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  • Writer's pictureStephan Bookas

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

That's what they always say. Don't quit your day job.

You see that advice a lot. All sorts of books on creativity and finding yourself and discovering your career path will have some variant of this bit of advice in there somewhere. Because you've got to make a living somehow. And that part isn't glamorous but it's the reality of life. You've got to be able to pay your rent or your mortgage and if you have children or a partner you have to have a way of finding some sort of balance between either ends of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the harsh reality of surviving on one end and making your dreams come true on the other.

For a many of us, there's a gap between our day job and our dream job. For some, it's a crack in the tarmac. For others, it's a gulf, a chasm, a canyon, an ocean. I do often think of my efforts as Sisyphean. Like Sisyphus, I'm trying to narrow that gap, trying to push my day job up the hill for it to be closer to my dream job, eventually for it to end up being my dream job. But then rejections, jobs fallen through, wrong decisions made or right decisions not made and life in general pushes it back down, and me with it.

A man pushing a boulder up a multi-coloured pyramid. The text on the boulder reads "The Day Job"

Illustration by Joe Pettitt

When I tell people what I do on a daily basis, they think it sounds glamorous. But most of the time, it isn't. Or rather, maybe I've become a bit jaded over the years. But then once in a while I take a step back and realize: this is actually pretty cool and I should consider myself lucky.

I don't define myself by my day job, I think I never could. But I've found joy in it. Not only in the job itself, but also the people. Everyone I've worked with over the past decade and a half in the UK film industry has been lovely and supportive.

So what do I do? As the day job, I mean. Because I want to maintain that what I do isn't my day job, and my day job isn't what I do. It's called DIT, or Digital Imaging Technician. A rather technical job, it's in the name. And it's not something I ever saw myself doing. Not ever. But for better or worse, I've managed to stick with it and learn from it and steal from it for myself.

You can argue that it has creative aspects. Together with the cinematographer you get to shape the colors and contrast of the scenes. You have influence over things like depth of field and also choices of cameras, formats, lenses, flares, bokeh... things that end up being integral to the look and feel of the final film. I wouldn't exactly call it a creative job, not compared to actual creative jobs at least. But it's a good job.

At the level I've been working at, you get to go to weird and wonderful places, enter buildings and areas that are off-limits to most people, see incredibly intricate and impresive set builds, travel to corners of the globe you might otherwise never see, be granted access to certain walks of life that are walled off to the general public. All those things are true for the dream job as well, but they're further up that hill.

For me, the creativity comes from observing and listening. Keeping my eyes and ears open. And more often than not, it's put me in a position to learn from the very best. From directors and writers at the top of their game, let alone cinematographers.

For years now I've had the incredible fortune of working closely with the wonderful and inimitable Fraser Taggart, cinematographer extraordinaire. His eye to detail and his incredible sense of scene, setting and foresight is something I can only ever aspire to reach.

Thanks mainly to all the lovely folks at Digital Orchard, I've been fortunate to work on productions such as the first Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Rogue One, Hobbs & Shaw, The King's Man, and more recently, Mission: Impossible. There have also been many smaller productions and short stints on other big franchises like Top Gun: Maverick or Pirates of the Caribbean.

Out of all these comes a wealth of experiences and stories which I'm sure would fill a couple of volumes, but most of which I'm not at liberty to share. But what I am able to do is let those experiences influence my own work.

In this job you get to witness directors having to make all the hard decisions, being put on the spot on a daily basis, making right and wrong calls and mistakes, then learning from those mistakes. You get to observe how 1st ADs struggle to get through the day, how days are structured, and how often that structure falls apart and you have to react and think on your feet. How things go to shit and there's nothing you can do about it.

Learning from other peoples' mistakes is extremely valuable. You could probably assign some monetary value to watching other people's failures, because you can at least try to avoid those same pitfalls in the future should you ever find yourself faced with similar situations on your own productions.

But it's not always fun & games. There are days that are really, really hard. Days after which you come home and ask yourself: why am I doing this to myself?

And of course, on set you're just a nobody. You're in a black tent so your face isn't even that familiar to anyone outside of your immediate crew. Guests come in and out on a daily basis, chauffeured through the set, treated like royalty. But you never or rarely get introduced to any of them. Then sometimes you see young people visiting set, much younger than yourself. And they're there because they know someone who knows someone. And they're already doing what you want to be doing and they've got one leg up in the world.

Sometimes I'll say hello or good morning to someone like that, or to an editor or a director or someone up the food chain – they're called "grown-ups" in the film industry – and they'll just ignore me as if I wasn't even there. Cause you're not a grown-up. You're just some (oversized) kid who sits in the back of a black tent all day long. And I wouldn't expect it to be any different. At the very least, it gives me an impetus to keep chipping away at my own projects.

