Army to Assistant Director – From theatre of war to war in the theatre by Richard Cave

Crossover of Military Skillsets into Film/TV Production

Leaders are made not born”

I learnt leadership skills in the military, and the military left me with leadership skills that are highly desired. I am a trained educator, and mentor and my background as a leader gave me confidence and the ability to lead by example and motivate a team to bring a job to completion and to a strict schedule.

Leadership by example appeared to be a vital necessity to engage people in the studio for reasons of personal development, production quality, direct service to the director’s vision, productivity, and employee morale. Leading by example can be done at any level and is an action that sets a positive standard of behaviour and sets an example for others to follow.  

Money makes the world go round

The financial responsibilities I was in charge of within my military leadership positions were multiple. As a leader, for example, I might have had 12 individuals underneath me and hundreds of thousands of pounds of government resources that I was responsible for.  

On set, I have the same size team, all need kit, and all need feeding, paying and advance notice of company moves including travel and hotels. Or I may be given petty cash to source items or use a credit card hire kit or people for tasks, sometimes making arrangements to hire big ticket items, and to come up with solutions if unavailable.

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading today”

The military taught me the importance of taking responsibility for my actions and seeing tasks through to completion—quality in the film and television industry. In the studio, time is money. Production does not want to hold each employee’s hand through each task. Instead, they want self-starters who know how to tackle a project with little direction. They want individuals who can set goals and accomplish them ahead of time. To also repeat that daily, no matter how tired or cold or miserable. This was a key skill that I transferred to production. 

When people talk, listen completely”

Most workplaces are a melting pot of personalities, which can often lead to drama or unproductive workflows. Fortunately, military life trained me to communicate respectfully and effectively with all individuals, including high-ranking officials and civilians with diverse backgrounds. The communication skills that I gained in the army benefitted me in any position and helped me to advance in leadership roles. I can communicate effectively to the team in a way that helps everyone work to the best of their abilities— I also have an ability to communicate with different cultures and languages on large productions.  

Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity”

The only way for leaders to effectively emphasise the Army Value of integrity is to visibly and consistently display it. Mere words are not enough. You have to be able to say no, and you have to have the ability to say I don’t know. But immediately after saying no or I don’t know you demonstrate a compromise to assist with the task. You work the problem, and your crew should be part of this and encouraged to emulate this. John Wooden said it best, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Technology is best when it brings people together.”

As part of my military career from the start, we were taught how to use technology to our advantage and to also proactively look at using existing technology differently. As part of my career, I had to write detailed reports on kit and equipment to resolve issues and future-proof any problems. We were also encouraged to have an enquiring mind about kit and equipment and were rewarded for doing so. As part of my military nature, I have to know how each piece of equipment works, what effect it does, and when to use it.

On set, I have made it my business to know each piece of equipment. For example, I learnt about generators in the military, and on set recently we had a problem with one; just by hearing it, I knew it had a potentially dangerous runaway engine, and when the fire service turned up, I told them how to stop it safely. Which they did. When the engineer turned up, I told him that a certain liquid must be low on a governor. It turns out I was right, and it saved costly repairs and delays. 

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

My time in the military has forced me to learn how to work with and succeed with all types of personalities. You know when to lead and when to follow and support. This is a critical skill that keeps production running smoothly. In the military we call this the lead, follow, or get out of the way, it can only be learnt through hard experience. This has helped me as an AD on set. Sometimes I may need to break the hierarchy just to resolve an issue, I am also unafraid of anyone on set, which sometimes ruffles feathers with those who invest personally into a production. By being unafraid but respectful I can get more done. 

Pressure makes diamonds.”

A deadline won’t make me break a sweat after my military experience which gives you a great advantage in the studio setting. I stand out in times of crisis, able to direct teams despite added stress. The ability to lead a team successfully in pressure-filled situations is equally important, it also helps that I can recognise in advance when the situation becomes a high-pressure event. Also, how to de-escalate the tension, so that people can think more clearly. Recently I was told on set by the producer that I am a little island of calm and the people working for me were being more effective. 

We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” 

I must be ready to change course and shift priorities at a moment’s notice. My time in the military has taught me to do the same. I am ready to adapt to new situations and surroundings with little preparation. This is a critical skill on set I must be consistently ahead of the next day’s call sheet. Improvise, overcome, and adapt is a mantra that is taught to all servicemen.  

All problems are illusions of the mind.” 

No plan survives contact with the enemy in the military, I have learned to think on my feet and quickly identify solutions as problems present themselves. This intuitive thinking is highly valued on set, as a simple mistake can cost a production thousands, if not millions.

Productions are looking for professionals who can identify problems before they occur and find creative ways to solve problems to save time, resources, and money.  The ability to ask meaningful questions is important on set, and it is a core skill set within the military, to extract information, and data and break it down. From a simple order to a mission directive. 

By Richard Cave.