Photo by Christian Joudrey

Survive and Thrive with Our Essential On-Set Survival Guide

I loved going to film school. It developed my artistic tastes and surrounded me with filmmakers roughly my age and experience level. At school, I watched films I would have never discovered on my own, attended workshops led by industry leaders, and landed internships that helped my career. I even made my own movies along with a group of artists that I would not have met any other way.

But film school did not teach me how to survive on a set. I had to learn that on my own. And every year, it seems like I meet a fresh crop of film school graduates who, like me, had no idea what they were getting into when they stepped onto their first set. So I’d like to present my On-Set Survival Guide. Hopefully, you can use this to not only survive your first film job but thrive in it with style and grace.

Lesson one: you’re going to stand

Film school prepared me for a lot of things, but it did not prepare me for all the standing. Even if you’re not locking up a sidewalk or guarding a door—which are common entry-level PA jobs—you’ll probably have to stand for your entire workday. Chairs are a rarity on set, and those fold-up cloth ones you see in behind-the-scenes featurettes are reserved for directors, script supervisors, and producers

It’s considered rude for a crew member to sit in a chair that is reserved for someone else, and you also probably won’t want to carry your own chair around either. Sometimes you can sit down on an apple box, but most of the time those are going to be needed for grip setups, not for sitting.

It’s also considered improper to sit down on a film or TV set in general. The idea is that if you’re sitting, then you’re not working, and there’s always something to be done on a set. I still remember from way back in my days as a lowly PA when a production manager took me aside for a private chat. “Jay,” she told me seriously, “working on set is like being in the army. There are ranks and seniority, and you always have to be ready to jump in when you’re needed.” I took that lesson to heart.

Nowadays, when I have downtime, I usually stand near the set at attention, with my hands free and ready to work. That preparedness has gifted me more jobs and promotions than any of my technical camera knowledge ever has.

Standing is a pain

Standing for long periods of time might seem like a simple thing, but I assure you it is not. It’s exhausting and can do a number on your back and hips.  Also, the working days are long on film sets, typically lasting for twelve to fourteen hours at a time, if not longer. But two things have helped me over the years: wearing high-quality footwear and getting weight off of my tool belt.

When I started working, I didn’t know the value of a good pair of shoes. I used to wear my sneakers until they were full of holes and then I would wonder why my legs and back hurt so badly after fourteen hours on set. These days, I spring for long-distance running shoes. These kinds of shoes have good support, are breathable, and are designed to last for the long run. I always buy two pairs at a time and I rotate them every day. Also, you’re never too young for Dr. Scholls. A good insole will help your posture, which is essential for keeping your back strong and healthy.

I like to invest in high-quality, squishy socks too. My favorites are from DARN TOUGH, a Vermont-based company that specializes in durable socks that keep your feet warm and dry. Pro-tip: Carry a second pair of socks and change into them at lunch. Socks tend to flatten out during the day and switching them can give you the added cushion that you need to finish a hard day on set.

Take a load off

The other tip that saved my back was getting weight off of my tool belt. Pretty much everyone on set wears something around their waist, whether it’s tools or just a walkie-talkie. But even something as small as a walkie can strain your back when you’re wearing it for fourteen hours a day. My recommendation is to buy a chest pouch. A chest pouch takes weight off your waist and puts it in the middle of your chest, closer to your center of gravity. This simple change is a surefire way to ensure your on-set survival.

Surveillance

Let’s talk about communication. My film school did not prepare me for being plugged into a walkie-talkie all day. The college-level sets I worked on didn’t need walkies. Everyone stayed close to the set and helped each other out. Even the actors weren’t opposed to moving a light or setting up lunch if we needed a hand.

A big-time film set, on the other hand, can employ over 100 crew members a day and they all have to be plugged into their department’s designated walkie channel. And those walkies need to be plugged into headsets to keep things on set quiet for the sound department.

The first time I went to a set, I did not bring a surveillance. Surveillances are little earpieces and microphones that plug into walkie-talkies, allowing you to communicate without making a lot of noise. You’ll see Secret Service agents wearing them in modern political thriller films. They’re the things they talk into when they whisper into their sleeves. 

