“I was working on this one movie, and it was just stupid,” said my classmate in video production once, “I was a PA and I saw this stand set aside with a gel on it, not being used at all in the scene, and I made a move to pick it up and maybe put it away, but the 2nd Assistant Director stopped me and told me not to touch it! I mean, there it was lying on the ground, and I was standing by doing nothing, and I couldn’t even pick it up because of the inefficient heirarchy of this Hollywood production. No wonder these movies cost so much!”
Film sets are bewildering places to people who do not have experience navigating the various interests, roles, and responsibilities of the different departments, and for a beginner’s or outsider’s view, tend to lean towards the chaotic and inefficient in affect, often causing early interest in a filmmaking career to rapidly fade as everything the beginner is confronted with just doesn’t make any sense and OBVIOUSLY is the product of an over-engorged Hollywood decadence. However, anybody who has actually worked grip looks at the sentiment of above and thinks, “You damn well better not touch that gel! Do you know how much time could have been wasted finding it?!” Whether working on an independent film or mainstream one, low budget off of free labor or union shoot worth millions of dollars, time is money, and absolutely no department wants to be the one included in the phrase, “Waiting for ____!” If any department consistently is the one holding up the production, for instance let’s say grip, so that “Waiting for grip!” becomes a commonly heard phrase on that particular show, eventually the director or the producer is going to have a word with that department’s head, known as the key, about how much money that department is costing the production.
Despite people’s beliefs to the contrary, Hollywood studios do not like spending money. If a production actually survives the development and pre-production phase and people are hired and moved into actual shooting, it is the job of every person on the set to ensure a smooth and efficient production, which usually involves sticking close to your own department and ensuring that they are ready to go and prepared for any upcoming changes or problems that can occur. Many independent or independent-minded filmmakers look at these divisions and hierarchies and think to themselves, “This is absurd, everybody should be allowed to do everything!” Well, collaboration is nice but it has been organized for a reason.
NOW, that is not to say that the independent production or filmmaker has to follow that production model or even agree with it. However, understanding that model is both key to understanding the industry, and helpful in deciding how to create a workable alternative model. Your production may only include five people who are doing every department’s work together, but even then understanding the roles credited in a big budget production allows the independent filmmaker to know what jobs need to get done. In fact, it can even help in delegating tasks to individual helpers on the film so that the collaboration can move more smoothly for everyone, which is the point of that model anyway.
Getting back to the example that opens this sentiment, if my classmate had broken down that stand in the middle of a big shoot and the grips were later wanting to use it or the gel on it, since nobody in the grip department broke it down, none of them know where it is. Since they’re the ones responsible for it, they will not and do not have the time to ask everyone in a production full of dozens upon dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of people who was the last to touch it. And if they weren’t breaking it down in the first place, they were probably very busy doing something else, or holding it aside for use in a later shot. Since my classmate wasn’t working grip department, she did not know why the stand was there. Her complaints about not having anything to do herself means she should “have eyes on the key” and be waiting for the next task, or looking for anything within her own department that she should be doing. In this instance, she was a Production Assistant (PA), which means she should be asking that very 2nd Assistant Director that chewed her out how she can help.
This is why it is commonly recommended to noobs in the film industry to start with independent or small productions in the first place, because those productions are in fact more loosely organized and allow a bit more room and collaboration between departments, while integrating the beginner’s experiences into this production model so that they know how to achieve maximum usefulness in bigger productions. The problem with the film industry, and this goes for Hollywood, independent, foreign, and experimental productions all in kind, is that learning the craft is mostly trial and error, but even simple errors can end careers early. This is the cause of admittedly unneeded stress, but is again another reason why understanding the departments and their roles is of utmost importance for anyone looking to get into the industry.
As always, however, I am writing this with the idea in mind that the readers want to direct and create their own productions, not work on others. It is important to remember, however, that there are thousands of jobs in the film industry, but very few of them are director’s positions. There is usually only one director on a production of a couple hundred people, and this goes for any type of filmmaking whether you’re opposed to the Hollywood model or not. I also think antagonism to the Hollywood model of production is overstated and counter-productive in cases where filmmakers’ frustrations and misunderstandings from brief bad experiences come to stand in metonymically for the entire system as a whole; furthermore, the auteur theory being as amazingly useful as it is for arguing film as art and filmmaker as artist also has a bad tendency to poison people’s minds and make them forget that in many cases, the director is simply middle management between the producer and the set. Hate to break it to the romanticists out there, but even those revolutionary counter-culture arthouse directors from the underground typically have some shadow of the mainstream production mode in place to ensure the movie actually gets done. And in the end, always remember that a movie is hard work whether you’re the only one working on it to passionately create unique expressions or you are commanding a big budget set for escapist entertainment. That hard work is reflected on every level of the heirarchy, and as a director, no matter what image you are trying to put on screen, It Is Your JOB to keep your sets organized and efficient. This is why Michael Bay can make whatever he wants, and Terry Gilliam cannot have nice things. Sorry.
Again, however, for beginners and learners, the production model is most useful in knowing what jobs need to get done, and how to credit your friends’ hard work at no pay when they helped you create that zombie movie in your backyard, or that aspiring actress from CraigsList who also helped hold up a bounce board when you were shooting a reverse shot of her co-actor love interest. Know what all needs to get done, and what it’s called, and you will be prepared both to create your own unique vision and also collaborate on others.
And understanding is the key to peace between tribes.
I have organized these departments roughly from the top. I’d rather organize them from most to least important, but I think people would find it weird if I started right off talking about the magnificence and underappreciated genius of the catering folks long before I started explaining directors (spoiler: YOU may be a starving artist, but your crew is not so interested in sacrifice for your vision, so feed them OR FAIL).
Alas, from the top:
PRODUCTION OFFICE DEPARTMENT
A terrifying number of people want to get into filmmaking to avoid office jobs and the soul-sucking “9 to 5”. They don’t realize that working on a set is more exhausting than a 40 hour a week cubical job, and almost always takes more than 40 hours a week, too. So if you love WATCHING movies, making movies, you have to understand, will significantly cut into that time. Meanwhile, those avoiding the office jobs and their prerequisite internships may be shocked to find out that, lo and behold, the film industry has them too. And they are important. So if you’re finding yourself making copies as an intern to some office building and dreaming of the movie life, realize that what you should probably be doing is making copies as an intern to a production office and thus being IN the movie life. Only it’s the exact same task, because guess what? Moviemaking is work.
