The Biggest Myth Behind Hollywood Filmmaking

The Biggest Myth Behind Hollywood Filmmaking

And though the film industry is far different from the golden age of Hollywood – where stars were born and studios pumped out movies like a sausage factory – there is one major myth that lives on unwilling to die.

Movie magic is a term that escapes those of us toiling away on set, but still fascinates a public thirsty for what happens behind the scenes.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s great. People should be interested in filmmaking because it is such a wonderful craft.

And though the film industry is far different from the golden age of Hollywood — where stars were born and studios pumped out movies like a sausage factory — there is one major myth that lives on unwilling to die.

“Lights, Camera, Action!”

You knew it was coming, right? I mean, how could you not?

This simple three-word phrase has been hammered into society for a long time and lives on as the driving cadence for how many perceive movies are made.

You have film father and legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith to thank for the phrase. Of mythical stature himself, Griffith took film into its own as an art form. In the family tree of film directors, you could say he’s the trunk.

One day, frustrated on set and running out of time, Griffith started barking the orders “Lights!” to re-spot the lights on his actors, “Camera!” to roll the camera, and finally “Action!” to get things moving.

Why this became the public’s perception of standard operating moviemaking protocol is unknown. I imagine it has something to do with the simplicity of the phrase, how it rolls off the tongue, and how it captures the essence the craft with brevity.

Prevalent in pop-culture, there’s an assumption that movies get going when some random person stands in front of the camera with a clapper-thingy and says, “lights, camera, action!” before slamming a couple of sticks together.

It’s a confusing oversimplification of what really happens on a set.

For those who have experienced life behind the camera, you already know a crew member called a camera assistant does stand in front of the camera with a clapper-thingy called a slate and they do slam the sticks, but they don’t say any of the aforementioned words.

Basically, the perception of what happens on set based on this stereotype is 90% (warning: made up statistical number) wrong.

How the “Action!” Really Goes Down

I chose to write about this well-known phrase because it is a subject that falls close to my heart.

Growing up learning about filmmaking, the image of a crew member slapping the sticks together ended up defining the craft. I arrived at that meaning from being exposed so many times to “lights, camera, action!”

So when I got the chance to do it myself, I was genuinely excited. It meant I was actually living my boyhood dream of making movies for a living. And I did it all without once saying lights, camera or action.

The real process is a bit more technical than that.

Even a casual observer on set may be alarmed at how different what actually happens is from the stereotype. There is a cadence, similar to the one the phrase above holds, but it lasts much longer and involves more people than one man calling the shots.

Here’s an example of how a typical set would run right before shooting:

1st assistant director (AD): Roll sound!

Boom Operator/Sound Mixer: Sound speed!

1st A.D.: Roll camera!

1st Assistant Camera (AC): Camera speed, hit it.

2nd AC: [Calls out scene designation]. Marker!

**Slate gets clapped, 2nd AC scurries away**

Camera Operator: Set.

Director: Action!

This process is second nature to those in the industry. It’s like being in a race, setting your feet and hearing, “on your mark, get set… go!”

It signals the last few moments you have to double-check everything you’ve already triple-checked and get in the right state of mind to grab the perfect shot.

Unfortunately the real phrases don’t have quite the same pizzazz and panache as “lights, camera, action!” so I’m afraid the myth will continue to live on. I’m just doing my part to help clarify what we do as film crews.

So while I’m at it: directors don’t parade around on set with old-school megaphones like cheerleaders from the fifties — at least not anymore.

What are some Hollywood myth and stereotypes that you know are wrong? Were you surprised to find these myths shattered once you got on set?

  • Simon Olney

    It’s my understanding that the phrase was used at some point by some Hollywood studios, and while you’ll never find it on use on any professional modern set, it has roots in common sense, as it heralds back to the era of the Carbon Arc lamp. For those of you who are unaware, the arcs ran by creating an arc between two carbons (in a similar way to the sodium arc created in HMIs, but much more violent and short lived), which slowly burned away at the carbons for as long as the light was running. Maintaining these lights was an art form in itself and is where the term “lamp operator” comes from, when a member of the lighting team would be constantly supervising a light, ensuring they were burning at the correct speeds, resetting and replacing the carbons when necessary.

