The new Pioneer Generation: Freelancers

THE FILM COORDINATOR Heady life on set but cash flow is an issue

As a freelance film and TV production coordinator, Ms Sim says there are no CPF or health benefits, and "we have to watch our own backs and make sure we have enough savings to settle the rent in the months when we're not paid".
As a freelance film and TV production coordinator, Ms Sim says there are no CPF or health benefits, and "we have to watch our own backs and make sure we have enough savings to settle the rent in the months when we're not paid".PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

When Ms Vannesa Sim was 12 years old, she saw the American film Pleasantville, in which colour leaks into the black-and-white world of a 1950s sitcom. Thus began an obsession with cinematography.

"I knew then that I wanted to make films," she recalls. "Of course, I didn't realise at the time that it was going to be so difficult."

Now 24, she has been a production coordinator in the film and TV industry for close to two years.

In her brief but intense career as a freelancer, she has already seen her name roll in the credits of Hollywood film Equals and TV show MasterChef Asia.

But she has also had to work extra hours for little money, skip meals while waiting for her pay to come in, and even clean toilets of faeces.

Ms Sim started freelancing on film shoots to put herself through Lasalle College of the Arts, where she studied film. When work was scarce, she did odd jobs from deejaying to hair modelling.

  • FAST FACTS

  • NAME: Vannesa Sim

    AGE: 24

    JOB: Film and TV production coordinator

    A FREELANCER FOR: Two years

    EARNS PER MONTH: $2,800-$3,200

    ADVICE FOR OTHER FREELANCERS: "Always pro-rate. A lot of freelancers don't know how to do this and accept rates that are actually lower than they think, and they lose a lot of money."

After graduation, she plunged straight into the industry, working on short films, commercials and TV shows. She started out earning $2,000 a month, and can now earn between $2,800 and $3,200.

Her job scope has ranged from casting and hiring to managing a fleet of drivers, sending them off to pick up special guests from the airport or "buy roti for the crew".

Once, she had to clean a dressing room toilet bowl splattered with faeces. "It is, sometimes literally, quite a s****y job," she says.

But even worse are the cash-flow problems. "We don't have CPF," she says. "We don't have health benefits. We have to watch our own backs and make sure we have enough savings to settle the rent in the months when we're not paid."

One major bugbear for her is that rates are not standardised, allowing many employers to pressure newcomers into accepting lower rates, or working six days a week on a five-day contract.

Others are not wise to the intricacies of the payroll. She once saw a colleague lose $600 a month because she did not know how to pro-rate, or divide her rates by the number of days worked.

"When you're fresh, you're pressured to say 'yes'," says Ms Sim. "You can't kick up a fuss, especially when you're new, and you don't want to p*** someone off in case he doesn't hire you again."

Late payment is another problem even industry veterans face. Ms Sim is sometimes not paid for four or five months. "Once I was owed so much that my production manager gave me $200, saying 'I know you don't have money to eat now'.

"I said I couldn't take his money. He said 'never mind, just pay it forward'."

She hopes to do that some day for other freelancers. She plans to do corporate work in human resources, with film projects on the side.

This would place her in a better position to advise freelancers on HR and finance matters.

She will miss, however, the heady life on set and the late nights sitting up with other crew members, eating food left over from the shoot with their fingers. "We looked like beggars," she says, "but it was the most fun I've had."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'THE FILM COORDINATOR Heady life on set but cash flow is an issue '. Print Edition | Subscribe