The production office is the infrastructure that supports a production outside of the set itself. It is the first place a production begins in a studio movie, and is created as a place for the production to officially “exist” as a recognized business for independent shoots. You see on some movies the following: Buena Vista presents (distributor), in accordance with Disney productions (studio), a Weird Guy production (production company) of, a This Guy film (director), Presented by (producer). The “Weird Guy Productions” is the production company, such Tarantino’s A Band Apart or Joel Silver’s Silver Productions, that is the office that the movie works out of. In the case of independent features created outside of the studio model, the production company typically has to open a “LLC” and rent out office space to be recognized as a business in the area it’s shooting in, and is the place where all the deals that go behind getting a movie together get made. Realize that when you’re opening up a “production company”, like many people say they’re doing, you’re opening up an office job for yourself that you then have to use to find work—most people think they’re creating a production crew that goes out and makes awesome movies together for money! This is not the case.
Many independent movies do not have a production company. The production itself counts as a temporary business that is often created as the LLC that rents the space temporarily. Thus, “This Movie is Going to Be Great!” has an office literally called “This Movie is Going to Be Great! Productions, LLC.” that gets painted on that frosted glass for the month or so the production takes up that office space and is registered with the city, county, state, whathaveyou as a legitimate and legal business with a paper trail and employees getting paid taxable income. Oh yes, as your films become bigger, your productions will have these. So much for escaping the frustration of a broken printer—even Office Space had people doing the very work represented in the movie to get the movie done.
Executive Producer: The executive producer is known as “The Money” in set-lingo, and that is simply because it is the person or people who writes the checks. In a studio system this can typically be a hired office executive with his own team of accountants, marketers, and whathaveyou to bring on board and manage a productions’ finances, but executive producers can also be interested philanthropists donating to what they feel is a deserving script, businessmen looking to run a risky but high yield investment, or even a grant or loan given by a board, all of which must be duly credited. That is why you’re amazing independent and underground arthouse experimental movies that stand up first hand to the evil corporate machine start out with, “The Art Board of Canada presents” instead of “The Weinstein Company presents”, because The Money came from somewhere. BUT, if you’re paying for this right out of your own pocket, congratulations, you’re the executive producer.
Executive producers are much maligned for interfering with the infinite visions of the director, but on the other hand, they’re the hand that feeds. Yes, many executive producers ARE, in fact, in it for the money. Afterall, if they wanted to create art, they’d probably direct it themselves.
Producer : The producer is the person in charge of the production. No, not the director—he’s in charge of the production of the image , not the production itself. The producer can be middle management between the executive producer’s money and the director’s vision, or the producer could have a vision himself that he has hired the director for, or the producer sometimes is even hired by the director to make sure the production is running smoothly while the director is busy on set. This last part is the most important: maligned or not, interfering or not, the producer’s job is make sure the production actually happens, and in accordance with its schedule and budget. If you do not have a producer, you do not have a production to direct, because the producer is the one making the phonecalls and getting the deals that insure that that location is available for you to shoot with permission, that set is rented from the production facility, these people arrive when they should to help out, and that money that was set aside for buying more lights actually resulted in more lights.
If you are the person who has pulled together everyone and everything so that they are all in the same place, ready to shoot a movie, what you have done is producing, not directing. Give yourself that credit too. If you need help from someone else to get these things together while you focus on the imagery you want to shoot, that someone else is the producer. Do not assume producers are merely executive lackeys with a dead-set need to fuck with you and get in the way of your vision—at worst, they represent an investment in a product that they are pulling together and want to see actually exist and yield, and that sort of stuff should be paid attention to when signing a contract to make a movie (or writing one, which is something more wannabe independent filmmakers really need to learn how to do).
Associate Producer : Sometimes this represents an actual associate of the producer, perhaps someone who manages the money side of the production with all of its accountants and assets while the producer focuses on the logistics, or so on. Sometimes this is really an enhanced “thank you” credit for someone without whos hard work the movie would never have been made, but was so behind the scenes as to warrant no direct credit. Sometimes it’s just kissing ass to someone who it mutually benefits the production to kiss ass to. Whichever the case, that is where you put the Associate Producer tag.
There are other equally as strange words for other producers like Associate Producers. Generally these represent the varying roles and deals people do that are not strictly defined to any specific part of the production, but supports them in some way. Another way Associate Producers appear, actually, is when making a contract exceptional to the generic contract for the rest of production. For instance, if you are hiring an ensemble cast of actors at a regular set wage, but you happen to score a big-name actor who wants more money individually for the production than the other actors are getting despite the already decided-upon and contractually-obligated rate all actors are supposed to get, the actor can sign an “Associate Producer” contract that gives him or her royalties, or a percentage of initial earnings, or whatever. This may sound like something only Hollywood would come up with, but it’s how Donnie Darko got made with Drew Barrymore’s involvement.
Unit Production Manager (UPM), AKA Line Producer: Okay, this is where it gets important because this is what most beginners don’t know. Behind almost all productions there is a production office, and this office is separate from that blank semiotically deficit space most people imagine executive producers reside in while they stroke their Snidely Whiplash mustaches and count their blood money. Production offices are typically a unit or wing of the studio for entirely stuido produced films, but in the case of individual and especially independent productions, these are temporary offices or buildings rented out by a uniquely created LLC to create the infrastructure to support the production itself. When you actually do find a phone number to call to get in touch with a production to try to get a job, that number connects to a phone in the production office. The UPM is the manager of that entire office.
The UPM is the one that gets the call from the Producer saying, “We need this, NOW.” and then orders all of his Assistants to make calls to get it, calls the accountant to get the funds to afford it, pulls out the paperwork to make the deal, and organizes the POs (purchase orders) to track the receipts. The UPM is the one that draws up the paperwork for a new hire, holds all of the files for every extra used in whichever scene for when the 2nd Assistant Producer needs to blackspot one, and knows the name and number of every hotel the actors are staying in and exactly what care package to send them upon arrival to make them feel welcome.