So yes, they do say to never quit the day job. But there are two schools of thought on this. The other one being that if you never quit your day job (or whatever job you've found yourself in), you'll always be bogged down by it and you'll never be able to fully commit to your passion and propel yourself foward in any meaningful way.

I've spoken to many 2nd ACs / loaders who said they'd make a conscious decision to turn down any loading jobs and only put themselves out there as 1st ACs / focus pullers. It comes with a certain loss of income at first, but at the same time, maybe it gives you a chance to crawl out of that box people have put you in for however long you've been doing that job. And then right back into a new box. But the new box might be a better fit. More comfortable, more fun. A step forward and in the right direction.

We're all guilty of it: compartmentalising the people you know. She's a this, he's a that.

I'm a DIT. Am I? For a lot of people in the industry, I am. No doubt about it. That's the box I'm in. It's not a bad fit but it's also not the only box I'm in. I'm in a few boxes and I'm hopping around between them. I've never really considered crawling out of the day job box and closing it behind me for good. I'm not there yet. I want to get there, and I'm quite open about that on set and to everyone I speak with.

A pile of cardboard boxes. Hands are reaching out of the boxes as if wanting to escape.

Illustration by Joe Pettitt

It's okay to have dreams and aspirations. And as I've gotten older, those dreams and aspirations haven't gone away. They could have done, but they haven't. They're always a part of me and, I think, always will be. I enjoy it all too much. I get so much out of making a short film here, writing a script or prose there, writing a song, editing a sequence or shooting a doc or a feature. It's all just so much fun and I never want to give that up.

I'm a writer/director. Am I? For a wholly different group of people, I am. No doubt about it. It's difficult leading seperate lives with separate batches of people. It's not something I do consciously, but it happens. I'll happily tell everyone at my day job about all my projects as director/writer/producer and I'll gladly tell everyone I work with on those projects about my day job. One doesn't detract from the other. But still, I'm in one box, wearing one hat. And then I'm in another box, wearing another hat. Does it make me a lesser writer/director if I also earn my living on set as a DIT? Or does it make me less of a DIT if I enjoy making films as a writer/director (even if it's not currently financially viable)?

The danger of never quitting your day job: you become the day job. You get so lost in it and so roped into saying yes all the time that you dissolve within it and those other boxes you tried climbing into slowly close their lids on you. And you've got to make an effort, a real effort, to not allow that to happen.

I was recently offered a job that was near enough my dream job. In the end, it didn't work out but there'll be others. Just knowing that it's possible to get there, to be within reach, is worth a lot.

So what do you do? Every time I'm asked that question I try to remind myself of the narrative I've constructed: I'm a writer/director/producer. And my day job is DIT on big blockbusters. I find that that's an okay answer. Maybe it's coping, but we need to be able to get by somehow. You can put me in whichever box you want. I know where I stand.

Lately, the day job has taken over my life with a production so big and so long-running that I haven't been able to stick my head out of that box and dip into the ones I feel more at home in.

It's just a matter of time though. Time is finite and if your day job takes over most of it, be careful. Make sure you can find that balance. And that doesn't just apply to film industry jobs. I think I've managed to find it over the last few years, even though it's lately been slipping away. But I'll regain that balance. It's never been perfect, but it's been okay and it's been fulfilling. Sometimes the balance shifts one way or the other. And just like a scale or a seesaw, you've got to throw your weight the other way to get level again.

There is an art to knowing when to say no and when to say yes to things. I don't think I've cracked it but I've accumulated a certain amount of experience and certain principles that make it easier to make hard decisions like that. In the end, if you take a bit of care and learn when to say no and when to say yes (there's no universal advice for this, I don't think, that's a thing you've got to figure out for yourself), I think the equilibrium always restores itself.

If you have a day job that keeps you going and allows for enough time for you to be you, then that's a pretty good spot to be in. But not everyone's in the same boat. You may have a sponsor or a bank account large enough or passive income substantial enough so you don't need to worry about having a day job. And if that's the case, power to you. Or your day job may not pay enough to sustain you or may have you working 12- or 14-hour shifts with no time to recover, much less to spare. There are hard decisions ahead.

A man pushing a boulder up a multi-coloured pyramid. The text on the boulder reads "The Day Job". The text on the pyramid reads, from top to bottom: the dream job, dream-adjacent, fulfilling, but not the dream, moderate coprorate sellout, complete corporate sellout.

Illustration by Joe Pettitt (with some added text by me, I'm sure Joe won't mind)

Or, in the best of all worlds: your day job is already your dream job. It's where you wanted to end up. It's who you are. Then none of this is probably for you and I'm happy for you. As I've said, I'm not there yet. And I'm tempted to add: maybe I'll never get there. But I won't do that. Because I'm hopeful and I'm always trying to move forward, every single day. Even if some days I feel like Sisyphus – every single victory, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, makes it all worth it. Setbacks and all.

So the old adage isn't true for everyone. But at least for me and for now, this is still pretty good advice: don't quit your day job.

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