Whether it’s business jargon, technical specifics, or just names that’ve been around for so long nobody can tell you why it’s actually called that, all jobs have elements that you have to be an insider to understand what someone’s really saying; film’s no different! But as is our mission at The Filmmaker’s Podcast, we’re here to make those terms just a little bit easier to understand. Welcome back to the second in our series of Film Jargon Explained, where we elaborate on all that insider knowledge. We’ve got some mundane bits lined up for elucidation today, and some really interesting roles that don’t necessarily do what you think, so let’s dive right in!
We’re kicking off with one of those roles that, like DOPs, can be difficult to understand not because it’s unique to the film and TV industries (although we’d hazard a guess that you won’t find too many jobs like it out there), but because the name we use for it is easily confused for something different. When you hear “PA”, the majority of people will assume it stands for “Personal Assistant”. It’s an entirely reasonable assumption – Personal Assistants (sometimes called “Executive Assistants”, or “Secretaries” if you’re really old-fashioned) are one of the most recognisable roles in business. The film version keeps the “assistant” part intact, but on-set the P stands for “production”, and it’s the modern way to refer to the role that in earlier years of film would have been called a “runner”.
To put it simply, if something non-specialised needs doing on a film set, it’s the Production Assistant’s job to do it. This can range from the small and menial (hands up all of us who’ve spent the day as the designated coffee-mule) through to people management and actor scheduling and transport, with a side in anything else that needs doing along the way. Production Assistants are an oft-overlooked, but absolutely vital part of ensuring that filming goes smoothly, and in our opinion they’re a job that every aspirational filmmaker should do at least once in their career!
Assistant Editors & Edit Assistants
This one’s a doozy; it took us a bit of research to properly wrap our heads around it, because it’s one of the rare occasions where specific word order in the workplace is extremely important to job responsibilities.
Almost everybody with an interest in film knows what an editor is; if you’re one of the few that might not, we’d highly suggest reading up on it, but the gist is that the editor takes all that camera footage, audio, VFX work and everything else, and turns it into a complete film. In the olden days, this used to involve reels, scissors and glue, but things are a little more digital now. As you can imagine, the editor has a huge amount of influence on the final film, second only to the Director and DoP. Even then, sometimes editing can have far more impact on success than anything on-set (A New Hope is a classic example – most everyone that’s seen the original cut of Star Wars attests that the only reason that film even saw release was down to a complete re-edit from a dire original). So the editor tends to have a laser focus on the footage of the film itself, leaving it to others to manage the business of getting, sorting and generally managing things in the studio. These are the Assistant Editors; there’s usually 3 or 4 of them in a hierarchy in any given editing studio, and they serve a similar role to the Editor as the Best Boys do to Gaffers and Grips by keeping things organised, planned and moving on a day-to-day basis. So far, so sensible; once you’ve wrapped your head around the “1 creative supported by several facilitators” method of organisation in most film departments, Assistant Editors slot right in. So why all this talk about word order? Well, because if you call an Assistant Editor an “Edit Assistant”, they’re going to look at you funny, because that is a different job.
An Assistant Editor is more of a managerial position, ensuring that the editing work goes smoothly. An Edit Assistant is a junior position that’s more directly involved in helping the physical (or, well, digital) edit itself come together. Yes, make an “Assistant to the Regional Manager” joke, we know it’s there. Edit Assistants are more common in the animation industry than they are in the live action world, with the storyboard-driven, audio-separate nature of the work creating more need for a specific role collating and organising material into rough order for the editor, but they’re still a role you’ll see on occasion in the live-action world, keeping everything (literally) in order for the main editor and ensuring all the bits of kit and tech they need to do their job are working as they need to be.
