Making It To The Top Of The Hollywood Food Chain: Benjamin Steeples Shares His Uncustomary Recipe For Success
THIS TOP CAMERA ASSISTANT LANDED HIS DREAM JOBS IN “THE BIG BANG THEORY”, “MOM, “TOSH.O” & FILM, “PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3”
To get a Hollywood dream job, we’ve all fantasized about writing that perfect cover letter and resume. You know, that “page turner” that will have HR immediately call and grab you by the lapels through the phone, yelling, “Can you start today!?”
Well, unfortunately, the hard, cold truth is getting a job in Hollywood has a lot less to do with your skill sets and education and a lot more to do with who you know and how good you are at seizing opportunities where others may not.
Don’t get me wrong, education is crucial and you absolutely need a resume (a reel wouldn’t hurt either) to get your foot in the door. However, recognize the value in personal contacts.
This is the life blood of the entertainment business.
I can honestly say that it has not only attributed to my own success, but also that of a mutual friend, Benjamin Steeples.
When Benjamin first told me he landed some of the best camera assistant jobs in scripted television through some pretty unconventional means, I immediately jumped on the phone to find out how he did it. Benjamin works alongside the likes of Kaley Cuoco, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, and Chuck Lorre, so it’s only fair that I share his secret to that level of success with you all.
In less than eight years, Benjamin Steeples exemplifies what happens when you tap every resource at your disposal and hold steadfast to integrity, commitment, dependability, knowledge, endurance, and raw skill.
It’s no coincidence that many of these ideals are actual leadership traits of a military soldier. Having served as a Former Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, this mindset has granted Benjamin full access to not just one but several of his very own Hollywood dream jobs, including The Big Bang Theory (CBS), Mom (CBS), and Tosh .0 (Comedy Central).
Oh, did we mention that he works on all three audience favorites back-to-back?!
Benjamin is one of Hollywood’s busiest Camera Assistants, who has carved out a successful career behind-the-scenes, with over 100 (mostly) camera-related credits to his name.
Benjamin admits that he’s “very, very lucky” to work on set with prolific writer, producer and composer Chuck Lorre for his two hit CBS shows, especially considering that Benjamin is relatively young in his own career.
And even while the 2nd Camera Assistant squeezes BOTH primetime, scripted comedies into the same workweek (The Big Bang Theory & Mom), he still manages to wrap his day after eight hours and can afford to work LESS than half the year.
With that kind of schedule, it’s no surprise that Benjamin had the flexibility to also see his handiwork on display in the cult-favorite and box-office hit Paranormal Activity 3.
Benjamin tells us how “treating every job the same” opened more doors than he can count, plus how a call to Central Casting for Background work actually served as one of the best educations. Ironically, it began his path in learning what it takes to be a pro on set.
Plus, Ben tells how working on the granddaddy of the found footage genre Paranormal Activity marked a career-turning point. “I went from… I’m probably going to make it, but this could still go south…to I’m going to make it, and this is now definitely a career.”
So, if you’ve ever wondered: Does networking really pay off? Does joining a Union really better my chances? What’s it like working on a Chuck Lorre set? Benjamin’s going to tell you how to earn your Hollywood stripes whether you’re looking to be a good follower, a good leader, or better yet, both.
Nick: WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN TV?
Benjamin: My first job was as a Camera PA on the first season of Leverage on TNT.
Nick: FROM SHORTS AND COMMERCIALS TO MUSIC VIDEOS AND EPISODICS, YOU HAVE HUNDREDS OF CREDITS TO YOUR NAME. WHAT HAS MOST KEPT YOU IN DEMAND AND WORKING CONSISTENTLY?
Benjamin: Networking. I hate to say it, but it is 10% work ethic & ability and 90% networking – and that is not to say you don’t have to be really, really good at your job. You have to be amazing at your job; however, it still only counts for 10% because you can be as amazing as you want at your job, but if nobody knows you, and nobody knows to hire you, it’s useless.
Nick: NO JOB IS TOO SMALL?
