The middle of lighting a scene is not a great time to be asked where the coffee machine is. That’s the sort of thing that actually happens on very low-budget short films and other material at the wild-west end of the film and TV industry. Sometimes there are barely enough people to ensure everyone’s fed and watered, let alone execute a complicated script. After all, we can’t make a movie without a decent camera and a decent camera is expensive, so we can’t afford a crew.
I've been looking for an opportunity to use this shot for ages. Gunge, see, comes in different colours, which is the job of the production designer! Did it!
This is about why hoarding budget for gear is often a false economy and the people we might choose to hire instead.
First, get a production designer.
Penniless beginners often dismiss this on the basis that production design is inevitably expensive. On a production where the actors are all wearing their own clothes that might seem like a pretty reasonable concern. Even so, it’s nice to know that there’s someone ensuring that the actors don’t all pull out dayglo T-shirts with bold horizontal stripes on the day we’re shooting the sombre reading-of-the-will scene. If we can at least pick a couple of colours and stick to them, then the production might actually have a reasonably controlled colour scheme, especially if those colours are also present in the location.
Hair and makeup. Handy if the leading lady turns up with a crop of pimples
Actor management, incidentally, is something that hair, makeup and costume people will tacitly admit is often part of their job. OK, it’s not strictly part of the job, but on a day when there’s a tree across the railway line and everyone’s half an hour late, getting everyone into their corsets and pantaloons in double-quick time can easily offset the day rates of those doing the work. And yes, it’s nice if we can make sure that your carefully planned backlit sunset doesn’t reveal a thousand stray flyaway hairs and that a scene set in 1912 isn’t beset by terribly obvious 1990s makeup.
Someone has to put these signs up. If anyone has any idea what BNW was, let us know in the comments
It’s an amazingly good idea to have someone responsible for locations. A big locations department may run to several people who will liaise, unlock, wrangle vehicles, deal with the local authorities and zip-tie all those little fluorescent signs to lamp posts. On a less upscale production, someone still needs to get there 20 minutes before everyone else to ensure the doors are unlocked, the heating is on and that we don’t end up standing around a bunch of flight cases, stamping our feet in the cold, while trying to get someone on the phone to let us in. Whoever does this doesn’t need to have a 50-film production history but ability in planning, problem-solving and a willingness to arrive early and get the kettle on is key. The smell of coffee really takes the edge off those 5 am starts.
Healthful morning options for the whole crew
Finally, in a bid for the sanity of editors everywhere, have someone to act as a script supervisor, especially if you’re not editing it yourself and especially if it’s a multi-day shoot or one with a lot of different locations. Quite apart from making notes about what takes worked and what didn’t, it’s useful to have someone whose actual job it is to notice that we entirely forgot to shoot Annie’s coverage for that big speech on page 3. Sometimes it’s okay for this person to be fairly junior if we aren’t going to need the fully written-up notes that a full-timer would produce – not to suggest that being a script supervisor is anything but a full-time and highly specialised role. It’s just a role that often isn’t filled on small shows unless it’s with someone very cheap and that’s better than nothing.
If this is the nearest you get to script supervision, go to the bottom of the class
Incidentally, it’s also a good idea to actually have runners, both because there are always points during the day when there aren’t enough hands and because people have to start somewhere. Treating very junior people properly is important and something that the world in general and the film industry, in particular, is terrible at, but that’s a complicated subject for another day.
To return to our central thesis, though, the people behind the camera often have very little control over what’s going on in front of it. Sometimes that’s great if the production is well-funded, with experts in every role from locations to costume to hair and makeup and every frame is a Rembrandt long before a camera even appears. But if that’s not your situation, if you’re directing (and shooting and writing and editing) a low-budget short film or even if you just happen to be friends with the director and have some influence, this one’s for you. Or, perhaps, for that friendly director.
Top image courtesy of Shutterstock.