Before you start reading, turn off your
1. There's Always a Job to Be Done
There's always something for you to do on-set; you never want to get caught just standing around. If you just don't know what to do, ask your department head, the film's assistant director, or anyone and everyone around you if they would like a bottle of water, and then go get it for them. Being proactive on-set is the key to making your day* and ensuring everyone is happy when you get beers afterward.
*Making your day is set talk for capturing everything planned for that day.
2. Don’t Be Grumpy!
The people you work with on-set have feelings; they're real human beings with real emotions and feelings. It’s easy to get caught up in the fantastical world of making movies, but the reality is, this is a job. Being sassy or grumpy when you're on-set will spread like a disease and make what could be a fun set a very not-fun set.
3. Read 'How To Win Friends And Inﬂuence People,' by Dale Carnegie
But quit if you’re reading it just to be "successful." Read it to learn how to interact with people in a way that's beneficial to both them and you. This was one of the first books I was assigned in film school, and it talks about how to have compassion for people.
It's easy to get wrapped up in the fake-it-til-you-make-it idea; that your career and success come before everything else. The reality is, that that serves no one. Be a nice person and you'll be hired forever. If you're not a nice person, people will hate working with you and you won't last very long in any community of filmmakers. Even if you're incredibly talented, if you're a jerk, no one will want to work with you. Don't treat anyone as a stepping stone.
4. Every Frame Matters
Even when it's hour-14 and all you can think about is cuddling up in bed for a few hours before you wake up to do it all over again tomorrow: That thing you don't think is important? That thing is really important.
This is one of the hardest rules. When your job is to run around a parking lot picking up confetti off the ground because the director of photography (DP) thinks it looks bad in the shot, a normal human thinks to themselves: Why am I doing this with my life? Why didn’t I become a lawyer like my father wanted? Take pride in the fact you make movies for a living, and every single thing you do matters to the quality of the ﬁlm.
5. Edit. (Or, at least, learn about editing.)
Try this exercise with the next 30 movies you watch: Attempt to view ﬁlms through the perspective of an editor. Put yourself in their shoes. From the very mundane cuts back and forth between characters in dialogue-heavy scenes, to the major cuts that are impossible to miss: Why did they cut there?
Try to imagine what other takes of a performance might have looked like, or imagine rearranging the shots from a scene you just watched in a different order. You have no idea what you're really looking at when you watch a ﬁlm until you can begin to deconstruct everything that’s happening in front of your eyes. When you start to deconstruct ﬁlm you can begin to create alternate ways the movie could have played out—for better or for worse. This gives you a much greater understanding of the decisions that go into your average shoot day. If everyone on set is thinking bigger than what's in front of them, the end product will be better—exponentially better, extraordinarily better, just way, way, way better.
6. Don't Assume Anything
You're just trying to be helpful: Maybe you unplugged a random extension cord because it looked like it wasn't being used anymore. But all of a sudden, the generator shuts off and all the lights in the studio go dark in the middle of a shot.
What you do on one part of a set can have an affect on all other parts of the production, and even your best intentions could lead to a disaster if you don't understand the ramifications of what you're doing. Don't assume anything. If it's your job, do it. If someone whose job it is to do something tells you to do it, do it. But unless you were told to do it or you're already in charge, don't do it. It's just not worth the risk.
7. Know On-Set Lingo
What do the words action and cut mean? Sure, those ones are easy—but what about holding? What does back to ﬁrst position mean? What about go for another one straight away? What is a C-47?
If you don’t know—and you want to be on a film set—you need to learn. Film set terminology can sound like a foreign language. To get you started, here is a great film terminology guide.
(Because if I ask you to grab me a gobo arm with a platypus attached and you go looking for an actual platypus, I’ll get a cool new pet, but I won’t get what I need.)
8. Know the Film Set Chain of Command
On a film set, time is against you. You don't get to say we'll do it later like you can in an office setting. It's a necessary evil that you often only have that one shoot day—sometimes you can only get a police car or an ambulance for a single day. There are always going to be resources of some type—time, money, gear, etc. Particularly if you're already friendly or familiar with everyone working on-set, it can feel like everything is pretty relaxed. But to be successful on set, you have to switch on your on-set brain. If you're not efficient, the art suffers.
There's no luxury of general consensus or a committee meeting on a film set (that's what pre-production is for), which is why you have to make it clear who can make decisions and who is responsible for giving you instruction. As a general rule, the assistant director (AD) acts as a filter. They let you tell them what you're thinking, they put it on their list, and pass along only the most important things all the way to the director.
9. Have Fun
Here's the thing: It's not fun until all the rules become second-nature. But once you know how to actually be on set, it becomes fun—really fun. You have to put in the hard work of learning protocol in order to be able to enjoy filmmaking. If you don't work hard to learn, it's constantly overwhelming and scary being on-set.
There's comfort in the order of things because it opens up everything. You get to keep everyone safe; everyone gets to keep their jobs and make it home to their families when they thought they would. You work on learning all the other steps so that being on-set can actually be about making movies—which is the most fun thing in the whole world.