You can be sure Akira Kurosawa didn’t tape down cables on the set of Ran. Alfred Hitchcock most likely achieved that Suspicion cobweb shadow effect without personally moving a light. And Frank Capra sure wasn’t up there shaking snow down onto the set of Bedford Falls for It’s a Wonderful Life.
Feature film directors just don’t do those sorts of things.
But if you’re an independent videomaker, chances are you’re a one-person shop. You do it all: producer, director, camera operator, purchasing agent, casting director, marketing executive, coffee maker.
The movies you see on the silver screen involve these people and quite a few more. Depending on the complexity and scope of the production, crews may number in the hundreds.
What do all these people do? Some of the jobs are obvious by their titles. It isn’t too difficult to figure out what “hair stylist” does. But what about focus puller? Best boy? Continuity director? Gaffer? Does the latter entail poking sharp objects into the heads of fish?
Just who are these people, and what do they do?
Completing a video program, whether a full-length movie or a television broadcast, requires similar processes.
In the beginning there’s script preparation, approval, and writing. Then come the chores of pre-production: storyboarding, set building, casting, casting about for locations.
Next comes principal photography: filming the action. Then to post-production to edit and add music, sound effects, and graphics.
Let’s examine what people do in television production. Live television, your local newscast, a football game broadcast, or an awards or variety program imply coverage of real-time events with multiple cameras.Job titles may be the same as those on a movie set, but the responsibilities can be considerably different.
Look around the television control room. It’s laid out like NASA Mission Control in Houston: tiers of consoles attended by bright-eyed eager young men and women.
There’s also a certain resemblance to your on-line editing setup, with videotape machines, special effects generator, audio mixer, and character generator. In fact, the production control rooms at many smaller television stations double as editing suites.
The control room is often far removed from the scene of the action. In the case of a sporting event, it’s usually in a large truck outside the arena.
Of course every television production has a producer and director. And these folks, with their big jobs and bigger salaries, need lots of assistants. The principal job of the assisant director (AD) is preproduction, wwhich includes supervising graphic design and producing and editing taped segments for playback during broadcasts.
The assistant producer (AP) is involved in preproduction, from preparation to guaranteeing plenty of tape and copy paper are available. An AP makes lots of photocopies. During the broadcast, the AP may be responsible for communicating with live remote sites or producing individual program segments.
The person in the control room with the most buttons to push is the technical editor, operating the production switcher (SEG) and possibly digital video effects, electronic still stores, or other devices. At the command of the director, the technical editor punches up the various camera shots, tapes, graphics, and super imposed titles.
Elsewhere in the control room we find electronic graphics operators working character generators, typing text for tomorrow’s weather forecast, sports score stats, and name supers. These people display the text on command or in a predetermined order. They must be fast typists and expert spellers; even so, it can take hours to prepare the graphics required for a single half-hour newscast.
An audio operator sits at a multichannel console mixing the final audio for output to transmitter or network. Sounds come to the control room from studio microphones, audio- and videotape machines, microwave and satellite feeds. It’s the audio operator’s job to make sure the signal has the highest possible quality, free of distortion and noise.
Finally, the videotape operator is there to record and play back show segments, also rolling prerecorded tapes created during preproduction. During sporting events requiring extensive instant replays there may be several tape operators running many tape machines, each dedicated to an individual camera.
Cable Makers to Head Cleaners
The studio proper is busy with a dozen or more camera operators, floor director, teleprompter operators, and other stagehands. The floor director is in charge, coordinating the efforts of talent and camera operators with instructions from the director.
The camera operators are responsible for the physical movements of the camera-pan, tilt, zoom, focus. These people are beginning to disappear, replaced by robotic pedestals that can be remote-controlled or preprogrammed to reproduce certain movements. A video operator, or shader, working in another room can electronically control the camera’s iris, pedestal, and color balancing.
Other people on the endangered species list camera crane operators, also being displaced by robots; and boom microphone operators, excused in favor of wireless mikes.
Supporting these machine operators are numerous engineers-electriclans, video hackers, phone company types, cable makers, head cleaners, all the assorted technowizards who make it all work.
Also involved are grips, gaffers, art directors, set decorators, and makeup people. These jobs are pretty much the same in both live television and film production.
Martian Desert Bikers
To examine the roles of various players in large-scale film production, let’s consider a hypothetical motion picture, Viking Bikers from Mars. In this twisted underground epic, Viking warriors kidnapped a thousand years ago by Martian invaders are suddenly revived from suspended animation and returned to Earth to wreak havoc in modern-day America.
The director has her script in hand, the principal actors or “leads” are cast, unit department heads have been hired by the production manager. The costume designer is designing atavistic leather and boots. Flair stylists research haircuts popular among Scandinavian peoples circa 800 A.D.
The casting director consults her files, agents pound the door, and the task of casting supporting roles begins. Special effects artists form large green skulls and two-thumbed hands for the actors playing the Martian astronauts. The production accountant starts signing checks.
The script calls for most of the action to take place in Last Gasp, New Mexico, a small desert town. The location manager consults his records for suitable bacldots, desert hamlets that have hosted films before, and location guides prepared by state and local film commissions.
After visiting several communities the location manager selects a town that satisfies the production’s artistic and budgetary requirements. He leases the shooting property as well as accommodations for the cast and crew. He secures needed government permits, makes arrangements for casting local extras, and organizes various location-oriented details like catering, security, and fire protection.