The UPM is probably the most important least known person to beginning filmmakers who do not know what they are doing, and basically is the person who assures that while the director is on set and the producer is staving off greedy execs, that the production is still operating in the real world where people live and needs are required to be met.
Accountant: Where there’s money, there’s accountants. This guy usually has an office next to the UPM’s where the petty cash is held, and is the one who is the unknown voice behind the producer when the producer looks the director in the eyes and says, “That costs too much.”
Production Office : Having no real specific title, these are the dudes that run paperwork, write contracts, make calls, and generally get shit done for the UPM. They are usually listed in block text in credits, if at all. They are the people you meet in bars who work in the industry and know everyone but have no real power and have never touched a camera. They are to be respected for the work they do, not looked down on for not being the magnificent and obviously amazing artist you are. They are generally cool people who deserve a cool brew after a hard day’s work because they helped your vision come to life without being very visible, and whereas you joined this industry to avoid 9 to 5 jobs, they work 9 to 5 jobs that actually last from 6am to midnight, 7 days a week.
Production Office Assistants : Gophers. Typically unpaid, mostly known as “interns”, these are the guys making coffee, copies, and friends while expending their own time and energy to make sure everybody in the production office is happy. They rarely get to see the set and rarely get to see the important and powerful people, but dream themselves of one day making it big. At least shake their hands and pay for their gas if they are doing errands for when the ink runs out on the printer after the eleven-hundredth script change that they’ll, inevitably, be the ones that have to organize and dispense to the producers and keys.
Conclusion: productions need logistics, after they achieve that certain size at which they become a legitimate business with workers getting paid in more than food and alcohol, and must be supported by paperwork and producers. Again, it is more than possible for the savvy independent/experimental filmmaker to find workarounds to get this stuff done, but usually at the expense of his or her own mental health and usually for the purposes of small productions with a very tight-knit group of filmmakers making usually short films or feature length films over a long, long time of dedicated weekends and evenings. Robert Rodriguez on El Mariachi probably did not have a production office, but you can bet your ass he had a good one operating for Desperado .
SET PRODUCTION DEPARTMENT
Lights! Camera! Action! Who sez that?
Actually, not the director. By the way. So if you’re looking to be a director, don’t practice saying that in the mirror. Rather, pay attention to the roles described here and how to manage a set to ensure a production gets done.
Most of the roles detailed below belong to the Directors Guild of America union for studio productions.
Director : Let’s be very clear here. The director, whether he’s the director for hire from the studio or the original visionary behind the movie, is there to make the image that appears on screen, the thing the audience will actually see. That is his responsibility and the responsibility of the crew under the director is directly related to getting that image on screen. No work anyone should be doing on set should be for anything but either getting that shot, or making sure the people who are getting that shot have the correct tools and comfort to do it safely and efficiently.
The auteur theory is very inspiring for the argument of film as art and filmmaker as artist, but has had a somewhat poisonous effect on people’s perceptions of what the director is actually supposed to do. In most cases, yes, even with your beloved foreign filmmakers, the director is middle management between the producer and the set, the same way the producer is middle management between the studio and the set. The director has a job, and that job is to make the choices necessary to getting the shot on screen, and what shot that will be, precisely. The director has to communicate the shots accordingly to his crew, and has to know what everyone else in the crew is doing so that he can comfortably rely on their collaboration and communicate his needs.
To put it more soberly, though ways to direct a movie are as numerous as there are directors, few directors actually touch the camera, move a light, hear the sound being recorded, or even see the blocking. At the most removed, a director can simply call a generic shot (“Okay, let’s move on”) while the cinematographer (see below) actually blocks them and decides how they look, and makes sure the actors hit their mark and spit their lines correctly. At the most engaged, a director may try to directly collaborate with every key on his set and many other of his crew, but rarely can he speak directly to everyone. The average middle ground that I’ve seen is that the director talks to four people: the producer, the director of photography, the actors, and the production designer (see below).
And the director doesn’t say “Action.” The Assistant Director does.
Assistant Director (AD) : This is the set manager, the person whose primary task is to make sure the entire set is running smoothly and efficiently. The director is busy directing the action and calling the shots, the Assistant Producer is the one managing the set and making sure everyone is quiet when sound rolls, that the production is moving forward in accordance to the daily schedule submitted by the production office, and settling disputes between departments. Assistant Directors probably have the single most stressful job in the industry as they are the ones simultaneously trying to ensure the director’s work goes as he wishes through the crew, while also ensuring that damned perfectionist stays on schedule and doesn’t start another umpteenth take of a pick-up shot when it’s time to go to lunch and the crew is seriously considering cannibalism on that director’s fat ass.
Again, it’s all romantic to imagine yourself as Stanley Kubrick, but you’re more likely to be Stanley Kubrick’s AD. And that guy is probably sitting in a padded room somewhere, twitching, mumbling, “Take number 35, take number 35, he wants a take number 35, why does he want a 35th take, why god why?”
Second Assistant Director (2nd AD) : This is the AD’s primary underling, responsible for controlling the set anywhere the AD’s reach is just simply not wide enough to encompass. This means being at the launch site for the helicoptor to direct it to take off when it is time for it to go and fly into frame in the Vietnam War movie, or getting ready to release all the extras when that crowded high school hallway scene is supposed to be shot, or telling the special effects crew when to set the smoke off before a take begins.
Note that there are typically multiple 2nd ADs, but there are no “3rd ADs”. Rather, there are “2nd 2nd ADs”, or “3rd 2nd ADs”, which means that they are all, basically, 2nd ADs, just set to different tasks in the management of the set. 2nd 2nds, for instance, are almost always the poor souls who have to keep the damned extras from attempting to even talk, much less get signatures, from the “talent” (the actors, by the way. See below) or the crew.
