principal photography

What Happens During Principal Photography?

When the Actors are on set and the cameras are rolling, you are in principal photography. It is often referred to as production, which separates this time period from pre-production and post-production. This is the time that most scenes get shot and the entire crew is focused on shooting the movie. While the Director works with the main crew, there is sometimes a second unit shooting simultaneously, catching pieces of the film in order to making shooting more efficient.

Now, you might notice I wrote most scenes. While there are Producers who can claim to be the greatest schedulers on the planet, there are a variety of reasons why you might not get everything you need in principal photography. It has nothing to do with the quality of scheduling and everything to do with the nature of the filmmaking beast.

In order to understand principal photography, it will help to put it in context. So let’s look at how departments prep for production and what they do during production.

As we explore the topic of principal photography, we’ll discuss:

  1. What happens before principal photography?
  2. Day-to-day during principal photography
  3. Second unit
  4. What does the Editor do during principal photography?
  5. Pickups
  6. Reshoots
  7. Rescheduling

What Happens Before Principal Photography

Pre-production covers everything leading up to the film shoot, from hiring the crew to finding the locations. Once all of that is secured, you move into prep. This is the time period is which every department has consulted and collaborated with the Director and is in the practical phase of preparation. All the costumes and all the elements of production design are mobilized and staged for the shoot. There might be camera tests, workflow tests, makeup tests – all the things that could go wrong are tested to make sure things run smoothly during principal photography. During prep, the Director will create a shot list or storyboards and may also have the opportunity to rehearse with the Actors.

The Assistant Director (AD) is the one who handles most of the scheduling logistics and creates the call sheet that tells everyone when to be on set and where to go. The call sheet has a lot of important information. It tells you what scenes are going to be shot that day, who will be on set, including Actors and crew, along with contact information and other resources. It’s essentially a roadmap of each day during principal photography for the main unit and often has sides attached to it. Sides are the pages of the script that will be shot that day.

After principal photography, there are a few reasons a production might have to roll cameras again. Reshoots, rescheduling and pickups are all a part of the process, but some of them should be avoided.

Day-to-Day During Principal Photography

The main unit is the crew on set with the Director, working with the lead Actors, shooting each scene of the script while the AD runs the set and keeps everyone on schedule. Though the call sheet has all the scenes to be shot, it does not break it down into coverage – that is, the various shots it will take to complete a scene — so the AD keeps track of the shot list to make sure that the Director doesn’t get hung up on a particular scene and fall behind schedule. The rest of the crew is in constant motion, making sure all props are available, the sets are dressed and that from scene to scene, things move smoothly and efficiently.

The first day (well, sometimes even the first week) of a shoot can be quite stressful and there is usually a period of adjustment to get the kinks out. From getting everyone to set to wrapping up at the end of the day, there are a lot of things that can fall through the cracks.

Each day ends with the relief that everything the crew set out to capture is in the can. While the Directors and the Actors go home to prep for the next day, the rest of the crew stays behind to wrap (put away equipment, secure it, etc) and one important person, usually a Production Assistant has to get all the paperwork (called the football) back to the production office, and the film, (or camera cards these days) back to the lab so it can be processed for the Editor. Once the equipment is put away and the film is on the road to processing, everyone can go home and get a good night’s sleep to prepare for the next day. Except for the AD, who is probably still working on the call sheet. So, stay awake until you get it!

Second Unit

The second unit is a separate crew that shoots scenes or parts of scenes that don’t require the main cast. They can be establishing shots or inserts and sometimes even stunts. The second unit will have its own Director and Cinematographer, but the Second Unit Director is hired to fulfill the vision of the Director of the entire production and will want to match the look and the feel of the main unit because this footage will be cut together with what the main unit is shooting. You may also hear the term splinter unit. A splinter unit is usually a few members of the camera department who split off to grab shots while the main unit is shooting without a dedicated Director.

What Does the Editor Do During Principal Photography?

Most Editors are hired for principal photography because it’s better to know while you are still shooting if the coverage is working. The Editor is a very important member of the crew and the Script Supervisor takes notes on set to keep her in the loop. An Editor will usually get the footage within a day or two of each shoot day and will start editing the picture together. If the Editor feels like there is something missing, she can consult with the Director to see if they can get it added to the schedule. This can be inserts or other shots that help the scene tell the story better. Depending on how critical the needs are, an Editor will usually build a list and keep track of the shooting schedule to make sure that any shots that are needed can be grabbed before moving to a new location.

Editorial is often referred to as the last rewrite of the script. This is when you discover what worked on paper doesn’t necessarily make as much sense on the screen. Or perhaps test audiences asked consistently for something that wasn’t there.

Pickups, Reshoots and Rescheduling

After principal photography, there are a few reasons a production might have to roll cameras again. Reshoots, rescheduling, and pickups are all a part of the process, but some of them should be avoided.

Reshoots

Reshoots can happen for a number of technical reasons or they can happen for creative reasons. A camera can malfunction or footage can get corrupted, but many times it can be a creative move by the Director and the Producers if they feel an Actor’s performance could be adjusted to tell the story better, or if the coverage just doesn’t work in the cutting room. For example “a one shot scene” (a one-er) may seem like a good idea during conception, but playing out on screen it might not feed the pace of the film. This is not an amateur mistake. Many experienced Directors have to reshoot. In fact, a good Director will recognize a problem so they can solve it and tell the story right.

Rescheduling

Rescheduling usually involves shots or scenes that were initially on the schedule for principal photography. This can happen due to weather or the loss of a location or Actor. What you don’t want is that it happen because you fell behind schedule. Things that are rescheduled can be lumped into another week of principal photography (adding to the load of another day), or sometimes it’s a day (or whatever it takes) tacked onto principal photography.

Pickups

Pickups are very common and usually worked into the budget. Pickups are usually shot after the film is assembled in post and the Director and the Producers feel that another scene or a series of shots would clarify important story information.

Editorial is often referred to as the last rewrite of the script. This is when you discover what worked on paper doesn’t necessarily make as much sense on the screen. Or perhaps test audiences asked consistently for something that wasn’t there. This is when the Editor, the Director and Writer put their heads together to fill in the blanks, so the Producer can schedule a pickup shoot. This requires getting the camera, a crew and the Actors back on set. Sometimes it’s just as simple as grabbing exteriors to add more texture to the film.

Did you know?

Time on set can be expensive! An average studio picture can cost $500,000 a day! Break that down into a ten-hour day, that’s $50,000 an hour and $833 a minute![1] That’s why prep is so important. You come to set unprepared, it’s going to cost the production and it could also cost you your career. Remember this even if you’re a Production Assistant. I know a guy who took his dear time coming back from the store with an emergency prop and he was sent home the minute he got back (late!) Time really is money.

In the original cut of ET: The Extraterrestrial, ET dies! Test audiences couldn’t stand the thought of the cute little alien dying, so Steven Spielberg had to shoot new scenes to change the end of the film.

Michael J. Fox wasn’t the first choice for the lead in Back to the Future! After four weeks of shooting, the studio and Robert Zemeckis realized that the Actor they had playing the lead, Eric Stolz — although a great Actor — didn’t have the comedic timing they needed. They recast Michael J. Fox in the role and had to reshoot all those weeks!

References

  1. Jason E. Squire (2016). The Movie Business Book. CRC Press. p. XXX. Retrieved 23 July 2019.

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