How to be the perfect runner on a shoot

The runner's job is a great starting point but success depends on organisation and learning a lot quickly.

To work out what makes a good runner we asked industry veterans on the film side. The role of the runner is particularly important because it is such a substantial starting point for people looking for careers in the production sector. It has few formal prerequisites and education does not make much difference but it is a sought after job to get on set.

The job

‘It’s an entree for people who want to be production managers or assistant directors or even buyers for the buying department,’ said Trevor Blainey, who came into the industry as a production accountant, is now an independent producer, and produced Noise with Matthew Saville and Cut Snake for Matchbox Pictures. 

As a producer who started with Peter Weir on The Last Wave, became a vice president of production in the Disney empire and is now a producer for SIXTYFOURSIXTY, Su Armstrong has seen a generation of runners. She added, ‘I think the main thing is that it is so demanding you want to be training someone who is really into the job rather than someone who is using it to move onto something else’.

According to Blainey, ‘A production runner does literally what the words mean. There are two basic running jobs – between the set and the production office, or between the production office and the outside world.

For David Parker (another veteran of the lowish budget film with family tendencies whose first success was Malcolm), the job is about, ‘problem solving and organisational skills. You are given a bunch of things by the production secretary and you have to figure out the simplest way of doing them. You are asked to do an enormous variety of things from picking up toilet paper in the supermarket to driving Harvey Keitel to yoga lessons. It covers a lot of ground.

‘Great runners are hardworking.They listen to and clearly carry out instructions and don’t seek to reinterpret what they have been asked to do. They are quick and remain cheerful throughout.’

‘The job is demanding,’ said Armstrong. ‘They do the bidding but they understand what they are trying to do, and the speed of the shoot. They are able to put a lot of thought into it, but they are also prepared to ask if they don’t understand. 

‘They also know the city or the location, they are caring of personas and each department’s requirements. They just have something. You feel confident if you give them a job, then the job will get done. The biggest thing is they are conscious of the priorities at the time in question. And they deliver on time. 

‘It is a hard job and it’s low paying and it’s very demanding. It is an entry level job but it is very necessary.’

The first few gigs

These jobs are not easy to get. To Armstrong, ‘It is terribly hard and it is sad when you are meeting young kids who just want to be in the film industry but don’t know what role they want. 

Both Armstrong and Blainey acknowledge that the job relies on contacts, and recommendations from other shoots. ‘They keep contacting people,’ said Blainey. ‘It can take a while but they get onto the books of the main crew agents, which is a task in itself. Even they don’t find jobs, they provide producers and production manager with lists.’

It is an organic process in some ways, as emerging production people stay close to the industry and grab opportunities. The connections come from working with a producer who notices them, or on small films which employ experienced staff. 

It is worth remembering that people learn their own patches. Some crew are good in the bush, while others know a city and how to calculate traffic. Producers are often creating bespoke crews for particular shoots and locations, and good runners connect the production to the environment. Runners also tend to keep the role for some time, because they build up a valuable range of detailed experience, which makes them valued rather than slotted into. They move on into the production department, aiming ultimately to be first assistant directors or production managers or line producers. 

Helen Bowden (an experienced producer with Matchbox for which she produced The Slap and recently Lambs of God for Lingo Pictures) added perhaps the most necessary touch to the whole conversation. ‘They must be curious and observant and they don’t just take everything as given. You want everybody to be engaged with the actual show. To have read the script and want to share what you are creating.’

This role, by the way, is not gender specific and we can expect to see more women and minorities in the role. It is also a salutary fact that education as such does not make much difference to moving ahead in the screen sector. Though it does to your own creativity.

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.