The first time many actors have exposure to a film set is when they step onto one for their first jobs. Performing can be nerve-racking enough, but when you don't know the first thing about the world around you, it can be downright frightening. A film set is like a foreign land, with its own customs and rules, and its own hierarchy. Everyone has a job to do, and once you understand who's who it becomes a lot easier to relax and do your own.
I get lots of questions about specific job titles from actors trying to make sense of the organized chaos that surrounds them on-set. This week I want to give you Part One in a brief rundown of a film's personnel. It's complicated: Even the bare bones are so expansive that I have to break this summary into two parts. Part Two will run next month. Keep in mind, there are innumerable variations on these basics from film set to film set, and, if you are working on a student- or indie film, you may find yourself in completely different terrain. Still, I hope this mini-primer can help alleviate some of the mystery. A quick credit: This week's column was written with help from my husband, Greg, a line producer who knows more about this stuff than I ever hope to. Oh, and I've used gender pronouns randomly here, so don't mind those. And off we go.
Writer: Most projects begin with a script, and most scripts begin with a writer. Sometimes it's a producer who instigates a project and hires a writer to adapt a book or flesh out an idea, but often the writer will finish a script and then get a producer onboard. Once the film is in production, the director and actors are working with what is called the shooting script. Sometimes the script continues to be revised as shooting progresses, in which case there are revisions on different colored paper to help delineate drafts. If rewrites are underway, or if you are working on a TV show, you might see the writer on-set. However, once the shooting script is completed, his involvement is often very limited. He may never visit the set or the editing room.
Producer: The producer functions like an entrepreneur in the business world. Ultimately she is the one responsible for turning the film into a moneymaking project and meeting the expectations of the investors. Because a producer holds the purse strings, she has a lot of power. She influences which scripts get made when, and she has input on rewrites. She hires and fires artistic staff and has input on casting. Often, the producer is the first one on a project and the last one to finish with it.
Director: The director bears the ultimate artistic vision and responsibility for the project. He is often "attached" to a film early on in the production process and sometimes works with the writer on script rewrites. Sometimes he is the writer. On-set, the director oversees all the disparate elements that contribute to the final product. He directs talent and crew, as well as the editor and postproduction personnel, to create the film that ends up onscreen.
Talent: That's you. The term "talent" is used for anyone who appears on-camera, from stars to background actors. Although featured actors work with the director, background actors are typically directed by the 1st assistant director.
Casting Director: We all know what she does, don't we? As you know, a casting director doesn't cast projects; she administers the casting process. Although she has influence over the selection of talent and who gets to audition, she doesn't make the final decisions.
Departments: Just about everyone else working on a film set works in what are called departments. The departments have very clear structures for who does what and who is responsible to whom. Each department has a person in charge of it: the department head. For example, the key grip runs the grip department. Department heads work directly with the director on the artistic concerns of the project. They then take this information back to their crews and make things happen.
Executive Producer, Co-Producer, Associate Producer: These are looser titles. Usually the executive producer is connected to either the studio or the investors. Sometimes he will be very hands-on, but other times he will have just lent his name to a project to increase its legitimacy. A co-producer is someone other than the main producer who is doing producer-type work; sometimes she is a junior producer. The associate producer can be just about anyone. Maybe it's the "attorney who did it for free and wanted a cool credit" or "the production manager who did a really great job, so let's give him a better title." It might be a junior producer or the director's girlfriend. You never can tell with this one.
Line Producer: This title gets its name from the "line items" in the budget. A movie budget is constructed very carefully, and the line producer is the person who manages it and ensures it is adhered to—line by line. Because he is in charge of cash flow, he has pull, and he reports directly to the producer. He usually spends most of his time in the production office, so you may never see him on-set.
Production Manager: More hands-on than the line producer, the "PM" deals with vendors to rent the cameras, lights, and other equipment. She often has relationships with vendors and crew and can swing deals for the project. Once production is underway, the PM handles the logistics of keeping the production running smoothly and on schedule. This means everything from making sure there are enough parking spots to getting everyone their paychecks on time. She reports to the producer or the line producer.
Production Coordinator: Working just under the PM, the coordinator handles production logistics. He organizes, troubleshoots, and deals with the gobs of paperwork that flood in and out of the production office. He is always on the phone.
1st Assistant Director: Despite the title, an "AD" is not the director's assistant, like in the theatre. She works closely with the director, but she also runs the set. The AD creates and manages the daily shooting schedule—figuring out which shots will be done when and who needs to do what to make it all come together. She then communicates with the department heads, keeping them up-to-date on the day's outlook. It is the 1st AD you will hear loudly giving orders and updates to the crew as the shoot progresses. She is responsible for keeping the production on schedule, and, because that old adage "time is money" is true on a film set like no place else, she is one of the most important people on the crew.
2nd AD: The 2nd AD reports to the 1st AD. He coordinates talent, meaning he has to know where the actors are and how far away they are from being "camera-ready" at all times. He functions as the production department's on-set talent manager–babysitter. When you arrive on-set, chances are you will be quickly introduced to the 2nd AD and he will remain your "go to" guy throughout the day. You should always let him know where you are and go to him first for all your nonacting questions—where to park, what's happening with the schedule, etc. He is your liaison to the production.
Production Assistant, or PA: The "low man on the totem pole," production assistants do just that: assist in every aspect of a production. They are usually young crew members who are just starting out in the business. Although "Set PAs" (those working on-set) report to the 1st AD and "Office PAs" (those working in the office) report to the PM or coordinator, everyone will always try to get them to help with everything. They go on coffee runs, pick up missing lenses, retrieve actors from the airport, do "lockdown" (keep people quiet during rehearsals and shooting), answer the phone, pick up trash, and basically just help out wherever they are asked.
Location Manager: The location manager is responsible for finding and securing locations for the film. She then interfaces between the property owners and the crew, often spending hours on the set to answer questions and make sure things go as they should and that nothing is damaged. She must deal with parking, angry neighbors, securing ample bathroom facilities, facilitating location permits, creating maps to the site, opening the location in the morning and shutting it up at night.
Location Scout: This guy drives all over the place taking panoramic photos or video of possible locations for the location manager and production personnel. He puts together location folders to help in the choice of where to shoot.
As I suspected, I'm barely halfway through my compacted "On-Set Who's Who." Stay tuned. In the next installment of Working Actor (June 5) I will pick up where I've left off. We'll start with "Director of Photography."