The 7 Dumbest Mistakes You Can Make Your First Day On Set

The 7 Dumbest Mistakes You Can Make Your First Day On Set

Intention doesn't make the mistakes any less dumb, nor the consequences any less serious. So if you're looking to join the ranks of a Hollywood crew someday, do your best to avoid these 7 idiotic mistakes that are -- unfortunately -- common among first-timers.

What’s the stupidest thing you’ve done on set?

For me, it was spraying canned air inside the ear of the director of photography. It was, to be frank, really dumb. And the reason I did it is because I was a newbie on set — I didn’t know any better.

Yet even with my humble beginnings, I still get irritated at the stupid things those new to the film industry do. Sometimes they’re cocky, or naive, or shy, or late. Most of the time it’s unintentional.

But intention doesn’t make the mistakes any less dumb, nor the consequences any less serious.

So if you’re looking to join the ranks of a Hollywood crew someday, do your best to avoid these 7 idiotic mistakes that are — unfortunately — common among first-timers.

Dumb Mistake #1: Thinking You Should Be Directing

Steven Spielberg Film Director

Let’s face it: everyone wants to be a director at some point. Even if it’s only a tiny urge for one scene of one day in their entire career, I guarantee every crew member in the film industry has thought about what it would be like to run the show.

Many came into the industry with that dream. Heck, I wanted to be a director. Who dreams about being the guy schlepping cable or the PA wrangling extras?

But here’s the harsh truth: you’re not the director. And if you truly deserved to be the director, you’d be the one calling the shots, not the other guy. Instead, they’re the one with the power.

Maybe you deserve to be a director, someday, but that doesn’t grant you license to start running this set, today.

And if that bothers you too much — to have to help fulfill someone else’s vision — then by all means, walk away from the gig and start directing. There’s no shame in admitting you can’t crew well. Some people really do have a knack for leadership and can’t put themselves in any other position.

But it’s stupid, silly, and ignorant to both not be directing while proclaiming you deserve to be. That’s the kind of attitude that will make no one want to help you achieve that dream.

Further, this attitude often leads to you taking the creative high ground on individuals who do deserve to be the heads of their department. And the last thing any of those crew members who have paid their dues want to hear is a young buck telling them how to light, how to compose a shot, how to direct their actors.

Even if you’re right, you don’t deserve to be shoving that in their face.

If you want to direct, direct, but do it on your own set — and don’t mistake the ability to direct as unearned opportunity to do so.

Dumb Mistake #2: Touching Gear Without Permission

Filmmaking Gear and Pelican Cases

David Elkins, a 1st assistant cameraman (1st AC) and author of The Camera Assistant’s Manual, mentions in his book that “the first time you step onto a professional film set you may feel like a stranger in a foreign land.”

He then goes on to tell this story about what happened when, as a stranger in a foreign land, he touched another crew member’s gear:

I was on a union show as 1st AC, and during a setup for a new scene, the DP [director of photography] asked me to move the camera dolly a few inches. I unlocked the dolly, moved it, and as I was locking it in place, the Key Grip was right in my face and said, “If you touch that dolly again I’ll report you to the union.”

The DP tried to explain that he had asked me to move the dolly, and the Key Grip proceeded to yell at him as well, saying that there was a specific crew member to do that job and nobody else.

…I learned a valuable lesson that day: when working on a union production, don’t touch a piece of equipment that is not part of your department unless specifically asked to do so by someone in that department.

Elkins’ story is a solid warning (and a bit frightening if you’ve ever met a Key Grip).

But where he warns that you should not touch equipment on “union” productions, I would advise you to extend that to all productions.

Also, be wary even when it’s gear within your department, but that belongs to someone personally (toolkits, laptops, backpacks, etc.) and is not rented or owned by production.

I’ve blown some hot steam at 2nd AC’s or Camera Trainees who went through my toolkit without telling me. Imagine how you would feel if someone came into your bedroom, used your computer, and then slept in your bed without telling you.

Maybe that metaphor is a bit extreme, but the underlying feeling isn’t — most crew simply don’t like others using their stuff without permission.

Within your own department you’ll usually get permission to use gear or it’ll be implied via your responsibilities, but outside of your department you should always be more careful. One of the dumbest things you could do is to mess with gear from a department without being asked to.

