The director of photography is one of the crew members who has the greatest influence over the pace of a shoot. How long you take to light each set-up has a huge impact on how much gets done in a day. So it’s only natural that you are usually consulted on the shooting schedule during preproduction. More often than not, your pleas for more shooting days will be ignored because there simply isn’t the money. Nonetheless, it’s your duty to feedback on the schedule, and if you can be specific about your concerns then you may occasionally succeed in getting tweaks made. And if not, at least you can say, “I told you so.”
Here are some things I’m looking for when I assess a schedule.
Length of shoot. Are there enough days? Is there a second unit to mop up up anything you drop, or do you have to cover everything on every day yourself?
Turnarounds. Is there a full day of daylight exterior immediately after a night shoot, for example?
Night scenes scheduled during daylight hours. Is the AD expecting you to black out windows, or is this a mistake? I hate blacking out windows; it robs the visuals of depth.
Stunts, VFX, make-up gags etc. Has the AD factored in the extra set-up time that comes with these things? Again, if there’s a second unit for this stuff then it may not affect you.
Nightmare shots. Has adequate time been allowed for any special, fancy shots that might take longer than usual to set up?
Location moves. Are there any location moves during the day, even just between rooms in the same house? Has time been allowed for these moves? Has extra time been allowed for the first scene in each location, to allow it to be lit properly? This may be less of an issue if you have a pre-rig crew.
Easing into it. Does the shoot start off a little easier to give the crew time to get into the swing of things?
Movie star shots. Are there any big heroic or romantic moments late in the schedule? Towards the end of the shoot, everyone will be tired, and this will show on the actors’ faces. Try to have key close-ups brought forward in the schedule, or warn the AD that lighting and make-up will take longer than normal.
Seasonal variations. On long shoots, there may be noticeable changes in season (trees in leaf/not in leaf, for examples) during production, and the available hours of daylight may change. Has this been taken into consideration?
Cover sets. Has the AD got contingency plans if the weather is bad?
A good 1st AD should have thought of most if not all of these things, but it never hurts to check them out yourself.
Want to learn more about scheduling? Check out my posts on scheduling my feature film Soul Searcher and my short film Stop/Eject.
Col constantly ribs me about the lack of a first assistant director on Stop/Eject, and the consequent lack of adherence to the schedule. But as I edit the film, I’m appreciating more and more the other duties of a first AD and the consequences of those duties going undischarged.
Because part of the first’s job is to literally assist the director – to help them keep track of things which can easily get forgotten amidst the chaos of filming. Things like crossing the line, getting enough coverage and not missing out bits of the script. (Two other crew members that a big budget production will have who will also be looking out for those things are the script supervisor and the editor – because the editor will be cutting the material the day after you shoot it, and may be able to tell you before you leave a location that you need an extra shot.)
So here are some examples of the moronic cock-ups I made, which might well have been avoided if I’d had a first and/or a script supervisor looking out for me:
Tommy Draper wrote a great stage direction in one scene: “She opens the fridge. It’s as empty as her life.” Unfortunately I chose to shoot it in a way that made it impossible to tell the fridge was empty, because I didn’t pay close enough attention to the script during filming.
In another scene, I wrote that the cellophane is torn off an object before it is used. I included that detail in the script because, as a writer, I knew that otherwise the audience would not necessarily understand the important point that the object was brand new and unused. Somehow this got dropped from the scene during rehearsals, and it wasn’t until I saw the film edited together that I realised how crucial the cellophane was.
In scene seven, the most complex of the film, we decided during rehearsals to alter the timing of an incident. One side effect of this – which again I didn’t notice until I saw the edit – was that the shots I had storyboarded (and thus the shots that I filmed) no longer established satisfactorily the whereabouts of one of the characters at a critical moment.
In scene 24 I crossed the line. You can see this at the very end of the trailer.
The omission of things in the script are particularly annoying (a) because I co-wrote the bloody thing and should have noticed, and (b) because any good writer takes care to be economical with words and only put in things which are important.
Some of these things can be fixed with pick-ups. For example, I filmed a close-up of my wife’s hands unwrapping the cellophane in our flat recently. But others have no solution beyond a major reshoot, which would be very hard to justify. So what you end up with is a subtle erosion of the quality of the film, and this is one of the reasons that a more expensive film looks more expensive. A bigger crew does mean more attention to detail and thus higher production values in every respect.
I share these thoughts with you not because I’m any less proud of Stop/Eject or feel like I need to make excuses for it, but simply to pass on a lesson the project has taught me. It’s very easy to think of a first assistant director as merely a time-keeper, but if you work without one you should appreciate that there are other strings to their bow, and your project may suffer more lasting effects than just a tired cast and crew.