Make no mistake about it, pre-production preparation can make or break a shoot. Many projects can have months of preparation but allow less than two weeks of principle photography. Time is of the essence! With the trend of shrinking budgets, a common result is compromised visuals (as well as other aspects of production). “Run and gun” shooting will yield “run and gun” results. I’ve been on countless shoots that had an overly ambitious shot list and resulted in many shots being cut, camera moves being cut, 20+ hour shoot days, and an overall compromise of quality. Today’s entry will talk about five different reasons you should be in solid communication with your DP during the pre-production process to help get the best results you can for your project.
1. Knowing how long things will take to shoot.
Chances are, your DP can give you a very accurate estimate as to how it will take to set up a shot. But we all know it’s not just setting up the shot… It’s getting focus marks, critical focus checks, and spiking marks for actors; lens swaps; mattebox and filter adjustments; blocking and practicing a camera move before rolling on a take; getting a frame height for the boom op; locking down the set; camera support adjustment; rigging, tweaks to lighting; slating; and so many other factors. After a certain amount of time, DPs really know how long it will realistically take to pull off each shot and can help you plan a realistic schedule and call sheet. There are some shots that will take less than five minutes. There are some shots that are very complicated and will take several hours to set up. The more realistic your schedule is, the more of your shots you will make happen without rolling into overtime or into a day of pickups. Whether it’s an estimate of days required to shoot a full project – or an estimate of hours needed to shoot a scene, your DP can be a great asset in setting an achievable shooting plan. Trust your DPs – we shoot all the time and know this stuff…
In the early stages of shot list review, here’s how I do an extremely quick time estimation breakdown if there seems to be too many shots for the amount of time allotted:
- Quickly count or accurately estimate how many shots are listed for the period of time
- Divide the two numbers to find out the average amount of time allocated per shot (if all things are equal)
- Factor in how much time you know will take for setting up the shot, lens swaps, art dept tweaks, boom height check, slating, etc.
- Interpolate the data to communicate with the director, producer, and or 1st AD if additional time is required for the shots listed (or how many shots need to be cut) – or do a rough calculation of how many shots you believe you can accomplish without compromising quality
2. Valuable input on planning your shot list.
“We have too many shots and not enough time – something has to be cut.”
“Why not combine three of these shots (pointing to the shot list) by doing this cool camera move? It will be visually dynamic from the camera movement and will save us two set-ups…”
“Yes. Let’s do that.”
For only $19.95, this scenario can be yours, folks! Just kidding – this is the stuff that’s free and saves you time on set. This in turn saves you money or increases your production quality from finding a nice balance between cutting shots and not compromising quality. In combination with item 1, your DP can usually look at your shot list and tell you if what you have planned is too much for the amount of time you’re trying to do it in. Let your DP help you with this. He or she can suggest various ways to achieve the end result that you wanted without simply slashing your shot list and removing content from the scene. By combining shots, you can save a lot of time on set and preserve the integrity of your scenes. This will also help your final edit and prevent your editor from having an aneurism.
3. Predicting potential snags for shooting and suggestions for ways to prevent them
Have you ever seen a complication from a mile away? I see them all the time. This might be lighting issues, complications with requested camera moves, logistical terrain issues, whatever… DPs are constantly thinking in terms of logistics and problem solving/problem prevention. When you involve your DP in the planning stages, he or she can help point out potential logistical obstacles and suggest ways to prevent them from slowing down the production, circumventing the issue altogether, or offering up a handy workaround. At the end of the day, the more time your DP has to craft his or her shots, the more beautiful the imagery in project can be. There’s nothing worse than when a production comes to a screeching halt because of an issue that could have been prevented.
4. Saving time on set by being on the same page
Sometimes, a DP is kept totally in the dark up until the time he or she walks onto the set. No script pages. No notes. No shot list or storyboards. Just an address and a call time. This is an excellent throw away valuable time on set. As a result, the director will need to explain each shot that he or she wants. There’s no way to prepare. There’s no prior understanding or mental preparation or beneficial input from the DP on how the scene can be shot. It’s a roll of the dice when it comes to quality and a definite delay for on-set. Discussion = time.
The more preparation you have by way of shot lists, diagrams, storyboards, pre-vis, note, etc – the more that everyone will be able to efficiently function on set while maximizing time. This brings us to item 5.
5. Reducing chaos on set with shot lists, diagrams, and storyboards.
I absolutely love storyboards. Sadly, I rarely get them. I’m quite comfortable with shot lists in conjunction with sketching out the areas we’ll be shooting. This helps me know what the frame should be, the lens I’m going to choose, how much room I’ll have to perform camera moves, how the scene will be lit, and a myriad of other massively important information. What’s even better is that I can then communicate this information with other departments so they know what’s going to be in frame (art dept), how tight the shot will be (audio dept), whose face will or will not be on screen (HMU), etc. This all translates into a reduction of chaos on set where there are fewer people asking questions about what’s happening and more people knowing what’s going on (and executing their tasks).
There will always be delays, snags, and a certain level of miscommunication/chaos on set – so anything that can be done to reduce that is a step in the right direction. Again, discussion on set = time.
Obviously all department heads factor into the pre-production planning and I have no intention of downplaying any other department’s role in a production. Film making is definitely a group effort and everyone involved is needed to make it happen. Hopefully this post helps communicate some of the ways your DP can help the pre-production process and in turn – help your final product.