Getting into filmmaking? If you're assisting, planning your own shoot, or scoping out the job market, get up to speed on who does what on a cine set with this article from Resource Magazine.
This article has been contributed from the Spring 2011 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.
Illustrations by Angel Ortiz.
It’s half past midnight in a once productive, but now deserted industrial town, in the North. Sodium vapor street lamps line Main Street and cast splotches of cruddy amber light on the nearby warehouses, potholes and discarded metal debris. The rest of the town falls into murky blackness. Out in the distance, there is a car slowly approaching. A 1971 Chevrolet Caprice. Mint Green. Driven by what appears to be a very angry gaptoothed baby, gesturing with an oversized rainbow lollipop in one hand, the other on the wheel. Riding shotgun is a very—
Quick. Is this a commercial? Feature film? Music Video? PSA?
I don’t care and chances are, neither do you. We’re visual people. Storytellers. We’re already imagining the light source, high angle, low angle, whether to use a slow shutter, etc. . . .
I am a director of photography. I shoot 35mm and HD. Commercials. Features. Documentaries. With the advent of HDSLRs, I’ve been noticing a number of my fellow storytellers (often referred to as “photographers”) beginning to shoot video. On the number of photo shoots I’ve been on, I’ve noticed how the crew breakdown differs from my world. The beauty of filmmaking is there is a very clear hierarchy and distribution of responsibilities. When everyone is clear as to what their role is, there is space for creativity to flourish and that angry baby to have his day.
Here’s a cheat sheet of crew breakdown to help you on your next gig. Whether it is a commercial, television show, union or independent narrative will have bearing, but this should be enough to get you going.
The script is the “skeleton” of the film or video. The script can be a screenplay, treatment or "boards," depending upon whether the final product is a feature film, music video, documentary or a commercial. The writer revises the script to improve dramatization, clarity, and structure, and to satisfy the client (the producer, director, talent, agency, etc.).
The director’s job is to translate the script to the screen and use the talent of his/her actors and crew to create that vision. The director controls the pacing of content, directs the actors and picks the final selection of key technical aspects: the most appropriate locations, design elements, lighting, camera placement and sound effects. The director can originate at the ad agency or production company or be freelance. On a few rare occasions, they may also be the producer or director of photography.
Executive Producer (EP)
The role of the EP can vary in scope. They can initiate the project. They can put together the financial and creative packages. Frequently they own the rights to a screenplay or adaptation and/or are the owner of the production company whose banner the film is under.
For short format (commercials and music videos), the requirements of the executive producer are augmented. Both the EP and director are responsible for getting or losing the job. They have to write treatments on what their vision for a commercial is. The EP's production company will represent a cadre of directors with different styles and abilities. The EP's job is to match the right director to the gig.
In photography, an agent will only present their artists. For short format, the EP will want to present their directors but also secure the project. If none of the EP's directors are a perfect fit, the project can be lost. The P's job is to go out and fi nd directors who are right for and willing to do the job.
Often the subject of jibes, a production manager or first assistant director who has gone above and beyond in contributing to the project and exceeded their responsibilities to the shoot legitimately get credit. The credit can also be given to the writer or post supervisor on a television show.
Line Producer (LP)
The line producer writes and manages budgets. They work closely with the director on initial crew selection, locations, production design and casting. Besides delegating to their respective production teams (production manager, production coordinator, etc.), they also manage any members of outside service production companies. This is critical since those companies will also have their own EP, LP, etc.
Production Manager (PM)
Reports to the line producer. They deal with the daily ins and outs of the job-managing crew, overseeing schedules, casting, recce and production design. They have some contact with budgetary issues.
Unit Production Manager (UPM)
Works under the production manager with the same responsibilities but for a specific unit. For instance, on productions with multiple crews and cameras, a manager is needed for each crew. This happens quite frequently on mid to large shoots.
Production Coordinator (PC)
The PC coordinates logistics from the production office. For instance: shipping film to the lab, receiving dailies, arranging travel and accommodations for crew, and attending to special needs of the cast and crew.
Office Production Assistant (PA)
The gopher, as in "go for" whatever is needed: carrying equipment, grabbing coffees, making copies etc. The larger the production, the more PAs there are in the office, on set and designated to each department.
