Paul Skirzky is a go-to grip in Manitoba, but he actually began his career away from film sets — he got much of his experience in theatres around the world. As stage manager, he did five years of global tours with live stage versions of cartoons like Dora the Explorer, Backyardigans, and Max & Ruby.
He was also stage manager for the illusionist Darcy Oake, the Manitoba Opera, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Rainbow Stage, and Folk Fest.
Paul started his career in film and TV on Todd and the Book of Pure Evil. He’s currently living with his wife Patti and his two foster kids. He enjoys watching his kayak champion son compete internationally for team Manitoba and working on as many major productions that come through the province as he can.
Learn more about his career in the interview below!
When and how did you start in the media production industry?
For years I worked in live theatre in many capacities — mainly as a stage manager for operas, musicals, and plays but also as crew member with the IATSE Local 63. Eventually, I began looking to transition into something new that still wasn’t a “real” nine-to-five type job.
I looked to some of my friends who were in the film industry to guide me. They set me up with Film Training Manitoba who in turn helped me get a trainee position on a show.
What area of the film industry do you work in now and why?
I’m a grip. That isn’t just a job title — it is also a personality and a lifestyle. I wanted to work on the technical side as opposed to being something like an assistant director. Even though I was probably more qualified to go down that path, it was also the kind of work that I was trying to get away from.
My stage crew skills and personal interests fit with this technical role very well. I really enjoy having to solve problems at a moment’s notice. It also feels great to be part of a department that the rest of the crew can rely on for help and equipment.
What has been a substantial change in the industry since you started?
Though I haven’t been around for an extraordinarily long time, I’ve certainly witnessed some changes. An example includes the move toward LED and smaller lights. This gives productions more versatility. So instead of bashing in a large 18k light, we can be more surgical with LEDs and tube lights — but it also means we need to be creative about rigging them into more spots and tricky places. It also forces us to create more styles of diffusion and light blocking. So adaptability, ingenuity, and flexibility have had to change and grow along with the improvement of technology.
Tools and standards have also had to evolve to keep up with the kinds of shots new cameras and cranes can make. With remote-control cameras now being able to be placed in many more places and situations, it’s our job to make them safe.
It can be a challenge, but it always feels great to see the smile on the DoP’s face after you get the camera in the perfect spot.
If you could give your past self advice, what would it be?
That’s a hard one to answer. If I had stayed in film 10 years ago when I first started, then I would not have gained so many other skills in the industry that I learned as a stage manager — so I’m actually happy with the way my career has gone. Do I wish I was a bit younger when I started this job? Yes. It’s a very physical job and being in shape is a big help. If there are any changes a younger me could make, it would be to stay active and in the gym. But at 51, I can hold my own with these 25 year old guys just fine, thank you very much!
What advice would you give to someone starting off in the media production industry?
If you don’t know what department you want to work in, try as many as you can. There are no bad departments in film. Every single one presents a challenge and a reward. You’ll find a natural fit, one that feels just right for you. When training, it’s important to watch and listen. There are so many different styles and solutions. Not all are correct by any means so watch the more experienced crew members and ask lots of questions. We want you to succeed too, so we’re more than happy to help.
Why is learning and training important?
I have a few thoughts on this. We tend to think of learning as just studying and reading, but really that’s only 30% of actual learning. Hands-on training, workshops, trainee positions — anything where you’re actually working in real situations, will teach you how a job is done quickly and thoroughly. For grips, it’s very different to tell someone to move some carts up the block in certain situations, it’s entirely different to actually know how hard it can be to move those sandbag-loaded carts.
Attending events, like FTM bootcamps, is invaluable. You have seasoned vets showing very new people not only what the gear is, but also how to set it up properly and efficiently — and WHY it is being used. Learning when and why to use a specific piece of gear is a long learning process. Knowing when a certain stand is a better choice than another make things easier for you and the crew, not to mention safer.
What are some of the films, TV series or even books that have inspired you? How about anything new you’ve been into?
Well from a purely technical viewpoint, films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or anything with multiple car chases are just more fun to watch. 1917 was one I watched purely for the moment where they had that massively long steadicam shot. I’m just starting to work on The Porter which is shooting here and it’s a a piece of Canadian history I knew nothing about. I have multiple books and videos I’m trying to finish before we start filming.
Is there something about you or an interesting past experience that you’d like to share?
For experience: On a recently released film, we had so much fun working with the cast and creating rigs. We had a scene when a character is shot multiple times with a shotgun. I had to create a rig that attached to a dolly at a very fixed distance for the camera.
The performer had to be shot, react, fly backwards, be shot again, react, fly backwards through a set of shelves and onto a chain link fence — all in a steady, fluid and realistic manner. We ended up creating a platform on a track that was attached to and moved with the dolly.
It had a seat, foot bindings, and back support to allow the performer to safely execute the shot. I saw the final product and it worked perfectly.
For me: I worked as an opera stage manager for for almost 20 years. That meant I got to working with artists from all over the world in an amazing art form. But then again I was also a production manager and touring technician for live stage shows of Dora the Explorer, Bubble Guppies, Caillou, and so many more that travelled the globe. I got to help with thousands of live performances so in many venues, cities, and countries in all forms of live entertainment: music, magic, plays, operas, dance, children’s shows, and probably a few I’m forgetting!
Who’s someone within the film industry you’d like to work with and why?
I love all my guys. Of course, the ones who mentored me hold a special place. Bill Mills and Conroy Finnigan have taught me so much and I still learn from them — and get scolded by them! What’s great about the Manitoba film industry is that while we are not a massive film centre we still have an impressive resume full of large films and TV shows.
We’ve worked with all the major producers and distributors. So guys like Bill, Conroy, and others all have stories that are both entertaining, inspiring and yet still great to learn from. Hearing a story about how they had to create a weird one-off look might be just what I needed sometime down the road.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
I assume I’ll be right where I am today. Working in the job I love. Some guys want to key or direct or do their own projects but I really enjoy this level of gripping. Helping my key get the best from his department and create the best shows we can for whoever wants to produce a show here. But if I win the lottery – I’ll be on a beach!