Doing so has consequences:

  • Unplugging stingers without a juicer telling you to do so could damage lights
  • Moving props that are part of a “hot set” could bring a deluge of continuity errors
  • Rigging a flag without a grip’s approval could be unsafe

Not only do your actions have consequences in regards to the actual production, but you’re bound to piss off quite a few people in doing so.

In short, use gear only within your own department unless you’re asked by another department to help.

Dumb Mistake #3: Avoiding the Chain of Command

US Army Troops and Commander

photo credit: The US Army

The way film crews operate — at least in the American system — is intensely hierarchical. The various departments on a film set are each led by a key crew member. In turn, that key department head has their own key crew member who, in turn, has their own go-to guy and so-on and so forth.

If you were to illustrate this with the camera department, it would look like this:

Basic Hierarchical Structure of Film Camera Department

This is a basic structure. Adding multiple cameras, DITs, and other crew or removing/combining positions, can make it a bit more complex.

There is very little horizontal power on a film set — almost all of it runs vertically until you get to the key department heads.

And much like other organizations that rely on vertical hierarchies – like the Army — it’s a big, dumb mistake to circumvent the chain of command. Can you imagine what would happen if a grunt soldier took a problem to the General without ever telling his company’s commanding officer?

(And let’s assume this is for a normal problem, not a virtuous cause that demands whistleblowing.)

Nothing good — he would annoy the general by bothering him with problems he needn’t be concerned with, he would annoy his commanding officer by making him look ineffective and incapable, and he would annoy his fellow soliders for making them look bad.

Now, the film industry is not the military and filmmaking isn’t fighting wars, but crew do take the chain of command very seriously.

Why? There’s a reason for the hierarchical setup: to keep the busy work at the bottom and the most important, challenging work at the top (which is often loaded with pressure). By circumventing that flow, you flip it on it’s head and give the top the busy work.

In essence, it’s not your job to determine what’s important enough for your department head to deal with unless you are working directly under them.

A 2nd AC reports to the 1st AC who, if they can solve the issue will do so. If they can’t, the issue continues climbing the ladder.

I have first hand experience being on the wrong side of this: once during a camera prep, the 1st and 2nd AC were gone for lunch. I was toying with the camera and, well, something wasn’t working with the baseplate. As the 1st AC came back, he found me trying to fix it.

“What are you doing?” he asked while taking the tools away from me.

I explained the situation and he promptly fixed the baseplate. I could tell he was heated and I was embarrassed to have been found doing what was his job.

Later that day he approached me privately and said, “If there’s something wrong with the camera, let me deal with it first.”

The message: don’t work yourself above your position.

Dumb Mistake #4: Assuming Your Boss Is Your Friend

Finding Friendship Within Film

Filmmaking is a lot of fun. That’s undoubtedly the reason why you try so hard to get in the industry in the first place anyway — perhaps you made a few shorts with your friends and it was a blast.

So you arrive on day one and are happy to see the crew is a younger bunch like you. In fact, over breakfast, you get to know some of them and they’re pretty cool. Even your “boss” is nice to you and just as excited as you are to work together.

But then the day starts and you’re already in full gear: lugging cases, moving monitors, and wrangling cable.

Then the pace starts picking up even more and your boss starts to get more demanding.

In a spate of desperation, you ask “C’mon man, can you cut me a break here?”

And you’ve just committed dumbest mistake number four: assuming your boss is your friend.

Your boss may be your friend — even if you’ve only met briefly — but make no mistake that when the cameras are rolling, the sun is setting, and the film is being made, your boss is your boss first.

This has been the case on almost every film I’ve worked on. I’ve always been friendly with those I worked with, but when crunch time was happening, I treated them like they were my boss and they treated me like I was their crew.

And on the movies that boss-employer relationship didn’t exist? We fell behind schedule, we didn’t do as good of work, and frustrations rose as everyone wanted to be a “friend,” while nobody wanted to be a leader.

There’s nothing wrong with being nice to your boss and even being friends with them away from the set (I have many good friends who I’ve worked with and for), but when they start making demands on you, you have to treat them like you would any other boss: by meeting their expectations to the best of your ability.

Because the minute you don’t take them seriously as a boss, they won’t take you seriously as a crew member.

