10 Things I learnt while working on a film set

Before Christmas I was lucky enough to work as an intern in the production of a new drama series due air later this week.  Working within the media is not something I had previously considered as I knew that the competition was rough (but then – isn’t the competition for everything these days?)  My search for work/work experience since graduation has been somewhat rocky to say the least, so it was not with some small amount of shock that I found myself on a film set.  I realise that I was in a very lucky position to be able to work on something so high profile, especially considering that I did not study anything particularly TV related at university.  As I recognise that are a lot of aspiring media, design and broadcasting types out there I thought I would share some of the things I learnt:

  1. The hours are a bitch.  I didn’t realise that making TV was – well – quite so much work.  Preparation on set would start from 7am and filming would go on until 7pm (later for night scenes).  Depending on which department you’re working for it might also be necessary to hang around and clear up/view end of day ‘rushes’ after this point as well.  The filming schedule for this production operated on alternating 6 day and 5 day weeks.  If you’re thinking of working in film or television then you probably want to think about this carefully; if you have a twelve-hour turnaround (and this can be much less for really big scale productions) then you can forget about having a life outside of work.  The film set is your life.
  2. There’s a lot of hanging around not doing much, punctuated by  short bursts of manic activity. The first few days I spent on set it seemed like there were an awful lot of people who didn’t seem to do anything, but after careful observation I realised that actually every single person had a very specific job and if just one was missing then the whole crazy machine would grind to a halt.  In no particular order this might include: the director, various assistant directors, the camera man, the sound guys, the actual actors, tutors for child actors, costume people, make up people, lighting people, prop men, electricians, carpenters, animal handlers, runners, assistants, overwhelmed interns etc.  Long periods of not doing anything while a scene is being filmed from multiple angles are followed by ten insane minutes where everyone scrambles to turn everything around for the next scene as quickly as possible.
  3. Continuity is key.  Who knew there was a person on set whose entire job is spotting continuity errors before you get to spot them and point them out on IMDb?  Continuity is a pain in the ass though if you’re filming consecutive scenes over several days/weeks.  You can guarantee that distinctive blue jug in the background of every one of last weeks shots has inevitably been lost in the murky depths of the prop store or the general chaos of the set; never to be seen again.
  4. Things don’t always go to plan.  Children, animals, food and anything that even hints of special effects are the key culprits here – although pretty much anything can (and does) go wrong.  Working a on film set involves a lot of thinking on your feet, taking the initiative and general creative lateral thinking.
  5. Working on a film set is not glamorous.  Film set?  Glamour?  You must be joking.  As I was working on a drama set in the early 20th century a lot of the locations were in old and sometimes long empty buildings that were in no way designed for hostile takeover by a film crew.  When we weren’t out and about we were in the ‘studio’, re: unheated warehouse in the middle of November.  The sets were dark, cold and cramped with a lot of bulky equipment, and a whole lot of perpetually ill, overworked people in thermals and North Face jackets muttering darkly into their earpieces.
  6. Film crews have a language of their own.  Reccie?  AD?  Honey wagon?  Rolling?  Speed?  Hold the work?  What?  Obviously though the very best phrase is the one that concludes your mammoth working day – that’s a wrap.
  7. People who work on film sets are really interesting.  You always suspected they might be a breed of super cool roadies, and guess what, they are.  The majority of the people I met had worked at the very least all over the country, if not all over the world – some of them on very large-scale oscar winning blockbusters.
  8. Food is a pretty big deal, from breakfast to elevenses, lunch and everything inbewteen.  An army marches on its stomach, and so too does a film crew.  It took me a long time to realise that the caterers were specific film industry caterers.  At first I assumed I was taking massive liberties by asking them to store a box of dead rabbits in the freezer, or kindly requesting some authentic liver and tripe stew for the next days filming.  Then it slowly clicked that they must be contracted to deal with this sort of weird shit on top of having to feed everyone as well.
  9. This is not the real world.  Not just in the sense that this is a long way from your average office job, but also in the very literal sense that nothing is actually real.  Those slate tiles are actually MDF, that stone wall is made of fiberglass, the smoke from the fire is steam and dry ice and that natural daylight is actually the product of some seriously fancy lighting equipment.  And that’s before you spot the world war one soldier in the corner eating crisps and playing on his iPhone.
  10. Seeing your work on TV is the most exciting thing ever.  Obviously that adrenaline kick when you see the first advert for what you worked on is what makes it all worth it in the end.

This was my experience of what it was like to work on set, as part of my internship I also spent a lot of time working in the office – and that’s a completely different ballgame, but I’ll save that for another post.

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4 comments

    • Angela

      Hey! I wish I was filming in Berlin! (although it’s a bit cold there at the moment!?) I spent a month in Berlin writing for a travel guide and I am hoping to go back for a few months this summer, just saving up, practising my Deutsch and waiting for the weather to improve. The film set I actually worked on was in Derbyshire, north west England.

      • eliza

        oh cool 🙂 And what is your job in that movie? I am participating in a lot of series,movies,soap opras in Berlin and everything u wrote in your post is exactly the same here :D:D Most of the films are shooted in Babelsberg and now I know George Clooney is doing hes latest movie there 🙂

      • Angela

        I was an assistant to the art/props department which was a lot of fun (and hard work!) Babelsberg must be super cool – so much movie history!

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