By the time you read this I will have entered the Covid bubble for the still-as-yet-unannounced Shakespearian film, the beginning of two weeks of full time prep before cameras finally roll.
The week just gone has been something of a calm before the storm. It started with two important Zoom meetings: one about practicals, the other about the schedule.
The first meeting involved going through all the locations with the production designer explaining what practical lamps he planned to put in each, and me sometimes asking for additional ones. Practicals are going to be a big part of our lighting, and this sort of collaboration with the art department can make a real difference between a smoothly-running shoot and a world of pain wherever you’re trying to hide film lights because you don’t have enough practical sources.
The second meeting, coming shortly after I saw the shooting schedule for the first time, was an in-depth discussion of it with the director, producer, line producer and 1st AD. Most of my concerns – other than some days which felt uncomfortably heavy, and even one or two that seemed wastefully light – were around times of day and equipment. For example, one daylight interior scene was scheduled for the end of day, when we might be losing the light. (The next day I went through it all again by myself and made sure that any night scenes scheduled for daytime could be reasonably done with blacked-out windows.)
We also talked a lot about how things could be rejigged to get as much value as possible out of the two days that we have the crane. It’s expensive, and no-one wants it sitting around while we shoot little dialogue scenes in tiny rooms. Nor do I want one or two scenes in the film to have lots of crane shots and the rest to have none; a sprinkling of them throughout the film would be preferable, though it would mean lots of costume and make-up changes.
Another draft of the script was issued , with pretty minor changes, though one extra room has been introduced, so that will need a proper recce next time I’m there. Reading through a new draft and updating my notes takes the best part of a day, and though it can sometimes feel like a chore, every reading helps me understand the story and characters better.
I did a little more shot-listing later in the week, but it will be much better and easier to do this at the rehearsals over the next fortnight, when I can see how the actors are approaching their characters and how they’re going to use the spaces. I can even take Artemis photos if it doesn’t interrupt their process too much. Roll on rehearsals!
One of the things which I believe separates a good director of photography from a bad one is preparation. On a big production you may have weeks of paid, full-time prep, but on a micro-budget movie you may be lucky to have a single meeting before the shoot. In the latter case you’ll have to use your initiative, put in the time for free, and use Skype a lot, but either way the quality of the prep can make or break the production.
Here are ten things a DP should do to set themselves up for success before the camera rolls. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, rather it’s a run-down of the things which I have found to bear most fruit later on in the production.
1. Get inside the director’s head.
Some directors will come to you with a beautiful set of storyboards, concept art and reference images, but many won’t. Many will simply have an idea in their head of how they want it to look, and it’s your job to find out what that vision is. Often this will happen before full-time prep begins. It will consist of watching movies together, pouring over books of photos, sharing Pinterest boards or Dropboxes full of images, all the while discussing what they do and don’t like. The aim is to get such a clear idea of their vision that when you set up a shot you’ll deliver the mood they’re looking for first time.
2. Work with the art department.
The next person to get in sync with is the production designer. This is an incredibly important and symbiotic relationship; you have the power to completely destroy each others’ work, or to make each other look like geniuses! Two things you should talk about early on with the designer are the colour palette of the film (and any palettes specific to certain locations, plot threads or characters) and the aspect ratio: does the shape of the sets being designed fit the shape of the frame you’re planning to compose? Next you’ll want to discuss each set and the position of windows and practicals within it, to ensure that you’ll be able to get the lighting angles you need. For their part, the designer will want to quiz you on where the key camera positions will be, and the rough lens lengths you’ll be using, so they know where to put in the most detail and the important bits of dressing.
3. Get to know the needs of the other H.o.D.s.
Although the production designer is the most important head of department for a DP to work with, they are by no means the only one. The visual effects supervisor is increasingly a key collaborator; you should discuss the look you’re going for and how that will integrate with the VFX, and whether plates need to be shot at a higher resolution, in RAW, or any other technical requirements. You should familiarise yourself with the costume designs and discuss how those will integrate with the overall look. Similarly the make-up department will want to talk about about lens filtration, coloured lighting and anything else that may affect how their work looks. The line producer is a crucial person to get on the good side of. Sooner or later you’ll have to ask them for something expensive and unexpected, and they’re much more likely to say yes if you have tried to help them earlier on, by reducing your equipment list for example, or by hiring local camera assistants to save on accommodation costs.