Script Supervisor : This is, basically, the person in control of the shotlist, most updated script breakdown (I should really discuss that here but do not have space; perhaps some later 30MFS….), or storyboards, and is the person who keeps track of every take and every shot to make sure they are recorded and organized. The script supervisor often is asked by the director or AD if anything has been missed, what take it was that this or that happened, and asked by other department keys what shots are coming up so that they can prepare in advance. It is also a very stressful job as the script supervisor essentially has to pay attention to absolutely everything and record it. It’s like the court stenographer, without the simplicity of a court setting or organization of single voices speaking at once.
Production Assistants (PAs) : Gophers. Typically not paid, typically uncredited. Yes, these are the guys that grab the coffee. They are also not to be abused. Production Assistants live for the dream of having to step up to a job when another person is found failing, or a role wasn’t previously planned for and considered, and thus the PAs new career begins. PAs should typically be doing one of two things: getting that task asked of them done immediately, or staying the hell out of the way.
Conclusion: In any department of any production, there is a heirarchy. This heirarchy is established to ensure that nobody gets bothered needlessly for things they cannot control, and that everyone does their part. A PA should ask questions or bring up problems only to a 2nd AD or AD, depending on the size of a production. A 2nd AD in almost all cases reports directly to the AD and shouldn’t be talking to the director. An AD should bring up questions only to department keys, the director, or sometimes the producer. On looser and more independent sets, obviously these roles are not so strict. On multimillion dollar sets, a PA can get fired for tapping a director on the shoulder to give him his coffee.
“Eyes on the ____” is a phrase typically said on set for two reasons. It is the initial instruction of every noob to follow to ensure that he or she doesn’t end up getting fired, and then while the production is happening it means “pay attention to this guy” and should be responded to with, “I see _____”. When you are inevitably hired as a PA, you should always have your eyes on your immediate supervisor/boss/department superior. When people other than that boss try to talk to you, always position yourself so that you can see your immediate superior for when he or she needs you.
Before I continue, a message about mise-en-scene: the phrase “the auteur controls the mise-en-scene” has little to no practical use in real life. Mise-en-scene, another French film theory term, applies to what the director, camera department, talent, choreographer, and production designers ALL have to do, and all are involved creatively in this. I’m sorry to be pounding this point in, but as someone who has learned cinema around people with such terms as “auteur” and “mise-en-scene” AND worked around people with a logical bias against people who use those terms, it’s really important to me that aspiring filmmakers and film industry workers understand that everyone on a set is creative, everyone is solving problems, and most of that theory, though interesting and engaging to intellect, is bullpucky. That said, as someone who has learned cinema around it I also push the same criticism towards those who work in the industry without any appreciation for the art and creativity behind it. Filmmakers need to learn more theory and film theorists need to learn more technical skills. My personal interest is in bridging these lines, creating theorist-producers who actually make as well as state. I do not appreciate theorists’ disregard for the workaday life of a typical studio movie set just as much as I do not appreciate a studio producer’s disregard for people who really do want to create a beautiful and endearing product for them.
So whereas mise-en-scene is a good way of analyzing or deconstructing a movie, it has next to zero practical application on a movie set. Unlearn it quickly if you want to work.
So, the director doesn’t yell “Action”, the AD does. He may say “Camera!” but really what is more common is, “Are you ready?” to the DP, who then looks to the AD and nods, at which point the AD calls out “Roll camera!” and the camera operators respond, finally saying “Rolling” at which point the AD repeats “rolling” to the director, the director nods, and the AD says, “And—-ACTION!” It’s very exciting.
Well so where is the director’s control over the actual camera in all that? Through the camera department. Guess what—director’s decide the shots, but typically don’t compose them. That roll, so important to what is seen on screen, goes to the
Director of Photography (AKA DP, AKA Cinematographer) : This is the key of the camera department, who is responsible for directing the camera operators where to shoot and what the shot is going to be, working with the grip department to ensure correct lighting, and taking commands from the director on what the shot is supposed to look like, if not downright deciding the blocking himself. The director is the one who wants “a close-up shot of the action”. The DP is the one who says, “Okay, we need a wide lens and the following set-up and extremely shallow depth of field” while the director wanders off and starts bugging the actors about their performance and the art director about everything else that needs to be in or out of frame at that precise moment. The DP is responsible how the movie “looks” in terms of how it is blocked and composed, as opposed to its production design or performative aspects.
Camera Operator (CO) : This is the craftsman himself, the person who uses the camera-as-tool to record the image. The CO is the reason why directors seldomly actually touch the camera, instead typically referring to a monitor and the DP for compositional needs. The actual camera itself sometimes needs many operators, especially in the case of a film camera. Nowadays it is customary for there to be one CO per video camera, but back in the day there were MANY, and followed their own heirarchy. For clarity’s sake, I’ll mention some of the bigger ones that can still exist in various similar roles in these days of digital cinema. So for the most basic of all encompassing definitions, the CO is the guy who presses the record button and makes sure the camera is rolling when the action is taking place.
Assistant Camera Operator : Pretty obvious, the guy who makes sure the camera is working so that the CO can roll it, is usually responsible for changing out the lenses and rigging the camera wherever it needs to go, and making sure the CO’s task is smooth and uncomplicated. Also includes the guy who mounts the monitor in digital cameras.
Camera Loader : Pretty much solely for film, this is the guy that loads the film into the camera, which is a much more complicated task that takes more care than you would initially think. As well as loading, the Loader has to unload without “flashing” the film (and thus losing ALL of that hard work), which is a delicate task. In the case of digital media and tape or cards, typically the loader is actually the Assistant CO, CO, or just a camera department PA who is instructed to “grab me a tape—-a-and an extra brick! Thank you!”
Focus Puller : The guy that measures the distance the camera is from the action so that the focus is set perfectly. Also not typically used anymore, as his job has been replaced by the Focus Zoom function on the camera itself.
Clapper/Slate : “Scene 21b take 3 click!” Yeah, that guy. He works with the script supervisor to ensure every take is marked, but also with the CO to make sure every shot is slated. Slated shots are organized shots, and become essential for post-production after a while. Theseadays slates are actually becoming more high tech than less, including synced timecodes for ALL cameras and digital displays, so that instead of being that overenthusiastic clapper of moviemaking yore, the boy actually has some dedicated work to do!
