Production roles in a film crew
(14 min read) Who does what in a film crew? What are the production roles on a film or TV set? I first decided to write about this when I interviewed Sue Taylor, an eminent Australian feature film producer and dear friend. We discussed at length the trials and tribulations of communicating on a feature film. It is so vital that each person on a film set knows their roles and relates well with each other.
The director and producer are the ones coordinating the crew. Therefore, they need to know exactly who to talk to and delegate functions according to each role.
Here is a brief introduction to your next film production crew and, most importantly, who they answer to.
Welcome to the film set, a cauldron of creativity. Please be mindful that there are numerous roles I have not included. Not on purpose, merely for this list to get the ball rolling. Since this BLOG has aired the role of Casting Director and Wardrobe Stylist has been added. So this list is going to evolve. I love that. We started with 29. Now we have 32.
Keep the roles rolling in!!
The producer is one of the key film crew members. Sue Taylor sums up a producer’s role thusly:
Producer is such a nebulous term and used so extensively. There’s executive producer, producer and line producer and associate producer and creative producer and there’s a whole range of descriptions that go with it. And I understand why people don’t really know what it means some of the time.
But really, as a producer, you are the overall project manager and often the creative driver, depending on where the idea has come from. But it means that you have to take full responsibility from often the kernel of an idea, right through to the very end of the delivery of that idea, right through to reporting on the financiers to that project. Maybe 10 or 15 years on, when everybody else who’s been involved in the project has moved on, but you’ve still got it, it’s still your baby.
So it is a bit like having a child, you never quite know how it’s going to turn out but you still have to love it. And you still have to find ways to keep that kind of enthusiasm up across what will be enormous numbers of challenges of ever getting it made. Because in reality only 10% of what you develop might ultimately get made.
But that sense of a producer being someone who has a much more of a creative involvement than a lot of people realise. A lot of people think producing is actually just putting the nuts and bolts together for a production. That’s aspects of line producing and production management certainly but it’s not producing and it’s really important that people understand the difference.
2. Executive Producer
Generally supervises the work of the producer on behalf of those who have financed the project, be that a studio, the distributors, or the ad agency. They are there to ensure that the film is completed on time and within budget, and to the agreed artistic and technical standards. This person (or persons: you seem to see long lists of EP’s in the credits, these days) could have been responsible for raising a significant proportion of the finance, or maybe secured the rights to the film. Depending on the size and scale of a film, the executive producer, the producer and the director could be the same person.
3. Associate Producer
Generally carries out production and pre-production tasks. They could also assist in raising the finance for a film, or be a part of the production company that plays a significant role in the script or screenplay development.
4. Line Producer
One of the first individuals hired by the producer. Budgets the project once the finance has been raised. Then breaks down the screenplay to work out how long the shoot will take, plus controls the day-to-day running of the project. The line producer works closely with the director, production manager, first assistant director, art director, and other heads of departments. Also hires the production crew; scouts locations. This person works long hours, but gets rewarded well, if he/she is good.
Another key film crew member. He or she is the one with the vision, and hence is tasked with bringing the script to life. They are the driving force on set and, for me, also responsible for defining the mood. They may have written the script for the film they are directing, or be bringing someone else’s idea to life. Either way, they need to know every aspect and angle of the stories being told, along with the many layers of emotions.
Though the producer and executive producer look after the finance side of things, the director must be aware of budget and schedule constraints. They can blow the budget in a heart beat if they adopt an all care and no responsibility attitude. They determine the style and structure of the film. Casting is one of their most crucial roles.
DoP Alan Myles offers his opinion on what qualities the best directors share:
The best directors to me are the ones who know what they’re doing. They know the shot, they know when to move on, they know when they’ve got it. They know when to push a DOP, they know the right questions to ask. They’ve done their prep, they know what they want for the edit, they’re not going over and over again to get nuances that are basically not there. And a good director, especially with talent, knows when to push and pull the talent. If they push them too hard, they can freeze. It’s very much a communication thing.
It’s a relationship that they’ve got to have with the actors. You can see actors freezing up when they get pushed too hard. A good director usually has shoots that are the easiest of days. They know what they want and they know how to get it. They know what they want in the shot and they know how to communicate to a DoP.
Directing always seems easy when a layman looks at what a director does. “What does he do? he just sits around looking at a little monitor, he doesn’t say much, he gets his first AD to do all the talking.”
