Creative Lives — How the stress of freelance photography led Erica Von Stein into a dream job in TV production
Despite nurturing a passion for taking photographs, Erica Von Stein made the decision to move into TV due to the “ridiculous payment terms” that freelance photography brings. Turns out, she’s never been happier. Now she researches and writes questions for quiz shows, splitting her time between London and her hometown of Glasgow. Declaring that her love for learning is sated every day and that she’s never met a bad person in TV, Erica explains how the switch to production was one of the best choices she’s ever made. Plus, she still gets to pursue photography on the side. Here, she describes how she entered TV’s orbit, why we need more opportunities for those from low-income backgrounds like herself and how she’s still seeing London with rose-tinted glasses.
Erica Von Stein
Freelance Television Producer
London and Glasgow
Thames TV, Hat Trick Productions, Mighty Productions, Youngest Media, Studio 1
University of West Scotland (2011–2014)
Erica’s photography work for Vogue Italia
How would you describe what you do?
I'm currently working as a freelance television producer. My role tends to vary from job to job, but generally I oversee the production and make behind-the-scenes arrangements. When you watch a television show, every single thing you are watching has been ‘produced’ and I’m behind portions of that. Although I do cast a wide net, I specialise in producing for questions – meaning that I write, verify, fact-check and then compile questions for quiz and game shows. I never have a permanent job, so I join each production on a contractual basis and stick with it until the show has been made, then I move on!
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
There are no set hours in television and you’re never working on the clock. A day typically starts around 9.30am and you work until the work is done. This can mean many late nights, but that’s not always the case – sometimes I’m so focused that I forget the time and it’s 8pm. If you’re working on a studio show, there will be pre-production stages that are office-based. These typically run from around 9am to 6pm, before the making of the show itself moves to the studio.
“I love trivia, learning and knowledge – I’m essentially being paid to educate myself.”
How collaborative is your role?
I don’t find my role that collaborative, particularly if I’m working with questions. I normally have my earphones in from start to finish and just crack on with the work, which I quite like. I’m very easily distracted so I tend to get so much more done when I work alone. That being said, if you work in certain areas of TV, such as casting, you’ll usually have a large team that sticks with each other throughout the whole process – it’s a real team effort.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
That I get to geek out and learn every single day. I love trivia, learning and knowledge – I’m essentially being paid to educate myself. The wages are great, which means I'm able to save, have a really lovely lifestyle with lots of holidays and a nice house – I’m extremely lucky. I’ve also never met a colleague that I haven’t liked in TV; everyone is intelligent, hard-working and on the same wavelength. I don’t have a bad thing to say about it. I don’t think I particularly have a good life-work balance but that’s only because I love working, even if I’m off for a week I’ll find myself completely lost.
Erica’s photography work for Vogue Italia
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Research and communication are the top skills required to do the job. If you’re working with contributors who don’t have a clue what’s going on, it’s important to take care of them and ensure everyone is supported and to make it an enjoyable experience.
What do you like about working in both Glasgow and London?
I’ve been living in west London for one year, prior to this I lived in Glasgow where I grew up and lived for 27 years. I love Scotland but the change has been refreshing for me. I’m still in the honeymoon phase of London life, so I definitely am still seeing through rose-tinted glasses. Things like commuting haven’t started bothering me yet!
“We definitely need more opportunities for people who can’t afford internships to kickstart their careers.”
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
Although I wasn’t able to make it as a freelance photographer due to ridiculous payment terms and stress, I have never fallen out of love with the craft. I still try to fit in as many shoots as possible and I always have something on the go. I’ve been working on an ongoing project called Normal, which is just hundreds of anonymous naked bodies. It’s a project that shows all types of bodies and that every body is normal. As I started to overcome my own insecurities with my own, I felt it necessary to help others do the same.
Erica's photography work
Erica's photography work
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
When I was growing up I didn’t have a clue, I just wanted to have fun. It took me until I was 24 to really start taking an interest in television work, and from then onwards it was clear where my career was heading. I think there’s so much pressure on people to know what they want to do from a young age, especially when leaving school and going to university straight away at just 16–18 years old. This is why so many people end up with a degree that they don’t use. They come out of school and just pick anything to study, without having the time to figure out what they’re good at or what they like.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I come from nothing. I was brought up in a single parent household in a very working-class area. My school was eighth from the bottom in the list of worst schools in the UK, and I am so lucky that I managed to push through financial struggles and make a career for myself – so many people from similar backgrounds haven’t been able to, and it’s not for lack of brains or a lack of trying. I was very lucky to get help and funding opportunities that boosted me along the way. We definitely need more opportunities for people who can’t afford internships to kickstart their careers.
How useful have your studies been in your career?
I can’t fault my university at all – it was great, but my job requires no education and all experience. I do think I could have climbed the ladder much quicker had I not wasted four or five years studying.
Erica’s photography work for Vogue Italia and Drop Dead Clothing ’17
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I worked in a nightclub, call centres, banks and made Subway sandwiches. I managed a photography studio and I was a wedding photographer. I tried every job and never felt settled. I got my first creative job at a company called GMAC Film as an online content developer, this entailed creating footage for the company website, social channels and running events. The director of GMAC Film, Beth Armstrong, completely changed my life. Towards the end of my contract at GMAC Film, Beth informed me of a programme she was project managing called FIND Scotland – an initiative to help all-sorts of underrepresented groups get into the TV industry.
My socio-economic background meant that I qualified for the programme and it changed everything. I was invited along to a bootcamp, where myself and others were given a one week course with masterclasses in all aspects of the industry. I was also given £1000 to create a short film with my good friend, Hollyoaks writer David Shields. After this, I was assigned a six-month internship at IWC Media in Glasgow where I worked on Location Location Location and loved it. I’ve worked in television ever since. I don’t think I’d be where I am now if Beth hadn’t seen my potential and pushed me to keep going.
What made you switch from freelancing to TV production?
Technically I am still freelance, but TV work is a different kind of freelance – it’s PAYE and processed like any other regular wage, so you know which day of the month you’ll be getting paid. Photography was different: I recently had to threaten a magazine with legal action because I did a job for them in January and they didn’t pay me until June and, to be honest, if I hadn’t threatened them, I don’t think they had any intention of paying me at all. This is no way of life, it’s stressful – you end up in debt and having to ‘repay’ yourself. It’s just horrible. I’ll always do photography work as well, but I wouldn’t allow any company to treat me in that way again.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Channel 4 does excellent training schemes. Be humble, know that at the beginning you may just be making tea, but these efforts won’t go unrecognised. If you put in the effort, you’ll get it right back.
Do your research, really think about the type of show you’d want to work on and find out who makes those shows – then get the producer’s name and send personalised emails explaining why you want to work there and why your skills are right for that production. Don’t send blanket emails to lots of different companies, everyone can see through it and they’ll be immediately deleted. The TV industry in the UK is really small, so if you get a reputation for something like that, people will talk and you’ll ruin it for yourself. Good places to start are runner jobs, production assistants, office runners or researchers.