On a movie set, the film crew keeps the machine we call production running smoothly.
The crew is a well-oiled machine that follows traditions as old as cinema itself, and for a newcomer, it might be hard to distinguish who all these people are and where one might fit in. Examining the credits at the end of a film helps, but it doesn’t necessarily explain it all.
Though everyone may not be familiar with the terms “above the line” and “below the line,” most people are definitely more familiarized with the “above the line” crew – the Writer, the Director, the Producer, the Actors . . .. But the busy factory of a movie set is made up of so many more important people that have been categorized as “below the line.”
Though the term may suggest that “below the line” may be less important, that is the farthest thing from the truth. A film set can’t run without everyone you see running around and everyone down to the PA is important.
Understanding what makes up a film crew can help you not only figure out where you might fit in at the start of your career but even as a filmmaker, it will help you understand the team you will need to execute your vision. Let’s break down the departments to help you understand more.
A film crew consists of:
- Production Office
- Assistant Director(s)
- Art Department
- Camera Department
- Grip and Electric
- Costume Department
Let’s start with the production office. The ruler of the roost in the production office is the Line Producer. Under the Line Producer, you have the Unit Production Manager (UPM), who works with a Production Coordinator (POC) and the Assistant Production Coordinator (APOC) to make sure that the production runs smoothly.
The Line Producer is the “on the ground” Producer who manages the budget, while the UPM, the POC, and the APOC are administrative positions that get the job done. There are other positions in the production office, but these folks are the backbone.
The Assistant Director is probably the most misnamed crew member. Though the AD does “assist” the Director, the real role of the AD is to run the set. The AD has the responsibility to keep the crew on task and on schedule and is the link between the Producers and the Director.
“Making the day” or completing everything that’s on the schedule falls on the AD. The AD is also very much a part of creating the schedule and is the one in charge of getting call sheets out and wrangling all departments. You need something from the Director during production? You’ll have to go through the AD to get to her!
Safety is also a top priority for the AD, so if there is a safety hazard on set, the AD should know about it. Luckily the AD has a team to get the job done. Depending on the size of the production, there is a Second or Third AD (sometimes called the 2nd 2nd) as well as PAs. The First PA that many PAs report to is usually poised to be an AD, himself. It’s an intense gig.
The Art Department is in charge of all the set design and dressing. The head of the department is the Production Designer, who collaborates with the Director and the DP to fulfill the Director’s vision of what the sets will be and how they will be decorated.
The Art Director is the person who is in charge of executing this plan like a Contractor, and the Set Decorator is the one who takes either the built set or the location set and adds all the necessary set dressing, from furniture down to the details of the story, such as tossed clothes in a messy room or the aftermath of a crazy party. Think about that hotel room in The Hangover!
Another member of this department is props. The Prop Master is in charge of all the props in the script – a gun, fake wine, or even jewelry if it is crucial to the story. The Prop Master has a team to both construct them and keep track of them during production.
The Art Department must work closely with the Camera Department; Camera communicates to Art what they are actually going to be getting in a shot, because if the camera isn’t going to point somewhere, no need to decorate that space.
In the Camera Department, you have the Director of Photography (DP) who works with the Director to establish the look of the film and how it will be shot.
The Camera Operator operates the camera under the DP’s guidance, actually getting the shots, while the 1st Assistant Camera (1st AC) pulls focus. The 1st AC also runs the department. He works with a 2nd AC who keeps track of the footage, recording things in camera reports and slating each take, as well as swapping out the camera cards.
A Data Wrangler is in charge of offloading and backing up the footage. In some cases, this is done by a Data Image Technician (DIT), who will color the footage to the DP’s specs so it can be viewed on set. Sometimes, the Director and DP will want shots with a Steadicam.
This requires a Steadicam Operator, who operates the camera with a special rig. This particular rig allows the Camera Operator to move the camera smoothly – almost like a dolly. Most Steadicam Operators come with their own rig, unlike other camera or lighting equipment.
Within the Camera Department is the Grip and Electric Department (G & E). This is the crew that lights the set and harnesses the electricity to run those lights – this can be hard-wired or through a generator. The Gaffer is the head electrician that is in charge of lighting design under the direction of the DP.
The Gaffer’s Key Grip executes the lighting design and the Best Boy assists. The Dolly Grip is the one who attaches the camera to the dolly (and pushes it) and a Swing can bounce between Camera and Electric.
The Script Supervisor appears to be a lone wolf, but he is part of the Camera Department. The Script Supervisor, endearingly known as “ the Scripty” has a huge responsibility. During pre-production, he will make sure there are no inconsistencies in the script as well as give estimates of the film’s timing.
During the shoot, the Script Supervisor is still keeping track of timing but is also keeping track of coverage — ensuring that there are enough pieces to cut the film together, making sure there is continuity between takes, and keeping track of stage direction, all while taking copious notes and generating daily reports.
Most of what the Scripty does is for the Editorial Department. Because the Editor is not on set, the Script Supervisor is the one who communicates all the details from the day to the Editorial Department — what the Director intended or any problems that arose while shooting (bad sound, etc).
It’s all about keeping the Editor in the loop. For example, large scenes are often covered in more than one day, so the Scripty makes sure the Editor knows that more footage is coming so he doesn’t start cutting without all the material.
The Sound Mixer records all the sounds from a scene, the obvious being the dialog. However, every production sound needs to be recorded – the door opening, the engine of a car starting, the glass slammed down on a bar, etc.
A Sound Mixer will put microphones on the Actors and a Boom Operator will hold a microphone above the Actors’ heads as they speak. They record wild lines and room tone, which are are useful tools for post-production.
The Costume Designer is a department head, like the Production Designer, who is brought onto a project early on. She works closely with the Director and the Production Designer to design the costumes and has them made or purchased.
On set, there is usually a Wardrobe Supervisor who has a crew that keeps track of the costumes and has them ready and organized for each Actor and each scene.
Tucked away in a dark room, usually far away from set, you will find the Editor and her team. At the very least there will be an Editor and Assistant Editor.
The more footage and the tighter the deadline, the bigger the team is. The Assistant Editor organizes the notes from the Script Supervisor as well as the footage in the editing system, making sure that all the scenes shot have made it into the project (which includes checking a lot of paperwork).
As soon as the footage is ready, the Editor starts editing, making sure everything the production team is getting is working.
With all these people on set operating in a military fashion to keep the production on track, film crews always feel like they never have enough time or people to get the job done. A supportive PA is every department’s dream.
Many people often get a general PA position right off the bat, but if you want to move up the ladder, it’s a good idea to target a department that strikes your fancy. If you get to a department and you don’t like it, stay positive, do a good job and try another one on the next gig. If you do a good job, people are happy to refer you.