Copy That!: The Guide to Walkie Etiquette
Setiquette. It’s fucking important. Not knowing the most minor details of how a set runs means you can be pissing someone off and not even be aware that you’re doing anything wrong. The good news is that there’s a grace period for that. The bad news is that sometimes crew don’t know if you’re in your grace period and they could be putting you on their shitlist mentally before you can even explain that you’re a total n00b to the film industry.
Setiquette reaches critical mass when it comes to dealing with walkie talkies. Understanding the way walkies work and the way we communicate through them is one of the most important things you learn early on in your professional production career. Crew with poor walkie etiquette often get blacklisted faster than just being a jerk on set. On the flip side, ADs can tell if new PAs “get it” by seeing how fast a new PA gets walkie etiquette. I know for me personally, if a PA can’t be bothered to copy me half the time over walkie, I’m most likely not going to hire them again.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of etiquette, we should talk a little bit about the importance of walkies. I consider it a red flag when a production doesn’t think to budget properly for walkies. They are the single most important (and yet obnoxious) tool the production department will pay for. Without walkies, your set will have delays on conveying important information, which can cause confusion and problems with shooting. Always budget for proper production walkies. Consider them as important as your camera. Your PAs, ADs, and department heads are almost useless without them. Walkies enables production to communicate quickly over large and/or remote sets. You can quiet down extras holding, tell your PAs to lock up doorways, tell set dressers to move a couch, and call for snacks from crafty all without leaving your current position.
This should be obvious, but you’d be shocked by the amount of shows that try to get away with not having real production walkies on set. It really won’t save you any money when you are wasting time trying to find actors/crew members/equipment, etc.
What’s a proper production walkie? They are usually of this type:
Note the multiple channels (very important for normal to large sized crews so different departments can have their own channel and not clog up the walkie). The batteries are rechargable and have a clip on them to easily attach to belts/clothing. They’re made of durable plastics to sustain the rigors of any production environment and not overheat/freeze up or die in humid conditions.
These particular walkies (model shown is a Motorola CP200) also have a push-to-talk adapter built in so you can use a headpiece on your walkie. This is ESSENTIAL. Almost every set I’ve been on has required what is known as a “closed walkie”, which means all crew members have their headsets plugged in. This makes it so walkie noise isn’t all over the set and crew can press a button on the headset to talk into the walkie quickly without having to unclip the physical walkie and hold it to your mouth.
The most common headsets are known as surveillance sets. They look like this:
But you may also see D-ring headsets (the earpiece is a D-shaped piece of plastic that rests over the ear) or what we like to call “burger king sets” which are the traditional headpiece that goes over the head with a headphone on one side and a microphone that sits in front of your mouth. These are the dumbest type of headset and really cumbersome. Most production walkie rental places will not give you these unless you specifically request them.
Whatever you do, if you’re a producer and you’re budgeting for walkies - don’t buy the AA Battery plastic walkies from radioshack or walmart. These are not built for a production environment and break easily. They also have difficulties with multiple channels being used. I’ve heard other channels over walkie channel 1 or just plain static over channel 1 when crew members were using other channels. It’s frustrating and not worth having them. Don’t waste your money. Rent professional walkies with headsets.
Once you’ve received your walkies from the production house, you’ll want to go through them and make sure batteries are fully charged, especially the spare batteries. Spares are referred to as “bricks” and it’s customary to have the PAs and even ADs wear one or two spare bricks just in case a crew member needs to switch out their dying brick. This way the crew member can stay on set and not go in search of the walkie chargers.
You’ll most likely need to assemble them by putting batteries and antennae on the walkies and also labeling them. You’ll want to make a sheet denoting who is assigned what walkies. Here’s an example of who gets walkies and who often doesn’t get walkies on standard indie sets:
Always assigned a walkie if they are on set:
- 1st AD
- 2nd AD
- 2nd 2nd AD
- ALL PAs. A PA without a walkie is pretty much useless unless they are a runner or belong to another department.
