photo credit: Derek Purdy
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.
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?