Set Etiquette and the Chain of Command – Part I

October 30, 2008 at 12:43 pm

“Etiquette:  A code that governs the expectations of social behavior, according to the contemporary conventional norm within a society, social class, or group.” From Wikipedia

Set Etiquette

What are the basic rules for how to behave on a movie set? Don’t draw attention to yourself. Wear dark colors and be quiet. Turn off your cell phone. Don’t make eye contact with the actors and don’t stand in their eyeline. Don’t talk to above-the-line people unless they talk to you first. Don’t block doorways. Smile, be polite, and acknowledge the pecking order. Resist the urge to help out unless someone specifically asks for your help. Those are the basic ground rules for anybody walking onto a set for the first time. That’s good information for newbies and veterans alike. There are additional layers of etiquette when you are a crewmember or working on a documentary.

It’s interesting to draw comparisons between the way film sets are run and the way the military does it. There are some startling parallels and a few remarkable differences. The director of a film crew has dictatorial powers that would raise eyebrows in most other industries. It does seem a bit military, if not medieval. It’s the Artist thing. Artists, we are told, have quirky work habits, original approaches to everyday events, and tempestuous personal lives. The greater powers tend to cut them considerable slack if they have a demonstrated ability to put butts in theater seats. Their quirks and eccentricities may be essential to their success. That’s the perception if not always the reality. Many directors are serious journeymen with a strong sense of craft. They lead fairly conventional lives. They just happen to be very good at their jobs. Whether the director is a free spirit or a quiet craftsman, he or she will get dictatorial powers on set. Whatever they ask for, no matter how whimsical it may sound, will be taken seriously.

Set Etiquette

The director gets a level of control that is rarely found outside a military chain of command. Feature film crews developed around this model and have hierarchies that reflect a military structure, e.g. the DOP, Operator(s), Camera Assistant(s) have detailed job descriptions that are intentionally narrow and defined. The mission in the camera department is one of executing orders from the DOP and not questioning the creative purpose of the order. “A List” camera crews are usually fast, precise, and businesslike. They make a hard job look easy, even with a Loony Tunes director. The military connection was very strong in Hollywood of the 1950’s. Many cameramen were ex-military. The Worral Head, the geared tripod head used on most of the 35mm features of the time, was adapted from a gun mount. The look and the image are so central to what a movie is that the Camera Department is, almost by definition, close to the top of the hierarchy, just below the director.

A good sound crew makes every attempt to work harmoniously with all departments but especially the camera department. Other departments in the hierarchy, including sound, spread out below, ranked according to how much of the movie hinges on their work. The Special Effects guys get a lot of attention on action/adventure films while the Wardrobe and Hair departments are big on 18th Century dramas. The Sound Department usually does well on comedies. Woody Allen films contain little or no ADR and he shoots in Manhattan! It’s rare that a take will be printed without a nod from the sound mixer.

Etiquette then must be appreciated as the social protocols appropriate to a feudal, quasi- military group, run by a director who might be fascinated by Japanese Gangster movies from the 1960’s, sleeps with a Teddy Bear, has a degree in engineering, and hates blue jeans (black jeans are OK). It’s no accident that this collective is often referred to as a Circus.

Visiting Sound Guy etiquette:

If you are on set to do interviews with actors or EPK (electronic press kit) there are some tasks where you will need to interact with the Sound Mixer. There is a specific etiquette based on the notion that the Production Mixer is in charge of anything to do with sound on “his” set. That makes him your boss while you are on set. You will probably need a production sound feed from the sound cart. Before you dive in, check to see how things are going. Is the mixer reading the latest Wired, checking his email, and drinking a Latte? Or is he talking to three people at once on his intercom while being harassed by a red-faced 1st AD? Make sure you have your end together before you ask for something. Most EPK crews want the program feed on a wireless link. The means the EPK sound guy will ask the production mixer for a mono output of his mix. Most large mixing boards have several line outputs but rarely have mic level outputs. Most wireless transmitters have mic inputs. You should have a line level adapter cable or a 40db pad for your transmitter. It is very annoying to have the EPK guy asking you for a pad because he forgot his, or never bothered to get one. Don’t assume the Sound Mixer is interested in chatting with you or answering your questions. He may consider you a distraction, which you probably are. If you have something to say, wait until lunch. If he invites you to sit and talk, that’s OK too.

Your wireless transmitters have the potential to create problems if the frequencies you use are close or identical to the actors’ mics. Let the Production Mixer know what frequencies you are using and be prepared to change frequencies if he thinks there may be a problem. Be prepared as well to remote your transmitter on a cable if there is any suspicion that your transmitter is causing a problem on his sound cart. Once you have what you need, don’t hang around the sound cart unless you’re invited. As the day goes on you may hear things between takes over the production audio channel. You might hear actors gossiping, crewmembers complaining, someone on their cell phone to their ex-wife’s lawyer, all kinds of personal stuff. The Production Mixer is supposed to mute actors’ mics when the actors are standing-by or off-set but sometimes you hear them. When you hear personal stuff, keep it to yourself. Don’t look at the person you are eavesdropping on. Above all, never record this stuff, even if it’s way better than the movie. The privacy of famous people is constantly under assault, especially the actors. Everyone on set should be looking out for the actors. It’s like looking after a bratty little sister or an eccentric uncle. Film sets are not to be regarded as public places, even when they happen to be in a public place. There is zero tolerance on set for any paparazzi behavior. Leave your camera at home.

Wireless mics have other etiquette considerations. It is a delicate and potentially dangerous operation for a male technician to place a wireless mic on female talent. Don’t be in a hurry to do this. There have been accounts of assault and harassment lawsuits based on “inappropriate touching.” It’s not unknown for actresses to have “touching issues” of which you may not be aware. There is no way to properly place a lav mic in a bra without some inappropriate touching. It all depends on the people involved. If an experienced actress over 21 says, “Do what you have to do” and pulls up her top then you’re probably OK. If a 16-year-old actress does the same thing, run away (although by then you’re already in trouble). Under no circumstances should you place a mic inside the clothing of anyone underage unless there is a guardian present. If placing a mic is a daily event, you and the actor (and the guardian) will need to work out together how it should be done. Many actors learn to put on their own wireless mics. Sometimes it’s better if a female wardrobe person does it. Other times you can enlist a woman to help out. It would be great if you could say, “It’s OK Ma’am, I’m a doctor,” but you’re not. Those days are over, even for doctors.

©2008 Richard Patton

Excerpt from “Sound Man” by Rick Patton C 2009, reprinted with permission.

With over 30 years experience, Richard Patton is one of Vancouver’s most experienced and respected feature film sound mixers. Since 2007 Rick has been Branch Manager at Trew Audio Vancouver.

Stay tuned for Part Two of Richard Patton’s “Set Etiquette and The Chain of Command” in the very next edition of Trew Audio’s eNews.