The Calm Before the Storm

You know the feeling. It could be the weekend or the week before prep or the day before shooting. You are about to embark on a new mission that will push you, stretch you, exhaust you and lead you to learn new people and ways of doing things.

The Calm Before the Storm is the idea that you are preparing for battle. The next week or months will not be easy. They could be faced with a number of things….so it’s important to take advantage of this calmness.

It’s like preparing for a hurricane. You know it’s going to hit…you just don’t know how bad. Will it be a level 1 or level 5? Will there be flooding, loss of power or will it just be heavy rains for a time period? In preparing for a hurricane you would make sure to have enough food/water at reserve, potentially board up windows and check in on friends or family members.

While the Storm of production is often not as physically destructive as a hurricane/tornado or earth quake… the emotional stress and toll can sometimes feel like you have just been through one.

How do you prepare for the storm?

Anytime I know I may embark on a new project I like to make sure as much as my life is in order because I know the next two+ months will be solely focused on this project.

  1. Refill any medicines.
  2. Change your car’s oil, clean it and fill it with gas.
  3. Do a deep clean of your house/apt.
  4. Go shopping for clothes if you might be traveling to a climate that you aren’t fully ready for.
  5. Hang out with friends/family you won’t be able to see for a while.
  6. Get TSA Pre-check if traveling and want to reduce stress at the airport.
  7. Do something fun you enjoy that you haven’t done in a while.
  8. Go grocery shopping and stock your pantry. If traveling consider a food subscription service or an amazon fresh order.
  9. Turn off your phone for an hour or part of the day to meditate/think and not be bothered.
  10. Read a book, watch a movie, see a concert…something to get inspired.
  11. Call/text a friend and share the news of your new mission.
  12. Charge your devices, pay your bills, water the plants…anything that you might forget.

Obviously this list could be expanded to include a variety of things. The important thing to focus on is getting your shit together because it will be almost impossible to take care of personal things on day three of production.

Inside the mind of an Assistant Director

Assistant Directors can often be mistaken as robots on a film set. They can come off as cold, heartless, and abrasive individuals that only care about making the day. Part of this is true and part of this feeling is a misconception in perception. I think the problem that lays at hand is often the AD is the only one on the film set that does truly care about time. This burden of time effects the entire crew, however most of them are blind to what that means. A 30 minute delay in makeup could mean that a scene is in danger of getting finished. If a scene is in danger of getting finished… the day could go over by 30 minutes costing the company overtime dollars and causing a crew to work longer than anyone actually wanted to.

What does an an Assistant Director actually think about?

Over the years working as a 1st AD and 2nd AD I have felt that my job was to think about time in a way that no one on set should have to. It’s a feeling that sometimes can create pressure, anxiety and stress. Many departments are worried about the aesthetic and rightly so. The AD thinks about how to save time with all departments. By saving time we can increase the number of setups for a scene or even allow for all scenes to actually be shot. Focusing on time actually can preserve the aesthetic because it’s being managed in a proper way.

Are ADs wired differently?

I think so. I think most ADs are a-type personalities that want to get things done and don’t have time for BS. Individuals that are naturally driven and want to do hard work should consider this career path. Most ADs I know are great genuine human beings who actually care a lot. The thing about ADs is sometimes they care too much about the way things are going and aren’t afraid to voice their opinion if something is unsafe or ridiculous.

What does an AD think about during prep?

During prep an AD is constantly thinking about the schedule. If 90% of the schedule problems can be solved in prep then life will be easy… They are tasked with juggling all the constraints of schedule restrictions that come from actors, locations and the vision of the Director. It’s like playing a game of chess non-stop for weeks at end.

What is the thought process at the beginning of the day?

ADs are generally concerned with getting that first shot off. Once the first shot is taken then they can breathe and so can everyone else. Until that happens it’s managing a sequence of events.  They are in charge of holding a safety meeting, blocking, camera blocking, HMU process, Costume process, Dept Tweaks such as set dressing and lighting etc…

What does an AD think about in between shots/setups/scenes?

