In Mikaela Cumbers’ earlier nifty little article, we were introduced to some of the bon mots of military men who also made careers in the movies. In the build up to the release of Tom Petch’s The Patrol, and as an aspirant seeking to follow across this somewhat unconventional career bridge, here are some of my whimsical ruminations on transitioning from shooting 5.56 mm NATO cartridge rounds to shooting 35 mm film stock. N.B. I’ve never actually used non-digital cameras – I just wanted to sound cool.
There are, of course, far more interesting overlaps than just that rather painfully semantic one. Firstly, anyone who really sets him or herself to making a film must be possessed of fairly adventurous and intrepid disposition. Of course, among the liberal and creative souls of the film world one wouldn’t exactly expect widespread thirst for the strictures, obeisance and uniformity of military life. Nonetheless, many fundamental martial values do have great virtue in the process of birthing a film. To whit, strong organisation, careful planning and reconnaissance, an eye for detail, maintenance of kit and equipment, clearness of direction, promotion of team cohesion and situational awareness are all prerequisites for a successful shoot. Human characteristics like coolness under pressure, humour in adversity, robustness, resourcefulness and determination, which most training military establishments actively attempt to inculcate in students, if successfully adopted are similarly advantageous to the film-maker.
By no means is a claim being made here that all soldiers are paragons of this type of thing. No two military careers are the same, and an individual’s day-to-day routine might be as adrenaline fuelled as kicking-in doors on kill-or-capture operations in “the ‘stan” or as mundane as stacking thousands of blankets. In broad handfuls, my experience involved taking the soldiers under my command to the correct location, carrying the right tools for the job, with a clear and well-rehearsed plan in each of their heads on what they were needed to do when they arrived. Then, when everything changed 100% upon that arrival, I would try to come up with a new plan, let everyone know about it and try to carry it out. Improvisation and a make-do and mend spirit are paramount. Hopefully the similarities to organising a shoot are fairly obvious.
This type of experience also teaches a myriad of good lessons in people-management that are also quite useful for filmmakers. Foremost is humility and the importance of listening to the subject matter expert. You might find yourself put in charge of guys who had a lot more experience than you, or specialist skills far beyond your mastery. Being able to give them the freedom to contribute in a way that maximises their strengths without losing your overall control of what is going on can be a tricky tight-rope walk on occasion, but absolutely key to success – just as it is with a crew on set or in pre and post production.
If this seems all a bit too self-congratulatory, don’t worry: there are some major drawbacks. In practice, creative and artistic expression are not much encouraged in the Army, and the emphasis on cohesion produces problem-solvers whose approach to challenges can become very predictable. As anyone who has patrolled in Afghanistan will tell you, working to a pattern is extremely dangerous but the (understandable) institutional emphasis on conformity does not help the typical soldier escape this trap. Military types can be just that – they wear predictable types of clothing, have predictable opinions, predictable standards, predictable “chat”. They can often spot each other quite easily passing in the street even when not in uniform. Needless to say, this close-knit cocoon is not great preparation for working in wide ranging diversity of the film-makers world.