When I started as a PA, I didn’t even know that the word surveillance meant anything related to walkie-talkies. When my boss asked if I owned one, I thought he was talking about a security camera! As a result, I was forced to endure the worst on-set humiliation imaginable: wearing the dreaded McDonald’s headset.

The McDonald’s headset is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an over-the-ear style surveillance with a drop-down microphone that hangs right in front of your face, giving you a constant reminder of your shame. I’m just kidding—there’s nothing wrong with wearing that kind of headset. But if you want to fit in on a set, I encourage you to bring an earpiece surveillance. Wearing the McDonald’s headset tends to signal how green you are.

If nothing else, you can pretend like you’re guarding the President when you’re locking up your next sidewalk.

Dress for success

Another way to project competence on set is by choosing the right outfit. Surprisingly, what to wear on a film set takes a lot of consideration. You need your wardrobe to be professional, functional, and appropriate for the weather all at the same time.

If in doubt, wear black. Dark clothes are a must for shooting on set because bright colors can easily be seen on camera. Even if you’re not in front of the lens, a bright shirt or jacket may accidentally be seen in a reflection. It might also distract an actor from their performance if you’re standing in their eyeline. Black, on the other hand, will blend into a dark stage and reduce your chances of becoming a visual nuisance.

On-set workers should also always prepare for the shooting conditions. When shooting outdoors, I take a separate weather bag with me to set. Inside, I keep a waterproof shell jacket and pants, NEOS overshoes, an umbrella, and a change of socks. I also dress in layers no matter what because soundstages are often freezing cold. Even if you’re shooting outside, a small delay can cause your crew to move inside to a cold stage. I’ve had many days where I started off wearing shorts and a t-shirt and ended it in long pants and a scarf!

Look good, feel good

That covers function, but what about fashion? Working on set is a manual job and crew members should always dress practically. But anyone stepping onto a set should also try to look professional at a minimum, especially if they’re going to be near the camera. I’ve noticed that some crew members like to dress with a little flair. Camera operators, hair and makeup professionals, directors, and DPs usually like to look nice and tidy when they’re shooting. This fashion sense might be a holdover from the golden years of Hollywood when it was normal to see the whole film crew working in button-up shirts and ties.

I think there’s an expectation to look polished while working on set. Pay attention to how the people above you dress and take note. Even if you’re only running coffee or guarding a door, it’s always good to fall back on that evergreen saying—don’t dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want.

Phone chargers

This one is a big change from when I started in the industry. When I was a baby PA, the most successful people on set were the ones who never, ever had their phones. To look at one’s phone on set was tantamount to sin. It meant you were distracted, and you didn’t want to be caught doing it.

That’s all changed now. Smartphone-based systems like Zoelog or Artemis have made cell phones nearly a requirement on set. Personally, I pull out my phone every time I use an ALEXA camera since ARRI’s Companion apps allow me to control their cameras remotely. I also use my phone to store equipment logs and camera manuals, and to hire additional crew.

That’s why having a phone charger on set is important. All that smartphone convenience gets wiped away if the battery dies. I always keep a charging cable near me on set, but I don’t carry an external battery. That’s because nowadays many cinema batteries have a USB port to plug into. Since I work in the camera department, I always have a way to charge my phone when I’m on set. But you didn’t hear that from me… That might be a secret that other ACs don’t want me spreading around!

Yoga

Maintaining physical health is extremely hard to do when you’re working in this industry. Runaway schedules and distant shooting locations can make it almost impossible to sleep properly or get to the gym.

For physical health, I recommend yoga. Finding twenty minutes a day to do a few sun salutations is far easier than maintaining a gym routine. A few rounds of yoga in the morning stretches muscles, strengthens posture, and quiets the mind so you can arrive at the studio warmed up and ready to go. 

Doing a quick round of yoga in the middle of the day helps too. When I was on the CBS show Elementary, the production sponsored instructor-led yoga classes over lunch. That helped me stay warmed up and loose so I could finish my work day strong. We sometimes had a masseuse come to set too! Take note, any UPMs reading—crews love that!

Mental health

Mental health is also massively important on set and not talked about enough, in my opinion. Spending long hours working means less time spent with friends, family, and loved ones. And film jobs are stressful, full of impossible last-minute situations and frustrating politics. All of this can compound and become untenable if left unaddressed. Poor mental health situations can lead to depression, addiction issues, high blood pressure, emotional outbursts, and more.

