This is part of an ongoing series teaching Live Event Programmers things they need to know to work in film. Last week, we covered getting the first job, negotiating your rate of pay, your box rental, what you should think of when you are packing and covered the basics of travel and stay when working out of town. This week, I had originally planned to get into Prep, but I think this is a good moment to go over some job definitions, what they mean, and how they effect you. Let’s talk about who you will be working with. Please note- these definitions are very much focussed on how these people relate to the Programmer first and foremost. They should not be considered comprehensive.
Unit Production Manager (UPM)
This is the highest level up the money chain you will ever speak to. Typically, you will only speak to them to negotiate your rate and box rental at the start. Have your ducks in a row before you talk to them. It’s often a big power move as to who is going to state what they want first. I love it when they go first, but don’t let it affect you at all if they start by trying to lowball you. It’s their job to do so and it’s not personal at all. Throughout the production, you may sometimes need to contact them if you wish to change housing with a buyout or if you need a point of clarification for reimbursement, stuff like that. In general, leave them alone and only contact them when you absolutely need to.
Director of Photography AKA Cinematographer
If the Director directs the performers, the DP directs the technology, lighting, camera and grips. On the chain of command, they are way up there. Depending on many factors, the DP may personally give you instruction. Traditionally, you would take all of your direction from your Gaffer, but there are now DPs that choose to speak directly to the programmer. If the DP talks to you, it may help to know that DPs are people who have studied every department below them, but their real skill is directing the experts they lead. Therefor, do not expect the DP to know (or care) about how your console works. Take their input as creative direction and turn it into keystrokes as fast as possible. No one wants to hold up the process. If they make it clear they welcome your input, feel free to engage in a way that lays out possibilities rather than opinions.
The Art Director is similar to the Scenic Designer from live events. They may sometimes walk up to you and ask you to show them lighting effects or practicals on a location. They are very high up the chain, so unless it conflicts with something you are doing at that very moment for the Gaffer, try to always fulfill their requests. The tricky thing is knowing who they are, since in my experience they don’t tend to introduce themselves. They tend to look and dress like a cross between a scenic designer and costume designer and they carry themselves like they are used to being listened to. Perhaps that will help you recognize them.
The head of the lighting department, the Gaffer is the person who will most often be telling you what to do and when. They work closely (and below) with the DP. They will most often speak in absolutes (“This fixture at 3200 CCT and 40%.”) Like the DP, you should not expect them to know how your console works. It’s up to you to decide when they ask for something if it should be in a cue, a submaster, or a second cue list. The Gaffer is who you want to understand the most and the fastest, since virtually everything you do is in relationship to their working methods and preferences. Be assertive in asking questions when there are moments of time. In my experience, Gaffers don’t always know how they are different from other gaffers. Just like with Designers, what gets rewarded by one will get another one frosty.
The Best Boy is the second in command of the Electrics department. They will work closely with the team at beginning and end of every day. Often in the middle of the day, they will disappear to clear obstacle for tomorrow’s day of work into the next week or so. They are a tremendous resource of information and you should treat them as such. You will collaborate closely with them as you develop the network plan, choose what protocols to transmit data with, set up wireless DMX, etc. They tend to know their Gaffer extremely well, and have watched different programmers work with their Gaffer. Be sure to ask them what they have seen that worked best and what are things to avoid.
This term confused me for quite a while. Basically, The Gaffer is the first, the Best Boy is the second. You as programmer are a second, but don’t mistake that for authority. Everyone else on the Electrics team is a Third. They are part of the core group (also called Run of Show) of Set Electricians, so you can expect to see every working day.
These are people who get added for certain days to the Electrics crew, but are not on “run of show”. They will operate condors and be extra sets of hands when the location demands it.
So a lot of work designations in Film tend to be gendered, but at least the positions can be filled by any gender. The Pocket Guy is typically a long standing member of the Thirds who takes point. If there’s a fixture plot and the Gaffer needs a channel number, the Pocket Guy reads it to you. If the Gaffer needs to step away for a bit, the Pocket Guy “gets into the DP’s pocket” to be there whenever the DP wants something to happen on Electrics. Pivotal role for everyone, but especially the programmer.
Coming from theater, this was a tough one for me. Think of the Rigging team as your advance team. They will draw and execute installations of lights for locations ahead of you. You REALLY want a good working relationship with them, since they can make you succeed or flail. You should be ready to provide them what modes you want fixtures to be set in, a general idea of how you want channeling to happen, how DMX might be distributed and what network protocols you are using. Within the Rigging department is every designation above (Gaffer, Best Boy, etc), so at least the hierarchy is pretty clear. If you are lucky, there will be a Rigging Programmer (this is one of the newest positions in film, and frequently becomes a hostage in the budget battle). If you have one, all the information goes to them along with your Rigging console so they can test and ring out the system prior to your arrival. A Rigging Programmer is gold. Treat them as such. If you don’t have one, I find most often I end up talking to the Best Boy of Rigging, or a DMX Tech, which is a Third who is knowledgable of data and sometimes consoles.
In Film, the Teamsters drive all your gear around. They also are supposed to operate the lift gate. Many don’t mind if you operate the lift, but DO NOT ASSUME. Always ask. They are founts of useful information on location so treat them with the utmost respect. They arrive before you and they drive your gear while you are in bed.
This department can make or break a production. They get all the permits, they layout all the plans of what is supposed to go where. They set up all the signs so you get to location and work with the catering team to get you fed. No joke- one overnight shoot, we had a monsoon that started around 8pm and deluged water for an hour and a half. We later found out that it washed the one and only road away. So at 2am, Locations found somebody to come out and make a new road so we had a way to drive home at dawn when our call ended. Mad respect for these peeps.
I remember showing up on my first location and the Best Boy said “Find a PA and get a battery for your radio.” I asked how I would know which people were PAs, and he just looked at me. So…PAs look like very hungry, very young people typically around 22-24. They will often be wearing multiple radios and perhaps many batteries. You should remember their names, since they are the least paid people on location. Tiny offerings of respect go a long way. Also, they know where everything and everyone is, so they are massively useful beyond giving you a radio battery.
Coming from theater, this was super confusing to me. The Grips are a mix of Live Entertainment Carpenters, Riggers, a strange amount of Props and they are the ones who set the stand and the gel in front of your HMIs. There is a LOT I’m glossing over here, but for a programmer, they will do super helpful things on site like provide you with blackout shade (called a “courtesy”) so you can read your monitor in direct sunlight. They also help if you need anything rigged- such as a video monitor onto your cart. The top of the Grip department is the Key Grip.
Director of Image Technician helps the DP with image capture and advises when asked. I mention them specifically since I’m often told to set my cart up near them. It makes it easier for me to see the action and gives my Gaffer easy access to me to give notes, since he is often with all the leads viewing the feed and waiting for more direction from the DP.
These are the people who will give you (hopefully) your video monitor to be able to see the action in order to make sense of notes from your Gaffer or to take cues on your own.
I’ve done live sound in the past, so I always love chatting with the sound people. Typically, there will be the Sound Operator who records everything, the Boom Op who obviously holds a mike over people’s head, and the Utility Tech, who preps the wireless for everyone, including (upon request) and audio feed for you. Get eh audio feed. It makes it so much easier to label your cues and you can sometimes get extra context from the various discussions which can help you do your job. It also makes taking cues off of dialogue possible.
Though there are so many others who are very important to production, this is the list of roles that are vital for a programmer to know. I encourage you to meet people and ask them about their jobs. I’ve very much enjoyed my conversations with the amazing professionals I’m surrounded with on set.