Camera Production Assistants : There are many types. Here are some of them:
- Film cameras needed these light meters that helped the DP and CO know exactly what f-stop they should set their iris to. Again, this job has been taken over by the camera itself, which can now be represented by a luminescence map or zebralines in a monitor. However, occassionally someone is needed to measure the amount of light in a room, and that falls on a PA.
- Cameras have all sorts of attachments that sometimes need supervision, construction, or putting away. PAs are there to help.
- Cameramen need water too, especially after holding that thing up for a while. Other gopher jobs. Yes, you can get hired specifically as a Camera Department PA instead of just a Production Unit PA or a Production Office PA. That is why, if you’ve ever been a PA, and you tell a potential employer, “Well I’ve been a PA”, your look of confusion when they say, “Great, for what department?” is typically a bad thing.
Also, Steadicam Operator : Yes, this is a separate role, and some people get jobs solely as Steadicam Operators. Steadicam Operators essentially become DP, CO, and all levels of Assistant Cameramen solely and individually at once. A surprising amount of faith has to be placed on a Steadicam Operator, as well as weight, so that when you’re rewatching The Protector and see that one scene that goes all the way up the stairs in one take, realize that the praise doesn’t go to Tony Jaa or the director for your amazement, but to the guy who continually ran 50 or more pounds of weight constantly for multiple takes of several minutes long.
Camera Department is IATSE union work for studio productions, but the DP might have a separate union or calling card through which to get hired. That’s the purpose of those initials after his name in the credits.
This section is relatively simple, but in the interest of explaining screen credits and how they operate (both for when you decide how to do them and so that you understand them when you see them), a few clarifications:
Lead Actor : Typically a story has a protagonist. This is the person who plays that protagonist. The cases of multiple protagonists is called “an ensemble cast.” This is why the guy and the girl in a romantic comedy is considered as one of them being a lead actor, and the other a supporting actor—technically, it should refer to whichever character is the one who most drives the action. Unfortunately, this usually means the male. By all means, change that trend if you please.
Lead Actors get top billing in opening credits and in closing credits where “by appearance” doesn’t apply.
Supporting Actor : Love interests, baddies, friends, and sidekicks. Get second highest billing and are typically all included in opening sequences, definitely included in closing credits.
Other supporting actors get billed in closing credits but not in opening credits, basically signifying that their characters were not considered significant to the primary narrative arc and they really support the world the movie is set in as opposed to the course the drama takes. If they get credit in opening titles, it’s usually “with” or “also featuring” or so on.
“Introducing” : means the actor’s first billed role. This means the actor is doing his or her first lead, or front billed supporting, role. Actors with long histories in front of cameras can still be “Introduced” if it is their first front billed role, but typically this goes to children or new discoveries.
Cameo : a recognizable face included in the movie for the audience’s own enjoyment or the production’s own gratitude. Directors tend to cameo other directors for fun, and comedies tend to cameo popular celebrities as a joke. Sometimes cameos are significant in that the placing of that personage into the movie decides the tone or meaning of it (putting Woody Allen, for instance, in a movie would have a different effect than putting Roman Polanski, yet both could be useful in a movie that controversially takes on pedophilia).
Stand-in : If you want to be an actor, oftentimes you get to that point by being a stand-in. Stand-ins are actually very important for a production but of course are never seen on screen and don’t do a whole lot of work, so are somewhat underrepresented. Basically, a stand-in hits an actors mark during the composing of a scene so that the director, camera crew, and lighting crew can all know how their work is going to affect the actual actor on screen, while the actor is off getting makeup ready or rehearsing a scene or memorizing lines or just being a prima donna or whatever. They should at least have the general build and skin tone, maybe even hair, as the actor. Being a stand-in is a relatively thankless job, but it’s a surprisingly great way to learn acting (in terms of composure and hitting marks) and learning blocking (in terms of knowing where to put actors when you are directing yourself). Stand-ins also live a dream where the actor they stand-in for dies and the production cannot afford to hire anyone new, so asks the stand-in to step up to the plate. This rarely, if ever, happens, but hey, nothings stopping dreaming as long as you’re paying attention to your marks. Stand ins are either credited as a separate block of text, or occassionally do so well that they get “Stand in for Mr./Mrs.” credits, which is high praise indeed!
Stunts : Insane people with death wishes who hurt themselves for a living to make ART. Stunts are any actor who takes a fall for a production, but of course stunt doubles are supposed to look vaguely like the actors they stand in for (but they are not stand-ins). Stuntspeople rarely become “real” actors but damn, I don’t know a person who doesn’t appreciate their hard work. They are credited separately from the rest of the cast in the credits.
“Assistant to Mr./Mrs.”: The closest we have to a “talent Production Assistant”. “I want an equal number of blueberries in every muffin”, gopher! Usually is just an uncredited PA, but occassionally is a regular assistant or particularly good one to an actor to earn a separate credit in the closing titles!
Extras/Background : Okay, look. My philosophy is to appreciate every person for their help on a production, and try never to malign anybody. However, extras are typically horrible, awful, obnoxious people, and they don’t get credit and that’s a good thing because they don’t deserve it. Keep in mind, however, I’ve been one.
Being an extra is a great way to get paid for little work, eat some catering, and have some stories to tell, but you are moving wallpaper. You do not speak, you do not speak, you do not speak. Featured extras, occassionally, speak, and becoming a featured extra is a longshot to becoming an actor, and becoming a featured extra is a long shot in the first place for being an extra. Keep in mind that if you speak, you are either ruining the take (and thus, fired), or you are getting paid a much bigger wage that you have signed off on specifically after much deliberation by the producers if it’s really worth it to hire you to speak or just throw in a soundclip in post, which would be cheaper and less complicated. YOU ARE MOVING WALLPAPER. You do not decide where and how to move, either—a 2nd Assistant AD or sometimes even a measly PA does that for you. Extras have separate casting agents, separate direction supervisors, and even separate rooms to stay in because nobody wants an extra around them, ever.
