For many, there is nothing more artistically satisfying than watching a film crew in full-on, full-scale production mode.
The words “action” and “cut” are terms of the highest creative caliber. Who doesn’t (at least at some point in their life) dream of being the captain of an Academy Award-winning ship? Many simply do not grasp the fact that being a film Director is more than berets and bullhorns.
Film Directors are the beacons of communication, the positive energy, the creative solutions that bind together each pixel of a film’s finished product. film sets are controlled chaos; they’re made up of exuberant personalities, high-tension decision-making, and then . . . silence.
In our overview of on set film production on an indie film set, we’ll discuss:
- Arriving to set
- The walk-through
- Working with talent on set
- Blocking shots
- On set terminology
- What we mean by “The Bubble”
- Working with your DP and Script Supervisor
Essentially, what’s important to take note of, is that, while on set production is not the only aspect of the Film Director’s journey, it is easily the most universally recognizable. And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, there is much more than meets the eye.
Let’s go behind-the-scenes of behind-the-scenes, and examine at a deeper level, the on set production world of an Indie Film Director, so that when you get there you know HOW the machine operates! Keep in mind, however, that no set is identical to the other.
Some may read this article and disagree with the protocol described here; please accept this as a starting-point to navigate the turbulent waters of an on set production. This is not a rule book. Consider this a foundation for those lacking experience, but who wish to step in with their best foot forward!
After you arrive to set (always 15 minutes early) you will be thrown into the thick of it — and expected to not only just survive, but lead while thriving. Sometimes you’ll have visited the shooting location previously, though other times you may arrive to set and it will be the first time you’re ever setting foot within the space.
Regardless, the rest of your cast and crew will show up ready to commit the next 10+ hours or so to manifesting what was just a vision in your head, a conversation between colleagues, and before that, a dream.
Before cameras roll, on day one, you’ll need to call a quick huddle-up; a (possible) privilege of an Indie Film Director, is that you’re more than likely to be better acquainted with your crew than a studio Director would be. So thank them by giving a quick speech before the shoot officially begins.
Everybody from Producer to PA should be called to attention, in a single location. As the Director, take a brief moment, enjoy the calm, and thank everybody for their commitment to the cause. You are embarking on a long journey together.
Some films shoot for a week, some for a year, or more. Projecting your gratitude immediately into the equation will not go unnoticed when the goin’ gets tough. It’s easier, not to mention more rewarding, to work with a Director who not only cares about the project, but who cares about her/his team’s well-being. After this brief moment of thanks, accompanied by a cup of coffee, things gets pretty real.
“It takes more discipline than you might imagine to think, even for thirty seconds, in the noisy, confusing, high-pressure atmosphere of a film set. But a few seconds’ thought can often prevent a serious mistake being made about something that looks good at first glance.” – Stanley Kubrick
First day on set? Do a walk-through. Last day on set? Do a walk-through. Basically, there’s no looking back and you’re past the point of no return so seize the project by the horns and begin to solve the puzzle of materializing your vision.
Referring to your schedule (which you so carefully crafted in pre-production ) do a step-by-step, scene-by-scene walkthrough of what the day’s shoot will entail within this specific location. For this walkthrough, you shall be accompanied by your Director of Photography, Assistant Director, and probably a Producer or three.
This walkthrough will allow you all to get a better grasp on any potential pitfalls. I’m going to tell you now: the shoot will RARELY go according to plan. Some of the most simple shots can be deceptively complex, and therefore time-consuming. With a general game plan in your back pocket, you’re better equipped to deal with the inevitable situations that arise throughout the shoot.
So, live the dream:
- Take your two hands, using your pointer-fingers and thumbs.
- Create a square.
- Frame-up where the action will be taking place.
Physically show your brethren where the camera will be, what the shot will call for, and explain to them what you see. Be prepared to ask questions and defend your decisions. It’s time to stop dreaming, and start doing!
Depending on their call times, your Actors may begin showing up. As they do, throughout the day (especially if it’s their first day) take a moment to greet them and welcome them to set. It’s your job to ensure that they feel like the most important aspect of the film. Keep them happy!
There is nothing worse than working with Actors who don’t want to be there. Just as you brought your crew up-to-date with the walk-through, give your Actors a brief description of what the day’s shoot will entail.
Well, we’re here: on set and ready to shoot. All eyes are on you, expecting some solid ideas on how to get from point A to point B. The distance between A and B is found within each shot’s blocking. Blocking refers to the rehearsed actions of the Actors and the cameras, working together in harmony, to capture the vision you’re striving for.
Referring to your call sheet, you’ll begin to block your first shots/sequences. Just as soon as your walk-through is finished, your AD and DP will get to work on having the necessary departments break into action.