Dumb Mistake #5: Arriving to Set Late

Clock

photo credit: CarbonNYC

Until you work on a film, you have no idea how much filmmaking is driven by the clock.

From the moment everyone arrives for a cup of coffee to the second the last person drives away from the location, producers, assistant directors, and others are watching the clock and measuring how much time is left, how much time is to go, and what time it currently is.

A 12-hour workday sounds like a lot to most people outside the film industry, but anybody inside it knows how quickly those 12-hours tick away and how, if you don’t use the time efficiently, it can bleed over into a 17-hour (or longer) day of work.

To demonstrate how valuable time is on a film set, let’s take a look at a scenario where you are shooting a shot within a scene. Each take lasts about 15 seconds long with another 15 seconds to reset for another take — 30 seconds total.

In 5 minutes time, you can burn off 10 takes of that shot.

That’s ten more opportunities for a director to get the shot they want. Ten more chances for the DP to compose the frame just right. Ten more possibilities for an actor to nail their performance.

So consider that five minutes can make a difference when you start justifying lateness to the film set.

That doesn’t mean every set starts on time or that every crew member is always punctual, but that shouldn’t matter. The point is to keep yourself in a position where you are never, ever the reason why a crew can’t start filming when they need to.

And on day one, arriving late is one of the dumbest mistakes you can make because of the message it sends — that you’re lazy, incompetent, untrustworthy, and don’t care enough.

It doesn’t matter if none of that is true because that is what it will reflect to those in a position of power over your future.

To make sure you don’t commit this dumb mistake, you should plan to arrive to set 15 minutes early and then, to account for traffic or unexpected occurrences, double the time it normally takes you to commute to the location.

It’s better to arrive early and enjoy some breakfast than it is to arrive late and endure the punishment.

Dumb Mistake #6: Not Introducing Yourself to Anyone

Dumb Mistake #6: Not Introducing Yourself to Anyone

photo credit: Nomadic Lass

If it’s truly your first day on a film set, it’s safe to say you won’t know anybody at all. At the most, you may know a few people in your department who you talked to over the phone about getting the job — even then you might not know what they look like!

The minute you walk on set, start to introduce yourself to anyone and everyone.

If you’re the first to arrive at the location, say hello as you see other cars or crew arrive. If you’ve arrived and there are people there, offer a quick handshake and ask them to help you find your department’s other crew.

One of the things I regret most about my first experiences on film sets was being so awkward with introductions. Sometimes I would avoid meeting people who I weren’t working under because I was too busy or I thought they were too busy.

But very few people are too busy for a quick introduction — and if they are, there’s always lunch time.

Don’t make the mistake I did and let your shyness cripple your ability to make friends. This will pay off in spades in helping you advance upwards in your career. Introducing yourself to the right person may mean eventually being absorbed into their department or helping them out on another set.

First impressions make a big difference and, looking back on it, I’m not sure how many of those non-introductions could have led to great friendships, a more comfortable atmosphere on set, and, yes, more work.

If you don’t introduce yourself to anyone, you aren’t leveraging your first day on set into something more. People quickly fall into roles on film sets and, if you’re a PA looking for a niche who introduces themselves to the camera assistants, you could find yourself being the adopted Camera PA. Leverage that Camera PA opportunity and you might be an AC on the next gig.

Meanwhile, the PA who was too shy to say hi to anyone is probably going to do all sorts of menial tasks and — maybe — get more PA jobs.

Dumb Mistake #7: Thinking You Know Everything Already

Dumb Mistake #7: Thinking You Know Everything Already

photo credit: stuartpilbrow

I distinctly remember the feeling I had the first time I ever walked onto a film set past the grip trucks being unloaded, trailers being set up, and lights being prepped. I had an overwhelming sense that I had no idea what I was doing.

Looking back on it now, I can truly appreciate how green I really was partly because I’ve seen others just as green as I once was go through the same process.

So let’s be clear: nobody ever walks onto their first film set and knows absolutely everything.

Even if you know a lot — by way of books, special features, or websites like this — there are going to be intricacies of filmmaking that are unique to the crew your with, the region you’re from, and the style of work you’re doing.

But more than likely, you’re not going to know everything simply because you have never worked on a film set before. No number of books, classes, videos, or self-preparation is a substitute for real-world, on set experience.