But when you are put in that position, when you are the director, and I have been on three or four occasions, the amount of questions you have to answer, the amount of prep you have to look at, you are responsible for everything that goes on in the image in front. And afterwards, the music, everything. The whole image is based around your decisions and I don’t think people really appreciate what a director does. But most importantly, the director is also managing everyone’s expectations; from the client, agency, producer, talent, DoP, to the eventual viewer at home.
If he can communicate with his DOP, who then connects to the crew, the shoot will go really well. There’s never any problems, when all parties are respecting each other’s jobs. The very minute someone decides he knows better than the other person in the chain, it all ends up messy.
6. Production Manager
Similar role to a line producer. Liaises closely with all heads of departments to ensure that the schedule and budgeting is on track. E.g. works out what cast is required on what day, what location should be used on each day, etc. This role is quite prevalent in documentaries, TV series, children’s series, and current affairs.
7. Production Assistant
The best entry-level position on a film project. You are the gofer doing anything from coffee runs, crowd control, cleaning sets, and office administration. Highly varied work, generally lowly paid. So, the sooner you make an impression and move on, the better for you! You may also be offered this position as a work experience.
8. Production Designer
You want me to build a trendy café set in a studio? Why not find a location and prop it accordingly? The look of a set or location is crucial for drawing the viewer into a film. Establishing that look requires a highly skilled individual, so this too is a key production role. This person can either work with the director to shape the look of the film, or be brought in to the job by the producer prior to a director’s being selected in order to review the scripts and help budget the film. Lots of imagination is required, along with the ability to draw and create detailed sketches.
9. Art Director
This role brings the production designer’s vision to life, and is the head of the film’s art department. The art director looks at the script, and works out what props and set pieces are required. Has the added task of keeping the budget spreadsheet under control. Lots of pressure, prior to a shoot.
I asked Murray Edwards, acclaimed film Art Director whether an Art Director was actually a director of art?
I would say yes, it does mean that. And I think for anybody who understands the film industry that one component of the crew is the art department. The art department incorporates such a diverse range of skill sets that it actually needs somebody to control all of those skill sets. So it is a director of art; a person who gives direction to all of those people, be they construction guys or painting people, or the props, special effects, action vehicles, weapons. All those sorts of things are all part of the art dept.
So the art director is the key point for handing out the instructions, the concepts, the visuals to all those people to keep continuity of the design.
10. Standby Props
They stand by with props? Well, yes. One of this film crew member’s important roles is not only having the props ready, but also closely monitoring continuity. Ensuring that items don’t suddenly pop into a medium shot when they weren’t there in the wide shot. Now, that can be a right pain if you have to fix it in post or, worse … reshoot it. The person needs to be focussed, and extremely diligent.
11. 1st AD (Assistant Director)
The assistant director is the director’s right-hand person. Takes over the scene-by-scene practicalities, leaving the director to dream about talent performance and other creative processes. In pre-production, the 1st AD will also break down the entire show into a shot-by-shot storyboard. And then make sure that the shoot stays on schedule. They often have big loud voices and scream a lot, although some of the most fierce 1sts are soft-spoken but equally firm. They also need to keep an eye on the budget, as well.
12. 2nd AD
Ensures that each one of the orders of the 1st AD are carried out. At the end of each day’s shoot, the 2nd prepares the next day’s call sheet. Then, once approved by the production office, distributes it to the crew.
13. 3rd AD
Ensures that the orders of the 2nd AD are carried out. Mainly tasked with the movement of background talent: extras; people who fill in the background.
14. Director of Photography, DoP, or DP
Pretty important production role, this one. The DoP is responsible for the look of the film; this involves lighting as a key element. This film crew member finesses the director’s camera framing, and collaborates with many departments. First, with the director; then, the gaffer (the person responsible for placing the lights, which creates mood, excitement, and emotion); the grips (who help highlight the action with camera movement); the assistant directors; the production designer (making sure that sets won’t choke or compromise the creativity of a scene); and even costume designers (making sure that the clothing material and garments don’t reflect or wrongly reflect a scene’s emotional setting). Along with the director, the DoP gets hired up front, and helps to enhance the marketing draw of the film, as well.
Stills Photographer/Cinematographer Alan Myles talks about his love for the craft:
From a stills photographic point of view, your work will get you through the door. You have to have work that’s either a little bit different, while technically sound and crafted. That will always knock out 90% of your competition because a lot of it isn’t. From both points of view, if you can master lighting, if you have an appreciation of light, you will be a cut above the rest.
Because there are a lot in this business who just don’t know. If you can have a real nice feel with your light, across stills photography and DoP, you are going to be employable. You will have a craft that computers can’t do. You can digitally light, but it’s very time consuming. It never looks quite right and generally we like to light the way we see things in the world. We like to see human beings being naturally lit. Otherwise you end up with this weird, artificial way where we say, “that’s not human, I can’t relate to that.”
