A look at different crew positions on a film set
INTERVIEWS / KODY FORD + SOPHIA STOLKEY
If you’ve ever watched the credits at the end of a film, it seems like they go on and on for at least ten minutes sometimes. By the time the music ends on a feature’s credits, you could populate a small town with everyone who worked on the movie. And while independent films are done on a far smaller scale, it is a collaborative effort nonetheless.
Many different types of jobs can be found on a film set. It’s not just a director shouting cut. You have hair and make up, truck drivers, electricians, even a best boy (which sounds like a 1940s superhero sidekick, but is actually a gaffer or grip’s assistant).
Working in film can pay well once you get to a certain level and provide you with lots of travel opportunities and adventure. You will work long hours during those months on set, but for many, it beats punching a clock and staring at spreadsheets on a laptop. We chatted with some different crew members about what they do. This is by no means a comprehensive list of positions on a film set, but it can start to give you an idea of what to expect.
DIRECTOR — Fred Goss
What made you want to be a director?
Since I was a kid I wanted to act, direct and write. First it was plays but then I realized there was no money in plays so I got off that a few years after high school…I moved to Hollywood from Redondo Beach to do standup comedy and later I realzied no one give s a flying fuck about your career but except you. I had no one – my family is West Virginia and Michigan.
I really was the kid in the theatre and 12 or 13 watching films that were beyond my scope like Bonnie and Clyde. I went and saw Annie Hall when I was 15 or 16 and I was like that’s it. That’s what I want to do. I’d never seen anyone open a film like that.
Do you think directors should start as cinematographers?
I basically almost did every job on a crew before directing because you want to be a director who doesn’t know how to shoot. I’d never hire myself as my own cameraman but I can do it. You want to be able to step into any position to get to where you want it to be as a director. The DP and the camera dept – if you don’t know what you’re doing – they’ll just tread on you. They’ll be like “no, you can’t do that”. They’ll suss you out.
How do you feel about the proliferation of filmmaking due to digital cameras?
When I started trying to direct, there wasn’t even home video, back around ‘83 / ‘84. There were VHS camcorders but they looked like shit. Back then, it had to be shot on film and that’s what kept it as this little club. In [Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse], Francis Ford Coppola predicted that technology one day some little girl in Iowa could make her own movie and that’s when it would become art again. The exclusion of others because they can’t afford it is done. Coppola called it.
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR — Felisa Womble
Los Angeles/Little Rock
How did you get into being an assistant director?
I believe that working in the AD department as a production assistant you fall into [being an AD] if you love it. Once you get on set, take one day and watch each department and what they do. You will figure out what you want to do on set pretty quickly.
What does an assistant director do on set?
An assistant director is a lot of things. We are the communication on set. There are usually 3 assistant director’s, a first AD, a second AD and a second second. The first AD is responsible for the filming schedule, working with the director, director of photography and other heads of department to ensure an efficient shoot. The Second AD is responsible for all paperwork, call sheets and production reports. The second second will help in managing the crew and running the set, and are typically responsible for organizing all the Background Extras action during the scenes.
What is your favorite part about this position?
My favorite part of being an assistant director is watching the crew come together and flow. It’s important that all information be passed along immediately and efficiently. The more communication that is happening the smoother the shoot. Holding back information is a no no on set. All departments must be on the same page with every scene.
What is the most challenging part of this position?
The most challenging part is when people think they need to hold onto information to get ahead and move up. It’s not efficient and causes a lot of fires that will need to be put out.
What is your favorite part about working in the film industry?
Definitely locations and stunt units. I’ve seen things that normal people will never see in their lifetimes. For example on X-Files we went up to Sacramento California into a mountain 5 miles down in the earth that was a power plant. Massive. To see what our lighting crew did was amazing. One flip of a switch. Stunt units are exciting and scary. You never want to see anyone get hurt but when it’s successful the whole crew literally jumps up and down and we all hug each other.
PRODUCER — Dan Robinson
What do you do as a producer?
A big thing that I do as a producer is introducing people and advocating for people, helping them understand each other. So, when you’ve got someone who’s an aspiring filmmaker who’s trying to talk to a location about what they’re wanting to do and how they’re wanting to do it, there are ways to make that smooth for everybody involved. And that is a big part of what I do as a producer. It’s always been something that I’ve been drawn to, so it has never felt like a stretch for me. I want to know what everyone is doing and how they’re doing it, and how I can help them do it better.
As those opportunities grew, I had more of an opportunity to expand my portfolio, between radio, television, live events, and theater. I’ve had the opportunity to touch all of those bases. My bachelor’s degree is in music composition, so I started out as a composer. And as I was composing for some of my friends who were editing, I was like, “Man, that editor looks just like Pro Tools.” And then it was like, “Man, now I’m editing, so now I might as well learn how to run a camera.” And since I already had an audio background, then location audio felt natural. And then as I needed grips and gaffers and that sort of thing, I was able to start interacting with them in a way where I quickly figured out the things that they like doing and the things that they don’t, and how to be empathetic to their circumstances.
