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Is it worth it to work for free when you're building your network? Meet Elena Toccafondi!

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Elena Toccafondi is an independent filmmaker who's honed her craft all over the world. She grew up in Italy, studied in London and recently moved to New York, where she writes, edits and designs sound for short films and documentaries. We caught up with her to learn about what it's been like to build a network and find work in a new city. 

Take it away, Elena!elena_circle.jpeg

Name: Elena Toccafondi

Job: Independent Filmmaker

Started: 2013


How did you create your awesome job?

I have always loved movies, but I never thought I’d end up working in the film industry! 

I studied Political Philosophy at the University of Florence and planned to be a journalist. After graduating, I saw an advertisement for an internship with Italian Public Broadcast Television in New York and sent off a hopeful application. I was so pleased when they offered me the job. For three months I worked as a production assistant, helping out behind the scenes. Then, I landed the same role for a television documentary and some independent short films. 

I discovered that being a self-employed filmmaker gave me more freedom than journalism, so I decided to enroll in a Master's in filmmaking at Goldsmiths University, London.


What was the first project you worked on?

After I got my degree, I really got to put my skills into practice. I worked with a group of classmates on a short film set in Tuscany, producing the film on a very low budget and working on the sound design and edits. It was exciting to have so much responsibility, and a great way to learn about the whole process.


What has been the biggest surprise for you so far as you build your business and your career?

At the beginning, I thought that if I shot lots of good footage, I’d have a great story. The biggest surprise in the filmmaking process is that there are so many pieces to the puzzle. Sound is absolutely crucial, for example. It ties the pictures together, and having bad sound is the quickest way to make a film seem amateurish.

When there are so many elements to consider, working collaboratively and taking feedback is so important. When I wrote my first short film, I had 15 different versions of the script because I listened to everyone. 

I had to learn to be very courageous and that I couldn’t accept every suggestion. I kept an open mind and listened to everyone’s ideas, but eventually had to say "I prefer what I wrote" and go with it. Knowing when to trust my instinct is the key to success.


How do you price your services? Has your pricing evolved with your career?

Pricing always depends on the company and the project I’m working on. At the beginning, I took whatever I could get and didn't focus as much on what I was charging and what my time was worth. 

I have enough experience now to be more selective about the work I take on. If I like a project or if I’m working for a company that I know will give me more work in the future, I’ll work for a lower rate.

Networking is so important in this business. Before I came to New York, I didn’t know anyone in the industry here, so I needed to make contacts fast. Working for free, or for a very low rate, helped me get my name out there.


What does a typical day look like for you?

It depends on what I’m doing! Right now I’m in the post-production stages of a documentary, so I spend my time going through footage and selecting the best bits. Because we shoot in digital, which is less expansive than film, we leave the camera rolling the whole time. This means we have thousands of hours to sort through. I start at 10am and work until at least 7:30pm, reporting into the editor whenever I have a good selection of clips to show him. It’s my job to cut hundreds of hours down to just a few, and then it's his job to cut those few hours down to a few minutes.

Last week, I was working nights because the editor needed to see all the footage when he arrived in the morning. I worked from 7pm until 3am. At first, it was quite romantic – this city never sleeps, as the saying goes! – but it messed up my body clock, so I’m happy to be back on days. The process of sorting through footage will continue for a few months before we’re ready to move on to the next stage.

When working on other projects in the past, my days haven’t followed such a strict pattern. For a film I worked on in the UK, I slept in a tent in the countryside with the crew for two weeks! We worked 14-hour days and only ate when we could find a few spare minutes. 

I enjoy working like this – the success of a film depends on the crew working together in a tight unit, a bit like in the military. Everyone plays their part.


If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when you were starting out?

Getting my career started was challenging. I spent the first two years meeting people and building contacts, but I could have done this more quickly. 

Tapping into social media and using production websites is useful for finding new jobs and I wish I'd realized the importance of these earlier. There are lots of Facebook groups that advertise jobs in film and television. One way to find them is to check the profiles of people in the industry and find the groups they have subscribed to or joined.

I also wish I had kept my LinkedIn profile more up-to-date and built a strong website to showcase my work early on – I didn't do this until recently when I moved to New York and realized quickly that I had to meet people and make a good first impression. 

I refresh my showreel every few months now because it’s important for building my reputation. The filmmaking freelance circuit, even in a big city like New York, is quite small. If I work well, produce good films and promote myself, the word will spread and I’ll get more, better paid jobs.


What would you like to learn today from a network of small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I’m always looking out for new networking opportunities, so if anyone could give me advice on how to find more filmmakers in New York I'd appreciate it!

I’d also like some advice on the practical, business side of freelancing in the U.S. Do I need insurance? If so, what do I need to be insured against? And, does anyone know of a way to make filing a U.S. tax return any easier?


Can you help Elena out?!

Do you have tips for her on how to tackle getting insurance as a self-employed professional or where to start with filing taxes?

Share our own experience below!

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