Film Set Fundamentals: 7 Tips to Surviving Your First Day on Set

 Film Set Fundamentals: 7 Tips to Surviving Your First Day on Set

Working on a film set is a great way to set yourself apart from other still photographers because everyone is shooting video nowadays. Before you try your hand at shooting a short or some video content, it might be a good idea to get some experience on a large-scale production and learn how the process works from professionals. I’ve been working on production sets for years and your first day on the job can be intimidating.

To properly execute a large production, the crew has to run like a well-oiled machine. Usually there are several departments and many roles within those departments. If you’re new, you’ll most likely be a production assistant (PA). That means you could get assigned to any department. So, knowing a little about everything helps. Here are seven tips you to get you started and make your first day go smoothly.

film crew

carmine sarazen©

1.) Come Prepared

No matter what kind of set you’re on, if you don’t have a multi-tool (a Swiss army knife on steroids), a flashlight, and a pair of work gloves, chances are you’re going to get on people's nerves quick. Showing up with the proper tools is production 101. If the second camera assistant shows up and doesn’t have a can of compressed air, the director of photography (DP) is going to throw a fit (and rightly so). Suit up, show up, and have a good attitude and bring the right tools.

2.) Hands Off Other Department’s Gear

The first thing you need to know when you show up on a set is whether or not it’s a union show. If it’s a union show, touching someone else’s gear is a no-no. These rules are in place to minimize problems and hold each department accountable. The grip and electric department (G&E) has a lot of heavy and dangerous electrical equipment. It takes years to learn how to handle properly. That said, on a smaller budget movie, it’s okay to ask a grip or electric crew member if you can lend a hand. If you are a PA, this is a good way to get some hands-on experience.

3.) Be On Time

If you arrive right on time, it means you're already late. If you show up right as your call time starts, you’re fighting the clock to get a jump on your tasks. For me, 15 minutes before breakfast is served is on time. The film set usually serves a courtesy meal 15-30 minutes before call time. Furthermore, being on time also means you’re ready to work, your radio is on, and you already know the call sheet information.

film crew

carmine sarazen©

4.) Never Carry a Walkie With an Open Mic

I was recently on a feature working as a first assistant director. I generally am good about filtering what I say on a mic, but sometimes some bonehead things slip out. One of my production managers asked me a question about a wrap time on our talent. In the heat of the moment, I responded in an insensitive manor and it was overheard by an actress through someone on the production team not wearing a surveillance earpiece. This did not go over well. You might not get fired for this, but you might not get hired again. It’s best never to have production conversations in front of talent. That also means that you have to be careful what you say over the walkie because you can never be sure who is listening. Things can be taken out of context and it’s tough for production managers to explain.

5.) Be Attentive

When you're starting out as a PA, or a photo assistant, or a producer’s right-hand man: be attentive. You might want to run your own production one day, right? A very skilled director/producer gave me the advice to always practice hyper vigilance. Be aware of your surroundings, so that when it’s your time to shine, you’ll have a clue. The way you move up is to learn, adapt, and apply. When the next production starts, producers always remember smart and hard working people.

6.) Be Likable

Unfortunately, being likable is not something that can be learned. So then how do you become likable? Identify your strengths. At the end of the day, there are lots of skilled and talented people in every industry, but you want to stand out. How many people know how to operate a RED camera system? How many people can light a scene and do it fast? Many! The point is to find out what other people like about you and get better at the things people may not. The reality of working with production is that people hire their friends. You spend a lot of time on set and you want to spend it with people that you get along with. In other words, don’t be a jerk.

film crew

carmine sarazen©

7.) Be Curious

The beauty of starting as a PA is that it gives you the chance to find out what you want to do. There are many different departments ranging from transportation to the art department to hair and makeup. While you are at the bottom of the rung, keep your eyes peeled for the job that excites you, best suits your personality, and makes you feel challenged.

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8 Comments

Antonio Carrasco's picture

There are a LOT of unwritten rules on a set that can get you in trouble or even fired over little things. Here are a few:
Don't hang out at craft services unless it's lunch! All those snacks and sodas can look tempting halfway through a 12 hour day. If one of the producers sees you at crafty more than once, they will probably think you aren't doing any work and might get rid of you.

DON'T sit in any of the folding chairs if you're a PA or grip. Those are for the DP, director or talent. I got fired from a production for this reason. It was at the end of a 14 hour day and I was very tired. I saw a seat and took it. And I was promptly replaced for all future shoot days :)

This info is all well and good, but I think the first problem we probably need to address here is how the hell do you even get onto a set??? A lot of us don't live near most of the places where sets that include craft services are located. Even if we did, how do you even make that connection? I suppose the big takeaway from this article would be simply: don't be a dumbass.

Carmine Sarazen's picture

Trent, you'd be very surprised at how many film crews are moving to much smaller geography. Most movies are shot in Georgia, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Pittsburgh for example. Local Unions are much easier to get into, you do not have to live in LA or NY anymore. So that's why I wrote this article. Thanks for your input. Hope this helps.

Mike Bartoszek's picture

Texas is a huge market for film right now, and the local I.A.T.S.E. chapters are easy to approach and are always looking for skilled folks. Come visit Austin and Local 205.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Nah, actually it's a bit more than just don't be a dumbass. If you talk to people working on sets many of them will tell you stories of getting fired from productions for breaking some of these rules that are unwritten.

And sometimes it's a "soft" firing, meaning you didn't get fired per se, but you no longer receive work from that company.

Mike Bartoszek's picture

and learn to coil cables correctly! One of my first gigs i got fired for poorly coiling a Socapex, no one likes pulling a cable that ends up having loops or half hitches all the way through it because it wasn't coiled and boxed correctly. Best thing for union gigs..if it's not your department, don't touch it.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Ah yes... I remember in film school one teacher made us roll and unroll cables for an entire class day so we could get it right. Seemed stupid at the time, but on my first real gig, it definitely helped

Mike Bartoszek's picture

haha...ya, i cut my teeth on arena concerts and some of those guys are gruff, tired, a little hung over, loud and grumpy...they'll let you know for sure when you're doing something wrong and they'll make sure everyone knows it.
it's a skill that so many people skip out on even though it makes you look like an idiot if you fail at it during a production.