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Shot design, how detailed and how long?


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#1 George Ebersole

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 10:14 AM

Before a feature, how long do you spend with the director on designing the shots?  How detailed do you get?  Do you simply operate off the story board, or do you have your own notes on how the shot is to be set up?

 

Many thanks for any response.


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#2 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 02:15 PM

Even on short subject pieces, we break down the script and go into great detail.

It starts with location scout, lots of still's and a detailed analysis of the shots to be preformed and where.

Then it's down to designing the lighting rigs based on the notes and storyboards. Most of the time you'll do this in your head and just list the equipment you need. For more complex shoots, you'd draw a simple diagram of a lighting rig to understand in greater detail. There is also previs software designed to help build lighting rigs, but for normal non VFX narratives, I doubt it's used much.

Prior to the shoot, your gaffing team will be brought up to speed on your preproduction notes, giving their feedback based on what they see and putting together solutions to solve issues. It's so critical to have that team on board prior to the shoot date because generally, they are the one's insuring you have the right equipment on the truck.

If you've done your homework, shooting should be very straight forward. A brief morning meeting prior to setup to remind people, based on your notes and the gaffing/electrical team will get to work.

Obviously that's best case scenario. Reality can be much different, depending on budget and lead in time.
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#3 George Ebersole

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 03:47 PM

Thanks a bunch, Tyler.  As a grunt, grip or even AD I was never brought in on pre-production meetings, and everytime I'd arrive on stage or location it was like the director and DP were winging the shot setups.  But I knew back that that just couldn't be the case.  And my dear film instructors at the JC and State didn't go into this aspect.

 

I was almost of the opinion that you just had to be a cinematic genius, but again I knew that just couldn't be the case.  Someone somewhere on set had notes on what to do.

 

And yeah, thanks for explaining about the gaffer, because when I would help setup lights it's like whoever I was gripping for again automatically knew where to set up the lights.  It's baffled me for a long time, and now that I'm finally on the verge of shooting my own stuff I felt like there was some serious trainging I was missing for shot design.

 

I didn't then, and don't know, want my stuff coming across like some 80's b-movie.  I want it to look nice at the very least.


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#4 JD Hartman

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 06:21 PM

Not saying that time spent up front planning doesn't save time and money later, but... Sometimes you are not afforded that luxury and it's just blocking rehearsal, light, shoot, tweak lighting, shoot again.


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#5 George Ebersole

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 06:50 PM

Thanks JD.  I used to get massive butterflies in my stomach when I'd watch some of the directors work.  For industrials it was kind of like what you say (client depending).  We'd lay track and set up lights, and that was kind of it.  The director would refer to his notes on the kind of shot, but otherwise he was essentially winging it.

 

It made me nervous because I was wondering how much technical and artistic training a man needed to get decent shots.


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#6 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 07:57 PM

Doesn't this depend very much on the individual?

I get the impression that the reason we see many groups of people working together repeatedly (at all levels) is simply because those people's sensibilities on how the day is run happen to coincide.

Yes, of course, there are many commonalities in various people's approaches, and on something long-running, like a TV series, particular ways of working naturally emerge, to which new crewmembers must be sensitive.

But in general, aren't the variances in this stuff part of the normal range of working practises which are why different people's material has a different style?

Personally I've always been extremely keen to prepare, shotlist and plan, but there are certainly people who will turn up on a massive production and, at least on the simpler scenes, wing it day after day.

P
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 08:59 PM

For a typical 4 or 5-week feature, the cinematographer is hired at least for 3 weeks of prep, if not 4.

 

LAST WEEK OF PREP

 

I often work backwards from the first day of the shoot to break down prep, but the last day or two of prep is all the equipment pick-ups, so the gaffer, key grip and camera crew are all dealing with checking out gear and loading it onto trucks.  In some ways, the last day of prep is one of my most relaxing since everyone else is so busy.

 

The last week of prep usually involves the day of the tech scout where all the department heads and their assistants visit all the sets and locations with the director, who tells everyone the rough game plan of how shots will be staged, then everyone breaks up into groups, tape measuring things, figuring out where power can be run, where trucks have to go, what's in the shot and what's out of the shot, etc.  The cinematographer will give notes to the gaffer and key grip, who have an opportunity to talk to the set dresser, the sound mixer can talk to the DP or the gaffer, everyone talks to the AD, etc.

 

The day after that is usually when final department head's budgets are due and the big production meeting takes place.

 

Let's say that the tech scout is on Monday and the production meeting is on Tuesday, and perhaps the camera crew started the equipment check-out on Tuesday.  Then in Wednesday maybe, the cinematographer will go to the camera prep and perhaps shoot some tests, or perhaps a bigger hair, make-up, and wardrobe test is scheduled. On Thursday, the cinematographer and the director might be at the post house looking at the tests.

