When you first walk onto the floor of a film set, your ears can get assaulted by a barrage of unique jargon and bizarre turns of phrase. And if you do ever get the opportunity to watch and observe, take advantage of your perch to listen...and learn.
It could save you a lot of embarrassment down the road.
First, there are many names for shots: a dolly shot (also known as a moving shot or if following two actors conversing, a 'walk and talk'); zoom shot (also known as squeezing or feathering in); a high and wide shot (also known as the 'big and funny'); a low and tight shot (also known as 'up their noses' or 'an X Files shot'); a medium shot (also known as a waister or 'cowboys'); and a loose close up (also known as a single or 2 T's or 'tits up')...
There are obviously many more but for the purpose of this post we'll stop there.
Here's an example of a single...
...and a 'dirty single'.
A dirty single (also known as an 'over the shoulder') is when your shot focused on a character but the edge of frame is 'dirtied' by the back of the other actor.
When I walked onto my first real location to direct with an actual experienced crew and 1st A.D. (First Assistant Director) at my side, it was trial by fire. I'd made some student and short films, but had very little professional set experience. I nervously described to the crew what shots I had in mind, but sensed I wasn't communicating them very well. People were staring back at me, blankly. I looked to the 1st A.D. for help.
He stepped up and loudly announced something like: "Alright everyone, listen up. We're looking this way. First up we got a two-hander here at the desk with a little move into a dirty single...since it's free maybe squeeze off one more in tighter...then roundy roundy and get complimentaries on the other side with a quick pop on the computer after the talent goes for lunch. Two set ups...five shots...and we're done."
And then he turned to me and nodded. I feigned a smile but was thinking....what the hell did he just say? What the hell are we supposed to be doing? And why is everyone else nodding like they understood him?
The crew began to work and I quietly pulled the 1st A.D. aside to ask for a translation.
As he explained it, when you have a scene with just a couple of characters, it's generally described as a two-hander. If it's on a dolly, it's moving...and from what he'd heard me describe, it sounded like the shot moved from a wider establishing angle to an over the shoulder of one of the characters - in effect, becoming a dirty single. While we're there and the angle is already lit (and therefore free), we should zoom in tighter and cover scene again. Then we tear down the lights and dolly track and move around (roundy roundy) behind the character we focused on in the first set up, and shoot 'complimentary' sizes on the other character. Lastly, I wanted a closeup of info on the computer screen on the desk, so we'd get a quick insert (pop) on that once we'd finished with the talent (actors). Simple, eh?
I remember telling a girlfriend about the scene I was shooting the next day wherein "...I had to get a two-hander with some dirty singles." She thought I was making porn, perhaps even performing in it myself.
There are also many names for things: flags (black cloth in a rectangular frame used to block or shape light); C-stands (flexible stands that hold flags); HMI's (lights that use an arc lamp rather than an incandescent bulb); a peewee (a small 'doorway' dolly); marks (spots on the floor where actors need to stand); and apple boxes (boxes of varying sizes used for leveling, propping, and mounting)...
Again, that's just the tip of the iceberg (here's an excellent Film Industry Terms Dictionary should you wish to know more), but again, for the the purpose of this post...
Here's what apple boxes look like and how they are labeled. Full apple, half apple, quarter apple, and a pancake (1/8 apple).
You probably can see where this is heading, but I forge onward.
Right after I graduated film school, I moved to Toronto just to hang out for a while. After a few weeks, I went around to all the commercial houses and dropped off a resume looking to get some P.A. (production assistant) work. And a few days later I was hired onto a big car ad. It was a three day prep and three day shoot. I think it paid $50.00 a day.
As a P.A., you are at the bottom of the food chain. You are first in and last to leave. In prep you're a helper and a gopher - you photocopy and distribute paperwork, get coffees and lunches, go pick stuff up... I'd been in Toronto less than a month and was asked to drive from Adelaide and Church up to an equipment house in North York to pick up some camera lenses or something. I grabbed a map and left the office. It was my first time driving in the 'big' city. According to the map, Yonge Street seemed to be the straightest cleanest route, so off I went.
Now anyone who knows Toronto knows Yonge St. is like the longest street in the world. And they know about the Don Valley Parkway. I did not. Over an HOUR later I finally arrived, and found two angry messages waiting for me (this was a pre-cell phone world) from the PM (Production Manager) wanting to know 'where the hell I was' and 'to pick up lunch for everyone at a deli back down on Front Street, pronto!'
Welcome to P.A. Land.
Anyway, first day of production arrives. We all travel up to a rural area around Orangeville to begin shooting. I felt kind of beat up after my stint in the office and was determined to make a good impression and become an asset rather than a liability.
I pushed my way into the circle gathered around the Director, who was also the DOP (Director of Photography), as the first shot was discussed. It was a drive by of the 'hero' or picture vehicle on a country road. They were talking about 'looking this way' or 'looking that way'...then they decided upon one but wanted the shot to be low to the ground so I heard the Director call for 'two half apples and a pancake.'
Not needing to be told twice, I turned and raced over to the craft service (food and snack) table. Without hesitation I asked the cook if there were any pancakes left over from breakfast as I grabbed an apple from the fruit basket and promptly cut it in half. The cook was still staring at me confused when I asked her again for a pancake. I made an exasperated sound and turned to run back to the camera.
The crew was still gathered around as I pushed my way through to the Director and proudly held out my sliced pomme: "Here you go, sir. Two half apples, just like you asked for."
You could've heard a pin drop.
Then the Production Manager (my nemesis from the office) finally starts to snigger: "Geez...he thought you meant real apples...oh my friggin' god."
As it slowly dawned on everyone else, they started to laugh, and point, and laugh some more.
I spent the next two days out in a field raking up bags of leaves to spread on a road for the car to drive through and send them sexily flying into the air.
I never P.A.'d again in my life...not so much from being unable to live down the humiliation, but because it showed me that if I wanted to write and direct television, picking up lunches or raking leaves wasn't the highway to that destination...or my highway at any rate.