What It’s Like to Be on a Movie Set

Credits: Photo - Anonymous, Styling - Sarah G. Schmidt, Location - Plaza Theatre


Throughout my advertising and styling career, I’ve spent many days on set. My experience included commercials for TV, product videos for online content, or short PSAs. Mostly shorter format - five minutes or less – to convey the desired story. Being invited to join a Costume Department for a film production was new to me yet something I delightfully accepted.

While the fundamentals are the same, it was a wild experience. It’s long format and rooted in entertaining viewers rather than getting a brands message across. But it’s still storytelling. I like to try an exercise a balanced approach when taking on something new. It is a challenge for me and takes discipline to not mentally judge it while it’s happening. Rather, after it wraps and the dust settles, I pull out a pad of paper and write out the pros and cons.

People keep asking me how it was. Their curiosity is charming. I want to share insights that are worth sharing to them yet will comply with the confidentiality documents I have signed. Though I can’t talk about the stars, stunts, or story lines I can share some other things I have seen.

Please Don't Kill My Vibe: Wearing Clothing Suitable for Set

  • Cons: You need to bring a lot. In Calgary, on any given day it can be smoking hot, raining, ultra windy, and yes, even that white fluffy stuff can fall. You need to be prepared for any and all conditions. When it’s super cold and you’re looking more like a sleeping bag in human form than a rock star, it can squish your creative expression a bit. Especially when you’re working overnight and struggling to keep warm.
  • Pros: As with most professions, once you know what’s required, the limitations serve only as basic parameters. Once you understand what you’re working with that day, then you are free to play within it. For example, I chose to wear big earrings most days to help me feel a bit like my self while covered in rain gear and gumboots.

Oh the Temptation: Food Available on Set

  • Cons: There is so much food – both nutritious and naughty – at your fingertips all day long. If I ate every meal that was available to me – hot breakfast, mid morning snack, lunch, mid afternoon snack, plus all the chips, bars, candy, and pop I can pack away - I think I would eat double or triple to what I would eat off set. It can be very easy to be glutinous.
  • Pros: One has to eat. Thanks to the laws on set, they do keep you satiated. It is important for your wellness and mental health to keep your belly full so you can get on with your day. There is nothing so wonderful when you here that “crafty” (craft service) are coming around with hot soup at 2am in the morning. Lifesavers.

Proof That People Do Business With People: Relationships Made on Set

  • Cons: At times it can be intense. It’s a bit baffling to think about all these different types of creative people coming together in hopes of making a movie. Every moment you and your colleagues are on set costs the production money. It is paramount to know your role and responsibilities so that it can run as smoothly as possible. Of course there are hiccups and keeping out of the line of fire – unless it affects you or your department – can be trying. Keeping your cool in the pressure cooker of a set is no small feat.
  • Pros: Because you work so closely together on this huge project with one magical deliverable you create deep bonds swiftly. There are hundreds of people - from makeup to hair to camera to sound to locations to props to transport - working side by side and helping pull it all off however they can. I have seen the quiet, kind power of bringing a hot tea to another person during a cold portion of filming. You can help keep someone sane amongst the chaos. I am grateful to have met so many lovely, talented people.

Wardrobe Woes: The Everest Mountain of Costumes

  • Cons: The sheer volume of clothing required for each cast member is astounding. Keep in mind that the designer will have multiple options for each cast member in multiple sizes. Erring on the pragmatic side, let’s say there are twenty cast members, with two changes each. One can quickly imagine just how many racks and racks are filled, fitted, and processed. Keeping track of what’s what on the set and what stays and what gets returned (unused, of course) is a humongous task.
  • Pros: Like with a personal shopping client, it takes kissing a lot of garment frogs until you get the outfit prince. Ensuring each cast member looks the part is everything. Also, ultra expedient shopping is a daily task. I take a small pleasure in shopping so fast and at such a large volume that the credit card companies question what is going on. No amount of prepping the accounting department can truly get them on the same page of what’s really about to happen once you hit the mall.

Everyone, Call 911: The Urgent Nature

  • Cons: Film sets move fast, very fast. You are on your feet for 12, 14, 16 hours a day. It is not for those who need structure and timely deadlines that actually follow through. There’s literally no spare time. You need what is asked of you and it is needed yesterday. And twenty minutes later that will likely change as a new mini emergency pops up. It’s the nature of the beast.
  • Pros: If you love to problem-solve and thrive on high pressure, adrenaline fuelled environments, a film set is a hoot. It’s stop and go all day, every day. Repeated day after day in new permutations and combinations until you come to the end many weeks later. It’s a ride.

What’s it All For?: Making Movie Magic

  • Cons: If you want to get cynical, making a movie takes a lot of smoke and mirrors. The hours spent dedicated to making a room look just right, hair is just the right place, and the costume set off a shoulder just the right way take after take can seem tedious to skeptics. I am fully aware that the effort that it takes to ultimately make a fake situation seem real can seem silly.
  • Pros: It’s a romantic notion, but storytelling is all about setting the scene so people can hear and see the plot roll out. Ultimately the goal is to have a rich experience or reaction. All five senses have to get involved. This all-hands-on-deck dedication to every detail is what the hoards of people pay money to watch. People continue to want to be entertained. That’s why the film industry continues to thrive. If every crew and cast member gets it right, that’s when movie magic happens.

No, film sets are not as glamorous as you may have thought. It can be gritty, cold, and trying. It truly takes a village. If that village can comes together and pull the damn thing off, then all the hard work makes it worth it.

The next time you sit back and watch your favourite TV show or throw on a movie, do me a favour and count how many costume changes just one character has. A lot, right? Even if the character doesn’t change, think about how many duplicates it may have taken to ensure the garments stayed just the right way over however many days it took to film it. You not being distracted by the clothing – unless it’s in awe – mean that the costume department did its job.