Every commercial set is the same. I know; I’ve been on 51 of them. Sure, some of them have been in Argentina or the Canary Islands, but every set follows the same guidelines, and the days are typically the same when you’re there for a shoot. There are some very simple but necessary things you need to know are going to happen every time. Here’s what your day will be like.
What to bring.
First, what you should know before you even arrive on set, is that whether the set is in a suburban home in New Jersey, inside a Hollywood studio, or on a beach in the Canary Islands, there’s going to be a lot of downtime. Bring something to read or at least to do. Bring a journal or a novel, load up some podcasts, or bring a laptop, if you have one.
Always bring a form of identification—if you have a passport, bring it. A passport fills all the requirements of a W-2. If you don’t have one, you’ll have to haul your social security card out of the box under your bed. Remember your big water bottle, a phone charger, and face wipes to remove makeup.
What happens when you arrive.
You may get there by private car, plane, or walking two blocks over. All have happened to me. When you first show up amidst all the hustle and bustle and trailers, you want to find a production assistant with a headset. Let them know you’re the talent, and they’ll usher you to either the second assistant director, your trailer, or the first department you’ll always report to: hair and makeup.
Befriend the hair and makeup folks immediately. They’re the ones with all the information about how the set’s been running and what has happened before you arrived. They’re the most fun, and you’ll be interacting with them all day, from when they first do you up to touch-ups during the shoot. Please don’t add or subtract to anything they do. They’re the professionals; let them do their jobs.
Then come the contracts. Again, a passport is going to come in handy as you fill out all the important information for the W-2. You’ll see that contract again at the end of the day for you to sign. Always try and get a copy before you leave.
On every set, there’s a video village. A video village is a collection of director’s chairs and monitors showing what’s being filmed on set. This is where the producers and ad agency folk sit, and sometimes the director. Always walk over to the video village at the top of the day, introduce yourself, and thank everyone for hiring you. It’s like when the cool kid comes over to the lunch table. Everyone on the other side of the camera loves actors. We’re like these strange mythical unicorn creatures to them. There’s always going to be an individual who “shines” at you a little bit, greeting you with enthusiasm. Why are they shining at you? Because they’re the one who fought for you in the callback, you got hired, and now they’re looking pretty good. Their job is intact. This is who you get a business card from. This is who you ask about the usage of the spot. This is who you ask to see if you can get a copy of your spot sent to you. They’ll usually bend over backward for you or send you to someone who will.
What happens during shooting.
When you get on set, you’ll probably get introduced to the director and, depending on the size of the set, the director of photography. You’ll also get a mic put down your pants by a sound guy and touched up by hair and makeup. There will be a lot of noise and a lot of invasive pulling at your costume, your hair, your face, and a lot of bright business. Enjoy it. You’re now part of the production. It’s not about you; you’re part of a bigger thing, so breathe, do your job simply and in joy, and help serve the overall goal of the crew, which is getting out of there by 5 o’clock.
You might be on set for hours. Breathe. Don’t over caffeinate. Don’t take too many sugar breaks at craft services. Do enjoy yourself and try to remember names. You’ll see everyone again. This business isn’t a straight line, it’s a circle. You’ll work with the same people over and over again, so treat them as if you’re going to see them again tomorrow, even if in reality it might be years from now.
While on set, try to stay off your phone. Soak it up. Learn. Take part. Don’t lose yourself, and stay at the ready. Always let the second assistant director or a production assistant know if you go to the bathroom. Make friends. Enjoy.
What happens afterward.
After you’re wrapped, stop back in at the video village and politely thank everyone again for the opportunity. Fill your pockets with craft service treats for the long and satisfying road home.
After you’re wrapped, a production assistant will lead you back to your trailer, where you’ll gently hang up your costumes on their lonely hangers, wipe off your makeup, and snack on those craft service goodies in your pocket. You’ll then have to sign your contract. Always ask for a copy. Always keep a record of your paperwork.
As the sun sets, you walk proudly off the set, no longer a working actor. You’re now an actor looking for another job, but it was sweet while it lasted. If you keep working at your craft, it will happen again. And again and again. Maybe next time in the Canary Islands.
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