Establishing and Maintaining a Hierarchy on a Film or Video Set
It’s 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-run ship, for a film or video set to operate smoothly, you need to have a clear chain of command everyone is comfortable with and follows.
I remember my first day on a real film set. Not a student-produced film, not a run-and-gun corporate video shoot, but a real, by-the-book set for a feature film that had big-name actors, a recognizable director, and a large, seasoned crew that worked like a finely-tuned machine. Every person knew exactly what their role was at any given moment and worked with an ease of tenacity that was truly awe-inspiring.
While it was a meaningful experience, most of my time has been spent on the sets of the smaller indie and DIY productions that make up most of the film and video industry, outside of the major markets.
With all of that in mind, I’ll share this — if I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that a clear, considerate, flexible chain of command is vital to a shoot’s ultimate success, regardless of its scale.
So, if you’re just starting off, or you’re looking for a way to get your crew running tighter, here’s the ideal set hierarchy and how to establish, maintain, and adjust it on-the-fly.
The Optimal Hierarchy on Set
I’m not a huge fan of the term “hierarchy,” as it conveys a sense of “more important” and “less important.” Plus, I’ve seen people fall into the “I’m higher on a chart, so I’m a better person” trap, and it’s awkward and counterproductive for all involved.
So, as we take a look at the simple org chart below, try to think of it less as a top-to-bottom “importance identifier” and more of a side-by-side map that outlines how all the roles work together — each just as important as the other — to get a job done.
This chart is pretty standard — except that “standard” isn’t truly applicable when it comes to set hierarchy. Because, while all film sets are similar, they’re also all unique in their needs and setups.
A corporate commercial shoot might operate differently than a major motion picture production. Filming a documentary project isn’t the same as capturing a live event. So, keep that in mind as we dive in further to the roles that make up a set hierarchy.
Producers and Directors
Let’s take a look at the names you’ll find listed first on an org chart — the producers and directors. These are the roles that make all the major decisions on set.
Executive producers are often the financial investors of a film. They have final sign-off on all budgets, contracts, and schedules. Producers are those entrusted to follow through on a project’s plan. They’re also heavily involved with the majority of pre-production work.
A director, of course, is the person with the vision that’s bringing everything together. They communicate this vision to the rest of the cast and crew.
Why this is important: We’ve all been on projects where it feels like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. While multiple opinions can be helpful, ultimately, to get a project done in a timely and professional manner, all the major decisions need to come from one specific point.
Having a definitive leader on a project, whether it’s the director who wields the vision or a producer who perfectly understands the budget and schedule, can be very helpful for producing the best film or video possible.
From a hierarchy perspective, just below the producers and directors on a film’s org chart, we’ll usually find our department heads. On much smaller corporate and DIY indie projects, these roles might not be whole departments, but rather just individuals. But, overall, the concept remains the same.
After meeting with producers and directors, the department heads will coordinate and communicate specific plans and responsibilities with the rest of the team. If there is no team, then they are the team, and they’ll handle producer and director requests themselves.
Department heads are usually the following:
- Director of Photography
- Camera and Lighting (Combined with DP)
- Grip and Electric
- Sound and Audio
- Production Design
- Wardrobe, Hair, and Makeup
- DIT and Editing
Why this is important: Because they’re managing the entire operation, producers and directors delegate the day-to-day nuts and bolts of production to department heads, who keep things moving efficiently and safely. When problems arise, they report back to the producer or director.
Individual Roles and PAs
After department heads, we have the tier comprised of the many individual roles that make up a film or video production set. The bigger the production, the bigger the crew, and the more likely it is that these individuals can actually specialize instead of wearing multiple hats.
Each of these individual roles will fall under a department head and will work under their direction. Without listing every possible film set role, here are some basic examples:
- Casting Director
- Assistant Director
- Script Supervisor
- Camera Operator
- Key Grip
- Dolly Grip
- Boom Operator
- Location Manager
- Prop Master
- Transpo Drivers
- Visual Effects Supervisor
Why this is important: Having individual roles working under department heads, and under the general vision of producers and directors, can be the best — and most professional — way for a production to run smoothly, from start to finish.
Everyone knows their role, everyone knows who to report to, and everyone is equally accountable and responsible for the overall success of a project.
Tips for Flexibility and Adjustments
So, with that general tier-by-tier breakdown of the different roles on a film or video set, we now have a basic understanding of what hierarchy looks like in action. Again, not every project is going to be the same, and, more often than not, you’re going to find yourself on sets where people have to wear multiple hats and take on multiple roles.
Next time you’re launching a project, give this approach to operational organization a shot. Have a producer or director sit down with the other key players and lay out a hierarchy org chart. Follow the above tiers and allow for solid lines of delegation and communication to handle the project’s various needs. With a clear chain of command in place, you just might pull off your smoothest production yet.
For more industry insights and filmmaking tips and tricks, check out these additional resources:
- What Does Everyone Do On Set?
- Grips, Gaffers, and Best Boys: The Grip and Electric Departments
- How to Hire a Film Crew for Your Next Passion Project
- What Does a Film Producer Do?
- A Guide to Handling Unexpected Setbacks on Location
Cover image via Peter Titmuss.