I say this because in any pool of extras there is inevitably a high percentage that believe that this is their ticket into the industry. As I’ve said, I’ve been an extra: it means having a few stories and getting to observe, briefly and at a distance, some of the functioning of the set, but it rarely to never results in screen roles, SAG cards, recognition, or anybody recognizing your oh-so-obvious talent. Want to know why being hired as an extra is awesome? Because you get paid minimum wage to sit in a room and read for six hours, and then walk around back in forth on set for two. EASY MONEY.
Some featured extras (still uncredited, but slightly more respected) are those extras that get known by casting agents for being unoffensive, professional, and adhering to the strict policies of not being a jackass, so that they get called back to play fun things like corpses or classroom teachers (Gasp a line! Aaaaaahhh!) or bar attendants or stuff much more interactive on scene. My buddy Scott is a featured extra, and he got the job because he’s a chill dude who does his shit and keeps it unoffensive, which is why he gets to be a corpse in the Coens’ True Gritremake.
It’s a Catch-22 though, because if you’re a really awesome extra, you might be so silent and invisibile and background that nobody notices you at all. So being an extra is not the way to be discovered, since it’s the art of being invisible. The most successful extras are the ones that are found chillin’ with the grips smoking pot after the production is wrapped for the day, and at that point they are like groupies, but for the crew, not the talent. They still don’t get a credit, especially not for providing pot.
The Talent department is usually covered in studio shoots by SAG, which includes stand-ins and stunts, as well as the occassional featured extra.
PRODUCTION DESIGN/ART DEPARTMENT:
Background, props, make-up… many things go into a movie’s overall “look” that is decided by the Production Designer and crafted by the art department. The director typically works with the art department before a production starts to ensure it all meets his or her vision, but that department usually has to make some mad decisions for themselves, which means that a good Production Designer or Art Director (these are separate people, see below) will have a clear vision of how the world the drama lives in “looks” while building that very world to be seen on screen.
This “department” is my conjoining of multiple “departments”: hair and makeup, and costuming, are both considered a department separate from, for instance, the prop department. However, they all build the functional inanimate world of the movie, so I’m lumping them unkindly together. Sorry.
Production Designer : I include this person here instead of under the Producers above, though there’s a little of both to that. The production designer is the one who decides who the overall movie “looks” in terms of the world it is set in, and makes the deals to ensure that standardized look, such as working between sets and locations to make sure they all fit the design, working with the director and storyboard artist to plan out what the sets look like, and even doing things like finding the cheapest way to costume hoards of extras or populate a street with cars of a certain era. This is the production office director of everything inanimate.
Art Director : This is more like the on-set director of everything inanimate. Controlling the prop department, controlling the costume department, organizing the carpenters to build the set, being on call to the director when he decides he hates that table and it has to be covered with something, being on call when the key grip decides the table is in the way of where he needs to set a light, being on-call when the DP decides that the wall is “bouncing” too much light and has to be toned down (by the way, absolutely no Art Director creates a set with white walls, and all DPs refuse to shoot in one. White walls are impossible to control and create lighting problems). The Art Director knows how everything on the set will appear on screen.
Props : there is a key prop (propmaster) and several prop people, meaning ones that operate a prop if it’s supposed to move independent of an actor. In the case of weapons, there is always a registered weapon expert who instructs the cast and crew on the safety of that particular prop and ensures that The Crow never happens again. As well as providing props, they also must keep track of them (for instance, if the props are supposed to consistently degrade over time), and usually have multiple versions of the same prop in case of accidental destruction. In the case of puppetry style animation, prop people sometimes operate those props, such as the people whose sole job was to control Jabba the Hutt’s lips.
Continuity : There is sometimes someone hired specifically to look at the set and make sure that lamp stays in the same place between shots. Sometimes that lamp has to be “cheated” to look like it’s in the same place or get out of the composition entirely, and it is the continuity expert, usually running around with a digital camera taking pictures of set set-ups and dimensions, who makes sure that that lamp gets back to where it belongs before it disappears suddenly and disturbingly from view forever.
Or sometimes this is jut the art director.
Wardrobe : as well as deciding what the characters are to wear, the key wardrobe has to make sure that all of his or her assistants are maintaining and taking care of the wardrobe, that multiple versions of the same costume is available at all times, that the costuming degrades continuitously throughout the movie, and that it’s always pressed and ready to go before the actor arrives to put it on. The key wardrobe has assistant wardrobe and PA wardrobe people to help. Wardrobe also has to account for making sure that all those damned extras are wearing location-appropriate costuming and not wearing watches during medieval takes. In the case of greenscreen, wardrobe is there to make sure nobody’s wearing green, blue, or white (and sometimes black).
Makeup : As well as putting make-up on ugly famous people to make them pretty and thus, more famous, there is also special effects make-up work, make-up continuity that degrades over time (some character’s bruise, for instance), and actually a lot of makeup on nearly everybody from actors to extras to cut down on the natural glare that people’s hideously greasy skin creates on cameras, especially video cameras. Key Makeup department people also have assistant makeup artists and makeup PAs.
Set Designer : A set has to operate as a workable tool as well. Sometimes a room the characters are working in doesn’t have a ceiling to accommodate set-ups. Sometimes a “room” in the reality of the movie is actually three different sets for different angles in a factory somewhere. The set designer works with the production designer and the art director to ensure each set effectively creates the illusion of real space, as well as knows in advance what type of shots will be featured on that one set to make room for dolly tracks, lighting set-ups, etc.
Locations Manager : As well as using location scouts to hunt down and find locations for a production to shoot at, the locations manager is also responsible for managing that location and returning it “in better condition than we found it” to whomever the production was granted permission to shoot there from. The locations manager is also concerned with safety (no good setting a haunted house movie in a real dilapidated house if the floorboards are rotten and give away, poisonous fungus grows on the walls except where eaten by plague-inducing rodents, and no electricity or running water is to be found). The locations manager also is often in charge of security for the location, to prevent evil evil passersby from interrupting the shoot or anything from getting stolen/damaged while on location. (Firewatch: the term for when a PA is supposed to sit in one spot and watch abandoned equipment sit there to make sure nobody steals it).