When you start to scout the locations, you’ll want to pay careful attention to the direction of the sun. Which windows will it come through as it moves around over the course of the day? Are those trees or buildings likely to shadow that park bench where the characters will be sitting? With a bit of experience – and a compass, if it’s cloudy – you can estimate this, or use apps like Sun Tracker and Helios which are designed for exactly this purpose. For interiors, windows that never get direct sunlight are most convenient, allowing you to light them artificially, and thus constantly, without having to flag the real sun. For exteriors, shooting into the sun is generally most desirable, for the beauty of the backlight and the softness of the reflected fill. Of course, there will always be compromises with the other demands of the production.
Each director has a different process, but often they will draft a shot list on their own before passing it to you for feedback. There are many things for a DP to consider when going through this list. Do the shots reflect the style and visual grammar you both discussed earlier? (If not, has the director had a change of heart, or have they simply forgotten? Directors have a lot to think about!) Do the shots provide enough coverage for the editor? Are there too many shots to realistically accomplish on schedule? (Very often there are!) What grip equipment will the camera movements require? Are any special lenses or filters required, e.g. a macro lens for an extreme close-up of an eye?
6. Shoot tests.
Testing is a crucial part of the prep for both technical and creative reasons. Usually you will want to test a few different cameras and lens sets, to see which best serve the story. For example, a period film lit with a lot of genuine candlelight may work best on a sensitive camera like the Panasonic Varicam combined with soft fall-off lenses like Cooke S4s, while a sci-fi thriller might be suited to a Red or Alexa and a set of anamorphics for those classic flares. Until you’ve tested them and compared the images side by side though, you can’t be sure, and neither can the director and producers. Often costume and make-up tests will be requested, which may be combined with the camera tests to see how the different sensors render them, or maybe done separately once the camera kit is locked down. These tests are also a great opportunity for the DP to demonstrate for the director the type of lighting you plan to use to, and to make sure you really are on the same page. Ideally a DIT (digital imaging technician) will be available to grade the test footage, developing LUTs (look-up tables) if required, and providing proof of concept for the finished look of the movie.
Once the 1st AD has drafted the shooting schedule, they will show it to the DP for feedback. When determining how much can be done in a day, the 1st AD is thinking of the script page count, and they may not have seen a shot list at this point. Along with the director, the DP must bring any concerns they have about the schedule to the 1st AD in prep, or forever hold your peace! Is there enough time to get those tricky camera moves you’ve planned? Has the re-light time for the reverse been factored in? Have things been arranged in a logical order for lighting, or will things have to be torn down and put back up again later? Does the schedule permit things to be shot at the best time of day for light? Are the night scenes actually scheduled at night or will the windows have to be blacked out? Are there critical close-ups towards the end of the schedule, when the cast will be tired and no longer look their best?
However good-looking the talent may be, they will always look better under certain types of lighting than others. Often you will figure out what suits each actor after a week or so of shooting, but ideally you want to find out before principal photography begins. You can do this during testing, if the cast are available and you have enough time – trying out different key angles, fill levels, backlight and lenses to see what works best for their individual faces. Apart from anything else, this is a great way to establish trust with the cast right from the start, assuring them that they are in safe hands. If testing isn’t possible, watch some of their previous work, looking carefully at how they have been photographed.
9. Mark up your script.
There’s no point in having lots of great ideas in preproduction if you forget them when you’re on set. Everyone has a different system, but you may wish to mark up your script and/or shot list. This could include using coloured highlighters to differentiate day and night scenes at a glance, underlining any references to mood or camera angles in the stage directions, or indicating beats in the development of the story or characters which need to be reflected in how things are lit or shot.
10. Plan your lighting.
Everyone likes to get rolling as soon as possible after call time, and a big factor in achieving this is how quickly you can light. Ideally you will have planned the broad strokes of the lighting in preproduction, and communicated that plan to the gaffer. Budget permitting, the lighting crew can even pre-rig the set so that only tweaking is required when the whole unit arrives. In this case you’ll need to have been very clear and specific about what you want set up and where, drawing diagrams or approving those which the gaffer has drawn up. Often you’ll need to know the rough blocking of the scene before you can plan the lighting, so you should make sure the director indicates their intentions for this during scouts.
Every film is different, but follow the steps above and you’ll be well on your way to an efficient and productive shoot in 2018. Happy new year!
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.
