Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jacqueline Cooper: An Intern Gets Lucky

The thorny topic of unpaid interns is once again on the lips of Hollywood insiders. Two ambitious fellows who worked behind the scenes on last year’s Black Swan, have filed suit against Fox Searchlight for violating minimum wage and overtime laws. This is not exactly the way to earn points in Hollywood: the two interns will definitely never eat lunch in this town again. Still, I can understand the frustration of those who toil long hours for no money and little credit, on behalf of a movie whose glamour never quite seems to rub off on them.

Nonetheless, for aspiring filmmakers who can’t rely on nepotism to help them break into show biz, internships remain a good way to get a foot in the door. I broached the subject with a family friend, Jackie Cooper. Jackie grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, near the famous national laboratories where her father still works as a physicist. She has an older brother who’s a science-type and an older sister who’s an artist-type, so it’s perhaps not surprising that her own interests combine the technical with the creative. Jackie graduated in 2002 from University of California at Santa Cruz with a degree in film and digital media. Nine years later, she’s a visual effects artist (what’s known as a compositor), who has worked her magic on such big-budget films as Tron and Harry Potter. Currently she’s in London toiling on Clash of the Titans 2.

How did it happen? Certainly not because family connections paved the way. I’ll let her describe how she left funky little Santa Cruz for the big bad world of Los Angeles: “When I first arrived I took a job as an unpaid intern for a production company, which was essentially a man with his own screenwriting company looking for interns to ‘teach how to make films.’ My personal belief is that he wanted interns to help him build his new office. The bright side for me was that I learned how to use carpentry equipment and stucco.” Not surprisingly, she soon quit.

“Two weeks after that, I started applying for jobs in the post-production world. I actually thought I wanted to be an editor. A kindly editor named Steve asked me to do my interview at a visual effects studio in Santa Monica, and helped sneak me into a presentation they were giving on visual effects. The first time I saw a walking dinosaur on the screen using 3D, I honestly thought to myself that ‘this is what I want to do with my life.’ I asked to get an internship at that company, and a wonderful woman named Katherine took me in. I worked for her by day, driving around reels of our visual effects house to different production companies around town. It was pretty neat, as I got to go to Disney, Warner Bros., and Sony. . .

“But by night, I would do what they call in VFX “RTFM,” which stands for "read the f!(@#&* manual." till about 3 AM, doing tutorials. After three months, I showed that I was good for something, and I stopped doing the driving and started working on music video projects. After six months they kept me on and started paying me.”

Jackie concedes that she was very lucky. As an unpaid intern, she found bosses who truly were ready to invest in her future. Here, from her demo reel, are the kinds of cool things that now fill her days. (Do check out the rest of her website too.)


  1. Another immersive and fascinating read. How do these unpaid workers manage to live? Do they stay with friends or relatives? I had a chance to move out their on a whim once for a lucrative painting job. The guy (who knew a friend of mine) offered me to stay at his home till I got my own footing, but I thought about it and declined as I wasn't totally comfortable with that arrangement.

  2. How do interns live? Good question. As a mom myself, I know that sometimes we parents find ourselves helping to support our creative kids who are trying to get a foot in the door. I also know there are aspiring film-makers (some of them not so young and with small children of their own to support) who put their families at risk as they try to pursue their dreams. Not a pretty picture, but sometimes it works out.

  3. Wow - she is very talented - and good on her for turning an internship into a paying job. I interned just once while trying to get into production here in Wilmington NC - I was an extra on the Nicolas Cage/Samuel L. Jackson movie Amos & Andrew when they needed me - and the other days of the week I was an unpaid office intern on a PBS movie called Simple Justice about the life of Thurgood Marshall. However, though they were nice - I made no connections from the PBS movie - but got my next job through Amos & Andrew that led to my production assistance on Super Mario Bros - and consequently the rest of my career! Like the old phrase goes - work for free once - MAYBE twice - NEVER three times.