You too can be a Hollywood argot-naut

For anyone who has ever wandered onto a movie set -- or those who are just baffled by such terms as “gabo,” “hair in the gate,” “four-banger” or a “Mickey Rooney,” let alone more standard lingo like “grips,” “gaffers” and “best boy” -- Tony Bill has come to the rescue.

With his new book “Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Film Set,” the Academy Award-winning producer (he won for 1973’s “The Sting”), director (“My Bodyguard,” “Crazy People,” “Flyboys”) and actor (“Shampoo”) now takes on the role of Hollywood lexicographer.

Bill began collecting Hollywood slang a dozen years ago, interviewing crew members on the sets of his films and keeping his findings in notebooks. He later combed Hollywood histories and biographies to track down the real origins of such ubiquitous terms as “M.O.S.”

But “it’s an oral history,” Bill says. “You can’t go to the library and look up the background, meaning or innuendo of these terms. I could only do it whenever I was on a set. Directing movies became a way of learning the language.”


Here are some terms and definitions in Bill’s book:

Abby Singer, The

Normally referred to simply as “the Abby,” this is always the second-to-last shot of the day. Named for the eponymous production manager/producer who, as an assistant director (A.D.) in the early days of television, realized a few extra shots could be squeezed out of the day’s schedule if the crew began packing up and moving to the next location before a location move took place. Over the course of a day, this could save up to an hour of shooting time. This penchant for hustle and efficiency earned Singer a place in crews’ hearts and film’s history.



Here, an actor is requested to walk (or run, or stagger, whatever) along a curved path to or from the camera, even if there is no apparent reason for doing so, to avoid blocking whatever needs to be seen behind him, thus saving the camera department’s bacon. The technique should not pose a problem for even the most Method-marinated performer. The request is normally something like, “Say, could you just banana left as you walk away?”


Producer Jerry Bruckheimer originated this term for automatic-weapon fire, rumbling car engines and military-sounding jargon, deriving from his director Michael Bay’s trademark penchant for such things.

Buff & Puff


To send an actor to hair and makeup.


A close-up that is framed from, or sometimes above, the upper neck. Sometimes referred to in scripts as an ECU, or extreme close-up, by misguided screenwriters trying to tell the director where to put the camera. This is mainly a literary conceit; on the set, calling for an ECU or even an “extreme close-up” would sound, to most ears, amateurish. Also referred to as a screamer.

Eastwood Rule


An unofficial Directors Guild term. Shortly after acquiring his power as a movie star, Clint Eastwood tended to hire only directors who would defer to his wishes. He once banned Philip Kaufman from the set of “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” In 1984, he took control of “Tightrope” from Richard Tuggle, whose name remained on the credits. The Directors Guild instated the so-called Eastwood Rule, which prohibited actors from firing directors and taking over themselves. The prohibition also applies to producers, studio executives and anyone else associated with the production.


Specifically, the head electrician. Generally, the head of any department. Can also be a verb, as in “Who’s gaffing the show?” The term probably derives from early 19th century references to the long-handled gaff used by fishermen and dockworkers who were recruited by early studios, which used sunlight for illumination. (Southern California’s perennial sunshine prompted the move from Chicago and New York.) The roofs of the stages were made of white canvas panels that slid open or closed on wires and rings. The “gaffer” used his long, hooked pole to operate them.

Golden Time


Overtime: double pay. “We’re into gold” is one of the production manager’s scariest pronouncements.


A frightening, weird shot in a horror or mystery film.



Kneepads used by stuntmen. A recent addition to the argot.


Any device . . . used to make an actor taller. May also be used in reference to any crew member (operator, grip, etc. ) needing to be made a few inches taller for the job at hand.

Warning: While references to the crew members’ need of such aids are generally announced in the most blatant manner possible, references to usage with any actor are best whispered. Performers should never hear this word uttered.



A shot or scene filmed without recording sound; an event that, ironically, often seems to throw the sound department into an “OK-but-you’ll-be-sorry” snit.

Industry mythology has M.O.S. deriving from the request of a long-gone German-speaking director -- variously identified as Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg or Ernst Lubitsch -- to film a scene “mit out sprechen” (without speaking) or “mit out sound.” . . . There is a less colorful but vastly more plausible origin for M.O.S.: In the early decades of sound, until the 1950s, the sound track was recorded on an optical rather than magnetic track (now always called the “mag track”). When film was delivered to the lab for processing with a blank sound track, it was noted that it was being sent Minus Optical Stripe.



Gibberish, or generic dialogue, requested of extras by the A.D. to avoid paying them as actors with written lines.


The postproduction version of rhubarb -- i.e., the sound of many voices cheering, chit-chatting, gossiping: whatever enhancement the scene needs. Those extras you see jabbering behind Tom Cruise at the party, that classroom of students that just won’t settle down, those kids playing in the background: They weren’t allowed to make a sound on the set.

“What’s your 20?”


Used exclusively among young production assistants and assistant director trainees while speaking on radios (always referred to as “walkies”) meaning “Where are you?” Although an unnecessary code -- derived from the 10-code of law enforcement and CB radio -- it makes them feel part of the group. Also, 10-100 means you are going to the restroom; 10-4 means you understand, but “copy that” is cooler.


rachel.abramowitz@latimes .com