Set Time Management

Dashing out the door with camera in hand, but no plan, can cost you. Time is money. In video production, this is perhaps more true than in any other profession.

If you are working as a professional video director, you are probably very aware of the cost involved in renting equipment, hiring the crew and talent and shooting the project. Every minute you spend on the set costs money.

In this column we will look at how you can effectively manage time on the set. Good time management will not only save you money, it will help make your shooting experience a great deal more stress-free and enjoyable.

Planning, Planning, Planning

On large shoots, management of the set and personnel might be the job of the assistant director or line producer. However, most of us wear those hats in addition to our director’s cap. As the director for a small-budget project, you are responsible not only for the look, feel and performance of the final project, but also for the daily routine of the production set. It is imperative that you arrive prepared. Good time management always begins with a plan. Don’t plan to make major decisions on the set, while your cast and crew sit around waiting, come in with a plan that everyone knows and then run with it. Time spent sitting with your crew leaders at your favorite restaurant prior to the shoot will save time later when you are actually paying for the whole crew, the equipment and the talent.

But what goes into the plan? How do you manage a day or week-long shoot? How do you deal with the myriad questions that bombard you at every turn?

The Daily Plan

Every shoot should begin with a preview of the day’s activities and end with a quick review and a preview of what is coming up the following day. These meetings should include all department heads involved in that day’s shoot. Make sure you build this planning time into the beginning and end of your shooting day and have crew calls set accordingly. Be firm about your call. It is essential that you start on time and that everyone is on the same page right from the start. Stragglers will always cause delays and waste valuable time.

During this meeting, you will present the portions of the script that you are planning to shoot that day. Hopefully, you have already spent time with your lighting, audio and camera crews prior to the day’s shoot, so that they are aware of any special requirements and know what to expect.

It is important that your crew members know you trust and respect them and that their opinions count.

As part of the meeting, you will present the different setups you hope to shoot, their order and the technical requirements. Make sure the setups are logical in their sequence. Take advantage of lighting setups and set locations. You don’t want to be bouncing all over the place. Work through your day in an orderly way, and you will save a tremendous amount of time. Walk your crew through the set and explain to them what you hope to accomplish in terms of both the technical and artistic aspects of the scenes. Use this time to answer any specific questions your crew may have. You also should be willing to entertain any suggestions or revisions that the crew feels may help make the shoot run more smoothly and efficiently. It is important that your crew members know you trust and respect them and that their opinions count. However, it is also important that they know that you are the one who ultimately makes the final decision and will be responsible for the outcome.

The Setup

Right about now you may be asking yourself, “What is a setup?” Every time the camera changes position on a set, it is called a “setup.” If you are shooting a conversation between two people, you might have three setups: the shot showing the two people talking and the single shots of each actor. You will probably want to shoot the conversation in its entirety from all three setups. This will give you more to work with in the edit suite. You may also want to vary your single shots so that they include both single shots as well as over-the-shoulder (OTS) shots. To save time on the set, work with your camera operator to plan when the shot will change from a one-shot to an OTS. By coordinating this beforehand, you will save the time needed to do another take. Keep in mind that every setup takes time. You have to reset the lights, audio and camera, and then you need to walk the talent through the new setup, so that they are aware of the space in which they have to work.

Your setup plans must also include any camera movement, talent positions, blocking, lighting and audio requirements. You must plan the blocking of the camera and talent before you get to the set. There is nothing worse than a director who gets on the set, looks around and then changes his or her mind five times while trying to decide where the cameras should be placed and how and where the talent should move through the scene. The director who comes in with a written, sketched-out plan and lets the crew know exactly what that plan is can then easily work with the talent while the crew sets up the camera, lights and mics for the next shot.

Your setup plan should include floor diagrams, with the camera and talent blocking noted, as well as lighting and audio placement. Each setup should have its own diagram. An easy way to do this is to draw a floor plan of the set and then use clear plastic sheets to draw the camera and actor blocking, as well as the lighting setups. While your setup plans do not have to be this extravagant, you do need to be able to get your ideas across, and the more detailed and precise, the better.

Talent Time Management

Talent can be a very expensive part of your budget. Make sure you schedule your talent call to include time for makeup and wardrobe, if needed, and rehearsal/walk-through time. While the talent does not have to show up as early as the crew, nor stay as late, you have to leave enough time so that, while the crew is setting up the first shot, you can be working with the talent, walking them through their blocking and making sure they know the tone, style and delivery you are looking for in their performances.

As with the crew, it is a good idea to give the talent an idea of where the day’s shoot is going and remind them where their characters are coming from in the context of the story. The setup plans you used with the crew can be just as helpful with the talent. If the talent knows precisely what you expect of them, they will more likely deliver a good performance. Don’t be so rigid in your planning that you do not allow talent to contribute ideas and small rewrites of lines, but keep the changes to a minimum and make sure the talent always knows what to expect, including where they are going and what they are doing in each setup.

You do not want to have anyone standing around before or after a shot, so plan your day in such a way that, while the talent is getting ready for the next shot, you are working with the crew. Then while the crew is setting up, you are working with the talent to prepare them for their performance.

Always be prepared to make small changes to the talent’s performance and the technical aspects of the shot. Again, try to balance the time spent with both talent and crew, so that one group is not standing around waiting for the other to get ready.

Set Time Savers

It is the little things that sometimes destroy the efficient workings of a set. Take, for instance, food. You might want to start out your day with a well-catered breakfast. Breakfast isn’t very expensive and a fed crew is a happy crew. As long as the coffeepot is full and the fruit and pastries are abundant, the crew and cast will perform. Never release your crew and cast for lunch. Cater the meal. You will waste valuable time waiting for stragglers. You will also create a sense of community if the talent and crew eat together.

Another major set time-saver is an efficient script supervisor. Make sure you always have someone on staff who will watch the script, take notes delineating good and bad shots and keep track of continuity (so that each take looks the same in terms of sets and props). A good script supervisor will enable you to concentrate on the technical aspects and the cast. As the director, you shouldn’t have to try to keep track of everything, because this takes time; time away from your crew and cast. It also costs time when everyone stands around while you take care of the little stuff.

Finally, a well-run, efficient set is a happy set. If everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and why, there will be no quibbling, no hesitation and no second-guessing. True professionals take their craft seriously but also like to have fun. If you take the uncertainty of a poorly-planned shoot away, you will create a fun, productive atmosphere in which to work. Plan accordingly, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. And, as a great side benefit, you’ll save some bucks!

Robert G. Nulph Ph.D.
Robert G. Nulph Ph.D.
Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an instructor of video and film production at the college level and an independent video/film director.

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