As a cinematographer, the idea of shooting at night, working from a blank canvas, can be very appealing. As a director or producer comparing your schedule to the limited hours of daylight we have at this time of year, it can also seem tempting to shift things to after dark. By all means do so; it will probably look great on screen, but do consider the following things first…
Let’s not beat about the bush: it’s unpleasant. Human beings are not built to work in the dark. It’s usually cold and when it rains as well it’s one of the most depressing experiences you can have on a set. If you shoot at night, morale will suffer.
It’s slow. People don’t work as fast at night, because they’re tired and cold and they can’t see what they’re doing very well. Also everything has to be lit, which is very time-consuming. Expect to get about half as much done as you would during the day.
Location owners may not like it. Most premises will be closed at night, which usually makes it easier to film there, but the location owners will need to find a member of staff willing to stay up all night and keep an eye on the place. Could be expensive.
Power can be an issue. You’ll be using lots of lights, and homes and businesses you might normally run power from will not be so readily accessible after hours. You’re probably in generator territory, which means hire costs, transportation issues, refuelling, annoying trip-outs even though you’re drawing a full kilowatt less than the generator’s alleged maximum load… and of course nightmares for the sound department.
Other logistical things which are straightforward in the daytime can prove difficult at night, like catering and access to toilet facilities. Crews need a lot of hearty, hot food to get them through the night, but who’s going to cook it or warm it up at 2 o’clock in the morning? Hot beverages should also be in plentiful supply.
Many buildings have some kind of external lighting than comes on at night, either on a timer or motion-activated. The DP is unlikely to want that on, so the locations department must ensure access to the switches.
Generally locations will be quieter at night, but beware of drunken revellers, street-cleaning machines and automatic systems that kick in in the middle of the night.
On A Cautionary Tale ,we have a script that is set entirely in daylight, but in order to fit it all into three days of shooting, some of it will almost certainly have to be done after dark. The most important question must always be: is it right for the story? In our case, with the film’s supernatural undertones, I think darkness can only add to the atmosphere.
Tomorrow the film I’m currently DPing, The Deaths of John Smith, has an extremely packed schedule. This has got me thinking about how a filmmaker can keep themselves on schedule when faced with a seemingly impossible amount of material to get through.
The most effective action is of course to take out a big red pen and start cutting down the script. I know personally I find this very difficult, particularly if I’m both the writer and the director, because I’ve convinced myself by this point that everything in my shooting draft absolutely has to be there. Even though I know that, when I get to the edit, some scenes will inevitably get deleted and some dialogue will get trimmed. The challenge is to identify those trims now, on set, and save myself the trouble of shooting them.
Beware that simply cutting some dialogue is unlikely to have a signficant effect on your schedule, because most of your time on set is spent not shooting or even rehearsing, but setting up. Take a long, hard look at your shotlist or storyboards. Do you really need all that coverage?
Consider a Single Developing Shot (SDS). This means shooting an entire scene in just one set-up, with some camera movement and perhaps some dynamic blocking to maintain interest. The danger here is of doing a ridiculous number of takes of this one set-up because you know you have nothing to cut to if it’s not perfect (a trap I’ve fallen into more than once). I would advise qualifying your SDS with a cutaway or two to claw back a bit of flexibility in the edit and ease the pressure on the master shot.
If you can’t see a way to reduce the number of shots you need, consider ways to make those shots quicker to film. The most time-consuming shots for a director of photography to light are reverses, where the camera flips around to shoot in the opposite direction to all the previous angles, meaning every light has to be moved, along with the video village and all the piles of idle equipment in the background. Can you get away without a reverse, by changing the blocking a little? That character who has their back to camera – could they cheat their profile towards us a bit? It’s cheesy and not very realistic, but TV shows often achieve this by having one character talk to another’s back.
Down-the-line close-ups are also quick to do. This means that, after doing your wide, you leave the camera more or less where it is (and, crucially, the lights too) and put on a longer lens to get your close-ups. Watch your continuity carefully, because down-the-line cuts will really show up any errors.
If all else fails, the wrap time is looming and you’ve still got half a dozen set-ups to get, it’s best if those set-ups are close-ups or even cutaways. Because you and a skeleton crew can come back another day, maybe to a different location, maybe with a stand-in for your lead actor, and shoot tight pick-ups. Clearly this isn’t going to work with a wide master shot, for which you would need your whole cast and crew back, and the same set/location.