 

And throughout the week, the director is also having rehearsals with the cast, and sometimes there is still some casting going on for the smaller parts.  Occasionally the cinematographer, maybe the AD as well, will see some of the cast rehearsals. All of this to say that the cinematographer doesn't get a lot of personal time to spend with the director alone for creative discussions. 

 

WEEK BEFORE THE LAST WEEK OF PREP

 

Much of that week is taken up with location scouting to finalize the locations, get permits, make deals, etc.  The location scouts are usually made up of the director, cinematographer, AD, location manager, producer, and production designer as the core attendees.  Due to all the driving around, a huge amount of time is taken up with scouting but these van rides are also a chance for all of these people to discuss the shoot, often working with a temporary one-line shooting schedule from the AD, who is constantly making adjustments.

 

The director will often be alternating these location scouts with casting sessions.  The cinematographer, in the meanwhile, is going over the camera, grip, and electric packages with the department heads.  There may also be sets that are starting construction around this time.

 

TWO WEEKS AND EARLIER BEFORE THE LAST WEEK OF PREP

 

This is the period when the director and the cinematographer make the time to break down the script creatively, often starting with broad ideas before getting into specifics.  If you're lucky, you can get through ten pages of the script during a three hour or longer meeting, so you can understand why it takes two weeks to really go through a script in detail with a director.  Shot lists and storyboards may or may not be the result of these meetings, more often than not, it's more of a list of key shots, transitions, with the understanding that there will be coverage of some sort.  Complex sequences may require a storyboard be drawn.

 

During these early weeks, a cinematographer might be able to spend half the day with the director, sometimes only three hours of the day unless there are location scouts involved, which there often are.  But when the cinematographer is free from working with the director, they are usually then involved in interviewing people for key crew positions, and also starting discussions with post about the workflow, which probably won't get finalized until closer to the start of shooting.

 

Creative discussions with the director might involve watching movie clips together, looking at stills and other art references.  The production designer often drifts in and out of these meetings (and will have meetings of their own with the director, along will all the other key people.)

 

In an ideal world for a feature, I'd have a five week prep -- three weeks of creative prep and two final weeks of logistical, technical and equipment prep, with location scouting throughout.

 

Now it is not unusual for some cinematographers to be offered only two or three weeks of paid prep, with the cinematographer ending up starting work earlier than that and not getting paid, just because prep is so important.


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#8 George Ebersole

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 11:41 PM

For all the jobs I worked I can't recall ever being interviewed for any film or video gig.  Is that an LA thing, or am I misunderstanding here?


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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 18 November 2016 - 12:12 AM

Unless you already know the people doing the hiring, it is normal in the film industry -- or most any industry -- to be interviewed.  Who hires a complete stranger for an important position on a feature film like cinematographer, editor, production designer, etc. without at least talking to them first?

 

It's true that sometimes a steadicam operator, gaffer, key grip, 2nd Unit DP, or other person in a key position who is considered to be the best available in a smaller regional market might get booked without a job interview just to lock them down for the job by some incoming production who has to hire locally for whatever reasons.  But even then, if there is time, there would be a phone conversation or something in advance for the main unit cinematographer to sign off on the choice.  

 

But generally, there is a job interview process for department heads... because there is often more than one choice, so meeting the people is one factor in narrowing down the choices.  As the cinematographer, I mainly interview the department heads (or in the case of the camera department, the operators and the 1st AC) and then let them hire the people under them.  And sometimes for a day player, I'll let the camera department find someone like a C-camera operator for one day, let's say.

 

But as a cinematographer on features and TV shows, the only time I don't have to go to an interview for the job is if I already know the producers and directors.

 

Sure, if I had to shoot in some region and had to hire, let's say, a local gaffer, and there was only ONE choice available, then there wouldn't be much need for a job interview...


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#10 George Ebersole

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Posted 18 November 2016 - 01:18 PM

Interesting, because all the jobs I've ever had in the film/video industry have been a few minutes of conversation on the phone, or more likely I just got asked what my calendar was like.  

 

Occasionally I got asked who I worked for and what my experience was, but those conversations, as you stated, don't last more than a minute, if that (more like 30 seconds).    Uphill struggle for me then.  Oh well.

 

But, getting back on topic, Tyler mentioned some kind of software for non VFX gigs (non Visual effects?  CGI).  Or is there some actual software that helps design shots?


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#11 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 19 November 2016 - 01:23 AM

Interesting, because all the jobs I've ever had in the film/video industry have been a few minutes of conversation on the phone, or more likely I just got asked what my calendar was like.  

 

Occasionally I got asked who I worked for and what my experience was, but those conversations, as you stated, don't last more than a minute, if that (more like 30 seconds).    Uphill struggle for me then.  Oh well.

