A good film set is like a well-oiled machine. All of the parts must work together for everything to go properly.
Set procedure and etiquette are very important components in keeping the train moving. Here are a few tips that I have picked up along the way. These are primarily geared towards the camera department; however, they should work well for other departments as well.
Ask before touching any other department’s stuff. This includes apple boxes or any other piece of equipment that does not fall under your department’s guise. How would you feel if the grips started grabbing cameras and lenses?
Never, ever run on set. Unless you are the actor or operator in the scene, then there is absolutely no reason to run on a film set. It’s just plain dangerous. Recently on a commercial shoot, a PA was running back and forth to get stuff. After the third time I had to take him aside and explain that there is no running on set. It’ s a recipe for disaster. Walk with a purpose. Don’t run.
Everything goes up the food chain, not down. If you have a concern, voice it to the next person above you in the pecking order. On the Sopranos my camera loader exclaimed in front of David Chase, “We were out of film!” This was simply not the case; we had thousands of feet of short ends and I had to explain to Mr. Chase that we were just fine.
Conversations should be taken off set. If there is something wrong with the gear or anything else, then it should be discussed away from the rest of the crew until a solution can be found.
Do not move equipment while the camera is rolling. Actors are a strange breed and it may only take one instance for them to literally freak out. No names mentioned here.
Stay out of the actors’ eye line at all costs. It only takes one blown take to get you fired. If the actor looks over to you and you make eye contact, it can easily distract them out of their scene. Who do you think will get fired for being unprofessional?
Know where the camera is pointed at all times. You never, ever want to make it in the film, or worse, blow a take.
Count to ten as soon as you get on set. Everything changes in an instant. Take a moment to assess the situation before you open your mouth. It may no longer apply to the shot.
Communication on set is very important. The last voice should be the Director’s; everything else leads up to the words “and action.” Roll sound, roll camera, speed then action. This is a no-fail system and works on most film sets throughout the world.
Leave your baggage at home. Try to keep a positive attitude. There is nothing worse than having to prop up another person all day long. Everyone has something else going on, keep it off the set. Distractions are a danger to you and the rest of the crew.
Use “copy that” and other set vernacular. This is an easy and quick way to communicate. I use it all the time in real life. It is in fact a military term. Try to also use “Yes, Sir” and “No, Ma’am”. Unless noted, this is a respectful way to address both the Client and Talent. While on a still photography tour with Sandy Puc’ they all thought I was joking until they heard the TSA using it. Now, they use it all the time.
Safety first. In most cases all of the established set procedure is about being safe while being efficient. If you feel that something is not safe, then bring it up to the Grip department, not the producer. Be respectful and play well with others. This respect will gain you the trust of the crew and all of the people involved in the shoot.
Jared Abrams is a Cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional motion picture camera assistant, he switched over to still photography. Now he shoots both Motion and Stills. When he is not out in the field, he writes daily for various websites and Blogs. He is also the main force behind the production and design company Wide Open Camera. If it moves, he'll shoot it. Website: http://www.wideopencamera.com/