Finally, when working as a DP I have occasionally been asked to speed up the shoot by not lighting it. It is usually at this point that I feign hearing problems. Yes, not lighting stuff will speed up the shoot enormously. But you’re no longer making a professional film; you’re making a home video with an expensive camera. Don’t ask your DP to do this – you’ll only offend them. Instead, perhaps ask what camera angle would require the least re-lighting.
What tricks and techniques have you used to speed up your shoots?
I recently served as DP and postproduction supervisor on Fled, writer-director-producer Brendan O’Neill’s 2013 entry to the SciFi London 48hr Film Challenge. I asked him to share what he’s learnt from this and other film challenges he’s entered.
Brendan, this is not your first 48 hour film challenge. How many have you done before and what are the biggest things you learnt from them that you applied to this latest one?
I’ve done several now, 3 straight 48’s and 2 London Sci-Fi Society 48’s plus a time limited music video competition. My first ever film Black Widow was made for a local Birmingham competition called Film Dash in 2008. My second film What Goes Up Must Come Down was shot over a weekend for a non time limited competition run by Filmaka in the USA. I did a lot of ringing around and pre-production for this one as I wanted to really push the number of locations I could fit in. I found that by getting through to the right people, explaining who you are and what you want help with in a structured way can be very successful.
I made another 48 hour film Seconds Out for the same Film Dash competition in 2009 which placed 3rd out of 24 entries. I achieved some good production value by piggy backing a real event – a boxing contest held in a Birmingham hotel – with the help of the promoter who is also a local filmmaker.
The first really big production I put together was for Internalised – our first attempt at the London Sci-Fi Society’s 48 hour filmmaking competition in 2011. I spent 6 weeks pre-producing, location scouting, auditioning etc. and assembled a cast and crew of 50 to help us make the film. I also fed them all via an in-kind deal with local vegetarian catering company ChangeKitchen.
I suppose the first lesson I learnt on that was to not try to do it all on your own. The second being to be very careful who you take on board to help you and define clear roles and responsibilities for those involved. It can be difficult when you are working with volunteers but if you can convey the ambition and vision of what you are trying to do and have some previous track record then you can build feature size crews to help.
The shoot went very well but we were let down in post-production by not getting all the VFX/CGI we wanted into the competition version. You need to have your VFX/CGI team in the same place as your editors as it’s asking too much to render and then transmit the large files involved from remote locations when time is at a premium.
Our second attempt at the London Sci-Fi society 48 hour competition in 2012 was a World War II themed film called Around Again. We were looking for unusual locations with built-in production value and had identified a Midlands WWII era tunnel complex as a good location. We then found out that the person who controlled access to the tunnels also owned an extensive WWII costume wardrobe that had been used on Atonement and Band of Brothers so we dropped the tunnels location idea and went for battle/bunker scenes. The production value that all the great uniforms and replica / decommissioned firearms gave us was superb.
We were also very fortunate that our friend with the costume wardrobe Craig Leonard and his pyrotechnics colleague Matt Harley of Trinity VFX knew lots of German army / SS re-enactors who were more than happy to appear in the film. It shows the value of networking and being pro-active as that one contact expanded in all sorts of interesting ways to help us make a great looking film. I’m still reaping the benefits as Matt supplied the SWAT team outfits and arms for Fled as well as the GCHQ-esque second main location.
We were very surprised that the film didn’t shortlist but I think as producer if we’d had more clearly defined sci-fi elements in it then that would have helped.
Moving on to Fled, how much work had you put into writing and producing it before the challenge began on 10am on Saturday?
I spent about 6 weeks in pre-production. I hadn’t directed for a while so the first thing I did was do a smaller 48 hour competition which was running as part of the Stoke Your Fires festival.
[The next thing] I did was launch a crowd funding campaign via Indiegogo. I raised about £850 after fees so it helped a lot but it was a very labour intensive way of doing it with limited results. I didn’t have any donors who weren’t already linked to me in some way – mostly through Facebook.
Fortunately an established writer who I’d met twice at the Screenwriters Festival helped me a lot with an early and substantial individual donation. I think he likes my DIY attitude to getting films made. The previous year I also received a substantial donation via a Twitter relationship I had developed so it demonstrates that both traditional and social media based networking can’t be ignored.
Once the Indiegogo campaign was out of the way I worked on getting everything together. I had hoped for some substantial co-producer support but this didn’t really happen and the fact that I had to produce it nearly all myself definitely affected the amount of time I was able to spend on developing the script with my pal Dominic Carver as script editor. That said certain people such as Ella Carman, Matt Harley and stand in make-up artist Kerris Charles helped restore my battered faith in people.
