The A to Z Guide to Film Set Etiquette

Stepping on a film set is intimidating. Who do you say hi to first? Are you allowed to talk to actors? What's a stinger? Can you eat the food? What happens if you mess up? Wouldn't it be so much easier if someone would just spell it all out for you?

If these and other questions have been racing through your mind, you’re not alone.

And you no longer have to worry because right now I’m ready to give you an A to Z lesson on best practices for film set etiquette. By the time you’re done with this, you should have no problem walking around on set like one of the pros.

Always

Always follow up. Always double check. Always try your hardest. Always ask questions. Always be respectful.

Brevity

When busy, be brief. Say only what’s needed.

Copy That

Overheard on the walkies: “Can you grab the ND9 from the cart when you get a chance?“… “OK.” … “OK what?!

Saying “copy” while on a walkie talkie is the best way to confirm you’ve received and understand a message. Even better is to repeat part of the command (i.e. “Copy, ND9 on its way”).

Driving

When driving other crew and/or equipment, be gentle and aware of all laws, but get there as quickly as you legally can.

Electricity

Assuming outlets are free to use is how batteries get unplugged and breakers get tripped. Before you plug anything into an outlet, ask an electrician if it’s OK.

Food

While waiting in line for your lunch break, let your superiors go in front of you. When making stops at the craft services table, offer to bring stuff back for other crew.

Gear

Unless it’s your department’s gear or they’ve tasked you to help, don’t touch it. Seriously — if it’s not yours, don’t touch it.

Hot Points!

Yell this whenever carrying something long and pointy around corners or through doorways (i.e. dolly track, camera sticks, C-stands)

Introductions

On your first day of a shoot, take the time to introduce yourself to anyone and everyone — including talent, if the situation permits. It makes working with them a lot more friendly and fun.

Jokes

Pranks, in moderation, have their place on set and so do jokes, but be careful about who you tell them to. Have some tact — avoid overtly offensive jokes.

Keep Yourself Busy

Standing around will make you look useless, confused, lost, and also lazy. There’s always something to be done. If you don’t believe me, start with this list of 27 things to do to keep you busy on set.

Lingo

Stingers, C-47′s, sticks, babies, high-hats, Gary Coleman, video village, apple box, sharps, and horseback. Unsure what any of that means? It helps to learn film production slang to be able to communicate effectively.

Mistakes

Unintentional mess-ups are not just a normal part of film production, but of everyday life. If mistakes never happened, line producers would celebrate saving the 10% contingency funds they build into every budget. When you mess up, apologize and find a solution. It’s never worth dwelling on.

Ninja-like

The less noticeable you are while doing your job, the better. Most crew positions mean being invisible — if you’ve done you’re job right, it’s hard to notice you did anything at all.

Opinions

Unless you’re asked, you don’t have one. And even when you are asked, always reply first with, “Well, what do you think?”

Phones

Smartphones are an important piece of the toolkit for many on set, but they also still have that annoying problem all cell phones have — noise. Turning off your phone is best, but silence it at least — even vibrate makes noise.

Quiet on set!

When shooting sound, be super silent during takes. Even between setups, minimize how much noise you make so as not to annoy anybody.

Radios

Once your done pretending that you’re a GI Commando, learn how to use a walkie talkie appropriately and use it sparingly.

Safety

Films, movies, and videos are never more important than your life. If you ever feel unsafe, alert somebody immediately and don’t be afraid to stand firm on the issue.

Talent

If you know who they are without ever meeting them, don’t talk to them unless you have to or they approach you. Otherwise, talk to them as you would any other crew member being acutely aware whether or not they are busy.

Understanding

From The Production Assistant’s Pocket Handbook:

A seasoned First Camera Assistant nicknamed “J-gor” once told me what the universal response to any human utterance was. He had heard it from a famous Dolly Grip, and felt it necessary to pass it on to me seeing as it was my first job as a P.A.

The response is, “I Understand”. By varying the speed and tone “I Understand” works as a response in situations ranging from, “what a sunny day” or “here’s a million dollars”, to “my feet hurt” and “get a C-stand”. Test it out for yourself. I haven’t found any other two words that cover as many situations.

Do you understand now?

Video Village

The monitor where the director, producer, and script supervisor stand can get very crowded very quick. The harsh truth is that, besides your curiosity to watch the take, you probably don’t need to be there — so don’t be.

Water Bottles

At some point, you’ll be asked/tasked/demanded to go grab bottles of water for crew. Make sure if they are wet you use a paper towel or cloth to dry them. Bonus points if you hand each crew member their bottle of water with their initials already in Sharpie on the cap.

XXL (Extra Extra Large)

Moderation is best left at home on film sets. You simply don’t have the time to play Goldilocks and test whether you need more or less or if it’s just right. When in doubt, always grab double of what you think you need — it never hurts to have extras.

Yellow

Bright shirts may bring out the color in your eye, but vivid clothing also can affect the lighting of a scene. Avoid wearing certain colors like white, yellow, and light grays that can unintentionally bounce light into a scene.

Zero

Despite all your fears to the contrary, you step on set with just as fresh a start as anyone else. When Day 1 rolls around, introductions are made, ground rules laid out, and experience irrelevant. At this point, it’s all about this one job.

Remember: “You’re only as good as your last job.” 

So what does this have to do with set etiquette?