So, it’s really just about getting in at all the levels and being able to put together a team. And then, it’s about the result. You put that team together, you make something, but then when that team’s done, they’re done. But then the project lives on. The project has to go to festivals, distribution, and there are steps after that. For me, as a creative, learning all the logistical steps has been something that has made it feel possible no matter what. I’m just going to learn how everything works, and then the things that I want to create I’ll be able to create. And the way I learn that is by helping everyone that’s awesome create everything I can. And so, I’m just in the business of finding awesome people and seeing how I can help them.
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY — Zak Heald
What was it that first you to be behind the camera and make it go from just being like a tool to an art for you?
[M]aybe something that is a personality trait [or] flaw for me is instant gratification, which I think that really brought me to behind the camera. I love storytelling. That’s something I’ve always been passionate about … [W]hat really draws me to film and to this industry is just the ability to shape and tell stories. And being behind the camera, I think, it solves that other piece of it, which is there’s this, I have a desire to create visual art.
And the instant gratification — when you are a writer, you can write something and never see that on the screen, maybe in your entire lifetime or it could take 10 or 20 years before you see that work … [W]here I think with being a DP in this industry a lot of the work I do, I’m not waiting more than a few months, you know. Most of the time before it’s out and the people in the world get to see, I can show my parents right or my grandmother. I love that part of this.
[Also] I’ve always loved light. I’ve loved the way it impacted things. I love playing with that. I’m colorblind and so one of the things that I think that has also impacted my desire to be behind the camera is I really enjoy playing with shadows, like contrast and light. It’s a lot of how I see the world. I mean, I see color, don’t get me wrong. I’m not completely colorblind. But I see way less colors than the average person does. And so I think a lot of my desire to be behind the camera was just to kind of paint with light.
ART DIRECTOR — Mitchell Crisp
How did you become drawn to the field of production design?
I am like so many women in that I thought the only things open to me, if I wanted to work in film, would be directing or acting, because that’s all girls could be. But I think stuff is changing now. I know that 87% of production designers are men. And so, really it seems like this industry would be really kind to women, but it’s not. I started my career in New York. My first job was with Law and Order, I was the art department coordinator for several seasons. And that’s how I learned what the art department was actually all about. I’ve been doing this for about 22 years now. I moved to Arkansas in 2003 and thought I would have to leave my career because you know, it’s Arkansas, and everyone thinks there’s no film here. But, I have managed to work on all of the big movies that have come through here since I’ve lived here. Since 2003, I believe I’ve worked on at least one feature film a year, and I’ve gotten to work on more and more here over the years.
What’s your favorite thing about working with the art department?
My people! My crew is the very best. It is insane how good my people are. I feel very lucky that I get to work with people whom I just absolutely love. They’re all so talented and amazing.
Being in the art department means we get to fill the frame. So, everything other than the actors has had my influence on it. I oversee the costume department, and hair and makeup stuff too. One example of a cool art department moment was when I got to travel to South Africa in 2016 and built a giant biblical city set. I had 230 people in my department alone, and it was a big blockbuster. The craziest thing was that I drew a bunch of pictures on paper of what I wanted it to look like, just little sketches. And then I walked into the city that we had made. The camera was going to be really high, so it couldn’t go up just ten feet. It was big, like you could go up the stairs and still not see power lines or anything. There was this moment when I went out to look at it, and I had my notebook in my hand so I could write down measurements, and I was looking at this piece of paper with a pencil sketch that I had drawn from Little Rock, and I was just in awe of the actual city in front of me. That was really exciting, and I’m glad that I feel confident enough in my skill set to contribute something so positive to the storytelling experience.
COSTUME SUPERVISOR — Alex Flanders
How did you get into doing costumes for films?
I truly lucked out and met someone who works as a costume designer in the film industry already. She’s a fellow vintage clothing seller and she came into my shop downtown one day with a friend, and while we were talking I mentioned to her that it’d always been a dream of mine to do costuming for films. She ended up calling me shortly after we met and asked if I’d be available to assist her on an upcoming movie and I said yes! So far I have done two of my three movies with her.
What is something about this position most people don’t realize?
A huge part of the job is keeping your eyes peeled for continuity errors. Once an outfit is established, meaning it has been worn for a take and the camera/audience has seen it, we start making sure necklaces are in place, shirts are tucked in the same way each time, etc. It can get tricky since these characters are supposed to be real people, right? So maybe they take off their jacket when they’re driving, or they pull a Mr. Rogers and change into different shoes before they leave for the day.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Set life is definitely addicting. I was warned that I’d want to come right back as soon as a film ended, but I didn’t know how truly rewarding it would be to work your butt off for a few weeks and be part of a team where each department has a crucial role in getting the thing made. I actually haven’t seen any of the films I’ve worked on yet, but I can’t wait to have a watch party and reminisce about a scene and what it was like to shoot it, or what the weather was doing, or how hungry we all were while filming it.
