Live Event to Film Programmer 7: First Day on Set

On set for “End of the Road”, my first feature.

You awake in the dark, check your email for the crew parking address and you head to THAT instead of the actual location.  Be sure to leave yourself extra time, especially your first few times.  As you get closer, look for the yellow signs that give you touchstones to know you are headed in the right direction.  On remote locations, those signs become even more important.   There may be a team of Locations people guiding you where to park if you are parking in a field (quite common).  When you park, since we are still in Covid times, be sure to check if testing is at crew parking, Base Camp, or Location.  Breakfast is offered in some form at Base Camp.  When it’s time to go to Location, you are looking for the vans to transport you, not the school buses.  Typically, the school buses are for Extras and Background performers.

You get to Location and you need to find the Shorty.  There are typically at least two trucks for Electrics on a film.  The Shorty is usually the one your cart is on, since it is always placed as close to set as possible.  Check with your Best Boy about getting a radio.  IMPORTANT- you must have a headset so only you can hear your radio.  Ask your BB where you should set up your cart (where to put my cart is the most confusing part of each day for me).  If they have no opinion on where you should be, set up by sound.  That’s always worked for me.  Next, get your console unpacked and ready to start, but wait until the power is metered and you hear it’s safe to plug in and turn on.  Get the wireless ready for the day.  This may include you being gatekeeper of all the receivers as well.  I recommend NOT being the boss of the receivers as well, since you are typically far away from Staging (where the Electricians stage gear to be deployed quickly) and the Shorty (the other place the Electricians are most often found when not on Set).  It’s easier for everyone if the electricians keep the receivers with the rest of the gear they deploy.  Once you have wireless and your console setup, take a receiver, turn it on and walk it all around the location to test if you are going to have any issues anywhere.  If there are trouble spots, tell the BB you will need to move the antenna array when filming is happening there.

If you are on a location with a drop package, a typical day will have you start by confirming control of the drop package for a few hours before the light starts to fade and it’s time to light interiors.  This process can take minutes or hours, depending on how many things go wrong and how many knowledgeable (of networking and DMX) electricians you have available to help.  This is motivation throughout production to look for moments of lull where you might be able to start teaching the electricians (those who don’t know) the basics of networking.  This will pay dividends for everyone.  Once you wrestle control of the drop package, it’s time to light some stuff.  Let’s get some seriously disorienting stuff out onto the table.

Loadin, Tech and Show every 30 Minutes

A day on set is like having a load in of about fifteens minutes, programming for five or less minutes, and running the show for about ten to twenty minutes.  Then you tear it apart and do it again.  And again.  To me, filming is most like lighting a dance show.  Insanely fast, they never want to wait and when they describe what they want (sometimes badly and frequently out of order), they instantly want to see it.

No One Tells you When to Record

Nobody will ever mention Record.  If you are lucky, you might get a “save this”, but in my experience, the Gaffer calls for things for a while and you bring them up and then… they stop speaking.  When it’s been a minute that they haven’t spoken, I record.  Or- if you hear “ROLLING”, record your cue.  Label it with the scene number and letter.  Where do you get this?  Either from “Scripty”, who is the script and continuity supervisor, or from your video monitor when they slate.  Tracking what scene is what in your cue stack is VITAL.  Also- include a description of what you see and what location you are at.   In my experience so far, a Gaffer will never say “give me the color temp from sc102B” but will instead say “give me the murder moon color temp from the barn” or something like that.  

Not only will you never be told to record, they will not tell you whether what they are asking for should be a submaster, a separate cue list, or something to place on a bump button.  No one but you knows what any of those things are, so you are the only one who decides when to record and to what format.  This freaked me out for all of my first feature.  It takes some getting used to and is amongst the many reasons I always encourage you to learn more about your Gaffer’s working methods and values and process.  You need to know how they work to support them.

Easy Things are Specific, Hard Things are Vague

When a Gaffer is calling for key light, though they almost never will tell you the channel of the light (ask the Electrician who set the light), they will tell you “Give me the Vortex in 3200 at 40%”.  Easy.  Except for the missing channel number, very similar to theater.  When they want an effect or a complex sequence, look out.  Stuff is about to get far more vague.  “I want a whisper of maybe a flutter effect on the lamp practical” is a best-case scenario description.  “I want an explosion” is also pretty great.  “We just added a scene where our main character gets stuck in a microwave.  Make an effect.”  This is an actual command I’ve received.  When you get a command you don’t understand, ask as few questions as possible to get to the point where you can SHOW THEM SOMETHING.  Once you have something to show (which needs to be within about 30 seconds or they will get very concerned), they will be more helpful about giving you direction.  Just remember it will always be direction- not keystrokes, not command syntax, nothing concrete.  Go with it and try your best to be accommodating.  Also- be sure to ask how they want this new thing to start, as they usually won’t tell you until right before it needs to happen.  Ditto if it goes out in the scene.  Oh- and in my sixteen months of film programming, they have almost never let me build an idea live.  It’s always in blind.  This means you REALLY need to know how your console functions.  If you hear a rumor that an effect MIGHT be called for, play with options every chance you get so you (and the whole electrics team) look good in front of everybody.

