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Advice for Working on Set from a Curmudgeon

Advice for Working on Set from a Curmudgeon

Preface: This was sent in to me from a close friend, Martina Sykes-Geiger. She has been working professionally as a makeup artist for over ten years and is currently working on primetime hit Chicago Fire. You can find her online on her blog, Facebook, and Instagram.

- Matt

This article is a labor of love – it may seem harsh at times, but it is all of the things I wish someone had told me when I first got started in this business. As you read this, you may learn a lot, you may only learn a little, but hopefully you’ll gain some perspective on this industry, and as you move about the set, you will be confident in your professionalism. Some of this advice will sound like common sense, but all of it has been learned on the job; through a kind mentor, by watching and observing, or the hard way, being reprimanded by a seasoned crew member! This article is intended for artists who have an interest in working on film, TV, or commercial sets, or artists who are already getting started as a day player and want to soak up knowledge of this exciting new world like a sponge.

Advice for working on set

Do not be overly comfortable - always watch and err on the side of caution. Never assume that anything is yours to touch, play with, etc. Ask questions, and listen more than you talk. 

Get to know your call sheet, and read it thoroughly. It contains a plethora of information that will serve you well. What is my call time? Where is crew parking? Where is base camp? Are we shooting interiors or exteriors?

Get to know your paperwork. Most new jobs will give you the same or similar start paperwork, so try to be prepared with all of the needed information. Take a snapshot of your time card to help you remember how to fill it out correctly in the future. Look up a cheat sheet for recording your hours in military time.

Familiarize yourself with the daily “sides”. Sides are the pocket sized, printed pages of the script that contain the scenes that are being shot that day.

Be prepared for all different types of weather. Have some emergency items in your car, invest in raingear, and a pair of waterproof shoes or boots.

Sometimes it is appropriate to have a small, portable chair to bring to set. Ask your department head if you should bring one. There are many affordable, lightweight options available at sporting goods stores.

Being on time is being 15 minutes early.

In the trailer - set up your station and stand ready to greet / make up actors. Do not sit when you have talent arriving or talent going through other artist’s chairs!

Don't be weird around actors. You're at work, not working to get good Instagram pictures.

Spend a minimal amount of time on your phone, even if your Dept Head and Key use theirs often. You don't know what they are using theirs for, and it really doesn't matter anyway. It's none of your business.

Listen more than you talk - it's not about you.

Ask what you can do to help, then do it.

Bring a small, but comprehensive makeup kit. A large set bag filled with a little bit of everything is the holy grail. Do not expect other people to provide a kit, but try to take up as little space as possible with your day player kit.

Some of Martina's work

Same goes for on set -- try to have a small footprint, other people are working all around you and it looks ridiculous when HMU is camped out, looking like they're doing nothing (even though this is not true). I think it's important to earn the respect of other departments. That means having a professional and easy to move set up. Take pride in your ability to be clever. As artists we are constantly reassessing our kits and making them better, more condensed, more comprehensive. Use this inventiveness when thinking of ways to work efficiently.

Be aware, watch monitors when appropriate. If no one (actors) that you are watching is on camera, and video village is full of producers, necessary crew, etc. then you should excuse yourself (tell someone in your dept) that you are stepping away so you are not in the way.

Don't complain - most of us are burnt out and overworked, and as a day player we need you to be optimistic and fresh. You don't have to put on a fake happy attitude, but just remember that if you want to be here, you should not exude bitterness and a jaded attitude.

It is a powerful and emotional thing to be entrusted with someone's face - never take it for granted. 

Mind your own business. Other people’s conversations, phones, work talk, is not for you. Even if you are within earshot, don’t make unwanted comments, and pay attention to your own work. If you’re included, great! Being friendly and kind is a great way to meet people on set, eavesdropping is not.

Always stand up (if sitting) when introduced to someone.

You never know who someone is, or who they know. Word spreads fast, and this is a very small business. Be mindful of telling stories or voicing opinions about actors, shows, other artists etc. Always use cautious judgement.

Get to know the other departments on set, what they do, who they are. It’s always helpful to have a good relationship with the DP, and to be familiar with some of their terminology when it comes to lighting. Be respectful of other department’s time and space. The sound department may not want you trying to touch up an actor while they are adjusting a wire. When in doubt, ask.

Familiarize yourself with film set terminology. There are many books and websites that will explain all of the different departments, as well as film set lingo.

Take responsibility when things go awry, and do not throw other people under the bus. Handle issues professionally and calmly, be all about solutions, not blame.

Kit inventory – Most jobs will pay you a kit fee or kit rental fee. Save yourself some time by typing this up in advance and keeping a copy in your kit, or having it accessible to print from your phone.

Do your research on the project that you’re working on. If it’s film or TV, familiarize yourself with the actors so you’re familiar with the cast. Look up the other artists on the call sheet if you’re curious about the kind of work they do. There are a few inexpensive continuity apps available for your phone, they may make it easier to keep track of the cast, and serve as a quick reference throughout the day.

Maintain integrity. Own up to your mistakes, accept compliments, do your personal best each day, and you will rarely have any professional regrets.

Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, drink lots of water, and stash protein bars in your set bag to battle a drop in blood sugar.

Finally, one of my absolute favorite quotes, some wonderful words for both our personal and professional lives.

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” - Maya Angelou

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