- Basecamp PA or Production Coordinator/Office PA
- Art Director
- Set Dresser(s)
- Prop Master
- Props Assistant
- Key Costumer
- Set Wardrobe Assistant(s)
- Best Boy Electric
- Set Electrics
- Key Grip
- Best Boy Grip
- Set Grips
- Stunt Coordinator
- Stunt personnel
- SFX Technician(s)
- SFX Assistant(s)
- Transportation - Coordinator, Dispatch, Drivers all get one
- Location Manager
- Location PA(s)
- Camera Operator
- 1st Assistant Camera
- 2nd Assistant Camera
- Camera PA(s)
Additional Labor that may need walkies for the days they are on:
- Animal Wrangler(s)
- Fire Department
- Art Department Personnel
- Greens personnel
- Location scout(s)
If you have walkies available after the above positions receive walkies:
- Craft Services
- VFX Technician(s)
- DIT/Data wrangler
- Director of Photography/Cinematographer
- Production Runner(s)
- Production Designer
- Production Manager
Positions that do not get assigned walkies unless specifically requested by production:
- Actors (1st Team)
- Stand Ins/Photo Doubles (2nd Team)
It’s real important not to put producer or director on the walkie. Walkies are distracting and often filled with information and shorthand that can be easily misunderstood by producers and directors and cause problems on set. Directors occasionally request a walkie for specific situations like communicating directly to an actor that is remotely removed from the rest of set. Which is totally fine, just don’t leave the walkie with them. And remind production channel 1 that a director is on walkie for that moment. You can assign an open walkie channel to the director and actor if that helps for that time.
So now you know what a walkie is, what it does, and how to assign them. Now your crew have sorted themselves over walkie to different channels based on their department. You often see walkie channels are laid out like such:
- Channel 1: General Production
- Channel 2: Open channel for longer conversations
- Channel 3: Transportation
- Channel 4: Open channel for longer conversations
- Channel 5: Open channel for longer conversations
- Channel 6: Camera Team
- Channel 7: Electric
- Channel 8: Grip
- Channels 9-16 (most standard walkies offer up to 16 separate channels) - various special departments such as SFX, Stunts, Police, etc.
You will find this varies based on location/size of crew/etc. Always check in with your first AD or communicate to everyone if you are the first AD what channels are what.
Most departments, especially if small, stay on channel 1. Grip and Electric are always on a separate channel even on smaller shows. You do not want them spending 5 minutes on channel 1 instructing an electric on which way the light needs to pan. I’ve been subjected to a DP who accidentally went to channel 1 and started yelling at electrics to move lights. He only got more agitated when they clearly weren’t listening to him because, you know, they were on a different channel. The 1st AD on that show kept yelling at him to get off channel 1. Moral of this story? MAKE SURE YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT CHANNEL FOR THE PERSON YOU WANT TO TALK TO/INFORMATION YOU WANT TO RELAY.
It’s also really important to put your walkie on before crew call. If you’re a PA or AD, it’s essential. Don’t be that guy not on walkie at crew call and everyone’s yelling for you. Get your walkie on as soon as you land at location.
Now you’re on walkie, you know what channels everyone is on. Now how the hell do you use this thing? That large button attached to the headset is your push to talk device. It’s the microphone that goes out over the walkies. When you talk into it, hold it near your mouth, press down, wait a beat, and then start talking. Do not let go of button until you are clearly finished speaking. Crew will tell you “copy that” or respond in some fashion if they heard you. If someone calls for you or a general announcement, let them finish speaking, wait a beat, and then respond. This is important if it’s a general question because a bunch of people will try to answer back. When crew all answer at once, their responses will often be cut off or “stepped on”, meaning the original speaker did not hear any response. Nothing drives a 1st AD crazier than hearing a bunch of cut off/static-y responses because all the PAs tried to answer at once. You can’t avoid being stepped on at times, it happens to everyone, but you can reduce this by giving a pause before responding to make sure someone isn’t clicking in.
Your walkie is not a complicated piece of equipment even if it looks like it. But it is expensive. Take care of it. Don’t throw it around like a rag doll, try not to get it soaked, and keep your earpiece and mouthpiece clean. A lot of crew buy their own headsets to use on the walkies so they don’t have to worry about germs/ear infections (this absolutely does happen when earpieces are shared). If an earpiece needs to be shared/passed to another crew member, always clean it with an alcohol wipe.
Be careful of your push to talk button, and the transmitter button on the side of the walkie unit. When these buttons are accidentally pressed, the rest of the crew will hear your walkie “keying”. Keying means nothing is going out over the walkie/the walkie is not being used properly. Sometimes you’ll just hear a light static, other times you’ll hear clothing rubbing against the microphone or a faint conversation. I’ve heard toilet flushes over channel 1 from folks keying while in the bathroom. Be cognizant of your walkie buttons and make sure they aren’t easily pressed when not in use.