I was surprised at how large the crew was (around 20). Do many hands make light work on a time-pressured project like this? Was there a degree of over-crewing in case some people didn’t turn up?
I’ve been on shoots where I haven’t had enough production assistants and runner/drivers so I tend to have some over-capacity just in case. The nature of the competition also means that it’s better to have more people to help in case the criteria you are given by the organisers are particularly difficult to handle. You are given a title, a line of dialogue and a prop/action by the organizers on the morning of the competition.
Although I did have some crew drop out prior to the competition I was able to replace them. My regular sound person dropped out with a foot injury so it was fortunate that Nicola Dale who was going to be post sound runner assisting Matt Katz and Joe Harper on the Sunday was able to step up to the mark and deliver great production sound with the help of Chantal Feliu Gurri on boom. Fortunately I’d met Nicola at a networking event a few weeks earlier and offered her the chance to come and work with some more experienced talent.
I do wish I had had some actor back-up however as someone dropped out on the Sunday morning pleading illness. It’s difficult to ask actors to turn up unpaid for what might only be extra type roles in a 5 minute film but it’s also VERY damaging when those who say they’ll do it drop out at short notice. It was especially galling as I’d written a role especially for this young man.
The consequence was that I had to bump someone who was only meant to be an extra into a role with lines which in my opinion definitely affected the quality of the film. For me Quality is King – with so many people having access to great technology you really have to try to ensure production values are as high as possible across the board in order to make your film stand out.
How did you approach integrating the challenge criteria (line of dialogue, prop and optional theme) into the film?
I try to build mechanisms into the script to deal with those things i.e. the wireless in the bunker scene in Around Again. That was there to help us field any difficult lines of dialogue we were given. Unfortunately last year we were given a very modern day line about the SEIS investment scheme so it was a bit clunky which is ironic given that it is a scheme that can help filmmakers raise finance!
We were lucky in that the criteria [this year] were very easy to integrate into the script.
Prop: A key. A single key is put on a key ring with three near identical keys.
The initial idea was that [the entity] was an alien civilization that had had to flee some dying star millennia ago and had lain dormant on Mars until the first manned landings. This fitted the FLED title well. The key scene in the church echoes this when you can just make out the ethereal voices saying, “We can’t go back, we can’t go back.”
I was able to fit in the compulsory dialogue line as part of the NASA controllers trying to contact the Mars Explorer. The key on to keyring action/prop was easy and was the same one we got last year!
What was the schedule for the 48 hours in terms of when you started and finished filming, when the edit was locked, etc.?
At 10.00am DoP Neil Oseman and his gaffer Colin Smith went to the church location to pre-light and set up ready for filming whilst I awaited the criteria from the organisers. That way we could hit the ground running once we had a script finalized. The criteria arrived by text at about 11.15.
Fortunately the criteria given were very easy to integrate into my script so I arrived on set around 12.30 – 13.00 having picked up the VFX team at their hotel on the way. We needed to shoot the scenes they needed first in order to give them as much time as possible to work their magic.
I had planned to try and finish by 8pm so that the crew would be reasonably fresh for an early start the next day. I think we finished at around 21.15 and had a quick drink together before heading home. The next day we were all on set for 8.00am and set up for the first scenes quickly. I intended for us to finish around 2pm but there was a bit of creep to 3pm even though we trimmed and dropped some non essential scenes on the way. At both locations Neil and his regular gaffer Colin Smith, who was well assisted by Jay Somerville, did a brilliant job with the lighting.
Any plans to take part in future 48 hour challenges?
No. I don’t think so. I think I’ve done enough of them now. I want to either do some really high quality, well planned and developed festival oriented shorts or hopefully a first feature. I think 48 hour contests are a good discipline for young or emerging filmmakers as it gives you a focus and stress tests some of the relationships you might be developing. All a bit frantic but I’ve learnt a lot from them and come out a stronger and hopefully better filmmaker.
I think for this year’s contest just doing one high production value location per day and insisting that the VFX team were at the same post-production site as the edit team really made a difference. I was really fortunate to have really strong post-production edit and sound team and a great composer in Hans Hess who was at the ready to do the score. Hopefully people can see the difference those elements made in the quality of the competition version of the film.
Lastly I couldn’t have done it without Neil Oseman and a great international team of volunteer cast and crew. I hope that I’ll be able to work with them all again at some point. I’d particularly like to thank “King of the Indies” actor Michael Parle who came all the way from Ireland.
