While the rainbow of colors camera assistants wear on their hip looks fun, the variety serves a very real purpose.
Specifically, having so many different colors of tape allows you to mark up a floor like a Twister board and still have some order to what each mark means. The key to not getting lost inside that menagerie of marks is to use the colors both consistently and effectively.
That’s not as hard as it seems… if you know what you’re doing.
Why Use So Many Colors of Camera Tape?
If camera assistants (ACs) only used one or two colors of tape, things would get pretty confusing pretty fast. That’s because as an AC you have all sorts of things you use camera tape to mark:
Camera tape and all of its colors are also used extensively for other purposes like labeling camera accessories on a multi-camera shoot or tagging magazines, but today I want to talk specifically about the different types of floor marks.
Imagine this scenario: you have a scene with five actors who all have at least two moments in a scene where they have to hit a mark and say a line, but you only have two colors of tape. So that means you’re going to slap 10 marks on the ground with only two colors and expect the talent to nail them without issue all while delivering a believable performance.
Right… good luck!
Even using methods to differentiate same colored marks for an actor, that kind of volume of tape on the floor in a scene would get real confusing real fast — and not just for the actors. Camera operators, focus pullers, and dolly grips would all have a tough time interpreting and deciphering through all the marks.
And this is why you use different colors.
If you take the same scenario again, with the crucial difference that you now have 5 colors of tape, things get much less overwhelming. You assign one color to each actor so that they no longer have to look hard for their mark — they just look for their color.
It also translates well to the focus puller who will likely have different colored pens or pencils to mark their follow focus. Now they can use the red pen to make a focus mark for the actor who was assigned the red tape.
All of the sudden, with the addition of a few colors, everyone’s job just got so much easier.
But there’s still room for error — you can’t just assign colors haphazardly from scene to scene and expect everyone to follow your made-up system. You have to maintain a consistency to help you use all of your colors effectively.
The One Rule to Follow When Assigning Colors
There are very few “rules” when it comes to using tape colors, but there are expectations. And while I am normally all for “do whatever you like” approaches to the job, I strongly urge you to adhere to these expectations.
Why? Well, because actors and talent are picky. I once heard about a well-known Hollywood actor getting angry simply because he was used to having his marks be the color blue.
So toe the party-line when it comes to this one rule and build your system out from there:
- The color red is always used for the lead actor
That’s it. That’s pretty much the only “rule” I have heard and that I live by. Everything else you read is a suggestion.
One question that often comes up when I am coaching new AC’s, however, is how do you know which actor is the lead actor? And if the lead actor isn’t in the scene, do you reassign the color?
Here’s what to do: if you haven’t read the script, the lead actor is generally the one with the most dialogue, blocking, and action. If you still can’t infer who is who, ask the script supervisor.
Secondly, if the lead actor isn’t in the scene, you should only reassign the color to another actor who has no other scenes left or is never going to be in the same scene with the lead actor. The idea here is to give each actor their own color for the duration of the shoot.
If you assign Billy Bob (our lead) with red and then reassign it to Jane (a lead in another scene that doesnt have Billy Bob) that’s fine. But if later on Jane and Billy Bob have a scene together, one of the actors is going to have to reorient themselves to a new color that isn’t red. And if they are unable to do that, it will cause frustration for them, the director, and eventually you.
Consistency is what matters most. Don’t start out using one color for one purpose at the beginning of the shoot and transition it halfway through.
Which Colors Serve What Purpose?
In general, this is how I sort out what colors I use for what purpose:
Red – Lead Actor
Like I said, this is the only “rule” I’ve ever been told. Whether it’s because red is a power color or because it’s bright and noticeable, I’m not sure, but I’ve been following this for so long that I correct any 2nd AC who tries to use a different color for the lead actor.
Blue – Supporting Actor
Just like red is always used for the lead actor, blue is almost always assigned to the 2nd lead or the most prevalent supporting actor.
Orange, Yellow, Green, etc. – Supporting Actor
After blue and red, color assignment is by preference. It doesn’t matter which you choose.
White – Supporting Actor
White is the last color you should use because it isn’t a color at all and is harder to conceptualize. Further, I often defer to white when I need to make a bunch of different styles of marks for extras which I’ll discuss more later in this post.
Black – Hidden Marks
Black shouldn’t be used at all for two reasons:
- Gaffer’s tape is black and will be everywhere on set
- It’s hard to see on most surfaces
The fact that it’s hard to see, however, can also work to your advantage.
If there is an instance where the marks on the floor will be seen, but it is crucial for the 1st AC or talent to still have a reference point, tear off a tiny piece of black tape and use it as the mark — make it about as big as your thumbnail. This will be big enough for the 1st AC and talent to see, but small enough for most cameras to pick it up.
Pink (Flourescent) – Focus Marks
I like to reserve the super bright pink tape I have for focus marks. I do this because it’s so bright it often annoys talent if they have to look at it for too long and because it shows up easily in my peripheral vision which is handy while I’m pulling focus.
I also use pink tape for any mark that doesn’t involve an actor.
That includes dolly marks, focus marks, marks for the camera (see an example to the right), and visual effects tracking markers.
Basically, it’s my catch-all technical mark color.
Keeping Track of Your Color Assignments
While having so many different colors is helpful during a scene, it can be troublesome to keep track of who has what color for both the 2nd AC placing the marks and the 1st AC pulling focus to them.
The best way to keep track is to have a small notebook or a copy of the call sheet with the colors written next to the actors’ names. You can take it a step further as 1st AC and write these on the call sheet you tape to the camera.
Make sure you keep this notebook with you at all times throughout the shoot and keep it updated. It will help you if, for instance, an actor who shot on day 1 has another scene to shoot on day 10.
Another alternative is to use colored markers to highlight their names of their tape color.
As you continue on through the shoot, however, you will find yourself relying less and less on these and begin to know who is who based on the T-marks on the ground.
What Happens If You Run Out of Camera Tape Colors?
It does happen.
Just wait until you do a short film about a family’s dysfunctional wedding and you have 12 actors all standing in a circle arguing — making sure you have your ducks in a row when it comes to colors becomes vitally important!
A great technique, taught to me by the first AC on Ghosts Don’t Exist, is to use sharpie to squiggle lines, shapes, and styles on the tape. This way you maximize the colors you already have.
If you want to learn more about that, please read the post I wrote about it: “Quick Tip: Marking Two Actors with the Same Color Tape.”
Establish Your Color Rules and Stick with Them
You’ll find once you’re strapped with a rainbow of camera tape that it’s the amateurs who will laugh at you saying, “Wow! So many different colors!”
But the pros on set know exactly what they’re for and how much more useful the different colors are — as long as you know how to wield them.
Just remember that consistency matters.
In the end, you make your own rules in regards to how you like to work, but it’s important to establish those rules for marking actors from Day 1 of a shoot and carry it all the way to the wrap party.
How do you split up the colors on your tape roll? Do you also use red for marking the lead actor? Please let me know in the comments!