Almost everyone’s favourite part of the filmmaking process (except if you’re like Hitchcock and find it boring compared to preproduction).
Your tasks: run lines, block, discuss coverage, rehearse, watch split, take notes, offer notes, write the logs, mark the script, take photos, and do it all over again.
When the actors are brought to set they’re usually doing a quick line run to remind themselves of the dialogue. Be there to offer the script if they need it, to prompt them and to make sure they know the lines.
This is the Director’s job but you need to be there to see how the scene is going to be mapped out. Prompt the actors when they need it, remind the Director of actions in the script, mention props that need to be used and when, read off-screen dialogue or sound FX, mention continuity if there needs to be (doors if they stay opened or closed, fix problems – maybe a hat needs to be taken off), remind every one of what happened before and what will happen next. Your involvement depends on the Director and how much they allow you to contribute to the block.
The conversation is all about how the scene that was just blocked will be shot, in how many set-ups, from what angles and what will be seen. Sometimes there are storyboards to help. This is where you need to make sure the camera will cover every bit of important action and won’t cross the action line (covered in Maths). I worked with many Directors that leave the action line discussion to the Scripty and the DOP.
My favourite DOP’s and Directors are those who take time to explain their shots and physically move around the set to where the camera will be placed. They allow themselves and the crew to see what will end up in frame. Some even take photos of the actors and the set and then they do that for every set-up. It takes a bit longer but it helps knowing how to stage, what to dress, what to light.
The traditional way of shooting is to start with a Master shot that runs the entire scene, then to move in tighter for close coverage and at the end to do cutaways of details. Of course this is not always the case as some Directors don’t shoot Wide Shots, some like to start with Close Ups of the performance and then do WS, some cover the scenes hand-held in a few shots by following the action. Either way, the first Printed take is the one that will dictate the continuity for all the other actions in the next set-ups.
Once the camera is in position the actors are called for a Camera Rehearsal. This time you’ll be able to watch it on a split monitor. Make sure there are no nasties in frame (the camera operator will check for those but you’ve got a better chance at seeing cables in frame on your bigger than his screen), check that actors don’t mask each other, do preliminary notes on when they do certain actions and what will need to be reset after each take (clocks, props, costumes, makeup, lights, etc), make any final line corrections.
This is where you’ll spend most of your time on set, shoulder to shoulder with the Director, watching every detail, pointing things at the screen, whispering issues into their ear, agonising over timings and actions. You’re watching out for them and making sure they can use every single take without having to cut around problems.
One excuse Directors can use, even when they’re running out of time, they can ask for another take by blaming continuity: because sometimes it really won’t cut! And if it won’t cut you need to go again. (I love the actors who ask for another take blaming their performance when in fact they want it for continuity – they know if they get their actions wrong they look bad on screen).
Now the main reason you’re watching the split is to make sure the story will make sense. You are the audience on set, the first to see it. Directors watch performance. You watch everything else! It happened a few times that a performance was so brilliant that I completely forgot about ‘everything else’ and as soon as the Director yelled cut into my ear I realised I made no notes for the take… Oops…
Back to the Video Split – I’ve always tried to arrange with the production that I get a recorder that can offer me playback later on. Over the last year and a bit I’ve been introduced to a few amazing Video Split operating systems! As soon as the camera cuts, the clip is available on a computer that then transmits wirelessly to any other device connected to it. This way whoever has a smart phone, a tablet or a computer can access the clip straight away. This way the entire crew can see what’s been shot without having to come to the split and ask for playback. This system is really useful and very efficient! I also use this system to match frames or eyelines, by bringing the shot that needs matching up on screen and placing it next to the frame to be shot.
As I’m watching the action on screen I take as many notes as possible, mainly to do with timings: when in the dialogue a certain action takes place. The actors’ actions are the most important because editors like to cut on action. This way the cut is less noticeable.
I also draw diagrams for eyelines, screen direction and basic floor plans. After a take I check the Director’s reaction to see if they liked it or not. If it’s a Print take, I offer notes to the actors – reminders of when and how they did certain actions. Inexperienced actors will say they won’t need notes. The ones who have been in the industry for longer will always ask for notes. Even if they know exactly what they did it’s a great way for them to check they’ve got it right. Inexperienced actors will always get themselves very busy with actions that most of the time they won’t remember. Now there is no point in You knowing when they did what as long as they cannot reproduce that. Remind the Director of any inconsistencies in actions and maybe they will try to clean up the performance.
Every take is logged in a table with the details from the Clapper Board (those numbers are your responsibility), scene and camera angle descriptions, any notes regarding camera and sound (if problems with any), Director’s impressions and favourites. These logs end up with the Editor who will need them to cut the film together. (check templates)
MARKED UP SCRIPT
Various techniques to it – I start on the left with the line for the first shot and then move to the right for the following shots even if let’s say a WS will follow a CU. I sometimes write the shot size next to the line as well. The rest is the same – straight lines over the action on screen, squiggly for off-screen. (check templates)
There’s a protocol in place: don’t shoot nude actors, always ask them for a continuity snap, mention if you’re using the flash, call out loud FLASH after you’ve taken it so the Gaffers don’t think a bulb exploded. Keep the photos in order and print them if you need to. I haven’t printed photos in a while though, I keep them on my laptop and on my digital camera.
After you’ve done all this, do it all over again! No two scenes are the same, no two days are the same, no two actors are alike. Never repetitive!