Blocking shots is essentially choreographing a dance between the Actors and the camera. You’ll need to let the Actors know what actions they’ll be doing: “You’ll be sitting here, then standing here, then you walk over here, and grab the phone.”
Meanwhile, you’ll be directing the DP as well: “You’ll be in a close-up here, then pan left as they stand, you’ll dolly as they walk here, and pan left to grab the phone.”
Make sure your Actors know where their eye-lines are (where they’ll be looking) and be sure to allow your DP to get set and comfortable with their frame. There is quite a bit of time going into each frame of the film. The DP’s job is to make each second of the movie look gorgeous.
Additionally, just like knowing your DP Lingo was important during pre-production, there is also some urgency with the Directors’ lingo you’ll be expected to know during on set production. Let’s go over these terms in the order you’ll be hearing them on set, for every single shot you take.
ROLL CAMERA: This is the direction you give the camera department so they know to begin recording.
SPEEDING: This is the term the camera and sound departments will call back so you can be sure they’re indeed rolling.
SET: This is the word your Cam Op/DP will say to you, to inform you they are ready for the shot to begin.
SLATE-IN: This is the direction the Director of Photography will tell their crew so the clapboard can be brought into frame, to mark each shot for the Editor.
ACTION: This is the (famous) word you’ll call out to let everybody on set know that the take is starting.
ON A ROLL: This tells your camera and sound departments to keep rolling, even though the shot has been completed.
BACK TO ONE: This tells everybody to go back to the beginning of the take.
CUT: This tells camera and sound departments to cease rolling.
HOLD: This is what anybody can call out, if there is a safety issue, or a need to stop production momentarily.
“To make a film is easy; to make a good film is war. To make a very good film is a miracle.” – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Over the course of the day, you’ll set-up and break-down multiple times per scene. As you’re shooting, the crew will be working around you. Prepare for constant communication: question after question, confirmation after confirmation.
Luckily, these questions and confirmations should be communicated directly to you by only a very select group of individuals. Why’s that? Well, because you’re now in what we commonly refer to as “The Bubble.”
The Bubble consists of you (the Director), the DP, the 1st AD, and the Scripty (more on them later). Now, a Producer has free-range and can enter The Bubble whenever they see fit, but ultimately, in an effort to not overwhelm the Director, all questions must be brought up the chain of command. Otherwise, there will be no order, and too many people asking you too many things, all at once.
The AD department streamlines questions and confirmations your way from a logistical standpoint. The DP and Scripty streamline questions and confirmations via both creative, technical, and continuity standpoints, making them, essentially, your two best friends on set.
Besides your DP and Producers, you have two other major lifelines on set with you to support the project and keep you from well, basically going insane:
The 1st AD will be barking out the current shot being completed and what’s to come next! Essentially the 1st AD is the bad guy so you don’t have to be. They are your voice to the rest of the crew, to ensure that you’re able to communicate effectively without being stretched too thin.
In addition, your 1st Assistant Director will also be in charge of keeping the shoot on schedule. To be honest, it takes a very specific personality to be a 1st AD. They basically have to be the nicest jerk in the room.
They need to be loud enough to yell “quiet on set” effectively, but also charismatic enough to keep your Director of Photography from hijacking the shoot (as DPs sometimes get hung-up on minuscule details and perfecting every element of the frame). Time vs. perfection = film set conflict in a nutshell. That’s where the 1st AD comes in to the rescue so that you don’t look like the bad guy!
Your Scripty is also your best friend, as it is their job to make sure that you don’t let any stupid mistakes make it into the movie. Is there a sandbag in the frame that shouldn’t be there? Well, your Scripty will probably be the one to notice it first.
Between takes, did your Actress switch from using her left hand to her right hand, while drinking her coffee? Well, if she does, your Scripty will let you know, so that you can remedy the situation. Continuity is key when it comes to the responsibilities of the Script Supervisor.
Be sure to keep an open dialogue with this person, as it is often easy to find yourself concentrating on other things. Your Scripty is essentially your safety net so USE your safety net!
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Each role on a film set is crucial to the success of the project.
While this may be a very simplified description of what on set production entails for an Indie Film Director, you can be sure that this is (at least) the essential framework to keep in mind when you’re trying to set up your own indie film shoots. The best way to become an indie filmmaker is to just start shooting!
Now that you’re armed with a greater understanding of how the beast is born and tamed, I hope you’ll incorporate these elements into your own projects. And remember to stay cool.
Sometimes filmmaking is hell, but a great team ensures that you can walk through the fire and come out the other side unscathed, with an excellent product in hand! That is of course, after post-production, which we’ll cover in this article.