A few years back I taught a module on Visual Effects for filmmaking degree students at the SAE Institute in north London. Rather than getting into the nitty gritty of how to actually do VFX, it focused instead on how directors and producers should approach and plan for them.
Here is one of the examples I gave, using a shot from my 2005 feature Soul Searcher. Joe Fallow (Ray Bullock Jnr.) sprints down the platform of Hereford station as the Hades Express departs, bearing away the villain of the piece and the kidnapped love interest.
The train was a 1:18 scale miniature and was dropped into the live action plate by means of a simple, static matte drawn in Photoshop – essentially a splitscreen effect.
But what if I, as director, had chosen a different camera angle?
To achieve this version, the model train would have needed to have been shot against a green screen to make it appear in front of Joe and the platform. This would have complicated shooting the miniature slightly, as lighting for a green screen can be quite time-consuming.
Here we have the opposite; now Joe is in the foreground, so he’s the one that needs to be shot against a green screen. Since he and the station are full size, the green screen would need to be much bigger and would require much more light. And remember we’re now talking about an impact on the main unit’s time on a location, rather than a small model unit in a studio, so the cost implications are magnified.
Finally, what if I’d gone for a camera move? Now we’re into motion control rigs, to record the camera’s movement on location and applied a scaled-down version of that same move to the camera shooting the miniature. Either that or the live action plate has to be 3D-tracked in post-production, and that tracking data fed into the motion control rig that shoots the miniature. More time, more people, more equipment, more money.
Several weeks ago I evaluated Stop/Eject’s shooting schedule. As noted in that post, we got behind schedule more than once during production. Today I want to look at the reasons why, so I can remind myself next time I draw up a schedule, and so that you lovely readers can perhaps pre-empt similar problems on your own projects.
Lack of a First Assistant Director. The key role of this crew member is to keep things running to schedule, and we didn’t have one. Two people were lined up and then dropped out due to paying work, and no other applicants were forthcoming. Difficult to see what could have been done to avoid this, other than raising more money to pay everyone.
Lack of a separate Director of Photography and Camera Operator. I chose to act as my own DP on Stop/Eject and, when operator Rick Goldsmith was only able to do half of the shoot, chose not to find a replacement for the remainder and fill that role myself as well. This is something I’ve done on many of my previous productions, so I knew full well that it wasn’t a good idea; it slows things down and it reduces the time I can spend working with the actors. But I did it anyway because I figured any DP worth their salt would balk at the pathetic equipment we had available.
Lack of other skilled crew. There were only two people on the crew who were really handy with power tools, Col and Steve Giller, and Steve was only around for a couple of days. So when we arrived at a new location and had to assemble the alcove set and rig lights from the ceiling, there were only one or two people doing these two most time-consuming tasks. Solution: ask around in pre-production for DIYers who fancy helping out on a film.
Large number of costume changes. With eleven story days and a lead actress playing two different versions of her character, there was a lot of costume swapping, each one accompanied by a hair and make-up change too. I’d advise you to always try to minimise the number of story days in your script, and to carefully schedule your shoot to reduce the number of switches.
Large number of locations. Even though we found several locations in one building, there was still a lot of moving around, which wastes huge amounts of time. Ideally you should shoot in only one location each day.
Fatigue. As mentioned in my earlier post, scheduling long days and/or wrapping late gets you into a destructive cycle because your cast and crew work slower the next day due to lack of sleep.
Composition issues. This is an odd one which nobody foresaw. We shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio, 2:35:1, which is a very wide frame, but we had many scenes set in the alcove, which was a tall, narrow set. Think about how wide a 2.35:1 shot has to be to see the head of a standing actress and a tape recorder on a two foot high table at the same time, and how much will be revealed at the sides of frame. Combine this with the fact that some alcove scenes were shot in a corridor at the back of the shop location that was only half the width the alcove was meant to be, so one wall always had to be out of frame. And then factor in that you can’t compress the vertical space by going for a high angle shot because then you won’t see the face of the actress as she looks down at the recorder, and you can’t compress it with a low angle shot because you’ll reveal the lights hanging from the ceiling. Yes, it was a nightmare shooting in that little alcove. There was a lot of time wasted in scratching my head over how to cover the scenes effectively while framing out the wall and the lights. This might seem like a very esoteric problem, but I can derive three points of good general advice from it:
Think carefully when choosing the aspect ratio for your film. Consider the shape and size of your key locations and props. When making The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot, DP Oliver Downey pointed out that the tall, spindly Swordsman puppet and the tall training room set were not well suited to the 2.35:1 anamorphic ratio we were shooting.
