Want to know about something your friends don’t know? Want to impress that artsy person you always felt was way too cool for you? Want to silence that pretentious film nerd quick and out-bullshit him to a place he could have never imagined? Well, you just might find that insider knowledge in this article!
Language is a profoundly interesting thing. Every group of people, every culture, and every sub-culture within those cultures have their own language. Add on top of that the fact that we adjust how we communicate to the audience we’re speaking to, and language is sort of a ven diagram run amok.
Professional fields are like this but amplified ten-fold. We’re all familiar with police calls, whether it’s from watching procedural shows on television or that time you spent the night in jail for drunkenly fighting a soap dispenser in a Sears bathroom. Similarly, we’re all familiar with military terminology, sports terminology, etc.
So now it’s time to get familiar with movie terminology:
Best Boy: The Best Boy is many things on a set, and oftentimes not a boy at all. The Best Boy/Girl assists the head of a department, usually in grip or electric. They are basically the second in command, typically younger than the Key Grip or Gaffer, and generally they run the day-to-day operations of their department. The etymology is kind of muddled, and it could take its origins from a boating term. The Best Boy is basically the Assistant Director of the Grip & Electric world, or at least that’s what I was told by a Best Boy…but then again, he is a bitter, dangerous man and he might not be able to be trusted. Sometimes Best Boys are referred to as “Assistant Chief Lighting Technicians” or “Assistant Chief Rigging Technicians.”
Key Grip: If you guessed that a Grip’s primary role on set is to grip things, you are not that far off. That said, a Key Grip’s job does not involve clutching onto a set of keys. The “Key” on a set is generally the head of their department. So, the Key Grip is the head of the grip department. But that still doesn’t necessarily mean anything unless you know what a grip is. The grip department is one of the bigger departments on set and while you don’t necessarily need a big grip department for your set, a good Key Grip will go a long way in assuring your movie looks good and your set runs smoothly. I worked recently on an 18-day shoot and we had possibly the best young Key Grip I’ve ever seen. He was not on the shoot for a couple days due to a prior professional commitment and we missed him. The grips are responsible for rigging, electric, and not to mention setting up and operating the dolly.
Dolly: A dolly is basically a platform on a track. This platform is big enough to hold a camera rig and operator and the track is either straight or curved. A “Dolly Grip” sets up and operates the dolly. Or on bigger shoots, he oversees the setup and operation. Pushing a camera cart along a metal track sounds fairly easy, and a good dolly grip will make it appear easy, but the position requires creative problem solving ability, good communication, and if you’re operating the dolly, it requires steady hands, feet, and a good internal clock. There is a rhythm to a good dolly shot and that is at least partially due to the talented person operating the piece of equipment.
AD: The Assistant Director. Generally, someone has to suffer on set. Running a movie set is stressful and requires a lot of talented people working harmoniously. The director can’t be distracted with all the small things – they have to tell a story. So the burden falls on the assistant director, and by extension his assistant, the 2nd AD, and in some cases, the 2nd AD’s assistant, the 2nd 2nd AD. Why don’t they call it a 3rd AD? Because that would imply the 2nd 2nd answers to the 2nd AD, which they do technically, but their main job is to help the 2nd AD help the AD. I’m not making this up. Stop laughing. If I wanted you to laugh, I’d tell you about this great joke I was told about how it took ten tickles for the octopus to laugh or something. I’m not a humor man. Don’t have time for it.
Craft Services: One of the best parts of working on movies is the craft services. There is (or at least should be) a table at or by set that has drinks and tasty snacks. Craft Services is a wondrous place where you can go to forget, if only for a moment, the series of poor life decisions you made which led to the point where you are now a person approaching middle age, without a savings account or any idea when you might get to sleep for more than four hours again. Craft services should offer a variety of snacks, ranging from cookies, chips, and donuts, to things like yogurt and granola, which will help with the constipation you got from all of the cookies, chips, and donuts.
If you are trying to make a movie and you have no budget, make sure you spend a couple $100 on craft services and a good meal. If you can’t afford several $100 to feed your cast and crew, then don’t make the movie. Find a cheaper hobby. For real, the lemmings talk and while they generally forgive, the one thing that is unforgivable is no craft services. Or worse, no food at all. I’ve worked on a number of shoots over the years where I was forced to spend my own money because the craft services and/or food on set was inadequate. Many of these shoots I took pay cuts to work on. Nothing is more enraging than having to spend your own money on a job you’re already doing pro bono. That’s a tale for another time, however.
Producer: What does a producer do after all? To the outsiders, a producer is presumed to be the person bankrolling the project, but that really isn’t true. Allocating the funds for a project is just a small role of what a producer does. In the broadest sense, a producer helps organize the project. They are the Nick Fury of the movie production hierarchy. They bring together the team and provide them the means in which they can achieve greatness. That’s not to say some aren’t Machiavellian in their approach to making a movie, but in an industry where the primary goal is to manipulate the viewer and get them to spend money, you’re going to find some deceitful sociopaths.
Cinematographer: Also referred to as the Director of Photography, the DP, or the DOP. I refer to them as the DP, because I’m usually the AD and I’ve got too many other things on my plate to pronounce all those syllables. The cinematographer is the person in charge of making the movie look pretty. They, probably more than any other single person on set, influence what the image on the screen looks like. To the average film-goer, the director is often given credit for the DP’s work, good and bad. In short, the cinematographer is that role that the outside world knows nothing about but the film community holds in high esteem. Many young filmmakers think they want to be directors until they understand the role of the cinematographer. The cinematographer is the person who designs the cool shots. The director has ultimate say, however.
Director: Finally, what actually does the director do? That’s a question many crew people have asked over the years, often standing along a street corner, often drinking alcohol, often at 3am or later/earlier. Directors can vary from one extreme to another.
I have a friend who worked on a mega budget TV series that is produced by one of the greatest directors of all time. He described the director’s on-set personality as “detail oriented.” The director’s genius was on full display at all times, and he had final say on practically every creative decision that was made on the production, all the way down to the makeup and clothing of the extras.
Conversely, I have many, many, many friends who have worked for directors who didn’t appear to have any clue as to what they were doing. Literally, they had no idea how to direct. The others on set, typically the DP, AD, or the actors, would actually direct.