Over the last five years I’ve had the pleasure of working on many sets in some amazing places with some wonderful people. Some were ultra professional and left me with experiences and knowledge that I can use for the rest of my life. While others, unfortunately, perfectly demonstrated Murphy’s Law. In other words, anything that could go wrong, absolutely went wrong on that set. And trust me, one day you’ll butt heads with Murphy on a filmset, too.
I’ve made my way from the bottom to the top of the film set hierarchy, back to the bottom, to the middle, back to the top and back to the bottom and up again… You need to familiarise yourself with this hierarchy so you know not to over step your bounds and say the wrong thing to the wrong person, or make sure you say the right thing, to the right person.
1.In the words of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson… “Know Your Role and Shut Your Mouth”
I’ve been on set when I’ve been working as DIT, and I’ve thought to myself “I can direct better than this guy” or “This camera Op hasn’t got a clue”. Don’t feel the urge to go and tell people how they should be doing their job, it’ll only make your life worse.
The most important thing about being on a film set is the impression that you make and leave with. If you’re a runner, you want to get called back for a bigger position on a bigger set. If you’re the director, your main goal is to take care of your cast and crew and treat them with the utmost respect so that they will give you their best work.
2. LEARN THE CALL SHEET!
Always have the call sheet to hand. I always have it saved to my phone so I can learn peoples names from a far. You see someone asking if anyone wants a drink… Probably a runner, learn their name. You see someone building the camer… Probably the focus puller or 1st Camera assistant. You see lots of people talking to one person… Producer. Learn the call sheet, and learn the names… You want to make sure you know everyone’s name and more importantly… Everyone knows yours.
3. KEEP CALM
There’s always one hot head on set. Someone who either loses their cool when the pressure hits, or wants to make a name for themselves as a bit of a ball buster. I’ve been on set in the middle of the jungle in Central America with a great crew, and suddenly the pressure got to one member of the crew and he turned into a nightmare, it can happen to the best of us.
You need to be the person that is keeping everyone relaxed, and confident the job will be done, don’t start pointing fingers and blaming different people for the production failing. Be the glue.
Here’s a great video made by some student’s of Biola University.
4. Learn the Lingo
Film terminology is awash with abbreviations, acronyms and bizarre words or phrases of questionable provenance. If you plan on being on a film set in any other capacity than a guest, it will serve you well to spend some time studying this dizzying, and often humorous, lexicon.
Here are a dozen, randomly selected terms that might leave you scratching your head:
1. APPLE BOX — This sturdy, wooden crate can be one of the most useful items on a set. I have seen them serve a number of functions from propping up a diminutive actor for a close-up with his leading lady, to propping up the butt of a weary crewmember. They are also commonly used to raise or level camera and lighting equipment. Two dimensions are standard (20” x 12”) but they come in four different thicknesses. A Full Apple (8”),
Half Apple (4”), Quarter Apple (2”) and an Eighth Apple (1”) also referred to as a Pancake.
2. MOS — These letters are sounded out individually to refer to a take that does not require live sound to be recorded. Legend has it that the great, German director Erich von Stroheim’s English was not good enough to pronounce “without sound” so he said “mit out sound” instead. There are more technical explanations such as “minus optical stripe” or “motor only sync” but the Stroheim legend is more fun so I’m sticking with it.
3. MARTINI SHOT (or simply “Martini”) — This term signals the last shot of the day because “the next shot is in a Martini glass.” An Abby Singer denotes the penultimate shot of the day. Named after the production manager who worked on many famous TV shows, Singer would often call, “last shot of the day” only to have the director ask for more takes.
4. HONEYWAGON — This is a euphemism for the customized trailers that contain bathrooms. A step above the plastic numbers you seen on construction sites but they serve the same purpose.
5. 10–1 — The official walkie-talkie code for when a cast or crewmember needs to use the Honeywagon.
6. C47 — A wooden clothespin. These are used primarily to fasten colored gels and diffusion in front of movie lights. The lights give off immense heat so only wooden clothespins are used. I have seen crewmembers mess with neophyte production assistants by barking out, “Find me a C47 immediately!” The hapless assistant frantically scrambles around the set not knowing if they’re supposed to be looking for an obscure IRS form or a large cargo plane. Usually, others are in the gag too so it can be several minutes before the poor kid is clued in.
7. PLATE — This is a common visual effects term that refers to the main background image in a composited, visual effect shot. It can have actors in it or not, depending on the type of shot. I worked on a film once with a great producer who had done a ton of huge movies, but never a big visual effects film. During a screening of effects shots, we kept referring to various aspects of the “plate.” Suddenly, the producer said, “I don’t see any plates! What the hell are you talking about?” There was an awkward moment of silence as we realized this highly seasoned producer was trying to find dinner plates somewhere on the screen. I bring this up not to knock the producer, who is a great guy and still one of the biggest names in Hollywood. It’s just an example of the depth of film vernacular. Each department has so much unique jargon that sometimes people in other areas don’t even know what’s being discussed.
8. BABY LEGS / HI-HAT — Most people know that cameras are often mounted on a tripod for stability, but sometimes a standard tripod is too tall. That’s when the camera assistant might reach for the Baby Legs, which is just a miniature version. The legs can still telescope to different lengths like a regular tripod but it just starts at a much lower height to begin with. A Hi-Hat is also a very short tripod but it’s fixed at a given height and cannot be adjusted.
9. MAGIC HOUR — The time right after sunset (or before sunrise) when the light in the sky takes on a very “magical” hue. It is usually characterized by a warm, soft glow that is very flattering to actors and scenery alike. Despite the name, it usually lasts only 20–30 minutes but will vary depending on the time of year and latitude of the location.
10. OVERCRANK/UNDERCRANK — This term for Slow/Fast-motion respectively harkens back to the days when film cameras were cranked by hand. It might seem backwards but it has to do with the fact that the final product is always projected at a uniform speed of 24 frames per second (fps). If you undercrank (shoot) at 12 fps and project at 24 fps, the image will appear to move twice as fast. If you overcrank at 48 fps and project at 24 fps, the image will appear to move in slow motion.
11. CALL SHEET — This is the daily “bible” of the production schedule. It is the assistant director’s job to create a single document crammed with the most vital information for the next day’s shoot. It will tell each person associated with the film things like: which scenes are scheduled to shoot, what time each cast and crew member is to report to work, locations, whether extras are needed, special props, transportation and other critical info. Every production exists in a world of organized chaos to some degree. There would be nothing organized about the chaos without the Call Sheet.
12. VIDEO VILLAGE — This is a relatively modern term that came into use with the advent of video monitors. For decades, only the camera operator could actually see what was going on through the lens and everyone else had to wait until the processed film was screened the next day. Monitors allow the director and other key personnel to see exactly what the camera sees in real time as it’s being shot. The term “village” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that this area invariably tends to attract large crowds, including many people who really have no business being there.