Ease That Light Up

I’m so used to moving lights and LEDs I will always slam a light to full if I don’t think for a minute.  There will be lights with large filaments that have large to huge draws of current, and you do NOT want to blow the lamp or throw the breaker on the generator.  So if it’s a 2k load or above, fade it up.  Do it however you want- on the intensity wheel, or use a timed fade command- doesn’t matter.  The other reason to fade things up is during setup, the light can be shockingly close to someone’s face.  Fading up gives them a warning or at least more time for their eyes to adjust.  Check with your Best Boy and/or Gaffer if they want you to fade all intensity changes or not.  It’s always worth asking.

Listen Critically

Often the Gaffer will never say anyone’s name on radio and will just issue commands in a continuum.  You will need to listen critically to decide if “that light- coming up a bit” is for you or the electrician on the light.  It can get confusing.  If the Gaffer is inconsistent, maybe ask them how they make it clear what is a value change versus a focus change.  They might not have a good answer, but it puts the idea in their head and has resulted in some more clarity for me in the past.

I Can’t See

Often, you will not be able to view anything you are programming, or very little.  This takes some getting used to.  Do your best to get your monitor up and running for the camera feed and ask the Electricians useful question like- which channel is the key light?  Having even the tiniest bit of knowledge of the layout helps a lot, particularly when the Gaffer and DP are unhappy with something- if you know which light is doing what, you might help accelerate solving the issue.

I’m Hungry

A culture shock for me is that film doesn’t eat their first meal for six hours FROM OFFICIAL CREW CALL.  If you have a precall?  Doesn’t count.  Also, lunch is the only called break of the day.  No coffee break, no dinner, just one meal break all day.  Most people on set can wander over to Crafty (Craft Services) and grab food whenever they want.  But not you, or not usually.  Ask on radio if anyone is going to Crafty and can grab you whatever you need.  The thing you can’t get someone to do for you is to use the restroom.  This is a huge motivation to find a smart Third (member of the Electrical team that is not the Gaffer, Best Boy or You) and see if they want to learn about the console.  I’ve had shows where no one knew literally the first thing about my console, and I’ve waited hours to pee.  I don’t recommend it.  

A Few Phrases You Should Know

“Back to One”

This means you should go back to the first cue in the sequence and stand by to run everything again.

“New Deal” 

A new deal is an announcement of new setup.  It could be a variation of what you just filmed, or a totally new thing in a new room.  Keep a sharp ear if they start taking down lights, since you may not be told to take out the light, you just need to know the electricians are striking the light and take the value down to keep your cueing clean.

“Turning Around”

Exactly what it sounds like.  You shot a two person scene and the camera was focussed on the female protagonist.  Now the camera is going to move and shoot the male character. You will likely adjust your key light when they move it to focus on the other character, or they might add another light.

“Camera’s On the Move”

A variation of New Deal that means we have a possibly larger move for everyone.

“Second Team”

What used to be called “stand ins” in the current culture I’m shooting in is now called “Second Team”.  They are the people who stand or move in the blocking the lead actors will eventually do while we all set up lighting, boom mikes and cameras.

“First Team is on the Move”

It means transpo is bringing the leads to set. Often a high stress moment for all departments, this is the announcement that you have VERY little time to make sure you are ready.  Think of it as “places”.

“Reset- Still Rolling”

This means they did not cut and are keeping everything rolling while they reset and do it again.  For you, it means- don’t touch anything and keep quiet.

“Rolling into Grace”

You’re waiting to eat lunch and they just finished a take. They are allowed to roll into lunch with no penalty if it’s to finish an existing setup.

“Buying a Penalty”

You are again hungry, and they finished a setup.  They have elected to keep working- for light, a child actor that needs to be released, lot’s of reasons- and they are paying a half hour penalty to keep working.

“Abbey’s Up”

This is an announcement that you are in the second to last setup for the day.  Apparently, Abbey was a director who was famous for saying “This, plus one more”.

“Martini’s Up”

Sadly, this is not an announcement that a fine cool beverage is on offer.  Well, not for you.  Back in the Day, some director always demanded a freshly made martini when he completed the last shot of the day.  Hence… “Martini’s up”.

Overview of the Day

Figure that a short day of shooting will take 12 hours from the call time to the time you are allowed to leave.  A long day has no practical limit at all.  If you are like me, you may wonder what you are supposed to do during setup and wrap.  The answer is- set up your console, tear down your console, push it back to the truck.  Officially, that’s it.  If you have the time, and you value the relationship building that can come from joining in the labor, help at the very least by coiling cables.  (Over over, not over under.  This pains me, but it’s how they do it.)  You can help push things to the truck as well.  I suck at loading trucks, so I never help tie things down.  Usually, your console is the last thing on the truck, so you might be asked to oversee how it gets tied down.  Protect your interests by giving them feedback on how they secure your desk.

When you are cut, you grab a van back to Crew Parking, grab your car and leave.  If you are an in-town hire, you have ten hours from reaching your car till you can be called back the next day.  If you are out of town, you get what is called “Portal to Portal”.  This means you are paid for the commute time to and from the hotel.  I honestly feel like everyone should get this- less about the money and much more about having ten hours off at home.  Driving tired leads to too many preventable deaths.  Maybe commute with a friend so you can help keep each other awake.  Stay safe.

I covered a lot in this post, and yet I left many things out.  What important things did I not include?  Hit me in the comments.  I’d love to hear from you.

1 comment

  1. Chris Steele - Reply

    I was LOLing at parts of this. I love how you have grocked it so well. Yes, this is a very accurate description of how things work in film programming.

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