Setiquette: Mastering Set Etiquette in the Hollywood Biz

When most people think of movies being made, they think that part of the process involves three wishes and a genie in a lamp.

Yes, making movies and TV shows can be magical. However, if you’ve ever stepped foot on a film set, you know that the atmosphere can change and make a sharp turn in tone; going from Tinker Bell and her fairy dust to feeling more like a hellacious witch’s cauldron in a matter of moments.

The art of filmmaking is one thing, with its own set of challenges and high bar of expectations. But, actually executing your idea is more about problem solving than anything else.

I’ve had the pleasure of working on many sets in the last five years with some amazing people. Some were ultra professional and left me with experiences and knowledge that I can use for the rest of my life. While others, unfortunately, perfectly demonstrated Murphy’s Law. In other words, anything that could go wrong, absolutely went wrong on that set.

And trust me, one day you’ll butt heads with Murphy on a filmset, too.

For me, my definition of a good filmset has many layers, but it starts with the craft table and how well they feed me.  

If dinner is yummy pasta and salad, then you’ll get the best out of me. If it’s saltine crackers and warm water, I’m probably watching the clock, thinking about how fast I can make a run to get a Two-Piece and a biscuit.

The other aspect of a good film set is how well I’m treated by the director.

Last year in film school, I worked on the set as a script supervisor. Halfway through Day 2, I was asked to film a sporting event that the director forgot he had committed to. I was told that I would be paid for the inconvenience in handling another shoot, and that this second shoot was more important than the one I was originally hired for. I had to find my own transportation to the event, and to this day I have never been paid for it. I never worked for that director again, but it just goes to show production life isn’t fair.

Yet my “get it done” attitude has still gotten me quite far.

The most important thing about being on a film set is the impression that you make and leave with.

If you’re a production assistant (PA), you want to get called back for a bigger position on a bigger set. If you’re the director, your main goal is to take care of your cast and crew and treat them with the utmost respect so that they will give you their best work.

I’m gonna let you in on a secret, it’s called Setiquette. It’s exactly what it sounds like: how to have the best set etiquette on set. Here are the top 11 rules of Setiquette that EVERYONE should follow and practice on a film set to advance their career.

Mastering Film Set Etiquette  

11. Feed Your Crew

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This is non-negotiable on any film set. For me a varied and healthy craft service selection is the determining factor on how productive I am on set; as well as how much I enjoy my time there. Call me old school, but good food and a head count go a long way in nourishing the production itself.  The set etiquette of ample food on set is always a good gauge of how well the crew is respected.

10. Know the Call Sheet

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The call sheet is the most valuable production document on a film set. Every crew/cast member should receive a call sheet for each day of production to let them know where to be and what time to be there. The call sheet has production notes, the shot list, weather updates, and the contact information of every cast and crew member. You need to know every aspect of that call sheet because you never know when you’ll be called upon to help keep production running smoothly. If you’re like me and have a bad memory, you should keep multiples copies on you.

9. Keep Your Cool (even when others don’t)

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As time winds down on set, that’s when nerves peak. Tensions rise and harsh words can be exchanged, but if you feel yourself losing it, remember that one bad attitude can create a negative atmosphere on a film set, which will only make your day longer and the production slower. Always keep your composure and remember that more than anything, your reputation follows you and people remember how they were treated (by you) on set. It doesn’t matter if you were the production assistant or the director, it’s better to bite your tongue, keep your cool and be the bigger person as a part of your set etiquette.

8. Always Listen & Be Alert

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You won’t know how to do everything on set, or how to fix every problem.  Adapt, be a quick study, and remain alert and proactive as a part of your set etiquette. You never know when you’ll be called upon to wear a different hat or step into a different role so that you can fill in when problems arise. Directors and ADs don’t have time to explain things more than once, so try your best to listen, comprehend and execute on the first try.

7. Show Up Early

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When I played basketball, I had a coach who used to say “on time is late and early is on time”. This is true for being on a film set as well. Again, everything and everyone is on a very stringent schedule. Lost time is lost money and you don’t want to be the reason why things don’t run on schedule. If you know you’re going to be late and you have a legitimate reason, always call and let production know and send out a team email as well. But at the end of the day, this is production and the show will go on…and if you have a reputation of being late, production may go on the next time, without you.  

6. Know When the Camera is Rolling

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This is super important. Once “action” is called, the magic and waiting begins. Only the director knows how many takes he or she will need before the scene is in the can and production can move on.  My best set etiquette advice here, is to turn into a statue once the camera is rolling. (Yes, you read that right.)  Don’t move or talk and if you absolutely must breathe, do it very slowly because your life may depend on it. Make sure your cell phone is on silent, better yet, turn it off. Pokémon Go can wait.

5. Keep Some Conversations Private

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We all have issues with co-workers from time to time. It’s just human nature. The last thing you want to do is publicly bash someone or something you didn’t like on set. You may thing you’re having a private conversation, but nothing is private in today’s world. If you do have an issue, keep it to yourself because you never know when someone might use those words against you.

4. Safety First

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I can’t stress safety enough. I’ve seen plenty of situations on set where people have injured themselves or others because they were too afraid to ask for help with something; or simply didn’t want to look stupid for having a lack of knowledge in a certain area. Honestly, it’s better to admit that you need help, rather than risk the safety of yourself or other crewmembers.

3. Learn the Set Lingo

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On a film set, extension cords are called “stingers” and close pins are called “c47s”, which sounds a lot like a military explosive. It’s a weird world with strange terms. Learning the lingo is a set etiquette must, because that’s what separates amateurs from professionals. There’s no production Rosetta Stone, so make sure you can speak and also understand production lingo.

2. Write Everything Down

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No matter what your position is, always carry these three valuable tools: pen, paper, and notebook. Even if your memory isn’t as bad as mine, having a reference point for everything that happens on a film set is a great way to make your value stand out. The Director might miss something and there you are with the information for him or her. Those are the types of things people remember.

1. Always say YES

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Ok, if the line producer asks you to punch the script supervisor in the face DON’T SAY YES (even if you happen to agree because they themselves break every rule of Setiquette).  You should always respond with a “yes”, because you never want to give the impression that you can’t do something. Production is all about making things work even when they seem impossible.

If someone asks you to complete a task and you don’t exactly know how, say “yes” right away…but don’t be afraid to chime in for clarification. They hired you for a reason, and like set etiquette rule #4: Safety First:  It’s always best to communicate rather than assume.

If you’re still unsure of how to complete a task to your supervisor’s liking, ask a fellow crewmember who may have worked with the Director or main producer on previous projects.

In closing, the important thing to remember about set etiquette is being on a film set is all about working with a team to achieve a single goal. One job always leads to the next in the industry, and the only way to stay a working professional, is to be somebody that treats everyone with kindness and respect.

Follow these 11 setiquette rules and you’ll feel the love…and a consistent paycheck in your back-pocket.