Once the director and principal cast have been secured, and the production is moving towards commencement, the next critical decisions come in choosing the key crew members. Some of the considerations in making these choices are more complex and technical than can be addressed here, but most crewing decisions come down to specific considerations.
Certain key creative positions, such as director of photography, production designer and editor, along with first assistant director, are generally selected by the director, since these are the individuals with whom he or she will work most closely. The producer and financier have input on suggestions for these roles, but the final decision should rest with the director, in the best interests of the entire production.
Note that in television, the power structure is quite different: the producer runs the shows, makes the big decisions and the director, while respected, is basically a ‘gun for hire’. Whether a director only directs one episode or many, the producer is consistent throughout the series and is accountable to the network or cable company for which the program is created.
One of the most important individuals the producer hires is the line producer and/or unit production manager (UPM). This is the individual who will run the production’s nuts-and-bolts operations on a daily basis, and the single individual most responsible for keeping the production on schedule and within the budget. Some producers fulfill this role themselves, but more often the line producer/production manager has day-to-day control of how and where the budget is being spent.
The best candidates for this job have experience in many different types of production environments, and are knowledgeable about potential crew members, union or non-union requirements, equipment costs and availabilities, housing and transportation for the cast and crew, and the myriad details that film production entails. The best production managers and line producers do not panic under stress, maintain positive relationships with both the crew and the director, and have an open and collaborative relationship with the producer to whom they report.
The line producer and/or production manager will usually hire the Production Accountant and the Production Coordinator. The former is a key figure in the financial life and viability of the film, and must be taken seriously when expressing concerns or questioning expenditures.
The accountant will issue a weekly financial report; will authorize or issue all checks, depending on whether a payroll service is employed; and will keep a set of detailed and balanced books that are available to the producer and/or the financier (and their representatives) at all times. The accountant also has a staff and sometimes an employee of the studio financial office as one of its members.
The production coordinator runs the administrative aspects and movement of the company. Therefore, the Production Office is the home base of the operation. S/he is critical to the overall day-to-day operation and keeps the film process moving forward. Tasked with such things as making sure that the caterer knows how many people need to be fed the next day, where to show up and what time; executing the Call Sheet, created by the Assistant Directors; completing the daily Production Report; dealing with hotels, transportation and other needs of cast and crew; and a myriad of other things.
First Assistant Director (First AD)
Another individual who will be crucially involved with the schedule and therefore the budget, is the First Assistant Director, entrusted through the agreement with the Directors Guild of America or Canada (in North America) with responsibility for laying out the ‘board’ (created electronically now, but for decades involved cardboard strips that could be moved around to reflect the proper schedule and subsequent changes) which is the daily shooting schedule. The schedule outlines the various scenes to be shot, and whether they are exterior or interior, on a stage or on location, day or night and which actors are in the scenes.
Film Commissioners are well served to understand the complexity of putting together the puzzle that is known as the shooting schedule. When schedule changes occur, an inexperienced Film Commissioner might not understand that it is difficult to shoot on a different day, over a weekend, or at night instead of day (or vice versa.) But once one has delved into a shooting schedule as well as a ‘Day Out Of Days’, they begin to see how moving one piece of the puzzle can upset the entire schedule. The Day Out Of Days is a separate, detailed document that shows which actors work which days, tracking the contractual agreements for each, availability, etc.
Producers and directors need to become as familiar with the schedule as the First Assistant Director (First AD), since it will dictate the tempo and rhythm of each filming day, as well as the period of principal photography as a whole. The two elements beyond the control of any filmmaker is weather and an accident or illness, but it is the well-prepared producer with complete knowledge of the scheduling possibilities who will be less disrupted than the production that is just winging it.
The real genius in scheduling, however, comes with figuring the most economic and strategic way in which to shoot a picture. Many directors and actors would prefer to shoot in sequence, or exactly as the script is written, since it helps the performances build and can lead to a natural flow in the storytelling.
The luxury that affords sequential shooting is rare in this era of location filming, because it always most economical to “shoot out” a location, rather than film there for one period, go away and have to return to finish the movie. There is also the question of exterior shooting and weather issues, and the potential cover of interiors or stage work to substitute for work postponed or delayed by bad weather. (All production should have one or more “cover sets” prepared, in case of weather. These are either sets that are built and on hold until the end of production, or an easy location that can be dressed quickly and is easy to access on a moment’s notice.)
The first AD must take all these factors into consideration when making out the schedule, including the availability of actors. Common practice dictates that actors be carried for as little time as possible on a show, because under their deals they are paid on either a daily or weekly basis. Holding an actor for several weeks waiting for a scene to be shot can prove expensive, and in a large cast, this potential problem can present itself several times over.
The director usually consults frequently with the first AD while the schedule is being assembled, prioritizing scenes and shots and making sure the most important material is scheduled near the beginning of the shoot, in case financing or actor availability should change for unanticipated reasons. Filming is like war, in that it is best to always expect the unexpected, and to be as prepared as possible for bad eventualities.