Part of the reason for this is because filmmaking is so different every single time you particpate in it. The commercial you work on this week will bring different challenges than the short film you work on next week or the feature film you’re slated to work on in a month.

Each set, each film, each job teaches you something new and challenges you to re-apply the principles of your position in a unique way.

It’s true that at some point you will know most of what’s happening on a set, but it takes a long time to reach that point.

There’s no way you walk onto a film set on day one knowing everything — and all the crew know it because they’ve lived through their own bouts of naivate.

So even if you know a lot, one of the dumbest things you can do is to pretend you have the same level of knowledge as the woman who spent 20 years doing what you’re doing now. Unfortunately this means that you may have to put up with some patronizing, some teasing, or even sit through some lessons you actually do know.

That’s OK — just live with it. Letting other crew think you’re slightly more inexperienced than you actually are is better than being a smug asshole.

And after day one, after you’ve worked together for a bit with the crew, then you can start explaining to them what you know. Otherwise, if they don’t ask, they don’t care.

Trial By Fire, Experience Through Mistakes

No matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes your first day on set — probably long after that, too. Hopefully they won’t be any of these seven listed, but there’s no guarantee.

When you’re thrown into the fire of filmmaking with the chaos of an aggressive schedule and immense pressure, it’s hard to be perfect — and nobody is.

I made some really stupid choices early on in my film career, but I was lucky enough to work with crew who understood the process and helped me rectify what I had done wrong. If you know you’ve made a mistake, apologize and ask for help to improve on it.

Because the dumbest mistake you can make is to think you’ll learn how to be a great filmmaker without failing along the way.

  • Ian Ackerman

    This is a GREAT article. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made so far (yes, there may/will be more) is not staying in contact with my network. Last summer I worked on a bunch of music videos and short films as a PA, and towards the end of the summer I was Head PA and Camera PA on a few projects. However, after the summer, I was offered a full time contract for 8 months as an AC on a daily lifestyle show. The problem (and my mistake) was that I met all these new people during the 8 months, but didn’t stay in contact with the people I worked (and learned from) with last summer. The first thing I did once my contract was up (mid-April this year) was contact everyone I worked with last summer, however, because I wasn’t in contact with them during the 8 months, they have “forgotten” about me. It’s not hard to call or email someone and be like, “Hi, I worked with you on (insert project here) as a PA, I’m on the hunt again and would love to work with you again.” But the problem is that since it’s been so long, I’ve moved to the back of their brain and am not on the forefront as someone to call. This has taught me to stay in contact with everyone, even if its a quick Facebook message. Don’t let the powers that do the hiring forget about you.

  • Ian Ackerman

    Now that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on set (I have, lots, as an AC) but with all new people and crew, which is the norm for the industry, but it would be nice to work with people from last summer again. And maybe as something than more than just a volunteer PA.

  • Pete Harper

    I visited a set recently that I was going on a couple of days later as a stand-in 2nd AC for a few days, just to meet a few people and see where everything was. While the official 2nd on the day was away attending to something on the mag liner, trying to impress, I overheard the DoP say to the 1st “give me T-2 and an ND6″ so dived to the filter box. It was kinda dark (a horror film on a creepy set) and had to use my phone to see what I was doing.

    Not only did I get the wrong size filter for the matte box but I also took over the grad rather than the full ND…only to then by told to the very patient 1st that this was one of the DoP’s “little jokes” and didn’t reeeeeeally want any ND on it at all….oh how much of a fool I felt….!!!

    #properAClolz

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

      Haha :) you must have felt silly after that one and I bet the DoP had a nice little crack about it later ;)

      Ah well, it happens to the best of us. Better that you tried to get it right than ignore it completely!

  • Brian

    i think another dumb mistake people make is not asking questions when they dont know something. i was 1sting on a feature and my 2nd was new and day playing for my regular second. I asked for him to retrive a donut (the neoprene ring put around a lens to prevent light leakage from creating reflections on filters in the matte box. But he didn’t know what i meant, so after about 3 minutes of me wondering where he was and what was taking so long i get on the radio and ask him what is taking so long. He responds “There are a lot of flavors, which kind do you want?” i turn to see him standing at crafty putting real donuts on a plate. I shook my head, laughed and explained what a donut was. This time it was a humorous outcome but if we had been in a time crunch it could have meant getting the shot or not, and it would have been my fault. So always ask, and then listen to the answer, when you aren’t sure what something is. You also wont be embarrassed when you grab the wrong item.

