These ten keys to success were learned to me from the sweat of experience and the blood of many long days next to a camera. It covers stuff I’ve seen crew do on set that annoyed me or somebody else and, because of that, a lot of it is common sense.
Yet every day people on film sets fail to follow these pieces of advice. And it’s costing them jobs.
So pay close attention and you’ll take one big step towards helping yourself get more work and be better at it.
1. The Little Things Count
There was one job I working as 1st assistant camera (AC) and I went to go get the cinematographer a sandwich because he was tired and hungry. When I came back with it, one of the juicers (electricians) pulled me aside and said, “I see what you’re doing. Good work.” I asked him what he meant and he replied, “Keepin’ the boss happy. It’ll get you more jobs.”
Immediately, I realized what he meant.
And he was right.
The little things count — sandwiches, water, gum, hand sanitizer. It’s these subtle things that will compound your status as a good worker if you can keep up with them.
For instance, if you notice that your department head is especially fond of Starburst and craft services ends up having some — grab them all and pocket them. That way whenever they’re stressed out or tired you can offer one up, providing a pleasant little surprise and cheering them up.
It may seem like a low level thing to do, but it’s a generally nice thing to do as a person and it will make everyone happier.
2. Making Excuses? Nobody Cares
I can’t stress this piece of advice enough: don’t make excuses.
The only time an excuse is appropriate is if somebody asks you for clarification in what happened. But if you’re sent to go get something in 10 minutes and it takes you 20 — don’t explain why. Say you’re sorry, it was your fault, and it won’t happen again — even if it wasn’t your fault.
Taking responsibility is the important aspect, not where the blame actually lies.
Whoever works above you will respect you so much more if you take responsibility and you will gain their trust because they’ll know when you mess up you can acknowledge it and won’t try to cover it up.
3. Ask Questions, But Remember the Answers
When you’re starting out on your first crew jobs, there will be dozens of questions you will have just on Day 1 alone.
The movie-making machine is a complex organism that is hard to understand when you’re thrown into it for the first few times. This is compounded by the fact that each gig, crew, and crew member does and says things differently.
Therefore, asking questions is always OK.
In my experience, it’s always better to ask how to do something or what something is, than to try and figure it out on your own and get it wrong. Ask and get it right is much more admirable. It shows your superiors that you want to learn and, more importantly, that you care about getting things right.
The flipside to this coin, however, is that nobody likes to teach someone who won’t listen. And for that, it’s important you remember what you’ve been told.
Asking which input the BNC cable goes in on the monitor is OK the first time, but if every time you hook it up you’re having to ask the question, it gets ragged pretty fast. It shows a lack of caring and an inability to learn and take initiative.
So, don’t be intimidated to ask questions, but try not to have to be constantly reminded.
4. Be Polite to Everyone
You never know who will get promoted, who will call you for the next gig, and who is talking to who.
It’s important to be polite to everybody on the set from the director to the PA to the craft services people. Filmmaking is a team effort, by all means, and in such, nobody should consider themselves on some moral high ground over anybody else.
On sheer decency, this rule should be followed.
But it can also have a direct impact on your ability to get work. You could be the most skilled person at your craft, but if you’re a jerk, that other guy who is not as good as you, but pleasant to work with, will most likely get the job above you. Politeness goes a long way with minimal effort.
5. Hang Close to Crew Doing What You’re Interested In
If you end up on a set as a General Set PA or Craft Services PA or any other of the number of jobs you may be doing a job that you weren’t entirely interested in — that’s OK.
When you have downtime, if you get any, hang around the crew members doing the jobs that you would ultimately like to end up doing. If you want to end up working Camera, go hang with the ACs. If you are interested in becoming a Gaffer, go mix with the juicers. If you’re interested in directing, try and be around video village.
The premise is this: everybody likes to feel important and talk about themselves and their profession. If they like you, they will probably be more than happy to feed your interest in what they do.
There are two catches to this approach:
1. The first is ONLY do this when you have downtime.
It will look bad for you and to the person you’re talking to if you’re constantly being badgered away from them because you didn’t do something yet.
2. The second is not to get in anybody’s way.
Make sure you have downtime and they have downtime as well. Good moments for this are usually in the mornings at arrival, lunchtimes, brief breaks between setups.
It’s OK and it’s often invited to come talk to other crew members about what they do, how they do it, etc. Most experienced crew will know if you have none and don’t mind talking to you as long as you remain respectful and show a real interest to learn.
