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A Runners Guide

March 2023 | John McNally

Getting your first break on set can be hard - but knowing what on earth is going on is even harder! John McNally breaks down some set lingo and how to use your new best friend - the walkie!

Coming to the world of film and television can be a daunting experience, especially if like me you are coming to this industry without having gone to film school. Often it seems like you are joining a new tribe with strange languages, and customs. However, unlike any tribes around today it sometimes feels like the members of the film set tribe are more than ready to eat you alive if you don’t know what you’re doing. With that in mind let’s look at this tribe through the lens of my subject, Anthropology.

I’m here to let you know that if you take the time to learn the basics, make the right preparations, and get in the right mindset you’ll have nothing to fear. I hope by reading this article I can give you the low down on all the strange language and practices you’ll encounter with this new tribe and, with any luck, give you the right tools to land your next job!

Instead of providing a list of “do’s and don’ts” to navigate this brave new world, I hope to give you some principles that can be applied on any set, whether it be a blockbuster movie or a student project, in the UK or the other side of the planet. These unspoken rules are usually described as “set etiquette” (or -if you are fond of portmanteaus, “setiquette”).

Let’s start by casting off pith helmets and Victorian explorers and try to understand the homeland of this “filmmaker” tribe. In this case, it is a set or location. Both refer to the space in which principal photography takes place.

Film and television sets are fantastic workplaces in which you will have a lot of fun, make a lot of friends and gain a lot of fond memories. However, they are nonetheless places of work, and you will also find your patience and stamina tested to its limit when the production calls for it.

Before you even take on your first job, it is worth thinking about why so many talented and dedicated people are there as well. Everyone working on a set is there for a common goal (even if it doesn’t always feel that way), which is to bring a story to life. Everyone on that set has a role to play in making that happen.

It is easy to think that a set is where a film/production is made, but it is worth bearing in mind that this is only one part of where filmmaking takes place. The work you do on set influences the production office and post-production.

So why are you there? It’s not just to take in the atmosphere. You’re probably there in the most basic sense because someone else believes you have a role to play in making this story happen. However, more importantly, you are there because you yourself want to take part in this process and will want to do so again in future productions.

The key to working effectively on set is to always keep in mind that everyone else has worked hard to get there, is good at what they do, want to do it again, and is ultimately focused on making that production happen -just like you.

Mutual respect is the foundation for how a smooth production takes place. On an interpersonal level, you should treat people respectfully, but on a professional level, you should respect why everyone is there. If you think something is beneath you then don’t bother showing up, because there is no way you can do so without disrespecting the time, skill and effort of everyone else on set. As stated earlier, there is a reason for everyone to be on set (productions are too hard to pull off for that not to be the case) and there are plenty of people who would leap at the opportunity to take your place.

Every interaction you have should be shaped by mutual respect as professionals who share a common goal. (FYI: pat yourself on the back -if you got this far, you’re now a professional and should behave like one! Take pride in what you do as a professional! It’s not “even if you have to get coffee for the AD” -for things to run smoothly you are doing that so shooting doesn’t stop for 10 minutes out of every hour!).

An important way in which we show our respect to one another on set is by being punctual. Read your timesheet and know exactly where you are supposed to be and when. When I get to set each day, I make sure I am there half an hour before my call time, and I make sure to factor in half an hour of delays for my commute. This means I am often on set an hour before I am needed. This is just part of the job, and your punctuality will be noticed.

Regardless of the size, a set is a place with many moving parts, and it can be intimidating to know exactly where you fit in. Take the time to read the call sheet to know who your points of contact are, and who is the head of what department. As someone new to a set, it is natural to feel like you should be helping everyone all the time and it is likely that your role as a runner will cross over with many departments, but it is important that you fulfil your duties. This doesn’t mean that if you see the 2nd AC struggling to pull a magliner across the threshold of the house you’re shooting in you can’t help them. But you need to be aware of where you fit in alongside a team of specialists. Even if you know from a YouTube video or a previous production how you should lay track for a Dolly, the best course of action is to respect that the grip department knows best. Be wary that any work you decide to do for that department out of helpfulness may be taken away from a department that depends on you (whether you feel like that is the case or not).

When wrap time comes around your department might finish sooner than others. This is an opportunity for you to show that you are proactive and willing to be a “team player”. Ask your line manager if you can help other departments pack up so everyone can get home sooner. You don’t want to be the first person out the door just because you’ve “done your bit”. It doesn’t impress anyone, and you are unlikely to be called back. Besides, packing up at the end of a shoot is also a great opportunity to chat with members of other departments and learn about what they do and learn how their team functions.

As with any tribe you might encounter, filmmakers are not unique in having their own language. As a newcomer set lingo might be particularly intimidating. Don’t fret! As a runner, you will not be expected to know as much of it as people in more specialised departments.

For the most part, this lingo does not exist to scare you off but to communicate very specific things as quickly as possible (except for C47, that’s purely to mess with newbies). If you can learn more lingo that’s great, but the most important thing is that you can communicate concisely. As a runner, your communication skills are what sets you apart from other runners and make it likely you will be hired again. So, let’s cover the basics, starting with the most valuable tool in your arsenal: the radio.

Before you even start chatting on the radio make sure you know what channel your team are on, it’s no good you coordinating when to start serving lunch if you’re talking to the lighting team rather than production (even if they are glad for the heads up). Production is usually channel one, camera two, lighting three, etc. depending on the scale of the production. However, this is not always the case and you must always check. It is also important that you make a note of which department is on which channel because it will often be your job to coordinate between production and those teams. However, there will be occasions when you will need to go to a different channel for more in-depth discussions that do not need to be broadcast to the entire team. Just make sure you confirm which channel you are going to, and then when you are done you go back to your department channel.