Think twice before rigging lights to the ceiling. This is very much a double-edged sword. Although it takes a long time to hang lamps from the ceiling, once they’re up there you will find it relatively quick to light each of your set-ups. But if you then realise that the ceiling’s going to be in shot, taking those lamps down or altering your composition to frame them out could be a big time-waster.
Small locations will slow you down. Working in a confined space with lots of lamps, grip and mics is slow, hot and unpleasant. Avoid it wherever possible. More space means lights can be quickly set up on stands further away, rather than having to be rigged time-consumingly to walls or furniture.
So those are the main things that slowed down Stop/Eject, and of course there are many, many other things that can hold you up when shooting. And although many of these are impossible to foresee or prevent, a little thinking time in pre-production can identify a lot of these issues and help you plan accordingly.
Everyone on the cast and crew probably wanted to kill me because of the schedule. The days were too long and the turnaround times were too short. But let’s look at how the schedule developed in pre-production and how it turned out in practice.
Before we begin, some basic info. The script is 19 pages long, so theoretically 19 minutes. There are 31 scenes, 11 story days and 14 locations. Yeah, in a nutshell, ridiculous for a short film.
Six of the locations we found in one building: Magpie, in Matlock. Most of the remaining ones were in Belper, 11 miles down the road.
When we were going to shoot last October, it was a four-and-a-half day schedule. The first half day we would have been without the lead actress (who is in almost every scene) and the last half day we would have been without anyone except a skeleton crew, for shooting close-ups of the tape recorder.
When the project got up and running again this year, I immediately increased the schedule to five days. I had been really freaked out in October about getting it all shot in essentially just four.
Initially I wanted to shoot Monday-Friday, since weekdays seemed most convenient for the locations, but the two lead actors we had at the time both temped during the week and wanted to do as much as possible at the weekend, so I went with Saturday-Wednesday. (Ironically, it would have better suited Georgie, who ultimately played the lead role, if we had shot Monday-Friday.)
Remember that the first and foremost goal of your schedule is to minimise the number of location moves, because they waste phenomenal amounts of time. (A common mistake is to consider only the driving time between locations and overlook the time it takes to derig all the equipment, pack it into the vehicles, unpack it and set it up again at the other end. And don’t forget that at least one of your vehicles will probably get lost during the location move, so budget in time for that as well.)
I knew that those of us who weren’t local to the area could stay at Magpie, and that we could also stay at Sophie’s in Belper from the third day onwards. So the most logical schedule was to shoot all the Magpie stuff Saturday-Monday, then move to Belper on Monday night and shoot everything there on Tuesday and Wednesday.
This was all well and good until Georgie was cast a week before the shoot, and she had a prior commitment in London on Sunday morning. This meant we would lose her at 7pm on Saturday and not get her back for 24 hours.
There was approximately a day’s worth of material that could be shot without her, but half of that consisted of tape recorder close-ups that couldn’t be filmed until we had her master shots to match them to, master shots from various locations that couldn’t possibly all be shot on Saturday. So it was clear that Sunday’s schedule would be pretty sparse until Georgie returned at 7pm, shooting just the Businessman scenes in Belper. The half-day of tape recorder close-ups would have to wait until Thursday, extending the schedule.
The other fixed point I was working around was the basement location (in Belper), which was only available on the Tuesday. This prevented me from simply flipping the schedule and doing all the Belper stuff first, then the Magpie stuff.
Two full days of shooting would take place on the shop floor of Magpie, and it was essential that those were consecutive so that we wouldn’t have to restore the shop and then redress it again later. Given the availability of Georgie and the basement, the only solid two-day stretch was from Sunday evening through to Tuesday lunchtime, which even then isn’t a full two days. So that’s where the shop floor had to go, and the rest of the schedule just had to fit around it.
Since many of us would be staying at Magpie over the weekend, I was keen to do as much filming there as possible during that time, so I scheduled in the living room, bedroom and nursing home scenes for Saturday. But then I realised that this left the major exterior scenes nowhere to go except Wednesday – the last day of the shoot. If the weather was bad, we would have nowhere left to postpone them to.
So the living room, bedroom and nursing home got moved to Wednesday and the exteriors slotted in on Saturday, with the proviso that they would be swapped back if Saturday was rainy.