ADs have to be able to multi-task. There are many times that I’m having to simultaneously think about something for tomorrow’s schedule while focusing on today’s schedule while also considering the effects of next week’s schedule. It’s like managing a huge Tetris game that has a myriad of elements. If we move this scene here will it effect this actor’s avail or this location’s restrictions? We have to know a little bit about all the underlying constraints or we won’t be able to give intel to the higher ups. I often think that being an AD is like being a CIA operative. In a way you are on the ground where the action is happening and assessing a battle plan that you can report back to command.

What does an AD think about at the end of the day?

When most crew members are packing up gear and headed home….often the 1st AD and 2nd AD are reviewing tomorrow’s schedule and signing off on a call sheet. Tensions can increase when the day goes over causing a debate on the call time and turnaround issues for cast or certain crew members.

So how does the AD mind really work?

The AD mind is one that has to care about logistics and getting things done. They care about getting people home on time and getting all the shots at the same time. ADs should naturally want a great product and to keep everyone safe. Good ADs know when to push back and when to relent. When it’s a good time to actually go over or call grace and when it’s time to call wrap.

What would you do differently next time?

Prior to working in film/tv I used to work in the business / non-profit sector as a creative media producer. Part of working in the corporate world was filled with team meetings and trying to figure out how to improve the organization as a whole. One process that I actually enjoyed involved After Action Reports, which where utilized after an event or program was finished.  It was a tool we used to analyze the success or failures of said event and provided ways to learn from our mistakes.

When you wrap a film or tv show do you ever wonder how things could go differently? What would you do so that the next project would go smoother?  Below I have listed 10 questions to ask yourself at the end of each shoot is complete?

  1. Which crew members would you hire back or recommend again? Why or Why not?
  2. Did all of the locations or sets work for the scenes in the script? Were there any locations you wish you had more options for?
  3. Did you end up picking the best time of year to film? If you had to start over would you choose another season of the year to film in?
  4. Which processes or systems were missing that you would put in place next time?
  5. Was there a dept that was lacking prep or man-power? How could you you predict this in the future?
  6. Did any dept go over budget? How did this happen and how could it be fixed in the future?
  7. Were there any specific scenes that took longer than planned and what was the cause of the delay?
  8. Did any of the cast present issues or prove to be difficult? Was this handled appropriately?
  9. Did you have enough dept mtgs during prep? Was prep a well oiled machine or lacking structure/systems?
  10. Was there any drama behind the camera and how could this be minimized in the future?

Whether or not you do an official AAR with your team, its a good practice to do by yourself or one or two other crew members.

Communicating leadership principals with metaphors

Making a movie or TV series can often times feel overwhelming. You might have too little time or not enough money to solve all the myriad of problems that lie in front of you and your team.

One thing I like to do early on in production is to communicate ideas about work or the work process via metaphors. I love to use metaphors because they help turn the seemingly difficult problem into a visible solution that gets people thinking.

Below I have listed a few metaphors and how I use them.

Metaphor #1

Do you know how to eat an elephant?

Of course you are NOT really going to eat an elephant…that would be horrible. The metaphor is meant to evoke the sublime. Elephants are so huge it would be impossible to eat them, however if you did have to eat them you would eat them one bite at a time.

Occasionally I will explain this metaphor to my office staff when we are faced with 100 to-dos and I can see the look of of defeat on their faces. I try to explain that if you can focus on one thing at a time and slowly make your way through all that has to be done you will be successful!

I typically share this metaphor with Office PAs, Coordinators etc when working as a UPM/Line Producer.

Metaphor #2

Why should you not eat desert before the meal?

Of course we all know that eating desert before any meal is not a good idea. It’s something we have to educate children on when they are young. The metaphor does apply to filmmaking however and it is one of my favorite to use.

In the filmmaking metaphor the DESERT is often 1/8 of a page (CU of the man holding the phone). The MEAL is simply the meat of the day and hopefully a 3 page scene with dialogue. Now this does not always mean that starting with 1/8 of a page is a bad idea, however it can slow you down and be problematic if you do have a high page count and want Actors to be at their best.

Choosing to start with a big meaty scene first will not only give actors the energy they deserve, but allow you to focus on what’s really important.

I typically share this metaphor with Directors and DPs while working as a 1st AD.

