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How to transform your production from a train wreck to a masterpiece

Broken camera
3 minute read

Broken camera

Or how to survive a shoot when stuff hits the fan and your best laid plans are in tatters.                                                                          

Broken cameraEven the best laid plans can go wrong from unexpected events. Image: Shutterstock.

It’ll happen to you someday. In fact, if you do this long enough, it’ll happen to you many times: The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men Syndrome.

Steinbeck named his classic literary work, Of Mice and Men, after the phrase “The best laid plans of mice and men go often askew.” Though the original is from a 1785 poem, it is just as relevant nearly 250 years later in an age the original author could never have dreamt of.

You plan, you prepare, you carefully select and purchase or rent your gear – exactly what you will need to execute a project with excellence and a minimum of trouble or unnecessary work (and time.)

Then it happens. The light changes. The power goes out. The location changes. The extension cord is not long enough. The sun has set. You’re shooting into windows with no ND and no HMIs. Your truck is a mile away and all you have is the gear in your hands. And the client is tapping his foot with that “Can we please get on with it?!” look that we all dread.

All those plans…

This is where serious out-of-the-box thinking comes into play. Doing nothing is not an option. Failure is not an option.

I’ll give you an example. I was on a documentary shoot the other day with a longtime colleague. We each have 30-40 years of ENG news and doc experience and have worked on some of the highest visibility programs and with the best-known celebrities on earth. Very demanding work. We’ve been there and done that. We’re not newbies. We both own a lot of gear, carefully selected and refined over the years: cameras, lenses, lighting, grip, audio, accessories. Even our vehicles.

He and I have worked together a lot and we enjoy it because between us we can figure out a way to overcome just about any challenge and make it look like we planned it that way. Clients love that.

So we’ve left our vehicles in a staging area and we’re a couple of miles away in a secure area being driven in a company van approved to be there. We’re only carrying what we believe to be essential for that part of the rather harried, run-n-gun shoot.

We were wrong.

Turned out it was time to do an interview. Broad daylight. No shade. Overhead midday sun. We must shoot a certain direction because we need the background to look just so. The light was not pretty.

Where’s that small silk to put overhead to slow down that harsh sun?

Back in the vehicle.

Where’s the reflector to fill in the non-lit side of our talent?

Back in the vehicle.

And of course, this needs to look like high-end network news. But we cannot go back and grab that gear. We have to shoot now.


We determined the best (and only) direction to shoot but the talent would be VERY side-lit. Way too contrasty. And we are basically out in a massive parking lot. And there is no homemade reflector available anywhere… no white signs we could move, or even a white sweater or jacket someone could hold just off-camera.


We looked at each other with that, “What were we thinking?” look, realising we needed to come up with something, quickly.

I glanced over at our passenger van. It was white. There was a great big white reflector right there! All we needed to do was position it on the darker side of the talent and let the sun reflect onto it, then onto his face, softly filling it in.

We had our driver pull up alongside the camera and angle the van in a certain direction, and voilà: a reflector! It looked like a million bucks.

Now, the client was well aware we didn’t have exactly what we needed right then and there, but they were duly impressed at our problem-solving abilities and speed in making it all work and look great.

That, my friends, translates into repeat business.

We will not always have everything we need all the time. But if you can keep a global view of your circumstances… thinking of all the possibilities… all the ways to problem-solve that do not involve having that flex-fill or that HMI or that ND for the windows or any power at all… If you can live, knowing that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go askew and not let it get to you, then you will have a much greater likelihood of a good outcome (a good product with repeat business) than a poor one (don’t call us…we’ll call you.)

Your brain, your creative capabilities – that muscle – is far better than you can imagine. Yeah, having $250,000 worth of creative tools is great, but not everyone can afford them. And even if you can, you won’t always have them with you.

Exercise that muscle. Practice exploring what you can do with limited tools. Surprise yourself – and your clients. And always expect the unexpected because it will happen to you!

And always have a white van handy.

Tags: Production