Benjamin: Never treat any small job small. Treat them all large. Also, remember the person hiring you today…you might have the opportunity to hire tomorrow and vice versa. It’s about building the connections. Never assume that the person that hired you is too big for you to say, “Hey, I got this job and are you interested down the road,” because you never know…that could be the job they need. Always give everything and that’s just how I always moved forward whether it was a $100 job or a full-union rate job…treat every job the same. Don’t slack off on the job because it’s a lower-pay type of job.
Nick: ASIDE FROM WORKING BEHIND-THE-SCENES, YOU ALSO HAVE A NUMBER OF ACTOR/EXTRA CREDITS. IS THIS ANOTHER PASSION OR DID IT SERVE A DIFFERENT PURPOSE ALTOGETHER?
Benjamin: A lot of people ask, You did extra work, background work…what’s up with that? Did you want to be an actor? And my response is always no. I had absolutely no desire to be an actor whatsoever. What I did have a desire to do is to get on a real set and see how they work. I tell people this all time – I tell film students and people trying to get into the business – Background work is a beautiful education, and more than that, you get paid to do it. You basically get paid to stand around and watch professional crews at work. I always encourage people to go sign up for Central Casting and do some Background work, because it’s basically a paid education.
Nick: CAN YOU ELABORATE ON HOW THIS “FREE EDUCATION” HAS BENEFITED YOUR CAREER AS A CAMERA ASSIST?
Benjamin: As a background actor, if you’re absorbing and listening, then what ends up happening is that you know what’s going on. The ADs appreciate it, and they tend to use you a lot more, and then tend to move you around a lot more. They tend to put you in front of the camera, and give you more recurring responsibilities. And there is your first lesson in networking. I mean, you can network a little bit, but I never wanna steer someone to think, “You start on background and start bullshitting with the camera guy and suddenly you got this job,” because most of the time, unless you stand out as somebody that’s different from the rest of the background, they’re just gonna assume you’re in the way. It’s more about standing back and getting that free visual education.
Nick: HOW MUCH DID A BACKGROUND “EDUCATION” CONTRIBUTE VERSUS YOUR FORMAL EDUCATION? YOU HAVE A DEGREE FROM CAL STATE LONGBEACH, HAVING MAJORED IN FILM & ELECTRONIC MEDIA…
Benjamin: I take the weight of that [background work] against my college education, and I would say 50%. You learn stuff in the classroom, some of it applies to modern day… some of it does not. You learn a lot of theory, which is great to figure out what kind of filmmaker you wanna be. Then, there is the Prac App, which is that you’re going to be working on set, especially as a crewmember. The Prac App is what matters. I really feel that that Background education is really worth its weight in gold. It’s worth a lot if you actually pay attention and learn what’s going on. And it’s a lot easier of a job to get than a PA. They need a lot more of them [background actors], than they do PAs.
Nick: YOU’RE ALSO A FORMER MARINE, SO I CAN IMAGINE THAT HELPED SERVE YOU IN THE FIELD WITH SO MANY DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENTAL VARIABLES.
Benjamin: Yeah. It has helped a lot. It benefits you in the fact that you’ve been given not only stressful situations very early in life – compared to your counterparts, who at 19 or 20 years old were partying in college – but you were having to adapt to a multitude of things, but you’re also given leadership skills very early on which translates very well.
Nick: IN “101” TERMS, WHAT IS A 1ST AC AND 2ND AC?
Benjamin: A 1st AC is the Focus Puller. And their job is to keep the focus sharp. They are also a lot of times the manager of the department. You’ll have a key 1st and they’re the manager of the department most of the times. They’re the person that helps with crew issues and managing the department and the “go to” for equipment requests before it goes for approval from production. Your 2nd AC is really a technician in many ways. They have to know all the equipment: What you have, the inventory, all the paperwork, all the time cards, unless there is a Loader who also needs to know that stuff. This is in addition to slating all the scenes and marking all the actors, which are the two most visible things that everybody sees.
Nick: HOW DOES ONE MOVE UP FROM 2ND AC TO 1ST AC, THEN TO AD, ETC.?
