Astrophysics? Don’t You Have to be Smart for That?

Sitting in the Math Lab at school, I was joined by a fellow calculus classmate. The Math Lab is a free tutoring service my college offers where you can do your math homework. If you have a question, you can write your name on a white board, wait your turn, and have a brilliant young student-tutor spend a maximum of five minutes half-assing you through your homework. It’s a band-aid for those of us that don’t yet fully understand the material, allowing us to limp along at least getting through the homework. As my fellow classmate and I chatted about our teacher, she revealed that she has a Bachelors degree in Political Science and that she is now pursuing her Masters degree in Computer Science. She is young and beautiful with notable credentials and a confident demeanor. I deduced that she must be the mysterious one that was getting the only A in our calculus class. I wasn’t sure if I was annoyed by her or impressed by her. When I offered up that I was getting my degree in Astrophysics, as an obviously older student, her immediate response was, “Wow, don’t you have to be smart for that?”

It’s confirmed. I’m annoyed by her.

Before going back to college, I worked in the entertainment industry, a lucrative field that does not require a college degree, especially if you want to work in production. This is simply because production is the most abusive and most life stealing department in all of entertainment. It’s not rocket science. You just have to be excellent under pressure, exceptional with organization and details, a superb communicator, able to take abuse, and willing to give every last bit of your mind, body and soul to the job. You’ll get paid the big bucks, but you’ll also drop dead about 15 years sooner than you would otherwise. I didn’t have a clue about any of this as a naïve kid with dreams of my name in lights. Whatever it took, sign me up. Be careful what you wish for.

The backbone of production is essentially the Line Producer, Production Manager, Production Coordinator and all the Production Assistants on any given project. I’ve played every part. These are the first people there and the last to leave, day in and day out, making their work days a minimum of 14 hours, but more often 16+ hours per day, for weeks and months at a time, with no days off. Once the creative is hashed out among writers, producers and directors, the project is then handed to the Line Producer to make and manage the budget, who then, along with the Production Manager and Production Coordinator, also hires all of the crew, creates a shooting schedule, secures all locations, sources all the equipment, supplies, picture vehicles, crew vehicles, helicopters, casting, props, hotel, flights, hair appointments, restaurant reservations, crew meals… You name it. We schedule it, source it, and execute it. Production oversees and interfaces between all departments, assuring consistent and quality communication, leaving no stone unturned.

Above and beyond all of that, production also handles every last minutia of logistical detail you could ever imagine possible with no room for failure. If Creative decides at the very last minute that they want an Air Force Blue Angels flyover at the precise moment doves are released as 500 people holding flags run by in a choreographed synchronicity as the camera moves in on a 30-foot crane landing on an exact mark as the talent dramatically turns their head in a close up with fans blowing on them making them look windswept while looking into camera saying, “’Merica.” Yep, production makes it happen, all while managing panicking department heads, demanding producers, over-involved network executives, and egos the size of Jupiter. Jupiter, by the way, is the largest planet in our solar system. You can fit 1300 Earths inside of it. Yes, egos like that.

Production is the department that catches all the flack, deflects all the bullshit, never gets thanked, aren’t invited to the premier parties, and after a couple decades, makes you question where you went wrong on choosing this career path, while having just the right amount of madness to part-willingly-part-no-choice continue to do it for a living. It’s the kind of business where you don’t want anyone to know you’re pregnant, don’t want anyone to know you don’t live in Los Angeles anymore, and you don’t want to tell people you are doing anything else accept working job after job to the bone – all because it will affect your hireability for your next gig. This is why the default self-importance part of the job façade permeates the industry. I’m very important. I’m very busy.

Once I made the decision to go back to school, I didn’t care about any of that anymore. Yes, I live in San Diego. Yes, I have a family. Yes, I will charge mileage and will need a hotel. And oh yeah, by the way, I’m a student and will be going to school while I work your job. Cool? No? Ok, best of luck to you. I figured if the job didn’t fit into my life anymore, it wasn’t the right job for me.

This was so incredibly liberating that I was finally able to see things with a new and healthy perspective. Turning down jobs was difficult at first. I was so used to the constant hustle to get work that it felt like I was cutting off my own arm to say no. I soon realized, though, that when I would tell people I work with that I’ve gone back to school to get my degree, they were all supportive and congratulated me on that decision. Every last one of us in this business understands the need to get out eventually; to have something else to show for our hard work; to be able to live a life with more personal fulfillment that doesn’t involve rushing like mad to get a meaningless last minute request for blue Agua Fresca on set as if your life depended on it.

It is only when I tell them my degree will be in Astrophysics that their eyes pop out of their heads in shock. Huh? Like, don’t you have to be smart for that? Yes, as smart as you have to be to successfully navigate making a living in an industry that would leave most sane people crying in a corner, if they weren’t eaten alive first.

Being smart is not just about how many books you’ve read and tests you’ve aced in educational institutions. It’s not about whether math comes to you “naturally” or how easy scientific theories and laws of physics are for you to comprehend. Being smart is recognizing that you have a fire inside of you that you can’t put out. Being smart is understanding people, knowing how to communicate and plan, an ability to focus and analyze, an appetite for learning, a stubbornness to persevere, a will to rise again after every fall, a drive to keep going – especially when it’s hard – and the audacity to not only dream it, but dare to make it real.

The brutal no-mercy mentality of the entertainment industry is what has prepared me for college and for the harsh math and physics knowledge I have to absorb to become, of all things, an Astrophysicist. It most definitely imprinted the mindset in me that I absolutely can make the impossible possible.

Yeah, you have to be smart for that.

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