A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Movie Industry Slang Who's Alan Smithee and why has he made so many movies? When is a martini not a martini? Camera operator and film industry veteran Dave Knox explains these terms and more. Knox is the author of an insider's guide to film slang, Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde.
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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Movie Industry Slang

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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Movie Industry Slang

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Movie Industry Slang

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Oscars will be handed out this weekend in Hollywood and in the gray carpeted, simply dressed spirit of public radio, we now bring you the perfect book for the occasion. It's called Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg asked the author, Dave Knox, a camera operator on more than 100 films, to explain what this movie slang means.


Let's just start with your title. Would you translate it, please? Strike the baby and kill the blonde is not very friendly.

Mr. DAVE KNOX (Author, Camera Operator): No, and it's something you rarely hear in a grocery store, for instance, but baby and blonde are two names for movie lights and strike is to take something away from the set. So, strike the baby is actually remove a certain light from the set and kill the blonde means to switch off the blonde and a blonde is a two kilowatt quartz light.

STAMBERG: Okay, let's do some more translations and let's begin with the whos first.

Mr. KNOX: Okay.

STAMBERG: Abby Singer; who was he?

Mr. KNOX: Abby Singer still is. He's assistant director, or was, working in California and he always would say, c'mon guys, we just need one more shot and that would be the last shot of the day and the crew, looking forward to going home, would follow Mr. Singer along and do the shot and then, oh, one more, one more over here and he'd one more and one more and so now, universally on movie sets, the Abby Singer is known as the second-to-last shot of the day.

STAMBERG: Oh, gosh. So, what's the last shot called?

Mr. KNOX: The last shot is the martini because the next shot is out of a glass.

STAMBERG: Mm. Now here's the one I really want to meet: Alan Smithee.

Mr. KNOX: Alan Smithee is the name that directors assume after their project is wrestled away from them by the studio or the evil producers and they don't want to be associated with it anymore. They take their name off and they use the name Alan Smithee instead. There's a lot of Alan Smithee films out there.

STAMBERG: (Laughing) Dave Knox, let's talk about some of the myths we have about movie making. Is it true that nobody says lights, camera, action on a set?

Mr. KNOX: No, no one says lights, camera, action. That was a term from the old days when the lights needed extra time to warm up so the first thing you had to do was to jump-start the lights. Lights! And then the camera would take a few minutes to turn on. Camera! And then action. But these days, the first thing said to initiate the filming is roll sound.

STAMBERG: (Laughing) Okay. Here's another myth. All actresses have sparkly eyes.

Mr. KNOX: They do have sparkly eyes if you use a basher on them.

STAMBERG: Uh-huh, what is that?

Mr. KNOX: A basher is east coast slang for an Obi light--Obi named for Merle Oberon. Apparently when she worked, she was very aware of her own appearance and requested her favorite cameraman to work on all her shoots. So, he had a special light on top of the camera, when shined in her eyes just so, it reflected back and it makes a nice highlight to the eyes and that's an eye light, or basher, or an obi.

STAMBERG: There's some job titles that all of us notice and you do so much to help demystify them. A gaffer?

Mr. KNOX: Nothing could be more important than making the movie stars look good and one of the key players in that is the gaffer, or the chief lighting technician. It's been suggested the name might come from the days of live theater when live flames were put out with long gaffs.

STAMBERG: And so the gaffers are the ones who bring the lights to the set, arrange the lights, point them so everybody looks good?

Mr. KNOX: Well, now the gaffer might do that or he might have the best boy do it.

STAMBERG: Oh, the best boy, because the best boy works for the gaffer.

Mr. KNOX: The best boy works for the gaffer. He's not the director's pet or cabin boy which is what it sort of sounds like. The best boy is the second electrician.

STAMBERG: Good! Well, in coming days I'm gonna do a few reports on the odd movie jobs so thank you so much for helping me set them up. That's a wrap in your language. Dave Knox is author of Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: An Insider's Guide to Film Slang. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow and Friday on MORNING EDITION, the jobs that Susan will demystify are key grip and casting director.

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