Location shooting is always very damaging to locations. Keep this mind when filming in your own abode, as well as when inviting any production to shoot in your backyard. Literally, you will not get your location back the way it was left. There will be damage. Period. The location manager’s job is to make sure it’s not destroyed beyond repair. Some location managers actively work to make sure everything is fixed, and some find no problem leaving that historical adobe house you live in crumbling in corners from where unknowing grips drilled holes in the wall. Also: cleaning up trash. By god people, all of the trash…
Art Department PAs: you get the picture, but they’re there, and usually just offscreen holding something aloft to make sure it doesn’t fall on the talent.
Art department is IATSE for studio productions.
First of all, there’s a difference between the sound designer and the sound mixer. I am talking about on-set production so far (post production is below), so I am talking about the sound mixer and his crew. The sound designer comes later.
Sound Mixer: this is the guy sitting in the corner with the headphones and a screwy expression on his face saying, “Is that… what is that humming?” The man has one of the hardest technical jobs in the movie world: making sure the sound captured during a take is pretty. Do you know how hard it is to make sound pretty? Pretty friggin’ hard, which is why sound is usually pretty friggin’ awful.
In addition to that, the sound department often gets into arguments with the camera department on whose space is whose, and whose is more important. Technically they’re both right—without the camera, there is no movie, but without the sound, the most beautiful imagery in the world still doesn’t save the movie from sounding like shit.
So the sound mixer is the guy who stops the production when a plane flies overhead, waits for traffic to pass, yells at people to turn off their cellphones, yells at people to turn off their cellphones, yells at people to turn off their cellphones, not turn them to silent, the cellphone itself creates a vibrational hum, idiots , and is usually smoking a pack a day and short of temper.
Boom Operators : Oh god. These poor people. Ever lifted a ten foot pole with a weight on it above your head and held it there for hours? In the medieval ages, that was called torture, and you were burned as a heretic if you couldn’t do it. Now it’s called “work”, and you never get paid enough for it. That said, there are ways boom operators learn to increase stamina and decrease stress on their arms, but they still usually need a bunch of upper body strength.
As well as working with the sound mixer to ensure a good sound capture, boom operators are actually typically in direct communication with camera operators to make sure the mic is literally just out of frame. And I MEAN just out of frame. The boom not only has to be held aloft for long lengths of time, it also has to be completely still and within mere inches of the composition.
They also have to make sure that XLR cable isn’t dragging on the ground or moving too much, because that also disrupts the clear audio quality so precious and so hard to capture.
PAs : audio cable has to be run, wireless mics clipped to actors (with the help of costuming department keys or PAs), and the sound mixer needs a new pack of smokes.
Sound is IATSE for studio productions.
LIGHTING AND GRIP DEPARTMENTS
There’s a term I love, though it’s entirely redundant: “surly grip.” Grips are surly. And it’s AWESOME.
Okay so here’s the deal. This isn’t just “lighting” and film equipment is hugely diverse, varied, and sometimes downright alien and complex. Where pure technical considerations are concerned, the grip department is the key to the movie’s success and to creatively resolving how to turn that director’s mad impossible vision into actual screentime. Film equipment is also fucking heavy , and requires some brawn to move. Here’s a good time to mention off hand that those prole jocks you look so down on for lifting weights and not appreciating art, are your absolute best friends for moving a beefy combi with an 8’ Kino-flo from one end of the room to another. In fact, if you really want to be a jack of all trades director who is awesome enough to rig lighting as well as handle the camera and so on and so forth, as well as learning technical knowledge you should be hitting the gym at least three times a week, because this stuff gets rough.
The grip department is literally responsible for rigging the mechanical tools of the set, and that means everything from video village to cranes to dolly shots to huge floodlights to flags and bounceboards to “shape” light. Without them, the DP cannot control the image, the director cannot get his ten minute tracking shot, and the power blows out when there’s no gaffer nearby to manage power supplies.
Gaffer: This is the guy who, as mentioned immediately above, manages the power and rigging of the set. He’s responsible for plugging in lights, sound, and camera equipment, as well as any incidentals (set-design lights or location lighting) and anything else that requires power. He’s responsible for the safety of the set and making sure that nothing falls on the crew, or worse, the talent. He’s responsible for generators and engines and rigs. He works directly with the keys of all other departments, including the grip department, to make sure everyone’s technical requirements are met.
Best Boy : The gaffer’s first assistant, actually! People always ask me who the Best Boy is. He, or she, because that happens too, is the person standing over the gaffer with the toolkit nearby, the one who plugs things in, the one who runs to make sure the generator is still running after a new switch was tripped.
Key Grip : There is so much the grip department has to do to achieve a shot that this is typically the guy working with the gaffer, director, and AD to make sure he or she knows exactly what technical needs must be met, and act accordingly. A key grip must have an encyclopedia of technical knowledge and a clear idea of how lighting works. The key directs other department grips to get everything in place, and that department must operate quickly between takes. Thus, the grip department is the true hurry up and wait department.
Grips: The guys and gals what work under the grip, and are usually buff and quick and short-tempered and great to go drinking with afterward. These people don’t just know how to set a c-stand, they’re already half there by the time you’ve just started asking them to do it. They are the ones putting up flags, taking down lights, laying dolly track, holding bounce boards, putting sandbags on damn near everything, and yelling “HOT POINTS!” while carrying big long heavy things around.
Riggers : people specifically meant to rig a certain structural set-up, like a lighting array or a dolly rigger or a crane rigger. Speaking of the latter,
Crane Operator : usually a specific person who is trained in all things the specific crane he has, whose sole and entire job is to set that thing up where it’s needed and pull off that epic crane shot that adds invaluable production value to the movie, but for the high cost of his wages and the crane rental, typically.
Dolly grip : Yes, there is typically a specific person who pushes that dolly along, and his job is harder than you think. Many dolly grips also have to run audio cable and camera cable over his or her shoulders and keep it in time with the tracking shot, as well as maintain a specific pace, hit specific points, and ensure that the track is even and no bumps are there. It’s a lot of work setting up those shots, people.
