For newcomers in the field of film production, there are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes. Whether you’re the director, a camera operator, or a lowly production assistant, a shoot is a high pressure environment. Success on the film set requires excellence in very specific skills, many of which can only be learned through experience. And in an industry where reputation is everything, there are only so many mistakes you can make if you want to keep getting hired.
So we went out searching for tips from film production veterans in the KitSplit community to help you avoid those on-set mistakes.
I sat down with Aaron Marquette, a leading Los Angeles Camera Operator and Remote Head Technician, who’s been working on film sets for over 15 years. Aaron is a member of the Cinematographers Guild and a member of the Society of Camera Operators. His IMDB page lists 203 films and TV shows that he’s worked on, including the Oscar award-winning film Argo, Pretty Little Liars, 90210, Community, and not one, but two Justin Bieber documentaries! He has a beautiful inventory of gear, which he keeps in mint condition and ready to rent on KitSplit, including a MoviPro Kit, a MoviM15 with Upgrades and a Ready Rig all day Gimbal Support vest. Needless to say he’s seen a lot and has a great deal of wisdom to share. Aaron outlined 13 tips that everyone should keep in mind when working on set. But first, a little more background on Aaron’s story.
Aaron’s First Job on a Big Budget Film
Aaron is from Dallas and had been making his own experimental films growing up. He got his first job on the set of a larger production when a film from Los Angeles came through his hometown. He knew he had to step up his game, but he had a lot to learn.
“There’s so much nuanced etiquette on set,” Aaron explained to me. “You need someone to hold your hand to know where to stand, what direction to look at, when and where to be watching. If you’re new on set, it can very much feel like you’re always standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He confessed that he felt he “did everything wrong” on that first production. He stood in the actor’s light without knowing it. He wore a white shirt on the first day, which is problematic because it reflects light and can interfere with lighting the scene. He knew that camera assistants had tool pouches, butbought a tool belt from a hardware store instead of a real tool pouch, which showed how green he was and became the favorite joke of the LA-based crew.
He knew he needed guidance and sought it out from the rest of the crew and folks in the camera department. By the end of the film, he caught up pretty well to the point that the entire crew pitched in to buy him a proper camera operator’s tool belt.
Since then Aaron has come a long way. He now has 15 years on set under his belt. He generously shared his rules for surviving and thriving on the film set, in hopes that it helps young up and coming camera operators and crew smoothly navigate their early days on set.
Aaron’s tips for working on the film set i.e. #setlife etiquette
1. Get out before you get in.
Simply loving movies is not enough to sustain anyone for decades of long days, missed holidays, and unpredictable income. If any skill other than filmmaking comes easily to you go for that. It will probably be an easier life path than the film slog. If this is your only calling, welcome to the club.
2. Put the silver marker & Criterion DVD away.
A strong work ethic and set etiquette is extremely important when working around strangers and celebrities. Asking for photos or signatures on-set is distracting and unprofessional. Pro Tip: The sooner you can get comfortable acknowledging famous people as simply other human beings, the closer you are to really learning something interesting about them.
3. One of those Production Assistants will be your boss someday.
Treat all crew members with respect. People move quickly in the film industry: today’s PA might be tomorrow’s Executive Producer. Bring Your A-game to every job because it’s habit forming and you never know who’s watching. Pro tip: use a printed call sheet on-set rather than using your distracting phone. Even if you’re doing work and checking the call sheet on your phone, other people on set who see you staring down at the screen might think you’re texting. With a printed call sheet there’s no question that you’re focused.
“If any skill other than filmmaking comes easily to you go for that. It will probably be an easier life path than the film slog. If this is your only calling, welcome to the club.”
4. Don’t dress like a pirate.
Working in an industry without a dress code is great, but it’s no excuse to look and act like a salty sailor. Inspire confidence in your employers with your appearance and communication. If you’re new, a clean shave (for the dudes) or neat hairdo (for the gals) and a collared shirt is a good start. The idea here is that if something goes wrong on set and the Director or Producer is pissed off and looking around for someone to blame you want them to look at you and see a calm, cool, professional. Your clothes and appearance can make the difference.
5. Never back out of a shoot.
Freelancers naturally develop a mercenary instinct to follow the highest bidder. But a key to long-term survival in film production is to value your relationships with good people more than a big paycheck. Never sign up for a shoot and then skip our in favor of a larger paycheck. Doing that is the best way to make enemies and build a bad reputation. Pro Tip: Expect loyalty on both sides of the relationship. A boss who will fight for your rate is worth following.
6. Never let them see you sweat.
If something goes wrong, no need to share it with the entire crew. Try to solve it within your department as calmly and quickly as possible before relaying it up the chain. The rest of the crew has their own issues to worry about, so the more you can resolve issues yourself or within your team the better.
7. Don’t give me your problem: give me your solution.
When you do have a problem and need to report it to a manager, always think it through first and present the problem with a good solution to fix it. For instance, if you’re working as an AC and your cinematographer asks you to frame a shot, don’t come back and report that there are power lines in the shot. Instead come back and say “Here’s the shot. There are power lines in the frame, so here’s another option that might be better.”
8. Make a deal you can live with, and live with the deal you made.
When learning to negotiate, we all inevitably make mistakes and we should always try to correct course. However, once you’ve agreed to terms, even if they are way too low, live with it. Don’t be the person who complains about the free food or the long days unless your employer is breaking labor laws.
9. Your passion won’t pay my rent.
Talk business 1st if you want to be taken seriously. A lot of young creatives are afraid to bring up rates early in the hiring discussion. Too often we get roped into a passion project that sounds glamorous before settling the financial details. Pro tip: When they ask if you’re available, ask about the rate & location before giving them an answer. If they say “this will be great for your reel” really think through whether you need it for your reel or whether your time would be better spent on a higher paid gig. You don’t want to be pigeon-holed into low-paying jobs. The more low-paying jobs you accept, the more producers will associate you with low paying jobs and the harder it will be to increase your pay.
10. If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on-time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired.
Most shows expect crew to be onset, wearing a radio and ready for a discussion at call-time. If you’re new, challenge yourself to arrive for breakfast with enough time to order, sit down to eat and arrive on set at least 5 minutes early. Pro tip: put on the earpiece at your car.
11. Make yourself indispensable.
Get to know your department head’s favorite day-players. Make yourself an indispensable tool in the department or in the DPs toolbox. Keep your skills up to date and stay on top of all new gear releases. Try to learn to use as much gear as possible. Go to gear demos. Sign up for the trainings. Learning in a low-pressure environment will give you the confidence to solve problems in a high pressure one. Pro Tip from the KitSplit Team: Renting gear on KitSplit is a great way to try out gear and familiarize yourself with a wider range of equipment. Often you get get tips directly from the owner.
12. Two is one. One is none i.e. always have backups.
Always have backup batteries, cards, magazines etc. If you only have 1 memory card left to shoot on that will inevitably be the one that fails. Anticipate, schedule, think through minimum needs, and then add extras to prepare for the worst. Pro Tip: keep a shorthand list of common tools for each type of setup on the back of your insert slate for quick reference.
13. Every job ends.
In a freelance career, today’s unbearable boss is just tomorrow’s memory. Always approach your relationship with producers as a business owner providing a service to a client rather than an employee reacting to a boss. For instance, if you’re not getting what you want from a manager, you need to figure out how to better communicate what you need to provide value for them.
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