A life changing decision to pack up my life and give another country’s film industry a go – by Scott Kimber
Going to Canada had been something I was thinking about for a few years. Having heard the success of Brisbane camera department – Luke Barlow and Polly Piece – I was stuck between a rock and a rockier hard place. My film career in Australia wasn’t taking off as I was hoping, so rather than have a whinge, I did something about it.
Being part of the Commonwealth of Nations means that us Aussies have it good when it comes to Work Visas. Of course, I’m talking about Canada. The easiest Visa to get is a Working Holiday Visa or IEC as it is now called today. I decided to apply, lots of forms and background checks and a traffic check if you live in Queensland. I received the Visa and once you obtain it you have twelve months to activate the two-year open work permit.
Every time I would plan on buying my plane ticket a job would come up and, of course, I was also on-board to shoot a feature where the start date kept getting pushed back. It was getting down to the wire; I had one month left to activate my Visa. The feature got pushed back again so I went for it. I booked my ticket with the plan of a holiday on the west coast of the United States. Then fly up to Vancouver, Canada, get the visa and fly home and shoot the feature.When I emailed the production to inform them of my travel plans, I got the email no cinematographer wants to get… the producers have decided to look for someone with more experience. After many phone calls and emails, my job was given to someone else. Maybe this was a sign; a big sign to get going. So, I changed my return flights and told my then girlfriend that I was staying in Canada for five months. Lots of tissues.
After a road trip though the West Coast of America, I’m finally at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Once you’ve arrived, finding a place to live is like any rental game. I was extremely lucky that an old Brisbane friend let me crash on the futon while I looked for a place.
It was Dirk Foulger who suggested I join the local lighting union to get income while I look for camera gigs. In Vancouver’s film industry, or ‘North Hollywood’ as it’s called here, you’re allowed to work in more than one department; a lot of crew do it and no one cares. But to work on any feature film or television series with a budget you have to be a union member. There is no way around it. There are different requirements for joining individual departments within each union. Every union requires you to do a film orientation course; a two-day course all about working in film and television, plus an exam at the end. Even if you’ve been in the business for decades, you still have to do it to work in Canada. Some of the great questions I encountered were, “If I have an idea about a shot, should I go to the director and tell them about it?” and “What does it mean if my radio beeps twice?”. One thing I did learn was ‘Unit Base’ is called a ‘Circus’.
After sitting a written lighting test I became a Permittee Member of the lighting union, which means I could only work after all the full members were working and I wasn’t allowed to find my own work. After sixty days I could apply for full membership. The way this union, the IATSE Local 891, works is they have what’s called ‘The Hall’. When a department from that union needs crew they call the ‘The Hall’ and they do the ring around with its members to find someone. Whereas with the camera union, the IATSE Local 669, the production office or camera department looks up who’s available and makes the call.
After joining, I just had to sit back and wait for the phone to ring. It only took two days before I was called out on an urgent call to do rigging electrics on a tiny feature film called Star Trek Beyond (2016). It was on the other side of town, but I found a way to get out there without a car. Even though Vancouver has great public transport compared to Brisbane, you still need a car for film jobs. Early on I lost a few jobs for not having a car.
From day one on set, my biggest hurdle was learning a new lingo; as a spade ain’t a spade. A ‘baby’, it turns out, is a 1K Fresnel. This did produce a lot of funny radio chats, “What do you call it in Oz?” Another big difference is the grips and electrics do all the cutting, bouncing and diffusion of light.
I landed a couple of corporate camera jobs, even went back to focus pulling for a day on an indie feature with Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong fame. After a few months of constant lighting work, I was working my way up the permittee ladder and was getting known around town. It got so busy at one point that ‘The Hall’ would contact me with ten different job offers, leaving me to ask for the one closest to my house. I was getting close to my sixty days, but it was time for me to head home.
My girlfriend took me back when I returned, but she didn’t like the news of me heading back so this time she came with me. Unfortunately, because we lived apart for more than three months our relationship ended according to the Canadian government. She could not get a Visa off mine, so was to become a housewife without being a wife. I did fix that by getting us engaged.
Back in Vancouver, I got back into lighting where I left off. Finding a lot of jobs; working on about thirty different features and television shows. I even had one stint where I worked on a different show every day for two weeks. It wasn’t long before I was asked to join a lighting crew as a full-time member. From this, I was lucky to meet gaffer Mark Berlet – whose credits include The X-Files – and after a few chats I dropped the whole, “I’m a cinematographer, actually”. News to me was that Berlet is a renowned Second Unit DOP on just about every television show he has been gaffer on, the list is quite long. After comparing show-reels and talking up my film career thus far, I was asked the question, “Are you going the join the camera union?” He told me that if I got my membership, he’d get me out as camera operator on his next show.
One of the requirements to join the camera union, the IATSE Local 669, is that you are a permanent resident of Canada. I thought to myself, does applying for permanent residency count? Luckily for me, it only recently did. I was one the first to apply without having my permanent residency. Originally I was going to join as a cinematographer, but was advised to join as camera operator. If you joined as a cinematographer you cannot work as camera operator on a union show. As a camera operator, however, I could work as a Second Unit / Splinter DOP or as a cinematographer if I was invited to by the production. As well, when I moved up to cinematographer within the union I could still get operator work.
There are different processes for applying for each category, but for camera operator there are many requirements. Sixty days of credited work as an operator on studio television shows or features. Three letters of reference from cinematographers, directors or producers. Special thank you to Ron Johanson OAM ACS for your support. A video example of your latest work, plus the hefty joining fee. This is put to the membership committee and, after a phone call interview emphasising I will be becoming a Permanent Resident of Canada, later that month I got the phone call I was hoping for… I was in.
I’m all ready for my first day as an operator, lots of handshakes and congrats from grips and electrics. Instead of being C-Camera on a second unit, I am bumped up to B-Camera on the main unit. Talk about being thrown in the deep end, the pressure is on. I put on my operators hat and it was just like riding a bike. After that, I became the resident C-Camera operator for the show plus, during a splinter unit day, I was able to get an upgrade to cinematographer with the show’s creator as director. It was only the opening four shots of the entire whole show. No big deal.
After four long months of paperwork my wife and I were granted Permanent Residency of Canada in January of 2018. I will still always call myself an Australian and will endeavour to never lose my accent. I look forward, too, to the many trips home to shoot features and television shows in my own backyard; so don’t rule me out for any jobs going. But for now, Canada is where I’m at and I look forward to the many adventures that will take hold. One day I may even get used to the rain. One day.
Scott Kimber is a cinematographer active in growing his craft and pushing the boundaries of his work.