    The “lights!” part of the call (although I’m sure it was a bit more formal than that) was a cue for the lamp operators to strike the lights. When you have huge, hot lights that bellow out smoke and make a massive racket, you want them running only when necessary, and used up expensive carbons.

    If I have a lighting effect such as a mirror cube or light that needs dimming during shot, I’ll ask for the AD to ask if I’m ready before rolling camera or sound, I’ll normally respond with “standing by”, or “lighting speed” if I feel it’s the kind of production I could get away with it on!

    • Evan

      Interesting Simon. I hadn’t heard a lot of that before. I spent a good while researching for the phrase for this article and found multiple sources citing Griffith as the originator. Who knows, this far removed from his legacy, what the real story is at this point.

      Perhaps he originated the phrase and then the studios made it an official thing used on sets.

  • John Paul Meyer

    You forgot to list the Camera Operator saying “set” or “camera set” before the Director says “action.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with directors that called action before focus is back to the 1st mark or even before the 2nd AC has left the frame just because they weren’t paying attention and didn’t wait for “set.” It can really through off the rhythm of the camera dept if the director doesn’t wait for “camera set.”

    • Evan

      Ah you’re right. Maybe I forgot because the director’s usually forget too :P

  • Maxim

    In Belgium, mostly the 1st AD calls “roll sound”, after “sound speed” the 2nd AC calls out the scene designation, the AC lets the camera roll and calls “speed”, the 2nd AC claps the slate and gets out, the operator calls “set” and then comes the “action”.

    I don’t know if this is a common method, but we use it to save film (every frame of film is expensive), or data (an 8GB card on RED is not much).

    • Maxim

      “an 8GB card on RED is not much”
      to clarify: we mostly only have few cards on the set, so if a card only contains two shots for example, it has to be replaced by a card that is maybe still copying files, so time gets lost.

      • Dominic

        That’s pretty much what it’s like in Germany as well. I guess Europe’s very similar on that part of filmmaking. Here it would sound something like that:
        1st AD: Sound!
        Sound Dude: Rolling!
        2nd AC: 218-15-3 Take 2!
        [1st AC starts the camera]
        1st AC: mark!
        [2nd AC claps and vanishes]
        Camera operator: set!
        Director: action!
        Is scene designation in Belgium also only numbers?

        • Maximhonore

          In most cases it’s only numbers.
          E.g. The first take of the first angle of scene 4 would sound as: “scene 4, shot 1, take 1”, or more common: “scene 4 on 1, take 1”
          letters are sometimes used when a shot gets another emotion or camera movement. E.g. in shot 4 the camera travels towards the talent. In shot 4A, the play remains the same, but the camera doesn’t travel. But that doesn’t happen too much.

    • Evan

      Yeah that’s usually how I would do it as a 2nd AC or seen 2nd AC’s do it, but I was trying to simplify the process a little bit :P

      On film sets, you want the least amount of film wasted with the slate being clapped.

  • Teddysmith

    This is how it usually goes down on our two camera sets:

    DP: Cameras ready!
    1st AD: Picture up!
    12 interns: PICTURES UP!
    2nd AD: Lock it up!
    Director: Cue smoke.
    1st AD : Roll sound!
    Boom op: Scene 76 apple take one. Sound speeds!
    1st AD: Roll cameras!
    12 interns: ROLLING!
    A Camera op: Camera speeding.
    B Cam 1st AC: S***! Wait a second, formatting card..
    A Camera 2nd AC: Scene 76 apple. Take One. A camera mark.
    B Camera op: B camera speeding!
    1st AD: Tail sticks!
    B Camera 2nd AC: Tails on B!
    Boom op: Tails on B.
    A camera op: Frame.
    B camera op: Set.
    DP: Wait for the smoke to settle! Wait.. OK good!
    1st AD: Action!

