How the film crew set hierarchy of a movie set trickles down
If you’re a video or production specialist but have never been on a real movie or film set then you are definitely missing out. It can be like a wonderful couple of weeks at summer camp where everyone is on a team with a specific role all working together to achieve a greater goal; In this case, it could range from being part of a feature film to filming a music video. This idea of specializing often trickles down to the corporate world as well. Even if there’s only three film crew members on set, it’s important to establish clear crew criteria of who is responsible for what. This doesn’t mean that tasks won’t overlap, because they certainly will, but this does mean that people work best when they have clear objectives. Because of this, it’s good to know how a film set breaks down so that you can understand how the pieces could most effectively go together as your production scales up and down. Whatever career path you choose in film, it is crucial to understand the production roles and film crew hierarchy in order to create a team that can handle whatever the production needs.
Film crew jobs start with the so-called Above The Line production members:
Producer and Director Roles
Director – This one’s obvious; the director is the leader of the film crew members and the one most responsible for creative decisions. Even on a rather small video production crew, the director has to balance a lot of seemingly disparate duties. A great director is a study in paradoxes. This person has to be extremely detail-oriented but also be able to take a step back and look at the big picture. They have to be loyal to their own style but to be able to adapt to other people’s content in a very flexible manner. They have to make it all work for them when they already know so much about a subject and simultaneously make it obvious and accessible to an audience who has no prior knowledge. A great director also has to be great at moving seamlessly between creative, administrative, and leadership roles. A film set crew with a director of photography but no director can be a tall order for the small crew and therefore it’s always preferable to have a director to put all the pieces together. The director’s job is a key role in the success of a film and why a good director can command a high salary.
Producer – The producer’s job in essence is to make sure that if a noun is in the script, it makes its way to where the production is being shot or is present on the movie’s location list. The producer is also responsible for a hundred other things throughout the year of production like getting the film crew and food there and deciding things such as where and how to park. Think if you were to renovate your house; you are the one building the house, but you wouldn’t be able to do everything yourself so you hire a painter, a carpenter, an electrician, etc. The producers job is to find and communicate with people who can lead each department and contribute to the bigger picture of a production. It’s important for the producer to keep the overall vision of the project. Like the director, the producer has to wear a lot of different hats and is often the first point of contact for anyone with logistical questions. If you’re looking for an answer to procedural questions, the producer is the person to talk to.
The Production Manager, Production Coordinator, and Associate Producer can all be on a production depending on the size, but for our uses, we’ll consider these other generically titled “Producers” on a job that shares the workload for a “big” film or commercial shoot of say 10-15 crew members. They may or may not technically be “above the line” but in the case of corporate video production, they might as well be. These crew members sometimes handle in-office jobs, production team roles on a production and anything having to with production management.
Below The Line – Here we get to the more common roles that people will recognize on all but the tiniest of film projects, and then we’ll get a little into their derivatives.
The Film Production Department – Core Team Needed to Make your Film Production
1st Assistant Director – This person is responsible for breaking down the script into realistic shooting chunks and balancing a very intricate array of locations, cast, wardrobe, effects shots, and script points in a film. By this we mean that there are hundreds of variables that influence when and why the order of production would be more efficient one way than the other. Once on set, the 1st AD is also responsible for safety of the crew and ensuring that the production “makes its day” and stays on schedules despite the myriad of issues that will present themselves. The 1st AD position is often a thankless job and definitely one of the hardest on most film projects. Think of a mom that has to constantly ask if you’ve done your homework yet.
On a bigger production you would expect 2nd AD’s, 2nd 2nd AD’s, Key Set PA’s and the like, but once again, these are rare on corporate shoots. People will typically be sharing the load for these other roles on an average 10-15 person production crew.
Production Assistant (PA) – One of the most important and often maligned positions on a film project is that of the Production Assistant or PA. PA’s are great for everything that doesn’t directly fall under another department’s jurisdiction and for handling everything that “production” is supposed to take care of. The most common tasks on a smallish set would be taking care of meals, handling walkies, getting paperwork signed, making runs for various items, and being ready to step in at any moment and help out to make sure the film team can carry on their duties. PA’s are another of the unsung positions on a film set because they often earn the least amount of pay but might be there the longest. It’s not unusual for PA’s to show up 30 minutes before everyone else and still be packing up when the rest of the production crew is long gone.