My second point would be, from a business point of view, you’ve got to be marketable. Especially in the stills world. You have to be able to communicate with art directors, you have to be on the same wave-length. You have to have the same likes and dislikes.
Also, you have to be able to listen to them because basically they are your employer. You have to listen to what they are trying to communicate. And I guess that’s the same as a director. A director speaks to you and you’ve got to be able to add something to what they already want, and be able to communicate with them and make it a two-way street.
You give ideas as well as people giving ideas to you. That makes you marketable; that makes you likeable. I’m not saying it’s a popularity thing that you’ve got three million friends on Facebook. It’s not that. It’s about that one-to-one relationship that makes it easy. You still have to be able to talk to people, make them feel comfortable that, on the day, you are going to deliver.
15. Camera Operator
An important production role, ensuring that the camera is prepared for each set-up. Generally, the operator is the first person to place his or her eye into the camera’s eye piece, in order to assess a shot’s composition. This film crew member is generally requested, as a favourite, by the DoP and director. Some camera operators work on other precision equipment such as remote heads and steadicams.
16. 1st Assistant Camera
This crew member’s primary focus is just that: keeping the scene in focus. It is a stressful job; the AC needs to be a diligent person. The AC is also responsible for camera equipment such as lenses, filters, and matt boxes, as well as putting the camera together for each scene.
17. Clapper loader/2nd Assistant Camera
Assists the 1st assistant camera with setting up the camera: changing lenses, ensuring that batteries are charged and ready, operating the clapper board, and filling out the camera sheets. In years gone by this crew member was involved in loading/reloading the film magazines and ensuring that the correct film has been ordered. Nowadays, it’s more about managing the memory on the hard drives, ensuring cards are replenished and back-ups made of everything. See data wrangler.
18. Data Wrangler a.k.a. DIT
This production role has evolved in recent times, since the introduction of high-resolution 2k, 4k and 8k digital cameras that no longer use film; rather, they rely on external hard drives that record a film’s images. The data wrangler is responsible for ensuring that there is adequate memory on the drives, replacing the hard drives/memory cards, backing up the footage via laptops onto new back-up hard drives, ensuring it’s been recorded in the correct format, liaising with the editor or assistant editor, and assisting the 2nd Assistant Camera where needed.
19. Menu Wrangler
No, I am not making these titles up!! The new cameras appearing on set today are quite complex and technical, so sometimes there is the need for a person who knows the inside and out of all of the various menus that pop up on, for example, a Red Epic, Arri Alexa, Arri Amira, Alexa Mini, Black Magic, Phantom Flex … the list goes on. Suffice to say, in order to be a well-sought-after Camera Operator, 1st Assistant Camera or 2nd Assistant Camera, you need to know how to navigate your way around these complicated pieces of equipment. That’s become vital to ensure your continuity of employment. 🙂
Call him the chief lighting technician. He is responsible for the electrical side of the production, and for the lighting of each scene. The gaffer works closely with the DoP to position the lights in order to create the mood and look of the film. The gaffer operates any and all lights on a production, from positioning a tiny practical lamp on a table, to recreating the moon with a massive light off of a crane in a wide, street scene. Needs to be conversant with all things electrical (amps, amperes, power loading, what cables/plugs go with what power/sockets etc) and be quite imaginative: being able to recreate lighting that suits a specific mood requires a large dose of creativity. They need to be very health & safety conscious.
21. Best Boy
This film crew member assists the gaffer to position the lights. Is responsible for ordering the lights on big film shoots. Known as the best electrician on set. So must have a thorough knowledge of lights, how they light, and what impact they will have on a scene.
22. Key Grip
Essentially responsible for positioning the camera anywhere that the DoP and director wants it, be it pushed, pulled, mounted or hung. They could want something as simple as a camera on a tripod, or a camera mounted on a limpet mount on the bonnet of a car, or even one under-slung from a helicopter. All of the equipment necessary to place said camera in whatever place or circumstance is the grip’s department.
23. Dolly Grip
The dolly grip is similar to a key grip, but has one key production role: utilizing a camera dolly (elemac, panther, doorway dolly–you name it), and ensuring that the camera, when placed on said moving platform, negotiates a smooth transition from point A to B, or A to C and back to B.