  • http://twitter.com/joshrandall Josh Randall

    Another good article – just discovered this site and now devouring all of it in one go!

    My own note to add to #7 on this one…
    people who have read lots of books and have no set experience love to say the industry slang or technical names to things for the sake of showing they know what it is called
    - so avoid trying to show off your knowledge –
    like if an alien landed disguised as human would give themselves a way by pointing at things and being like – ‘that is water, it is made from hydrogen and oxygen’ – to someone who is just having a drink

    me – being evil – like to ask these people to get sandbags – as they never mention them in any books and they assume it is something complicated rather than a bag of sand and panic :)

  • SJ.

    And now time for another GOOD IDEA, BAD IDEA (true stories).
    GOOD IDEA: Arriving early, offering to cover for the boom operator because he’s late (I eventually took his job because he didn’t do anything even when he did show up.).
    BAD IDEA: Playing with the handcuffs that belong to the prop department (Everyone had a good laugh about that one at my expense, and I think I lost a date).

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

      I will agree with the assessment of both of those! This is the 2nd time I’ve heard of a sound recordist losing their job to a PA or someone else because they arrived late and/or sucked. What’s up with that?

  • AR

    Film sets are very friendly and laid-back work environments, but don’t take that for granted. Never, ever, ever take a nap on set or let yourself doze off. It may happen at some point, but be smart about it and make sure it’s not going to get you in trouble. (I’ll be honest and admit it has happened to me, unintentionally.)

    I once had a cocky, arrogant PA on a set that constantly loudly bragged about ‘winning’ on set (“Haha I stuck him driving the van, sucks for him!”). Well after lunch he fell asleep on a couch in the staging room. Started snoring so loud we had to cut a take… DP came in and lightly stuck a piece of gaff tape that said “FIRED” on his forehead . Stopped snoring. He woke up confused two hours later as we were wrapping.
    That said, if you do come across a crew member who has succumbed to slumber, be polite and give them a quiet nudge and whisper an update on what’s going on. You’re helping cover for them… they would do it for you.

  • daren

    You forgot one of the biggest mistakes…..Turn your mobile phone off or if you have it on vibrate don’t leave it on a wooden bench….

  • Nick Brian Walters

    I think another huge mistake which falls under #7 is that you should always be willing to ask questions. A lot of grips I know will test newbies by asking for a non-existent piece of equipment, and if the newbie just wanders off for a half hour they know they have a dud.

    • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.moles3 Christopher Moles

      I worked as a Camera PA on a School Project and would go help out the Grip Dept when i could. There were things i didnt know about that i would ask about and i would Have to agree with you on this. I learned what something was and didnt look like a fool at all.

  • Tom

    Tom on 06.22.12 @ 1:11AMI am located in LA and about to grip on a set the coming weekend. Can anyone suggest a site or a book to read to get an idea. Any suggestions are welcome.

  • Zem

    As a director, I have had a Production Manager ask me to sign an extras release form because I gave myself a small cameo.

  • Goran

    Hi, Evan. What does this mean?
    “Rigging a flag without a grip’s approval could be unsafe”. What is a flag?

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

      A flag is a large piece of cloth (see here: http://www.gearmonkey.tv/shop/grip-flags-cutters-and-floppies-c-1_25_35.html) that is used to shape light. In the US system of filmmaking, the crew known as “grips” are the ones who put them on stands and move them around the set.

      Flags are usually used to cast shadows on purpose, to prevent light from shining on certain areas of the set, and to remove unintentional light “spilling”.

  • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

    Of the mistakes you mentioned, I’ve only done numbers 2 and 6. I still do 6 sometimes.

  • jimjones

    Didn’t know whose article I was reading then scrolled down to see your cheeky little face, bloody Evan, good read matey!

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

      Thanks Jim! I tend to pop up where you least expect it

  • David Nakase

    I always hear the saying: “If you are on time, you are late!”.

    So would bump #5 up a notch or two.