Having elucidated upon the management of a typical day on a film shoot, let’s dissect the basic building block of film production, the shot.
From a direction standpoint it works differently for each director, but the main goal is to accomplish three things: the performance, the image, and coverage.
Setting up a shot begins with reference to the call sheet and sides as to what we’re going to shoot. From there the key members of the departments all meet and the shot is described by the director. A lot of this information has already been discussed in pre-production meetings, but the breakdown on the set is to give as clear an idea as possible, according to the moment. The art department has to have this information far in advance as they have to build and dress the set accordingly, and the information they receive on the day of the shoot is to make small adjustments in accordance to the shot structure, actor blocking and the light setup.
For example, I would describe a shot in Lilith where I wanted Julia to dance in a club and then see a strange man (Damon Taylor, excellent) looking at her. Julia and I would walk through the sequence in its entirety, working out performance beats and blocking (movement). Once we achieve what we wanted, the marks were set and I’d walk through it with my cinematographer, Faroukh Mistry.
Now Faroukh and I had spent weeks developing a visual strategy for the film long before the shoot began. I would send him photographic references and he would send me films to watch, and vice versa. We’d spent many countless hours in New York City coffee shops discussing color, movement and mood, and Faroukh created different “cocktails” of lights and gels that would deliver the look that I wanted. On set, we had already determined what look we wanted for the shot, and based on the blocking, Faroukh would convey to the grip and electric team what he needed to achieve the correct mood and adequate exposure, and also how much track he needed to accomplish the dolly move.
This is where the craft of filmmaking comes in, as determining exposure and manipulating the properties of light becomes an exercise of painting with light and shadow. The grip and electric team works in concert with the cinematographer to place grids, diffusion, gels, cutters and bounce boards to create shadows and highlights. If the cinematographer is the painter of light, the grips and gaffers are his hands and eyes, and the set is their canvas. My key gaffer, Bliss Holloway, and key grips, Kevin Martt and Chance Madison, often spoke with Faroukh in an alien language that comprised of nicknames for the tools of the trade, including things like “pork chops,” “apple boxes,” “cookies,” “jokers” and “babies.” It was immense fun to hear it on the sideline, spoken without any hesitation.
This is where the most time is spent on a set, and it is of paramount importance to get it right. In film school we are given the basics of a three-light setup: key light, fill, and backlight. These three lights are always present, but what we do from there is what differentiates average cinematography from stellar work. There are many more layers to add that will deliver narrative impact.
My camera team, consisting of 1st Assistant Camera James Madrid, 2nd Assistant Camera Nadine Martinez and 3rd Assistant Camera Woo Tang (I know, most awesome name evar) were in charge of lenses, filters and focus, three elements which can deliver equivalent impact as the lighting itself. Lilith is a serious cinematographic work that consciously employs every facet of the craft, and the images speak for themselves. It is largely the vision of Faroukh, who deserves all the credit in the world for accurately translating my dreamlike desires into to film.
So while the lights and camera are being set and the dolly track laid down, I like to sit and work with my actors on beats and performances. This varies from director to director, but I like to talk with my actors about objectives in the scene. What is the reaction when the character doesn’t get what they want? What happens when they do get it? I have an idea in my mind what happens but since my actors are living and breathing in that skin, I want to discuss with them what they feel and think. We start pushing from what we think might happen to something more authentic, towards what would actually happen. We’ll do a few rehearsals and maybe throw in an opposite reaction to what we were expecting, and see how that resonates.
But the key is to ask questions, and knowing that it’s okay at times to not have an answer. When that happens, you just have to try it and see what happens. On a low-budget independent there may not be the luxury to have extensive rehearsals and retakes, but I would recommend at least trying a scene three times, even if the actor nailed it the first time. This is because great actors are trained to make adjustments, and as that I had great actors in Julia Voth, Bianca Christians, Lili Reinhart, Nancy Telzerow, Jeremy Kendall, Lauren Ondecker, Spencer Kim, Karl Toth and Damon Taylor (and all my non-speaking actors as well, too many to list but you can see them on the film’s IMDB page), I had the freedom to try different things with the confidence that we’d get something really interesting each time.
With the lighting, camera, dolly and actors set, we were pretty much ready to shoot the scene. We’d do a quick stumble through and rehearsal for dolly timing and focus distances, exposure, and adjustments, and we were ready to go. My AD would call for quiet on the set, the sound department would check in for speed and clarity, and then I’d yell “action!”
And then a magical thing happens. The outside world melts away and whatever is in front of the camera becomes reality. Of course there will be flubs and mistakes, but that state of imagined reality always comes when the camera is on. We’ll generally run through three or four variations of the shot, and then move on to close-ups of the same sequence for the purpose of coverage and options in editing.
I remember reading an article in Cineaste about the lovely Italian film I Am Love, where director Luca Guadagnino confidently declared “Coverage is for cowards!”. Oddly enough, part of me agrees with him, but it is a very, very dangerous game to play, especially on a low-budget film. When I watched Luca’s gorgeous film, I did notice some jarring edits, and this is likely due to the editor not having enough coverage to repair the edit / transition.
Coverage can be overdone as well, and it can result in the hodgepodge that was seen in that Texas Chainsaw Massacre clip that I posted earlier. The key is to cover what the director has laid out, but before that to collect a master shot (or a master shot broken up) of the sequence that covers it in its entirety. This way, you’re at least guaranteed you have that part of your film covered, and there won’t be any gaps in the storytelling. The downside with master shots is that they tend to look staged, and have a flat, almost TV-like quality to them if you don’t incorporate camera movement into them. But you always have the option of not using them, provided you covered everything else.
So before moving on to the next shot, it is always important to confer with the script supervisor to make sure that everything was covered. It may take a few extra minutes to do so, but to move on without covering everything is an expensive and time-consuming mistake. My script supervisors, Belle Francisco and Jennifer Barklage-Dietrich did an amazing job of keeping everything in perspective and making sure I captured everything I needed to move on. It’s a tough, tough job, and the attention to detail to do the job correctly is immense.
Once everything is confirmed, we move on to the next set up, and the process starts all over again. And again. For days and weeks. But as arduous as it sounds, it becomes your life, and you miss it when it is over. The muscle memory of setting up shots becomes ingrained, and filmmakers seek the next opportunity like a fox hunting a rabbit. Maybe we’re all sadomasochists at heart?
On the “Lilith” set. Image by Jenni Burns