I have been active in Scary for two years both on other crews as well as producing and directing my own film Behind The Cow. I am looking for productions that will facilitate my goal to learn how the pros really do things and why. So I look for projects run professionally to set examples for me. I am also applying my new skills to my next film, Last Note, and I am already seeing better results and more levels of creativity.
In my time in the herd, one lesson keeps standing out for me: Pre-production is everything. The action on set may be sexy, but it’s the least creative part of the process. Post-production is also highly creative, but that is not what I am emphasizing here. However post-production is limited by both what pre-production and production accomplish so we cycle right back to the most important phase: pre-production.
Production is the process of executing what you planned in pre-production, the shooting. If you really want to be part of the creativity of filmmaking take a crew role in one of these departments: Cinematography, Producing, Directing and Production Design. You do not have to be the department head to work for them, they will need many other roles to work for them gaffers, grips, set decorators, PA’s etc. If you do not know about the definitions of crew roles and how Departments are formed and how they work on a set, do some research.
Well before any given shoot day, the necessary storyboards, critical locations, props, script, wardrobe, makeup, team assignments, insurance and all other mission critical tasks should all be completed. If they are not, you risk entering a highly dysfunctional crisis state day to day with the pressure of a ticking clock and no room to wiggle when problems arise and no contingency plans for dealing with those problems. To avoid creating a culture of crises on your project, lean on the rich history of filmmakers that developed the crew roles and the work parameters for pre-production.
Crew roles and protocols were developed over 100 years of filmmaking through trial and error. They work well. Everyone must own their roles so they are prepared, equipped and proud to do their jobs. Each dept head needs to be in control of who works with them and not subject to last minute changes without consultation.
Ambiguous and shifting roles which change without warning only leads to tasks being left undone, project owners being disappointed and territorial conflicts among the crew. This puts them in an awkward position with each other and disrupts the department heads’ plans, resulting in conflict and confusion. It will also result in team members feeling that their contribution is being undervalued and that their time is being wasted.
I was the Art Director for a second round film to be screening this summer titled; Tell. It was a big job and I often had to wear multiple hats within my dept when, for example, wardrobe or makeup crew could not be on set. In SC we wear more than one hat and I find that keeping it within your Dept makes for the smoothest way to do that. I even did some location scouting and stunt driving, which is appropriate for an Art Director to double up on. I was treated to a really great pair of project leaders; Alan Greene (producer/writer) and Rajeev Prabhakar (director) who have worked together a lot and had their own style down smoothly. I always got answers to questions quickly. And if they didn’t have a choice made or a vision we would work quickly to get one together. When I took them to locations to speak with managers they presented an organized front so that instilled trust to negotiate for the best places. They also respected the quality of their film and the crew by bringing us on early so we had the time to do our work many weeks in advance.
This clarity of expectations and mutuality of respect gave me great opportunities to be creative in pre-production. I had the most wonderful wardrobe mistress, Edem Kuevor, going through the actors’ clothes weeks in advance so we could see what we had to buy and have everything cleaned, mended and stored for safe keeping prior to set time. Sometimes this meant that Edem and I were texting photos to each other for hours. I labored over many details, the textures and colors to make sure they worked for the characters, actors, and the director’s vision and with other aspects of the set design. Our DP Garrett Low also was consulted to avoid moiré issues. We had repair and cleaning kits to mitigate malfunctions (like rain or floor dust during stunt fighting) and to be able to clean up the locations when we were done. I did makeup tests in advance as well and walked through the location days or weeks prior to the shoot with the director and producer to work out any issues so that when set time came it took less than an hour to set up everything and then hang back to maintain the set, props, wardrobe and makeup. One time I was not able to be on location so I went the night before and did all the set decorating so it was ready when the DP went to set up. In short, I sunk my teeth into the role and did not just show up set and wing it with whatever was there. It was tiresome on some days all the driving and fetching of props and wardrobe but I was being truly making creative choices and that matters to me a great deal. A big thanks to the whole crew, cast and all the trusting generous people who loaned us their really nice homes and places of business to shoot in!
All this preparation pays off. The spirit of the Cow is that your crew should feel that the time they spend working on your film was well invested. Different people look for different things, but one thing that makes everyone happy is working on quality projects where their time and contribution is fully appreciated.