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Set Etiquette for the Indie Filmmaker

The truth of the matter is that whether you are working on an indie film or a big-time Hollywood production, set etiquette is really the same. As you work on more shoots, you will most likely start out as a production assistant and work your way up to other positions, and understanding proper set etiquette will help you build and protect your reputation. Your reputation will precede you as you work in the industry, and it can take a long time to change your reputation if you develop a bad one. So it is worth it to protect your reputation. I thought I would share some general guidelines for how to conduct yourself on a set, whether professional, student, or your own project.

Silence is Golden, Forethought a Blessing

Sets can be very noisy spaces to work in, until the camera rolls, when usually it is only the actors speaking. But even in between takes, it is best to work as quietly as possible. Some departments have developed specific hand signals to communicate information. Remember to save “war” stories for lunch or after work, networking, and concentrate on getting the day’s schedule done.

Along those lines, once the current shot is set up, there will probably be some down time before the other departments have finished and the camera is ready to roll. During this downtime, don’t just go and snack or start chatting away. Stay quiet and start thinking about what you will have to do for the next shot. Is it a re-light, will you have to black out any windows? Will the camera be mounted on a high hat or mounted on a ladder? What about reflections? If any gear will be seen in the next camera position, maybe that gear can be moved now. Quietly checking in with your department head about this shows that you are thinking, and is a great way to make yourself valuable.

Relax, it is Only a Movie

These are perhaps the six greatest words to remember when working on a project. It is only a movie, don't get stressed out over it. Work hard, do your best, but don't let the pressure get to you, it is only a movie. To the people who are outside the movie business, making a movie may seem like a glamorous life, but the reality is that it is just a job. It is extremely important to remember that no matter what the project, be it a “passion project” (and aren't they all), a bunch of friends putting something together for fun, student films, documentaries, commercials, feature films, industrials, etc., it is just a job, it is only a movie, and it is not worth getting hurt over.

Accidents happen all too often when people are being careful, but don't get caught up in the drama of “MAKING A MOVIE.” Leave the drama on the screen, because if you forget that it is only a movie, and let the drama get to you, then you are probably going to do something you shouldn't. If you get hurt, or break something, or injure someone else, then believe me when I tell you that no one will care that you were trying to help out, and no one is going to be happy—least of all you.

ABN: Always Be Networking

Your next job may very well come from someone you meet on set, and how you carry yourself will make a great difference as to whether someone will take a chance on recommending you. By the way, this applies to actors, as well as crew. Being calm and easy to work with makes it far more likely that other crew members will want to work with you in the future. So remember, even if you are the star or director of the film, it is best to keep your ego in check when dealing with other people.

Do your Job; Don't Do Someone Else’s Job

While being gung-ho and running around taking care of multiple things may seem like a valuable trait on set it can, in the end, be very counterproductive. You have a job, and everyone else on the shoot has a job, and if you are off doing their job, then you aren't doing yours. Years ago, I was shooting pick-ups on a feature-length indie film. Small crew, 35mm, principal photography was done, but extra shots were needed. It happens. One day I asked the director about his production assistants, and what he thought of them. The production assistants were very energetic, and willing to do just about anything to get the film done. The director's response was that he loved his production assistants and they were great, but he wished they would just do the job they were asked to do and not jump in and do other things. As helpful as they were, when they started jumping in, they caused problems that could have been avoided had they just done what was asked. There is a flow and hierarchy on a shoot. It isn't about job protectionism; it is about keeping the amount of chaos to a minimum.

Keep Your Mouth Closed

One day you will be on a shoot, and all of a sudden it will grind to a halt. There will be a problem that the Director, Director of Photography (DP), or Mixer (sound recordist) is trying to solve. It is important at this moment to remember that unless you are the Director, DP, or Mixer that no one wants to hear your thoughts on how to solve the problem. Think about it like this: you are working on a commercial as a crew member or production assistant, and the director is having a problem working out a scene. That director is being paid a lot of money by the clients, they've paid a handsome director's fee to the company the director works for, plus, they are paying the director a daily rate. If, somehow, you come up with the same idea as the director, and blurt it out, now the director cannot actually use that idea. Why? Because the client is paying them to be the driving vision, and how can they use the same idea that was blurted out by a crew member? So keep your thoughts as to blocking, performance, and lighting to yourself.

"...don't get caught up in the drama of “MAKING A MOVIE.”

