Walking onto a real set on a real movie or TV show is very different than the set of a student film. First of all, your crew is much larger. And second, there are unwritten protocols and rules of behavior that you wouldn't necessarily know unless someone were to tell you or you happened to learn them the hard way.
Deciding what to shoot each day starts with what's reflected in the shooting schedule. Adjustments are made to accommodate changing weather conditions, availabilities of certain locations or pieces of special equipment or the possibility that the show is running behind or ahead of schedule. Once the first assistant director, director and line producer agree with what's to constitute a day's work, it's reflected onto a call sheet and distributed the evening before.
Actors and stunt performers are given work calls to accommodate the time it takes them to get through wardrobe, hair, makeup and prosthetics, and crew members are likewise given call times to accommodate the amount of prep time they need. More time is always needed when shooting in a new location. Less set-up time is required when returning to a long-standing set on a sound stage or other interior location. When shooting on a distant location, drive time to and from the set is also factored in to the work day.
Each day is different. Sometimes a succession of scenes is completed, sometimes just portions of one scene. Much will depend on what type of show it is, the schedule and budget and how complicated any particular scene is. A one-page scene of two people sitting at a table talking is going to take a lot less time to shoot than a one-page scene full of car crashes, stunts and explosions. One complicated scene (such as one on a battlefield) could take several days to accomplish (as well as multiple cameras and second units).
Much will also depend on the amount of coverage any one scene is given. Low-budget films and TV shows with inflexible schedules and budgets don't have as much latitude when it comes to creative lighting and camera moves.
Let's just say you have a scene in which several people are sitting around a table talking and having dinner. Coverage would normally begin with a master shot, often achieved with a wide-angle lens to encompass everyone who's in the scene. Subsequent coverage might include two-shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots and high- or low-angle shots. If the table is outside on a rooftop, the director might want an aerial shot (captured via helicopter). The more coverage the director is able to get, the more footage the editor has to work with. Every time the camera is moved, however, another set up is created, and lights, equipment and sometimes flats (walls) must be moved to accommodate the shot. If the entire scene is played out in the master, then each subsequent set up represents a portion of that scene, sometimes requiring many takes until the director is ready to move on. Multiple set ups and takes equate to a lot of waiting around, and those new to working on a set are always surprised at how slowly things move (especially on features).
The same basic sequence of events occurs over and over again throughout the day. They are:
1. Rehearse: The director works with the actors as they go over their lines and get a sense of the scene.
2. Block: Decisions are made as to where the actors will be standing, how the scene will be lit and where the camera(s) will be placed. Once finalized, the principal actors are dismissed (to deal with wardrobe, hair, makeup, prosthetic fittings, etc., or to just relax and go over their lines in their dressing rooms). At this point, the stand-ins are brought in for the purpose of lighting.
3. Light: The DP and gaffer are now in charge of lighting the set as per the director's wishes.
4. Shoot: Once the set is lit, the stand-ins are dismissed and the principal actors are brought back in to shoot. (It is the second assistant director's responsibility to make sure the actors are ready once the set is ready for them.)
If you're going to be working as a set PA, here are some things you should know.
• Wear comfortable (and quiet) shoes.
• Have extra clothing in your car and backpack to cover changes in weather (extra sweatshirt, T-shirt, socks, gloves, boots, hat, warm jacket, rain gear); also sunglasses, sunscreen and a bandanna.
• Consider getting yourself a walkie-talkie belt (which can usually be found at an Army-Navy surplus store or a sporting goods store) or a waist pack to accommodate a walkie-talkie, cell phone and pager. It'll make it a lot easier for you to lug that stuff around all day.
• Keep a three-ring binder with the schedule, day-out-of-days, crew list, pager/cell phone list, contact list and the script (with all the latest script revisions). Most ADs and set PAs also carry legal-size metal clipboards with a hinge on the left side. They refer to it as "my tin." The outside is flat and great for writing notes. The inside is used to store call sheets, production reports and a few basic supplies. They can be purchased at specialty stationery stores or online.
• Your basic set supplies, or "kit," should contain pens, pencils, white-out (the roll-on type is the best), a small flashlight, note paper or a mini notebook and reduced versions of the crew list, one-liner, cast list, cell phone/pager list, contact list, etc. They won't all fit inside your clipboard, but you might get them into a fanny pack or work belt; and they should be carried around with you at all times.
• As a PA or trainee, you'll report to the 2nd AD.
• Read the back of a call sheet, learn crew job titles and how many of each are going to be on the set
• Learn basic crew terminology: what is a DP (and who is he/she)? What is a gaffer? A best boy? If you're told to get a grip, he's probably the guy with the hammer sticking out of his back pocket; the electrician is probably the guy with a pair of gloves sticking out of his back pocket and clothespins on his sleeves, etc.
• Learn the names of the cast and crew as quickly as possible.
• Learn where each department is located (wardrobe, makeup, camera, etc.) so you can find people quickly.
• Know the phone number for the stage or location.
• Learn the paperwork as soon as possible.
• Start familiarizing yourself with union and guild guidelines.
• Learn military time (or keep a chart with you for easy reference).
• When you're asked to do something, do it quickly and report back that it's done. Don't make your supervisor have to come find you and ask if it's done.
• Always give the impression that whatever you've been asked to do is going to get done quickly. If for some reason you can't accommodate a request, let your supervisor know immediately, so other arrangements can be made. (There is always a sense of urgency on a set, and delays are costly!)
• Show deference to strangers on the set, as you never know who they are.
• Have a sense of when to be quiet, even when quiet hasn't specifically been called for. If in doubt, be quiet.
• If you see something that might be hazardous, mention it to your supervisor.
• If you see someone smoking, ask them to please stop, and if they don't, advise your supervisor.
• Never introduce yourself to a director or an actor because you're a big fan and/or to ask for an autograph. You'll meet them soon enough in the course of your job; don't bother them unnecessarily.
• Stay out of the director's and actors' line of vision. Stay behind the camera.
• Never take still photos on a set unless you get prior permission from the Director of Photography.
• Never sit down (except at lunch or to do paperwork).
• Be the last to take lunch—after the actors and entire crew.
• Keep your conversations on the walkie/talkie short and to the point (or go to another walkie channel).
• If you have nothing to do and have permission from your supervisor, help the crew out whenever possible. (Again, never stand around with nothing to do.)
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