From a doozy to a ditty (and then onto a dolly). Sorry, couldn’t resist. The DIT on a film set is a role that really falls into the “important, but obscure” category; many outside the film industry at least vaguely know that a “Gaffer” and a “Grip” are important in filmmaking, even if they’re not sure what the role does in practice. Mention the “DIT”, though, and anyone not immersed in the industry will almost certainly give you a look that says “the what now?”. Well, here’s the details – DIT stands for “Digital Imaging Technician”, and they’re in many ways the technical arm to the DP’s creative.
Cameras are complicated and sensitive equipment; they always have been. The process of using flashes to imprint an image on light-sensitive material wasn’t exactly an intuitive invention, and in the early days of film the cameraman had to be as much chemist as creative. We’re not joking – the nitrates in celluloid film meant that pre-1950s, reels had a tendency to catch fire and even explode if handled incorrectly. But film cameras have only became more capable, and as such complex, over the years; that really hit a new stride with the introduction of digitisation. A whole new way of recording – no more carting around reels of physical film, no more fiddling with lights to ensure they’re not going to blind the camera and ruin a day’s footage – a completely new frontier for the possibilities of filmmaking. With that frontier came the need for specialists, who understood the ins and outs of exactly what these new-fangled, singing-and-dancing bits of kit could do; the DIT.
The basic job of a DIT is to ensure that the footage being recorded comes out correctly and is stored correctly. That’s quite a large range of responsibilities; it’s the DIT’s role to ensure that there’s no unwanted light shines or reflections in a scene, a signal issue causing fuzz, or data corruption causing footage to be lost (one of the most important duties a DIT can do is one of the most minor; ensuring that when a camera’s memory card is full, it’s swapped with a new one properly). But they also might provide advice and assistance on things like contrast, brightness and exposure effects to DPs less experienced with digital, along with applying quick colour correction to shot footage so the creatives can see an approximation of finished footage (fun fact, most film footage is shot “raw”, with highly muted colours – it’s only in the editing process that the colours are enhanced to give the specific shades desired). As a new generation of cinematographers and grips more familiar with the digital world have grown into the career, the DIT’s role is transitioning more into a data-driven connection between production and post-prod. However, it’s still one of those jobs that if you ask most people outside the industry, they’ll just go “the what now?”, but if you don’t have one on-set, everything grinds to a halt!
Ah, the Dolly. Last but by no means least, and the name-drop of choice for people who want to associate with the glitz and glamour of film without really knowing anything about it. The quintessential bit of camera kit, thought up over a century ago and still in regular use on every set today, allowing or us to shoot things far beyond our own human abilities with the aid of mechanical power…
A dolly is a cart on wheels with a camera in it. Seriously, that’s it. It might be on a track, it might be a free-riding stand, it might even be a fancy little stabilised drone-like contraption, but the basic principle is that any camera, or device controlling it, that can be moved on the horizontal plane can accurately be referred to as a “dolly”. Where the term comes from, we’re not really sure, but we weren’t lying when we said it was a quintessential element of the camera toolbox; dollies are very important in allowing us to create smooth, effective moving shots. Cameras are heavy beasts – professional film rigs for operator use can weigh up to 45kg (100 pounds for those allergic to metric). That’s like carrying around a 12-year-old on your back for an entire working day. Now imagine trying to keep up an actor running at a dead sprint whilst wearing all that. Yeah; bit of an issue. The dolly solves that issue – whether it’s an on-tracks cart allowing for a Wes Anderson down-the-hallway scene, a simple wheel system creating a Godfather pull, or a full stabilisation rig letting you keep up with a high-speed chase scene, it’s what keeps the camera focused and stable, and you as the viewer still in the scene. It’s probably one of the oldest and simplest pieces of equipment in the entirety of filmmaking (although, as with everything technological, dollies are getting more and more complex every year), but sometimes simplicity is a virtue. Without the dolly, we’d be well and truly stuffed as filmmakers.
Oh, and one last thing – it’s only a dolly if it allows the camera to move horizontally specifically. If your setup allows vertical movement too, when then it’s a crane, and that’s something completely different.
Filmmaking. Never change.
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