On-Set Etiquette

You have been scouring the Internet in search of opportunities for a first job in the film or TV industry. You have been applying for many of them and finally, it happened. You got that email, the job is yours.

Landing your first on-set job in film or TV is a very exciting time. However, how to behave, what to do, what to say and even what to wear might be some of the questions going through your mind. Hopefully this article will point you in the right direction and put you at ease so you can go off to a wonderful first day.

Chances are your first job will be that of a runner-like role, be it camera, floor or otherwise. If for some reason this is not your case, I’d like to encourage you to read on as you might still find the rest of the article very useful. There are things stated below that might sound very obvious, however they don’t always come across as such.

General behaviour

Being as helpful as possible is a no-brainer, but you should also be aware that sometimes too much assistance can be considered interfering. Sometimes we want to be so helpful that we get in the way of other people, which is evidently not well-regarded. Along the same lines, you should only speak when you are spoken to. Don’t try to look or sound smart by demonstrating your skills and just focus on completing the tasks you are given. One thing to keep in mind is that a production always runs against the clock so everyone is always very busy doing their part and no one has time to waste.

Be proactive about offering help if you don’t have anything to do at a given time and never do something you haven’t been asked to do or touch anything you haven’t been asked to touch. Conversely, always ask about things if there’s something you don’t understand or if you are not sure about how to do something. It is much better to ask again and get it right than not asking and getting it wrong. If you do make a mistake anyway, apologise, try to find a solution for it and move on.

It’s also very important to always be jolly, polite, respectful and never complain. Shooting days can be very long (sometimes even 12 or 16 hours) and occur during the so-called “unsociable” hours. Therefore, you will normally spend a very long time working with the same people. This can be great if people get along but also uncomfortable if you have to put up with someone unpleasant for so long. For this reason, many would go so far as to say that they’d rather work with someone nice that doesn’t know as much than someone who is a tech wizard but not likeable.

The same goes for complaining. You will get tired and possibly hungry and thirsty. In any case, keep it to yourself and never complain. No one likes a whiner.

Nevertheless, don’t think that you have to do everything you are asked to without question. For instance, if you are told to go buy lunch with your own money and they will reimburse you later, it’s okay for you to politely decline if you don’t feel comfortable doing it. There might be reasons why the company hasn’t sorted out some of the meals, however it is not included in the runners’ duties to financially take charge of this.

Also, don’t attempt to lift anything that looks too heavy for you just because you have been told to do so. It’s perfectly fine for you to state that a determined load is too heavy for you and ask for help.

In the same way, it’s okay to admit you don’t know something if you’re asked for technical advice or told to do something beyond your knowledge or that you have never done before. The important thing here is to not try to “save the day”, especially if you are going to go about something by guessing. Again, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Along these lines, never overestimate your skills by suggesting that you are able to do something beyond your duties. For example, if you are a camera runner, don’t walk up to a camera assistant and ask if you can pull focus on the next take. Anything like this would be considered very rude, even if you can pull focus.

Productions are organised in a very hierarchical way. Always be respectful of everyone but especially more so the heads of department and talent. Try not to be nervous around talent, they are normal people too and are pretty much in the same boat. If you know who someone is without having met them before, don’t talk to them unless you have to or if they approach you.

What to wear and carry

The dress code may vary from production to production, but it will be usually indicated on the call sheet if there is one. Take the weather into account, especially if you are going to be working outdoors. Since weather can be unpredictable (particularly in the UK) it’s a safe bet to wear a waterproof jacket and shoes. The latter should be as comfortable as possible, so a pair of nondescript trainers would probably be a good call. Also think in terms of temperature, you don’t want to spend the whole day shivering or sweating.

In regards to the rest of your attire, a normal pair of jeans or trousers and a basic t-shirt should do the trick. Tracksuits can be a grey area, but it would be safe to say that most of the times they will be considered as “too casual/comfortable”. Just make sure that the clothes you’ve chosen are not noisy when you move.

In terms of colours, you can never really go wrong with dark clothes –except for maybe those occasional hot days in the summer.  However, don’t wear light or bright clothes as these cause reflections on the actors, scene, or sometimes in windows.  The plainer, the better, and it is best to avoid wearing big logos. This can cause some trouble depending on the nature of the production, so best to make sure this is alright or avoid it altogether.

A torchlight can be very useful – the one on your phone should be alright but remember to silence it! – and if you want to be extra helpful always carry a couple of Sharpies and pens, even some blank paper sheets and some gaffer tape.

What to expect

You have to be aware that “runner” is the lowest of the roles in a production. This isn’t anything bad, it’s just a matter of hierarchy. Don’t be offended if someone explains something to you that you already know, just listen and learn. Practice makes perfect, so hearing about something one more time can never be a bad thing.

As a runner you won’t be (shouldn’t be) treated any differently. However, you might find yourself having to carry out what might seem like menial tasks, such as breakfast/lunch runs, making tea and coffee, fetching objects or water and conveying messages. Again, this is not a bad thing. There is always something to learn from everything and completing allegedly easy and boring tasks in a timely manner with efficiency and a good disposition will eventually get you noticed as a hard-working, reliable and pleasant individual, which can earn you good references that will lead to roles with more responsibility in the future.

Another excellent skill to have on set is the ability to remain calm when something goes wrong –it will happen, more than you would think. In these situations, people get nervous and stressed and therefore you can expect to be yelled at as a result of high stress. If this happens don’t take it to heart, just carry on with your tasks and be as helpful as possible. However, if by any chance you had a truly unpleasant encounter with anyone that shouldn’t be ignored, leave it for the end of the day and make sure to report it to the head of department.

In terms of food, it depends on the arrangements that have been done for the day. You can expect at least one catered meal and complimentary water throughout the day.

In terms of working time, as I stated before you should expect to work long hours and to have some breaks during the course of the day. How many will depend on the intensity of the work and the schedule.

Last but definitely not least, you should always get paid for your work, unless it’s clearly stated beforehand that the role is not paid but you still decide to do it. Unpaid jobs however, are luckily becoming more of a rarity. In any case, always go on a job having clarified compensation matters beforehand.

Do’s and Don’ts

Here is a list of some additional do’s and don’ts that can help you on set:

  • Be polite, respectful, pleasant and helpful.
  • Never sit down unless you are on a break. In this case, make sure to stay away from the set and any busy areas.
  • Don’t carry copies of your latest script/film to show people, especially not to heads of department or the director, producer, etc.
  • Don’t ask for anyone to let you do anything beyond your duties/capabilities.
  • Never brag about your past work and preferably don’t mention it unless you are specifically asked about it.
  • Always keep receipts if you buy anything, whether it’s for yourself, the production or someone else.
  • Never give your opinion about the work that is being done unless you are asked to. If this is the case, always start with something like: “I’m not sure, what do you think?”
  • Use your common sense.

Juan Cruz is a cinematographer and editor based in London. He is about to graduate from the University of Greenwich in the MSc Film Production.
In his films, he likes exploring technology-related dystopias. He also loves comedy and playing drums.