First Assistant Director (1st AD)
Affectionately referred to as the "Set Cop." Their primary responsibility is to make certain that the film comes in on schedule while maintaining a respectful and productive working environment on set for the director, actors and crew. Working with the director and production manager, they oversee day-to-day management of the cast and crew scheduling, equipment, script and set. They have considerable paperwork responsibilities, including call sheets, overtime authorizations and model releases. They may also be responsible for directing background action for major shots or the entirety of relatively minor shots, at the director's discretion.
Second Assistant Director (2nd AD)
Supports the 1st AD with scheduling, booking and paperwork. This can run the gamut from logistics for crew, directions for extras, distributing paperwork and making sure script revisions get to the appropriate people. They can direct background action and extras for complicated scenes. On larger productions, there are also second second assistant directors.
Key Production Assistant (Key PA)
Main production assistant on set. Oversees other PAs on set.
The script supervisor works very closely with the director. They keep track of what portions of the script have been shot and any deviations from the shooting script. They keep meticulous notes on every shot; the use of props, actor and lens blockings, actors' wardrobe, hair/make-up, lens changes, the duration of each take and any other detail to ensure continuity from shot to shot and scene to scene. The script supervisor's notes are given to the editor to expedite the editing process.
Reviews lines with actors who are required to speak in accents or particular dialects.
Scouts and recommends suitable locations for filming, appropriate parking, catering set up. They secure location permits and negotiate, on behalf of production, any financial or logistical arrangements. They are the liaison between production and the local community and do their best to maintain a positive relationship.
Director of Photography (DP)
Drawing from conversations with the director, the DP selects the camera, lenses and accessories and conceives a lighting style and composition to achieve the desired look of the film. On set, the DP decides on the exposure and will operate the camera on small productions. They supervise the camera, electric and grip departments.
In postproduction, the DP communicates with the colorist or timer to maintain the director's vision.
The operator maintains camera composition during the shoot. They are particularly useful and necessary on large-budget or multiple-camera set-ups. For clarity, the cameras, camera crews and slates are listed as "A" Camera, "B" Camera and so on.
First Assistant Camera (1st AC)
Their primary objective is keeping focus during a shot. They measure and mark the actors' blocking, and manually rack the focus ring on the lens during each take. They also set up any camera lens, filter or additional accessory requested by the DP. On film shoots, the 1st AC checks the camera gate for "hairs" (film emulsion that can ruin a take) after each scene. On HD shoots, their responsibilities are mostly the same except that they need to be fluent with the ins and outs of various digital cameras, settings, special lens adaptors and accessories. Depending upon the HD camera package, the DP can request from zero to a full team of ACs.
Second Assistant Camera (2nd AC)
Also called the clapper/loader. The 2nd AC builds the camera and keeps all camera elements clean and in order. They prepare the slate for each take. They are also responsible for loading and unloading magazines, proper labeling and camera transportation. They handle the paperwork for the camera department: film inventory, camera reports (scene numbers, takes) and notes for the lab or post house. On HD shoots, they function more like a digital tech: monitoring waveform monitors and video levels, and backing up and organizing video files.
Video Assist / VTR
On small to medium shoots, this role can be delegated to the 2nd AC or camera PA. They ensure that the director, DP and all key personnel can view and review every take from every camera. This means setting up "Monitor Village" in a convenient spot close to but not infringing upon the set, the clamshells and video playback.
The photographer shoots "behind the scenes" of the film production, actual scenes and staged shots to be used for publicity, advertising and production archives.
Grip / Electric Department (G/E)
Or chief electrician, executes the DP's lighting plan. They delegate to their crew and are in constant communication with the key grip as to the choice of and placement of lights, use of dimmers, and color correction or "party" gels. They are aided by either light meters or "lighting off the monitor" (HD) to match the DP's lighting concept.
Best Boy Electric
Chief assistant to the gaffer, manages the team of electricians. They are in charge of the daily operations of the electrical department: hiring and managing of crew; making sure that workplace safety procedures are being met; handling time cards, equipment rental, inventory and maintenance. The best boy stays vigilant to the electrical power distribution and alerts Production to any electrical hazards or concerns. They work as a liaison to other departments who might need electricity (Camera, Hair/Make-Up).
Third Electric / Electricians
They run power cables from either the genie or house power and rig and operate the lights.
Drives, operates and maintains the generator.
The key grip oversees the grip department, whose responsibilities are threefold: molding light, support and movement.