 

But, getting back on topic, Tyler mentioned some kind of software for non VFX gigs (non Visual effects?  CGI).  Or is there some actual software that helps design shots?

 

 

Well I think thats just the type of shoot.. a small corp 1 day shoot is going to be alot different from a well budgeted feature film.. Im in your league.. they check out your CV.. probably do a bit of checking around with people they know.. then they call or email you..

I believe what David is talking about is a very different level of shoot.. with alot more money on the line if it goes pear shaped..


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#12 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 19 November 2016 - 11:50 AM

Since the question was about features, that's what I was discussing in terms of prep.

 

I once did a feature where 80% took place in one location, a high school, so the director and I spent maybe four days there shooting stills with stand-ins of every set-up and creating a photo storyboard using a comic book app.  It's different on every project, plus it's different if you have a short prep or long prep, and it's different if you've already worked with the director many times before.


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#13 George Ebersole

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Posted 19 November 2016 - 12:22 PM

All the Indy features I worked on were like corporate video.  I guess they didn't have the luxury of interviewing people.   Interesting.  Yeah, I can't ever sitting down with my resume dressed in shirt-tie and slacks and giving the best answers about myself.  It never happened.  For regular non-industry jobs, sure.  But never for any of the independent features I worked on.

 

Interesting.  I guess maybe I'll never get back in as an employee or contractor, but, oh well. 

 

But, getting back on topic, other than a story board what kind of notes do DPs and directors have on shots come the day of the shoot?


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#14 Justin Hayward

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Posted 19 November 2016 - 12:49 PM

 I can't ever sitting down with my resume dressed in shirt-tie and slacks and giving the best answers about myself.  

 

Well, they would have seen your reel and know what you're capable of before you come in to interview.  It's more about your take on the script and if you would get along with the director. Things like that.  Ridley Scott talked about being interviewed by Matt Damon for "The Martian" as Matt Damon was developing the property before they had a director.  He said it wasn't an actual interview as we typically think of them, but more to see how they got along with each other.  And they got along great!

 

I've only worked with a DP I didn't know once on a commercial.  I knew he was very good, because his reel was awesome, but I was a little concerned how we would get along.  Then after a very pleasant phone call (we talked for over an hour about movies and styles we liked), I knew it was going to be fine, and it was.  It also turned out to be one of the best looking spots on my reel.


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#15 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 19 November 2016 - 02:41 PM

Interview is perhaps a bit misleading; normally it's more a meet and greet conversation, you feel each other out.  It's as important that you think you'll be in a good place to do the best work for the film as it is vice versa.

 

As for prepping, I find a bit depends on how the director likes to work. There are some directors who concern themselves strongly with the shots, and others who don't, most fall somewhere in the middle, and as you progress you find that many scenes block themselves, and therefore require certain coverage.

 

On a personal level, I like to have a broad idea of what's up for the day,  but never to too locked  into something that you can't  capitalize on great ideas or happenstance which always pops up on set. I often liken it to Jazz, but I think it's better likened to cooking-- that you have the basic recipe, but from there you're free to add your own personality, taste, and ideas  into it, all while hoping your dinner guests (directors, producers, audience) likes the dish you're preparing.


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#16 George Ebersole

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Posted 19 November 2016 - 03:39 PM

I guess what I'm really asking in this thread is if you have a blueprint of where to setup the camera, where to lay track, and if any camera moves are already planned out with some kind of engineer's schematic, or whether it's just a matter of the director and DP saying "That looks good..." and go from there?


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#17 Justin Hayward

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Posted 19 November 2016 - 04:41 PM

This is a job I directed a few months ago followed by the boards.  Those boards were drawn after several location scouts.  The heads of every department knew what they were going to do before the shoot day (including where dolly track was going to be).  The AD and I planned the order of the shoot around the direction of the sun throughout the day.  Of course there's a bunch of tinkering and improvisation  once the camera is up and we're looking at a monitor, and a couple shots were dropped on the day. But, other than that, we followed the boards really close.

 

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#18 George Ebersole

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Posted 20 November 2016 - 03:24 AM

Well, okay.  I guess it's more of a case of getting the best setup you can based on a storyboard.

 

Interesting.

 

Thanks for the replies.


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#19 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 20 November 2016 - 07:50 AM

I'm not a big fan of storyboards because in my experience they tend to be a list of people's desires and dreams, not what's actually achievable.

 

That's heavily qualified by my experience being made up almost entirely of very low budget stuff, though. More is naturally possible with more funding. I'm just a bit cautious about telling film school kids to go draw pretty pictures that they may not have the resources or knowledge to shoot.


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#20 Justin Hayward

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Posted 20 November 2016 - 09:09 AM

Of course how you plan to shoot depends on the job and the people involved.  Point is, it's unlikely the director and DP will show up on the shoot day with as little knowledge of how they plan to shoot as the general crew.


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