QuickNickel Video

Shoot to Suit

PART III: Shooting Diary

You've got yourself a script, a crew, and a fellow cast member. What's left? Just to shoot. I'm not saying that your day will go any better or worse than mine, but my "set diary" is probably pretty typical of most shoots of this kind.

7:00 a.m. – Wake up. Usual morning routine, plus breakfast. From working a couple of other shoots I know that skipping breakfast is for chuckleheads. My day is going to be long and exhausting.

7:30 a.m. – Begin setting up lights and camera and practicing different combinations. Moving the stuff in my apartment out of the way. Actors and crew aren't due to show up until 9 a.m. but I want to be as familiar with the equipment as possible. Re-read the manual that came with the camera for fourth time. Watch "Light Like a Pro" for the sixth time.

9:00 a.m. – No actors. No crew.

9:10 a.m. – No actors. No crew.

9:20 a.m. – Actors call. Running late.

9:40 a.m. – Two of the three actors arrive. I'm told that the guy who was going to crew decided to attend a "Magic: The Gathering" tournament instead. Still waiting on third actor.

10:10 a.m. – Third actor arrives. Put the kibosh on their plans for dollying and panning shots as with no crew, I'm on the boom pole if they hope to get any sound. Brief discussion about how to make my apartment look like a police interrogation room. Quickly give up that idea and adapt script so that the "detectives" are now meeting their suspect at his house. Static camera shots will make the scene a little less interesting, but you shoot with what you got, not with what you wish you had.

10:30 a.m. – Set up lights while the actors learn their lines and rehearse. Would have been nice if they had them memorized, but what can you do?

10:40 a.m. – Actors and crew are ready to go. 1 hour and 40 minutes after we were due to start. Sun Tzu, once wrote, "No plan survives contact with the enemy." The Hollywood version of that is, "No production schedule survives contact with the actual shoot." I was prepared for all of this so even though I really hope that missing crew member gets a bunch of Orcs shoved up his Wizard's ass (or whatever it is they play with in, "Magic: The Gathering"), it's not keeping me from focusing on the shoot. Oddly, I kind of enjoy it because it puts me in a classic–but still manageable–"worst-case scenario."

11:00 a.m. – Okay, first lesson learned: if I want to avoid horribly distracting shadows keep everyone and everything away from the walls. One foot at least, two feet if possible if they're going to move. Next time, don't just have the actors run their lines in place as I'm setting up the lights. Have them move as they would in the scene so I can check if anyone's shadow suddenly falls over a co-star. 10 minutes of footage down the tubes.

11:10 a.m. – Second lesson learned: turn off the damn lights whenever you break for even a minute, and have the AC ready to go. Just 3 650-watt lights heat up my big 20x20 room living room (with 16-foot cathedral ceilings!) in a New York minute. Broke out a box of Kleenex for the actors to wipe the sweat off their foreheads. I keep checking the camera monitor for shiny foreheads. Shiny actors are not good-looking actors.

12:40 p.m. – Finally finished with the master (this is a two-page scene). Had to take a couple of breaks from shooting to review the tape, and make sure that everything was being captured correctly, and the actors wanted to review to make sure what felt right looked right. Stupidly forgot to shut off the air-conditioning at one point and didn't notice for 20 minutes! More footage wasted. The fact that I did remember to unplug the refrigerator before we shot (to keep the motor's hum off the soundtrack) does not lessen how dumb I feel. Also feeling embarrassed about my plain white walls. What I wouldn't give for a good art director to dress my set.

1:10 p.m. – Ready for the close-up of the first actor. Got lucky in that I only had to shift the lights and camera a few feet. Still took me 30 minutes, though, as I had to keep going back to the camera to review every little shift. Plus had to move a lot more apartment stuff out of the way than I thought I would. Really starting to miss that crew member. Feet are killing me. Literally haven't sat down in four hours.

1:40 p.m. – Finished the close-up. Shoulders are aching from holding the boom. The actor who is due for the 2p.m. to 7p.m. slot shows up early, and even better, he knows more about lighting than I do. Next setup involves moving the camera, and radically changing the lighting, and it still goes three times as fast as when I was on my own. Forgot to eat lunch, and am starving.

2:10 p.m. – We knock off the second close-up in about 30 minutes. We're now officially into the next time slot, but we've still got a scene to go. Fortunately, the actor who booked the next slot is cool with this. As everyone is pitching in to pay for the equipment, it could have been awkward.

2:15 p.m. – Outdoor setups are a breeze! No lights or shadows to worry about since we're in a "twilight" location where my apartment is blocking the sun. Five minutes to set the camera and check to see if the boom is in the shot, and we're ready.

2:40 p.m. – Master and coverage done in 25 minutes. I feel like Robert Rodriguez, just zipping through the script. Having just one extra person is a blessing. Stopped enjoying my "manageable worst-case scenario" about an hour ago. I don't ever want to be a one-man band again (though I know I probably will be).

3:00 p.m. – New guy not only knows more about lights than I do, he's created a storyboard for his scene. He knows what coverage and setups he wants, and he brought someone to crew for him. I think I died and went to moviemaking heaven. We need to completely shift everything, but it goes pretty fast with three people. Still haven't eaten anything since breakfast, or sat down since about 9 a.m.

3:30 p.m. – Finished the master. He's doing a variation on the "You had me at hello," scene from Jerry Maguire only in his version the love of his life is a sock puppet. Not only does this make for a funny scene, but it's an easy scene to film, as the camera's on him for all but a couple of reaction shots, and one line for the puppet.

4:30 p.m. – Medium close-up and close-up take a little longer. Shadows where they're not wanted, and no shadows where they are wanted. This is how I know that cinematography is an art: I could spend hours, or even days, experimenting with the bajillions of ways to just light a face, and I'd still never know if I got it "right." It's fun, but also hard work.

5:00 p.m. – We've shifted everything back to shoot at the dining room table where the puppet is. If I'd thought about it I would have said let's shoot the puppet first, and save 30 minutes of shifting stuff around. Nothing like first-hand knowledge of the benefits of shooting out of sequence. Still, with three crewmembers the work is pretty straightforward.

6:00 p.m. – Done with the puppet. You wouldn't believe how much slightly different angles can evoke different emotions or different levels of the same emotion until you see someone move a puppet just an inch or two one way or the other. Took longer than I thought it would, too.

Had to scrap plans for a panning shot, as it would have shown all sorts of stuff in my apartment that we'd rather not be seen like, oh, the lights, the person on sound, etc. Someone at a rental shop told me that you can shoot almost anything with just three lights, and a boom pole. I think it's true, but you're really limited as to "how" you can shoot them.

6:30 p.m. – Everyone is gone for the day. Thank god no one took the 7:00 p.m. to midnight slot. I head to my refrigerator, and don't stop eating for 20 solid minutes. Apartment looks like a bomb went off. A big one. Can't do anything about it though as the next group of actors are showing up tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. I finally get to sit down. Feet haven't hurt this bad since my last backpacking trip, but I'm happy. I know now that I don't have to wait for someone to cast me before I get a chance to work. From what I've learned I now know how to rent equipment, get a crew, and cast actors all on my own.

With everything done but the editing, you've essentially got a scene or two for your demo reel. But why stop there? In the final installment, we'll explore ways to turn a scene into a short, and then submit that short to various festivals and online video submission sites.

Go to Shoot to Suit, Part 4.

Back to Getting Started.