The good news is that the decreasing gender gap behind the scenes in Canadian TV seems to be filtering down to all levels of production. Early on in her career, grip Felicia Sims said that she often found herself working as the only, or one of the only female technicians on set. However, she says that’s been changing as of late and more and more women are filling these roles. The Coroner and Mary Kills People grip recently spoke to The TV Junkies about diversity behind the scenes as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries.
Grips are technicians who work behind the scenes to ensure that the camera crew has all the equipment needed for the various shots that will be done that day. That equipment can include dollies, jibs, cranes, or tripods, and grips help construct everything needed to help operate and move the cameras. As Sims starts to see more and more women join her in the position, she also spoke to the importance of finding a crew that you work well with, and how a simple gesture from a Lost Girl producer led to her finding a lot of work behind the scenes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Can you share a little about your background with us? Did you always want to work behind the scenes in film and television?
Felicia Sims: I was all over the place. When I was a kid I always wanted a camera, an SLR for photography and a video camera for shooting movies with my friends. But still photography was always the greater interest. I was inspired by exploratory shows like Popular Mechanics for Kids, and later, anything on the Outdoor Life Network. I wanted to be like the journalists who featured each country by immersing themselves in the culture. Midway into high school, I wanted to make travel documentaries, so I took television broadcasting in college.
After graduation, and an internship with alliance Atlantis, I volunteered at a few Toronto-based film festivals. I was helping at this one film showcase when the organizer gave me a shout-out and “Thank you” for the volunteer work. I wasn’t modest about it. A DP [director of photography], Pasha Patriki, who shot four of the six movies at that showcase approached me to say ‘Good job’ and offered me a PA gig on his next short film. I loved his camera work and lighting, and actually Pasha inspired like 15 other techs my age, a few who became DPs themselves. He told me to learn a lot about lighting if I wanted to shoot. I decided that since the image is made up of light, if I could control it, then I can make pretty pictures no matter what media I recorded on.
So I started showing up on sets and called myself an electric. I would only work lighting calls and wouldn’t let anyone put me onto something different. I was 20 years old at that point. I volunteered, or got ripped off, for almost two years before joining NABET 700 [Toronto film, TV technicians union]. After another few years I switched to the grip department, as part of a plan to work lighting, grip, then camera. But I’m so happy where I am now, I’m not excited about switching to camera.
TTVJ: I’m not sure many people know exactly what a grip does behind the scenes. Can you describe what a typical day on set is like for you?
FS: At the start of the day we unload and prep our gear for whatever lighting or camera setups we can imagine for the scenes we’re set to shoot. We work with every department, but mostly with lighting and camera. For the lights we’ll use small to large to very large frames to diffuse or bounce the light, then we’ll “stop the light from falling on areas we don’t want it to fall on” (direct quote from my lighting teacher in college). We’ll also make sure their ground lights are safe by levelling and weighing them down. If we’re in the studio, we’re building pipe grids above the sets. For camera, the dolly grips will stay with the cameras and work with the operators to create the moving shots. We’ll build car rigs, camera rigs, camera-car rigs. We’ll mostly lay track for the dolly, build the jib or work in a crane. There’s usually a lot to do.
TTVJ: What is your favorite part of the job?
FS: Trying to annoy the key grip. Kidding. I love the people I work with. The guys on our grip team are the biggest gentlemen. And a few of them are like my brothers.
TTVJ: Do you notice any differences working on shows that have female showrunners like Coroner or Mary Kills People?
FS: Hard to say. I feel like Chris Toudy, our key grip on those shows, did the most for us to keep a respectful and happy environment for his team.
TTVJ: I’ve talked a lot with Morwyn Brebner and Adrienne Mitchell about how they’ve tried to have a very diverse writers’ room and cast diversely on screen as well. Has that priority on diversity also translated behind the scenes at Coroner?
FS: It’s nice to see some diversity on screen, especially for a show taking place in Toronto because that’s just realistic. And I’d imagine a mixed bag of writers could give some different perspectives for the storylines. But behind the scenes, I guess I see it more when younger techs come out.
TTVJ: Things are starting to change, but traditionally there hasn’t been a lot of women working behind the scenes, particularly in technician roles. Have you often found yourself as one of only a few women in those situations?
FS: Yes, for most of my career it was either one or two of us girls at a time in lighting or grip. So I never used to think about it. Now I’ll see up to three or four girls coming out at once in both lighting and grip. It’s like, ‘Hey! I’m not alone.’
TTVJ: What are some of the biggest steps and initiatives that you have seen as positive strides in the industry?
FS: NABET has an apprenticeship program I’ve been bragging about. When I started it seemed like I wasn’t allowed to ask questions, and I had to slowly figure things out for myself. Whenever someone threw a tip my way about how to do something, it made the job a little easier. I like that everyone is more willing to teach each other now, and when we get an apprentice we unload years of advice in a few months. I’ve secretly tried to save the best tips for the female techs, but I usually end up giving it all away equally.
TTVJ: While those strides have been made, what are some challenges that still exist or some of the biggest issues you think need to be addressed?
FS: I don’t really see any more roadblocks for women getting in. There have been some female-led projects that gave a good boost in the number of women, and now some productions ask for more female hires. Actually, what really helped my career back on Lost Girl is when producer Wanda Chaffey complimented me to the gaffer and said she wanted to see more of me. I tried to send a thank-you note to her when the show ended because I got so much work after that, and I wanted her to know how much that little comment helped.
As for getting the opportunities, it’s all about finding a crew you can gel with. I feel like more of the younger keys will have no problem hiring women. The guys on our crew have said many times they like having women on the team, it brings a different dynamic. I’m lucky to be working with the biggest group of gentlemen who are always respectful towards me, and I’ve stuck with them, but it took years to find that.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice, particularly for young women, looking to get into technician roles in the TV industry?
FS: Be aggressive, and consistent with the amount of energy you put into your work. Let the boss know you can bring it every time. If you can’t do something, ask for help or ask someone to teach you; it’s really no big deal, just communicate. Put the job first. I can’t believe I have to say this, but if you’re younger, definitely don’t ruminate on your feelings. Toughen up, have some grit, cause it’s easier now than it used to be. Be respectful, If you’re a big mouth like I am, find a friend to help you filter. (Thanks, Ian!)
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.