The transportation captain makes sure the unit travels quickly and comfortably to and around the location. She also procures a plethora of Harleys for the filmic Vikings. The property master assembles weaponry spanning a thousand years of combat technology.
The production designer is responsible for the overall look of the film. Having made certain constructive comments to the costume designers and makeup artists, next stop is on location to supervise the art director and set decorators in their task of making the town look just right.
Get a Grip
With the shooting schedule established, the unit descends upon Last Gasp. The construction coordinator, carpenters, and painters work round the clock to finish set construction. The gaffer, or chief electrician, along with her assistant, the best boy electrician, make certain sufficient electrical power is supplied to the set.
Under the supervision of the director of photography, the gaffer lights the sets using stand-ins for the actors.
Today shooting begins. The schedule calls for the Viking leader, Vlad, Destroyer of Virtue, to have his first confrontation with our heroine, Sally Switchblade, retired mercenary and health food promoter. Said meet occurs during a bank robbery.
The director and director of photography block shots outside the bank. The director of photography, or cinematographer, is responsible for putting the scene on film, including the lighting and composition of each shot.
Working under the authority of the director of photography are the camera operator, who operates the camera during the shoot; and the first assistant camera operator, or focus puller, who assembles and maintains the camera on location and is responsible for following focus-keeping the subject in focus in shots in where the actors or camera are in motion.
Also working with the director of photography is the second assistant cameraman, also known as the “clapper/loader.” This gent gets to clap the slate, as well as load and unload film magazines and keep notes. There are also a number of grips, including the dolly grip, who operates and maintains the dolly on which the camera is mounted for moving shots.
Grips spend most of their time rigging lights, moving scenery, and arguing with teamsters about who gets to move what where. The head honchos of the grip department are the key grip and the best boy grip.
The first assistant director (“first” or “first AD”), she who organized the shooting schedule, makes sure all needed parties and equipment are on the set. She sends for those who aren’t, and generally tries to maintain order. The AD has dispatched the second assistant director, whose extensive paperwork is done for the moment, to the caterer for more coffee and pastries.
Run on the Bank
Standing by for action is the script supervisor, also known as the continuity director, armed with an array of scripts, clipboards, pens, pencils, and a stopwatch or two. It’s her task to keep notes on each take, covering action, dialogue, makeup, and props.
This information is vital to the film’s continuity during principal photography and post-production. If Vlad is wearing sunglasses when he enters the bank, he’d better have them on when he storms around inside.
The sound mixer, with recorder ready, is sharing shop talk and the recently-arrived pastries with the boom operator. Several production assistants, runners, gofers, are hovering around like moths buzzing about a campfire, attending various details or just waiting to be assigned a detail to attend.
The actors, in wardrobe and makeup, have been issued their broadswords, crossbows, and assault rifles by the property master, who’ll be there to collect the stuff immediately after the shot. The talent then receives final instructions from the director.
The AD bellows, “Quiet on the set!” The camera rolls, the second assistant camera operator claps the slate with the scene and take numbers, and the mixer calls “Speed,” indicating that tape is rolling at speed. The director demands “Action!”
Vlad and his fellow Vikings charge up the sidewalk to the front door of the bank. The door is locked. Vlad tugs repeatedly at the door handle. Another Viking quips that the bank may be closed because it’s a holiday, what with the movie in town and everything.
The director yells “Cut!” and glares at the first AD. The first AD is looking around for the second AD, who’s looking around for someone with a key to the bank. Next to the scene number on her script, the script supervisor writes “Take 1-busted.. .bank door locked.” They do it again and again until the director’s satisfied.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, the second unit is in action. Here’s another complete crew, with its own director, director of photography-the works. The stunt coordinator and stunt performers are working through a spectacular motorcycle crash sequence.
Second units are often used to shoot locations, establishing shots, stunts, mob scenes, and other footage that doesn’t include the actors in leading roles.
That’s a Wrap
After several weeks of organized chaos, principal photography is finished and post-production begins.
Under the supervision of the director, the editor cuts the film. Music editors add music. Sound effects editors create and incorporate sound effects.
Some dialogue recorded on location may have to be changed or rerecorded in a process called looping, also known as automatic dialogue replacement.
For a film with extensive special effects, an entire company may be hired to create them.
Model makers build Martian spaceships, and specialized camera rigs are used by the company’s director of photography to shoot the ships approaching and hovering over Earth.
Matte painters create Martian landscapes to be integrated with shots of the actors, filmed in front of a blue screen.
Titles are added and the film is finished. Viking Bikers from Mars is coming soon to a theater near you.
The remarkable thing is, as you watch the movie it looks easy. That’s the idea. You don’t have to work in film or video production long to realize how hard it is to keep the practical, realistic requirements of the production process from intruding on the artistic image destined for the movie screen.
That’s the real job of the skilled technicians and craftsmen involved in a large, ambitious production: executing a grand effort without appearing to have been there at all.
And Now to You…
Directors of large-scale productions don’t need to tape down cables, or place lights, or shake snow. They have a hundred or so professionals behind them to make them look good.
Unless your video business is successifil enough that you can hire lots of extra help, or you have plenty of friends and relatives eager to join in your glamorous video exploits, you have to wear all those hats-producer, director, camera operator, sound mixer, editor, gaffer, grip.
But there are benefits: payroll savings, no writing or reading interdepartmental memos, more coffee and pastries for you, no labor disputes. And you can be assured you’ll get the movie you want to make on screen.
Kyle Bozeman is the production manager and creative services director of an Alabama television station.