On Set Etiquette

What’s the right way to behave on set?

Many people (not filmmakers) wrongly assume that a film set is always an exciting, dynamic place, where artists of equal standing share and contribute to the making of the film as the shooting unfolds. The public often imagine a director calmly chatting with their actors and department heads about the set design, or the lighting, mulling over issues of form and colour, drama and performance. They assume that the shoot is both a creative and democratic process.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Benign Dictatorship

A film shoot is no place for democracy, and there’s often little use for any real artistic creativity either. The film shoot is often a high-pressure, high-tension experience where a team of overworked artisans struggle against time and budget to create the director’s vision on screen. Artisitc creativity has its place in pre-production (scriptwriting, budgeting, scheduling, set and costume design, rehearsals, etc) and post-production (editing, sound mixing, special effects, music, etc), but the shoot itself rarely involves much artistic creativity, unless it be creative decisions about how to deal with the inevitable challenges that arise.

If we were to compare the way a film shoot is run with a form of government, it would not remind us of a democracy, but of a dictatorship – complete with its own pecking order, minions (crew), vice-presidents (department heads), president (the director), and regent (producer – usually invisible to the crew during the shoot unless there is a crisis). Ideally the system should be a good and benign dictatorship, where the crew admire and respect their leaders and where the leaders all get along with each other. Sometimes, however, it becomes a fascist dictatorship, complete with petty power battles and back-stabbing politics. But regardless of the style, the shoot is a dictatorship with a strict hierarchy and many expectations on the crew, and if you want to survive on set you need to know some basic set etiquette.

Arrive Early

Is crew call at 7:00am? Aim to get there at 6:30am. Not only will you get the freshest breakfast, but you can be on hand when that morning’s problems arise, you might be able to chat to crew members you wouldn’t normally be able to talk to, and you can find out where everything is so that you can tell others. Arriving early also impresses the heck out of your department head, the director and the producer. Besides, if you aim to get there early and something delays you, then you’ll still be on time. Never arrive late to a shoot.

Stay Near the Action

Don’t wander away from the set, or from wherever you are meant to be. If you do need to leave, tell those around you where you’re going and hurry back. If your services are needed, you must be there to immediately do your job. On the average shoot with a decent-sized crew, thousands of dollars are being consumed every minute on wages, electricity, etc. Even very low budget films consume hundreds of dollars every minute. If you aren’t there when something goes wrong in your department and another crew member has to search for you for several minutes, then you have wasted the production hundreds if not tens of thousands of dollars while everyone else waits around for you. If this happens more than once, don’t expect to be asked back.

This explains why, if you look around you on set, you’ll often see a quite a few people just standing around apparently doing little. At first this seems a waste of money, but these people are effectively being paid to be on a moment’s call, and they are standing by where they need to be. Of course, you should never appear to be just standing around, even if you really do have nothing to do but stand by in case something goes wrong. Which brings me to the next point…

Always Look Busy

This applies to most jobs really, but particularly to film making. Murphy’s Law tells us that no matter how many hours you have been slaving away, hauling lighting gear or moving props – the moment you sit down for a break is the moment the director or producer walks past and thinks to themselves “Am I paying that schmuck to just sit there all day?“.

I’m not suggesting that you “make work” in a pretense of being busy. What I am suggesting is that, for example, if your feet are killing you don’t just sit down for five minutes for a break, find some task that you can do sitting down (there is always such a task – no matter what department you’re in, something always needs cleaning) and do that instead, as long as it doesn’t take you away from where you are meant to be. The advantage of this approach is that not only are you looking like you’re working, but you are actually doing something useful – and you get to give your feet a longer, guilt-free rest as well.

Don’t Talk to Other Departments

This rule is for crew members trying to solve a problem on the shoot – I’m not suggesting that a little friendly chit-chat during a quiet moment is against the rules.

No matter how illogical this rule seems, you should try very hard not to deal directly with another crew member from a different department when trying to decide on the placement of equipment or props, etc. For example, it may seem reasonable for you, as assistant sound recordist, to have a quiet word with one of the lighting crew about moving a noisy light, but if you do this then your boss and their boss won’t know what you have done. Delays could (will!) ensue when your department heads give conflicting orders – costing the production money. It may seem frustrating, but if you have a suggestion or a problem, speak to your superior about it, who will speak to their superior, who will speak to your department head, who will speak to the other department head. Yes, department heads can speak to each other – that’s part of their job.

Some crews run in a slightly more relaxed manner, allowing senior staff to work things out without consulting their respective department heads first, but the lower down the hierarchy you are, the less useful it is for you to make decisions without approval. It may seem a convoluted and old-fashioned way of doing things, but in the end it works out faster and more efficient, as the confusions caused by crew members acting without the approval of their department heads always ends up causing far more delays than if you follow this rule.

An exception to the above is, of course, safety. If you see a dangerous situation or a crew member at risk then etiquette doesn’t apply!

Follow the Chain of Command

Again, this is almost common sense, but it needs to be said. For example, if you are 3rd Assistant Camera Operator, you don’t waltz up to the Director of Photography and make comments about the scene or ask for details of the next shot setup. No matter how relaxed and democratic your DOP likes to think they are, most of them don’t want the entire camera crew to have direct access to them – as this would mean that they would have to give every direction individually to each member of the camera crew. They may be your boss, but between you and your department head are several other crew members, usually in a strict pecking order, and you would do well to confine yourself to speaking to your immediate supervisor.

Besides, if you’re new to the set then most of your questions are going to seem like dumb ones to your more experienced collegues – better to display your ignorance to your immediate supervisor than to your department head!

Don’t Be a Clock Watcher

You’re either being paid by the hour, or you’re doing it for love. Either way your superiors don’t want to hear you moan if the shoot runs over time. Don’t even let your body language show that you’d rather be somewhere else. Nobody likes to order around unwilling crew members, and if a department head or director thinks that you aren’t keen, then you won’t be asked to work for them the next time (or next day!). If you’re asked if you can keep working an extra two hours, then no matter what you had planned, you lie and immediately say something like “Sure, no problem, what’s the next shot?” After all, if you aren’t keen, why are you there? For the money?

Stay Calm

Sometimes crew members, even experienced department heads, let the pressure of the shoot get to them and they behave irrationally, even unfairly. If you can’t handle stress, or can’t handle it when others take their stress out on you, then you’ve got no place on a film set. If someone angrily bites your head off about something you have or have not done, don’t bite back – rise above it. Stay calm and courteous (even if you are in the right – in fact, especially if you are in the right), and ask them what they want you to do. If it’s your boss or supervisor doing the yelling, then do what they ask quickly and without getting angry or upset. If the angry one is not part of your chain of command, then check with your boss or supervisor before you do anything (no matter how much the angry one yells at you to do it right away – it could be a bluff). If you can weather the storm, it will pass. Moments later the same person could be calm again, and at the wrap party they’ll probably give you a hug! By staying calm in these confrontational situations, you not only prevent yourself from stressing out, but you make yourself look good and the other person look foolish – which is the sweetest revenge…

So, if you want to succeed as a crew member, all you need to do is show up on time, keep busy, follow the hierarchy, and stay calm. Actually, that advice applies to succeeding at just about anything…

Updated: 8 August 2001
Originally written for About.com’s Filmmaking page.