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Jay Nolan’s Guidelines of Set-Etiquette

September 26, 2011 | By | 1 Comment

Jay Nolan

I was spending the day in the bucket of a condor, 35 feet above the ground, baking between two 20K lights being directed through the windows of a room where filming was taking place. During lunch the grips began sharing stories of cranes and condors tipping over and crashing to the ground, smashing the lights (and often the operators) to bits.

“I would hate for that to happen here; we just don’t have enough replacements lights,” one of my fellow grips sighed.

“I would hate for that to happen too, as I am less replaceable…”

He chuckled. “No, we can find another grip to replace your broken body this afternoon. It would take a week for a new light to arrive.”

Sadly for me, it is true. The filmmaker market is over-saturated with eager talent just waiting to take the place of some sap who fell out of a condor with a couple hundred pounds of lights on top of him, or show up late to a shoot, or tick off the Director. There are many ways to fall literally and metaphorically in the film world.

Following these guidelines of set-etiquette will help you stand out and be thought of as a valuable, and not so easily replaceable, individual. Many of them will seem “well, DUH!”-ish, but you will see people (only once) who commit these mistakes and quickly end their dreams of filmmaking.


You have worked your contacts, made calls, sent emails, and finally, you hear back that you are needed on a shoot! The first thing you must do is be prompt in your response. If you do not pick up your phone and take the call, you had better check your messages right away. The Production Manager might not even wait for you to call back; they may just go onto the next candidate! The same goes for emails: reply right away and with all the information asked for.

On time is late – 10 minutes early is on time

No matter what your position or roll on crew, arrive 10 minutes before call time. It shows you are responsible and ready to work, and those 10 minutes might be the only downtime you have that day. Savor the feeling of being relaxed and ahead of schedule. It is the perfect time to grab a bite; once everyone is on set, no one cares how hungry you are.

If Locations didn’t do their job and put out enough signs or an adequate map to the shoot, don’t complain loudly; they probably have enough on their plate. Also, you are going to make yourself look bad if you are the only one who had any trouble finding their way.

Take traffic into account – if it is a 9AM or 5PM call time on a weekday you should count on rush hour and double the time you expect it to take you to get to set.

On Set

Always dress appropriately for set. Working in the film world gives you the advantage of casual dress every day, but there are still some rights and wrongs. You can expect there to be heavy and hot objects around; lights, stingers, lunchboxes, apple boxes, butterfly frames, sticks, ect. ALWAYS WEAR COVERED SHOES. It only takes one piece of dolly track to fall and claim a toe. Working with lights? Bring gloves and avoid burnt fingers. Working in a forest or swamp? Bring long pants and avoid biting bugs and poisonous plants.


Be nice. Yes, they will stand there all day watching and make you wonder why they don’t get a job. Yes, they will take pictures you cannot control. Yes, they will as the most mind-numbing and repetitive questions. But they are genuinely interested and curious about what you are doing. Don’t forget: everyone wants to be in the movies! They will wonder how you are so amazing that you are actually doing this and what it is like. You are the face of your movie so be nice, be patient, and if you don’t have time simply say you are working right now.

Know Your Paygrade

While on set, know your pay-grade and where you stand in the hierarchy. You may have just completed 4 years of film school and can dissect the mise-en-scene of the great French New Wave Auteurs, but that does not mean you can tell the Director what you think of his shot. If you are a PA and think a scene needs more light or a red gel, keep it to yourself – the film does not ride on that shot, you haven’t read the script, and you don’t know the post-production plans. Let the department heads make these choices.

And on the subject of departments, never step out of yours without permission. Physical violence is allowed if you go messing with a Grip’s gear, or the Audio’s stand, or the Set Dec’s paintbrush. If it is not yours, don’t touch it and if you really really want/need to touch it, find the right person to ask permission first. Not doing so could get your a lump on the head!

Teamwork and Hustle

The most important thing to remember when working on a film is that it is a collaborative process. You will work with people you like and people you do not like. You will all experience miserable conditions and the elation of completion. And you will all share in the success or failure of the project. Be a good team member and most importantly show some hustle – time is money after all.  The hire-ups who have been in the industry for a while will notice; They will see your dedication and hard work and welcome you back on the next shoot.


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Comments (1)

  1. Steve

    I loved it. Touches a bit of everything without going into too much detail. Awesome job Jay!

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