In 1995, Janet Urban stumbled on a film set while traveling in Kenya, and decided she wanted to work on nature documentaries. Today, she is an accomplished sound mixer who has won an Emmy for the National Geographic series Sea Monsters, worked with big-name Hollywood directors like Darren Aronofsky and Damien Chazelle, and worked on film sets around the world. Having broken into the industry without the benefit of film school or family connections, she now teaches aspiring filmmakers how to do the same.
Her coaching program, Friends in Film, combines working on professional film sets with weekend mentoring retreats across the US, London, Toronto, Vancouver, and Sydney. Urban has helped her mentees find freelance film work and enter fields such as acting, cinematography, sound, art, stunts, editing, writing, and voice over work. Friends in Film alumni have worked on such shows as Gotham, The Blacklist, Pose, The Bachelor, NBC Nighttime TV, and BBC Studios, and feature films including the Greatest Showman and The Irishman.
I had a chance to catch up with Janet and get some insight from her about the entertainment industry and things aspiring filmmakers should be aware of.
Q: What are the routes available to aspiring filmmakers nowadays? Do you think film school is the best option?
When I talk to aspiring filmmakers, I tell them that they don’t need to go to film school to become a director, writer, or director of photography (DP). A degree in filmmaking is nice to have, but it’s not necessary, and I don’t think students realize how much debt they will take on.
In the film industry, productions hire so quickly that there is no time to look at resumes. Instead, they ask around the production office. The way to get hired is by being referred by someone who has worked with you. No one is going to ask if you have a degree—they’ll recommend you based on your energy, your work ethic, and the choices you make on set.
I tell my students to get themselves onto professional sets and in production offices where they can watch top directors at work. Don’t learn from just one professor; learn from many different directors with a variety of styles. By being around professional directors, you’ll learn how they develop ideas and concepts and how they sell ideas to clients on conference calls to win their next directing job.
Another wonderful thing about learning on set and in person is the connections you make and the relationships you build. These directors and producers will want to see you succeed and will refer you to small directing jobs so you can build a reel much better than anything you can do in the artificial environment of film school.
Q: Can you work in the film industry with no degree, classes, or certifications?
Yes, yes you can. The film industry is unlike other industries where you need some kind of certification or degree. The film industry is not a Monday-to-Friday job that you land; it’s individual film projects where the crew is hired for their specific expertise. It’s more of a gig-based business, so people are not making a decision on who to hire from reviewing resumes, but by looking at prior call sheets and deciding whether to invite that person to work on the next project or not.
Film schools teach you theory and how to do these jobs (how to direct, how to light, how to produce) as best as they can in a classroom setting. It used to be that the only way you could get access to equipment was through film school. But today, you can shoot and edit on your iPhone.
Millions of people are amazing at writing, acting, and directing. Talent is everywhere. But only a handful of people are being paid to do it professionally. Turning your passion into a career is another ballgame that requires a different mentality: Not of chasing gigs, but methodically self-managing your career by building a track record and seeking out the right professionals and production companies to work with.
When I talk to a director or DP who has a degree in film, they always tell me, “Film school was a nice experience because I made close friends, but I’m still paying off my student loans. What made me successful, I learned on set, not at film school.”
Even if you have a degree in screenwriting, directing, or cinematography, you’re still going to start in the most entry-level job: production assistant. You’re not going to start as a director or writer or DP. You have to learn the craft by working on hundreds of shoots, scene after scene, day after day, to understand how to do that job smoothly at the professional level.
Most film professionals don’t have a degree in film. They had creativity and a strong work ethic. They started working in entry level jobs as production assistant, director’s assistant, producer’s assistant, casting director assistant, art director’s assistant, or production designer assistant. These jobs range in pay from $200 to $350 per day. And these jobs are where everyone, regardless of whether they have a degree in film or not, start learning their craft and making relationships that turn into more work and bigger opportunities down the road. That’s what I did: I learned by doing while working on professional film sets. The only degree I have is in business, which I got before I knew I wanted to work in film.
Bottom line, you don’t need a degree to break into film. Production is making decisions about who to hire based on either directly working with you, or getting referred to you. They’re not making hiring decisions based on resumes. So you should spend time working on set, not in class. You’ll learn more by watching professionals who have the job you want.
