On Location

The location is a minefield even for experienced directors. There are so many things to worry about all at once, it’s exhausting. Here are a few ground rules to ease the pain. Actually, the best thing you can do to establish credibility is learn to fold the reflector board. You know the one – the round silvery thing. It’s like the things you put in your car windscreen to keep the sun off the interior. If you can fold that with a little flick of your wrist, you’ll impress everyone and they’ll do their utmost for you! But you’ve done your work with the storyboard, so you know what you want from the shoot.

Establishing and Maintaining Credibility

Making a film or television programme is very much a team effort. But it definitely shouldn’t be committee work. It’s teamwork and every team needs a leader. You, the director, are the leader. That doesn’t mean you have to be bossy. But it does mean you have to lead – to be in command.

The Briefing: First, the Hardware

When you arrive on location, or on the way if you’re sharing transport with the crew, flesh out the schedule; brief cameraman and sound on the story. You’ve lived with it perhaps for weeks, reading, interviewing people, looking at tapes. Its so much a part of your thinking you may forget the cameraman doesn’t even know whether it’s a powerboat race or an interview with a transvestite. So brief the crew in three stages:
  • The general outline of the whole story.
  • Which sequence you want to shoot first.
  • What shot (usually the master shot of the sequence) you intend to do first.

You’re in charge, but listen to the Experts

While being firm and in control, remember that the cameraman is an expert on pictures and the sound recordist can hear things that you might miss. Be guided by them – if the cameraman suggests you do a different shot first, listen to his reasons for doing so and weigh up the pros and cons carefully. Similarly, when it comes to setting up the shot, the cameraman may suggest you use a different background to avoid a dark face looking even darker, or the sound recordist might request a move to the other side of the street where the trees might absorb more traffic noise. Listen to their reasons, but look ahead in your storyboard to avoid an early change of plan throwing out the whole development of the shoot.

Now worry about the Software

After agreeing the first set-up with the crew, leave them to get on with organising the hardware while you brief (or more likely re-brief) the presenter, interviewer (and interviewee), actors or whoever. Again, listen to suggestions and requests, and if a large change of plans seems probable, include the crew in your discussion. The presenter should take less time to brief, so crew and performers should be ready roughly at the same time. It helps the crew if you position the performer(s) roughly while you chat so that the cameraman can light the subject and the sound man can get some level.

The correct Commands

If you just need sixteen close-ups of different kinds of flowers, you might very well let the cameraman get on and shoot them on his own (as long as he knows how you plan to use the footage. But most shots are of people, or at least, things (buildings, roads, food, cobwebs) in relation to, or being used by, people. You need to control when the camera begins to record to coincide with whatever your people will do. First, let everybody around know that you’re about to shoot then: A reminder of the esoteric chants. The main commands you will need are: TURN OVER     (or a similar phrase)
To the crew to start the recording ACTION
            Generally to presenter to begin CUT
                  To all to stop acting and/or recording Of course, the commands can be anything you want. But be in control. Teamwork, not committee work. More about them later, though. Before you really start, you must brief everyone.

Make Haste Slowly (at first)

Its always a good idea to begin slowly and work up to a rapid shooting rate. Spend time getting the first shot right. Ask the cameraman if you can check the shot in the viewfinder if he doesn’t offer that facility. Then, unless the shot is very simple, have a rehearsal. Words are notoriously difficult to use as a means of describing what’s going to happen in a shot; your crew and performer might anticipate something quite different from what you’d planned.

Rehearsals and Takes

When everyone is set, warn what you intend doing – call “Right, quiet please, this is a rehearsal. Anybody not ready?” in a firm commanding voice, not a shout. Then when people have settled, call “This is just a rehearsal… and … ACTION”.

Now Watch!

Watch the performance from as close to the camera as you can get. The best place for you to stand is on the cameraman’s left. If you’re shooting video, good, you might well have a monitor, but it isn’t necessary. You can see his hands and where the lens is pointing, and by watching the zoom setting, you’ll know roughly what the framing is; and you can whisper things like “tighter now, into an MCU” into his ear.

Watch without being seen

Try not to intrude on the performer’s eyeline – its difficult, even for an experienced performer, trying to talk to an inanimate camera without a director grimacing a few degrees off your line of sight. When working on video its a good idea, if your budget will stand it, to carry a miniature monitor – the new LCD ones fit easily into a pocket.

Watch from a position of ignorance

Try to see and hear the contents of the shot as your viewer will do – without knowing what you intended the shot to say. Do the picture and words tell the story you thought they would? If not, work out why not and change. Worry particularly about the front and end of the shot and how they’ll marry up to the other shots in the sequence – do you want your presenter to turn or walk out of shot at the end, for instance?

