A Useful Insider’s Guide to Film Production Hierarchy on Set

A Useful Insider's Guide to Film Production Hierarchy on Set
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Film production hierarchy on set is often more complex than it appears at first glance.  It can be confusing for new people starting their careers to understand, especially since there’s sometimes a film crew hierarchy behind the main hierarchy on a film set.

In order to understand the hierarchy in film production, it helps to understand the terms ‘above-the-line’ and ‘below-the-line.’  These terms are film industry budgeting terms that are commonly used for all types of projects and you'll hear them mentioned a lot.  

It’s an unfortunate fact of film production hierarchy that while everyone in the above-the-line budget category is considered absolutely essential to a project, few if any below-the-line personnel are.  That’s the first thing you need to understand about film production hierarchy, and it’s something the rest of the crew members on set are well aware of.


Above-the-line refers to those in creative development who guide the direction of a given project and make the major decisions for the entire production.  They’re generally on board the project long before any film crew positions are hired and all are considered essential to the project.

The rates for those above-the-line are generally fixed rates (usually far higher than what the below-the-line crew makes) and are negotiated in advance.


Below-the-line includes the crew who perform the technical jobs that bring the film or TV show to life, as well as other expenses not included in the above-the-line budget.  Below-the-line also includes actors in smaller roles who are not the main lead actors.

Above-the-line positions include the following:

Executive Producer: 

The functions performed by an executive producer vary, depending on whether the project is a feature film, tv show, or commercial.  

For a feature film, the executive producer often finds the script to produce, lines up the financing, and works with the studio to bring the project to life.

On a television show, the extensive executive producer credits you see on screen often refer to writer-producers who have creative script input but do little hands-on producing work.

The showrunner executive producer is usually the creator of the show, leads the writing team, and has the final say on most decisions.  Sometimes they may have several shows running at once.

In the world of commercials, the executive producer generally bids on the job for the production company and oversees the budget.  They often serve as the unit production manager, too.


It’s the director’s cinematic vision that guides a project from start to finish.  The director is on set working with the actors and the crew to bring that vision to the screen.  The director is basically the captain of the ship on set, or as I was told as a trainee, God.

The director may also be an executive producer, producer, or writer on a project.  Writer-producers who direct are common in the television world.  

The director generally gets their way on all creative decisions, unless they cost too much money and the director isn’t powerful enough to overrule the studio.  But that’s another branch of the hierarchy equation.


Writers usually aren’t on set all that often, except on sitcoms where they’re on set for run-throughs and on taping nights.  In television, their habitat is the writer’s room, where they gather to flesh out ideas for new scripts and keep the writer’s assistants hopping.

While you may see one or two writers with screenwriting credits on a film, you’ll see scads of them with producer credits in television.  While TV writers may have considerable creative input, they often do little hands-on producing work.

Writers have a prominent place in the creative hierarchy, and if you work in television, you’re sure to work with quite a few who also direct, so be ready for some long days.  

The Lead Actors:

Depending on which department you work in, you may have a great deal of contact with the lead actors or almost none at all.  Many big-name actors are also producers, so they’ll have creative input on the projects they work on.  

In television, many lead actors also direct episodes of shows.  

The departments that have the most contact with the actors are the costume designer and wardrobe department, the makeup and hair department, and the 1st ad and 2nd ad. 

Although the director guides a project, the lead actors often determine the tone on set, for better or worse.  If it’s for the better, yay.  If it’s for the worse and you work in one of the departments mentioned above, get ready for a rough ride.  

The casting director of a project is also considered an above-the-line position, and they’re hard at work casting the actors for a project early on, usually before the crew is hired.  

You’ll probably never have contact with a casting director on set, even if you work on the same tv series for years.  It’s a crucial job though, and producers will fight hard to get the best ones for their shows.

Below the Line positions:

Now that we’ve got the above-the-line peeps out of the way, here’s what you need to know about the below-the-line departments you’ll have contact with on set.  

Each department has an important role to play on a project, although the reality of film production hierarchy is that all departments are not necessarily viewed as equally essential.  

This is particularly true when the producers are inexperienced and don’t really understand what everyone on set does, or there are old-school types around who are obsessed with hierarchy in general and want to feel important.  

Anyway, get yourself a refreshing beverage, because the below-the-line list is far longer than that other list.  

Here are some crucial cogs in the below-the-line film production hierarchy machine you’ll see on set, listed by department:

Production Department:

Line Producer:

The line producer is generally responsible for every line item in the budget and oversees the daily producing duties, such as making vendor deals and crew decisions.  

The line producer is responsible for keeping the show on budget, and the job is often combined with the unit production manager job listed below.

