Understanding Cast & Crew Roles in Film/TV
Who Does What Job Where and Why
When people learn that I work on-camera as an actress, the first question is usually: What have I seen you in? Good question, since I probably have no idea what sorts of films, TV shows, commercials, or industrials you’ve seen. Most questions after that talking about some of my recent bookings are usually about my experiences on set, what the work and environment is like, hours the cast and crew keep, and generally who does what and where.
New actors have questions, too, about “the lay of the land.” They need to know the basics, who to turn to with questions or problems, and generally what to expect on set. Acting coaches, teachers, and sometimes agents can fill them in, and it’s not atypical for more experienced actors to explain these things in more detail.
For those who are curious at a high level about the workings within the industry, here’s a quick synopsis of the primary jobs that you’ll find on set or behind the scenes, including how actors are billed in film and TV productions.
Behind Every Production
Union vs. Non-Union
Union work typically refers to SAG-AFTRA or the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Originally two different unions originating in the 1930s, they merged in March 2012.
SAG-AFTRA members are entitled to a variety of benefits, including contracts/collective bargaining, eligibility for the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan, SAG-Producers Pension Plan, the AFTRA Retirement Fund, the iActor online casting database, and much more. - www.sagaftra.org
Some states like California and New York require actors and other media professionals to join SAG-AFTRA before they can accept work on their second union production. Other states like Georgia are “right to work” states and do not have this requirement; they allow non-members to work on union and non-union productions alike and pay cast and crew union wages, regardless of union status. Non-union actors in “right to work” states can work on both union and non-union sets, but union actors are restricted to SAG-AFTRA productions only.
Talent Agent vs. Talent Manager
A talent agent represents actors on the talent agency roster, while a talent manager oversees and guides the individual careers of actors. A talent agent is the intermediary or broker between the actors and the casting directors who are hiring actors for specific roles. The talent agent manages the audition process within the agency and may serve as the advocate for an actor for a particular role. Agents are paid commissions by the productions, 10% for union jobs and 15-20% for non-union bookings.
A talent manager works with actors (or others in the entertainment industry) and oversees the talent’s daily business affairs, providing long-term career guidance and advice. While new actors benefit greatly from having a talent agent, a talent manager may not be necessary unless an actor has reached a certain degree of success and needs help elevating career opportunities.
Productions hire casting directors to present them with a short-list of qualified actors for specific roles. Casting directors work directly with talent agents by providing detailed breakdowns of each character’s attributes and description, choosing which actors to send audition sides (partial scripts), conducting in-person or self-taped auditions and callbacks, and forwarding their top candidates to the production’s producers and/or directors.
Showrunner vs. Producer
The showrunner is the creator or executive producer of a TV series and has overall creative authority and management responsibility for the entire TV series. The TV producer works with more physical aspects of the show and daily tasks, such as screenwriting, set design, casting, and directing. In film, the producer oversees the entire production and plans and coordinates various aspects of film production, including overseeing script development, directing, editing, and financial arrangements.
One of the leads of a TV series and part of the main cast. A series regular is contracted to work on a show for a specified period of time, often for multiple years.
A role that appears in multiple episodes, either over the course of a season or throughout an entire series. The actor may be contracted for a specified amount of time or called whenever the storyline requires the character.
The character usually appears in only one episode (though there may be more) and plays a significant role in the story, appearing in multiple scenes.
The character appears in only one or two scenes of one episode, usually with a limited number of lines. The co-star is sometimes called a day player, because often the role can be shot within one work day. Another, less often used, term is Under 5, since many co-star roles frequently have five or fewer lines of dialogue
Also called extras, background actors have non-speaking roles. They add atmosphere to the scene by helping it look and feel more authentic, as in a restaurant scene.
This individual substitutes for an actor before filming begins for technical purposes, such as lighting and camera setup. Stand-ins are close to the height, weight, proportions, and coloring of the actors for whom they are substituting. Sometimes background actors or members of the crew may serve as stand-ins, though productions often hire specific actors to stand-in for the lead roles throughout the series.
None of these roles is absolutely static. There have been instances in which a background actor may be given a word or a line, thereby elevating the actor (and pay!) to that of a co-star. Similarly, a co-star or guest star role that catches the attention of a writer or director may evolve into a larger, recurring role, and recurring characters have been known to join the main cast as series regulars as the show progresses from one season to another.
A primary role, the protagonist of the story, although some films may have more than one lead and one that may even be the charismatic villain that squares off against the hero throughout the story. Leads receive top billing and in big budget productions are often well-known names.
Every other character that supports the lead and furthers the story is a supporting role, regardless of the size of the role.
A specially trained performer with difficult or dangerous to perform skills on camera.
Also called extras, background actors have no lines, but bring a sense of realism to the scene.
As in TV, a stand-in substitutes for an actor before filming begins for technical purposes, such as lighting and camera setup.
The decision-maker who coordinates all the artistic and technical aspects of a production.
Assistant Directors (AD)
There are often two positions: the 1st AD, who is the director’s right-hand person assisting in coordinating all production activity and supervising the cast and crew, and the 2nd AD, who assists the 1st AD by preparing the daily call sheets and making certain that the actors are where they need to be. If you’re on set and have a question, the 2nd AD is the person to seek out.
Director of Photography (DP)
The DP supervises all decisions regarding lighting and the equipment, the camera crew, and the processing of the film.
Production Assistants (PA)
One or more PAs help with all aspects of production, wherever they are needed. Befriend the PA(s) when you are on set! They are often overworked, underappreciated, and often later become directors in their own right.
Wardrobe/Hair & Makeup
As you might suspect, these individuals are responsible for providing or instructing the actors to bring the appropriate clothing to set, doing the actors’ hair and makeup or (in the age of Covid) telling the actors to arrive hair and makeup-ready, with instructions on what is or is not allowed. Film and TV productions will often require actors to have a (paid) fitting a day or more in advance of their call; smaller film productions or small TV roles may simply request in advance for the actors to email photos of possible clothing options.
The chief electrician for lighting on set.
The person in charge of building, moving, and maintaining all the equipment that carries the cameras
The term for the second-in-command under the gaffer or key grip with responsibilities for hiring, scheduling, and managing the crew, as well as the details for the equipment and paperwork in their department.
This person ensures the continuity of the story by overseeing that wardrobe, props, sets, hair, makeup, and the positions of the actors themselves are consistent from one scene to the next.
There are many others involved in the production, too: the screenwriter, production designer, art director, costume designer, editor, music supervisor, production sound mixer, boom operator, location scout, etc.
There is a great deal of planning behind every production that most casual viewers don’t see. TV and film productions hold tight schedules, often with multiple locations and different times of the day – and night – for filming. And for union productions, there are strict rules to follow: the maximum number of hours per day the actors can work on set before receiving overtime pay, meal times, minimum rest time between retiring at the end of one day and beginning work the next, the hours a child actor can work and required hours of on-set schooling by a qualified teacher, etc.
Veteran actor Michael Caine summed it up well:
"Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath."