From Lights Dada to the Director: Understanding Different Crew Roles on Set
“A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush but a filmmaker needs an army.”
Orson Welles | Director - Citizen Kane
A set is an intimidating yet an equally exciting place to be in. Whether it’s for a film or a TVC, the energy of the shoot day is unmatched - everyone running around doing their job to get the project going. When they say it takes a village to raise a child, it’s true. Only in our case, the child is the movie.
The number of crew depends on the scale of production. While an independent short film might work with a director, cinematographer and editor, a Dharma film will have over hundreds of people working in production from the make-up artist to the VFX supervisor on set.
Did You Know: Iron Man 3 had over 3,310 people in the crew, with Avatar following up at 2,984 crew members.
A smooth, frictionless shoot day might be a myth but it is the collective effort of all these people on the set that ensure the final product is a masterpiece. In this blog, we will look at all the people you might spot on a film set and what they do.
In filmmaking terminology, there is a term called the ‘line’. This line marks the divide between crew positions and how they’re paid in term of production budgeting.
Above the line: They are paid as per a pre-negotiated and fixed rate. They have the major creative inputs for the project - right from the pre-production to the post-production. Being ‘above’ the line, they inevitably are higher on the levels of hierarchy, bearing more responsibility.
Following positions fall in this category:
Now, you would’ve expected to see the cinematographer/DOP, editors or the art department in this category. But since their pay is in most cases variable, and their creative input is ultimately influenced by the director’s vision - they fall below the line.
Below the line: They are paid variably as per the hours or daily rate. Their involvement is more hands-on, more technical, however, their roles are just as imperative as the above-the-line crew.
Everyone else in the crew comes under the below the line category. While making a film, this would include everyone from the sound guy to the publicist. Since in this blog we’re looking at the different crew positions on set - we will streamline the descriptions to those involved directly in the production of the film.
Following positions then fall in this category:
Director of Photography
Make up Artists
Now that we’ve understood the line, and it’s budgetary implications, we can get into actually understanding the responsibilities of each crew member.
It all begins with an idea…
Every film/commercial begins with an idea. This idea, whether conceived by an agency or a writer, is given flesh and bones by the screenwriter. After months and even years, when the script is complete, it is ready to be given life on-screen. Here’s come our first and perhaps the most important crew member, the director.
The director is the captain of the ship, the ultimate guiding force. They are involved in every aspect that goes behind making of the film. On set, the director can usually be spotted as the one who calls all the shots, whether its regarding the technical details or working with the actors. The director works cross-departments, in collaboration with various other crew members to bring the film script alive.
Typically, their responsibilities include:
Working with the writers on script, incorporating changes where necessary
Establish the overall tone and mood of the film
Work with various department heads - for instance - costume, choreography, music, production etc to ensure everyone is aligned
Find the right cast
Work with the cast to help them understand their roles and the film better
Direct the actors - blocking the scene, ensuring their best performance is brought out
Work with the director of photography to capture the film right
Work with the editors to cut and package the film - from choosing the shots, color grading and sound design.
In cases of any special/VFX effects, they also work with the corresponding department heads
Co-ordinate with the PR/marketing department to promote the film and hence, prepare for the rollout.
But that’s not it. During the whole production timeline, there are a lot more responsibilities that come in. Luckily, they’re not all alone.
Along with the director, it is the producer who overlooks the end-to-end execution of the film. While the director guides the creativity, the producer takes charge of the operational and logistical side of things.
Every film needs funds. It is the producer’s job to procure these funds and correspondingly, set out the budget of the film. They also work cross-departments right from the initial scripting stages to overlooking the distribution of the film.
Let’s look at some of their key responsibilities:
Assemble the creative team; finding the right fit of writers, directors and cinematographers.
Outline the pitch package, to seek funds from investors.
Set the overall budget and individual contracts, salaries of the crew.
Scout and approve locations of the shoot.
Plan out the day-to-day schedule of the shoot days.
Co-ordinating between different departments to ensure smooth operation.
Take any on-the-spot decisions relating to the logistical, budgeting or production.
Any additional funding.
Promotional activities for the film.
Distribution of the film.
But there is more than one kind of producer working on a film, while their overall responsibilities are similar, there will be few differences.
Executive Producer or EP: A sort of head producer, their responsibility involves supervising the producers on other projects. They don’t necessarily look into day-to-day operations of the film but handle the project on a bigger level.
Line Producer: They specifically manage the budgetary and financial side of the project.
DA - Director’s Assistant
Working directly under the director are the DAs or the Director’s Assistants - the ones whose core duties are to help the Director do their job with ease and without losing their sanity. They are involved throughout the production process and their responsibilities vary across each phase:
In the space of advertising, a DA would work closely with the Director pen down the vision of the film by making treatment notes and/or PPM decks. This becomes crucial in helping differentiate them from AD (if needed) who tend to be more involved in the creative discussions.
They are the liaison between the director and any other department/crew member. Being the direct point of contact, DA become the key person to help enable frictionless communications cross the production line.
• Even on set, their main job is to take care of any task that will in turn help the director do their job with ease.