Electricians : Hey, that set needs electricity, and a lot of it. No use having all that lighting if it’s going to blow a fuse. Works between the set designer and the gaffer.
Grip PAs : Sandbags, holding c-stands steady, hanging by their pinkies from ladders. All in a days unpaid, unappreciated work.
The grip department also shuts down the set at the end of the day, which means as the talent and much of the crew is already wrapped up and going home to sleep or drink (heavily), the grips have to trudge on with tons of weight for another hour or two longer. Luckily, usually the director has about a thousand other things to do before tomorrows’ shoot, so the grips don’t complain… too much.
Lighting and grip is full-fledged IATSE work for studio shoots. Typically you do not get those jobs unless you are union.
SPECIAL EFFECTS DEPARTMENT
First of all, there’s a difference between visual effects and special effects. Special effects are on set. Visual effects are post production. Know this, as many amateurs get them confused. Noobs!
Right then, so there’s
Special Effects Artist : the person responsible for the logistics, safety, and execution of all special effects, from explosions to working with the make-up department for makeup or prop department for prosthetics, art department for designing anamatronic dinosaurs and plastic alien puppets, molding actor’s heads into fake lobotomies, and making things look deliciously rotten.
Weapons Expert : Sometimes art dept, sometimes special effects, mostly depending on how big the crew and how special the effects.
Make-up : Again, sometimes part of the Makeup department, sometimes Special effects, depending on the shoot and the level of detail in the make-up. Let’s just say Freddy Kruegar spent some time in the make-up department to craft a scar over the tube the special effects department put that will spew blood from his pores, while remembering to hit up the prosthetics guru for those extending arms in that one shot that’s so freakin’ creepy!
Puppeteering : not just actually moving the puppets, like some puppeteers are specifically hired to do, but wiring up a severed hand to bounce and crawl across the floor and shit. Those effects be special.
Honestly, special effects departments are typically unique to each production and it’s hard to really sum up all the forms of special effects there are. But rest assured there are lots of people who do it, and that’s why there are often special effects companies.
Those companies are usually registered and hired independently, but there are in-house effects companies for several studios and there are some special effects artists who are IATSE, I think.
Alright. If I were to organize these departments in order of importance, catering would come absolutely first, before direction and producing even. Because the thing is, I really do not give a shit how much of a starving artist you are, whether you are paying your crew or not, you need to feed them, and well, for their hard work.
I am of the opinion that any person with a movie camera can make a movie, and make it good. But if you cannot even afford to make ramen noodles for the guy who helped you, if anyone, then you’ve failed my bare minimum requirement to being a professional filmmaker.
A production should treat its crew well and catering companies are created specifically to ensure healthy, nutritive, energy-giving sustenance to a wide variety of tastes. If you’re an indie dude with only five people on your crew for a short film, it is okay to order a couple of pizzas, just make sure you ask in advance about any dietary issues. But once you get to that point where you’re shooting over multiple days for more than eight hours a day, you really need to invest in someone, anyone, to specifically provide hot coffee, cold water, emergency sugar rations, high protein snacks, and a warm meal that can satisfy most common dietary needs from vegetarianism to lactose intolerance to peanut allergies and so on.
That said, on the flip side, if you are a crew member wanting some water, it is impolite to request Evion instead of Aquafina. The only people who get away with that are the director, producers, and prima donna actors. If you are vegan, there are typically salads, but if you ask if they are organic, the response is, “they came from the ground.” If you want coffee, there is almost always coffee, but if you want a cappachino half latte frou frou whatnot, buy it your goddamned self.
Here’s the deal. The catering department is there first, and last, every day. When the shooting day begins at six am, the catering is there at four am. When it ends at 2am (same day), it’s there at four am. Caterers work against hot ovens during hot days and handle ice-cold drinks in sub-zero weather. They make the crew comfortable and happy and provide snacks and meals and almost always with a smile, and are more engaged and important than regular restaurant food service. Do not treat them like a waiter, treat them with respect.
That’s all I actually have to say about catering. If you are working catering, keep that water on ice, keep that coffee hot, always prep in advance, and thank you.
And yes, your mom can be a caterer.
Catering is almost always done through a company that has employees that may or may not be registered in a union. Typically rates for catering are decided by contract between the production and the catering company and are not included under regular union rates.
As well as drivers for the producers, drivers for the prima donnas, and drivers for the key crew that were flown in from LA to whereever to get from the hotel to the set and back, there are also drivers for equipment trucks, drivers for catering services, and in some cases drivers for extras for locations far away from paved roads, drivers for crew between isolated sets, and gopher drivers for specific uses such as taking things back and forth between production office and set.
Drivers typically have their own union, and union drivers are known as “teamsters.” They are pretty nifty, but sometimes peculiar, folk.
PRE-PRODUCTION: MANY OTHER ROLES
During one of these 30MFS’s, I will talk about the various parts of production and the role of pre-production. For now I’m just going to list a representative set of people:
Script Breakdown : Sometimes the script supervisor, sometimes someone entirely different, this person literally has five different colored markers and goes through the script page by page breaking it all down into eighths and highlighting damn near everything in coded colors. The art of script breakdown is something I may be able to talk about later, but is for a different post.
Storyboard Artist : Whether drawing, or using a computer, or whatever, this person creates a visual representation of what the final frame will look like, usually under the direction of the director, sometimes under the producer. As well as making a storyboard, the storyboard artist typically has to mount them on a wall so that every key member of the crew can look at the storyboards and know exactly what is expected of them in every shot.
Architects : Work with the set-designer to plan out and map the sets. Typically not credited.
Pre-view CG artists : this may seem weird, but many productions these days, including Drag Me to Hell and obvious things like Avatar are almost entirely animated before the shooting actually starts. Sometimes I feel like if they’ve done that much then they might as well just release the movie as an animation, but some productions really do want that live-action element despite the already extant digital presentation.
Craftsmen : Stuff has to be built, literally. Especially on sets. There are painters and plumbers and electricians and carpenters. All must be paid, which is why much of a movie’s budget can be gone before production even starts.