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Photographic Techniques

What Amateur Filmmakers Can Learn From Professional Sets

Published November 20, 2015

Before I chose a life of safety and stability as a Video Technician at LensRentals, I was a Production, Locations, and Camera Assistant in Wilmington, North Carolina. For the most part, people know Wilmington and the surrounding area as the setting for countless Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but local crews have been shooting movies there since Screen Gems built sound stages in 1985. Some of the stuff I worked on in the three years I lived there included Eastbound and Down, The Conjuring, and Iron Man 3 (for one day on Second Unit but who’s counting?). I also worked on some deservedly less well-known films – A Smile as Big as the Moon and Arthur Newman come to mind – and a couple dozen commercials. The long hours and lack of job security ended up forcing me to make a career change, but I learned lessons on all of those sets that I think are applicable to any production. Your micro-budget film probably doesn’t entail hundreds of extras, a small army of crew members, or trailers full of impatient actors, but there are steps you can take to make your set a more pleasant and professional place to be, and I think these three are a good place to start.

Safety First

Those of you who’ve worked in the film industry are probably familiar with Sarah Jones. She was an experienced Camera Assistant in the Atlanta area who was struck by a train and killed on the set of Midnight Rider in 2014. While I didn’t know her well, I worked with Sarah on a handful of occasions and never heard anything but praise from people that were close to her. There is a detailed report about the incident here, but even with director Randall Miller serving a two-year manslaughter sentence it’s difficult to pin down who was at fault. This much is clear: leading members of the crew including the Director, Unit Production Manager, and Locations Manager, were aware that they were denied permission to film on a narrow bridge. They sent about a dozen crew members onto the bridge anyway, leaving them with no time or room to get off the tracks when a train arrived unexpectedly.

Obviously this is an extreme case (Miller is the first director ever to face a felony conviction for an on-set death), but the lesson is clear: Don’t put your cast or crew in danger to get a shot. If you’re going to be on train tracks, get a permit. If you’re going to be working with prop guns, make sure the police know. If you’re going to be driving, make sure everyone knows where the car is going and when. Taking precautions like these will keep everyone safe and make your set feel professional regardless of how much money you’re spending. If anything good came out of Sarah Jones’ death, though, it’s a precedent for ensuring that these kinds of concerns are addressed before anyone starts working. Film crews all over the country have taken to calling the first shot of the day “The Jonesy” in Jones’ honor. The idea is to have everyone on set discuss safety concerns, make sure permits are in place, and get everyone on the same page before shooting a frame. You’ll never regret taking the time to do this, and a safe crew can work that much more efficiently.

Come Prepared

I got screamed at on my first Production Assistant job for not having a pen on me the first day I showed up to set. Later, when I asked a friend why they took things like that so seriously, he explained the intensity of the work environment in a way that really stuck with me. “Say you’re working on a 100-million dollar movie. Over thirty shooting days, that’s about 3.3 million a day. If you’re working 15 hour days, that means you’re spending about $220,000 an hour. That’s $3,700 a minute. No one has time to for you to run to your car and grab a pen. Save the production one second a day and you’re doing your job.” I’ve never worked with that kind of pressure, but the math works for any budget. Being on set is expensive and any time taken searching for basic supplies instead of shooting can add up quickly. If you get caught without a tool you need and have to waste time to borrow or buy it, then you’re going to look like an amateur. If that shoulder-mount your camera operator brought needs an Allen key that you just happen to have in your kit, you’re going to look like a genius.

 

Image provided by photospace Denver. Used with Permission

 

The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to just buy a big duffel bag and fill it with everything you think you’ll need. Inevitably you’ll forget something, but when that happens you just buy whatever you’re missing and toss it in the bag with everything else. Make that bag the first thing you pack when you’re getting ready for a shoot and you’ll eventually be ready for any situation. Here are a few of the basics I keep in mine: pens, pencils, Sharpies, gaffer’s tape, electrical tape, painter’s tape, work gloves, extension cords, Allen key sets, multiple sizes of Phillips and flat head screwdrivers, a lens cleaning kit, a level, zip ties, a multitool, a headlamp, a first aid kit, and just about every type of disposable battery known to man.

