portal.” Booking a crew as “Local” means the crew is responsible for any mileage, meals, and travel time to and from the shoot location. Therefore, the crew is not paid for these expenses. “Portal to Portal” means the crew bills for travel time, miles, and other travel costs from their office to location and back. It is common for crew from one market to offer to work in a nearby market for free. This practice is referred to as “playing local”. For example, a crew in Charleston, SC may play local Myrtle Beach (2 hours away). Reasons for playing local in another city include: having friends or family with a place to sleep, don’t mind the drive, or simply to increase their range of clientele. At any rate, you are providing your clients the opportunity to save money. You’re only paid travel related expenses from the first location in Myrtle Beach, not from Charleston, SC. Many crews “play local” in multiple markets, but rarely will they play local in a market that doesn’t have other video resources. In other words, if you’re a Charlotte, NC crew you won’t be asked to “play local” Monroe, NC (a small town outside of Charlotte, NC).

Travel Expenses / Per Diem
Most crews require travel expenses and/or a per diem for any work more than 50 miles away form their home base. Travel expenses may include: hotel room, mileage, and meals. Being paid a per diem instead of paying for each meal is common. Rate for per diem and range from $35-$50 per day for meals.

Standby Status
Standby is similar to “Right Of First Refusal” or ROFR. This practice allows producers and clients to ensure crew availability without limiting the crew from taking future assignments. Once a crew is placed on standby they are responsible for communicating with the client before accepting another assignment for the same day. For example, a client may call and ask your availability for a specific date… they may say, “Can you standby?” This means hold the date for me and if you get another request for work on that date, call me and I will either firm up or release your from the job.

Work Days Per Month
One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer is to be willing to run hard when times are good and save some money for the slower times. Seasoned veterans will tell you that work tends to come in cycles… you might have a really busy month, followed by two weeks of watching TV and washing your car. Take it as it comes and then save for that down time. It is typical for freelance video crews to book between 6-20 days per month. Of course, some work more and some less… after all it’s your call now!

Crew Members
Every video shoot requires different staff on location… the more hats you can wear the better. It is best to be prepared to work other positions, especially in smaller markets. Learn as much as possible about what other people do… it will only make you better at your position.
Usually video shoots will only need a producer and camera operator. Large video shoots may require make-up artists, production assistants, grips, gaffers, and electricians. Video crews normally come in either one man band or two man crew. The one man band is best for smaller shoots shooting primarily b-roll. In this instance the camera operator is responsible for his camera gear as well as audio. The two man crew term normally refers to a camera operator with a sound person. Many freelance sound operators are talented in other areas, such as lighting, which enhances your ability to tend to your clients needs.

Vehicle
Video crews are responsible for the transportation of their gear. However, if traveling outside of the local market you may be able to charge for mileage. Many larger vehicles (like Ford Excursion or Chevy Suburban) have room for other crew like a traveling producer or reporter, this isn’t a requirement. Communicate with your clients if you have room for additional passengers, luggage, or equipment prior to arriving on location.

Freelancer Etiquette
It’s always important to play well with others… I hope you learned that in kindergarten. There’s plenty of sand in the sandbox. In other words, you don’t have to shoot everything in your town. There are guys that have been at it longer than you and it’s best to show them the respect they deserve. And, one day you’ll see the new guys coming through and have to make a little room for them.
When shown respect these veterans can be very helpful in giving advice, recommending you to others, and maybe even give you some work.
Remember that everyone from veteran crews, to production companies, to booking agencies worked very hard to get that client they are recommending you for. A great question to ask is: “Am I billing you or the client?” Generally speaking, if someone is allowing you to bill their client directly, you can follow-up with them directly. However, if your bill is going to a production company, booking agency, or other freelance camera crew, you should not give out your business cards to the client. And if asked for future work from that client you should defer back to the person who booked you. Most crews will say something polite like, “I had a great time working with you guys today, if you ever need anything else please request me from the booking agency!”
The key to working well in the freelance community is having a good attitude and be willing to work with others… amazingly enough this is the best skill you can bring to any film or video set too.

This article was written by Patrick Bryant, Operations Manager, for Go To Team. Go To Team is a leading provider of production resources throughout the southeast including video camera crews. See their home page for more information.

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