If you are a film actor you’ve heard the phrase, “set ready.” If you’re new to film, though, you may find yourself wondering what exactly that means. Maybe you don’t want to ask because you don’t want to seem like a newbie. Not to worry! This blog post is for you!
There are four components to being set ready: Preparation, technical skills, acting skills and personal behavior on set. Let’s break these down one at a time.
Showing up on set properly prepared is critical to making a good impression on your fellow actors, the director, show runner etc…Being prepared means much more than just being memorized. It means more than analyzing and coaching on your scenes.
To be fully prepared to show up on set takes a great deal of forethought. Let’s start at the beginning – the night before. Danish Farooqui says, “Go to sleep early the night before.” Enough said! I don’t need to explain the details of why getting enough rest is critical.
The day of filming all starts with what to wear. I recommend showing up to set as yourself in biz casual attire. You should have your wardrobe packed the night before filming. Film actors are often required to provide their own wardrobe options and do their own hair and makeup. This is particularly true for actors just starting out or just transitioning to film who are likely to be booking indies and student films. The director (or someone on their team) will tell you what they want, and often will send a color scheme. It’s then your job to pull at least 3 outfits to bring to set. And as Ethel Rice puts it, “For ladies, bringing the right set of undergarments is important!”
I recommend investing in a wardrobe on wheels to make your life easier. Amazon sells them from $42. A portable steamer is a great investment, too. If you’re expected to do your own makeup, be sure to bring everything with you for touch ups. For ladies, I recommend bringing some backup options and make remover wipes just in case you need to change your look. Also, ladies should be waxed (brows and lip) and shaved if you shave (men too). And everyone please don’t forget your fingernails!
If you’re not familiar with the look you need to portray, hit YouTube! For example, I recently played a punk rocker circa 2000, and with a little help from YouTube, my hair and makeup was spot on!
Do yourself a favor and ASK for clarification if you’re at all unsure what is, expected. You don’t want to show up with a naked face of your expected to have your foundation and concealer on or vice versa. Here’s a tip from Catherine Jacobs on what to bring to set:
“Bring a set pack of items like a toothbrush, floss, makeup if you have particularly sensitive skin, Kleenex, Q-tips, that kind of thing. Medicine too for various problems like if you have gas or headaches.”
Danish Farooqui also reminds us, “Pack snacks, water and something to do like a book, script or audition sides. I always bring a cooler with snacks and meals as well (and enough to share).
There are other preparations that must be made aside from wardrobe, hair and makeup. In fact, those are the easy parts! A fully prepared actor also is completely memorized, inside and out. Remember, scenes are not likely to be filmed in order and anything less than complete memorization will leave you struggling and confused when things jump around. My good friend, Marybeth Paul, says,
“Do your work and be on pointe – you want to be the one where you wrap two hours early because you memorized the hell out of that script and did all your (prep) work.”
She’s right! I love working with Marybeth because she is ultra prepared. She can give my character all her attention and energy because of being properly prepared.
As Marybeth mentioned, the actor must also have done their script analysis work and have a solid understanding of their character, the story, the relationships, etc. I won’t go into great detail here about scene analysis (as that is a very personal process and something I could write an entire blog about). If you don’t know how to prep a scene, you’re not set ready. I say that with love and urge you to get to Natalie Roy’s Activated Actor class or Debbie Troché’s audition workout.* If you’re not in the NYC area, check out online coaching opportunities. I find the more developed my understanding of my character and the story, the easier to take direction on set.
A few more pointers on preparation before we move on: Know your call time and what to expect when you arrive (if you need time to change or touch up makeup, take that into account) and be there and READY to film 15 minutes early. Keep this cautionary tale from Juan Ayala in mind:
“If you’re relying on public transportation, leave PLENTY early should something go wrong. For a co-star back in March, I left CT ready to arrive in Manhattan two hours prior to my call, but ended up making it with moments to spare because of my Metro-North train behind held indefinitely in the Bronx, and then having to take the subway from 200-something street, on the day of the gun reform march so the subways were PACKED, power went out for a moment at the station. It was nuts. Lesson learned!”
I’ve had similar experiences, especially commuting into New York City. And never underestimate the hassle or expense of parking if you are driving. So, part of your preparation should include researching your transportation and parking plans.
What are the technical skills and terms you need before you walk on set? I feel a bulleted list coming on….
