You’ve got to start somewhere and experienced crew members won’t expect you to know everything when it’s your first day on set… I see a lot of common mistakes by recent college grads, interns, and sometimes experienced crew that should know better. The fact that the mistakes are indeed “common” has prompted today’s entry. If you’re new to the film world and follow these few tips, you’ll already be starting out better than a lot of the people out there…
1. Don’t be a hero.
It’s better to make a few trips when carrying gear than to overtax yourself and make a mistake that can damage equipment – or worse, cause you to get hurt. This goes for making adjustments, rigging, setting gear, etc. Take the time to do it right from the start – because it will take a lot more time if someone gets hurt and the whole production comes to a screeching halt to address damaged equipment or deal with a personal injury.
Recently I worked with a crew member that tried to carry too much gear on his first trip of walking gear onto set at the beginning of the day. Within less than a minute dropped a fully loaded four-bank Kino on the ground. This was not rented gear; it was gear that I owned. Luckily the gear wasn’t damaged and we moved on with the day – but we’re not always that lucky. That’s not a good way to start a shoot day. I instructed him to take as many trips as he needed from that point on to make sure that sort of accident didn’t happen again.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Like stated above, experienced crew members won’t expect you to know everything. If you don’t know how to set something up – ask. If you were told to grab a piece of gear and you don’t know what you were asked for – ask. If you don’t understand something – ask. You see the pattern, right? At the end of the day, almost everyone on set is happy to help you with your experience and learning. It’s better to spend 2 minutes asking a question and getting an answer – than to spend 30 minutes doing a task wrong and having to fix a mistake after that amount of time.
On the note of questions, try to keep them relevant to the task at hand. There is a difference between asking clarifying questions that help you do your job and asking general questions that end up distracting other crew members from doing their jobs. It’s okay to have extra questions – but sometimes the ones that don’t need immediate answers are best to be saved for lunch breaks, down time, and after wrap-out.
3. Don’t force anything.
This is one of the most common mistakes that I see. As scary as it is, this also is something I see with experienced crew at times. Professional film gear has locks, restraints, and tensioners built-in for a reason. If a piece of gear is not turning smoothly, there’s a very good chance that you need to adjust whatever lock or resistance. This includes light stands, noga arms, sliders, dollies, tripods, etc. Nothing will make the blood boil of a DP than seeing someone wrench on his or her $5,000+ tripod in attempts to pan or tilt it when it’s fully locked down. Similarly, I would strongly advise against panning a lighting fixture by pulling on the power cable of the light as if it were a tripod’s pan handle. A week ago, after a quick company move to a nearby location, I saw that an AC had pushed a fully loaded gear cart several city blocks with the wheel locks engaged; he was drenched in sweat by the time he reached his destination due to the substantial added resistance. Again, like noted above, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t know how to adjust the resistance of a piece of gear – ask someone who knows rather than potentially damaging it.
4. Know who to report to.
Film sets have an organizational structure. Even when you’re new, you should know (or find out) who you should be reporting to. When everyone is setting up for a scene, idle hands are not a good thing unless you know that you definitely should not be doing anything. If you don’t think you have anything to do (or don’t know what to do), check with the person directly above you in your department – or your department head. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you’re on the same page as your department head (at the very least).
5. Don’t unplug lights while they’re still turned on.
I don’t see this one too often but I’ve seen it enough. There are few circumstances where it might be authorized – but at least on the film sets I work on, if you have access to the inline switch, ballast unit, or fixture’s on/off switch – that’s what should be used to turn the light on and off. This relates to potential damage to the lighting unit via power surges and not properly operating the unit in regards to its power source.
6. How to wrap a cable.
I honestly don’t know where the whole “elbow to palm” technique of wrapping cables and stingers (extension cords) came from – but professionals in every industry that I have encountered don’t do that. The overall principle being that when you force a cable by not allowing it to twist in it’s natural form, you can pinch and/or damage the wires inside the cable. Over time, this can ruin the cable permanently if the signal is unable to travel along the entire length without disruption or disconnect. I will throw together a quick video tutorial on some of the set basics that would benefit from video illustrations. Until then, try to observe someone properly wrapping a cable on set (or ask someone to show you quickly – it only takes a minute).
7. Lighting cables – coil from the fixture out.
On the topic of wrapping cables, when wrapping up lights that have attached cabling (as opposed to detachable Kino and HMI header cables) – start wrapping the cable from the fixture outward. What this means is that you shouldn’t start with the loose end of the cable and wrap the cable in towards the lighting fixture. Why? Because if there are lots of twists in the cable, you are forcing those twists in the wire to terminate into the fixture – whereas, if you start wrapping the cable from the fixture and work out, you can resolve any existing twists in the cable as you are wrapping because it is free to turn as needed during the wrap.
8. Lock it up.
When the camera is rolling, that is the time to be quiet and still – unless you are part of the on-camera talent (or have instructions to perform a specific task during the take). This includes walking around which can distract the on-camera talent (even if you’re not making noise). Also, the quieter you are during a take, the more the sound department will like you. This includes not rubbing your arms if you’re wearing noisy fabric, chewing gum, even breathing loudly… Their microphones can hear pretty much everything. If you are creating some sort of sound, there’s a good chance that the microphone is picking it up. Better safe than sorry.
9. Don’t be married to your cell phone.
I feel like this should be common sense – but unless you are the producer and working out last minute logistics, you probably don’t need to be on your cell phone during a shoot – especially not excessively. Over the years, I’ve seen a ton of crew sitting around, playing with their phones, and not really paying attention to what’s going on. Depending on the circumstances, I might end up doing the job of someone who isn’t doing theirs if it seems like it would be less work for me to do it myself than to try to get them to do it. This can directly translate into whether that person gets hired again in the future. The more on-point people are, the better the shooting experience can be for everyone involved.
10. C-stand Arm Positioning.
When setting a C-stand with an extended arm, position the arm over the tall leg of the stand base. If you are working with a light stand (versus a C-stand), position the arm in line with one of the stand’s legs. The physics of this is that the stand will want to try to topple in the direction of the arm – if you position the tall leg of your C-stand in line with the arm (in addition to proper sandbagging), it will provide the most resistance for supporting the load. Again, if you’re unsure – ask someone.
*Clothing choices when reflections or special lighting circumstances are in play.
This isn’t so much a set rule or set etiquette – but more of a personal preference, so do what you will with the info. I’ve been in plenty of filming situations where people wearing white shirts are popping in reflective surfaces. There are times where someone might need to control a light or manual trigger within the frame and wouldn’t be seen if wearing all black or dark clothing – but they stick out like a sore thumb when wearing white or light colors. On set, I always wear a white undershirt and a black shirt over top. There are times when one of the two colors come in handy but more often than not, the black shirt helps me stay unseen in reflections and instances with special lighting circumstances. It sounds kind of dumb when I’m typing this out but I regularly come across these types of situations so I figured I’d mention it…
Over time, I’m sure this list of tips will grow from updates – or be revisited by a Part 2. Happy shooting!