The Performance

This is a treatise about the nuts and bolts of film and television, but it’s pointless taking the best framed shots in the world if what’s happening in those shots is second-rate. The performance is the thing, even for the simplest of pieces to camera. There are many books on directing dramas; you might be making an epic on a rubber glove factory, but most of the same principles apply. As ever it’s largely common sense.

Stop properly – even on rehearsal

When the shot is finished, call “CUT” to let everyone know that that is where the take will end. Now sort out problems; there are almost certain to be a few. Does the camera pan with the car or let it leave frame? Should the presenter smile to camera at the end or look off left? Can the radio mic be placed somewhere different where it won’t clatter against the necklace? Slight modifications like that shouldn’t take much time; maybe another rehearsal, and you’ll soon be ready for a take. Be clear again about which it is you’re doing – it’s quite possible that someone might think its a second (or third or fourth) rehearsal. Something like “OK, anybody NOT ready for a take? Good. Here we go then, QUIET PLEASE”.

The Real Thing

Now start the shot proper with the correct command. Don’t let the crew initiate a shot unless there are very good reasons for so doing. The traditional command is “TURN OVER” said loud enough for all to hear, but, using video, “Start recording”, or “Run VT” are probably fine. Either the sound recordist or the cameraman will call back “running” or “speed”.

Use a board

Well, if your production shoot only lasts a day, it’s probably not worth it. But for anything over two days, you’ll save a lot of time and effort in the long run. Of course, if you’re shooting with separate systems – for example, using a single lens reflex camera in video mode, plus a separate digital sound recorder, you’ll probably want to use a board anyway. It’s easy to make one with two bits of wood and a hinge! Whichever, if you’re using a clapper board, somebody (you?) will announce the shot number and take, then clap the thing, then the cameraman will make sure his framing is still correct, and say, “Speed” or similar.

Don’t rush it

Now allow a few seconds for people to settle; fingers to move from start buttons to other controls, presenter to clear throat, etc., then very definitely and clearly call “right… ACTION”. Sometimes a hand cue might be better – if you’ve got two actors to cue at different times or you want the presenter to begin halfway through a camera move.

Watch it all again

Watch the action like a hawk, again avoiding eyelines. Try again to see the shot as a fresh ignorant viewer would. And when it is over, and NOT before it’s well and truly over, call “CUT”. Don’t try to get in too early – the presenter might be pausing before the smile and “good night” or the car might not be quite out of frame, or the door’s creak might not have ceased. Allow an extra few seconds – during editing you can lose the last five seconds of a scene, but you can’t add even one frame.

Check with Everybody

Now check with everyone that all was well. No hair in the gate (or microphone in the frame); no wind noise; actors happy, etc. When everyone is happy, move on. Or you might even think of doing another take for pace, especially if its the first shot of the day when everyone is a little ‘cold’. Tell the presenter that was OK, but lets do another one and “give it some stick!”. Don’t, whatever you do, be tempted to do another take just for the hell of it, but film making is such an emotional art, that a take from mid morning when everyone has warmed up and got interested in the subject is likely to have so much more zing than one done first thing.

Keep one step ahead

Sounds like horrendous advice, but with all this going on I’m going to ask you to think about yet one more thing! While you’re shooting each shot, try if you can to work out what it is you’ll want next. I must admit it’s partly a matter of your credibility again, but crews and performers really do appreciate, and will give a better performance for, someone who is (or gives the impression of being) well organised. Anyway, as soon as you can, move onto the next shot. Its probably a relation to the first one, so take advice like before on cutaway angles, etc. Keep your storyboard up to date (you are working from one, aren’t you?) – if you’ve shot a sequence with the interviewer looking left instead of right, does that affect the sequences either side – do they have to be modified to match? And so on and so on. Please remember to thank people for their suggestions and hard work. They’re not just machines, they’re experts on parts of the production process, but not of the whole scene. If you can involve them in the whole story, they’ll get much more out of the shoot, and you’ll get a better film apart from having had a nicer day.

Don’t rush off without every shot you need

Before you leave each sequence, and especially before you leave the location, take a few seconds to think quietly about anything you may have missed. If in doubt, take that cutaway of the hand on the gear lever – you needn’t use it, but it may be a life saver when you’re in the editing room. A word of warning, though; never ask for ‘just one more shot’! You can bet your boots there’ll be another ‘one more’ after that, then another and another. It’s the mark of the disorganised director. Credibility again!

It’s a Wrap

I hope it’s fairly obvious what that means. It also tunes the ear in for the follow-up line; ‘anyone for a small something’. You don’t always need to buy your crew a drink or a meal or a Rolls Royce, but a white wine and soda goes down very well at the end of a long day. You can also learn quite a lot (usually about what not to do) from your cameraman and sound recordist.

And it’s all as simple as that!

But please read through as much of the stuff about other people’s work; you need to know at least a little bit about each person’s job.

A large crew might easily consist of two hundred people. There’s no room to cover all of them, but the main roles are: