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On Set Etiquette For The Beginner

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Katherine Di Marino head shotThe following are some tips for you about either visiting, being a cast, or crew member on a set when you’re first beginning your career.

I’ll start with probably the most important one. Stay out of actor’s eye-lines. If you are there, you are a cause for distraction. The first time I visited a set I made this mistake and the actor pulled a Christian Bale and went ballistic! Try and stay behind the monitor if possible.

The subject near and dear to everyone’s hearts…food! If you’re visiting, let the crew get through the catering line first …particularly if it’s a unionized crew. They have a set amount of time for their break and if you get in line before it’s appropriate you will get many glares and have holes burning through your flesh.

While we’re talking about food, don’t stand all day grazing in front of the craft service table! That food is for everybody and I’ve seen MANY people go to town because there’s free treats sitting there in front of them. Particularly if you’re a visitor…it looks really cheesy and gets noticed!

Once again if you are a visitor, do not fawn over the actors and approach them without an introduction from your contact that has brought you to set and has given okay to go ahead – particularly if they are in the midst of an emotionally taxing scene. They will once again go mental on you depending on who they are and their temperament. It may not end up being the quaint meet and greet you were hoping for.

As with actors…don’t talk to the director. He/she is usually focused on his next shot or scene and doesn’t want people approaching for chitchat. So unless you’ve got earth shattering business to deal with, do not bother them!

If you need to sit, do not do it in one of the director’s chairs… especially if it has the director or producer or cast’s name on it! Amazing how some people do this. Sit only if you are invited to.

Keep your eyes on your feet. Watch out for cables and equipment when walking. Sounds obvious but it can be like a minefield, and I’ve had a couple of trips myself. Sandbags are usually good enough to stop things from toppling over, but it can make for an embarrassing situation.

The minute “action” is called keep your mouth shut and stand perfectly still. If you need to cough, stifle it otherwise you won’t be very popular. After “cut” is called you can do whatever you want, but for those few moments pretend you’re a statue. I once worked on a studio shoot that was done in real time where the green camera operator was getting directions through a head set, and she started talking back to the producer in the booth in the middle of an interview…who of course could not hear her. Nobody was amused, and the host was apoplectic and couldn’t hide it, although the cameras were still rolling!

Unless it your job, do not touch the sets or props.  This is a good way to get the art director, set dresser and props man angry.  Not only are sets and props not there for your touching, but there’s often continuity (called a hot set), which you’ve just messed up!  Now the continuity person can get mad at you too. (I once saw a writer take a sticky bun off the top of a plate and bite into it as it was being carried to the set for the next scene. People make mistakes…don’t let it be you!)

Never stand in front of a light (or a silk that has a light shining through it) as you will cast a shadow which will make the DP go crazy on your backside as you’ve just re-lit the scene.  A friend of mine learned this the hard way!

If you’re on a low budget shoot, pitch in when necessary setting up and dismantling or moving stuff around because you’re likely running with a very small crew. Don’t be precious about it even if you’re doing hair that day – everybody has to lend a hand. I’ve worked on a couple of projects where able bodied men sat there and watched me move heavy stuff around without offering to lend a hand. Don’t be that person!

If you’re a member of the crew save your flirting for the end of the work day. A director I know was almost blackballed for being more interested in the make-up girl than what was going on in front of the camera. A lot of tongues were wagging. I am aware of another director who invited his girlfriend to set for most of the shoot, and he will be remembered for his endless canoodling, not his film, so keep your head in the game. This is the stuff people remember about you and makes a difference to whether you get invited back for future projects. Professionalism at all times is very important.

If you intend to bring someone to set, get the permission of the producer first (who will discuss it with the 1st AD and director). All visits should be authorized and will be noted on the call sheet so everyone is aware of who the stranger is in their midst and whether they belong there, and haven’t just walked in off the street. You may have no idea what scenes are on deck for that day, and something sensitive like a sex scene could be on the agenda which means a closed set. Or once again something particularly emotionally taxing for the actors and distractions will want to be kept at a minimum. It’s up to the powers that be to decide what is an appropriate day.

