Another Day, Another Short – Lessons Learned

So on Saturday we set out to make a short film.

A big crew was assembled, the biggest I’ve ever directed. The producer and co-producer had a street locked off for our use, a beautiful 50’s show car for the film and had rented me a nice assortment of equipment. The actors that my producer had secured for the piece were phenomenal talents with decades of experience between them, and a credits list that read like an encyclopedia. I’m not giving names out of respect for the producer’s wishes that this not be an “internet short film”, but it was an honor and a privilege to work with everyone on the cast and crew.

The schedule was for a half-day (that was the amount of time we had been able to get lockdown permits for), and the script was 4 pages long. It was tight, but we thought we could do it. So at 2:00pm on Saturday, the crew arrived and the filming began.

We got some amazing work done. The performances were fantastic, the cinematography was beyond expectations. But, we failed to finish filming the short. About a page and a half of the four-page script remains to be shot, on another, second day. And naturally, I blamed only myself.

My Bad

You can begin beating me now. Sorry if you hurt your hand on my skull.

I was disappointed, and a little worried. In my mind, this film had been a bit of a “trial run” for me with the writer/producer of the project, a legit filmmaker who had hinted that, if I did a good job, I might see myself directing the feature after he used this short to secure investors. So, having run over schedule and not having completed the film, I was a little nervous. Fortunately, the producer was thrilled with the footage we did get, and told me that if we had tried to rush things, we probably would not have gotten such good performances from the actors.

There’s some truth to that – you can never rush your talent and expect to get their best work. However, I believe the actual reasons we were over-schedule and under-shot were organizationally related, and I hold myself fully accountable for them. So I sat down and analyzed what happened this weekend to determine what I need to change in the future. Here’s what I figured out:

1. If you want to be on schedule, get an AD, no matter the size of your crew.

This was the big one. I had secured a 1st AD for Saturday, who I worked with on my last film. Then at the last moment, she had to bow out of the project for personal reasons – which I fully understand and respect. I’ve worked with this person numerous times before and she will not bail on a project unless there is a damn good reason for it. She felt terrible about it, but I assured her we would be fine.

My error lay in the fact that I did not immediately scramble to secure another AD. I figured, “Well, it’s a bigger crew than I’m used to, but it’s still only about 15 people. We’ll be fine!”

WRONG!

You want motivation? I got your motivation right here….

I would have had less problems if I had selected a PA at random and told him, “You’re the 1st AD now. Yell at anyone who isn’t doing anything, accept the fact that everyone might hate you, and try not to make anyone want to kill you too much.” I realize this is horrible advice for a 1st AD – my point is that ANYONE on the set telling the crew what to do next would have been better and more productive than me doing it. It literally doubled my own personal “setup” time because after giving the crew their instructions, I had to head over to the talent to work on the delivery for the next shot, then back to the crew to check what they had done, then to makeup, then back to the crew. You can do this, I’ve done it before and I’ve seen others do it, but not if you want to be on time.

It also didn’t help that we scheduled the shoot for the last half of the day rather than the first. This meant that going over schedule by as little as an hour meant that our light was literally gone.

2. If you want to use any equipment beyond a tripod, have someone whose sole job it is to set that shit up.

We were using two cameras on this shoot, and in addition to a nice tripod for each, we had a Dana Dolly (a 6′ combination dolly/slider), a 8′ jib, and a car mount for a scene where the actors were driving.

We never used the car mount or the jib.

I didn't use ANY of these

Yes, yes, those all look great, bring them to the set. What? No, don’t use them. Just have them there. They’re pretty.

Why not? Because set up time screwed me. We finished all of the shooting on the sidewalk by 7:00pm and we were ready to use the car mount. With barely a half hour of meager daylight left to work with, we began setting it up. By the time it was done, it was 7:25 and there was no chance to actually use it.

Had I been thinking ahead (or had I had an AD to do this kind of thinking for me while I was working) I would have peeled off a crew member to set up the car mount all by his lonesome. Sure, it might have taken him an hour rather than the 25 minutes it took the three crew members who ended up doing it. But if he’d started at 6:00, we would have been ready to roll the car action by 7:00, and I might actually have completed the short.

Same with the jib. I could absolutely have used it in one of my setups. But by the time I thought of it, we were behind schedule and I couldn’t afford the additional time to build and rig it. If it were already assembled and ready to go, this would not have been a problem.

3. Make sure you have audio for you, not just your mixer.

This is almost too stupid to warrant mentioning and yet I see it done on sets all the time. I hired a great sound mixer for this project, one I’ve worked with numerous times before, and a close friend as well. I had every confidence that he would get the best possible audio he could, and if we needed to ADR later (we were shooting on a Hollywood street on a weekend afternoon, after all) it wasn’t his fault.

However, my producer didn’t have the benefit of the same relationship with the mixer that I did. And, completely justifiably, he wanted to make sure that the audio on all of the takes that we liked was up to his standards. He couldn’t put the blind faith in our mixer that I could – nor should he have.

Over-Confidence

Nope, I’m sure we’re all good! You realize, though, that if I have to do ADR I’m going to eat your soul.

Now, I should have thought of this ahead of time and ensured the producer rented equipment to run audio from the mixer to video village for us, but I didn’t. My mixer has a very nice kit that he rented to me, along with himself, for dirt-cheap friend rates, but he doesn’t have the capability to give the producer and director audio. If you want that, you’ve got to rent the equipment yourself – which is worth if, since you can get it for a paltry $30 or less.

Since I didn’t think of it, however, when we got a take, the producer would go and listen to the audio to make sure the delivery and recording quality was what he wanted. This, of course, more than doubled the time it took us to get our takes. If I had needed to hear the audio as well, it would have tripled.

SUMMARY

So these three points are what I’m taking away from this. I’ll be damn sure to fix them by the time we shoot the rest of this short, and I’ll be damn sure that they’re in on every set I’m directing in the future. I should have seem them coming, but what can I say? I’m still learning. I’m not even close to my 10,000 hours yet. And maybe I’ll never have a perfect day on set. But I feel lucky to say that a botched day on set still feels better than even the best day of work I’ve ever had outside of film.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my edit.

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2 thoughts on “Another Day, Another Short – Lessons Learned

  1. […] used properly, it takes over the “nudging the Director” part of the 1st AD’s job (although I clearly haven’t mastered the technique of using it to do that). True to its title, it handles your shot list, but it can also take care of your schedule, your […]

  2. […] used properly, it takes over the “nudging the Director” part of the 1st AD’s job (although I clearly haven’t mastered the technique of using it to do that). True to its title, it handles your shot list, but it can also take care of your schedule, your […]

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