How to Build a “Bag of Tricks” You Can Pull From in a Pinch

How to Build a “Bag of Tricks” You Can Pull From in a Pinch

Generally, the more experience you have on a film set, the bigger your bag of tricks. The bigger your bag of tricks, the faster you can come up with novel answers to complex questions. So if you haven't started building one yet, now is the best time to start -- and I'm here to help you.

Want to be amazed? Hang around a film set and shadow a veteran key grip. At some point, he’ll come across a problem that isn’t easy to solve. You’ll be stumped, his crew may be stumped, and it’ll look like they have to take a different approach.

Then the key grip will pause (pay attention now because this is where the magic happens) and immediately come up with a clever, simple solution.

What you’ll have witnessed is an experienced crew member pulling from their bag of tricks — a collection of hacks, methods, tactics, and techniques to overcome obstacles.

Generally, the more experience you have on a film set, the bigger your bag of tricks. The bigger your bag of tricks, the faster you can come up with novel answers to complex questions.

So if you haven’t started building one yet, now is the best time to start — and I’m here to help you.

It All Begins with Being Resourceful

Resourcefulness is the most critical skill you can develop as a below-the-line crew member.

What does it mean to be resourceful? It means you tackle any problem, at any time, under tremendous amounts of pressure, in a way that is simple and efficient without sacrificing quality.

Sounds daunting, huh? It’s best not to think about. Not because you should ignore the demands of being resourceful, but because you don’t become resourceful by willing yourself into it — you become resourceful by flexing your brain muscles and challenging yourself to think in ways that develop problem-solving skills.

I realize that’s abstract, but explaining how to be resourceful is hard to do concretely. It’s like trying to teach somebody how to be “artistic.” There’s not much I can do to help you learn that inherit quality.

But what I can do is open your mind to thinking critically about problems and how to solve them.

And in that process, you will become more resourceful.

Five Tips for Jump-Starting Your Bag of Tricks

What you’ll find as you become more resourceful is your “bag of tricks” becomes larger and larger. That, in turn, makes problem-solving easier — it’s a snowball effect. Before you know it, you’re the one everyone is watching on set wondering what you’ll come up with next.

Each new “trick” brings with it a set of techniques or skills or ways to use materials you hadn’t thought of before. When you encounter a unique problem, you’ll draw on those other tricks and create new ones — again, adding more techniques.

While being thrown into the fire and forced to fix things under tremendous pressure is the best way to grow a bag of tricks, I want to help you jump-start the process by providing five tips that will help you settle into the right frame of mind to tackle any problem, snag, hitch, or hurdle.

1. The Solution Doesn’t Have to be Pretty (Unless It’s on Camera)

Some of the best solutions are also the ugliest. Just look at these visually bland creations of mine:

The Bottle BuddyThe Bottle Buddy
Made on a whim to help transport the camera department’s water bottles on location

Homemade HoodmanHomemade Hoodman
A piece of cardboard designed to block out the sun from the camera’s LCD screen

Frankenstein SteadicamFrankenstein Steadicam 
A Steadicam rig that had to be heavily tweaked in order to handle the weight of our rig

But you know what? All of them took care of the problem I was having.

The solution to your problem doesn’t have to be a polished product. Its main purpose is to do the job you need it to and to do it effectively. If you get caught trying to make it look good, you’re going to waste time you don’t have.

It doesn’t hurt if you spruce things up, but your focus should be on the function, not the form.

The exception is if you’re making something that’s going in front of the lens. In that case, you’ll want to ask the production designer how important aesthetics are. But in all likelihood, unless you’re working in the art department, most of your creations will be taking their seats behind the scenes.

2. You Won’t Know if it Works Unless You Try

Sometimes the solutions you come up with will seem so silly, stupid, or ridiculous that there’s no way they could work. You might be confident enough to take bets with other crew that they won’t work.

And 9 times out of 10, you’ll win that bet.

But the 10th time, you’ll find something for your bag of tricks.

Building that bag is all about trying things that seem implausible. The reason it’s called a “trick” is because most people haven’t thought of it or they decided it’s something that will probably fail.

Let me give you an example: On my first gig as 2nd AC, I was frustrated with the sound mixer who, everytime I passed him the slate to put in new batteries, would hand it back to me having smeared several of the numbers and letters I cleanly wrote. Eventually I switched to using camera tape for these numbers, but not before the 1st AC pulled something out from his bag of tricks.

“You know, you can always write something on there in Sharpie. Then, when you’re ready to change it, just trace over the Sharpie with the dry erase marker and you’ll be able to erase it,” he said.

I didn’t believe it. I thought I was being pranked. I mean, a Sharpie is a permanent marker. I didn’t want to ruin the sound guy’s slate because I fell for some stupid camera department hazing.

Seeing my skepticism, the 1st AC grabbed the slate himself, drew some Sharpie on it, traced it with a dry erase and promptly erased it. I couldn’t believe it!

It seemed implausible to me, but it was entirely possible (as seen in this video).

Had the 1st AC not been willing to try, I never would’ve learned. To this day, everytime I misplace a dry erase marker I reach for the Sharpie in my pocket as a quick backup.