10 ideas to stay productive during Covid-19 as a freelancer

Initially when the Covid-19 Pandemic hit the United States I was unsure how to properly manage all this unexpected free time. I have been unemployed before due to living the life of a freelancer.  While I have learned a few things along the way I am still trying to refine my process for being productive. Whether there is a pandemic or not, the idea of being out of work for a week, month or many months can be a very real thing that freelancers will need to grapple with.

Below I have come up with 10 ideas to stay productive when out of work or in between gigs.

  1. Create a routine. Take a day each week to plan out your upcoming week. Consider setting aside 30 minutes every Sunday to plan out your week’s schedule. Don’t feel like you need to plan everything, but schedule as many meetings, calls and errands as you can. If you don’t have anything coming on the horizon then perhaps consider discovering some new classes/workshops or training to be a part of.
  2. Get Exercise. Consider going on short walks in your neighborhood or trails nearby, practicing yoga at home or even going to the gym a few times a week. Maintaining a steady habit of exercise will help you to reduce stress and stay healthy.
  3. Learn something. If you haven’t subscribed to Masterclass I highly recommend it. Not only do they have numerous film/tv courses…you can also learn about topics such as cooking, fashion, wine etc…
  4. Take a trip somewhere. Make an effort to plan a mini trip once a month. These trips don’t have to be expensive, however they can help break up the monotony of everything and maintain your sanity. Ideas might include: camping, staycation at a hotel, road trip or visiting friends and family.
  5. Tidy your space. Take a room in your apt/house each week using the Kon Mari method and slowly take control of your “stuff”.
  6. Create something. Create a list of possible projects and dive in head first. Maybe you want to write a screenplay, book or begin painting.
  7. Work on yourself. Maybe you need to see a doctor, therapist, psychiatrist or [insert specialist] for something you may be dealing with that needs professional help.
  8. Remodel your space. Take an inventory of every room in your house of what the current needs/wants are and how it can be improved. Maybe you need a new rug or lamp for the living room?  Create a list and slowly tackle that list as you see fit. Don’t limit yourself to amazon.com…..perhaps you can save $$$ by visiting local estate sales, thrift stores and good wills to hunt for various items.
  9. Read new and interesting fiction and non-fiction books. I recently finished reading the book Deep Work by Cal Newport and it has really helped me think about the way I approach my work in general.
  10. Volunteer or Give Back. Consider looking for an organization that you can help out and donate your time.

10 notes regarding the Industry White Paper

As of June 1st, 2020 the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force released a White Paper that was compiled by various companies, unions and guilds in the Film/TV Industry with the purpose of creating a safe workplace and re-starting the industry. Below you can download the file and see our thoughts.

  1. The document is very concise, easy to read and graphically interesting. Some people were expecting a 40-page report that no one would read…thankfully most in the industry will be able to digest this 22-page doc with ease.
  2. It is really amazing to think that all the film unions and guilds came together to create such a document in such record time. Kuddos to everyone involved!
  3. The suggestion to include Face Shields in addition to face masks and cloth masks is definitely worth noting. For individuals such as Directors, ADs (who have to communicate a ton) and/or anyone who hates wearing a face mask….the face shield may be the solution we have been waiting for. Face shields cover your eyes (which face masks fail to do) and they have the potential to make it easier to communicate with a walkie etc.
  4. The suggestion to use electronic scripts, sign-out sheets and electronic documents (call sheets, prs) etc is something that for the most part has been adopted by the industry, however there are certain productions that still may be stuck in their ways using paper and need a push to go digital (something we wrote about here).
  5. Having adequate eating space for lunch can be challenging…. I’m a bit surprised that french hours were not suggested to solve this problem although they did mention having shifts.
  6. The designation of a Covid-19 compliance officer will be a relief to many that these “supervision” duties do not fall onto the shoulders of the AD staff.
  7. Background Actors were not really mentioned in the document (except briefly on page 20 in reference to crowd scenes) unless they were included in the category of Cast.
  8. While the document is very thorough it does not really detail if non-union workers such as PAs will be under the same rules as a union worker. Also what if a production is only SAG or only IATSE…will the same rules apply to everyone?
  9. In general the face mask policy needs a bit more clarification. Obviously cast/crews will be able to take it off during lunch, however will there ever be instances where having a face masks is not required ie… shooting in an outdoor field where crew are predominately able to social distance with ease.
  10. While there are bound to be a ton of questions to the interpretation of these rules…where does one go to dive deep into these questions? Will there be a website with more information or suggestions for how to improve this document?