Unit Production Manager:  

Known as the UPM, this person is responsible for the production budget and the below-the-line crew, transportation, and any additional crew or equipment requests made by department heads.  

They’re usually pretty good at saying “no,” as budgetary constraints prevent them from saying “yes” to the many requests made by heads of department.

You may not see UPMs on set all that often, but they’re a major part of every production and it pays to be on their good side.

1st Assistant Director:

The 1st assistant director, or 1st ad, breaks down the script, creates the shooting schedule, and runs the set.  The 1st ad works closely with the director and all department heads to complete each day’s work, and also holds the morning safety meeting on set and any other safety meetings as needed throughout the day.

This is one of the most challenging jobs on set, as the 1st ad has to keep track of an enormous amount of information about the day’s work and ensure everything needed for each shot is there.  

It’s not a job for the faint of heart, as it requires solid organizational and diplomatic skills, and the ability to work under intense pressure.

2nd Assistant Director:

The 2nd assistant director, or 2nd ad, works with the 1st ad to produce the daily call sheet that has all the information the cast and crew need about the day’s work.  

Depending on how many 2nd ads there are on a show, a key 2nd or 2nd 2nd ad will also get the actors through makeup and hair each day, set the background actors needed in a shot, and complete the daily production report.

Sometimes a show will also have a trainee as part of the ad department, in addition to one or two 2nd ads.

There may also be set production assistants, which is where many people get their start in the entertainment industry.

Script Supervisor: 

Script supervisors aren’t technically part of the production department, although they probably should be. 

The script supervisor is responsible for continuity and has to keep track of every minute detail for every shot.  

This is a job for detail-oriented types, and you’ll find the script supervisor near the director when the camera rolls, watching each shot and timing the shot with a stopwatch.  

The script supervisor always knows which take of a shot the production is on, what the slate should be, and what the official time for lunch was.  Basically, the script supervisor knows everything.

Camera Department:

Cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (commonly called the DP):

The DP creates the look the director wants and oversees the lighting for each shot.  They work closely with the lighting and grip departments to set up and light every shot.

It’s a high-pressure job, and the DP is either setting up shots at camera or watching the scene on the monitors all day long.  

Other camera department positions are:

Camera operator:

Operates the camera and works with the DP to frame each shot.

Ist assistant camera: 

Commonly called the 1st ac, they’re responsible for pulling focus for each shot.  

2nd assistant camera:

Loads the camera and drags a lot of camera gear between the camera truck and the set. They also do the slate for each shot.  

You'd better be fit if you want this job, because it involves a lot of heavy lifting.

Digital Imaging Technician: 

You’ll see this position listed on the call sheet as DIT, and it didn’t exist when I got into the industry decades ago.

The DIT position came to be because of the unique complexities of digital filming.  The DIT works with the DP and camera department to ensure each shot comes out as it should.  

It’s a complex and crucial job on set, and it’s hard to think back to the era when we didn’t have them. Progress.

Lighting Department:


Also known as the chief lighting technician, the gaffer works closely with the DP on set to light each shot.

Best Boy Electric: 

The best boy electric person is responsible for ordering lighting equipment, doing all the lighting department time cards and paperwork, and working with the transportation department to ensure equipment is where it needs to be. 

And FYI, they’re called best ‘boy’ whether the person in the position is male or female.

Grip Department:

Look in the grip truck and you’ll see plywood, c-stands, flags, reflectors, silks, sandbags, and all kinds of building and rigging stuff, because that’s what the grip department does.  

Key Grip:

The key grip is the head of the grip department and the grips work with the lighting department to control the light to create the desired look.

Best Boy Grip: 

The best boy grip does much of the same admin-type work that the best boy electric does.  They order and manage equipment, fill out the department time cards, and help the key grip as needed.

The grips also rig a lot of equipment on set, and you’re sure to see them hard at work on every set you work on.

Art Department:

Many art department functions take place off-production, which means the art department does much of its work when the rest of the crew isn’t on set.  

There will often be a set dressing person on set during filming, but the production designer, art director, and set building crew will usually be doing their work elsewhere or before or after wrap.  The two key positions in the art department are listed below.

Production Designer:

The production designer designs and creates the look of each set based on the script and in conjunction with the director and DP.  They’re the head of the art department.

Art Director:

The art director works under the production designer to create the visual look of the production.  They also supervise the rest of the department.

Set Decorator:

The set decorator is in charge of filling the empty set with all the furniture and other items that will turn it into whatever it's meant to be.  A team of set dressers works under the set decorator to physically bring in the furniture and place the set decor in the set.