So don’t rule out solutions just because they seem stupid. That’s why they’re “tricks” in the first place.

3. Don’t Waste Time Second Guessing.

All problems on a film set are time-sensitive problems. Each moment you’re not helping the production move closer to rolling the camera and putting shots in the can, it’s costing money.

So, you don’t have time to waste second guessing each decision or over-thinking your approach.

Couple this with the fact that you don’t know if something works unless you try (see above), you aren’t really in a position to second-guess at all. You have to act with urgency, decisiveness, and confidence. You don’t have to be convinced your solution will definitely work, but you have to be convinced that it’s worth a shot.

Which leads to my next point: don’t doubt your gut. Many of your tricks will be developed by instinct which, when under pressure, guides us in interesting ways.

You’ll also never truly develop the skill for being resourceful if you don’t learn to trust the quick-decisions of your mind. Of course take some time to consider what direction you’re heading in, but your mind should always be pushing forward — how will this work? What do I need next to make it work? After that, do I need anything else?

Think in a way that pushes progress, not in a way that dwells on what you’ve already chosen.

4. Tinker in Your Downtime

When you were kid, did you ever play with Legos? Lincoln Logs? Wooden blocks? Cardboard bricks?

At first you probably built simple structures — square buildings, rectangle towers, maybe a pyramid.

But as you played with them more, and grew to know what could be done with them, you moved onto more complex shapes. If you’re like me, you ended up with a sprawling Lego metropolis (eventually destroyed by Godzilla Evan). The reason you went from simple squares to a mock city of skyscrapers is because you learned the capabilities of the tools — legos, blocks, bricks — you were using. Then you expanded your ideas on how to use them.

That’s how resourcefulness is developed: tinker with tools and find new ways to use them.

When I built a fake lens from water bottles and gaffer’s tape, it seemed ridiculous. But it showed me that I could transform two materials into something new. That lead to the creation of the bottle buddy. Eventually, that lead to the creation of a homemade hoodman from cardboard and gaffer’s tape.

Each time I’ve added something to my bag of tricks, the idea of how I can use those materials, those tools, and those elements expands just a little bit more.

So tinker in your downtime. Build things that aren’t urgent, but would make your life easier.

Maybe that’s a mount for your laser pen to go on a dolly. Maybe it’s a new way to keep track of focus marks on the floor. Maybe it’s an add-on to your camera cart that holds jackets.

Whatever it is — take the few moments you find yourself with nothing to do on set (rare, I know!) and see what you can make. You’ll eventually build a muscle for putting things together.

5. Watch What Other Crew Do and Steal Their Ideas

The best way to build your bag of tricks? Steal from someone else’s.

One of the most valuable things you get from working under somebody with a lot of experience is learning their methods for accomplishing tasks or common problems. You get to see their bag of tricks in action. You get to glean from their experience the best way to approach an obstacle.

But you don’t have to be working directly underneath a veteran crew member to find a good idea: just keep your eyes open on set. You’ll learn all sorts of neat tricks — many not from your own department. Grips and electricians are especially full of ideas they execute in unique ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask fellow crew how they might approach a problem. Crew are notorious for thinking their way is the best way — they’ll happily share why they do it a certain way and why they wouldn’t do it otherwise.

Welcome the Unknown with Bag in Hand

If you implement the five suggestions above, you’ll start building your bag of tricks in no time.

But the best way to truly grow it is pure experience. As you get on more sets, work with more crew, and encounter more scenarios, you’ll have to be flexible and nimble and respond to a variety of unforeseen issues. That will force you to become resourceful — trial by fire, as they say.

The unpredictability of filmmaking is what makes it fun and keeps it interesting. It can seem daunting, but as you grow to be more resourceful, you’ll dread the unforeseen less and welcome it with your bag of tricks in hand.

And, before you know it, you’re the one everyone stops to watch on set as you come up with the next great way to tackle a problem.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CheeseggProductions Kevin Stiller

    On the topic of resourcefulness, once while I was filming a 5 minute short, the camera equipment we were renting had a lot of wear and tear on it. One of the lights couldn’t hold its own weight and tilt up or down. Because it was essential to use this particular light, we were almost completely out of luck. Almost instinctively, my gaffer went into the kitchen (thankfully we were on set near one) and pulled out a spoon. He wedged it perfectly in place underneath the light and at the talent. That spoon saved our shot.

  • SikVik

    Good shoes, headset with molded earbud, multitool, shooting schedule, pencil, pen, sharpie, dry-erase, and sunscreen.

  • Nick Montgomery

    Big fan of “whatever works” to get the job done, even if it ain’t pretty.

    These are good suggestions, but I especially dig the last one. It seems I learn something new or pickup a new useful tool I should include in the kit everytime I’m on a new set with different crew.

    As a side-note, has it ever occurred to anybody to sell pre-packaged “Bags o’ Tricks” to those who are particularly lazy? ‘Cause you know they’re out there.

  • Jade Waddy

    These are some seriously good tips! Perhaps your readers would like to hear about our new independent film networking site mutinee.com? It is aimed at all filmmakers is and completely free! You can upload, share, rate and comment on all videos.

  • warren strong

    Lol. I’m still perfecting my frankenstein steady cam