Below you can join our Facebook Group to participate in questions/discussion on how best to implement these policies on your set.

Why you need a “fixer” when filming on location

Whether shooting in a small city/town hours away from an airport or filming in a remote village overseas, having a “film fixer” can be an essential element in ensuring a film’s success.

The word “fixer” has come to mean a person that can serve as a middle-man between a film production company and the city/town/area that the company is aiming to film in. In some instances this person(s) may have film knowledge and act as a “local producer” and in other situations this person(s) may be very well connected but new to filmmaking.

I’ve used fixers multiple times to find locations, secure extras and assist with the overall production of a movie. Below I have outlined some of the things that a “fixer” can assist with should you choose to use one.

10 things that fixer’s can assist with:

  1. Finding and securing key locations and in some instances handle aspects of the permitting process
  2. Acting as a conduit to the local town officials (police/fire/city/film commission) and setting up introductory meetings
  3. Having a pulse on the local news media (papers/facebook groups/tv & radio) in order to know which entities might be able to activate press
  4. Handling passports, visas and essential paperwork to allow a company to have access to said country
  5. Working as a translator (if a foreign land) and transcribing important documents
  6. Serving as a peacemaker when filming in areas that could be considered dangerous to outsiders
  7. Being a cultural leader and someone who can get others in the community excited about being a Background Actor
  8. Providing recommendations for safe and reliable places for the cast and crew to stay
  9. Connecting the production company with possible experienced crew or cast that might live in the area
  10. Filling in the gaps of the production crew and potentially working in an official capacity as a Producer, Coordinator, APOC, Supervisor, Location Manager etc..

How to run an effective production meeting

A production meeting often called a page-turn is one of the most important meetings any film or tv show can have prior to shooting. These meetings can vary depending on the size and scope of the project, however in general they look very similar. Below are some ideas for running a mtg for a typical low budget project.

  1. Schedule the Meeting. Inform the people attending the meeting a few weeks out and be sure to collect RSVPs. This assures that you will have the right people attending and can answer as many questions as possible. Make sure your crew are aware of how long the meeting will last ie…6 hours etc.. If shooting on location you may want to wait till you have a majority of the Depts on the ground to have the meeting…so generally one or two weeks before filming. If filming a larger movie or tv-show there may be multiple meetings early on. In general its ideal if you can have this meeting the day after a tech-scout because the Dept Heads have seen the locations and this will inform the meeting greatly.
  2. Decide who will and who will not attend. Generally this meeting is reserved for department heads and certain above the line folk, however certain productions may call for various personal. Depending on the size of your meeting space you may also be limited in space on who you can actually fit in the meeting. Suggestions for who to include are the following (Producer(s), Director, Line Producer, UPM, Production Supervisor, AUPM, Script Supervisor, DOP, Gaffer, Key Grip, Production Designer, Art Director, Prop Master, Set Decorator, Costume Designer, Costume Supervisor, Construction Coordinator, Location Manager, Assistant Location Manager, 1st AD, 2nd AD, Stunt Coordinator, SPFX Coordinator, VFX Producer, Transportation Coordinator, Sound Mixer, Key Makeup Artist, Key Hair Stylist, Editor and Post Producer)
  3. Have updated scripts. Send out an email a few days before the meeting and get a count of who will need a physical script. Encourage laptop/iPad use to save the forest and to avoid over-printing scripts. Scripts should be hole-punched and fastened with brads. Coordinate with the writer and director to make sure the latest edits are in this draft.
  4. Offer drinks and food. Its a good idea to offer a breakfast / lunch and have crafty type foods and drinks throughout the meeting. This will make your staff feel taken care of and allow everyone to be focused on the meeting and not their hunger pains.
  5. Setup the meeting room in advance. You may have a dozen people with laptops and electronic devices so make sure there is enough power outlets and strips for people to work effectively. Print out the wifi/password and have listed in the room. In addition to having a supply of scripts you may want to have additional materials such as one-liners, crew lists etc at the meeting.
  6. Do intros at the beginning of the meeting. For some shows this may be the first time that some of the crew members are meeting each other. Take a minute to allow everyone to introduce themself by saying their name and title. In some cases it may be great to place name-tags with titles for where each person should sit.`
  7. Consider using a TV Monitor for visual support. If you have a scene(s) that need details explaining it can be helpful to have visual aids such as story-boards etc.. This can be especially helpful if the movie is very vfx/stunt heavy and you want to talk about certain action sequences.
  8. Setup how the meeting will run at the beginning of the meeting. Typically the 1st AD will run the meeting, talk about how much time they have allotted and keep everyone on track. Normally the 1st AD will go scene by scene in script order and will read or paraphrase the descriptions of each scene. After the 1st AD talks about each scene it is a good time to ask questions or point out problems from various departments. If there is an issue that takes longer than a few minutes to solve in the meeting it is a good idea to say “sidebar” and discuss after with the pertinent people it pertains to.
  9. Take Notes. Consider having someone take notes on their computer throughout the meeting and keep track of side-bars. This person can then email the notes after the meeting to everyone who attended.
  10. Come up with Solutions. Its important to come up with solutions and action-steps at this meeting and not just address problems or concerns. Make sure that at the end of the meeting everyone has a clear idea of what problems remain and who is the person appointed to solve these problems.