With the Director of Photography as the leader, the Technical Departments all operate with a common goal of bringing the director’s vision to fruition. Although they don’t answer directly to the director, they do have to respect the wishes of people in positions above them.
Director of Photography (DP) – This person, a.k.a the (DoP) or Cinematographer, is the person most responsible for the technical and creative concerns of how the film is captured visually. A DP has, perhaps, the most balanced knowledge of any person in production. They need to be intuitive, creative, and free flowing yet regimented, orderly, and technical. A great DP will be able to “run” a film set for a director or AD when need be yet able to immediately step back and defer to the wants and needs of those people. This person is a master of many trades and also the head of three distinct departments; Grip, Electric, and Camera.
The Camera Department
Out of everyone on a film crew set, the camera department is made up of a few different roles, but for our purposes would come down to usually one or two people and up to four on large corporate video production. These film set crew production roles, in order of pay scale, are:
1st Assistant Camera (AC) – This is the DP’s most important assistant because they are tasked with keeping the camera ready, keeping it in focus, and ensuring that the extraneous equipment is all functioning as expected. This person is the head of the camera department which contains the next few on our list. The difficulty of keeping the camera in focus cannot be underestimated and is a key component of what makes a solid AC worth their weight in gold. If they mess up a great take then everyone will have to do it over again.
2nd Assistant Camera (AC) – This person is typically responsible for three main things, assisting the 1st with lenses and gear, setting marks for the actors, and slating the scenes. This is an orderly job and benefits from a person who doesn’t mind repeating the same actions many times a day. A 2nd AC who had just returned with a lens in his hand once told me that he was “a glorified waiter.” In some ways that is true, but since they will often be the closest person to an actor’s personal space, they also have to embrace tact and precision timing like few else.
Digital Imaging Technician (DIT), Digital Media Technician (DMT), Digital Loader, Data Wrangler – These terms can mean different people on different production sets, but on most occasions they refer to the person who in some ways is the most important person on any film set, the one who is responsible for ensuring all the data gets where it needs to go. This can be a deceptively easy job. When everything goes right, it’s great, but if there’s an issue, this person can find themselves in a world of hurt. These people typically have expert computer skills, a keen eye, and operate in a very specific, procedural, and orderly manner.
Camera Operator – Like a DP but different, the camera operator is the person who works closely with the DP to run a second or third camera. In some cases, the DP might not be the operator and so this person will completely assume that position. As well as very few production teams, the cam op may also do the duty of a 2nd Unit DP as well and occasionally as a 2nd Unit Director of sorts. The camera operator has a very specific set of knowledge and must understand most of what a DP needs to, but typically not quite as much about lighting and maybe a little more about the technical side of camera technology. These people have to stay abreast of all the latest gear and may be asked to operate 5 different cameras in a day accurately and effectively.
Teleprompter Operator – This job is pretty self-explanatory and this person may be an absolute requirement for a production and nowhere to be found on others. They are responsible for running the teleprompter, making changes to the script as needed, and working with the talent to get the speed just right. A good prompter operator will sort of “dance” with the reader. Just like in a real dance partnership, one must lead and one must follow but for two people to perform as one, the person following must do so smoothly and gracefully to make it appear like they are always in sync. A great teleprompter operator is a great reader and has a mastery of their software and computer package. They can, in some ways, fall within the camera department and may do the duty of the DIT as well though this is very production dependent.
The next group I’ll discuss is the Electric Department – Grip Film Crew:
These people are responsible for choosing, implementing, and maintaining the lighting for production. Along with the Grip Department, they make the film shine! The head of the Electric Department is the Gaffer.
Gaffer – An antique term for someone who has become quite technically inclined over time. When a DP is ready to light a scene, the gaffer and key grip will gather around and discuss the look of what they’re about to do. On paper, a DP would typically describe what they want from a creative viewpoint and maybe reference a specific light or two, but it’s usually up to the gaffer to decide what lights to use and how. This may change depending on the DP / gaffer relationship, but it’s typically a good idea to assume that it is not the DP’s job to tell the gaffer exactly what light to use and exactly how to use it. This camaraderie depends on a give and take of technical and creative knowledge and ideas. The gaffer is the leader of the electrical department which could often be composed of a Best Boy Electric and other Electrics or “Sparks”. On a major Hollywood movie there could be another 50 people in this department, but on a typical commercial project you may encounter 3 or 4 people in the electric department.