    Some stuff happens..

    1st AD: Cut!
    B camera 1st AC: Tails on B! Tails on B!
    B camera 2nd AC: Tail sticks scene 76 apple take one. B camera mark.
    1st AD: Was that good? OK moving on!

    • AR

      Hahahaa soooo trueee

      Favorite is when the AD is in a rush to shoot. He starts the cadence without looking around. He gets sound speeding, “CAMERA!” … “Camera?” … “Guys where’s joe? EYES ON JOE” (6 interns repeat it on the same walkie channel and 2 scatter like roaches while 4 of them barely move) and the AC, Joe, is actually at the crafty table. He gave up waiting for the shot 35 minutes ago because the director couldn’t make up her mind about which pillow to use. 

      Yep that was my day today.

      • Dominic

        Hehe, that’s a funny story. :D We had an AD once who constantly messed up, well, everything.

        “Roll camera!”
        “You mean sound.”
        “Uh, yes, roll sound”
        “Ok, silence for shooting.”
        “Yes, rehearsal. roll sound.”

        Right before the scene.
        “Just a second for the sticks”
        2nd AC, at that time cleaning stuff on the magliner, comes flying in, thinking that he’d made a mistake.
        dop: “no sticks, still rehearsal.”

        • Evan

          Haha oof that sounds bad! Poor 2nd AC but mostly poor everyone

      • Evan

        Or, on the contrary, the AD starts the cadence with everyone ready BUT the director. Has happened to me. When there’s a whole minute of pre-roll on a take, it starts to get very frustrating haha

    • Evan

      I love the part with the interns! I was on a set once where we were shooting in an enclosed room with the entire room and those PA’s would still shout out “ROLLING!” as if their life depended on it. 

      • Kyle Leach

        Those PA’s gotta earn it! When I PA’d, there were moments when I was stationed to parrot “rolling” and block traffic from the back door of a house that seemed no where near set. But one or two times I decided, “no one’s here” and didn’t re-yell the warning and someone outside coughed or sneezed or laughed, the AD yelled at me. It’s all about doing it right. No one will notice til you don’t do it at all.

        • Evan

          Very true. And a lot of the time, as a PA, people don’t acknowledge what you’re doing because it’s what you’re supposed to be doing!

  • FB

    Italy (for most tv series and movies):

    1st AD: motore! (literally “motor” or “engine”, but the meaning it’s “roll sound”)
    Sound recordist/boom operator: “partito” (rolling)
    Slate guy (usually a grip): “12 1 prima” (i.e. scene number, setup number, take number)
    Camera operator: “Ciak” (“slate it)
    Slate guy claps the slate
    Camera operator: “buona” (set)
    1st AD or Director: “Azione!” (action)


    • Adam Richlin

      So pretty much the same cadence, just the words are translated to italian. Interesting that it still runs off the same premise. Thanks for sharing from the other side of the world! : D

      • FB

        yeah, I’d say it’s pretty much the same. The only “peculiar” (and to me quite pointless and odd) thing is the slate not being clapped by the 2nd AC but by a grip. 

        • Evan

          Do a lot of those grips end up going camera or further into the grip department?

          • FB

            Not really, it’s not an entry position in the grip department or a way to move to the camera dpt.
            The grip that handles the slate in the production I’m on has been in the business (as a grip) for almost 30 years. It’s just a grip doing what a grip usually does, plus handling the slate, and that’s pretty much always the case here. The 2nd AC duties here in Italy are to load/unload film, deal with the script supervisor and filling camera reports (though those have less information that the ones seen in the US), plus helping out the 1st AC in any way they can. Bear in mind it’s very rare to have more than one 2nd AC on most shows here in Italy, unless there are more than 3 cameras.

    • Evan

      It sounds so much cooler in Italian!

  • Steveo

    different places, different protocols. I’ve worked shoots where they’d roll the _camera_ first because it took “too long” to come up to speed.

