Crew Role Profile: Aaron Sutter, Unit Manager

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In this regular feature we aim to take you behind the scenes and introduce you to the hard working film and TV crew members that make productions possible. By speaking directly to production personnel, we’ll offer you the chance to learn some insider information, discover what all those long-winded job titles in film and TV credits actually entail and find out how you can get involved yourself.

For our inaugural profile we have Aaron Sutter, a freelance Unit Manager who has also worked as a Location Scout and Assistant Location Manager on shows like Jamaica Inn, Utopia and This is England ’90. Here, Aaron explains what his complex role involves, shares some need-to-know information and offers advice for all those looking to break into the business…

Name: Aaron Sutter

What’s Your Role?

“I’m primarily and currently a freelance Unit Manager but, such is the nature of being freelance, I have also been a Location Scout, an Assistant Location Manager and I started out as a Location Assistant.”

What Does That Involve?

“As a Unit Manager it is essentially my job to make sure everyone else on the shooting crew is able do their job as safely, considerately and efficiently as possible.

“Once the Location Manager has negotiated the use of a location and established the terms and conditions, I will then visit that location and assess the practical implications of filming there based on the Location Managers’ information. I will look at elements such as physical access, facilities, welfare, parking, directions, traffic management and security. I will put measures in place to minimise our impact on local residents, businesses and the owner / representative of the location. I will also find, hire and manage the nearest suitable area to base our bigger vehicles, caterers and private cars. All of the above will then be my responsibility until the crew are completely clear of a location and the owner / representative is satisfied that their property has been properly re-instated.

“Nearer the time of filming, I will discuss the specific requirements of each department and either provide what they want/need or negotiate a more attainable alternative with them. Once filming is underway, unless the location is complicated for any reason, I will generally leave the set in the hands of a Location Assistant while I continue setting up future locations and striking previous ones. If I have not met the demands of the crew, the Location Assistant will be the first to hear about it. With this in mind, it is essential that I get the job done not only to keep the show on the road but also to keep my colleagues from facing the consequences of my mistakes or failures…. No pressure!

“On a busy job, there might be up to 50 locations to shoot within the space of a couple of months so once filming is underway, there is a constant and often relentless stream of locations simultaneously being prepped, filmed and re-instated.

“In short, the job will keep you busy.”

What Have Been Your Career Highlight So Far?

  • Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ – “A truly rugged job that gave me the chance to prove myself while equipped with Land Rovers, quad bikes and trailers”
  • C4’s ‘Utopia’ – “An incredibly difficult job to work on but stunning results.”
  • This is England ’90 – “My favourite drama and a privilege to be involved.”

How Did You Start Out in the Locations Department?

“I remember very specifically how I got my first ‘rung on the ladder’. I was on the dole applying for Wetherspoons and occasionally assisting Ed Cartledge at ‘Sort Of… Films’ and putting myself forward for film projects via independent film networks (which is surprisingly hard to explain to the job centre). I then got an opportunity to work unpaid as a runner on a short film, ‘Mam’ c/o Rob Speranza at South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network. This sort of project provides a crossover between people who are new to the industry and professionals who are in between bigger jobs or perhaps doing a favour for a friend. It was on ‘Mam’ that I met an experienced Line Producer, Mary Owen. I happened to confide in her that I was skint and would need to find a steady income if no proper film work materialised soon.

“At this point she handed me a phone to give directions to a lost crew member.

“Once I was off the phone, she proceeded to kick start my career in the space of one paragraph…

“Aaron, I think that you should do Locations. It’s hard work but I think you’ll be good at it. I know that Wuthering Heights is coming up and the Location Manager, Matt Bowden will be looking for an assistant. He often rings me looking for people, so I’ll give him a call and put you forward.”

“Several weeks later I get a phone call from Matt and eventually start on Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Since then I have worked on several projects with Matt, also Kayleigh Cruickshank, Charlie Thompson and I’m currently working alongside Location Manager, Richard Knight.”

