by Christine Autrand Mitchell

I’m one of those people who stay in their seats after the final scene of a movie fades to black and watches the credits roll. Why? Because filmmaking is a team effort and I feel that everyone deserves their bow—even if we only see their names during final credits. I’ve been one of those faceless folks, so I know.

Filmmaking is a complex act. On a major production, hundreds of people are involved from concept through to distribution. It’s kind of like an assembly line, where someone has a notion about a gadget, it gets a blueprint and funding, and then a company builds it and a vast number of people play vital roles in manufacturing and assembling it into existence. Then, once the gadget is built, it is distributed to stores with a marketing campaign behind it touting its indispensability. Then, you the consumer go to the store and buy it!

Shooting on set of The Date, fro left: me as Writer/Director, John Kelly (DP) Kate McKnight (cast), Mike Johnson (grip), Loriane Sena Waite (AC), Robin Elizabeth Bodey (Script Supervisor)

Although the San Joaquin Valley usually has smaller productions, meaning crews that are below 15 people, key positions still apply here, you just end up with one-person departments, or one person performing multiple jobs. In film budgets, things break down to above-line and below-line, and that’s kind of how production departments are thought of. So, the Writer, Director, Producers, and Cast are separate from each other and from the rest of the Crew—though sometimes the writer also directs and will get Producer credits on top of it.

In smaller films, like local ones, the lines tend to get blurred because most folks hold multiple jobs (i.e. the Writer, Director, Producer is one person who may run camera, designs the sets, and helps his relatives provide lunch for the production). The main departments for small and large productions include some “office” jobs (who don’t necessarily come on set such as the PM (Production Managers), Production Coordinator and accounting department, Art, Camera, and Sound.

Film also comes up with its own jargon – nothing is called what it would be called in the “real” world. Some examples are “C-47” for a strong clothes pin, a “Baby” is a small light between 750 and 1000 watts, while a “Redhead” isn’t me, but is a 1000-watt open faced light. Also, if it doesn’t have its own unique name it’s abbreviated.

John Kelly DP and Kate McKnight, actress on set of The Date

Here are some questions I often get asked when I’m found out as a filmmaker:

Why isn’t one director enough?
Well, on a large film it’s just like working for a large company – there are the executives, middle management and workers among the many departments. Even on a small film, the Director can’t do everything and be in multiple locations at once. While the Director is in charge of the creative aspects of a film— overseeing actors, through to the look of the film, to sound and editing—the 1st AD (First Assistant Director) works under the Director and PM (Production Manager). He is the hub between actors, director and crew, dealing with physical and technical aspects such as scheduling and equipment to make certain that the Director, Cast and Crew can do their work. The AD sometimes gets to direct background or small scenes, calling out the start of each shot except “Action” and “Cut”. The 2nd AD helps the 1st AD, and gets to create the Call Sheets – schedules for cast and crew. After that we have 2nd 2nd AD’s, not thirds.

Why do so many terms sound alike, like Production Manager vs. Unit Manager vs. Production Coordinator?
The PM supervises the physical and not the creative portions of a production. He deals with technology and personnel, budgeting, and scheduling. The Unit Manger does the same thing but for the Second Unit (a separate camera team shooting scenes outside of the main photography, often without the main cast). The Production Coordinator is purely an office job for the highly organized: everything on the production goes through her and she makes sure everything is taken care of logistically. This person is usually on the phone and computer while at the same time holding a conversation with someone on a walkie.

Why are there so many Assistant Camera people?
Considering the size of cameras these days, I understand this question. The AC’s break down into various levels. The 1st AC is the focus puller and in charge of filters and lenses. The 2nd AC is the Clapper and the Loaded—if it is a “film” camera and not video. The 2nd assists the 1st and is also in charge of keeping track of all the camera equipment and stock. A fairly new position is the DIT – Digital Imaging Technician, mostly in charge of the hard drives used for storage for video cameras, downloading, storing, and backing up these drives so no footage is lost.

What’s the difference between a Director of Photography and Cinematographer?
These two are not necessarily the same. The DP (DoP in the UK) is head of both the camera and lighting departments. He works closely with the Director on the “look” of the film. The Cinematographer is the person who is not only the DP but is also the main Camera Operator. Most prefer the title “Cinematographer”.

Who designs the sets?
A Production Designer is part of the Art Department and controls the physical and visual parts of the film such as sets, costumes, props, and makeup/hair. She works with the Director and DP.

How does all the sound come together?
Sound can get complicated. On set, the Boom Operator assists the Production Sound Mixer by directing a microphone on a boom pole to ensure that all dialog is caught and the boom mike (usually looking like a badly stuffed animal) is NOT in the shot. The Sound Mixer is in charge of recording all sound during filming. The rest is done in post-production, led by the Sound Designer. Under her are folks like the Dialogue Editor, in charge of all dialog in the film; Sound Editor, in charge of all sound effects; Music Supervisor works with the Composer, who writes and conducts the musical score for the film. ADR, or Automatic Dialog Replacement (aka looping) is the dubbing process when dialog needs to be re-recorded because the on-set recording is inadequate or the lines need to be changed. Foley Artists create the sound effects for film, like the punching of flesh or footsteps. On a small film, there’s one Sound Mixer who usually also deals with post-sound.

What are Grips?
They are the muscle in the lighting and camera departments. They rig lights under the Key Grip, who works with the DP, and moves sets. The Gaffer is head of the electrical department, in charge of the lighting plan. Best Boys are in both the lighting and electrical departments and are the first assistants to either the Key Grip or the Gaffer. Dolly grips move the dolly on tracks on which the camera is fastened. Even small films need several hard working grips on set.

Grips hard at work on The Date on location

How does one film get into a theater, while another goes straight to DVD or no one ever gets to see it?
I’d be a millionaire if I knew one absolute answer to this loaded question. In today’s changing market, filmmakers try to get a distribution deal for their films before they even begin shooting because it is one of the most difficult tasks in filmmaking. There are specialists in this field, connecting filmmakers with distributors. If you’re lucky enough to get your screenplay produced on spec (on speculation that you’ve written the next Oscar contender without being hired by a studio), then the studio will take care of everything. If not, my hopes and prayers go with you. Ironically, there are more films in this category than any other. Look at independent films, seen usually at film festivals or on DVD, and not at your neighborhood Cineplex. Most people agree that being in the right place at the right time, accompanied by undying perseverance is how their film got picked up for distribution—either that or by plain dumb luck! So, a film gets to your neighborhood theater if it has been picked up for distribution in the large screen market (as opposed to VOD – video on demand – or DVD, TV, or international distribution).

So now that you know what all these terms mean, why not stay for the credits next time you watch a movie. No movies would be made without all of these people working together.

If you have more questions, feel free to contact me at

Christine Autrand Mitchell is an ongoing contributor to our Area Arts & Entertainment section, offering both literary and film-making insight. She is the owner of Entandem Productions, specializing in casting and production services.

1 Comment

  1. Outstanding explanation of filmmakers job titles & job descriptions,


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