The first people to arrive on the morning of the shoot are usually the electricians. For one thing, almost anything that anybody has to do on a set requires power, and the "sparkies" are in charge of providing that. They will run power to the makeup trailer for makeup lights, to catering for coffee, and to the camera crew to charge their batteries.
The second group of people to show up is usually crafts services: the snack people. They have an essential job, and they don't take it lightly. They must provide coffee. Stat.
You think I'm kidding.
The set is run by the first assistant director, known as the 1st AD (or just the AD).The AD's job is as thankless as a galley slave master. He is in charge of keeping the production on track, the day on schedule, and the shenanigans to a minimum. That voice you hear making announcements on the set is theirs. They constantly ask, "How long until you're ready?" They are paid to be impatient. (Question: How many ADs does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: "I asked for that light to be fixed an hour ago!") A good 1st AD doesn't spend the whole day yelling, however. Professional film people understand that someone has to be the whip-cracker, but the good 1st ADs are both firm and friendly.
ADs are always letting people know what is "up." I don't mean what is up as in "wazzzzzuup?" There is always one process that is currently the central focus of the crew. The AD will let everyone know what that is by yelling, "Rehearsal is up!" or, "Lighting is up!" or, when we are actually shooting, "Picture is up!"
Shortly after the lighting crew, the camera and sound crews will show up and begin to stake out space on the set. Camera needs enough room to store all the pieces of the camera package (and the bulky cases it all comes in), as well as a table to put the camera on to clean it, load film, and change lenses. The sound crew needs a small, out-of-the-way corner to set up their mixer.
The actors are called in well before the shooting starts because they must do an all-important rehearsal with the director. Under the watchful eye of the director and the DP, the actors rehearse the scene that will be shot later. The director is planning the angles, composition, and camera movements he will use, while the DP is mentally arranging the lighting to create the proper effect. The real camera is not used at this point; it is still out in the camera area being cleaned and set up. Instead, the director looks through a director's viewfinder, which is a fancy name for a viewfinder with a place to attach a lens. Using the viewfinder, the director can look through the lens that will be attached to the camera without having to lug around the whole camera. This helps him see what the camera will see. The viewfinder can be fitted with all the same lenses as the actual camera, but it is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
The director, with the help of the 1st AD and the UPM, has already created a shot list showing which shots will be filmed that day. This list is the supreme reference that everyone will use to plan the day. The film's progress is measured (among other ways) in feet of film shot. A full-length feature film will shoot around 250,000 to 300,000 feet of film in all, more or less, depending on the budget and the style of the director. A professional crew will shoot around six thousand feet a day. Do the math, and you will discover why forty-five days is considered a normal shooting schedule.23
If a film has complicated action sequences, the production may hire a storyboard artist, who prepare a set of drawings that graphically show the placement and movement of the camera. Sadly, many productions act penny-wise and pound-foolish by cutting the storyboard artist out of the
23 There are exceptions, because of mishaps or directorial style. Kevin Costner's Waterworld shot in 220 days due to a series of disasters, including the entire set sinking to the ocean floor. Director Stanley Kubrick shot over four hundred days on Eyes Wide Shut because, well, he was Stanley Kubrick.
Examples of storyboards (based on work by Josh Hayes of Storyboards, Inc.).
budget, leaving the director to communicate his vision through explanation, wild gestures, and script-margin doodles.
The director walks around the actors and the set, peering through the eyepiece and trying different angles. He talks with the DP about the style of shot he is after, and they agree on a lens. As they talk and gesture, the 1st AC walks behind them, marking the floor with tape, showing the locations of camera moves and actors. If you are an actor, make sure that the AC marks where you stand. Cameras rarely film the floor, so feel free to give yourself whatever help you need. Of course, one of the major skills that all film and TV actors must learn is the ability to "feel" your mark—that is, to feel where you are on the set, so when the camera is rolling, you don't have to look down to know you are standing on your mark. When you are rehearsing, take note of your position relative to the furniture. The corner of a table or the end of a drapery may give you a visual reference to find your mark. If you are really having trouble, have a grip put a sandbag on your mark so you can feel it with your foot. Then, don't trip over it.
After the actors have run the scene to the director's satisfaction (full-out acting is rarely necessary; doing the right movements will suffice), they are sent off to makeup. Immediately, the lighting and grip crews attack the set, putting up the lighting and grip equipment under the direction of the gaffer and key grip, both of whom are following the DP's instructions. The grips must also set up the dolly and track if one is in use. Once that is done, the camera crew members slide up with their expensive toys and begin to find their place. As the lighting is taking shape, the crew will call for stand-ins, actors or PAs who must sit quietly where the stars will sit, giving the crew a live body so they can focus the lights and practice the camera moves. On a low-budget film, the stand-in is an unlucky PA who may or (more likely) may not resemble the actor at all. On high-dollar shows, a stand-in is hired specifically because he resembles the star in question, particularly in height, weight, and hair color. The stand-in is given an identical costume and a really dull job. (Sit there and let us light you.) Most major stars have one person who works as their stand-in on a regular basis, at least when the movie is shooting in L.A. or New York.
While the set is being lit, the actors are getting their makeup and rehearsing the scene. The director may leave the set and work with them, or he may choose to leave them alone.
Back at the set, the lights are coming on, the camera is up and running, and the sound crew is testing its system. It is a time of furious activity at the beginning, but, after a while, the main chunks of lighting are in, and the "tweaking period" begins.
Film is a highly precise art, best practiced by people with an eye for detail. Once the basic chunks of light are in, the DP and the gaffer will begin to endlessly shift things around, trying to eliminate (or create) tiny shadows, produce interesting patterns, and generally pursue perfection. At this point, most of the crew is standing around, waiting for the call to action. Long periods of discussion and small changes will suddenly come to a head with a shouted request and a body on the move. Maybe the shot needs more light, maybe the color is wrong, maybe the sun came up a little higher than we thought. In any case, changes are in order, and no one wants to be the one that everyone is waiting for. The lens is too short, so an assistant sprints for a longer one. A flare is hitting the lens, so a grip leaps into action with a flag. We need a slash of light on that wall, so an electrician is sent running for another redhead. It's a game of hot potato, essentially. When the AD walks up and says, "What are we waiting for?" you just don't want it to be you. This rhythm of inaction and sudden, explosive action will continue until the setup is complete. This is perhaps the most boring time of day for the actors, who wait, doomed to inactivity, while the bees buzz around the set. Sometimes, it seems like the lighting setup cannot possibly take any longer, and, then, it does.
When the lighting is almost done, the actors are called to the set, accompanied by a makeup person or two who will keep them looking fabulous under the hot lights. There always seems to be a frantic period that happens just as the actors get to the set. There always seem to be a host of last-minute details right before the moment of calm.
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