Know the camera lingo: BTS – Behind The Scenes; OTS – Over The Shoulder (type of camera shot); POV – Point Of View (type of camera shot showing things from a character’s point of view); °
More lingo: Dailies – stills of the previous days filming for the director to review (like the one above); Mark – the exact place you need to stand. Call Sheet – the list of who’s shooting what, when and where. Almost always comes out once a day (usually late at night for the next day); Pick ups – footage filmed after shooting has wrapped. For even more terminology, check out this page. You must know how to interact with the camera. You’ve got to understand and practice eyelines so you can deliver consistent eyelines on set when you aren’t actually looking at a fellow actor. And you must be able to ignore the camera, even if it’s an inch from your face.Don’t be a continuity nightmare. Continuity refers to everything, and I mean every tiny thing, staying consistent throughout takes so the takes can be cut together in post. Sometimes there will be a production member (or several) overseeing continuity, but not always. Whether there is or not, be mindful of your personal continuity issues. This takes practice! It can be challenging to keep your performance honest and in the moment while still remembering to take a sip of your wine on a specific line (or whatever else).
Film acting and stage acting are two sides of the same coin. Everyone has an opinion on whether they are “different” skills, and I’m not touching that debate! Whatever process of creating emotional honesty you prefer can be used universally on stage and in film. There are some things, though, that everyone seems to agree that are done differently on film and stage. If you have never taken an “acting for film” class, I recommend Michael Caine’s video. In fact, even if you have 100 films under your belt, it’s worth watching.
Voice – On stage we need to project our voices to the back of the house. Not true on film! Remember, you’re wearing a mic or you have a boom above you. 99% of the time a regular conversational tone is best. Even when you are portraying anger, you don’t necessarily want to be yelling. A whisper can be freaking scary when used sparingly.
When I find myself wanting to raise my voice on film, I imagine there’s someone in the next room that I don’t want to overhear me. I learned that trick in my coaching with the fantastic Amanda Brooke Lerner, and it has been a great way for me to keep my volume at film level without sacrificing intensity.
Body – Most actors who have been professionally trained have had at least one class in acting with your body. Here’s another example where film and stage techniques overlap – sort of. Being trained in bringing the acting into your whole body is critical as 90% of regular human communication is non-verbal. An actor must understand how to match their body to their words and intentions or the work will not ring true. That being said, on stage actions and movements can and should be BIG whereas on film they need to be small. Keep in mind you’re not on a 30′ x 20′ stage. You’re on a 50″ screen and you are taking up a good portion of that screen space. Also, unless directed to do so, if you’re moving around everywhere you will be in and out of focus and the shot will be wasted. Here’s a great exercise I learned from acting Guru Debbie Troché to both discover how much you are currently gesturing in your acting and to curb those gestures down a bit. Very simply, sit on your hands and imagine your body is glued to your chair at every point of contact as you rehearse your scene. This exercise brings the communication into the face (where it needs to be for outstanding film performances), which leads me to…
Face – We’ve established that body movement needs to be toned down. The face needs to fill that space. I’ve deliberately avoided the phrase, “facial expressions,” as it implies the actor should actively do something to create an expression. I think most great actors would tell you that is a mistake. Being honestly connected to the material, being in the moment and actively listening to the people in your scene should organically produce the “right” facial responses. Just remember that the smallest movement, say, raising an eyebrow or biting your lip, read BIG on film. And try not to blink excessively!
When I refer to “personal behavior” on set I’m not talking about being “nice.” If you’re not a nice person, good luck fooling anyone in this crowd and better luck sustaining your career. I’m going to let my mentor Jen Rudolph kick off this category….
“For God’s sake, just don’t be weird.”
What does that mean? Don’t ask for selfies with celebrities you just met. Don’t say you have to leave at a certain time (you are almost guaranteed to run behind). Don’t go eat lunch in your car if everyone else is gathering in the kitchen. Don’t freak out if tension erupts between the director and her camera woman. Go with the flow, blend in, and don’t make anything all about you.
Again from Marybeth Paul, “Also, remember to be kind and nice and non complaining to everyone on set – we are all equals – imho – HMU, background, wardrobe, all PAs, prop people, craft services, even the directors dog if need be. Everyone remembers who is easy to work with and who is not. And that BG actor may just be lead in your next project.”
Lauren McCann says,”Second be kind. Smile.”
And finally, my favorite quote from this research, from actress Mary Agnes Shearon:
“Don’t complain. Seriously *don’t*. NO whining OK?!? Remember, there are tons of people who would give their eyeteeth to be where you are. On a set. Stay safe. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t allow anyone to bully or cajole you into an unsafe situation. Remember Sarah Jones.
*Both Natalie and Debbie’s classes are available at the Actor’s Green Room in Manhattan.
°For a complete list of all the different types of camera shots, click here.