Lights, Camera, Action…and Marker, Slate, Sound…

Posted on November 30, 2006

Ask someone to picture how a movie set works and images of a Cecil B. DeMille type director with a paperboy hat and sweater vest shouting “lights…camera…action” through a megaphone will probably generate. Close, but not quite. A Google/Wikipedia search didn’t offer any explanation into why “lights, camera, action” has become the classic film set catch phrase, especially since it doesn’t quite make sense.

The most confusing is ‘lights.’ If someone shouts the first part, it sounds like they’re saying “turn the lights on.” But the lights have been on. That’s what you’ve been doing for the past two hours, setting them up. So why now are you yelling for them to turn on?

‘Camera’ is getting there, but it’s not very specific. Yes, we have a camera, would you like us to roll it? But ‘action’ is spot on. I guess one out of three isn’t bad.

However, the most misleading fact of the phrase is that it makes it sound like the director says all this. They don’t, save ‘action’. Most is said by the 1st Assistant Director (1AD).

Below is an on-set cadence that was distributed to us before F3s. Slightly more than three words.

1 AD:
Picture is up!
Everyone settle, please.
This is picture.
Camera ready?

DP ((Director of Photography – On F3s they are also the camera operator)):
Ready!

1 AD:
Sound Ready?

Mixer:
Ready!

1 AD:
(Director’s Name) Ready?
Boom in, Slate in.
Roll sound.

Mixer:
Speed

2 AC ((2nd Assistant Camera – Slates scenes, fills out camera reports, and loads and downloads film from the camera)):
Voice slate Scene and Take number

1 AD:
Roll Camera.

DP:
Speed

2 AC:
Marker (then hit the sticks ((aka clapper)))

Director:
Action

Written by Joey Daoud

Joey Daoud is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. His past films have appeared on Netflix, The New York Times, and National Geographic. He is also a YouTube creator across multiple channels with videos garnering millions of views. In his free time, he likes to climb mountains, scuba dive, and brew unique coffees.

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3 Comments

  1. lenika

    I like this–

    Being a PA on set for the first time ever, these words gain a sort of magical feel, you’re kind of holding your breath waiting for it to begin.

    • Joey

      So true. Which set were you on?

  2. thenudo

    The phrase .. ‘lights, camera, action,’ was first uttered in New York in 1910 by D.W. Griffith. After a bad day with actors not being on mark, filming a scene on top of another with used film, and a light burning out. D.W. Griffith – whose techniques are still WIDELY used in Hollywood – started using the catchphrase. VERY particular on lighting … lights must be set up on a subject in film. Especially in those days when the cameras werent as advanced and need as much light as possible.

    the “LIGHTS” … was to be sure lighting spots and grips were in their places …
    the “CAMERA” … was for director of photography to get ready to smack record on the camera…
    &
    and “ACTION” … at the sound of this word recording begins and actors start acting their lines.

    So it’s actually kinda a ..mark, GET SET, GO!…type of thing. Had D.W. made that phrase after ‘talking or talkie’ motion pictures in 1928 – it probably would have been lights, camera, SOUND, action. lol.

    **An interesting note .. alot of directors nowadays add the word, ‘background,’ to the phrase lights, camera, action, BACKGROUND! This signals the extras, cars, boarders, etc … to start moving.