Someday, you may have to hire, beg, borrow or coerce some people to join you on your video adventure. Keep it friendly, stick with a plan and you – and they – will enjoy the trek.
Summertime is a great time to shoot that special video. Load up your equipment, gather your crew and away you go to the next exciting location. Sounds great, but it could be the beginning of a horrible nightmare if you don’t prepare for your role as the small-crew director. In this column, we will take a look at directing small crews, pitfalls to watch out for and overall strategies that work to make your shoot a pleasant and successful endeavor.
Go With a Plan
The number-one reason directors run into problems on the set is lack of planning. Whether you are shooting a potential blockbuster with hundreds in your crew or an intimate video with a crew of five, planning is the key to success. This planning includes not only the setups and shots you will need, the equipment required and the cast list, but also, for the small crew, it includes the identification of exactly what each crew member will be doing.
In the professional film world, every position has a very defined job description that spells out responsibilities. On a union set, these job descriptions are extremely specific and dictated by the union contract. For the small video crew, you can toss these job descriptions out the window. Everyone needs to be prepared to wear a number of hats and be responsible for a wide variety of details and specific tasks. As the director, you need to look at your crew, review their competencies and assign responsibilities accordingly. Nothing is more disruptive on the set than crewmembers who look at you with a blank stare because you have asked for something they were totally unaware was their responsibility. While this may seem rather obvious, it is best not to assume anything, because you all know what happens when you assume something.
What Makes Up a Small Crew?
While every production may be slightly different, with different needs, the small-production crew is pretty consistent. You will need a camera operator, audio mixer, boom operator, gaffer, grip, assistant director, producer and script supervisor. These positions are essential for a production to be a success. Let’s look at each position, taking it for granted that you are the director.
Experts strongly recommend that the director does not also shoot the project. Although many directors do this, it takes away from their ability to concentrate on the acting and tech within a scene, because their focus is more on camera movement, composition and overall picture quality. When working with novice actors or talent who are not used to working with the camera, it is essential for the director to be able to step away from the camera to work with the talent and more closely monitor their actions. This also goes for working with a novice crew. Take a monitor with you, so that you can see what the camera operator is doing. Between watching the monitor and the action, you will be more aware of the performance you are getting and what you need to tweak. The freedom this gives you is enormous, and, if you have a good camera operator, you will find yourself less stressed and your final products much improved.
Another task you must learn to give up as the director is the overall producing of the piece. On the set, the director has too many things to worry about to also add catering, clock management, prop wrangling, costume adjusting, set coordination, location prep, talent and location releases and a plethora of other business decisions. A good producer must be someone who isn’t afraid to tell you when time is running out or that the location is getting ready to kick you out because you are taking too long to get that perfect shot. A good producer is also someone who is extremely well-organized, has an eye for detail and takes care of the moment-by-moment working of the shoot. This must be someone you trust and someone you will listen to and won’t get mad at when he insists it is time to move to the next setup. The producer will most likely act as script supervisor and continuity master if no one else is available.
Assistant Camera Operator
In a pinch, the producer can also act as assistant director and take care of the slate and the overall on-set management. However, this is best taken care of by another crew member who also acts as the assistant camera operator and takes care of all of the camera information, handles tape changes, assists with tricky camera movement and focus-pulling and generally is the camera operator’s right arm.
Audio is another part of the production that must have at least two crew members, to ensure the quality of the sound recording. Today’s cameras record very high-quality audio, so many small crews record the audio directly through their cameras, using external microphones. (Never use the camera microphone if you can help it, among other issues, the camera mic picks up the noise of the camera.)
However, just because you are recording the audio to your camera, don’t think that the camera operator should be responsible for the audio as well as the video. Have a crew member monitor the audio with headsets and look over the camera operator’s shoulder to monitor the camera’s meters, if you can see them.
If you are shooting HDV, you may want to use a dual system with a separate Flash drive audio recorder. HDV cameras do not record the quality audio you will get with MiniDV cameras, because of the space on the tape needed for the video signal. If you use a dual system (camera and audio recorder), use your camera mic to record a scratch audio track you can later use to sync with the audio from the Flash recorder. (To learn more abut dual audio recording, see our Audio column in this issue.)
