Birmingham builder Victor Sellers and fellow stage hand Kevin Sappington didn’t start out to be in the movie business. But with experience in more than 10 made-in-Birmingham movies, the two Jefferson County natives are among hundreds of area residents who find challenging work, good pay and benefits, and chances for new avocations working as crew on the scores of films being made here.
However, other local crew members, including Joseph Batiste and freelance writer and location scout Greg Womble, came to film crew gigs with careers in film making in mind.
“I first got into this to learn as much as I can about the craft,” said Batiste, a drama graduate from Alabama State University who acted and worked in stage management in college and envisions a career in film. Since he began work with Birmingham’s growing film-making industry, Batiste has moved from being an extra in “Woodlawn,” to a set production assistant in “Trading Paint.” The he moved up the crew ladder to work on a sound utility, a step up in responsibility and pay, in three more movies, “Moose,” “Bigger” and “Embattled.”
A love for film and scriptwriting led Womble to work as a location scout, helping to lure productions to the city and state.
“I knew the area, knew how to read a script and how to take pictures,” Womble said. He’s handled location scouting and location management duties since 2016 for four productions, including “Bigger,” “Inherit the Viper” and “Sword of Trust,” a comedy that filmed in the Argo area of Jefferson County.
One Job Leads to the Next
Regardless of job titles – production assistants, sound utilities, location scouts or any of the slew of strange-sounding behind-the-camera position titles such as grip, key grip, gaffer and best boy – local crew members agree that one job on a film crew leads to another.
“In the movie industry, you are responsible for getting your own job,” Sellers said. Once you work on a film and do a good job, “it becomes word of mouth, who can do what the best,” said Sellers, whose work has been for film’s art directors or set dressers, the folks who are responsible for creating sets that reflect the film’s time period, setting, plot and mood.
Womble agreed. “Find work, do a good job and next time around somebody will call you,” he said. “It’s not terribly steady but it’s picking up.”
Learning the ropes through positions in various aspects of film making “is almost like an apprenticeship,” Batiste said. He’s seen Birmingham build a strong foundation of people with film expertise.
“The incentives help bring the production companies, but us doing a good job helps,” he said, noting that, by now< crews have worked together many times. “It’s almost like family. People look out for each other.”
Alabama’s film incentive program offers a 35 percent rebate on money spent on payroll to crew members who are Alabama residents – an incentive that encourages producers and directors to hire locally. Plus, word has spread that Birmingham and Alabama-based crews are knowledgeable and valuable assets.
“Producers and directors have figured out that Birmingham does have the skilled people needed to make films here,” said Sellers, who has worked on 10 films over the past several years, from “Woodlawn” to “Embattled,” one of the most recent productions filmed in town.
Payroll and More
Films with large or small budgets create local economic impact in many ways, but for crew members, the biggest impact comes in the form of pay and benefits.
During production, film crew members are paid weekly, Sellers said. Because of the involvement of Union Local 479, which represents most crew members, production workers and studio mechanics get a pay check and help with benefits.
“Movie companies pay the union on our behalf, up to $90 to $125 dollars a day in benefits for each member,” Sellers said. “The union puts these funds in accounts for health insurance and retirement.”
The added benefits – via the union – are something “that doesn’t happen with other construction work,” Sellers said.
In addition to payroll, the economic impact of film making is far-reaching, said Buddy Palmer of Film Birmingham, an initiative of Create Birmingham that is often a first stop for production personnel looking at the Birmingham area. “It’s lodging, food, vehicles, locations, rentals, wardrobe, contracts with local vendors.”
Finding work on a film crew is “a great opportunity for people who want to be involved in filmmaking, who don’t have specific education or training, but finding a niche, learning and working hard,” Palmer said.
“It’s been great for Birmingham, a city that’s looking to create jobs and opportunities for more citizens,” Palmer said of employment with crews filming in the metro area. “With film crews, there aren’t barriers, like requiring certain degrees, that some industries have.”
Sappington, who has worked three years straight in film production, says he’s seen firsthand how film-making money spreads through the local economy. “They dump a ton of money in a short amount of time. Like $6 million in nine weeks,” he said.
Batiste, whose latest assignment as a sound utility had him learning ropes of sound mixing in the production office, said he sees the state’s incentive program as an economic boost for the city and state. “Productions bring business, jobs and give back to the city.
“Being able to be here, doing this, learning more everyday while earning a living, it’s an awesome opportunity that I am grateful for,” Batiste said.
Different World, Different Jargon
Local crew members say that working in filmmaking requires flexibility, long hours and learning the jargon as well as the way filmmaking operates.
“You have to be flexible. They put out a schedule, with call times, when production day starts, and wrap times, meaning when that day’s shooting ends,” Sellers said. “And sometimes things change, and the actual schedule varies from what’s printed out.”