Your kit will vary depending on the type of work you do, but having one and maintaining it really is a huge part of doing more professional work.

Everybody Eats

This last tip is the only one I didn’t steal wholesale from the Boy Scouts, although I guess they all eat too. Just about every film set in America employs at least some unionized crew members, mostly from the Teamsters, IATSE, and DGA. There are a lot of rules when it comes to working with a union crew, but the meal guidelines are the ones that I think amateur filmmakers can learn from the most. A union crew, without exception, gets a meal every six hours. If the Director needs extra time at the six-hour mark, say to get a shot under specific lighting conditions, they’re permitted a 20-minute “grace period.” Any longer than that and the whole crew is paid time-and-a-half until the lunch break, which isn’t cheap. Work longer than 12 hours in a day, which is more common than not, and you’re buying the crew two meals.

I’m going into detail on this, not as some film union history lesson but to try to impart how important meals are to the dynamic on set. As an amateur myself, I’ve worked for free countless times and asked others to work with me for free just as often, so I can tell you from experience that the best way to make sure that everyone involved feels valued is to feed them. It doesn’t have to be anything out of the ordinary. Pizza or sandwiches will do just fine. The important things are to keep everyone together, take some time to relax before the second half of the day, and express your appreciation to your crew even if you can’t pay them. If a hundred bucks or so a day is stretching your budget too much, then make meals yourself and bring them in if you have to. Whatever you do, just feed your crew. It’s literally the least you can do. All this may seem like basic stuff, but devoting the time and energy to doing these things correctly can make a huge difference in the level of comfort, efficiency, and overall professionalism on your set. Feel free to comment if there’s anything you’d like to add, especially if you’re adding sad PA stories. Those are always welcome.

Ryan Hill

LensRentals.com Video Technician

Author: Ryan Hill

My name is Ryan and I am a video tech here at Lensrentals.com. In my free time, I mostly shoot documentary stuff, about food a lot of the time, as an excuse to go eat free food. If you need my qualifications, I have a B.A. in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University in beautiful downtown Carbondale, Illinois.

Posted in Photographic Techniques
  • KeithB

    I think of facing as charged, not convicted. (And, like OJ, Landis probably had a better defense attorney.)

  • John Landis and some other crew members were charged with manslaughter after that accident, but everyone was eventually acquitted. Miller is the first director to actually be convicted and serve time, though it is worth noting that he pleaded guilty. That Twilight Zone case is still a relevant example of the kind of negligence I’m talking about, though. There’s no doubt in either situation that the filmmakers cut corners and took irresponsible risks.

  • Ken Elliott

    One minor correction: There is no such thing as a flat head screwdriver. I think you are referring to a flat-blade screwdriver for a slotted screwhead. A flat head screw is a screw has a conical underside that is designed to fit a tapered countersunk hole, which allows the top of the screw head to fit flush with the surface. The screw can be designed with a slot, phillips, hex or many other types of receptacles. Thus a driver for a flat head screw could be almost any type of driver.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_screw_drives

  • KeithB

    The director was charged with manslaughter in the Twilight Zone Accident:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twilight_Zone_accident

  • Ha my mistake, guys. Next blog post will be about how film school leaves you woefully unprepared for real world math.

  • Mike

    You might want to check your math. $220,000/hr or $3700/min or $60/sec.

  • Benjamin Brosdau

    Good advice, but 220000$ per hour means 3700$ per minute not per second.Around 60$ a second is still a lot of money though and makes it worth having a pen on hand. 😉

  • good points. the combination of the three: having a view granola bars or similar in your magic bag will keep your blood sugar up. which avoids a lot of accidents because your brain isnt working straight.
    depending on location avoid chocolate or other meltables.

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