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Acting Tips - What Really Happens on a Movie or TV Set?

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I was having lunch the other day with a working actor friend of mine and the conversation turned to how different each set is. Some are friendly, some are not. Some move fast in some move slow. Some are fun, some not so much.

But, the real problem is figuring out how each set works once you arrive. No one ever tells you. And, when you arrive to work that first day you have no idea what you’re supposed to do, who to report to, where to go and how to be. If you haven't worked much you might find it a daunting task. For that reason, I thought it might be wise to talk about the things that generally happen on every set and provide you with a few tips regarding how to adjust quickly to the differences. With that in mind, let's walk through a typical day on the set. Keep in mind, this applies to principle acting work, not extra or background work.

The Day Before Your First Day of Work

I remember the first time I booked a big acting job. I was completely freaked out crazy with excitement when I got the call. I couldn't wait to get the details and find out where I was going and when I would be shooting. Well, excitement soon turned into anxiety as I waited day after day, hour after hour for the call from the 2nd AD (second assistant director) telling me where to go, what time to be there and how I could get my sides. That call didn’t come in advance like I had hoped. So, here's the first common practice that will probably throw you for a loop. You generally won't get your call time, your exact start date and time and often your script until the night before. Through your agent you were probably told what your “booking window is” (what days you need to be available) but they usually won't tell you your exact start date until the evening before. I didn't get the call for my first big job until 9:30 PM the night before! I pretty much made my agent hate me because I called him four or five times that day starting at about 3 PM. I was in a panic and thought they forgot me. I wrongly assumed the crew knew these things days in advance. Ever wonder why they don’t tell you earlier? Every day the 1st AD sits down during a break to determine what shots need to be done the following day and who is needed for those shots. But, they can't make the final decision until they know how many shots they completed on the current day. If they’re running behind they might have to push your scene to another day. Or, if they suddenly loose a location due to weather they might have to alter things. There are a ton of reasons why the shooting schedule has to be fluid and able to change at the drop of a hat. So, for that reason don't expect to get your call time or anything else until late the evening before. They put actors on hold for several days for a reason. They can never predict what will actually happen on a particular shoot day. So, don't panic if you don't get any info or even a script until the night before. It's just common practice. If it’s 11PM and you still haven’t heard, maybe now you have reason to be concerned. That might be the time to call to your agent.

Where To Go, Where To Park and Who To Report To

Once you get your call time and shooting location, which you generally receive via phone call and/or text and an email from the 2nd AD, it's your job to get there on time. In other words, give yourself plenty (and I do mean PLENTY) of time to get there. Traffic is always an issue in LA and the last thing you want to do is keep a crew, a director and millions of dollars of equipment waiting for you. That's a surefire way to get yourself fired or blacklisted. Just because Lindsey Lohan shows up an hour late doesn’t mean you can too. When you get that famous… still don’t do it!

Chances are the 2nd AD emailed you a map the night before. Follow it closely. Don’t necessarily rely in your GPS or Waze. Trust me, I know from experience they can be dead wrong! The map should tell you where to park. And, that's important. Also, it's common practice in the industry for a PA to put up those bright yellow signs you’ve seen all over LA (http://bit.ly/17ntcD7) along the roadway the point you to the direction or the place you need to go. So keep your eyes peeled for those yellow signs. They usually have the name of the production company, the project or the word “crew” or “set” on them and an arrow pointing the direction to go. Park where they say.

When you arrive, gather your stuff and head towards the trailers. On a side note, don't bring a lot of stuff. I've actually had things stolen on a set before so my advice is just bring just the essentials: your cell phone, your essential paperwork like your drivers license, passport, etc. and some comfortable clothes. The area with all the trailers is what's called, "Base Camp." That's where the actor’s trailers, the producer’s trailer, the wardrobe trailer, and the makeup/hair trailer are located. Once there, ask anyone where you can find the 2nd AD. That's the person you usually report to. You're finally ready to start your first day of shooting.

What To Do Next

The 2nd AD who is in charge of base camp will usually tell you what to do first and where to go. If they don't, just head to your trailer and wait to be told. It's a good time to get comfy in your space and get to know the place where you will be spending most of time, your trailer. If you're lucky you might get a nice big trailer with a couch, a table, a TV, a big bathroom and plenty of room to spread out. If you're not so lucky or you have a tiny part on the show or in the movie you might get a five room “honeywagon,” which essentially means you will have a room about 4' x 10'. If you’re like me a place like that will make you a little claustrophobic and stir crazy. But, if you do get a tiny trailer let it go and tell yourself how incredibly lucky you are to be working as an actor on a professional set. It is a huge privilege and many people would kill for the opportunity you have.