• In many cases, the DA can be the 1st AD on set.
AD - Assistant Director
Working directly with the Director are the assistant directors or ADs. Depending on the scale of production, there can be more than one AD.
Put simply, the first AD helps bring the director’s vision to fruition. They keep the production running, as they become the intermediary between the director and rest of the crew.
The reason why we often see most actors or filmmakers begin their careers as ADs is that as an AD, you’re expected to know and work with all the departments - giving you a perfect understanding of filmmaking.
Following are the responsibilities of the first AD:
Create a storyboard, breaking down the script into a shot list.
Preparing the shoot schedule
Preparing call sheets
Perhaps the most exciting of all responsibilities is calling the roll. With the clapper board always handy, it is the 1st AD’s responsibility to do the call before the shot - ensuring everyone is ready.
Be the liaison between production manager and the director.
With the help of the 2nd AD, ensure the shoot in on-schedule.
Any minute nuances, obstacles or challenges are to be dealt by the first AD and in case of their behest, the second AD.
Varun Khettry, the AD for films like Udaan, Rock On!
breaks down the various responsibilities of his position.
They work directly with the first AD, and in some cases the director. They are the point of contact between the set and the base camp or unit base. The base camp is where the actor’s vanity, hair, makeup and costume is usually located.
Specifically their responsibilities include:
Once the script is ready, the 2nd AD and 1st AD start working on the schedule.
Schedule any hair or look tests.
Create call-sheets - a schedule including the arrival times for various departments, contact details of relevant crew members.
Run the base camp and co-ordinate with PAs or Production Assistants.
Ensure the hair, make-up and costume department is running on schedule and inform the crew on set when they are.
Usually the 2nd AD’s responsibility ends at the point of the wrap of the shoot.
PA - Production Assistant
A set PA works in the logistical operations of the shoot - helping out the production team where needed. Co-ordination and communication are essentially their key responsibilities including any other minimal tasks like packing the equipment, keeping the audience out of the shoot location, cleaning out the trash and so on.
We all know that writers are the backbones of any kind or scale of production. Depending on the project, the type of writer involved will also vary. Whether their screenwriters, dialogue writers, copy writers or even translators - writers are not only involved in their pre-production phases but may also be required to be on set during the shoot. There are many, MANY variables involved during the production which could require improvisation in the dialogues or any quick fixes, in such cases having the writer on set is ideal.
The Camera Crew
If there’s one thing that filmmaking cannot do without, is but obvious, the camera. Everything depends on how the film is shot, and the camera crew involving various crew members, ensures that it’s done as per the overall vision of the film. Depending on the scale of production, there can be different number of people involved in the team but usually on set you’re bound to see:
Director of Photography or DOP or DP or Cinematographer: Every director has a vision, but it is the DOP who brings it to life. Achieving the ‘look’ of the film is their job, and justifying it with the theme, mood and tone of the film is their core competency.
Here are some of their key responsibilities:
Work with the director to establish how the look of the film should be. For instance, the look of a Roger Deakins film differs greatly from that of Greig Fraser. Besides the obvious difference in the plot, each DOP has their own unique style that can elevate the director’s vision.
Build their team - from the camera operator to the gaffer, they assemble the crew who will help them.
Decide the shooting equipment - the kind of camera, lens, and any other gear to shoot the film.
In most cases, it is the DOP who operates the camera and shoots, however, there can be instances where they work with a camera operator to do that.
Decide the blocking (in collaboration with the director) - which is how the actors will be placed in the particular scene.
At the end of the shoot, the DOP also goes through dailies with the director to look back and make sure it is aligned. Dailies are the raw footage shot on that day.
As DOPs are essentially the eyes of the film, after the shoot, they work with the colourists to further enhance the look and feel of the film in context to the colour.
Some notable DOPs or cinematographers of the industry:
Roger Deakins on Cinematography
Camera Operator: They are the DOPs helping hands, as they shoot and operate the sequences. Unlike the DOP, camera operators do not have any creative inputs and are solely responsible for capturing the footage as per the DOP’s advise.
Assistant Cameraperson: There are two assistant camerapersons - the 1st AC and the 2nd AC. As their job title suggests, they help with the filming process, operating the camera and working alongside the DOP and the Director.
Focus-Puller: Often, it is the 1st AC who is also responsible for maintaining the focus of a shot, hence the title ‘Focus-Puller’. Whilst shooting, the focus will change, for instance, when the actor moves closer to the camera, the 1st AC or the focus-puller will manipulate the camera focal plane or sensor to ensure the shot is in focus.
A deeper look into roles of the Camera Assistants
The Grip: A lesser-known but equally important crew department for orchestrating the look of the film is the grip department. To achieve a certain look for the shot, there are many many elements at play. From the huge camera cranes to excavators to reflectors, in big production shoots, the set-up of the camera is just as elaborate. In such cases, it is the grip department who works with the DOP to execute the desired shot.
The camera rig is the set-up or equipment that helps the cameraman move the camera in different ways without any jarring or unstable movements, and it is the Key Grip or the head of the grip’s department to help construct and assemble that set-up.
