9 Things Filmmakers Wish You Knew About Life On Set

Nothing will prepare you for taking your first step onto a film set, but the International Film Institute of New York (IFI) can provide you with helpful tips on what to expect. We asked three IFI instructors what three things they teach their students in the classroom. Here is what they told us so you can be ready for your film set debut.

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Kyle Wilamowski, IFI directing instructor, writer and director, shared his thoughts:

  • Communication is everything. While everyone has a role, if communication isn’t properly happening, nothing will work. And, everything will fall apart. Film school is about learning a lot of things, but learning how to communicate your vision or your role is #1.
  • It’s grueling. It’s easy to think that films are the most fun thing in the world. However, being on set can be incredibly physically and emotionally taxing in ways you’d never expect. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it. Emotional and physical stamina working in tandem is key.
  • All the keys positions (producers, director, DP) are a pyramid scheme. The attitude you reflect to your crew spreads like wildfire. If you’re in a bad mood or worried, your crew will know it. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy and positive at all times, more that you need to know how your attitude impacts the crew members around you and therefore the work.

Jesus Alarcon, IFI directing instructor, writer, director and cinematographer, added:

  • Preparation doesn’t kill improvisation, it makes room for it. The more prepared you are, the better you know what you’re trying to achieve with the scene and with your shots, the more prepared you will be to take advantage for the inevitable and unexpected set backs that comes with filmmaking.
  • Be punctual. Being on time shows respect and commitment to the project and to your fellow filmmakers and their talent. “Time is only dead if you kill it.”
  • Life on the set is a collaborative effort. No matter how talented you are you still need to rely on your crew in order to achieve your film. You constantly battle against what is, while trying to achieve what it should be. The more nimble you’re in turning a compromise into an asset, the better you become at your craft.

Frederic Richter, IFI screenwriting instructor, writer and producer, offered the following advice from the writer’s perspective:

  • Filmmaking is all about collaboration – so be ready for it. Be open and willing to work with others, try and discuss new ideas and approaches. This goes for directors, too. While the set is your place, a good director knows what they want, but they also surround themselves with people who can offer new ideas to get them what they want. Be open to collaborating!
  • Writers need to be prepared for things to not be EXACTLY as written on the page. Again, they need to be collaborative. Do not start directing — leave that to the director. If you are asked your opinion, give it, but be discreet.
  • Safety, safety, safety. Film sets can be fun magical places, but you also ALWAYS need to keep safety in mind first, especially if working anywhere near electrical, lighting or other equipment. On a moment’s notice a film set can turn from something amazing to a dangerous place. Keep safety in mind always.

At the end of the day, enjoy the experience. “You need to have fun and work hard. Both are key to making a good movie,” said Wilamowski.


The elements of a successful movie have remained constant since the inception of the art form. The International Film Institute of New York (IFI) was founded in 1997 to provide those with a sincere and abiding interest in filmmaking with a high-quality, low-cost education in all aspects of the filmmaking process: screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, and editing in a curriculum combining classroom instruction and hands-on technical workshops. http://www.nyfilmschool.com

Inside An IFI Workshop: Acting For Film

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On a recent sunny, spring day in New York City, a pack of fresh-faced young actresses were busy honing their craft. Up a creaky set of stairs and past a white door to a sun-filled second-floor downtown acting studio, rows of young women wearing matching black T-shirts sat in plastic chairs intently watching as, two-by-two, they took turns performing scenes they had memorized overnight. Bright Australian accents filled the whitewashed studio.

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The group of 20 young drama students had traveled all the way from Sydney, where they study at the independent, all-girls MLC School, to participate in an International Film Institute (IFI) workshop on acting for the screen. It was part of a larger two-and-a-half week tour of New York City and Los Angeles that would take them to Broadway plays, Lincoln Center, behind the scenes at Hollywood studios and inside the offices of talent agents and other industry professionals.

IFI instructor Magdalen Zinky gave the girls direction while Kate Montgomery, who teaches camera at IFI, operated a camera trained on each duo’s faces.