You will also need the assistant director to slate every shot, to give you a separate audio and video sync point.
The audio mixer will need a boom operator to handle the shotgun microphone used for the shoot. If you are using lavs, the boom operator can assist with the setting up and monitoring of the mic systems.
The final two positions you will need are the grip and gaffer. These are your utility players.
The grip takes care of the heavy lifting on the set, assisting the camera operator with setup, moving furniture, assisting with props and providing the physical assistance needed to keep the set running.
The gaffer takes care of all of the lighting needs, working closely with you or a Director of Photography, if you are lucky enough to have someone who can take the job of designing the lighting and shots for the production. The gaffer puts up the lights, connects all the electric and monitors the electronic components of the set. You will find the grip and gaffer save a tremendous amount of your time by taking care of the physical setup, so that you can concentrate on your talent and camera operator.
On the Set
The key to a successful shoot is communication. Always make sure your crew knows what you expect of them and what they will be doing next. Begin each day with a walkthrough of that day’s activities. Before beginning your setup at each location, walk the crew through what you will need and the setups you will be trying to accomplish that day. Explain to them the look and feel you are going for in each scene, and ask for and listen as they give suggestions about what might work better. However, don’t be wishy-washy. It is good to ask for suggestions from your crew, but you have to be able to make decisions and keep the production on track. Changing direction too often and not knowing what you want for each scene will drive your crew nuts and create a very unhappy set. Creativity is one thing. Creativity without a plan is the quickest way to a horrible experience.
Once everyone is on the same page, make your crew assignments, clearly stating what you need from everyone. It is best to establish a system and fall into a rhythm. Crew members who work together well seldom stand around wondering what they need to do next. They all know what they are doing and, when you are ready to shoot the scene, everything should be in place and ready to go. Coordinate the camera with the lighting. Make sure the talent know what they are doing. Walk through the scene with them while the crew is setting up. Keeping the talent in the loop is another way to ensure a smooth production.
When getting to roll tape, check the crew positions, and have all tell you they are ready – camera, audio and talent. During the scene, watch the monitor, concentrating on the action of the talent. If you have a good camera operator and audio mixer, let them take care of the picture and sound. When you have finished the shot, ask for a report from the camera operator, then the mixer.
Finally, check with the script supervisor to make sure the talent spoke the lines properly and everything worked. Make a note in the camera notes log of any problems with the shot and if it was good. Make sure the script supervisor keeps track of the good takes, making notes for every shot. When you finish with shot notes, decide whether you want to shoot it again, and consider any changes the crew needs to make. Again, this is the point where you need to be firm and decisive. Don’t debate the good with the bad. Tape is cheap; if you are not absolutely sure you got what you want, shoot it again. The crew will not have a problem doing it over again if you have a good reason and if they are sure of what you want.
Communication is the Key
Go through the rhythm of every setup, making sure everyone knows what’s required and the desired outcome. When the day’s shoot is near its end and everything is stowed away, call a short meeting to explain the next day’s shoot. Make sure you praise the crew for its good work, praising in public and criticizing in private. If you are having a problem with a particular crewmember, pull that person aside after the meeting for a private talk. Calmly explain what you are expecting and what the problem is. Ask if there are any particular problems, and make sure you know what the person needs to make sure the problem does not continue. Be firm but be fair, and make sure you listen. Yelling at a crewmember gets you nowhere. Save the yelling for the idiot that pulls out in front of you on the way home!
Directing anyone is not easy. Well-known director and author Alan Armer describes the director as being an artist, a technician and a parent/psychiatrist. This multifaceted position takes a steady hand, quick mind and even temper. Treating your crew well and giving them a pat on the back occasionally will go a long way towards creating an enjoyable set and a great final production.
Contributing editor Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.
Side Bar: Small and Smaller
A blockbuster Hollywood movie has a person for every position and an assistant for every player, whereas, realistically, you might have a crew of 5 to 10. Below is a breakdown of the dual-roles you and your crew might take when you wear many hats.
Positions and Crewmember:
Producer-Assistant Camera Operator
Audio Mixer-Assistant Director