Well, zero is also the same number of times you should assume things when you’re on set. Don’t assume everyone knows how you do things and don’t assume you know how to do everything. Never assume you don’t need to double check and never assume expectations will be met.

If you do that, you’ll fit into the flow of filmmaking fine.

If you don’t, zero will also be the number of times you find yourself working again.

Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments what etiquette you think gets overlooked too often on set!

  • http://twitter.com/OliKember Oliver Kember

    To anyone who hasn’t worked on a professional set I can imagine this reading as pretty brutal and strict, but the truth is that it’s 100 years worth of shorthand and etiquette like you mention that keeps things running smoothly. Thanks for the post.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      A lot of these are unspoken rules you have to learn the hard way. Many of them seem arbitrary, but make total sense once you’re on set

      • Jamin

        yeah – the bright orange shirt…  oops, done that on my first gig.   if only i saw this before getting my first gig.  the-hard-way is so right.   i’m glad this is here for guys.   I so wish i had this list back then

        • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

          At least with the hard way you appreciate and respect it much more :-)

  • http://www.buistmedia.com Eric Buist

    As someone who has taken out a bank overhang with the crafty/production truck, I know safety and driving are key things. Always know how tall the truck is and make sure to avoid low-hanging obstacles. Also, make sure you own up to mistakes. 

    Another good thing to remember: gaff tape can be used as a belt in emergencies.

    p.s. that was the worst day on set, ever.

    • Jaminconn

      oh yeah gaff – great idea.  hadn’t thought of that one.  i’ve used rope before

      • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

        Sounds like a Beverly Hillbillies trick :-)

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Whoa! Really a bank overhang? Don’t mean to drudge up bad memories, but that must’ve been intense. I can see how this would be a bad day — at least from there it’s only moving up. It’s good you have a positive attitude about it.

  • Veteran Griptician

    As far as Hot points:  The REVERSE needs to be added:  If you HEAR someone yelling “POINTS”, then this is your cue to GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!!!!!

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      True story — nothing more frustrating than the people who hear it and just freeze in place.

  • http://twitter.com/TempoLiveEvents Nancy Spooner

    I love this!  I have pretty much left the film world (former AD and Location Manager) and am now a live event producer –  but the industries are very similar. I always tell newbies NEVER EVER sit in a director’s chair – and that that they should NEVER sit down on set period (like you said – look busy).   

    Always wear comfy shoes and bring a spare to swap out at lunch if needed. 

    Thanks for the post!  You might like a few blog pieces I have written – they are similar. 

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Nancy thanks for the kind words! I can see the similarities in live events — I actually did 4 years of live sound mixing so I have an idea of that world, though not on a huge scale or anything.

      Good suggestions on the shoes and the sitting down — they kind of go hand in hand :-)

  • http://www.michaelaangelique.com/ Michaela A.

    hi Evan,

    this is no actually a comment, but I’d like to hear an opinion. I hope  I put this question at the right section. Last time I was 2nd AC-ing since the original 2nd AC couldn’t do that day. I had to fill it in. Before the shoot starts, I checked to the scripty what the last roll number was from yesterday, I had no idea. Then it came to the time when we had to swap the media card, we were shooting alexa.  We found out, the roll number was wrong, the first AC was not happy about it, me, first AC , we came to the DIT to check what the last roll number was from yesterday. The first AC finally said, “okay, so this is not DIT’s fault, this is not my fault, this is her fault (pointing at me)”. I just stood silent. I was so confused and I was about to go to the scripty, the scripty came and first ac finally stepped out. We finally found out , the the 2nd AC they originally had last time messed up, he didn’t report the last roll that’s why no one knows, even the DIT got confused too because of the 2nd AC from yesterday. 

    My question here, do you think it’s necessary to explain,if it’s not my fault ? I ended up byt  just letting it go without explaning to the first AC. I didn’t find it’s necessary and since we didn’t have time to talk about this, it was hectic last time.

    But in the other hand, personally, I think it’s somewhat necessary to tell him. It’s really about professionalism. but how far that can go ?

    When things finally go right, should you go back and explain just to make ‘your image’ fixed ?

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Michaela,

      This is a tough question. I should start by saying the first AC was sort of a jerk. I would never call someone out that badly especially not after professing that something wasn’t my fault. You know who’s the head of the department? The First AC, so it’s always their fault. Doesn’t matter whether it actually is or not, they have to shoulder the blame. You don’t get the responsibilities of heading the department without the downfalls too.

      So, anyway, I think in this situation you did the right thing. You let it go because things were busy. But you certainly could’ve gone to the first AC at the end of the day and talked about it. You don’t have to get confrontational, but just say something like, “Hey you know I didn’t appreciate you throwing me under the bus there. I talked with the DIT and we found out it was actually the 2nd AC from yesterday who didn’t report the roll. I’m sorry things got mixed up, I just wanted to clear things between us.”

      Here’s the way I figure it: if he thinks you messed up, he’s probably not planning on hiring you again in the future, so what do you have to lose?

      And, if he is still a jerk after that little convo, then do you really want to work again with him?

      I understand it’s a tricky situation, but bringing it up at the end of the day when things aren’t crazy is best. Camera crews have to get along to work well together and sometimes that involves growing pains and uncomfortable conversations.

  • http://www.michaelaangelique.com/ Michaela A.

    Thanks Evan. I really appreciate the effort you putting your opinion there. It’s good to hear from the people from camera department.

  • Pingback: The Little Things Matter | The Black and Blue