You’ll hear a lot of lingo that doesn’t at first make any sense. A lot of walkie lingo comes from the military, but a lot of it is specific to film production.
Standard walkie lingo:
- “Walkie Check” - this is said when a crew member first turns on their walkie. You will respond with “good check” if it came through or “go again” if it did not come through properly/was cut off.
- “10-1” or “10-100” means pee break. Or quick break (but we all associate it with pee break).
- “Copy that” or simply, “Copy” - Crew say this after information was relayed so that the original speaker knows the information was heard, and understood. Do not say this if you didn’t actually hear it. Which leads to:
- “Go again” or “Come back on that” - means the crew member did not understand what was being said or would like it restated to make sure they understood. Say this if you missed information that was aimed at your department, if a transmission is static-y, stepped on, or just hard to hear in general or if you don’t understand the information itself and would like it repeated/clarified.
- “On it” - Crew member not only understands the information, but is actively working on whatever task was asked for. IE, “Copy that, Mary, I’m on it.” Do not say this if you are not working on that task. This drives ADs nuts.
- “[John] for [Mary]” - You say this when you are specifically requesting a crew member over the walkie, putting your name where [John] is and the crew member’s name where [Mary] is. IE, “Michelle for Diann”. This leads to:
- “Go for [Diann]” or “[Diann] copies” - this is how you tell the crew member asking for you that you heard them and are ready to hear whatever they have to say.
- “Standby” - this is said if the crew member being called for is busy at that moment and needs a minute before they can chat. Usually the response to this is “Copy that, standing by.”
- “Switch to 2” - Use this when you want to have a longer conversation with a crew member over channel 2. Never ever chatter on and on over channel 1. I’ve heard more than once an angry 1st or 2nd AD yelling at crew members to “take it to 2”. Before you switch to channel 2, announce on channel 1 that you’re switching to 2.
- “On 2” - announce this when you switch to channel 2 to let the other person know you have switched.
- “Back to 1” - Use this when you are on channel 2 and are done with the conversation and switching back to channel 1 so the other person knows you are leaving that channel.
- “Back on 1” - Some crew members like to announce when they are back on general production.
- “Spin that, please” - This is requested after information has been stated over channel 1 that needs to be relayed to other channels. Usually this is a pre-assigned job to the key set PA or 2nd 2nd.
- “Eyes on…” “Keep eyes” and “I’ve got eyes” - If an AD is asking for someone to have eyes on someone or something, it means they want the PAs find that person or thing and annouce where it is. “keeping eyes” means you stay near a situation or person to know what’s happening and be able to report back to the ADs when asked. “Keep eyes on first team, please.”
This is just a smattering of phrases/terms you’ll hear frequently over the walkie. And every production has its own lingo, so don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand what is being said. Asking the person to go to channel 2 and asking them to clarify is better than saying copy and not getting the task done because you didn’t understand the lingo being used.
Remember to keep non-production chatter, jokes, and personal commentary off channel 1. Sometimes crew will crack a joke over the walkies, this is ok, but it’s frowned down upon if it happens a lot. Refrain from saying anything on the walkie unless it’s specifically production related. If you notice that the show you’re on is ok with a little bit of chatter/humor, feel free to engage, but keep it minimal, clean, and don’t say anything that can piss off any crew members.
Once the shoot is wrapping up, you do not take your walkie off until you are dismissed for the day. Some PAs think that once wrap is called, they can pull the walkie. A PA’s job is never done until they are dismissed by the ADs.
Most productions do not ask for the walkie back at the end of each day. If you are on the show for several days back to back, you will most likely keep your walkie and headset with you. Be sure to shut off the unit and put it next to your car keys/bus pass/house keys so you do not forget it when you head to set the next day.
If your walkie unit is having issues, make sure you report this to the PA in charge of walkies. They can advise you on cleaning the unit or headset properly or replace the broken part quickly to keep you on walkie. Do not try to fix it yourself.
Your walkie is your number one tool as a PA or AD. Without it, everyone is shouting across set, information can be misconstrued, and crew will get frustrated. Understanding the walkie and how to properly communicate over it is one of the essential skills to have on a film set.
And whatever you do, don’t say “roger.”