When I worked on my first movie, I was nervous beyond belief. This was the culmination of years of hard work, my childhood dreams, and more. With that many emotions running through your mind, it’s easy to forget that working on a movie is a job – one that requires professionalism amid the chaos that typically accompanies a production. The one thing that will set you apart from the many people, who have gotten their foot in the door and then blown it, is being a professional on the set.
Being a professional means doing your job to the best of your abilities. It’s as simple concept, really, but one that sometimes is easily forgotten. Remember a movie set needs absolute reliability at every crew position. The director or talent can flake out all they want, but for those in the trenches, you have to be 100% reliable 100% of the time. A movie set is like a symphony orchestra. Everyone must work in harmony. If one person is out of tune, the whole production may be in jeopardy.
Here are some basic tips to make sure you are a set professional.
When you report to the set in the morning, try to be at least 15 minutes early. Early in my career it was my plan to be the first one on the set and the last one to leave. It makes an impression.
The Boy Scout motto comes in handy on a set. It speaks of your level of professionalism. Being prepared means you have all the tools necessary to do your job. In addition, it means you have all the personal items you may need while working on location. Typically you are working away from home, so be prepared to do so. If you wear contacts, keep an extra set handy. If you are the type who constantly loses your contacts, wear your glasses. Whatever you do, you don’t want to be the one single person who is holding up production. This makes an impression too.
Chain of Command
If a question arises, it’s best to follow the chain of command. Going over your superior’s head is typically frowned upon as a sign of an amateur. Of course if you notice something that needs immediate attention, you should speak up, but whenever possible, seek out your immediate superior for questions.
Respect Others and Yourself
Be polite and courteous to people, even those outside your department. You never know who will recommend you for that next job. Remember that everyone on the set has a vital job, or they wouldn’t be there. In important aspect of this job also deals with personal respect. By this I mean, don’t sell yourself short. You are a professional. This means you will do the job you agreed upon. If you allow yourself to be pressured into doing something else, or accepting a pay rate lower than agreed upon (this sometimes comes up when dealing with overtime), stand your ground. No one respects a pushover – or a bully for that matter.
Be Safety Conscious
Movie sets can be very dangerous places. Be aware of potential threats to your safety and the safety of others. Speak up if you feel a shot is too dangerous for you to work on. In most cases you will be respected for your professionalism. I once refused to climb onto a rickety catwalk because it was not safe.
This is a personal call, but as a rule, I don’t ask for them. Famous actors and directors are your co-workers on the set. After the shoot, at the wrap party, I may ask for an autograph, but not while we are in production.
If you make a mistake that will hurt the scene or shot, mention it immediately. It takes courage to do so, but it’s better to fix the mistake while additional shots are possible.
Chances are you will be overqualified for your first job in movies, especially if you are a film school graduate. Guess what – almost everyone else on the set is overqualified for their positions too. Don’t offer advice to the director or DP on how to shoot a scene. Nothing will earn wrath faster than a backseat director. I know this seems obvious, but I have been on sets when PA’s have suggested a camera angle to the director. Needless to say, I never saw this person on a set again.
This is something not quite as tangible as the other aspects of being a film professional, but it’s vitally important. The only name I have been able to attach to this is set awareness. Basically it is a feeling of the rhythm on set. It’s knowing instinctively when the camera is rolling, when rehearsals are up, etc… Always be aware when you are on the set and tune your senses to look for things that may impact a shot.
Make Your Boss Look Good
This is another obvious one, but in a field as competitive as filmmaking, this one sometimes gets overruled. Everyone wants to stand out, be the hero and such. But if you make your boss look good, your boss will hire you again. Make your boss look good enough, and perhaps he or she will get promoted and you will too. This is a business of personal contacts, and the stronger these contacts are the better.
Don’t Volunteer for Something You Cannot Do
This goes along with talking yourself up and bragging. Don’t say you can do something that you can’t. I have had crew members under me who insisted they could do the task asked of them, then when I return, they have made no progress because they didn’t know what they were doing. I lost valuable time because of these people, and time is precious on a set.
Be Truthful on Your Timecard
It’s all too easy to fudge your times, and it’s all too easy to get caught doing so. Don’t do this. It can cost you opportunities in the future and your present job today.
There is always a lot of grumbling on the set. Moviemaking is a tense, high-pressure job. Try to keep a positive attitude, but remember to keep it within reason. Captain Sunshine gets old really fast. Just keep things in perspective and try to be positive whenever possible. This may not earn you any points with the rank and file, but your superiors will take note.
Being a working professional in film is about being just that – professional. It’s being polite and respectful under duress and doing your job to the best of your ability. If you approach each job with a professional demeanor, you can have a long, profitable career in motion pictures.