If you’re working on location do not walk in and out of doors attached to the set when rolling, and if you leave set, make sure to close the door tightly after you’ve departed or the 1st AD will get pissy with you.

Also if you’re on location be aware of what you’re doing, even if you’re not on set, but are in an attached room or you’re upstairs. I once worked in a decrepit old building and even one floor up you could hear footsteps that sounded like jackhammers and conversation down below. Be aware of your surroundings and be sensitive to your environment and the noise you may not be aware you are making.

While we’re talking about noise make sure to turn cell phones OFF before walking onto a set. Anything that rings, beeps, buzzes or plays annoying music should not be on. Someone forgot to do this once and in the middle of a pivotal scene the theme music for “Jaws” began to play. Once again no one was amused! Think of it like you’re going to the movies and you’re seriously going to tick some people off if you suddenly receive a call in the middle of the coming attractions. Check and double check!

If you’re a smoker it’s just like about every other place in the modern world. There is no smoking on set, or around the lunch area where people are eating. You will have to go outside and remove yourself a good distance. There is usually a smoking designated area accompanied by a butt bucket. Be kind and throw your butts into the bucket, not on the ground, because some poor AD in training will have to come around and clean up after you once the location is wrapped. Same goes for chewing gum….do not throw it on the ground…put it in a garbage…and if you can’t find one there is always one located next to the craft service table. If you can’t imagine yourself scraping the mess off the floor don’t leave it for some other poor sod to deal with.

Pay attention to signage posted on the walls and doors. There may be things specific to that location…for example you’re shooting in a high end house, all food and drink will be prohibited as to prevent damage to the Persian rugs. You may also be required to put cloth booties over your shoes just like movers do before stepping onto the set.

If you are an extra, never look at the camera! Never never never. I’ve seen this happen before where someone’s eyes begin to wander when they’re in the background of a scene. This stuff shows, and the director’s not going to be thrilled to receive the dailies and see that juror #4 kept staring into the lens….perhaps looking for their close-up! Do what you’ve been instructed to do – no more no less. I saw a still photo just a couple of days ago from a film I can’t identify that stars Nicole Kidman…..must have been “Batman” because she’s staring up at the sky with a horrified look on her face. The novelty of the photo was the extra, who had decided he was going to become a featured part of the scene, is emoting full on with his hands thrust in the air over Nicole’s shoulders…almost drowning her out. Background means you’re in the background. If the director wants to feature you, you will be approached and asked to do something special….and your pay bumped accordingly because you’re being featured in some way.

Always follow the productions instructions to the letter…even if you’re just a day player. If you’ve been asked to come in a certain type of clothing do that and bring other options with you. If your hair is going to be styled make sure it’s clean unless instructed otherwise! I’ve seen several actors turn up on set with hair so greasy you could fry an egg on it. Depending on the size and budget of the productions, running water may not be hooked up in the hair and make-up trailer. What can they do but sprinkle powder all over your head to make you look less like a derelict? It ain’t sexy folks! Particularly when somebody else has to run their hands through it! Don’t assume you’re going to get a wash and blow dry unless you’ve been told so.

These are just a few tips and tricks of things to look out for if you are paying a set a visit, or starting your career and becoming more familiar with the do’s and don’ts of on-set etiquette.

Katherine Di Marino

About Katherine Di Marino

Beginning her career in 1994 as the Producer’s Assistant on the TV series Highlander, Katherine was eventually awarded an Associate Producer mentorship by the CMPA on the Showtime series Dead Man’s Gun. She went on to gain a broad knowledge base throughout her work at Peace Arch Entertainment and Omnifilm Entertainment in the areas of development, production and business affairs. During her career she has been involved on many projects including Francis Ford Coppola’s sci-fi series First Wave, David Steinberg’s comedy series Big Sound, the ½ hour dramedy Robson Arms, five Lifetime Network movies, the animated series Pirate TV, along with nine documentaries. She also did two stints at Creative BC as an Analyst. She has done work for over 20 broadcasters and won numerous international awards. Katherine just produced the movie “Rio Heat” – a Canadian/Brazilian co-production featuring Harvey Keitel.