Work days can be long and work weeks longer, the crew members agreed. “In pre-production, it’s usually eight or 10-hour days. Once filming begins, it’s usually 12-hour days,” Sellers said.
Call time and wrap times, the beginning and end of a day’s film work, are examples of film production terminology that newbies quickly learn. Assignments, too, are detailed on a call list. And, sometimes, the assignments are last-minute, too.
Batiste says film jargon can slip into everyday use. For instance, instead of saying, have you seen so and so or this or this, film production folks say “can you put your eyes on whoever,” he said.
“The crews and the set are different worlds but they are fast-paced and aren’t for the weak,” Batiste said. “Working along other crew members through scorching heat, even in the snow, to make these features here in Birmingham has been a blessing. It’s a lot of long hours and hard work that requires efficiency and a positive attitude.”
“But the crew is really like family. Everybody’s always looking out for each other on set and off set,” Batiste said. “I’m grateful for folks who are willing to impart wisdom, like a village raising up a child.”
Stage Hands to Studio Mechanics
Both Sellers and Sappington were not total strangers to show business when they began working with film art directors building items for sets and locations. Both have worked three decades as stage hands – setting up for music concerts at venues in Birmingham and north central Alabama.
Sellers’ other “regular” job is as owner of Sellers Building Services, a Birmingham company originally begun by Sellers’ father and his brothers. In the stage hand world, Sellers is a rigger, the person who hangs equipment from the ceiling – lights, cameras, banners, anything that hangs.
As stage hands, Sellers and Sappington belong to Local Union 78, a stage-hand union.
“When the Woodlawn production came, there was no studio mechanic union in the state, so Local 479 out of Atlanta took over the Alabama territory for film production workers,” Sellers explained. Stage hands who wanted work with films joined Local 479, and many still work in both fields.
Sappington, an Irondale native with more than a dozen movies on his studio mechanic resume, is, like all Local 479 members, technically a studio mechanic. Studio mechanic is an all-encompassing title for crew members with varying responsibilities.
Sellers and Sappington have filled their studio mechanic roles as skilled builders who work with art directors and set dressers to build whatever is needed to make a location or set reflect the movie’s storytelling. Other studio mechanics fill technical and support roles, like production assistants and utility positions that work with sound or lighting.
Sappington, whose stage hand brethren started calling him “Hollywood” when he began supplementing stage hand work with movie work, has also worked as construction coordinator and set dresser on recent movies. He was construction coordinator for “Into the Ashes” and a lead set dresser on “Bigger.” These positions mean additional responsibilities and working closely with the art directors. And, Sappington’s Hollywood nickname remains, having been adopted by fellow movie crew members.
Build It Quickly
A builder since learning the ropes from his father, Sellers said his experience helps. “In prop making or construction, it’s building from blueprints. I know how to do the job and have a good idea how to make something that’s needed,” he said. His big adjustment was emphasizing speed over quality in the work product.
None of the items Sellers and others build for film sets are supposed to be permanent. “That was a challenge for me,” Sellers said. He has to remember “I’m not building a violin. I tend to be a perfectionist and had to learn that it doesn’t have to be perfect. … It’s more about speed and getting it built quickly.”
Going to see “Woodlawn,” the first film he worked with, Sellers was able to see his handiwork, construction and signs that made Legion Field look like it did in the 1970s. “You spend two weeks building something and see it in the movie for 10 or 15 seconds,” he said.
In the film “Into the Ashes,” Sappington was construction coordinator and the filmmaker needed a cabin built with removable sides. The quick changing cabin was needed to appear at various stages of construction in the movie.
When freelance writer Womble began work as a location scout, he called on his experience writing and directing a short film plus work in video production and radio broadcasting to help him build a reputation as a location scout.
A student of scriptwriting with two of his scripts making it to the screen, the Samford University graduate said working with creative artists on the front end of productions appeals to him. “I enjoy helping a director realize his or her vision for a film,” he said.
It’s not always grand buildings or recognizable settings that filmmakers want. “They may want residential houses, small businesses, bars, even a school or church,” Womble said. “Everyday kinds of locations you don’t think about being a movie location. Drama is about real life usually.”
As a location scout, Womble’s work is usually pre-production; as a location manager, he will continue to help with location issues once filming begins. He usually works directly with a film producer or a production designer.
Womble encourages locals with interest in film to consider pursuing work with film crews in some fashion.
Be Part of Something Bigger
“We need more crew people in all departments,” Womble said. Having that first couple of credits for some type of production or film work helps, he said.
Volunteering with Birmingham’s annual Sidewalk Film Festival is another way to learn more about the film business and to meet people in the industry. Womble credits the city’s film festival with helping to spread the word about filming in Birmingham and Film Birmingham with excellent outreach and support for production companies and crew members.
“Many people choose to work in films because it’s a fun and creative process, and they want to work with it and be part of something bigger.
“You won’t get rich quick or slow, but it’s satisfying.”