On Location

This is where the adrenaline courses through the body and tempers can run a little hot. A film set is an exciting place. Here’s a little bit about what goes on, who does what, and a little bit about how they do it. People think of writers, painters, etc., as lonely figures toiling in a remote garret somewhere. But a novelist needs a publisher and a printer and a distributor and a bookshop; a painter needs a gallery and… Film and television need many more people than that. Even the tiniest home video will probably involve half a dozen people. And Titanic was reputed to have involved over two thousand people just on the shoot and edit. It’s teamwork, and managing a large team is complex and difficult. It’s just as well to know what the other chap’s capabilities and limitations are.


A plea for the power of teamwork, here. I mean teamwork as opposed to committee work. This is aimed at hobbyist film-makers, obviously. Everybody has ideas about a story, and how it should be told. But once the jobs have been allocated, please do yours to the best of your ability, and don’t worry (at least in the first instance) about how others do theirs. Probably next time your gang does a shoot, roles will change, and you’ll have a chance to shine. Or a chance to find out how difficult that particular job is. Anyway, on location, the director should be in charge. He or she decides what shot to do first, for instance. Have your say, make the point that the light will be better in a couple of hours, or it would be best to do the crowd scene first, or whatever. Then accept the decision that results. For each shot of each scene, the director briefs the crew first. What the shot is, the rough framing, and the mechanics of the thing. While lighting is being organised, batteries being checked, and the set dressed, the director should get to grips with the performers. Working them into their roles, reminding them of what scene came before this one, how the emotions were at the end, and so on. For the first shot of the day, this preamble tends to take quite a while, but, eventually, everybody will be ready to rehearse.

The Chants

Follow the professionals as much as you can here; these things have evolved as being the best way to run a set. When all is ready, the director checks one last time: “Anybody not ready for rehearsal?” Presuming no interruption, he or she continues: “Quiet please, on the set… And ACTION!” Performers shouldn’t put all their energy into a rehearsal; about eighty percent emotion, but all moves, etc, correct. The director watches the performance like a hawk. Presuming all goes more or less as planned, at the end, the director calls: “Cut.” Then there will almost certainly be a discussion about how to avoid the shadow, or finding a way round a sound problem, or a need to hold a look for a little longer or whatever. Then it should be time for another rehearsal, or a take.

The Take

The chants on a take are similar, maybe plus a few things, depending mostly on how you’re recording sound. The start is the same: “Anybody not ready for a take?” No response? “Right, silence please. Okay, here we go. Turn Over.” ‘Turn over is the most used expression, but ‘Roll Camera’, ‘Start Recording’, or any similar phrase should work as well. The cameraman presses the record button, then gets his or her hand back in position on the panning handle, checks that the framing is correct, and calls: “Speed.” Or ‘Running’ or ‘Recording’ or  ‘Rollling’ or ‘Camera’ etc. If you’re recording separate sound, the assistant cameraman or whoever has been allocated to the task has been ready with the board just out of shot. Now he or she puts it into shot, calls “Shot XXX, Take YYY” claps the thing, and takes it out of shot. The director takes one last look around, then: “And… Action!” As before, the scene progresses, and the director calls “Cut.” If there was a problem, maybe a motor cycle revved up just out of shot, you may want to go again. But the main thing to think about is the performance; was it good. If it was, don’t do what a lot of beginners do, and repeat a shot ‘just in case’. That can really confuse an actor who’s just given a fine performance, but now wonders if he or she did something not quite right. But sometimes, very rarely, and only with amateur performers, and only for the master shot in a scene, it can be a good thing to say, “Okay. That was good. Very tidy. But well… Let’s do it again, larger than life. Have fun, boys and girls.” It can work well, but don’t make a habit of it.

It’s a Wrap

Eventually, you’ll have got through everything you planned for that shoot. I hope. You may have been rained off, or something else will happen. But if your planning has been good, and the gods propitiated, you’ll have everything for the day, or for the location, in the can. Or in the memory chip. But while the sound recordist is recording ‘silence’, the director should have a good think – is there a shot you missed? Don’t add a shot because you’ve finished early, but check your storyboard and make sure it’s all done. Then call the magic word phrase: “It’s a wrap!” If there’s more to do tomorrow, or next week,agree on times, places, equipment, costume, etc. Then begins the long drive home and the homework before you can relax. If you’re in charge of the camera, put the batteries on to charge, make sure it’s spotless, clean the lenses and filters and check that no grit got in the tripod joints. If you’re in charge of wardrobe, perhaps you need to wash and iron something, or comb a wig. If you’re a performer, do you know your lines for the next day? Or at least enough for the first shot? Perhaps the assistant cameraman needs to take the rushes to the editor, or even to the airport to catch a flight back to base. It’s very, very tiring work shooting a film. Physically and emotionally. But it’s good fun. I hope.

The team leader. Supplier of beer. He who carries the can.

Picture taker, cinematographer, DP – a man of many names. And many duties.

The forgotten part of the team. All too often the sound man (or woman) is left out of things until the last minute. A good sound track can really enhance a production – and a poor one can ruin it.

The chaps out front who know no fear. Or who know it very well, puke up, then carry on regardless.

There are many others

You might well find a couple of hundred people working on a big feature. Transport co-ordinators, animal wranglers, grips, caterers, chippies…But if you’re just trying a bit of amateur film-making, all those jobs will be done by yourself, friends, whoever.