GRIP — Johnny
What does the Grip do and why is it necessary for a film?
Gripping is the physical work of putting the lighting together. The bigger the lighting setup for a movie the more grips you need. After the set is built, grips not only put the lights up but sculpt, color, diffuse and direct it under the instructions of the gaffer (the person who is responsible for the lights).
Grip is the one thing that productions always are happy to have more of. I just try and help out where help is needed. Recently recorded sound on a low budget shoot and do set decorations.
Why do you like working in film?
Film, and even social media videos are an easy way for people to learn about the world. You can control how people see that world. And then get attention for it. As an only child nothing is better than getting that attention!
I have my own short video series coming out soon called Magic the Magician, besides shooting it, I put the sets together.
How much troubleshooting is part of your position?
This position is nothing but troubleshooting, especially when on location. Not only are there physical barriers but the sun is always moving! Sometimes a movie has just one day to shoot a scene in a location. That scene might have the exact same lighting in the movie but not only will the sunlight move but rain can come. What then? The grips move everything around to make all the light for every shot match!
STAND-IN — Lauren de Miranda
Los Angeles/Fort Smith
You worked on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for seven seasons as the stand-in for Chloe Bennet (who played Daisy Johnson/Skye/Quake), which is very exciting. What exactly did you do as a stand-in on the set?
So the way I described it is I am the actress’ other half for the day of the shoot. And I tag in and out for her throughout the day. So I go with her into rehearsal, watch the scene. I have the sides and the lines. And when she walks away, I do the role for her so that we can set up for lighting camera movements, all of the technical aspects of the shot because we work 12 to 14 hour days, so it would be impossible for one person to constantly be on set the whole time. So they call a second team. I’m the second actress that stands in [and] sets up the technical aspects of the shot, the camera and the lighting.
When you aren’t working on setting up the shots, are you just hanging out the rest of the time?
Yeah, so it really is like a tag team effort…We’ll all come together in the morning and we’ll run the scene and I’ll take notes. And then they walk away to go to the hair, makeup trailer, go get wardrobe, go talk to the director or whatever … I am now there, she has tagged me. And now I am walking through the scene saying the lines, showing the cameras the marks, standing in different positions, sitting here, standing there to make sure that everywhere is lit properly. And then once we feel like we’ve gotten every technical aspect worked out, then she will come back, tag back in and then we roll. And while we’re rolling, I usually sit behind a monitor and watch because as we start filming, they may make a change, decide like, you know what, I don’t want to sit down here and we might then tag back out and go change the lighting again or something of that effect. So throughout the day I’m working half the day, she’s working half the day … When I’m not working, I’m usually still mostly part of it, watching the monitors and staying as involved as I can.
CATERER — Zane Placke
You worked at a lot of restaurants in Northwest Arkansas like Preacher’s Son and Greenhouse Grille. So how big of a shift was it in terms of job duties and things to go from restaurant into the catering position?
Yeah, it is a very different schedule. The first couple of days on True Detective, I think I got there at three in the morning, maybe 3:30. The hours for catering are wild. Well, if the crew gets started at eight where they’re at seven with breakfast ready, but that means we’ve got to roll up, set everything up, start cooking. It might, it might get there at four in the morning. So then, the days are usually longer. I know I wasn’t unused to working long hours in restaurants, but it’s pretty hard to top catering’s weekly workload. Then as far as the work goes, it’s still cooking. We still do good food. We aim for restaurant food and fancy dishes, but you’re doing it out of a food truck or out of a tent with some rolling equipment. So things you get used to being easy in restaurants suddenly have a new challenge because you’ve got to log all your water in with five gallon bottles or hook propane up for everything, or figure out where you can get power. So all the skill set of restaurants is the things you need, but there’s so many other little elements and complications from doing it on location and at a schedule that fits with the film production.
For people who haven’t been on a set before, is it kind of like a heavier workload since you’re not doing specialty plates? How wide of a net do they cast terms of food variety when you’re on the set?
I’ve only ever worked with my catering company, so I couldn’t say what others do but we do our absolute best to accommodate everyone’s needs or dietary preferences. So for a TV show, which we typically do, we’ll have a crew and cast of something like 150 to 200 people… And within that, you’ll have people who eat everything from guys who are afraid of eating anything but steak and potatoes, to people who want raw vegan, paleo, carb-free, all organic. So we really we do our best to accommodate everyone on a given day. We’ll have usually three meat based entrees. Usually like a red meat, poultry, or fish – several starches, several vegetables. We make sure there’s vegan options or sugar and carbohydrate-free options for paleo people or something. We can take an element of this garnish from that sauce from this other dish and recombine it to a full vegan meal. We feed everyone we can and do everything we can think of to accommodate everyone. I don’t like people going hungry, they’re working hard all day and we’re there to feed them.