Best Boy Electric – This person is generally in charge of keeping his or her eye on the gear and constantly organizing, fixing, and allotting available equipment. If the production has an electric truck then this person may spend their entire time back at the truck on a walkie preparing gear for each and every scene or setup. This term may be changing as more and more women get in the G&E departments.
Electrics – These people are responsible for running power, possibly operating generators or plugging into circuit boxes, and most importantly, putting up lights on a movie set. If it makes light then the electrics are in charge of it. From tungsten to HMI, to LED, to the lights of tomorrow, these people have to understand a lot about how light works and the dangers and uses of electricity.
The Grip Department is often a world in its own right. They are typically seen as “the muscle” on set and can be employed to do a multitude of things including build platforms, rig cars, use c-stands, and most fundamentally; block, reflect, diffuse, or manipulate light. The head of the Grip Department is the Key Grip. This person is not only responsible for keeping other grips in line and on task but is also typically a safety coordinator of sorts on a film set. Often times they will look at weapons on a film set or determine the risks of any stunt if there is no dedicated stunt coordinator.
Key Grip – This crew member is usually pretty recognizable and one of the most utilitarian of all people. Talking to the key grip can be a good first step for almost any department looking for a piece of equipment to help them do their job better. They’re usually master builders in some senses and experts of the c-stand and a multitude of other pieces of grip gear. They also know all the “dirty” names for all the gear in the truck 😉
Best Boy Grip – This person operates in a very similar way to the best boy electric but does so while serving underneath the key grip. They are excellent at organization and anticipation.
Grips – There are so many stereotypes abound about the grips. They may be a bit rough around the edges, the guys that follow the adage “to someone with a hammer, everything is a nail” but ultimately, they are the glue that often holds the entire crew together. They have tools to help every other department. They make each team comfortable and safe and they’re usually the people with the best attitudes as well! On paper, their primary job is not to create the light, but to modify it, but that’s just a few of the hundreds of jobs they’re capable of.
Dolly Grip – This position is pretty specialized and can be exactly what it sounds like. But to further explain, it’s the support of the camera, motion of the camera, and animation in many shapes and forms. If you’re on a production that has a luxury Fisher or Chapman dolly or a plain old Doorway, then this person is your go-to. They’re smooth and have an eye for keeping things level whether the camera is actually on a dolly or track. They typically help out with the rest of the grip department as well if there are no dolly or slider moves for the day. They also can serve as a “mobile tripod” for days with a lot of handheld by stepping in to hold the camera for the AC’s. This can be a regional thing though.
The old joke goes, “sound, it’s 70% of what you see!” It might not be exactly accurate, but it’s definitely a fact that bad sound can ruin a production. This is why sound recordists are often very specialized and typically don’t do other jobs. They have to stay focused, they have to plan ahead, and they… have to stay awake on long takes.
Sound Mixer, Audio Tech, or Sound Recordist – This person can be solo or have several assistants depending on the type of production. They are experts at the technical aspects of mics, wireless signals, reverb, and the black art of lavaliere placement. A slow sound department can stop an entire production in its tracks, but a top notch sound department will appear to be almost invisible.
Boom Operator – Strong arms and a good memory are vital components of a top notch boom operator. These people need to plan ahead, watch out for shadows, be able to work with all the other departments in a really easy going way and often get up close and personal with the talent. Being a boom op may seem like an easy job, but there’s definitely a reason why most people won’t jump at the opportunity to fill in for them – it’s tough.
Utility – Any good-sized crew can benefit from a Sound Utility. They help keep batteries charged, they can keep an eye on sync boxes to multiple cameras, they can be right there with a sound blanket or apple box for the boom op, but most importantly they wrangle. Their cable wrapping and unwrapping skills are legendary and although they haven’t been quite as crucial with the film’s use of reliable wireless systems for booms, they can still be a vital part of the team for a tough show.
Non-technical Positions in Production
The following members may all be present on a film set and on rare occasions will not be on a video production set. These positions scale up and down as needed.
Hair and Makeup (HMU) – We all know what these people do, they make the talent comfortable, they listen to all the gossip, and most importantly they make the actors or client “camera ready.” The simple fact is that not all makeup will show up right on camera, not all faces are naturally smooth and soft to the 4K resolutions, and if nothing else, people just want to be told that they are good to go. Hair stylists can be important on a corporate set and provide a similar level of confidence for the on-screen talent. A great hair person can be just as good at hair as they are at warming up the people before they step on the film set. The hair and makeup crew members not only have to be great at their job, but they have to be expertly personable.
