It was the perfect shoot day.
We were filming outside in pristine conditions. The wind was nonexistent. There was no bothersome automotive traffic noise, and both the crew and talent arrived on time. Passersby were actually helpful, and all of the gear worked properly. There was plenty of help on set — extra, actually — and the sun cooperated like a member of the team. There was ample time allotted for the edit, and then … then … then.
I woke up,
into the sordid nightmare of a cluster—
Whoops! Was that out loud?
But, yes, rarely does everything work out as expected, and filmmakers must constantly adapt to challenges that can make or break their film. Take, for example, our most recent project: We filmed four narrative pieces designed to promote aspects of a university department, with each scenario using multiple actors and environments.
Here is the drama that ensued for one of the narratives.
We were scheduled to film in four locations in one day: at a store, an outdoor ATM location, a restaurant and in an elevator. We had a fixed date, and the shoots could not be shifted. We were using actors, extras, multiple cameras, lights, audio, etc.
Challenge 2: Our main talent claimed he was unaware of the shoot day — so we lost our star.
Challenge 3: It started to rain — er, pour. We could no longer film the ATM scene.
Challenge 4: Our restaurant contact didn’t arrive at the location to let us in, so we lost that location.
Alas, what do you do when everything seems to be going wrong?
What did we do?
PLAN AHEAD, IMPROVISE AND ADAPT
Meaning, make it happen. Failure is not an option. Here is how we navigated this bad weather.
For challenge 2: We made sure we had an “alternate” that fit the bill of the main actor and used him instead. He actually worked out better.
For challenge 3: We filmed at an ATM in the same building of the first store that had rejected us. Since we had already done a site survey at this location, we knew where all of the ATM machines were located.
For challenge 4: We had booked two restaurants, so when our first choice fell through, we went with the backup — which actually worked out better.
In a perfect world, everything works out as expected. But reality is often different, and that’s OK. You have to be able to adapt. I recommend having contingencies for everything — a plan B and C. Unfortunately, experience is often the best teacher, so when you get caught in a circumstance you can’t change, learn from it and move on. In the end, you are judged by the success of your piece.
WHAT ABOUT THE CREW?
Does the number of helpers you have on set make a difference? Yes, yes and yes. Skeleton crews can get the job done, but often under extreme duress.
Think of it like walking in water: The more people you have, the easier it is to wade through the water. The less people you have on set, the higher the tide. And should a key person fall ill, you are now walking under water. In that case, I hope you are related to Aquaman.
Having amateurs in key positions on set is also stressful because it puts an undue burden on the more experienced personnel. It’s OK to work toward being a Jack/Jaqueline of all trades, but each person should master one discipline as they learn the rest. It makes you more valuable/employable on set to have a reliable skill. When directing a shoot, your major concern should not be whether your audio person hit the record button, or if your gaffer accounted for the differences between the 20-amp and 15-amp circuits.
Whenever possible, separate the director from the director of photography. Be dogged. If you are the producer, don’t send an email and then call it a day. Make a phone call, or several. In fact, go in-person to talk to the vendor or prospective talent. If they don’t respond immediately to an email or phone call, they are not being rude — they are being busy. That tends to be the case with people who are worth interviewing. And just as DPs need to vet the gear before taking it out, the talent should know their lines or have been given the questions ahead of time.
So, put away the violin and sob stories. The dog didn’t eat your homework — he ate your career.
D’oh! My inside voice slipped out again.
To be successful in this business, you have to demonstrate that you can produce a quality product despite your limitations in personnel, gear or time constraints.
Because when life …
’Cause when life …
Hands you lemons, you…
Don’t say it!
You still have to finish your assignment, because no one cares.
What did you think I was going to say?