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SET ETIQUETTE: WHAT AND WHAT NOT TO DO.

June 2021 | Georgie McGahey

My first job in film

What exactly is set etiquette and what should you know before setting foot on one?

If you read anything to do with the junior roles found on set, there will always be a reference to ‘set etiquette’, you only have to look at the guides on MFJF to see that.

So what is set etiquette I hear you ask. Basically it’s a code of conduct to adhere to while working on set, it means everyone knows where they stand, and silly arguments that could happen don’t. Everyone knows about it; everyone except the person who has just put their flip-flopped clad foot on a set for the first time. This need not be you.

Set etiquette breaks down into three simple parts:

1.COMMON SENSE

If you have the slightest bit of common sense, then set etiquette need present no mystery to you, it's all quite self-explanatory. However, when you have never been on set before, you may find yourself surrounded by lots of people and feel slightly at sea. 

So, let’s have a look at some of the very basic elements of common sense you should observe while working on set.

Don't:

  • Stand in doorways.

  • Stare at high profile actors while on set or rehearsing, they are doing their job like you should be doing yours.

  • Make yourself a cup of tea and sit down.

  • Tell everyone about your heavy night out and how hungover you are.

  • Be glued to your phone for personal use like checking your Facebook feed.

  • Wear flip flops or any other article of clothing that turns you into an item on the risk assessment form.

  • Keep talking despite the bell and light being on.

  • Bellow outside the studio door thinking you can’t be heard - for the record you can and will be told to belt up!

  • Whine about how hard it is to work such long days. There are going to be long days on set, but everyone will be working them - from the producer down to the runners. 

  • Stand in inappropriate places while private conversations are going on.

  • Stand in front of a lamp.

  • Chat openly on your walkie talkie.

  • Sit on an item of equipment.

  • Put your cup of tea on the MagLiner, sound cart, DIT cart, monitors.

  • Be deliberately rude - ever.

Do:

  • Be aware of the space you are inhabiting, making sure you are close enough to the people you need to be close to while simultaneously staying out the way.

  • Wear clothing that is appropriate and practical. You don’t have to shell out hundreds of pounds on Icebreaker or North Face fleeces, make sure you can be warm and dry in winter and cool in summer.

  • Open the door if members of the crew are bringing kit through.

  • If you’ve had a big night, say nothing! Nurse your hangover in private and keep chugging down mints.

  • Observe good walkie etiquette at all times if you have been given one.

  • Be polite when talking to other members of the crew.

  • Tell your department if you're walking off set for whatever reason, make sure someone knows where you are at all times.

  • Repeat back instructions.

  • Exhibit a ‘can do’ willing attitude.

  • Keep your phone on silent, better still off and tucked away in your bag. Unless you are going on runs, in which case keep your phone next to you at all times. 

2.HIERARCHY

There is a very strict hierarchy to be observed on a film set. If you have left school or graduated from university, the notion of not speaking to other members of the crew can seem absurd. However, pressures run high on film sets; people have a job to do in a short amount of time and need to stay focused. 

What you will notice - and need to observe - is the chain of command. Whether it's the 2nd AC, best boy, makeup assistant, key PA or production coordinator; your superior is the one delivering instruction. They give you direction; you report back to them. If you have a problem, don’t go and ask your HoD, unless it’s established from the beginning of the job.

If you’re working as a camera trainee, for example, you might not say more than a few sentence to the DoP for the duration of the shoot. This is because they are busy managing three departments and processing decisions at 100 miles a minute. If you’re doing your job properly, there is no need to talk to them while you are working, unless they ask you to fetch something.  It's all very militaristic - with some people taking it to the extreme - but necessary to get through the workload and maintain excellent communication.  

Concise communication is held in high regard; this means directions can be barked rather than asked. This form of communication can seem brutal (especially from the 1st), but there's often no time for elaborate stories, setting the scene before you get to the point.  When you are in the thick of it, say what needs to be said and don't become the person who is always 'chatting' rather than working. Working also means being on 'standby', this is being ready to accept direction very quickly. It means listening and placing yourself within their vocal reach, so they don't have to shout for you. 

So, always respect the chain of command, it’s there for a reason. If you imagine you can have a quick chat with the producer as a way to schmooze your way into the industry, think again. You probably won’t get within ten feet of them, and if you did you would probably be asked to move. It’s better to stick to the system than try and strike up a conversation with an HoD’s and be given a steely look. They aren't being deliberately rude; they just don’t have the time to be chatting, and neither should you. If you’re lucky, they could buy you a pint in the pub when you've wrapped.

3.DEPARTMENTS

This is possibly the most important of the three, staying in your department. Despite filmmaking being a collaboration of talents, each department is a self-contained unit. Camera, grips and electrical have the most kit on set or location, and each department has exacting standards to how that equipment is stored, arranged and placed. No one messes with the other department's stuff. No one carries out the job of another department. It’s that simple.

For example, the grips are responsible for anything a camera is placed on; that includes the tripod. You rarely see any camera crew move a tripod (if they do, they ask permission first), neither will they take the camera of the cameraman's shoulder, it’s all the grips. Both grips and camera work together symbiotically, but there is agreement as to who touches what, even when the situations are very pressured. 

Do not move any lighting stands, even if you think they are in the way. Ask the sparks if it’s there for a reason, if it has a purpose don't touch it, if it doesn't, you have alerted them to something being out of place. If the matte box isn't doing the job and you need a flag for the lens, again, ask the sparks, don’t go and get one yourself. If there is a thread hanging from a costume that needs to be removed alert the Costume Department, don’t break out your scissors, you shan't be thanked. You may feel as though you're being proactive and helping out, but if it's someone else’s job be respectful of it. Likewise, if it’s another department's kit keep your mitts off, unless specifically asked to help.

In short ...

Use your brain, look at how everyone else conducts themselves and follow suit. It isn’t rocket science, and if you’re aware these things exist, it won't take you long to fit into the environment. 

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