At the start of the day, or after any significant break (e.g. lunch) your team will do a radio check. This will usually be your department head saying, “Radio Check” to which you reply, “Good Check!” or “[Your Name] Check!” to confirm that you are hearing them loud and clear.

Always make sure you leave a pause before and after you speak into your radio to ensure you do not cut off the beginning or end of what you have to say. Be aware of the volume you have your radio at to avoid interrupting others working or any takes that might be rolling. Many productions will provide you with an earpiece to prevent this, but you should try to avoid speaking over the radio during any takes unless you are absolutely certain it will not interfere with the take, or it is an emergency.

Key terms to use whilst on the radio include:

  • “Copy” – I have heard and understood what you have said (do not say this unless you have understood what was said in full -this is no time to save face or be polite)
  • “[name] to [name]” (e.g. “Kubrick to Tarantino”) – Identifies who is speaking (Kubrick) and whom they are addressing (Tarantino).
  • “Over” – I have finished speaking (do not end a message without saying over)
  • “Can you repeat that”/ “say again” – Can you repeat your last message
  • “Go ahead” – I am ready to receive your message and act upon it/respond
  • “Stand-by” – I am currently occupied and unable to act upon/respond to any request
  • “Eyes on [name/object]” – I can see that person/object. You may hear someone call down the radio “Does anyone have eyes on [name/object]”. This means they are looking for that person. If you see who/what they are looking for, reply “eyes on [name/object]”. Do not take up bandwidth saying you have not seen them unless there is no reply and you are asked a second time.
  • “What’s your 20” – Where are you?
  • “ETA?” – Estimated Time of Arrival

Learning the NATO phonetic alphabet is not strictly necessary, but goes a long way towards ensuring you are clearly understood over the radio.

Concise effective communication that follows the departmental structure of a set shows your understanding of setiquette in a way that will make production managers take notice. Communication is not just about what you say, but who you say it to. Learning the nicknames of the different roles on set will help you understand who is needed and who you are supposed to be talking to.

These nicknames include:

  • AD – Assistant Director
  • DP/DOP – Director of Photography
  • AC – Assistant Camera. The 1st AC may also be called the “Focus Puller” and the 2nd AC might be referred to as the “clapper loader”
  • DIT/Data Wrangler – This person oversees backing up data from the camera
  • Scripty – Script Supervisor
  • PA – Production Assistant
  • HMU – Hair and Makeup
  • Sparks – Electrician
  • Crafty – Catering
  • Talent – Actors or anyone who is supposed to be in front of the camera when rolling

People will notice your ability to “manage up”. Managing up means knowing how to help them manage your time effectively as well as anticipating what they will need before they even ask you. You’ll find you spend a lot more time eavesdropping on production managers than you might have thought.

Another part of managing up is making sure you are absolutely clear on what is being asked of you and that you understand how to do it. Everyone had a first day on set, and everyone had to be shown the ropes by someone else. If you attempt to carry out a task you are not fully comfortable with or know how to do, you risk causing harm to yourself and others or delaying the shoot.

All societies have values, and what the people on a set value more than anything (even more than crafty) is safety. Nothing will get you thrown off a set faster than unsafe behaviour. On a set safety is everyone’s responsibility.

Make sure access points are clear, gear is stowed safely, there are no trip hazards and drinks are not left on top of electrical equipment. Sets are often very dark places behind the scenes and people are often carrying equipment that prevents them from seeing where they are walking. If you see something that you feel is a hazard, make sure you tell someone. If someone in cargo shorts covered with crocodile clips tells you to do something, it’s likely that they are in grips and electric, and you do what they say. A couple of phrases you might hear being called out by grips and electric are “Striking”/ “Sparking” (this means that they are about to run power through something -mostly likely a lamp), and “Points” (this means they are carrying something that could bang into you and cause injury -they might say this when rounding a blind corner carrying a large stand).

Everyone has the right to work in a safe environment. To learn more about maintaining safety on set, and your rights, please read more here.

Another aspect of working on a set that shouldn’t be ignored is the fact that you are working in a very social environment. People are there to get a job done, and a big part of getting a job done well is getting on with your co-workers. You will share jokes, goof around and make friends (and being a nice person to work with is a big factor in whether people will want to call you back for a future project). However, it is important you know when to be social and when to shut up.

As a runner you are expected to be extremely attentive, so sitting around on your phone (even if it is just for a moment) is not a good look, and you don’t want to be seen by the production manager as a slacker. People on set will have often worked together before and might be complaining about the workload they are under and the competence of their superiors. That is a fact of life in any work environment. Don’t imagine for a moment that joining in to complain about the first AD is a shortcut to being accepted as “one of the gang”. More often than not you will come across as unprofessional, and you never know who is within earshot.

Likewise, bullying and harassment do happen on set. You and everyone else have a right to work in an environment that is free from sexual harassment and bullying. For more information on how to best manage situations where you feel that you or anyone else is the subject of bullying or harassment please read these resources that go into the topic in greater detail.

Remember, this is just a rough guide to help you start your journey in the world of film and television. There are no hard and fast rules on how to work on a set. Different circumstances will require you to be flexible and adapt to the needs of the production. However, by being respectful, understanding your role within the production, being proactive, and communicating effectively you will stand out as a candidate that people will want to rehire.

So go out, have fun, work hard, and tell great stories.

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