Molding. "Gaffer puts up a light. Grip knocks it down." Meaning: The gaffer is in charge of what light is placed, its angle and intensity. The grip is brought in to set up a flag or diffusion, or place a gel frame in front of the light, thereby molding it. If the DP is using "The Big Gaffer," a.k.a. the sun, grips set up reflectors, mirrors, diffusion frames or blackout or gel windows, etc. to manipulate the sunlight.
Support & Safety. Grips manage and operate all of the stands, clamps, platforms, tresses etc. Plus sandbags, rope, ties and anything else to ensure everything is securely fastened. This includes safetying the DP or operator when they are lining up a dangerous shot.
Movement. Grips are in charge of dollies, cranes and car rigs.
They are in charge of operating the dolly, setting track, and keeping the track level and smooth. On small productions, the key grip will step in to operate the dolly.
Best Boy Grip or Second Grip
The chief assistant to the key grip.
Third Grip / Grips
They are next in command and carry out any of the key grip's orders regarding light modeling, safety or camera movement.
Swings work in both the grip and electric departments as an additional hand.
Production Designer (sometimes called art director on short-format projects)
They work alongside the director of photography and the director to establish the look of a film. They create color schemes, design sets and assist in the selection of locations. Depending upon budget and scale of production, they will either be responsible for or contract carpenters, painters, scenic artists, metalwork specialists, etc. . . .
Set designers create working drawings for sets, props and miniatures.
The decorator selects all dressing, furniture and paintings for each location.
On Set Dresser
Remains on set for last minute details.
Designs or acquires specific objects mentioned in the script. The general rule is if an actor touches it, it is a prop. They usually offer several options of a prop for the director to choose from.
A specialist who designs, builds and operates special props.
Food Stylist Prop
On a feature narrative film, the prop master will prepare the food and reset it for each take. However, on a commercial, especially for a food or beverage client, a specialist will be brought in.
The designer acquires and/or designs all costumes. If the extras are being filmed in their own clothes, the designer will make sure their presentation is consistent with the director's vision. The designer keeps track of the inventory and maintenance of all garments. They generally have multiples of key garments.
They are on standby for last-minute touch-ups so that wardrobe is always "camera ready."
They create costumes to order, plus manage any necessary wardrobe fittings and alterations.
Hair / Make-Up Department
Key Make-Up Artist
Designs and applies make-up for main talent.
Remains on set for touch-ups.
They are in charge of cutting, coloring and styling hair, wigs, toupees, etc. Depending upon the size and difficulty of the production, either they or an assistant will be on set for touch-ups.
Responsible for make-up from the neck down with the exception of special effects (wounds, rash, etc.) that would be applied by the key make-up.
The production sound mixer is head of the sound department on set, responsible for recording all sound during filming. They select and maintain all sound equipment, types of microphones, sound cables, recording devices and tools to hide or secure mics.
When more than one microphone is in use, they are responsible for balancing sound levels, equalizing volume and frequencies. They record all sound during filming as well as "wild sound" (recorded while the camera is not shooting) or "room tone" (the sound of each location without any movement or dialogue. This is a great benefit in the editing process). The mixer keeps accurate and thorough reports.
Boom Operator (Boom Op)
The boom op supports the sound mixer. They place mics (hidden mics, wireless mics) in accordance with the sound mixer's needs. They also operate the boom pole, a retractable pole with a mic fastened on the end. Boom ops place the mic just above or below the actors, out of the camera's frame and at an angle for optimal sound quality. They must also be wary of casting any shadows onto the walls or talent. Boom ops slate the wild sound and room tone sound takes.
The sound technician is brought in as additional support to the sound department. They wrangle cables and operate an additional boom or mixer for complicated set-ups.
The captain secures and maintains all vehicles, including the picture car. They usually provide two of the same model. The captain supervises the other drivers.
The drivers chauffeur key personnel during location and tech scouts. Sometimes they will drive actors to and from rehearsals, makeup tests, wardrobe fittings, etc. During production, they move vehicles from location to location and shuttle crew to and from set, catering, parking, hotels, etc.
Craft Service Department
Craft Services (Crafty)
“Crafty” is responsible for managing a designated area, providing a variety of snacks and beverages for the cast and crew, and keeping their area proper. Crafty is a crew position and is sometimes represented by the union.
They are an outside company hired by the production. Catering handles preparation, delivery and serving of the regular sit-down meals that occur every six hours and usually last thirty minutes to a full hour. Catering is not a crew position and can differ from location to location.