I fell into this trap early in my career. I distinctly remember a time when I was not taking care of my mental health. As a result, I almost lost my job. What helped me—saved my career, in fact—was meditation. I know it sounds a little crazy, but meditation helped me stop the negative spiral I was falling into every day. I would wake up feeling fine, but gradually throughout the workday I would get more and more frustrated. By the time the ADs called wrap and ended our day, I was not a pleasant person to work with. 

But that changed when I learned how to meditate. Meditation, also called mindfulness, showed me how to order my thoughts and reorient my attitude. I realized that I wasn’t just getting frustrated by work, I was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of anxieties that I didn’t have the skills to parse out.

To get help, I downloaded the Headspace app, which guided me through a series of daily meditation sessions. These sessions helped me learn how to slow down and get in tune with my body. Now, I don’t even need an app to meditate. I’m perfectly able to do it on my own. But Headspace taught me the techniques that I still use whenever I feel anxiety creep in, so I have to recommend them.

Sleep

Sleep is important and many jobs don’t seem to take it seriously. Science has proven that human adults need at least seven to nine hours of sleep every night to stay healthy. Getting inadequate sleep can result in daytime fatigue, irritability, troubled thinking, slowed reaction times, impaired judgment, and even hallucinations.

Sleep deprivation also causes brain damage and once that damage has been done, it cannot be undone. Let me repeat that another way: catching up on sleep is a myth. Sleeping all day on Saturday does not magically make the fact that you didn’t sleep on Friday go away. 

I encourage everybody to watch Haskell Wexler’s documentary Who Needs Sleep? This film is inspired by the death of assistant cameraman Brent Hershman in a car crash caused by working nineteen-hour days on the set of Pleasantville. To me, this film is required viewing for anyone even considering a career in the entertainment industry. 

Staying hydrated

Drinking water during the course of a day is essential to on-set survival. I recommend carrying a reusable water bottle and filling it whenever possible. Reusable bottles aren’t just great for hydration —they’re also good for the environment. Recently, there’s been a push to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by sets. For example, many productions nowadays try to supply boxed water instead of bottled or opt for on-set water coolers.

But the waste is still out of control. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a single film set can produce 347 tons of plastic waste per production. That’s more than three times what the average American generates in their entire lifetime! If you think that number is shocking, consider that the United States alone is the home to well over a thousand feature film productions every year, and that number doesn’t even consider TV and commercial sets! So please consider bringing a water bottle to work. It will not only help you survive on set; it will help the planet survive as well.

Coffee

Waking up is hard to do, and staying awake can be even harder. The coffee maker is usually the first thing set up on a film set and if it goes down, watch out! You’re going to have a lot of grumpy crew members on your hands.

Coffee is also a right of passage. Most first jobs on set are dedicated to fetching coffee. It’s gotten to the point that being the “coffee-getter” is almost a joke in and out of the industry. But there’s nothing funny about it!

Fetching coffee is often the first way someone will test you on a film set. It might sound silly, but put yourself in your boss’s shoes: if the new guy can’t even get a coffee order right, how can they be trusted to run an expensive camera or do something dangerous like hang a light over an actor? Coffee is often the first test you’ll get on set and passing it will earn you trust and goodwill in the future.

Wrapping up

Film school was an invaluable experience that changed my life. It shaped my artistic voice and fostered relationships that I still maintain to this day. However, it could not fully prepare me for the realities of working on an actual film set. My transition from student to professional was a challenging one, filled with harsh lessons that could only be learned through actual first-hand experiences.

But I think this On-Set Survival Guide can help aspiring film workers hit the ground running on their first jobs. The road ahead might be tough, but if you arm yourself with knowledge and determination, you too can carve out a thriving cinematic career. Embrace the chaos, keep an open mind, and never stop honing your skills. And remember, the goal is not just to survive, but to flourish in this wild and crazy industry.

Jay Kidd

Jay Kidd is a camera assistant and writer based in New York City. He’s snapped slates on shows like The Good Wife, Smash, White Collar, The Affair, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and many more. When he’s not working he’s probably writing or talking to a stranger’s dog.

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