The only objective record the filmmakers have of the movie they are making are the scenes themselves that have been shot. Reviewing this footage, usually the day after it has been shot and processed, or in the case of digital, the same day as production, is a time-honored and essential ritual called “watching the dailies.”
This used to always be done collectively in a screening room. Now these dailies are usually distributed on DVD and watched individually by many of the participants. Different directors have different preferences as to who attends the dailies, also called “rushes.”
Always included are the editor and his/her assistant, taking notes of the director’s preferences among the takes screened, and why those takes appealed to the director. How scenes will cut together first begins to take shape in these conversations.
Also present at group dailies is usually the director of photography and the production designer to make sure that the look created has achieved its desired effect. For the former, dailies determine that all the shots are properly in focus. Various other crewmembers who have had something special featured or required may also attend, again at the director’s discretion.
Some directors prefer actors to see their dailies, and many do not. They do not want to encourage self awareness on the actor’s part, believing that staying in character is more difficult when an actor has to self-consciously evaluate his or her performance, while simultaneously worrying about everyone else’s evaluation.
Allowing actors to see their dailies can also disrupt their relationship with the director of photography, in giving them an opportunity to react to their lighting and camera angles before they are properly timed and finished. It can also affect their relationships with their fellow performers, adding off-screen drama to their on-screen emoting.
Dailies, when viewed in their proper context as just possible choices of how a scene can be put together, are the raw material of every movie. They are direct in showing a film’s flaws, and exhilarating when displaying an actor’s fine scene, or a wonderful sinuous camera move. The camera does not hide anything, and the dailies are the best indication of whether the film is working or not.
However, dailies are not always the best indicator. It is common, for instance, when making a comedy to be convinced of its success because the dailies are hilarious. And indeed they may be, as separate and distinct scenes — usually elaborately-staged visual or verbal gags, a constantly evolving staple of screen comedy. But when they are all cut together, what was funny in the dailies no longer seems so hilarious in the context of the overall film.
This is just one example of how dailies can help fool people who naturally want to believe that the work they are doing is worthwhile and successful. If a director is going down the wrong path on a film, the dailies will just confirm the rightness of his or her decisions, at least in the filmmaker’s eyes. I have attended many sessions of dailies in which a performance had the crew wincing and the director exulting.
If a producer really believes the dailies are indicating serious problems with the filmmaking approach, or the worst-case scenario of this sentiment also coming from the financier/studio, there are only a few options available. A frank discussion that can be framed in a constructive manner is the first necessity, and should happen as soon as possible. Letting the problem fester will only make it worse.
The more drastic steps involve replacing the DP, the actor, or in the most extreme case, the director. These are only last resorts that should be utilized in the direst of circumstances, when the production itself seems threatened by the actions or performance of the individual involved. There is rarely need for this to happen, and the producer must work actively and collaboratively to guarantee that outcome.
The dailies also give the editor the first opportunity to reshape the footage into an actual movie. This is the moment when the editor’s primacy first begins to emerge; it will not flower until the end of physical production. But the editor quickly becomes a valuable source of information for the shots and material that are missing, and whose filming must somehow also be accommodated into the schedule.
These reshoots and “pick ups,” as they are called, are often essential to fill out a film and give the editor valuable options in the editing suite. The shot that there was no time for proves to be critical, and must be picked up before production wraps. The insert of a hand on the gun or a shadow over the body would really help sell a scene, and were never on the shot list. The possibilities that an additional shot or moment can add to a film are endless and usually invisible to the audience as additional material.
If possible, reshoots and pickup days need to be scheduled from the outset. Trying to fit them in around other production days is risky and often unproductive. The same is true of second unit photography, which can be an economical enterprise on even medium-budget pictures, despite the additional crew costs. Nothing is more expensive on a production than additional shooting days, and effective second unit scheduling can minimize the risk of their occurring.
Most importantly, dailies will be viewed and evaluated, usually separately, by the financier/studio executives, almost always plural and sometimes including very high-placed executives such as the head of production, president and CEO, etc. Dailies routinely circulate all around a studio, intentionally or not, giving everyone the chance to offer an opinion on a film’s output.
The producer has the delicate but essential responsibility of putting the dailies into context for the financier, explaining what the dynamic was on set, how the director plans to use the material, what else will be done in visual effects and postproduction. Often these same conversations will be held with the director, but the producer’s most important job is to let the director focus on the creative task at hand, rather than having to justify his or her creative choices to an endless parade of suits.
No filmmaker can escape their dailies, and very few are able to prevent them from being seen by the people putting up the money for their films. The dailies give everyone something concrete to discuss in evaluating the real merits of the film, but they should never be viewed out of context but rather as simply raw material that will have to be shaped, tweaked and molded to achieve its maximum effectiveness.
Quick or hasty judgments about the quality and even the quantity of dailies should be avoided. Many a film has looked dismal in its parade of dailies, only to emerge a bright and shining wonder thanks to the skill of the editor and the underlying vision of the filmmaker.
The Bottom Line
Simply surviving a film is often the greatest triumph. All forces may seem to be arrayed against the filmmaking team, adversity presenting itself in myriad forms, nature and mankind seeming to conspire against the production for no apparent reason. Watching a film finish, scene by scene, experiencing day by day the agonies and ecstasies of production is both a humbling and exhilarating experience. It’s a wonder it ever happens.
Surviving means more than getting through the experience with gritted teeth. Some relationships will end with the end of production, but others will continue. So the settling of final scores will have to wait, and best behavior still put forward. Shooting a movie can test the best of friendships and professional relationships, but resilience and shared adversity are also strong bonding ingredients.
If a producer looks back on the overall experience, shooting the film often seems like the easiest part of the process. Everyone showed up for work and did what had to be done every day, an unusual luxury in a business of fits and starts. Film production has been described as “summer camp times 10,” given the short and intense duration of the experience. Some people will end up working together again and again; some will never see each other again. It’s not such a small business any more.
Everyone wants to leave the physical production period feeling that they shot what it will take to make a good movie. There will still be opportunities to do reshoots and pick-ups, although they will be more expensive and harder to justify. But what’s ‘in the can’ in terms of image capture now becomes the next set of building blocks, which will be used to construct a final product: the completed feature film.