6. Speak the Lingo
Right off the bat there are two things you should know on a film set: it’s a C47, not a clothespin, and they’re called stingers, not extension cords. Those are the two faux pas’ that could make you look like a real newbie to the whole experience, even if you are.
As quick as you can, find out the lingo for the department you’re working in. Every crew member comes from different areas, schools, and backgrounds so often there are multiple words for a single item, but you’ll see everybody usually stick to one by the first week.
Learn some of the meanings of stuff like the martini (last shot of the day), dirty (putting some object in frame out of focus just a little bit), points (what people yell when they’re carrying something that could hit you in the face). Those are general terms that you might need to know.
But then each department has their own, especially grip and electric, which LOVES nicknames. My favorites are the Gary Coleman and Horse cock. I’ll let you figure ’em out.
7. Be Resourceful
Being able to think on your feet and adapt effectively will put you miles above anybody else competing for your job.
On one shoot I was on, I was buzzed in my walkie to figure out something to carry a bunch of water bottles because it was slowing down our 2nd AC having to lug the bottle individually between setups. I looked everywhere in our staging area for anything just the right size, but couldn’t find it.
So I went to craft services, saw a Twizzler container, dumped the twizzlers, gaff taped a handle on and called it The Bottle Buddy (read the full story here). It fit 5 water bottles, which was perfect since we had 5 crew in the camera department. It saved us about 5 minutes every setup and we kept it for the rest of the shoot on the camera cart and it always went with us near the camera. I still have it and bring it to shoots.
8. Stick Up for Yourself
Don’t let anybody overstep their boundaries on their ability to command you. Yes, you will often work for people who are demanding and curt about it. That’s not what I’m talking about.
What I’m referring to is people disrespecting your capacity to do your job competently or disrespecting you as a human being in general. I have had to do this on a few occasions because of my young age. I have been accused of breaking gear, losing gear, and even been blamed for an entire day’s worth of sound being erased.
The best defense is to be willing to talk to the person and don’t let yourself be intimidated. There are times, however, where I’ve also had to stick up for myself professionally.
On one shoot, the director of photography was getting frustrated because the tripod — which he was trying to move himself — was giving him trouble. Finally, I stopped him and, in a polite but stern way, informed him that it was my job to move the tripod and that if he told me where and how he wanted it, I would figure out a way. He told me where and I did figure out a way.
Sometimes you have to make it known there’s a reason you’re on the crew, that you’re a critical part of the crew, and that you’re getting paid because of your abilities.
9. Keep Calm and Carry On
Staying calm and not panicking is critical to the filmmaking process. Especially if you are working for somebody else.
When I asked my cinematographer friend about advice for this article, he said he likes people working for him who stay optimistic. These are related — stay positive and you will remain calm. It’s never as bad as you think it is.
Staying calm is not only important to your own psyche, but to surrounding crew as well. It enables you to act faster, remain focused, and provide a streamlined efficiency to those around you.
Flustering never helps anybody. It makes everybody frustrated, it stalls the work, and often leads to sloppy results.
Whenever I have descended into panic mode, I always remind myself, “in the end, it’s only a movie.” Which is true. It’s only a movie. It may seem like the most important thing in the world at the time, but in the end it’s only a movie; it can be reshot, rescheduled, remade.
When you absolutely can’t avoid it and you do get flustered, ask for a few moments of break and sit down somewhere quiet. Come back with your negative energy focused on doing a good job.
10. Ask What’s Next and Prep Accordingly
That phrase above comes straight from the mouth of my cinematographer friend. It was among his “top things” he likes his crew to embody.
Don’t stand around waiting to be told what to do if you know there is going to be more work. In fact, it’s really hard to find much time to stand around doing nothing on a film set.
Always look busy — there are always stingers to be coiled, lenses to be cleaned, trash to be picked up, cases to be organized, lights to be broken down. Any number of things. Ask people if they need help, or your department head, and ask what you can do not just now but after that as well.
And prep two steps ahead. If there are two rooms in one location, while shooting is going on in one, prep for the other.
It’s this eagerness to get going that makes great crew members.And it’ll make your life, your job, and your day easier.
Common Sense to the Nth Degree
Many of these tips are useful for any profession and life in general, however, a film set amplifies all emotions and hardwork and compresses them into a stressed out period of time in which everybody is working as fast as possible towards one goal.
It’s easy to get caught watching this seemingly incomprehensible machine from the sidelines, but being able to follow these tips will help you access it and quickly become an important cog.
Common sense is big on film sets, as much as some of these items are common sense, but people still manage to go against them.
Don’t and you’ll be well on your way to getting more jobs and starting a career.