Benjamin: There’s definitely value in don’t work at the title that you have, work at the title that you want. However, I would say one of the biggest pieces of advice that is counterintuitive is, while you do wanna work to that next higher position, don’t let if effect your work at the current position. One of the biggest things that happens on a lot of sets with a lot of camera assistants is they’re too busy trying to get to the next level, and they’re not doing their job at the current level. Whatever level I’m at, that’s the job I focus on, and I focus on that intently. I don’t focus on what the guy above me is doing; I focus on how can I support the guy above me.
Nick: SO IS THERE A LINEAR PATH TO BEING PROMOTED?
Benjamin: It used to be back in the day, when everything was shot on film, you tried to make a connection and become a camera intern. If you were lucky, you got a chance to become a Loader. After several years of being a Loader, you got the opportunity to start as 2nd AC, and after many years of that, you were given the opportunity to Focus Pull, etc. Very linear, very conventional, very structured. Now, we don’t see that.
Nick: RIGHT, ESPECIALLY WITH STREAMING AND WEB CONTENT CREATING AN INCREASED DEMAND FOR VARIOUS CREW POSITIONS. IS IT LIMITING THOUGH TO ONLY APPLY FOR ONE PARTICULAR JOB TITLE?
Benjamin: I’m technically a union Focus Puller. I’m technically a 1st AC. I work in the 2nd AC position a lot of the time. You can call me up and I will Load; Utility…I will 1st; I will Operate; It doesn’t matter to me. I check my ego at the door. It’s a detriment to your career not to fill multiple shoes.
Nick: YOU MENTIONED CHECKING EGOS AT THE DOOR AND THE DEADLINES OF PRODUCTION. HAVE YOU DEALT WITH RUNAWAY DIRECTORS OR THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW HOW TO MANAGE A CREW? WHAT ARE THE RED FLAGS?
Benjamin: Oh yeah. Especially on television shows with single camera. You don’t have time to runaway. You don’t have time. Or you have a page count you have to make because you’re making a film in only 18 or 21 days because you’re doing it for a couple million bucks. If you start the day off slow and really milking the shots, and taking your time and figuring it out, the whole crew knows they’re gonna pay at the end of the day. They know if you start slow, the end of the day is going to be cracking the whip to make up the day.
Nick: SO WHAT ADVICE THEN WOULD YOU GIVE TO FIRST TIME DIRECTORS?
Benjamin: As a Camera Assistant, our direct interaction isn’t always that much with Directors, but the biggest thing a Director can do is have good leadership ability. Don’t be a screamer. Don’t feel like you gotta yell and that gets things done faster. I’m horrible at this: names. I always remember faces, but I’m horrible with names. But those directors who know everybody’s name and shakes everybody’s hand at the end of the day and say “good job”, those are good directors that people wanna work with. They’ll remember you every time. “Hey, we got him directing this episode? Great.”
Nick: IN WORKING AT THE NETWORK LEVEL, WHAT TRAITS DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A GOOD CAMERA ASSIST?
Benjamin: I will say as a 2nd AC – this is just me personally – the two things I look at first – whether you consider it fair or not, is how neat their slate is and how neat their marks are on the floor. If the actor marks are neat, squared away and balanced, look good and don’t look like they just slopped them down, and the slate is well-written and readable and well-put together…nicely P-touched…it usually tells me a lot about the camera assistants. It’s the two least things you do as a 2nd AC. Your responsibilities are way greater than actor marks and slates; however, they are the two things everybody sees of your work.
Nick: YOU WORK ON UNION SHOWS BUT DOES BEING IN A UNION INCREASE SOMEONE’S ODDS OF FINDING WORK. DUES CAN BE STEEP…IS IT WORTH IT?