Wardrobe Stylist – This is a department that usually gets a lot more play on movies, short films, and music videos than corporate or commercial projects, but when you need one you’re really glad you have one. Aside from ensuring clients or talent look good in what they’re wearing, wardrobe stylists can be crucial in preproduction. They will often have to put together concepts for how a character could look and then go buy a number of options for game day – and then sheepishly show up to their favorite retailer with a pile of “returns.” They’re great at organizing when and why each character should wear what they do and can be crucial for even a small production if there are a lot of wardrobe changes.
Art Department – These people are truly the unsung heroes. When people ask me about what lenses they should rent for their short film I usually tell them to just buy some curtains instead. The truth is that without interesting colors, textures, and props in a scene, most of the drama can fall flat. At least one person in the art department can be a great addition to almost any film set. When there isn’t one this job will often fall onto the shoulders of the producer which can create a whole ‘nother set of potential complications.
Propmaster – This is exactly what it sounds like. This person is responsible for all the knick knacks that are wanted for a scene and all the “hero props” that are often needed. If there’s a map or a fake gun or even just a pen, this person is key to finding, cataloguing, presenting, and returning every prop in perfect order. It can be a very fun job but don’t forget to get multiple copies of anything that can be broken! Actors can be notoriously hard on props and there’s nothing worse than having a fragile prop with no backup.
On-set dresser – This crew member is part of the art department. Film set dressers on corporate or commercial productions are rare, but what they do is crucial. At the minimum, an on-set dresser is responsible for helping take all the miscellaneous furniture, wall dressings, lamps, etc. and putting them into place when starting a new scene. They’re also responsible for resetting the space if, for example, there’s a fight scene or a bunch of food is supposed to spill out of a bowl during the take.
Script Supervisor or “Scriptie” – Oftentimes the most diligent person on a production, they have a unique job that not everyone is cut out for. There is a funny saying for script supervisors: it’s not your responsibility, but it is your fault. Although each department is aware of continuity in their specific roles, it’s the script supervisors job to catch any of their mistakes. In essence, their role is to watch how each take plays out and pay strict attention so that the next take will be able to be seamlessly cut later, making it easier for the editor to edit scenes when the project moves into post production. The most obvious thing this person does is make sure that the same dialogue is used, the same hands are used to pick up props, and the general mechanics of each take are the same and constantly have to be aware of continuity. While being the most detail oriented of anyone on a film project, they also need to take more notes than anyone else. The job may seem easy enough – make sure that the ponytail stays on the right shoulder, not the left – but in reality it is a grueling job that requires a high level of focus.
Film Crew Hierarchy: The Order of Importance when Making a Film.
As you can imagine, the Director and Producer(s) are at the top and everything sort of proceeds from there. Technically the 1st AD is the de facto boss of what happens on a film set unless a producer steps in. After that, the DP is often the leader of what’s happening on a production from a procedural standpoint. They have the most direct jurisdiction of the most people on most film sets that are, say, under 10 or 15 people. Under their direct purview the 1st AC, gaffer, and key grip are all considered equal as they are heads of their own departments and would expect to be paid similarly. The best boys and maybe the 2nd AC would be next and might be paid similarly and then the grips and electrics would expect to have the least managerial responsibility and get paid the same which would be less than the rest of the people who were just mentioned. The DIT is sort of an outlier in terms of pricing because their kit may or may not be factored into their daily rate. The sound mixer would be in a similar position and often gets paid more than just about anyone besides the DP because of it.
As for the other departments, those daily rates can have a large range. They may or may not do double duty. It would be quite typical on a medium-sized commercial or music video production to have one person as “art department” that would fill the role of art director, on-set dresser, props stylist, and anything else similar. Another example would be to have a single person do hair and makeup or maybe even hair, makeup, and wardrobe. These positions are all sort of liquid and dynamic and would need to be assigned based on how complicated or involved the production will be in any given facet. The producer(s) would be in charge of determining the needs of the production and may be aided by the director in hiring for each department.
Film Production can be a wonderfully satisfying endeavor and often times benefits from a team camaraderie that exists virtually nowhere else. There is something a little magical about having just the right people in the perfect positions to execute a plan flawlessly. Whether you’re above the line or below the line, it’s vital that you understand everyone’s role and just what is expected of each person. Now that you get the idea, go out and make something!