Set Etiquette — Study These to Save Your Job!

For anyone who has never been on a big TV or Film set, it can be a pretty intimidating place. I did not go to Film School, but I’ve worked with quite a few people who did, and I’ve heard that it does nothing to prepare you for what it’s like on set.

I have been working on sets for 8 years, and I still have the motto “First days are the worst days!”,  because in the beginning, it can be chaotic. With each job, you not only have the challenges of the work itself, but also 100 new personalities to learn how to get along with.

So here are a few things to help guide you, whether you are an office PA, someone working off production who may visit the set, or if you are a new set PA trying to learn the ropes of set life.

Part 1: SET ETIQUETTE FOR EVERYONE.

Silence your phone. 

Silence it the second you walk onto set. Don’t be that guy. Just… don’t.


Don’t chat up the actors.

Hey, actors are people too, and there is no harm in saying “hello” just like you would to anyone else. But they’re there to work, and acting isn’t an easy job.

I have never been one to get starstruck, but I’ve met some pretty cool actors, and been on some pretty cool sets. Sometimes I am really excited on the inside, but inside is where it stays. There is nothing less professional than visibly loosing your shit every time you see someone famous.


Don’t touch the equipment/ move the equipment/ plug your phone into that.

Many people coming from non-union or student films don’t realize that moving or handling equipment that belongs to any department besides their own is the fast track to getting screamed at. It’s not just because it’s annoying to have some random person touching your stuff. It’s rules of the unions (IATSE, Teamsters, etc.) that someone who is not a union member should not be performing the tasks of a union member. If someone asks you to move a light, find an Electrician and ask them to move it. Need an apple box? Ask a Grip, don’t just help yourself to the cart.  (Don’t know what a Grip does? Stay tuned for an epic new ebook coming soon!)

Props and Crafty will let PAs help them out a lot of the time, but always ask first. And of course, if the terrain is hilly or rough, everyone appreciates an extra hand on a cart. Also, if you see a lunch box (a metal box with a bunch of electrical outlets in it), always ask before you just plug your phone charger in there. You never know how much power is already being pulled from there, and it could short something out on set, or worse, mess up your phone. Find an Electrician and ask!


Don’t sit in actor’s chairs.

The chairs over at Video Village are usually for the director, script supervisor, actors, and producers. If you come to set, watching a take or two from the Village is a cool experience, but don’t just plop down in someone’s chair. Don’t get too comfy. It looks disrespectful.


ROLLING means SHUT UP!

When you hear “Rolling!” yelled around the set, please stop talking, and don’t move around and make a bunch of noise. Even if it’s not loud enough to be picked up by the mics on set, it’s often distracting for the actors that are trying to deliver their lines while you noisily open up a bag of Sun Chips that you got from crafty.


Learn what everyone does.

You don’t have to chat up everyone on set to do this. Even if you’re an office PA coming to set to drop off distro, or a brand new set PA, you still get a chance to observe what everyone does. Maybe you have high hopes of becoming a director, or a DP, or a Producer. It’s important to know how your decisions effect everyone on the crew, because most likely, it will. (Another great way to learn what everyone does is by reading our ebook that is coming soon! We’ve got your back…)

There are hundreds of moving parts and an endless amount of logistics on every film and TV episode that is made. One last minute script change, framing of a shot, or creative choice, can greatly effect what every department has to do to bring the scene to life. If you understand how, it will make you better at your own job, no matter what it is.


Part 2: SET ETIQUETTE FOR THE NEW SET PA.

If you’re new to set and working ON set, you are most likely a Set Production Assistant or Set PA. Set PA’s direct supervisors are the Assistant Directors, or ADs. Here are some good tips if you are a PA new to a set.


Your call time is not breakfast time. 

Check the back of the callsheet for your call time, next to your name. If you want to enjoy the delicious breakfast catering, come earlier than your call time to do that. Being spotted sitting and eating at your call time looks really, really, really bad and this is not the first impression you want to convey.


Read the callsheet.

The callsheet is very important, so always carry at least two copies of it (one for you, and one to give to anyone who asks). Many questions you will have can be answered by looking at it thoroughly, and it’s a great tool for when you’re trying to memorize everyone’s names.

Before you ask a question, I would encourage you to get out your callsheet and examine it, because there is such thing as a stupid question and that question is “What time is lunch today?”.


Good attitude, Good work ethic.

For years, me and my fellow PAs joked about checking our self respect and dignity at the door. And although that’s not totally true, what made us good at our job was a sense of self confidence that earned us the respect of those above us, but lack of a need to throw our feelings of our own self worth in everyone’s faces.

As an AD, I am much more inclined to hire someone who is green, but has a great attitude, is a fast learner, and works hard, as opposed someone who knows how to do the job but is difficult, back talks, brings unpleasantness and attitude to the set.


Don’t take it personally.

