by Yohannes Skoda
As I write this article, I’m enjoying what could possibly be the best slice of strawberry rhubarb pie I’ve ever had, in a delightful cafe in Missoula, Montana. I hope you don’t take that the wrong way. It’s not meant to be a flex at all. For me it is simply another necessary marker along this incredible journey that began four years ago with me trying to join 695.
It was the summer of 2018 and I was actively meeting as many mixers as possible while talking up the idea of hiring me as a fourth using the Y-16A trainee designation. Many mixers had never heard of the position and of the few that were familiar, none were terribly excited about asking production to spend more money. My dear friend, Ben Greaves, was working with Julian Howarth on the Avatar sequels at the time and had been talking to the producers about the possibility of bringing on an extra member of the Sound Department. In the fall of 2018, production agreed and I came on board Avatar as a trainee. Credit to Ben for his persistence and Julian for being open to the idea of bringing on a relatively green newcomer. Keep in mind at this point, there was no formal Local 695 Y-16A trainee program or anything like that, just the kernel of an idea.
Here is where I’m going to take some space and time to go ahead and give Ben Greaves his flowers. He had a vision to use the Y-16A designation to do more than simply get an individual the requisite thirty union days to join 695. Ben understood that pushing me out into the workforce after thirty days would be doing me a grave disservice as I would not have the skills and the experience necessary to hold my own as a Utility. His idea was to try and have me working as a Y-16A for at least six months before stepping out as a Y-7A. Again, there was no framework for this, just an idea and a few mixers who were own board with the experiment.
Over the course of the next six months, I worked as many days as were available to me on Avatar as a trainee. It was the perfect, low(ish) pressure environment to cut my teeth on the basic job requirements of a Sound Utility. It was a challenging period as the work was not full time, so I was driving for Lyft and working as a stand-in on the side to make ends meet. In the summer of 2019, courtesy of another great champion of the cause, Jamie Gambell, the opportunity to work as a fourth on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia came up. It was the perfect steppingstone for me again to be able to hone my skills with the luxury of having an experienced Utility above me. I spent six weeks as a fourth on Sunny and for me, it was really my finishing school. I gained the confidence to wire actors independently, jam timecode, run video and antenna cable, and slowly get better at booming.
I formally joined 695 in the spring of 2019, but it wasn’t until September of that year that I started working regularly as a Y-7A Sound Utility. I guess I was, in effect, the guinea pig for this experiment of some semblance of a Y-16A trainee program. The concept is fairly simple: Pair trainees with willing mixers and crews that have a vested interest in their success and don’t let them fly the coop until there’s a general consensus that they are ready to shoulder the responsibilities of a Y-7A in today’s landscape. I can honestly say that I needed every minute of the time that I spent in a trainee capacity and even though I thought I might have been ready earlier, the fact is that I wasn’t. I didn’t know what I didn’t know as the saying goes.
So that leads me back to this cafe in Missoula, Montana. I am here for work, in the capacity of a Y-7A Sound Utility as a member of IATSE Local 695. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn cool. By virtue of me being in the union and having the skills necessary to do the job, someone signed off on flying me to Montana to work on a television show. Shoutout Brian Robinson, the mixer that hired me and who also gave me numerous opportunities a few years ago to day play on his shows and sharpen my skills.
Being a member of 695 has afforded me the opportunity to work on the iconic Star Wars franchise and wire Ewan McGregor without breaking a sweat (OK, maybe a few drops of sweat). I get paid very well to work in Hollywood … quite literally a dream come true. The healthcare afforded me is second to none and allows me to live my life without that nagging fear of something going wrong and not having adequate coverage. For the most part, the people that I’ve met and worked with in 695 have been some of the smartest, kindest, and thoughtful individuals around. Without hyperbole, joining the union has quite literally changed the direction of my life. Prior to being a 695 member, I was a member of the gig-economy, hustling 24/7 to make ends meet and often coming up short. I was constantly stressing about money and unable to focus on the quality of my life.
Suffice it to say that the experiment worked and since joining 695, a more formal Y-16A training program has been implemented with some outstanding results. One of the biggest joys for me is being able to work with trainees and pass on the game that was so generously given to me. I have personally had the pleasure of working with Britney Darrett, Christopher Burr, Yisel Pupo-Calles, and Eric Richardson in a trainee capacity and subsequently watching each of them move onto work on shows as stand-alone Y-7A’s. These are simply the few that I have had direct contact with. There are other success stories and one by one, these individuals are slowly changing the face of our union. Is the program perfect? No … but what in life is? I know, from firsthand experience, that it is shepherded by a group of individuals that are dead serious about creating opportunities in our union for those that otherwise would have an extremely difficult time trying to get in. I’m reminded of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Change takes a long time, but it does happen. The folks involved in the Y-16A training program are not talking about it, they’re being about it.
OK. It’s time to give out some more flowers…Jamie Gambell joined forces with Ben Greaves early on and consistently pitched this idea of a trainee program to the union. Jamie was instrumental in my early development and has consistently given a helping hand to trainees at various stages of their development. Shoutout Scott Bernard and Laurence Abrams for embracing the idea and facilitating a pathway forward. Casey Weiss is quite simply the G.O.A.T. when it comes to the Y-16A training program. Heidi Nakamura and Joe Aredas have consistently shown up and worked tirelessly behind the scenes to create opportunities. What is not lost on me are all of the people along the way that took a chance on me, without them I don’t know that I’m in the position that I am today. So the training program is all well and good but it only works if a mixer sticks their nose out and advocate to their productions for an extra member in the Sound Department. Trainees only graduate to their roles as Y-7A’s if mixers hire them as such. I’m writing this article to provide an example of what good can come out of the Y-16A training program, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The success and growth of the program is contingent upon everyone’s active involvement, starting at the top with mixers but also boom operators and utilities that have the opportunity to work with a trainee and share their knowledge. If any of you find yourselves in that position, I urge you to embrace it with open arms and lead with kindness and patience. I don’t know what else to say, except that I am truly grateful for the position that I am in and for all of the helping hands along the way. You guessed it … more flowers … these folks helped me in various ways along my path … some with their kindness, some with sharing tools of the trade and some giving me a job…Scott Harber, Amanda Beggs, George Flores, Lisa Pinero, Ron Judkins, Jeremy Brill, Ron Hairston, Mike O’Heney, Tim Salmon, Mitchell Gebhard, Alexis Schafer, Sheraton Toyota, Daniel Quintana, Iris Von Hase, Erik Altstadt, and Sol Aponte. Work Union … Live Better!