You probably won't see the set decorator on set very often, as they're doing their work off production, but you'll see the amazing results of their work on every set you work on.

Prop Department:

The prop department folks never seem to have a moment of downtime on set.  You’ll see them hustling back and forth, setting and resetting the props for every single shot.

Prop Master:  

Head of the prop department, the key props person shops, rents, or has built the props needed for each scene.

Prop Assistant:

This is usually the person you’ll see on set, bringing in the props needed for each scene.  It’s not a simple job, as even easy shows can have lots of props to keep track of.

Wardrobe Department:

Every piece of clothing and accessory the actors wear comes from the wardrobe department.  

There’s a lot to keep track of in this department too, as scripts are rarely shot in sequence and the wardrobe folks need to know exactly what each actor should be wearing for every shot.

Costume Designer:  

The costume designer is the head of the wardrobe department and creates the right look for a project, which may involve having specific period pieces of clothing custom-made.  Or it may just involve shopping, depending on the project and the budget. 

The costume designer may or may not do all those great costume sketches you see for films, as some costume designers draw and some don’t.

Wardrobe Supervisor:

The wardrobe supervisor oversees the managerial tasks in the department and is responsible for keeping track of all that wardrobe.

Good wardrobe supervisors have strong organizational and management skills, and if you work in production, you’ll understand how valuable they are to every show.

Set Costumer:

The set costumer is the wardrobe person you’ll see on set making wardrobe adjustments when the actors are on set and the camera is getting ready to roll.  

You’ll also sometimes see them tweaking pieces of wardrobe, ironing, and even sewing.  This is one position that deserves a lot more respect than it gets in the standard film production hierarchy. 

Makeup and Hair Department:

The makeup and hair department folks are the ones who do the actors' makeup and hair every day.  You may also hear the term ‘vanities’ used to refer to them.  

They usually have a call time before crew call to start getting the actors ready for the day’s work.  

If you work in production as a 2nd ad or trainee, you’ll work closely with the makeup and hair department daily.  So be nice to them, because they can make your life miserable if you’re not.

Sound Department:

Sound Mixer: 

The sound mixer is in charge of recording all the sound for each scene, including room tone.  If you hear the 1st ad say “hold the roll,” it’s probably because the sound mixer heard a plane and they’re waiting for it to pass.

Sound mixers can get cranky when the set isn’t quiet during filming, so save that conversation until you hear ‘cut.’

Boom operator:  

The boom operator is the person you’ll see on set holding up the boom mic to capture the dialogue in each shot.  The boom op will also radio mic the actors when needed.  

Craft Service:

The craft service person is in charge of all that food you see around set between meals.  You’ll sometimes hear terms like ‘get crafty over here.’  It’s usually for a clean-up, which they also do.

This is another department that rarely gets the respect it deserves in the film hierarchy.  

You may get an extra treat now and then if you’re super nice to them.


I can’t emphasize enough how crucial the transportation department is to a production, especially on shows with a lot of locations.

The transportation coordinator is in charge of acquiring and managing all the vehicles, which can be a lot to manage on a big show with loads of vehicles.

The transportation captain is the person you’ll probably have more contact with on set.  They make sure vehicles are where they’re supposed to be and pickups occur on time.  

There may be a couple of drivers or a large assemblage of drivers in the department, depending on the size of the production.

No matter which department you work in, you’ll be relying heavily on the ‘transpo’ department, so make them your friends from day one, or you may find you’re at the bottom of their list for whatever you need.

Stand-ins and Background Actors:


You’ll see stand-ins on set for camera blocking and lighting as soon as the actors leave the set after rehearsal.  They’re often treated as glorified extras and shown little respect, but good stand-ins are an asset to any production and should be treated as such.

Background actors:

Also known as extras, these are the folks who populate the background in scenes.  The 2nd ad or 2nd 2nd ad will usually be the person getting them into position for each scene.


This post is meant to be an overview of crew members you’ll most likely encounter daily on a film set.  

The film production hierarchy on a set is also influenced by factors such as who has connections to whom and set politics.  That’s what I meant when I mentioned the hierarchy behind the film production hierarchy above.  

I don’t state that to generate confusion, but to be realistic about the things that influence set life day to day.  

In addition to the regular crew members mentioned above, you may also see a location manager, stunt coordinator and stunt performers, animal wranglers, a visual effects supervisor, special effects people, and other crew members on set on any given day.  

I hope this offers some clarity on the crew members you’ll encounter when you get to set.  

Remember that every job, no matter how seemingly minor, is worthy of respect in the film production hierarchy on set.

It’s a shame not everyone feels or acts that way.












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