As an AD, I often a have blank expression, and a deadpan voice that sometimes makes people think I am mad. It’s mostly because I am listening, concentrating and trying to anticipate what needs to happen next. It’s my work face. It has nothing to do with how I feel, in general or about anyone. It’s not personal. Here are other things, besides my face, you should not take personally.

Getting yelled at for no reason/ for a reason:

Take it, and treat the person yelling with respect while they do so, and know in your heart that they are the real jerk in the situation.

If you are the one who is wrong and kind of deserve to be yelled at, own up to it. Nothing shocks people in this industry more than someone who can take ownership of their own mistakes. It’s a rare and wonderful thing, and also the quickest way to stop the yelling. Also, realize that some times, you’ll get snapped at in the heat of the moment. Let it go. It happens. Don’t let it ruin your day.

PAs go through the lunch line last.

This is purely because they are non-union, and the “Back in time” from lunch is determined by when the last Union crew member goes through the lunch line. It’s not because people hate you. Also, be ready to work through lunch and without resentment. I always get my food in a to-go container, just in case.

Feeling like you get the crap jobs/ not liking your boss:

Sometimes, as a PA, it feels like you’re getting picked on, but somebody has to do that deep lockup, right? The less experienced you are, the more likely this is to happen to you, but as you learn more about the job, and prove yourself as a hard worker, you will be given more responsibility. Be patient, and don’t be entitled. It takes time. ADs love PAs who are willing to do things without complaining, and your attitude towards the tasks you’re given shows a lot about your dedication to being there.

Sometimes, you don’t get along with your boss or you don’t see why they make the decisions that they make. This will happen. It’s inevitable.  But should you ever tell your boss how you feel about them and their choices? NOPE. Because one day you will be the boss, and you don’t want some dumb kid telling you how to do your job. Don’t forget, it’s likely you don’t have a grasp on the kind of stress they’re under, and why they do what they do. I can say from experience that when you are in their place, you will finally understand how much pressure is on them, and how much it sucks to hear your underlings complain about everything you do that does not please them.


Do it fast, and with follow through!

Things that are asked of you should be done calmly but as quickly as possible. It’s called “having a sense of urgency”. You shouldn’t be running around with your hair on fire (although sometimes running isn’t a bad idea. It makes you look like you care). You should preform your tasks, even something as small as getting someone a cup of coffee, as quickly as you can and then inform your supervisor that the task is complete. Keeping your boss updated on the status of tasks and your ability to follow through until the job is done is extremely important.


Take it to 2: Walkie Etiquette 

If you are working on set, chances are, you will be handed a magical radio otherwise know as a Walkie Talkie. Walkie etiquette is not hard to master, but there are some unspoken rules that everyone should know.

“Copy that”. It’s less of a “YES”, and more of an “I UNDERSTAND”. So if someone asks you if the director got his coffee, your answer would be “yes”, and not “copy”. If the 1st AD says that “This shot moves us to the next location.”, your answer would be “Copy!” and not “yes”. Get it?

If you have something long winded to say, perhaps something over 7 words, take it to channel 2.

Channel 1 is usually the production channel, and widely known as the 1st AD’s channel. Chatter gets in the way of important information coming over the airwaves, so if you have to say something long or something directed at one person in particular, it’s a good idea to ask that person to “Go to channel 2”. Channel 2 is reserved for the longer, less important, conversations.

“10-1” means going to the bathroom. For example, “Erica is 10-1, but I’ll let her know you need her when she gets out.” or “I’m 10-1!”, which personally I love to announce over the radio.

“Steppage” or “getting stepped on” is when two or more people talk on the walkie at the same time, which results in a garbled, crackling, unintelligible mess. Hopefully if you are stepped on, someone will say so, so that you can repeat what you were trying to say.

If you need to call a van, Transpo is usually on channel 3. You can practically hear the sound of eyes rolling when someone calls for a van on channel 1.

And please, never ask the 1st AD to repeat themselves. If they announce something on the walkie and you don’t understand or hear it, run to your nearest PA or 2nd 2nd AD and ask them what was said. Just trust me on this one.


Less talk, more listen.

There is a decent amount of standing around in PA work, but even if your body isn’t busy, your mind always should be. Not your mouth.

I’ve made plenty of friends on set, and conversations are always fun and help the day go faster. It’s important to foster relationships with your fellow crew members, but just remember that if you’re talking and can’t listen and be on your toes for whatever happens next, then you should not be talking. If you are talking, and your boss starts saying something on the walkie, stop and listen. No crew member is a stranger to the glazed over look the AD department often gets in their eyes when they do this.

Always listen to the info coming over the radio, even if someone doesn’t say your name before it. Always know what the shot is. Go take a peak at the monitor as the shot is being set up. Try and know what is coming up next. Ask yourself these questions:

What is the shot? Who is in the shot? Where are the actors? Does hair and make up know what actors we are seeing in this shot? What is my lock up? What can I be doing to make sure we are ready for the next shot?

Keep your mind busy anticipating the needs of the production, and you’ll do just fine.

Last but not least, never sit down… at least not where anyone can see you.