Alongside the Key Grip, we also have the Best Boy Grip, who helps in assisting the Key Grip who helps in constructing any complex rig set-ups.
The Lighting Department
Now that we’ve looked at the camera department, we will move on to the other crew they cannot do without - the lighting department. This department consists of some key crew members.
The Gaffer: The person who leads the pack, is the Gaffer. They’re the go-to person, the chief-lighting technician, when it comes to lighting or any electric equipment. A great gaffer is someone who knows the ins and outs of lights, lighting equipments, and techniques as well as the film’s script, director and DOP’s vision.
Their responsibilities include:
As soon as the DOP is signed on for a project, they begin to assemble their crew and here the Gaffer comes into picture.
They look-over the script of the film and any visual set-up references to plan ahead the lighting of the shoot.
They figure out the lighting equipment for the shoot, depending on the location, the set-up and the budget.
On the more technical side of things, they will also work to prep out the units of light to be set-up, the generator and the power needed.
On the day of the shoot, they manage the lighting of the different set-ups. They work with the electrics and the grip to achieve the desired look.
After the initial set-up, they call-in the DOP for any other final adjustments of the lighting.
During the shoot, there are many instances of in-the-moment changes or adjustments for instance, changes in the intensity of the light, adding contrast, dimming it and so on.
Usually the Gaffer’s responsibilities are over after the shoot wraps up.
The Best Boy Electric or BBE: Alongside the Gaffer is the BBE, who is their second-in-command. They handle the more laborious tasks of managing and setting up the lighting and electric equipment and any other tasks such as creating schedules, lists of requirements, keeping track of the equipment and so on.
When working with the lights department, the Best Boy is known as the Best Boy Electric and when working with the grips department they are known as the Best Boy Grip.
The Sound Department
Moving on from the visuals, the other competent is the sound. From music to dialogues, it is the sound department responsible for recording and mixing the on-set sound. Typically we have two main crew members in this department on the sets during the shoot:
Sound Mixer: They are the head of the sound department, and their duties involve adjusting the levels and recording of the sounds during the shoot. Similar to the Gaffer, they also decide which recording devices to use, and how to use them.
After the shoot or each shot, the mixer cross checks the list and the audio to ensure the quality is good and there are no issues.
Boom Operator: The boom mic is a recording devise and requires a person to ensure it is placed at the right distance - close enough to capture the crisp sound, yet keep the pole out of the frame.
The Art Department
The beauty of cinema is ever-so enriched by the creative minds in the Art Department. From the set-designs to the hair and makeup, the fictional worlds of films are made real creds to the crew in the Art Department.
The Production Designer: The person in-charge of the overall look of the film is the Production Designer. They help turn the script into reality by working on the various elements of set design, props and costumes. They collaborate with the director, the writers, the art director to visualise the story, keeping in mind the budget of course.
Their responsibilities on a project encompass:
Once the pre-production phase begins, the Production Designer breaks down the script to gather the various locations, set-designs and looks throughout the film.
Hours and hours of research finding the right look for the film down to the excruciating visual details that can be spotted on camera.
They work with the Art Director and Producer to scout various locations and consider various set designs.
Being artists themselves, they also design rough sketches that will give a clear picture and reference to the art director and other members of the department.
On Shoot: Typically during production, they will overlook the construction of the sets, the props and other necessary help required from the costumes department.
While a production designer works alongside different departments, it is the set designer who focuses more on the ‘set’ of the film. You can check out our blog on Set Design to better grasp the inner workings of a set designer.
How production design becomes an important narrative tool
The Art Director: The second-in-command to the Production Designer is the Art Director. They work on the more minute and hands-on details of the art of the film. They ensure everything in the frame looks good and helps enrich the narrative of the film.
The Stylists: On the more glamorous side of things, we have an entire styling department who look into the costumes and look of the characters of the project.
Typically called Costume Designers or Stylists, they are a vital part of the production crew to ensure the costumes fit the bill of the overall look of the film.
During pre-production phases, they spends hours researching to get the look right. Styling goes beyond just ensuring that the characters look good - as clothes are an extension of the character’s journey, their personalities and symbolic nuances in the bigger picture.
Hair and Make Up Artists: Perhaps the more recognisable of all crew members on the set, the hair and make up artists are the ones who work along with the production designer and art designer to achieve the desired look of the characters. Imagine how unconvincing a horror film would be if the ghost lacked any ghastly make up or costume.
During the pre-production stages of filming, it is primarily the hair and makeup department and the style department which conduct the look tests. A look test is essentially the process of trying out different character looks on the actors to get the most authentic look possible — a crucial process in genres of biopics, fantasy and periodicals.
Getting the look right: Sanju
As quoted in the beginning of this blog, it truly takes an army to make a movie. While this blog primarily covered crew positions you would find on the set and hence they are the ones involved more in the production phase, there are myriad roles involved in the before and after of the filming process.
It is however poetic, considering all the talented people involved, spending months and even years, working together to create something wonderful, albeit just for a short-run time which makes films so cathartic, and influential.
• Studio Binder: https://www.studiobinder.com/category/production/