24. Sound Recordist
Vital production role in recording original, clean sound. This is an important film crew member to have on any technical reccy, identify any and all sound implications of a given location, and how to resolve potential problems prior to shooting. The recordist constantly monitors all production sound through headphones, and works closely with the boom operator and the sound editor. Also responsible for setting up talk-back communication between members of the production staff.
The sound on set could be as simple as one microphone on a mic stand, or require multiple radio microphones on multiple talent. Either way, it’s important for the sound recordist to be extremely vigilant for extraneous noises, like distant incoming aircraft, and cover the scenes with separate atmospheric recordings without dialogue, in order to ensure that the sound editor can smooth out the sound bumps in post-production.
25. Boom Operator
Also called a boom swinger, which does not describe his social party preferences! However, whenever you see a long cylindrical furry object dropping down into frame in a news story, or hovering over a take in a feature film or TV drama, that’s generally the boom operator trying to get cleaner sound without due consideration to the camera framing, or just having a momentary lapse of concentration or lack of vitamins. This film crew member works closely with the camera operators to ensure that s/he knows where the framing is, in relation to that large furry microphone, with the sound-recordist boss monitoring the sound at the recording end. Requires extreme concentration and strong arms.
26. Location Manager
Primary role is to locate locations for a film shoot. Reports back to the director, producer, and production, then organizes tours or “reccys” to show off potential or locked locations. Needs to negotiate costs and terms of hire from the location owner, manage the surrounding sound issues, if any. In this production role, the manager also ensures that parking and facilities access, along with any other permissions like permits and waivers, are secured.
27. Make-up Artist
Can be responsible for anything from taking the shine off of a talent’s face to working with hair features like wigs and small prosthetics. Basically this film crew member helps to create an illusion for a film. Gets to chat with the stars while make-up is applied, so often knows all of the juicy inside stories. Well, in theory at least.
28. Prosthetic Make-up
Prosthetics are artificial appendages made of rubber, silicone, gelatin, or such, that are affixed to an actor’s body in order to create an alternative appearance. This production role requires imagination and special make-up skills. On small-budget projects, the make-up artist could do this job. On larger productions, you may see a complete department that is assigned to this role.
29. Talent (Actors)
The talent who is / are performing and delivering the story. The fundamental piece of the puzzle, bringing the work of everyone else to life. He or she is the focal point on the set, to whom the camera, lights and audio are pointed. The performing talent converges everyone’s attention, is the linking point of the whole team alongside the director. This person’s job is to play the story in the perfect tone.
30. Production Accountant
This next role is an extremely vital one. It’s not a role that students coming out of Uni or TAFE gravitate to. A funny thing happened the other day. A first. A student was referred to me by a friend of a friend.
‘He wants to get into to film & TV. Can you have a chat with him?’.
‘Sure’, I said.
‘So what is it you want to be?’
‘I want to be a Production Accountant’.
All projects start with a budget and it’s the job of the production accountant to keep all costs in line with that budget. You will need to create production schedules based on the producers input, ensuring actors and crew aren’t standing around on days when they’re not needed, things like that. People higher up the chain also need to know how the production is tracking financially, so it’s the Production Accountant’s role to deliver spreadsheets and reports highlighting how you’re managing the money diligently. They will probably be involved in paying bills and managing petty cash on a daily basis, so a Production Accountant is everyone’s friend.
31. Casting Director
The casting director collaborates with the director and producer to organise and facilitate the casting of all roles in the film, no matter the duration-short film, TVC, drama series, feature. They not only cast and audition actors the director and producer wish to cast but suggest ideal artists for each role. This can be based on looks from a real life character like Geoffrey Rush > David Helfgott in Shine. The casting director must also be mindful of the budget when casting. But then again, every department must pin their roles to the budget on every project.
32. Wardrobe Stylist
This was addition #32 to the list and rightfully suggested by a wonderful Perth costume stylist. This role is pretty stressful and essentially involves the designing and gathering together all the outfits in a production. This could be creating costumes from scratch, based on the era the film is set in, or scrounging second-hand shops, friends wardrobes or getting talent to bring their own. They are constantly tucking and pruning costumes on set with pins and pegs, to ensure they look perfect to camera. What the camera doesn’t see? That’s about experience and working dextrously and effectively.
Conclusion: know the production roles in the film crew
That is a short introduction to a long line of key people who figure in different production roles on any typical film, television, or commercial shoot. There are many, many more film crew members who come into play prior to “ACTION,” and long after “IT’S A WRAP” is called.
So whenever on a film set, be mindful that you will be communicating with a vastly varying mix of intellectuals.
It is best to listen, and be thought of as a newbie, rather than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.