There is an old truism, ¡°To write a movie takes one person, but to make a movie takes an army.¡± Turning an idea or words on a page into a finished film/video can essentially involve an army of people: those who raise money, break down and budget the script, run the casting, act in the project, crew the film, edit the project, and handle the distribution. Your film/video can end up having hundreds of people working on it by the time it¡¯s finished, with each of these people necessary to finish the project. For our purposes, let¡¯s concentrate on the on-set production crew because, day-to-day, these are the people who enable a filmmaker to achieve her vision.
So, whether you are just starting out or have been making films for a while, I encourage you to take a step back to appreciate the finer elements of your film crew.
The life and death of your production
A production is born, shoved out the door, develops its own personality, and eventually dies. Hopefully, by the time production grinds to a halt, you have finished shooting your film. Cast and crew members are usually only available for a specific window of time, and changing the start or finish date can become extremely complicated.
Here are some things to remember when directing a film. First, there is only one filmmaker on the shoot. Yes, everyone who is working on your film may be an expert and should be better at their job than you are, but if the crew disagrees with the director about something in the film, the director has the final say. (Well, the person pulling the purse strings has the final say, but that is a subject for another article.) Why this is important is that it may be a great script, it may be your baby, and you have been working at getting it made for twenty years, the crew may even be excited about the project (it helps when the crew is enthused) but the crew does not have creative control. Not the D.P., not the sound recordist, not the production designer¡ªonly the director has creative control. So don¡¯t be surprised if your crew looks at your project as if it is a job, and not a labor of love.
Watching a crew at work on a film may seem like you are watching a train wreck happening, but if you take the time to watch a crew that works well together, it is more like watching the movement of a precision-made mechanical watch. Everyone knows their job, where to be, and how not to rock the boat. The best thing to do is trust your crew, find out how long it will take before you can shoot (ask the AD department; they will know), and work with your actors, your DP, or sound mixer while the crew works. By the way¡ªthe more experienced the crew, the slower they may seem to work. Don¡¯t worry; an experienced crew is usually three jumps ahead of the current shot. Having a crew frenetically running around isn¡¯t the same as having a productive crew.
Professional versus your cousin
Whenever possible, hire and pay a professional. If you can¡¯t afford a professional, then find someone who likes the position they are filling or has some desire to fill the role you need. The last thing you want is to fill a valuable crew position with someone who is doing you a favor and helping you out. This means that your cousin, who is majoring in ¡°Creative TV Watching¡± cannot swing boom on your film. Working on a set is a demanding commitment. What is a valuable crew position, you may wonder? Let¡¯s see; a production assistant springs to mind, because all positions are valuable, or they wouldn¡¯t exist. Okay, maybe the 3rd Associate Producer isn¡¯t all that valuable on set, so give that title to your cousin and send him off on a quest to find a left-handed spanner.
I¡¯m not going to go into who is above the line or below the line here, which is a whole other article. What I¡¯m mainly referring to are the grip and electric departments because they are most likely to be the largest departments on your film. I¡¯m not forgetting production assistants, the camera department, hair, wardrobe, makeup, art direction, or the AD department. Most of this applies to those departments, as well. Most departments have a ¡°key¡± who runs the department. Yes, DPs are usually in charge of camera, grip, and electric, but they rely on the keys to manage those departments. If you have only one grip, for example, then that person is the Key Grip. Most likely the keys in the camera, electric (lighting), and grip departments were brought onto the show by your DP. Likewise, your keys will probably bring on their own seconds and thirds. All this familiarity will end up benefitting your shoot. Now, if you are the filmmaker, it is nice to get to know everyone¡¯s name and important to be friendly. But anything more than that isn¡¯t necessary. You may even find the crew is reticent to engage you in conversation, at least on your first project together. Don¡¯t take it personally; you don¡¯t really need to communicate what you want directly to the crew. The DP will rely on his/her keys to get done what has to be done. For you to do the opposite and direct individual crew members is a mistake, even if it seems quicker to jump in and do so. In the business world it is called micromanaging, and it confuses and upsets your crew. So don¡¯t do it!
When going on location scouts, it is advisable to bring along your keys when you can. They will be discussing the locations with the DP and looking at the shoot days with a more practical eye regarding what gear is needed, how to get it to the location, and where it will be stored while shooting. Wait! Did you forget to bring someone from the sound department to the location scout? Was this a scout that you did on a weekend, not realizing that there is a construction site right next to your location, which will be very loud when you shoot there during a weekday? A good sound recordist will be listening for such things on a scout.
An army travels on its stomach and needs a lot of sleep
Whether you are paying well or not, you need to take care of food. This may mean bringing in catered food, or providing time and meal money, or making some other arrangement. A well-fed crew is a happy crew. And a happy crew is more likely to go the extra mile when you need it, and at some point you will most likely need it. If you don¡¯t supply good food or leave your crew to fend for themselves, you will probably find morale dropping, which will mean a slower pace. As a gaffer once said to me on a low-budget short on which I was the DP, ¡°A cold slice of pizza only gets you so much.¡± Likewise, there is only so much a human body can take; you and your crew will need to get as much sleep as possible between shooting days. Just remember that the crew arrives before the director and stays long after the director has left. So plan sane shooting days, because a set can become very dangerous, very fast, when your crew is tired.
What a filmmaker needs to be
As a final thought for the director, your crew will work hard to pull off the seemingly impossible, but if you aren¡¯t sure about what you want, then it isn¡¯t going to happen. Going down the wrong path, changing your mind one time and then starting over, is far preferable to even just a few minutes of standing around not knowing what to do. It¡¯s fine to take your time with the actors, and it¡¯s fine to take your time setting up the shots. Just be bold and your crew will follow you up the side of a mountain if necessary to get your film shot.