12 Film Set Terms Every Actor Needs to Know

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You just landed a role in a film—congratulations! If you’ve only ever acted on a stage, know that film sets are very different from the theater, and your first few days on set may be intimidating. Between all the people, equipment, and terminology on a film set, it’s easy to get overwhelmed but if you know a few basics, you’ll already have a leg up.

Last month, I spoke about different crew positions you should be aware of and today, we’re going to talk phrases and lingo you’re likely to hear during filming. Be familiar with them before you step on set and you’ll be more confident when you do land that film role.

Action: This is the director’s cue for the actors and/or acting to begin. As an actor, you must be ready at all times—no checking your phone or goofing around. It’s important to be prepared so that when you hear “action,” you’re ready to act.

Call time: The time you must be on set or location and ready to work. Call times are generally not given until the night before. Check your email and phone regularly to ensure you read all communications from set. If you’re late or miss a call, you may have lost your chance to work with the director again.

Cheat: You may hear, “We’re going to cheat you in a little for this shot.” A cheat is a special shot where angles are used to get interesting shots of people or objects. If you’re in a cheated shot, you’ll be asked to move off to one side to get the required shot. Someone will instruct you where to stand.

Cut: This signifies the end of a take and a call to stop the action. It’s crucial for the actor to keep the acting and action going until the director calls “cut” or they risk messing up a great shot. It is never up to the actor to stop what they’re doing without the “cut” call from the director. This is also true in auditioning. I’ve seen many actors cut a scene prematurely because they flubbed a line or weren’t happy with what they were doing and in the process, they waste a great take.

Dirtying the frame: A director has many choices for how a scene is shot. If you hear “dirty shot,” it means there is some physical intrusion like a body part of another actor to give a sense of distance between two actors. It may also be used to create a power differential between actors. If a dirty shot is called, you may need to cheat your height a bit to get the correct angle in the shot.

Key light: A light trained on you. An actor should always know the location of their key light so they can play to it. You may have a wonderful acting moment and be in the wrong position but a simple adjustment can make everyone happy and ensure you have a great shot.

READ: 9 Tips for Your First Time on Set

Lenses: If you hear the director of photography or director talking about lenses, they’re talking about the width of the shot. Some lens shoot wide angles and they have a low number. A higher numbered lens is for closeup work. The most common lenses used for shots are 14-35mm wide/medium, 50-65mm medium, and 85-135mm closeup.

Pick up: Re-filming part of a scene from a specific point in the action where only part of a take is done again with dialogue or action. A pick up may be used to correct a mistake or film additional material. For the actor, this means listening attentively and being ready for an action called.

Quiet on set: Complete silence. Any movement or sound can spoil the shot, and that can be costly. You don’t want to be the one responsible for ruining a great shot by making noise.

Rolling: Action is about to begin as the cameras (and/or sound) are rolling to film a take. It’s also another signal to pay close attention and be quiet.

Standby: When you hear these words, it means to hold your position for a temporary delay and be prepared for rolling. You must be emotionally ready at all times so you can step into your character’s shoes. Standing by or holding means you will pause, stay in character, and be ready to continue when action is called again.

Wrap: The director is satisfied with the work and the shoot is finished.

Filming involves hundreds of moving parts and people. Long hours are required. Each new take translates to more costs. Knowing film lingo will help you play your part in helping the production run smoothly. You will look and feel like a real professional on the set when you have an understanding of what’s going on, are well prepared, and listen carefully to direction. Your professionalism will make you an actor who directors want to work with.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Denise Simon
Denise Simon is a New York-based acting coach and career consultant who has been involved in the entertainment industry for more than 30 years as an actor, teacher, director, casting director and personal talent manager.
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