It’s never been easy navigating the murky waters of film set etiquette. As a result, you end up learning the hard way by picking up some juicer’s cable or pushing a dolly a few feet and getting reamed. After that, you tread more carefully.
And when you’re first starting out, you can get away with that for awhile. You make a lot of mistakes, learn from them, and then laugh about them later over some drinks. Crew are usually pretty forgiving in that sense.
But then there’s a whole other subset of etiquette that’s harder to master: how to act around talent. The last thing you want is cause the lead actor or actress to go on a ranting tirade that ends up as a viral video.
That’s why I’m here to tell you three things you should avoid doing to make sure you don’t end up on the wrong side of the talent — things nobody takes the time to tell you until after the fact.
1. Make eye contact with them during a scene
As a young basketball player, my father used to coach me not to look at a player’s eyes while defending them, but at their belly button instead.
Little did I know that, years later, this advice would hold true for when you’re standing by on a film set.
One of the worst things you can do to an actor or actress is make eye contact with them off-camera during a scene.
They pour so much of their efforts into ignoring the fact that they’re surrounded by some 40 people, a huge camera rig, hot lights blasting in their face, and a cavalcade of commotion that seeks to strip the sanity from anybody who stands still long enough to watch it.
And by making eye contact with them during the scene, you remind them all of that is there and that they are actually an actor, not the character.
If they’re really good, they might not flinch, but you can bet they still notice it.
As first assistant camera (1st AC), sometimes eye contact is unavoidable since you need to watch their eyes to anticipate for focus pulling. In most cases, this is not a problem as you’re close to the camera where an actor won’t be looking.
But as 2nd AC or another position where you aren’t near the camera, you’re walking on thin ice if you dare stare at their eyes during a performance. You never know when they’ll dart their eyes away, land on yours, and ruin the perfect performance or best take of the bunch.
2. Take pictures of them, especially during a scene
“She kept just taking the damn pictures — and the flash was off — but that orange light was right in my eyeline.”
“This was during the scene?”
“During the scene!”
I remember witnessing this exchange between a 1st AC and actor in a bar at the end of a shooting day.
The actor was telling us how one of the warddrobe production assistants was tracking alongside the camera with her point-and-shoot camera taking pictures of his costuming for archival purposes. That’s a pretty standard procedure, but is generally done before a scene is even shot during setup. And doing it alongside the camera with a flashing light in the actor’s eyeline is a big no-no.
Luckily for her, this guy never lost his cool on set, but he was close to it: “I would’ve smashed that thing.”
So be careful when you’re taking pictures on set. Unless you’re the stills photographer and have been OK’ed to do so by the higher-ups, you shouldn’t be taking shots during a scene at all.
As a final piece of advice on this subject, if you’re working with somebody who is fairly well known (recognizable by face at least), ask permission before you start snapping away at them. They won’t always say “yes,” but if they don’t OK it when you ask they were never OK with it in the first place.
3. Show them footage of themselves
Have you ever done a video chat with somebody on your computer? Whether you use Skype, iChat, or another platform, most of them show you a tiny thumbnail of yourself in the corner during the chat.
How distracting is that thumbnail?
No matter how many times I consciously try not to look at it, my eyes always drift back and I end up watching myself instead of the person I’m talking to.
Now imagine yourself as an actor and you’re mentally ready for a scene. You’ve embodied the emotions of the character. You know your lines so well you don’t just say them, you feel them. At the climax of the scene you peer off to the side of the camera and suddenly see yourself on the video village monitor — a big fat closeup.
That would be distracting wouldn’t it?
That’s why you never should put video village within the eyelines of the actors. Or if you do, find a way to block it off from them. They shouldn’t ever be watching themselves act within a scene.
But during a scene isn’t the only time you can make this mistake either. Many actors and actresses don’t like to see any footage of themselves, even at the end of the shoot.
I asked an actor about this once and he politely replied, “When I see myself, it shows me my mannerisms and my characterizations and I become too self-aware of them. I stop doing what’s natural and start trying to ‘act’ more than I should.”
That’s more than a fair justification.
So if you’re doing media management or have any access to the footage, be wary of accidentally showing talent their own scenes. This is easy to avoid by asking them if they’d like to watch instead of just showing it to them.
Asshole. Diva. Drama Queen.
All words used by crew, at some point or another, to describe those actors and actresses who stand in front of the camera and put money in our pockets.
Of course, not all actors are cut from the same tree. Many are kind, caring, and hard working. But the ones who are jerks tend to stick out and give a bad rep to the rest of ’em.
Sometimes the rants are warranted, sometimes they are not, and sometimes they’re your fault, but in all cases they should be avoided by any means necessary.
That starts with you doing the best you can not to make those mistakes above — good luck!