Hey Narrative Filmmakers, Want to Save Some Money?

Working with actor Geoff Briley while the crew sets up a jib on a dolly.

Working through blocking with actor Geoff Briley while the crew sets up a jib on a dolly

It’s time for some tough love.

Since I do both production and post, I’m in a position to observe where efficiencies lie all through the filmmaking process. In speaking with different people out in the industry, and comparing my practices with theirs, I’ve decided there’s a public service announcement I can make to the filmmaking community at large regarding how you can save money. A lot of money.

Rehearse your actors in advance of the shoot, dry run your blocking without running the cameras, and record fewer takes.

Really.

I know. You’re thinking “but digital is cheap,” “I don’t want the scene to go stale,” “why not run the camera in case some magic happens,” and “I need to get through those takes to find the scene.”

Bullshit. Digital is not cheap. Hard drives are expensive. Backups are expensive. Archiving camera cards takes time, and having a ton of cards because you want to shoot like a drunken sailor costs in either expendables or rentals. Generating dailies and logging all of your crap takes consumes hours and hours of your editor’s time. Dealing with Terabytes of unused data in the finishing process takes time. Time is money. Time is also frustration, which makes post folks not want to give you a discount. Less media is less hassle, and less hassle makes editors more inclined to maybe cut you a break.

Rehearsing in advance, assuming you have capable actors, will not make your scene go stale; centuries of theater give the lie to this way of thinking. What advance rehearsal will do is let you work through the scene in the abstract, without the necessary distractions of the cinematographer’s queries or your schedule running behind or what scarf should the lead wear or any other of the hundred things you need to weigh in on that have nothing to do with the actor’s actual performance.

In exploring the scene with your actors in rehearsal, I guarantee they’ll find nuances in performance that might otherwise be missed, and you’ll have time to try things out and make adjustments you need for consistency with your overall vision. All of this will let you know where there are moments to emphasize and trouble-spots you’ll need to correct in the performance. Ultimately, you’ll be better prepared for what’s to come. Come shooting day, you and the actors will both know what the goal is, and you’ll be less at risk forgetting about a key moment, gesture, or intention because you were distracted by a lens change. And, in the rush of production, there’ll be more then enough energy to hype up both you and the actors to keep things fresh, since you’re likely in the location for the very first time.

Running the camera while you’re rehearsing your blocking is a colossal waste of storage, unless you’re chasing a sunset or some other time critical element. Whether you’re doing jib, crane, dolly, gimbal stabilizer, or steadycam work, or just panning and tilting a camera on sticks, there is no magic while you and your actors are fumbling your way through the on-set blocking with a camera operator who’s seeing the actor move for the first time. Save your editor the heartbreak of watching four unusable takes and just rehearse the blocking without recording. The actor will be more at ease to experiment, and you’ll have more psychological freedom to change your mind and explore different ways of executing the move with your actor, cinematographer, and operator.

Regarding multiple takes, I am firmly of the belief that if you’ve had the opportunity to discuss and rehearse the scene with your actor in advance (even if it’s in advance of the rest of the crew arriving for a day’s shoot), there should be no reason to ever go through more then 4-5 takes, unless there’s something physically specific you’re needing (I once did eleven takes trying to get a coin to fall on the ground in the right place for a closeup, what are you going to do?). There are plenty of stories of directors pushing an actor through 99 takes to wear them down, which is more strategic cruelty and not so much about trying to get a good read, and that’s fine if you’ve got 100 million dollars. Myself, I’d rather work out what I need in advance through appropriate casting and rehearsal, and then get the scene in three takes and move on to have another setup. Back in my film school days, a production professor told us that shooting twelve takes was probably a waste of time, since you’ll probably be unable to tell the difference between six of the takes later on when you start editing, and I’ve generally found this to be accurate.