“Thank you both for your micro-expressions,” Zinky complimented two girls after they finished a scene from the movie Juno. “There’s a lot going on right here, a lot of facial expressions and raised eyebrows.”

IMG_2640.JPGZinky explained the difference between film and stage acting.

With stage acting, it’s a full-body experience where the emotions have to show through the entire body, whereas with film acting, the main action of it happens in the face. Of course, the body is still important, but the camera is genius at picking up micro-expressions, and that’s where the actor’s focus needs to be.”

Lisa Jinga, head of drama and dance at the MLC School said the dance and drama tour took them three years to plan, and when their tour company asked what they wanted to do, she knew she wanted her girls to have an acting for the camera experience. Naturally, they reached out to IFI, which specializes in teaching every aspect of the film industry, from directing to on-camera work, to aspiring film professionals from all over the globe.

“On  film, every little nuance, glance on your face, it’s much smaller-scale realism,” Jinga said, echoing Zinky. “It’s what happening in your heart and showing on your face. It’s a different interaction with the audience. We want (our students) to get the idea of perfecting the smallest movement.”

The arts, drama and entertainment are very popular programs at the school, where students put on large scale productions, but hands-on, real-life experience of a lesser-practiced skill is invaluable, Jinga said.

“We try to teach them what we call the director’s ‘vision’ for stage and film,” Jinga says. “You’re coming into a partnership with the director, but you’re the interpreter of the vision. It’s valuable experience to work with a director. You’re in the real world and you have to be on time.”

IMG_2590Sabina Tom, 16, relished the challenge of learning a scene overnight and performing for a real-world director the next day.

“I feel like it’s really cool getting to work with people who do this for a living, to work with industry professionals,” Sabina said. “It’s an experience a lot of people don’t have, so I’m grateful.”

It was worthwhile experience for the visiting teachers at the workshop as well, said Kate Caron, the Head of Grade 7 at MLC.

IMG_2645“What’s really valuable for us as teachers is watching the way the directors are working with the girls,” she said. “All the things we say to them over and over, ‘You have to be off-book,’ asking them to improvise, it’s not just us being persnickety. It’s great to see little things being reinforced in a professional environment.”

New York City, itself, is a wonderful acting laboratory, Jinga added. Touring around the city over the past few days, she had pointed out film locations from Gossip Girl territory on the Upper East Side to the famous streets of Little Italy where many Godfather scenes took place.

“I thought it would be great to do some film work here in New York where so many iconic movies have been set,” Jinga said. “To think about Midnight Cowboy, one of the first films to shoot on the streets of New York, not on the back lot of a studio, New York to me is the home of where those films took place. “I’m walkin’ heeyah!” she hollered, doing her best Ratso Rizzo impression.

“This for them is a completely new and different experience and where else would you want to do it than New York? It’s an authentic experience,” said Caron. “You come here and there’s a sense that, ‘Wow, these are real professionals, this is really happening,’ and they rise to the challenge.”

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Mac McCown, a 16-year-old drama student at MLC said she appreciated learning from two women on the other side of the camera lens during the day’s workshop. “The numbers of women in the film industry are so disappointing. It’s so important especially at this young age to see women working in a male dominated profession,” she said.

“We can relate to them and think, ‘We can do that,’” added her classmate, Emma Rutherford, also 16.

Zinky gave the girls a glowing review.

“They did marvelously!” she said. “I was impressed with the overall quality of the students’ commitment and their level of professionalism both on screen and off.”

Jinga pronounced the day’s workshop a success, as well. “It’s been absolutely fantastic,” she said. “It’s opening (our students’) eyes and it’s so different than what we’ve done in previous workshops. They got a very personal, intense experience.”

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In addition to our summer courses, IFI offers short term seminars and special programs in New York City. Wonder what goes into making a film? Considering going to Film School?  Is filmmaking for you? Our One-Week programs are designed as a comprehensive overview of the process of making films from script through Screening. Along with our
informative seminars, we also have the opportunity to create special workshops and sessions for interested students and visiting groups. All of our courses are presented by film professionals in their respective fields. http://www.nyfilmschool.com