Q: What would you recommend for someone who would like to enter the industry but lives far from the central film markets (LA, NY, etc?)
There are opportunities to gain experience even in the smallest cities: There is local news, documentaries, corporate video, events, and conferences. If you live in a small market, it’s very smart to use these small shoots to gain experience and a track record before moving into a larger market.
That’s what I did. I realized I wanted to work in film when I was traveling in Kenya and saw a film crew. I decided then that I wanted to work for National Geographic. But I needed experience. I went to the nearest major market for filming: South Africa.
In South Africa, I worked as a production assistant on documentaries like the Elephant Relocation Project. On that shoot, I assisted the camera department. I helped with sound and dressing the scene. I took notes on the scenes as we were shooting them.
Later, I worked as a runner for WTN and ABC News, helping arrange interviews, scout locations, and set up equipment for shoots.
By the time I moved to Los Angeles, I had a resume of professional work. I could talk about the projects, the different departments I worked in, and the specific experience I got from these shoots.
Many cities have more opportunities than you may think. The major American film markets used to be New York and LA. But because of a series of writer and actor strikes, production stretched out into new markets. Now major film markets have been established in Toronto, Vancouver, Atlanta, Chicago, Albuquerque, and New Orleans.
The film industry is a business, and productions go wherever they can to get the job done at a lower cost. Even a big-budget production might cut down costs by shooting additional scenes on a stage in Albuquerque, using non-SAG actors in Dallas, or adding special effects in Vancouver.
Q: The film industry is made up of so many professions. How do you find the right one for yourself?
There’s a job for every background and personality type in film. The nice thing about the production assistant job is you get to help out other departments. This allows you to see what each department does, so you can understand what job you want to make your career in.
On a film set, there’s a job for every interest. If you have a finance, managerial, or logistic background, you may like producing. If you are visual and artistic, you may be a great director, director of photography, or production designer.
There are food jobs like craft service and catering, beauty jobs like hair and makeup, creative fashion type jobs like costume design, and technical jobs like special effects.
While an extrovert might gravitate toward acting, producing, or directing jobs that involve interfacing with people all day, an introvert might prefer working outside the limelight as an editor, sound mixer, digital image technician (DIT), or gaffer.
Each of these jobs also provides a different lifestyle depending on the sector. For instance, the lifestyle provided by feature films is different than that of working on TV shows or commercials.
If you work on a TV show, you could work on a soundstage Monday through Friday for up to six months. It’s steady work, and the film set becomes like a family.
If you work on a feature film, you could spend an intense month travelling to multiple locations with the rest of the crew, and regularly find yourself in snow boots, shooting a night scene in Pittsburgh, or even across the world at a famous temple in India.
If you work on documentaries, you’ll travel around the world with small crews. You’ll go backstage with famous bands, spend time with celebrities at their homes, or learn about cutting edge research from top scientists.
Commercials offer a wonderful lifestyle because they are well organized and have generous budgets. Music videos are no longer big budget or consistent work, but are a good place for newcomers to start.
Q: How important is it for aspiring filmmakers to get involved in a union?
The TV shows with the biggest budgets and highest-level work are union, which means you’ll need to be part of your department’s union to work on them. For actors, it’s SAG (Screen Actors Guild). For directors, writers, or assistant directors, it’s the DGA (Directors Guild of America). Almost all other specialties fall under IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). Each department has its own local union. The only exception is for production assistants. There is no union for production assistants, so you can work as a PA on union shoots.
You can’t just contact the union and ask to join. The unions require that you have experience and qualifications, and the requirements vary by region.
For instance, if you live in Atlanta, you can contact the union in Atlanta to ask about the requirements. In most cases, it takes around two years of work to gain enough experience to join.
It’s not essential to join a union, though. Around 80 percent of shoots are non-union, and some unions are restrictive about their members working on non-union shows. It’s not a good idea to join a union until you have enough connections to work enough days on union shows to maintain your minimum hours.
Many young filmmakers have a misconception that joining the union means you’ve “made it.” But being part of the union doesn’t guarantee you work. You’re still responsible for your career and finding work.