I had arrived at a final schedule, which looked like this:
As you can see, there are some tight turnarounds, particularly during the shop floor stuff in the middle of the schedule. This was partly a result of squeezing two days of shop floor material into one full day, one morning and one evening. It was also difficult to balance conflicting things like the need to wait for it to get dark at the end of the day to shoot some scenes, but also needing to get up early enough in the morning to film exteriors outside the shop when the road wasn’t too busy.
I definitely felt like I was fighting the clock throughout the shoot.
We wrapped more or less on time on Saturday, but had dropped the sun GVs and a crucial wide shot for the weir scene.
On Sunday things kept to schedule until the evening, when we overran and wrapped about 75 minutes late.
We wrapped most of the cast and crew slightly later than the anticipated time of 10:30pm on Monday, but Colin and I cracked through the cutaways and wrapped the day overall a few minutes early.
On Tuesday we finished at Magpie at noon, not 11am, but made up some of the time on the location move (which almost never happens) and got to the basement only half an hour late. We wrapped there still about 30 minutes behind, but made up the time at the cemetery. Then we got ahead of schedule by changing the bridge shot (scene 15) from night to day, thus saving an hour of setting up lights, and were able to retire to Sophie’s and get the kitchen scene in a very relaxed fashion.
Wednesday was without a doubt the toughest day. Although the living room, the bedroom, the nursing home and the alcove set were all in the same building, moving between them still took time, and since we were all fatigued it was like wading through treacle. By lunchtime we were two hours behind and this only got worse as we moved onto the critical alcove scenes after dinner. It must have been getting on for 3am by the time we wrapped.
Thursday turned out very differently to what we’d planned. Fortunately Georgie and Ollie were both available to pick up the weir wide shots. We started late because everyone was so knackered, and couldn’t shoot at the first location we visited (due to heavy rainfall swelling the river), so had to move to another one. We finally got the two shots in the can by about 3pm, and decided to leave most of the planned tape recorder close-ups to another time. (I’ll be shooting them here in Hereford next week.)
I’ll discuss why we kept falling behind schedule in a future post, but I’d like to end on a cautionary note. Not allowing sufficient turnaround time is a vicious circle. I hated the mornings on the shoot because I could see that people weren’t getting up fast enough to get out of the door at the necessary time. I couldn’t hassle them because they’d been up late the previous night and were understandably very tired, but I knew that by starting late we would end up finishing late again and the cycle would continue.
The only way to lengthen the turnaround time would have been to have added another day to the schedule, and this of course brings its own problems in the form of increased costs and people’s availability. This is why making unpaid short films will always be a messy, unpleasant business and if you’re at all rational you’d do well to avoid such shoots like the plague.
Alright, so you’ve seen the podcasts on making a wagon light and sandbags, but what else are we doing to specifically prepare for Stop/Eject, now that most of our funding is in place?
Firstly, we’ve pencilled in some shooting dates: April 21st-25th. Hopefully by then the weather will be nice and the trees will have leaves on.
We’ve also been sorting out cast and crew, as much as is practical this far in advance. For the most part this is the same line-up as last year, but the crowd-funding campaign did bring a few extra people to our attention.
(As time slips away and you hurtle towards production on a low budget project, you often wish you had had more time to prepare. But the reality is that when you’re not paying people, you can’t plan too far ahead, because a key person might suddenly get some paying work that clashes with your dates, and then everything’s thrown out of whack. It’s just the nature of the beast.)
Colin has priced up the alcove set which needs to be built. It’s a fairly simple piece, not much bigger than a portaloo, but hopefully more enticing. But it does raise further issues of where to build, who can build, how to transport and where to shoot, all of which we’ll gradually be addressing over the coming weeks.
We’ve already started weighing up the costs of hiring a van, to get the equipment and set around.
Sophie has written off to local food businesses in the hope of getting sponsorship to help feed the cast and crew.
And finally, as the podcasts make clear, I’ve been thinking about the equipment we’ll need. I have some, Colin has some, we’ve built some, we’ll borrow some, and if we can afford it we’ll hire some.
As things progress, there will be detailed blog entries about many of these topics. For example, I’m planning a run-through of all of my equipment and what it does, a look at the ins and outs of scheduling a shoot, spotlights on some of the crew and their roles (if they let me!) and a blow-by-blow account of the set build. And I expect there will be some more podcasts too.