Benjamin: If you want to join as a Camera Assistant right now, it’s going to cost you $7,000 plus dollars to join [Cinematographer’s Guild Local 600]. And there’s no guarantee of work. They don’t find you work – they just collect quarterly dues of $190.00. But, what I tell a person is: Say you’re starting out as an AC, collect verification of those days. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you got paid to work as a Camera Assistant, fill out the verification form. It doesn’t matter how big or small. As long as they paid you a $100.00 a day, get that…because those days will add up. And then, once you’re eligible to join, then you figure out when it’s best for you. If people are calling you and saying, “Hey, I’d love to have you on C.S.I. today…” but “oh crap, I wish I could, but I’m not in the union…” If nobody is calling you for union work, maybe save your money until they are. Because I know a lot people paying a lot of money to unions and they’re not working at all on union jobs. It’s basically like making a car payment and having no car to drive.
Nick: MULTI-CAMERA VERSUS SINGLE-CAMERA COMEDIES: WITH “THE BIG BANG THEORY” BEING MULTI-CAM, AND YOUR PREVIOUS SINGLE-CAM EXPERIENCE, WHAT ARE THE GLARING DIFFERENCES AND PRODUCTION SCHEDULES BETWEEN THE TWO WORLDS?
Benjamin: Multi-cam to a lot of single camera people is like the dredges [Laughs] …those silly guys in sitcoms. Multi-cam is the goldmine. It’s why a lot of people – later in their career – switch over. I obviously switched over much earlier in my career because the opportunity presented itself. The hours are amazing. It is the closest thing to an 8 to 5 job in this business that you will find as a crewmember. We shoot an entire episode – for the most part – in front of an audience in three to four hours.
Nick: CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH A WEEKLY TAPING OF “THE BIG BANG THEORY”?
Benjamin: The Big Bang Theory is a Monday, Tuesday show. What that means is Monday we do all the camera blocking, and we pre-shoot any scenes that we’re not going to shoot in front of the audience.
We come in around 8 o’clock… figure out where the cameras are going to be when whatever-lines are delivered by whatever-actors. And then, typically after lunch, we pre-shoot any scenes that we’re not gonna do in front of the audience. And we do that because the scene is complicated; we need a lot of coverage or just to keep the momentum of the live taping going. And what will happen is those scenes will quickly be cut together and played back in front of the audience the next day. The next day, we come in around noon; we refresh with the actors all of the scenes we’re gonna do in front of the audience that night. We do a run through of all those scenes with the producers, which is something kind of unique to Chuck Lorre shows. A lot of sitcoms don’t do that, but we basically run the whole show for the writers, producers and Chuck. And then we’re on lunch for about three hours. In that time, they load the studio audience, at 6 o’clock they show the studio audience a previous episode – usually one that has not aired yet – to get them all excited and warmed up. 6:30pm we introduce the cast and start shooting and usually around 9 or 9:30pm we’re done. We shoot the entire episode in order so that the audience can follow along…usually do two takes per scene and when we do the first take, if the audience doesn’t laugh too hard at the joke, they’ll re-write the joke right there on the spot and give it to the actors, and they’ll do it again.
Nick: BETWEEN YOUR GIGS ON “THE BIG BANG THEORY”, “MOM” AND “TOSH.O”, HOW MANY DAYS A YEAR DO YOU STAY ACTIVELY EMPLOYED?
Benjamin: 150 days a year. These three shows make up my year. Because the way the shows treat us, that’s all I have to work. In contrast to like single camera shows where you work 70 hours a week, 14 hours a day.
Nick: WHAT KEEPS “THE BIG BANG THEORY” MOVING LIKE A WELL-OILED MACHINE AND WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING ON A CHUCK LORRE SET?
Benjamin: What keeps it a well-oiled machine is our director, Mark Cendrowski. He’s probably one of the best sitcom directors there is. He’s a prime example of somebody that knows everybody’s name, shakes everybody’s hand at the end of the day, and he knows how to keep that set running smoothly. What Chuck does is he knows how to make the show funny, how to get the best out of his writers, and he knows the best delivery for the jokes. And actors have said – it’s in countless interviews – but he’s a musician at heart. The entire show is a song in his head, and if the jokes are in beat to the song that is in his head, he knows they’re gonna be funny. The timing is right. He has a gift for knowing what audiences want and delivering it.