So now you’re thinking, “okay, smart-ass, so what’s your shooting ratio?” My most recent project, which was one day’s shoot with over twelve camera setups with some additional alts spread among two locations recording to 4K CinemaDNG raw, ended up totaling about 500 GB of media for 50 clips in all for a generously covered 3 minute scene. Going back to my short, “The Place Where You Live,” four shooting days recording to 4K R3D raw resulted in a total of 487 GB of media. Usually when I mention this, people ask me what went wrong, and what I did about the lost media. Then I say that was all the media.

I started out shooting 16MM film, and being a broke-ass filmmaker I had all too many days of having pages to get through on two 100-ft rolls. Those experiences instilled in me an economy that serves me well even today. And so, I try to be careful about casting. I rehearse in advance whenever possible. I block the scenes with the actors without running the cameras. Then at that point I try to get out of any particular camera setup in 3-5 takes, sometimes altering the framing of any takes I want “for safety” just to squeeze in another push-in. Obviously if an unexpected challenge comes up, I’ll do more takes to get what is needed, but I try really hard to be prepared enough in advance to avoid that.

The result is that I never have to debate whether or not I want to shoot uncompressed RAW based on available storage, my DITs are usually bored, logging the footage is a breeze, and as a result the edit goes quickly. Backing up the project media doesn’t break the bank, and moving the project around for finishing is resultantly easy.

So that’s my advice. Save everyone some hassle and take a page from the theater—rehearse in advance. You’ll get better results dramatically, you’ll get more out of your time during the shoot without going over schedule, and you’ll have a project that should be noticeably cheaper to post.


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3 thoughts on “Hey Narrative Filmmakers, Want to Save Some Money?

  1. As a theatre director and actor – who has dabbled in film – I couldn’t agree more. If you have the right actors and rehearse them they will give you what you are looking for and more and the time and film saving will be huge. The films/shorts/corporate roles I’ve worked on as an actor have always been rehearsed well before the cameras were rolling. Casting is such an important element in this – you must get the right actor for the job – not just the look but the quality of acting has to be there.
    Huge congratulations to Alex and the team for the “The Place Where You Live” Best Sci-Fi Short Film at the Big Easy Film Festival in New Orleans.

  2. Amen.

    Pre-planning and shot discipline have mostly gone out the window in the past 10 years.

    I have a friend who is an editor and no longer enjoys his job, because nowadays it mostly involves sifting through countless hours of useless footage, often from multiple cameras.

    My actor friends complain endlessly about directors turning the camera on and just letting it run as they do take after take, after take. They all miss the pause they had from the film days that gave them a moment to reset.

    The production moto has gone from ‘be prepared’ to ‘we’ll figure it out later’ and it stinks.

    I came in on the tail end of the film era and shot my first projects on a Mitchell that tipped the scales at about 110 lbs. As you can image moving and framing a camera of that size without the aid of a Fisher dolly was not a trivial undertaking and we always shot on sticks. Between the logistics involved in moving the camera and the cost of film everything was planned like the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Scenes were storyboarded and broken down in to the most efficient shooting order and we would walk the set. Failure to do so would nearly always be a recipe for disaster.

    I still have the Mitchell, but like everyone else I have moved on to digital. But to this day I still shoot my digital camera like it was loaded with film. I’ve even gone so far as to rent multiple small capacity SSD cartridges instead of big ones to enforce discipline. Thankfully my DoP feels the same way and we still follow the old Camera! Speed! Action! CUT! approach. We don’t shoot rehearsals and we don’t just let the camera run endlessly. Consequently we shoot considerably less footage than most others. This approach pays off in post, keeps costs down and keeps the cast and crew happy while improving the quality of the production.

  3. Excellent! About time this was shouted out, very loud. I shot for years on 2.5 minute Super 8 rolls then 30 minute Betacam SP tapes and now, 64GB CFast cards which capture only 30 minutes of RroRes 422. I shoot on the same card all day, TX files to a tiny field notebook PC in shooting breaks with software installed which re-stripes the ProRes timecode and backs up to a USB portable drive, all in the same pass!

    PS: Love your CC Handbook V2 – gradually working my way through it with Resolve 11, an OxygenTec ProPanel and a 10bit colour managed monitor…

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