Generally, there are five things that you will do before you head to the set. They may not necessarily be in this order but they are: get into your wardrobe, get your hair and makeup done, look over your lines and see if there any changes, sign your contracts and, if you have an early "call time" (the time you have to report to base camp), you might also get breakfast.

Let’s talk about wardrobe. Your first outfit, or first wardrobe change, will probably be hanging in your trailer when you arrive. If not, don’t panic, they will bring it to you when they have time. If the 2nd AD says they are going to need you on set right away chances are you won't have time to change. They will give you time later, after the camera rehearsal (see the next section). However, if you do have time before the camera rehearsal it’s a good idea to get into your wardrobe as soon as you can. Some actors might disagree with that, saying you will have plenty of time after the camera rehearsal to change, after all that's when they set up the camera and lights. However, that is not always true. Sometimes they move fast or are already preset and you will be asked back right away. If you're a series regular or someone who's been recurring on the show for a while then it might be okay, you would know how long it usually takes that particular crew to set up. But, if it’s your first day I highly recommend being professional and ready to go at all times.

When the 2nd AD tells you it's time to get into makeup, they will send you to the makeup/hair trailer where you will get your hair and makeup done by two different people (unless you're on a very small budget project which might mean one person does it all). Usually, you get makeup done first and then hair but don't be surprised if they ask you to do it the other way around. Just do what they say, it’s fairly straight forward. Makeup is always my favorite part of the base camp experience. It's often the place you get to meet the stars before you work with them and it helps you to get the feel of the set. If it's a tense set you'll know it by how people act in the makeup trailer. It's a fun set you will see that too.

If you arrive on set early chances are the 2nd AD will either tell you where the catering truck is, so you can grab your own breakfast, or if it's a quick moving set they might take your order and deliver it to your trailer or to you personally. I always take a few granola bars and some fruit with me to every set because on a few occasions there wasn't time to grab breakfast before I had to report to the set. And, if you're like me, you need a little energy if you want to act well. NEVER try to act on an empty stomach. There is a ton of research out there regarding the importance of having fuel in your body if you want to be at your best. But, that’s another topic for another time.

When you get inside your trailer on that first day you will probably see your contract and some “mini sides" on a desk or table. If you have time go ahead and sign your contract right away so the 2nd AD can process it while you are working. That way you won't have to worry about it when everyone wants to go home at the end of the day. Also, please make sure you look over the "mini sides" (which is basically the script for the day printed on half sized pages, 5 1/2” x 8"). That will be the most current script. Make sure that you've checked to see if any changes were made to the script you were given and that you know all your lines. You don’t want to get on set and realize you have the “old script.” Just so you know, there has been more than one occasion when I arrived to find out at least four or five pages have been completely rewritten. As frustrating as that is, it’s still my job to know the lines. If they've changed your lines, get to work right away. Take the sides with you when you go to makeup and hair trailer. Don't be embarrassed if you need to study your lines while makeup and hair do their work. It's common practice in the industry and there's no reason to be embarrassed if you don't have time to have a conversation with them. Keep in mind you’re being paid good money to perform at a professional level and that means knowing your lines.

On Set: The Camera Rehearsal

When the crew and the director are ready for your first scene, the 2nd AD will call you to set. Generally you will be put into a van and driven to the set or a PA will walk you to the set. Once on set, you will be greeted by either the 1st AD, another AD, a PA, or in some instances by the director. They will put you in place for a camera rehearsal. A camera rehearsal is where they block you (tell you where to stand and move) and run the scene so the camera crew can see what they're shooting and lighting. Don't be surprised if you are asked to run the lines with the cast first, before the camera rehearsal. Occasionally, you will get a director or a cast that does that (and I love when they do!). Either way, once your on set just know that you will be running the scene. Sometimes all the cast members are in wardrobe and sometimes nobody is. Don’t let it rattle you. Never forget, every set is a little bit different.

I remember my very first big TV show and how afraid I was. I didn't know what was happening or when or where I was expected to be. I didn’t know that we would be running the scene before we shot it or what a camera rehearsal was. Once I figured it out, I just thought that they would show his where to stand and that would be it. I remember how freaked out and nervous I was when the director stared at me angrily wondering why in the world I wasn't saying my line. I had the first line in the scene but I had no idea we were expected to run the lines. As a result, I botched the scene like a hapless amateur. Lesson learned. Learn from my mistake, be aware that you’re expected to run the lines in a camera rehearsal. However, you’re NOT expected to run them in full emotion. But, you are expected to get through them like a pro. It's okay if a series regular or a lead in the film makes mistakes but guest stars, costars and featured players are expected to know their lines and deliver them in a professional manner. No pressure, right? Over the years I've fallen in love with the camera rehearsal. It's the first glimpse you get of what the scene will actually look like. It's the moment I start to get really excited about acting with the other actors.

