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It is impossible to run a set like a flat organization. Here's why hierarchy matters and how you can use it to your advantage.

Just like a tightly guided ship, for a movie or video set to operate properly, you need to have a clear chain of commands that everyone is familiar with and that they follow.

I remember my first day on a real film set. Not a film produced by students, not an ordinary company video, but a real set for a feature film with well-known actors, a recognizable director and a large, experienced crew worked like a fine-tuned machine. Everyone knew exactly what their role was at a given time and worked with a tenacity that was really impressive.

While it was a meaningful experience, I spent most of my time working on the sets of the smaller indie and DIY productions that make up most of the film and video industry outside of the big markets.

Whether on the set or on site, a clear chain of commands is the key to smooth and safe production. Image about Charlie Sperring.

With this in mind, I will share this. If I've learned one over the years, a clear, considerate, and flexible chain of command is critical to the ultimate success of a shoot, regardless of its size.

So if you're just starting out or looking for a way to bring your crew closer together, you'll find the ideal hierarchy and information to set up, manage, and customize on the fly.

The optimal hierarchy on the set

I am not a big fan of the term "hierarchy" because it conveys the feeling of "important" and "less important". I've also seen people get caught in the "I'm higher on a chart, so I'm a better person" trap, and it's awkward and counterproductive for everyone involved.

So when you look at the simple organization chart below, try to look at it less as a top-down "importance identifier" than as a side-by-side map that describes how all roles work together. everyone as important as the other – to get a job done.

Film set hierarchy

The basic layout of the hierarchy on a film set.

This diagram is pretty standard – except that "standard" is not really applicable when it comes to setting hierarchies. Because although all film sets are similar, they are also unique in their requirements and settings.

A commercial for a business may work differently than a large film production. Filming a documentary project is not the same as recording a live event. So keep that in mind as we continue to look at the roles that make up a fixed hierarchy.

Producers and directors

Producers and directors on the set

The producers and directors make most of the decisions on the set. Image via studio 72.

Let's take a look at the names that you will first find in an organizational chart – the producers and directors. These are the roles that make all the important decisions on the set.

Executive producers are often the financial investors of a film. You have final approval of all budgets, contracts, and schedules. Producers are those who are commissioned to implement the plan of a project. They are also heavily involved in most pre-production work.

A directorOf course, it is the person with the vision that brings everything together. You share this vision with the rest of the cast and crew.

Why is that important?: We were all involved in projects that felt like there were too many cooks in the kitchen. While several opinions can ultimately be helpful to carry out a project promptly and professionally, all important decisions have to be made from a certain point.

It can be very helpful to have a final project manager, be it the director who realizes the vision, or a producer who understands the budget and schedule perfectly to produce the best possible film or video.

Head of department

Director who teaches cameraman

The department heads are at the bottom of the decision-making process. Image via FrameStockFootages.

From a hierarchical perspective, we find ours directly among the producers and directors in the organization chart of a film Head of department. In much smaller corporate and DIY indie projects, these roles may not be entire departments, but only individuals. Overall, however, the concept remains the same.

After meeting with producers and directors, the department heads coordinate and communicate specific plans and responsibilities with the rest of the team. If there is no team, they are the team and take care of inquiries from producers and directors themselves.

Department heads are typically the following:

  • camera operator
  • Camera and lighting (combined with DP)
  • Handle and electrics
  • Sound and audio
  • Product design
  • Wardrobe, hair and makeup
  • DIT and editing

Why is that important?: Since they manage the entire operation, manufacturers and directors delegate the daily production tasks to department heads, who ensure that things keep moving efficiently and safely. If problems arise, report them to the producer or director.

Individual roles and PAs

Video production set

For larger productions, individual roles fall under certain department heads. Image via FrameStockFootages.

After the department heads, we have the level that consists of the many individual roles that make up a film or video production set. The larger the production, the larger the crew and the more likely that these people can actually specialize instead of wearing multiple hats.

Each of these individual roles falls under a department head and works under their leadership. Here are some basic examples without listing every possible film set:

  • Casting director
  • Assistant director
  • Script supervisor
  • camera operator
  • Key handle
  • Dolly grip
  • Boom fishing
  • Location manager
  • Prop master
  • Transpo driver
  • Visual Effects Supervisor
  • Colorist
  • PAs

Why is that important?: Individual roles among department heads and under the general vision of producers and directors can be the best and most professional way that production runs smoothly from start to finish.

Everyone knows their role, everyone knows who to report to, and everyone is equally responsible and responsible for the overall success of a project.

Tips for flexibility and adjustments

Production team

A continuous line of delegation is required for smooth production quality. Image via Gnepphoto.

With this general step-by-step breakdown of the different roles in a film or video set, we now have a basic understanding of what hierarchy looks like in action. Again, not every project will be the same, and most of the time you're on sets where people have to wear multiple hats and perform multiple roles.

The next time you start a project, give this approach a chance for operational organization. Let a producer or director sit down with the other main actors and create a hierarchical organizational chart. Follow the levels above and allow for solid lines of delegation and communication to meet the different needs of the project. With a clear chain of command, you can possibly achieve your smoothest production to date.

For additional industry insights, and tips and tricks for filmmaking, see the following additional resources:

Cover picture about Peter Titmuss.

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