     I’d freak out the crew people used to rolling camera first by rolling sound first. why waste film ? this especially true when shooting a lot of short shots that are 20 or 30 secs of actual shoot time. You can literally  cut your film use in 1/2 which is a very good thing.

    these days with dslrs / RED / card based cameras sound and camera always roll together since they are pretty much instant on and the time to slate it next to nothing. we generally don’t bother calling out take info because even with TOD never mind actual locked TC its really a waste of time. picking up 15 secs on every take helps keep the day moving along. we’ll slate with dslr’s because you have to, with anything that actually locks TC its just back up and sometimes we don’t bother when moving fast… some days you have to trust your gear is working.

    • Evan

      Yeah you’re totally right. On film sets, is a much different atmosphere and anything you can do to save film (and money) you do it. That includes slating as fast and as little as possible.

      On some of the RED shoots I’ve done they don’t even want the clap (if shooting sync), just a quick flash of the slate.

      If it’s a short gig (i.e. one day of shooting) I’ve been told not to worry about slating at all. Depends on the job mostly.

  • Doug Hart

    Then there’s the Director who waits until AFTER the camera(s) are rolling, and AFTER the slate, and then begins talking to the actor, “Now in this scene, I want you to remember how you felt when your mother was in the hospital . . . ” and goes on and on, because he likes to hear his own voice coming from the screen at Dailies. 
    Meanwhile, we have 1000 ft. of 35mm film in the camera(s), running at 90 feet a minute, for a scene we know runs 7 minutes, so only one take per magazine.
    The trick is in calculating how much film we can waste, before the Director stops talking, and the actor can begin his seven minutes of dialogue, without needing to announce the dreaded “ROLL OUT!” before “Cut.”
    True story, and it happened EVERY DAY on one film I was on.
    Doug Hart, 1AC, NYC

    • FB

      so good to see you around here, Doug! Hope you’re doing GREAT!


    • Evan

      I know the exact same feeling. I will periodically say “still rolling!” to let everyone know that we are, in fact, rolling and not just sitting around. Doesn’t always work though. It usually just causes the AD to shout the same thing.

      I’m sure everybody but the director loathed it! How many days in a row did this go on?

      • Doug Hart

        At least one shot every day, although he did get better.
        One of the things I tried was to say “Three dollars a second,” every once in a while when the camera was rolling just wasting film.
        This worked best when the Producer was watching us.
        I figured $3 a second was about right for rawtock and negative developing, at the time, which was years ago.
        It’s probably $5 dollars a second now.
        Unfortunately, it won’t work now in the digital world, with reusable media.
        No one cares any more.
        Doug Hart, 1AC, NYC

        • Evan

          That’s frustrating since you are doing your best to save stock and save money. If the budget was out of the director’s pocket, I bet he would’ve been more attentive.

          It’s much worse with digital. And even though the media is reusable, it still takes time to download the footage. 
          On a shoot I was on not long ago, there was a lot of dilly-dallying after camera rolled and before “action” and I felt terrible for the DP who was handholding the whole time. Poor guy had to sit there with the camera on his shoulder while the director passed out notes.

          Was the director fairly green?

        • FB

          I was thinking about your story earlier today….we reloaded the cameras after a few takes and when  we downloaded the film the waste was EXACTLY 2 feet: we knew it was close, but not THAT close. I’m keeping it as a reminder (I’m sentimental, I guess), though on this job we’re allowed to mark as “waste” anything less than 65 feet (we’re shooting on S16). 

  • John Waterman

    sometimes cadence can compress to this:

    1st AD: “Pictures up. Roll sound.”
    sound recordist: (in bag or cart) “62 Apple, take one. speed.”
    Boom OP: SPEED!
    1st AC: (rolls camera) “SPEED!”
    2nd AC: MARK! (marks it and exits)
    1st AC: (re-sets the focus and waits for the operator’s frame to settle) We’re set.
    Director: ACTION!

    • Evan

      The compressed cadence is my favorite, I’m not a big fan of standing around waiting to roll!

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