What Training Have You Had?

“Nothing specific to my current role. I studied Film and Media Production at University which gave me a good overview of filmmaking and a basic understanding of how the industry works. However, most of my role specific training has been on the job via more senior colleagues. All you need in the first instance, as an assistant, is aptitude.”

What Key Skills Do You Need In This Position?

  • Perseverance
  • Good communication, negotiation and diplomacy skills
  • Honesty and a willingness to learn

What Tips Would You Offer Those Interested In This Role?

  • Learn to prioritise an overwhelming work load – “At the beginning of a job, the task in hand can seem impossible and massively daunting. However, with experience, you learn what jobs need doing when. You also learn to deal with the constantly shifting priorities. The faster you can master this the better. I know I’m not there yet!”
  • Expect the unexpected – “Location filming is characterised by outside influences interrupting proceedings. As a Unit Manager, it is my job to pre-empt these influences and put control measures in place. The more I anticipate these things, the smoother the day will go. A sixth sense and eyes in the back of your head would both be helpful.”
  • Know your job – There are an enormous range of projects that you could find yourself involved with throughout the course of a career in Locations. Some projects, like a music video or a short film might demand you become a one man band working with a shoe string budget managing everything from the location contract to the parking to the sandwiches and are relentlessly economising. On a major feature, the locations department at its biggest would have a Supervising Location Manager running a team of Location Managers, Assistant Location Managers, Unit Managers, Coordinators, Assistants, Scouts and Marshalls. At this level, your role is far more specific and you are part of a much bigger organisation. Most of my experience has been somewhere in the middle, working in a small team on TV projects and relatively low budget features. Here, the ideals of a feature film are strived for but the budget and resources don’t often stretch that far. Having said that, even on the biggest of projects, ambition can outstrip the budget. By understanding the nature of the project, including the scale and the budget, you will better understand your role and how to respond to challenges, demands and unforeseen circumstances.

What’s The One Thing People Should Be Aware of When Pursuing This Role?

“A film crew (or the production company) don’t want to hear excuses, they want results. I need to deliver what I’ve said I will. The best way to counteract this is by communicating any concerns well in advance. It is also important to do the leg work first so I can present my bosses (primarily the Location Manager but also the Line Producer and HOD’s) with viable solutions rather than with the numerous problems I have encountered.”

What Advice Would You Offer People Looking To Do What You Do?

“You must take it upon yourself to learn about the networking resources that can be made available to you and then make good use of them. Your contacts are your key to your first job and then to your next job and so on for the rest of your career. If you are reading this, then you are in the right place. Creative England is responsible for keeping the British film industry in good shape for an international market. A part of that is feeding the industry with capable people. If you fit the bill then you should contact Nicky Ball, join the crew database and then use your newfound resources to get in touch with the people who need people like you.

“I often hear people say that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ as though there is some club that you are not invited to. The reality is that, while you need to ‘know’ someone who can give you a start, it’s easy to find out who those people are and who your future employers might be. Once you find those people and you get yourself a chance then your ability will speak for itself. At this point it doesn’t matter who you know. All that matters is how capable you are to do the task in hand. So find out who you need to get acquainted with, find an opportunity and then do a good job.”

What Do You Wish You Had Known When Starting Out?

“I wish I had known how much of an impact seemingly trivial things can have on the smooth running of the set. When I first started as an assistant I would get dismayed if I got complaints about the order I park vehicles or the distance to the toilet. People won’t necessarily explain the importance or significance of their request, they will just ask for it to be done. On the odd occasion it might be a crew member trying to assert themselves, but more often than not, there is good reason for the things being asked of you. Even so, it’s impossible to give everybody what they want so when it’s coming from all angles, it can be incredibly exasperating. At that point, any good Unit / Location Manager will be on the other end of the phone to help you through with a course of action. In the same way, a Location Manager would be there for me when I don’t know how to move forward. We face difficulties as a united front, learn from each other and pass on our expertise.”

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