The first AD, in turn, relies on his or her own team of assistant directors, a coveted position in the film industry because of the many prominent producers and directors who filled those positions earlier in their careers. The second AD works primarily with the prominent talent, while the third AD supervises the use of extras. Many productions also employ a trainee from the Directors Guild of America or a similar entity, who costs the production next to nothing since the Guild may pay for this training.
The line producer or UPM must also work closely with the first AD in scheduling principal photography, since equipment and labor costs must stay within the overall production budget. The first AD is less concerned with the budget, and more preoccupied with giving the director the time and manpower he or she needs to realize that all-important vision. But the job requires a collaborative approach that can set the tone for the entire production, and lead to a pleasant set environment that is greatly preferable to the alternative.
The Director of Photography
The crew member upon whom the director relies the most while on set and will often turn to for film after film, is the director of photography (DP) aka cinematographer. He or she supplies the framing device for the director’s visualization of the story. Since film is a visual medium, the job of the DP is one of the most important on the film, and great care must be taken in selecting the proper individual.
The director and DP are active creative collaborators on a movie, as are the director and the production designer, and in fact, all three working together. These three will devise the look of the film. The DP being critical to the visual palette in terms of framing, movement, lighting and color, the order and variety of shots, the lenses and film stock used, and the very style of shooting (moving camera, stationary camera, long takes, dutch (raked) angles, etc.). They will frequently consult before each and every shot, and they will watch and review dailies together to make sure they are maintaining a consistent and visually stimulating look.
The DP will have a number of people to work with: camera operator, assistant camera crew, key grip and gaffer (the department heads who handle all the camera and lighting equipment, and electrical work). This crew often has developed a sort of shorthand, in which set-ups and shots can be quickly and efficiently accomplished.
The Production Designer
The production designer is not only essential to the overall success of the film but is a close collaborator with the DP, and together they will design the look of the movie. One creating it with lumber, plaster, fabric, set dressing, props, hair and make-up, and the other with celluloid, lighting and the movement of the camera. The production designer must create an entire “world” that houses the movie and allows the audience to willingly suspend its disbelief.
The sets are designed and every aspect and detail overseen by a production designer. This includes the drafting, constructing, plastering, painting, and decorating of the set. It is then lit by the DP whose lighting can make the designer’s work come to life or be terribly underappreciated. Many a production designer or art director has labored over an elaborate set only to see it so darkly lit that only the designer can perceive its contents. Just ask Dean Tavoularis about some of his sets for The Godfather after Gordon Willis got done moodily lighting them.
The production designer must stand his or her own ground, and stick to their visual palette and design of the film as long as it always accords with the director’s overall vision. But the collaborative principles of filmmaking must always prevail, and the individual agenda for artistic expression should give way to the shared goal of making the best film possible.
Like the DP, the production designer will often have their own group of crew members they rely on: the art director, the set designer (drafter), the set decorator and dressers, the prop department, construction department, scenic artists, prop-makers, greens department, welders and others. It is always preferable to trust department heads, and let them hire the individuals in whom they believe. [Note: this practice has changed considerably in the past 10 to 15 years, with the onset of incentives, worldwide. Crew may have to be hired in the incentive jurisdiction, rather than bringing whomever a department head likes.]
The next person hired is often the editor, another key appendage for the director, who relies on the editor to maintain an objective perspective on the movie. The director is so caught up in the daily demands of decision-making and creative storytelling that it is often impossible to keep the structure of the overall film clear and in focus.
The editor, who usually stays away from the set and evaluates the film only on the basis of the takes that are printed and sent to the editing room, provides an invaluable source of trained and perceptive feedback. The editor reviews daily footage with the director shortly after it is printed, and sometimes works with the director on weekends or other non-shooting periods to rough out sequences or even a sort of assemblage as the shooting progresses.
Editing was one of the few jobs open to women in Hollywood’s classic era (along with script supervising and costume design), and many of the best editors today are women who provide a different mindset and perspective when viewing the work of directors who remain overwhelmingly male in today’s industry.
The editor’s loyalty is to the director and his/her vision. That is sometimes hard for the producer to remember, especially when the director is adamant about how a sequence or even the overall film should be cut. But given the close and symbiotic relationship between director and editor, and the intensity and length of time in their cutting room relationship, little else can be expected. (Note: when a director does not have “final cut,” the producers and/or executives have control of the editing process.)
The best editors offer their directors honest and constructive feedback, and often show a director a new way to approach a sequence. The most successful movies are usually not cut according to the script, but rather in a rhythm and tempo that the editor has discovered to be inherent in the director’s footage and approach to the film. Sometimes this can be articulated between the director and editor prior to principal photography, but often this is a mysterious process that occurs in the transformation of the movie through the creative art of editing. The clichés about how the movie is really created in the editing room (now we might say the editing software program) have a great basis in reality, and reinforce the importance of a trusted and skilled editor.