Q: Many young filmmakers struggle with networking. Do you have any advice on making connections?
I struggled with this as well, because you need relationships to get hired, but you don’t want to establish a relationship just so that you can get something in return.
I found it helpful to remind myself that the people hiring for shoots were a lot like me—they’re also doing the job they love and want to work with great people. So networking is more about finding people and teams whose energy and vibe matches your own. If you remember that, you can focus on doing your best work, being a great listener, and asking questions.
By helping others do great work and helping them make progress in their career, you will naturally network.
Q: Do you have a personal favorite project from your career?
I got into the film industry because I wanted to see the world through being on a film shoot. I wanted to get up and close to the coolest things in the world. And that’s exactly what I experienced during the weeks I spent capturing the sound of the elusive Andean condor in Patagonia. They are one of the largest birds on earth, with a wingspan of 10 feet.
I had flown in to record the sounds of penguins, glaciers, and foxes for a nature series called Living Edens. I had just recorded the sound of orcas beaching themselves to hunt baby elephant seals—a phenomenon that only happens on one beach in the entire world, for two months each year.
What made recording the condors so difficult was that they are extremely smart and cautious. They’re a type of vulture, and before they dive down to feast on a kill, they watch for a specific series of events: First caracara birds show up. Then foxes arrive to feed on the carcass. And only then do the condors make an appearance.
I was staying on a sheep farm inside Torres del Paine, a national park whose famous peaks are the symbol of Patagonia. Every night, a puma would prowl the fields, attack a sheep, eat the heart, and leave the carcass. So every morning we’d find the kill, throw it in the back of a pickup truck, and drive to a blind we constructed out of bushes around a tree. From there, I would hide my microphones in the bushes around the carcass.
From 5 a.m. to noon each day, I waited in the blind, cradling $40,000 of sound equipment. But for weeks, the condors never showed up. The condors would circle the kill but they would not land.
We realized there was a problem with the blind, and it took us several weeks to come up with a blind that didn’t spook the condors. By Week 3, I was crawling into a crack in the ground before sunrise and pulling the bushes over my head.
On Day 30, the caracaras showed up, and then the foxes. It was finally happening! The condors circled and then swung in, in all their glory, hissing and spitting and growling. I was lucky. There was very little wind, and the sound of condors hissing, snorting, and jabbing their beaks into the carcass was crystal clear.
Mission accomplished! I flew back to Los Angeles knowing I had experienced a rare event that few people ever get to witness.
Q: Say someone wants to win an Emmy award by the time they’re 30. Are there any shortcuts they can take?
If you want to win an Emmy by the time you’re 30, that’s actually quite possible. Unlike the Oscars, the Emmys are more predictable, because the same productions submit their shows for Emmy consideration every year. There are Emmy awards for every craft, so if you work on those shows, the odds are good that you’ll win an Emmy.
That’s what happened to me. Since National Geographic submits all their TV specials to the Emmy awards, and I worked on many of them, I ended up winning an Emmy for Sea Monsters. Soon after, I was nominated for Return of the Wolf.
Q: What is the most rewarding thing about working in the entertainment industry?
I love starting with just an idea and turning it into something that impacts the world and will be seen by millions. The industry attracts creative, interesting, well-read people, and it’s incredible to work with a team of people who can turn a street into Chinatown in a few hours, transform an ordinary guy into a caveman, or write lines that make everyone burst into laughter. I just can’t wait to get up each morning and head to a film set.
Since the industry is freelance, everyone on set is handpicked. Working in film gives you the opportunity to master a skill, become known for it, and even travel across the world to do it. We typically work 12-hour days for 15 days per month. Because we have a high day rate, those 15 days are equivalent to most people’s 40-hour work week. So entertainment is the highest paying part-time job you can find!
If you find that the film industry is for you, you will likely find that no other job can give you that combination of teamwork, excitement, and variety. The field attracts people from all backgrounds who have done amazing things: There are doctors and lawyers; there are musicians and surfers who spend three months each year as free spirits in Nicaragua. I love that we’re all brought together by our love for this kind of work.
The film industry has all the attributes of a high-paying career, but feels like play.