Lighting the Set and Placing the Cameras

Depending on how fast the show or film shoots you might be asked to either return to your trailer or move to a waiting area. If you're told to move to a waiting area, chances are they are going to have some of those cool director’s chairs set up for you. Simple word of advice, don't sit in the chairs with the star’s name on it unless you’re told it's okay. Sit in the chairs that don't have a name or that say "guest" or something like that. Early on in my career I got yelled at for sitting in a star’s chair even though that's all that was available. Again, lesson learned. If you're new on the set it's your job to figure out how things work on that particular show. It's just comes with the territory. And as I said at the top, every set is different and the chemistry is never the same from show to show. Not to worry, you’ll figure it out.

Shooting the Scene

When they finally call you to the set to shoot the first scene, let everything go, all the anxieties, all the memorizing and homework, and plan on having the time of your life. This is what you've been preparing for. This is what all those years of training are for. This is what you were meant to do!

Be prepared to shoot the scene from numerous angles, numerous times. I've been on sets where everything is done in one take (Soaps are the perfect example) and I've been on sets where it's common to do 60 takes from numerous angles. Again, you'll quickly learn how each show shoots. All you have to do is adjust to it accordingly. The best piece of advice I ever got regarding shows that shoot from numerous angles is to make sure you don't give away all your emotions in the long shots. Those are usually done first. Try to reserve most of your emotions for your close-ups. That is the moment to really shine and a tap into that rich acting resource that you've been developing all your life. The first emotional scene I ever did I made that mistake. Generally, directors will shoot the long shots first, in order to capture the whole scene with all or most of the actors. Then, they usually move in for medium shots. And finally, they move all the way in for the close-ups. Keep in mind that most directors usually start shooting from one side of the set, where they do the long, the medium, and then the close-ups and then switch over to the other side of the set to shoot the same series of shots from the other actor’s perspective. This makes it easier from a lighting perspective. So, if you do have one of those big emotional scenes try to time it so you finally tap into your deepest wells when it's time for your close-up.

This might be a good time to say, every actor and every star is completely different. I have worked with some stars who were an absolute blast, some that were the sweetest thing since sliced cake and a few who were absolute egomaniacs and idiots. Like Forest’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. So, be prepared for anything. My advice is don’t make the first move. Let the stars show you how they like to be treated. Stay professional, courteous and focused on the work and you should be fine. Sometimes a star will dictate the energy of the whole set. If it is a down energy, so be it. Don’t let it affect you. Just do your work. If they invite you into a conversation, great, enjoy it. Believe it or not, actors are sometimes told they will be checking your chemistry with the other actors on set. They want to make sure that everyone wants to spend weeks of their life with you before they write more for your character. The secret is, never make it all about you, engage when you get the chance and be professional at all times. Great actors who are personable work all the time. Part of our job, if you haven’t gotten this theme by now, is to adjust. Expect the unexpected and go with the flow.

One final word of advice regarding acting on-camera in the scene: this is your moment to let it all go, make it all about chemistry between you and the other actors and enjoy what you're doing. You should have your lines down by now and all your homework should be put away. This is the time simply have a conversation with the actor across from you and enjoy the process of entertaining. That's when the greatest acting happens. For more on this, see some of my past articles.

What Do You When You’re Done?

Once you're done with your scene you'll either be wrapped and sent back to your trailer, sent back to your trailer to wait for another scene (and waiting is what actors do best!) or be held aside on set for another scene that will be shot quickly. As always, simply wait to be told what to do by an AD or PA. Don't assume you're done and you can do whatever you want. It's happened many times that after a director finishes shooting a scene they suddenly realize they need to shoot more, for one reason or another. It happens. Just be flexible and wait to be told what to do. On a set the actors aren't the center of attention (believe it or not!). The director and his shot list is the most important thing. Everything revolves around that list and what needs to be done in order to get all the shots.

If you're finished with your final scene for the day you’ll be sent back to your trailer to change, complete your contract, sign out (don’t forget to sign out with the base camp AD and make sure they have your hours right) and head on home. The base camp AD will give you the final word of when you are official wrapped. Don’t leave before then.

Some Final Thoughts

I'm sure you've heard it said many times that movie and TV sets are boring. There's just too much waiting. And, I'm here to say it's absolutely true. So, make sure you bring things to do to occupy your time. Some people sleep, some people jump on the phone, some people wander around base camp and it's also not a bad idea to work on your lines. Either way, make sure someone knows where you're at at all times. Don't wander off set without telling anyone. That’s a surefire way to get in trouble. For me, the waiting periods are a great time to get to know the other actors, hang out, chat and have a good time. It is small circle of people, who all know each other, that do all the work in town. And, you want to make sure you’re part of that circle. Be positive, be fun and wait around with the rest of them, enjoying a great day in your life.