What to include in your speech to Background Actors

Whenever you have a day in your production that involves Background Actors or “BG” one of the things the AD staff may handle is giving a speech to this group of people. Typically this speech is given by a 2nd 2nd AD or Background PA and is helpful so that things run smoothly and the BG know what to expect and where to go.

Below I have listed 10 things to include in your speech to Background Actors:

  1. Read or Summarize the scene(s) that the BG will be involved in. Background Actors are there to “ACT” and while they may not need the sides/script knowing the motivation of the main characters around them can be helpful on certain occasions. Let the BG know if and when they should react or respond to the main action.
  2. Explain continuity and starting positions. If you have a long complicated scene that involves a lot of coverage this will be especially important. Stress the importance of going back to your one when the ADs say back to one when a scene has cut. There may be occasions that BG need to start or stop their action by the cue of an AD or by listening/watching the action in front of them.
  3. Explain how to pantomime. Believe it or not most beginning BG will not get this right off the bat. Explain that whispering can be picked up by the sound mixer and it is not the same thing. Watermelon, Watermelon, Watermelon…. always does the trick for realistic pantomiming.
  4. Discuss any safety concerns. Remind the BG that they are on a film set and there is lots of heavy equipment spread throughout. If someone says points they should pay attention and watch their head. If there is a stunt sequence or road work this is a good opportunity to stress where they can and can not stand and how important that is to their safety.
  5. Discuss noise levels. If your BG are working close to set or the set is inside its good to remind them to keep their talking to a minimal and silent when rolling.
  6. Explain where things are. Show the BG where crafty, bathrooms, holding and set are. Be careful to use film terms such as the technical names of the trailers as that may confuse some. Stress the importance of remaining in holding and not wondering off.
  7. Talk about crafty. Once you have shown the BG where crafty is its a good idea to lay some ground rules….especially if they are sharing crafty with the cast/crew. They should not be filling their pockets to take stuff home and be respectful of the area.
  8. Give instructions regarding paperwork. Remind the BG that they may need to give their payroll sheet sometimes called a skin to another dept if they are borrowing wardrobe or props. This is a way to make sure these items are returned to the proper dept. Explain to the BG that they need to sign out with a designated AD or PA with that paperwork. This is especially helpful for new BG who may not understand the drill just yet.
  9. Discuss meals. Depending on when the BG arrived and how long they are planning to be shot will be part of the determining factors if and when your production plans to feed them. It is a good idea to let the BG know the approx time they will eat, that they will eat after the crew and where they can sit. While the breakfast or first meal may be available to the crew are you going to allow BG to participate?
  10. Talk about set etiquette. There may be occasions where the actors on set are famous. This will be a good time to talk about the importance of BG to not talk to the Actors or ask for a picture or autograph.