Nick: THAT BRINGS ME TO ANOTHER FORMULA THAT AUDIENCES CAN’T SEEM TO GET ENOUGH OF: THE PARANORMAL ACTIVITY FRANCHISE, WHICH YOU ALSO HAD A HAND IN CRAFTING. IN WORKING ON PARANORMAL 3 – IT’S BEEN SAID THAT THE FILMMAKERS WERE PRETTY OPEN TO CREATIVE INPUT FROM ANYONE INVOLVED WITH THE PRODUCTION. IS THIS TRUE?
Benjamin: I don’t want people to think that they just gather everybody up and spitball or anything; however, it’s a very unique way of making a film. And by unique, I mean it is a 100% disastrous for anything other than Paranormal Activity. If you ever tried to make a film the way they make Paranormal Activity that wasn’t a PA movie, you would fail completely. We started Paranormal the first week of June in 2011. A major requirement was that it had to be in the theater by the third Friday of October . That’s it. We started with ideas; we started with some themes. We did not have an entire movie, and they never do. The first one from what I’m told was basically shot the same way. Oren [Peli] shot it in his home with these actors over many months, trying out different things and trying to create this movie that was a huge success. And they basically shot all the rest of them the same way. The only difference is now you have VPs from Paramount, a writing staff and all this other stuff. There’s a lot of collaboration between the writer and director and corporate in many ways. But it’s kind of unusual because you film these scenes, then they say, “We’re gonna take the next couple days off. You’re on hold.” They review everything, they throw a lot of it out, and they come up with new ideas. And basically you did that for 12 hours a day for 3 ½ months. You never really worked overtime because they basically stopped where they were and picked it up the next day.
Paranormal Activity 3 had a budget of $5 million and has earned $207 million worldwide.
Nick: DID YOU EVER PITCH AN IDEA TO THE FILMMAKERS, AND IF SO, WAS IT USED IN THE MOVIE?
Benjamin: One of the biggest contributions I made to the film was I worked with the Prop Master to retro-fit 1980s VHS cameras with HD cameras. Basically, he bought up the same model camera on eBay for no money, because nobody wants them anymore. We gutted them and we built in HD cameras and we had to come up with all these different solutions to make it work. We needed an HD transmitter, the recording device, we needed a way for the actor to see the picture through the eyepiece, even though we gutted all the guts out of the camera. Anytime you see that actor holding that VHS camera in the mirror, there’s also a High-Definition camera built into that carcass.
Nick: OBVIOUSLY YOUR CREATIVE INPUT SERVED YOU WELL ON THAT SET. HOWEVER, IF YOU’RE A 1ST OR 2ND AC, CAMERA PA, ETC, – ANYWHERE ELSE – IS THERE A PROTOCOL TO MAKING “CREATIVE CONTRIBUTIONS” WHEN YOU’RE IN A “NON-CREATIVE” POSITION?
Benjamin: I would say in general – there are exceptions to the rule – keep your mouth shut. You’re not a creative. You’re there to do a job. Do that job. Typically – this isn’t 100% – but you wanna piss somebody off and hurt your job prospects? Go suggest to somebody how to do their job, which is how “suggesting” creative ideas to the creatives will be perceived. That’s going to be perceived as the same way as the writer coming up to you to tell you how to pull focus or slate. There are opportunities, there are unique jobs, like you said about Paranormal…but typically, keep your mouth shut. The set is not a committee; it’s a hierarchy. Like in the marines, your Commanding [Officer] or your Senior Staff NCO says so…it’s not up for you to say, “Well, how about if we attack the other people instead.” No, you attack the hill they told you to attack.
And there you have it. If you find yourself only applying for the jobs online, meanwhile forgetting the tremendous power behind the word networking; limiting yourself to certain titles or positions, even though your numerous, varying credits say otherwise; and possess the mentality of “what can they do for me” versus “what can I do for them.” … it’s time to change your mindset and take Benjamin’s advice. So, ditch that run-of-the-mill job and start working on securing a gig that excites you, advances your career, and actually pays enough to help you live the life you deserve.
Benjamin Steeples official site