If you have several big scenes to shoot that first day, or any day for that matter, make sure you use your energy wisely. I recently worked on a set where I had a call time of 5 AM after only getting 3 hours sleep the night before. I had five big and intense scenes to do that day. The hardest job for me was to make sure I didn't blow all my energy right away. The fifth scene was the most difficult and I knew I had to have the bulk of my emotional and physical strength saved up for it or I would bomb. So it took special care to make sure I conserved energy as best I could throughout the day. Fortunately, it worked out and I was very happy with the results.

Hopefully, this article will give you a little insight into what happens on a movie and TV set. That knowledge should prove helpful, especially for the novice. I didn't know anything my first day on my first set and it about drove me crazy. I kept thinking that everyone was probably upset with me because no one was saying anything to me. Little did I know that's usually how it is. Unfortunately, I thought I was supposed to know everything. So, don't worry. Just take it moment by moment, enjoy every second of it and simply wait to be told what to do. If you know your lines, you’ve done your homework and you're ready to let it all go, you’ll have the time of your life and rock the acting world. Like I said, if you’re booking work, it's what you were meant to do. Enjoy it!

To keep things in perspective, let me wrap up with a quote from one of my favorite actors, Samuel L Jackson. He said, “The actors job is finding work. The fringe benefit of our work is getting to act." More on that in a coming article.


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Mark Atteberry is an award winning actor, teacher and photographer. As an actor his work includes features like Miranda July’s "The Future” and Ang Lee’s "The Hulk.” His recent TV work includes: ”Drop Dead Diva,” “Rules of Engagement,” “Luck,” “House M.D.," “Justified,” "The Closer," “The Mentalist,” "Dexter" and “Criminal Minds.” Mark can currently be seen on “The Newsroom.” Mark is internationally known for his commercial advertising and headshot photography. His clients include NBC, CBS, A&E, Bravo, CAA, ICM, WME, and Big Lots. Mark regularly teaches and lectures on the topics of "Branding, Marketing and Type" and "How to Succeed in the Entertainment Industry." He has authored or co-authored several books on the business of acting including the best selling, "Working Actor's Guide to LA." For more of Mark’s acting credits go to: www.imdb.com/name/nm0040992. For Mark’s headshot photography go to: www.idyllicphotography.com. And, for Mark’s classes go to: www.beaworkingactor.com. To join Mark on Twitter look for @MarkAtteberry.

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Mark Atteberry

I would love to answer your questions here in this blog. If there are any burning questions that you’ve always wanted to ask please feel free to forward them to me at: idyllicinfo@sbcglobal.net Mark Atteberry is an award winning actor, teacher and photographer. As an actor his work includes features like Miranda July’s "The Future” and Ang Lee’s "The Hulk.” His recent TV work includes “The Newsroom,” “Rules of Engagement,” “Luck,” "House M.D.," “Justified,” "The Closer," “The Mentalist,” "Dexter" and “Criminal Minds.” Mark is internationally known for his commercial advertising and headshot photography. His clients include NBC, CBS, A&E, Bravo, CAA, ICM, WME, and Big Lots. Mark regularly teaches and lectures on the topics of "Branding, Marketing and Type" and "How to Succeed in the Entertainment Industry." He has authored or co-authored several books on the business of acting including the best selling, "Working Actor's Guide to LA." For more of Mark’s acting credits go to: www.imdb.com/name/nm0040992. For Mark’s headshot photography go to: www.idyllicphotography.com. And, for Mark’s classes go to: www.beaworkingactor.com 

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3 comments

  • Comment Link PeggyAnteau Friday, 29 June 2018 10:53 posted by PeggyAnteau

    Do lead soap stars have the privilege to state what scenes they are not willing to do.

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  • Comment Link Shandra Mutchie Thursday, 01 March 2018 10:11 posted by Shandra Mutchie

    I came across this article casually while Googling about an actor's accommodations on-set, and I wanted to express how informative and intriguing this article is to a plebeian outside of the filmmaking business. It was organized very well, gave straightforward and useful information, and outlined the logistics in such a way that it wasn't overwhelming or slow enough to lose my interest. Thank you!

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  • Comment Link Sonya Murphy Sunday, 11 December 2016 19:48 posted by Sonya Murphy

    I want to audition for this television series, however it is being filmed in Toronto and I live in another province. It states that the actor must be willing to work as a Toronto Local. Does this mean that travel and living expenses will be taken care of, or will I have to find my own way there and take care of myself? The character is a reoccuring lead. This has been eating away at me for a while, I am new to acting so this is all confusing to me. Please respond as soon as possible, much appreciated.

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