That doesn't mean that if you have a solution or a suggestion that may help out the situation that you can't let someone know. You just have to follow the well-established path, which is to quietly mention it to the person above you. Most likely you will have misunderstood the situation and the person will let you know that. However, if they think it is a good idea, they will pass it along. Don't worry, if it turns out to be a good idea, you will get the credit for it.

How is this different than just blurting out your idea? It allows someone the space to consider it, and then they have the choice as to whether to use it or not. I remember working on a series of commercials as the animation camera assistant (back before CGI, when animators manipulated physical models frame-by-frame). One day the director came in and told the crew that the client, who had approved the ending of the commercials before we started filming, hated the ending, and there was a big problem. The next day I was loading the camera and the director came on set. I had worked at that company for a while, starting as an intern, and no one else was around. I made an offhand suggestion about a different ending. One week later (this was a big commercial campaign), the ad agency rep walked in, shook the hand of the director and said, “They love the new ending, they want to take us out to lunch.” Without a pause the director said, “It was Steve's idea, we should take him.” The agency rep turned to me and said, “Great idea!” then turned to the director and said, “They just want you.” So they left.

The reality is that I had a fluke of an idea that helped out. I got the credit, and I kept working for the company because I didn’t embarrass anyone. The director could use the idea and give me the credit, because he had time to consider it, and tweak it. So rest assured, people in this industry will recognize your contributions; it is rare that anyone else will take credit for your idea, because this is still a small industry, and word will get around. 

Listen More than You Speak

Just about the worst thing you can do on a shoot is to show off how much you know. People in this business are notorious for teaching and bringing along people they have taught and trust. You may have studied film in school, may have worked on many productions, but you are working for someone on this shoot, and your real job is to make them comfortable and happy—that is the secret to success in any field, making your boss or manager happy. Now, if you want to impress someone with how much you know, that is precisely the wrong tactic to take, because: first, you may not know as much as you think; second, if I teach you how to do something, I know that you do it the way I like, and I can trust you, and that makes my job easier. Easier equals happier, and that makes you more valuable to me. If you are concerned with showing that you know everything and aren't willing to learn, that makes you a potential problem I’d rather avoid.

Once you start working as a “Key” or head of a department, you will find that you want to surround yourself with people you know, or those who come recommended to you by those you know. So, if someone is talking about theory or practice, don't show off that you know it already, let them tell you, teach you—you might learn something, and you will make them feel comfortable.

If You Don't Know, Ask

So, along the lines of the above point, if you are asked to do something, for example, operate a piece of equipment and you don't know how, then don't. Say that you don't know, and that person will respect you for it, and know you are trustworthy. Yes, someone else may be asked, and it turns out that they move on and get a fabulous career, and you end up kicking yourself because you could have handled it. However, that is a much better outcome than getting a reputation for breaking gear because you don't know how to operate it when you said you did.

If it is Broken, Don't Use it

Chances are, if a piece of equipment is broken, then trying to use it can cause an unsafe condition that could result in more damage or injury. It is also quite possible that the equipment is fine, it is just that you don't know how to use it, and it is not working the way you expect it to. If you know that you are going to be working with an unfamiliar piece of equipment, then try to get as much practice with it beforehand, practice as if it was real and build it from the case, use it, and pack it away. Get comfortable with it. But always remember: if it seems that the gear is broken, then don't use it.

Keep Your Wallet Closed

On every shoot, there is a budget, and someone is in control of that. Even if it is a small project, and no one has actually figured out how much they are going to spend to pull it off, someone is footing the bill. Either they are paying the cast and crew, renting the equipment and space, paying for transportation and food, and so on. You may be helping out a friend; you may be donating your time, seeking to make contacts as you learn; or you could be getting paid for your work. Whatever your motivations are for working on a project, if you are not the person responsible for the budget, then don't lend the production your money. 

There are a lot of unscrupulous characters out there in many different fields and, unfortunately, this includes the filmmaking world. There are people who will seek to take advantage of you, figuring that once the shoot is over, they can avoid paying/reimbursing you because they will never see you again. Sometimes the production just runs out of money. It is an honest situation that happens all too often, where financial planning falls short. Perhaps it is the director’s personal project, and they have reached the limit on their daily ATM withdrawal. Whatever the reason, if it isn't your job to fund the production, and someone is asking to borrow some money from you, don't open your wallet for someone else's project. It is one thing to do someone a favor, but quite another to end up laying out money, and never getting it back. Believe me when I write this, and also believe me that it will not hurt your reputation if you tell the person who is asking you for money that you don't have any.

I hope that you find these tips useful to you on your journey in this field, and can help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can derail you along the way.