After memorizing your lines and doing everything a director asks of you, your best asset once you step onto set as an actor is realizing you are one small part of a larger team. From the key grip to the boom operator, knowing everyone’s place in a film or television show, and what he or she is responsible for, will not only make their jobs easier and your performance better, but will help foster relationships throughout production.
Backstage has done the legwork for you and compiled a glossary of major roles on a film or TV set, broken down by department—plus a general job description. Feel free to bookmark for reference when you book that first film or TV gig!
The director is the leader. He or she is the visionary pushing the project forward, and who, along with your fellow actors, you will work with most closely to execute that vision. Often directors have some sort of hand in every step of the creative process, from hiring you and your co-stars to script adjustments and shot compositions, plus editing and sound design.
Assistant Director – 1st AD
This is the person who will come get you when the crew is ready to shoot. In addition to helping manage talent, filming, and crew scheduling as well as general day-to-day responsibilities, ADs sometimes direct background talent in a timely manner. After the director, their boss is the ticking clock.
Assistant Director – 2nd AD
Typically, only large film sets have a 2nd AD (or a 1st AD for that matter), so don’t go looking for one on the student film you just booked. When they can be afforded, this person generally provides assistance to the 1st AD wherever needed, from scheduling and writing up call sheets to meeting equipment requirements and queuing background actors.
An EP often supplies the financial backing that got the project off the ground in the first place. They’re not always involved in the daily tasks of filming, but their opinion on the final product can sometimes hold great weight.
The logistics king or queen, the producer ensures budgets won’t be exceeded, scripts will be adjusted well, and everything runs smoothly overall. On smaller sets, this position is usually held by one or two people, but on a big-budget project, there can be one producer for crew, another for finances, and another for locations, for example.
This is the extra pair of hands any film set needs. They’re the kind souls running to get coffees and lunch, setting up tables, and distributing walkie-talkies. If you’re looking to get a better feel for how film sets run, taking a position as a PA will give you the hands-on experience you’re craving.
The line producer is the money guy in charge of preparing the budget and then logging expenses such as salaries and daily costs, including but not limited to equipment and location rentals, to make sure all is in order.
While there’s no creative incentive to this position, the production manager is essential to making sure shoot days run smoothly by organizing equipment and crew to run on schedule. They help with location scouting, asking local authorities for permits, and making changes to the schedule as needed, among other responsibilities.
Did you hook your director friend up with access to your apartment for a scene in their film? Or introduce them to their lead actor? You might be deserving of an associate producer credit! By lending a hand to secure a location or talent, or providing for various aspects of the production process, you earned it!
MAKEUP AND WARDROBE
These titles are self-explanatory and include your on-set hairstylist, makeup artist, special effects makeup artist, wardrobe stylist, and costume designer. All these people work in tandem with the director to help you as the actor, achieve the visual aesthetic the role demands. These are also the sorts people responsible, for example, for Cersei’s bad-ass finale costume in Season 6 of “Game of Thrones.”
READ: “How to Become a Costume Designer”
Cinematographer (aka Director of Photography or DP)
This person is in charge of the overall look and visual aesthetic of the film as it is seen through the lens—which they select along with the best camera for production. In collaboration with the director, they’re also responsible for the lighting choices, framing, and camera movements.
Look for the person holding the camera. That’s the camera op. On small sets, the camera operator and the DP are sometimes one and the same. He or she is responsible for physically maneuvering the camera, whether it’s on a dolly, a steadicam, a drone, or a crane, while under the direction of the cinematographer. The bigger the budget, the more people are hired to individually operate whatever equipment the shot calls for. They keep everything running quickly and smoothly when it comes to camera work.
Camera Assistant (1st AC)
Want to make sure you’re in focus? Become friends with the AC. They work closely with the camera operator to pull focus as you move throughout the shot, make sure the right lens is being used, and measure shot distance using marks and rehearsal. They also make sure the camera’s built properly and that any data cards, batteries, or needed accessories are at the ready. Again, on low-budget productions, the AC might also be the camera operator. Sometimes the AC can be slating the scenes in order to sync sound in post-production and to keep shots labeled and organized by scene, take, and date.
Videographer and Photographer
These are the folks responsible for capturing the behind-the-scenes atmosphere with video and still photographs, which can be used for promotion or general documentation of the production process.
LIGHTING AND GRIP DEPARTMENT
Gaffer (aka Chief Lighting Technician)
“Only God Forgives” was critically panned as a narrative, but wow, was the lighting in that movie gorgeous. You can thank cinematographer Larry Smith and gaffer Chatri “Sprite” Kriangkraisorn for their stunning and highly stylized visual execution in the Ryan Gosling–starring film. As the gaffer, Kriangkraisorn was responsible for shaping the lighting design by finding the right light placement, colored gels, bulbs, and diffusion filters for Smith’s desired effect.
Once the gaffer has decided, along with the DP, what the lighting design should look like, it’s the grip who executes it. They physically create the patterns, diffusions, or shadows necessary to set the mood, as well make sure everything is safely rigged and secured. On smaller sets, the grip, the gaffer, and the best boy might be the same person, but on bigger ones, there is a Key Grip who reports to the gaffer and tells all the other grips what to do.
Every time this particular credit rolled after a film, you probably wondered what it meant. Well, the best boy is the right hand man or woman to the grip and the gaffer—the Jesse Pinkman to the department head’s Walter White, if you will. They also work a lot with the set’s electricians to ensure cables are running along where they should, generators are up and running when needed, and the right bulb is screwed into the right light.
This person is head of the sound department and monitors audio levels on individual mics and recording processes as well as transferring files onto media cards.
If you’re looking for an upper body workout, this job’s for you. The boom operator properly holds up and positions the boom pole holding the microphone during takes. They get as close to the action as possible without ruining the shot by blocking light and casting shadows.
Note: It’s true what they say. An audience can forgive a bad picture, but they can never forgive bad sound. If you’re working on a small budget, splurge on proper sound experts to take on these roles.
The script supervisor is the person who remembers where exactly you placed that cup in the last scene, at what precise angle your hat was tilted, and what color shirt you were wearing in this scene that was half-shot last week. They’re the person who makes sure you’re sticking to the literal script. They also jot down notes on the best takes to make post-production and editing smoother, including the placement of props, and takes photo evidence of it all. Here is an example of bad continuity from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”:
Other things you want to know about set crew include Craft Service (that’s where you’ll be getting your meals) and Gang Boss (they’re in charge of transporting talent, crew, and equipment to their location safely and on time).
There are plenty of other roles in a film or television crew—as I’m sure you can gather from films with credits that role for five whole minutes—but these basics will get you started! Let us know which positions you want to know more about!