August 18, 2014

Making Sense of 'CENTS': 5 Lessons Learned on Set of My First Feature Film


Here at No Film School, my posts focus on screenwriting. I can honestly say searching for lessons from professional screenwriters, sharing those lessons with NFS readers and adding my own take on those lessons has made me a better screenwriter since I started writing for this site back in May 2012. But, by far, my biggest learning experience as a screenwriter to date happened this summer when I had the privilege of shooting my first feature film, thanks in no small part to many NFS readers who supported our CENTS Kickstarter campaign. Now that principal photography is complete and we're heading into post production, I'm excited to get back to NFS to share with you 5 lessons I learned on the set of my first feature film as writer, director and one of the producers.

1. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite Before You Shoot

When we locked the production draft of the script in May, we were officially on draft nine of the script. Realistically, between drafts 7 through 9, there were some very minor tweaks that didn't warrant full new draft status. Regardless, I had rewritten this screenplay extensively since I completed the first draft back in late 2011. With those initial rewrites up to white production draft, I endeavored to make sure the story worked from start to finish and the characters were fully fleshed out on the page.

Inevitably, things change as you go into production. By the end of the shoot, we were on our Green revision (or lucky draft thirteen, after going through Blue, Pink and Yellow revisions). Many of our revisions, however, were the result of the realities of production. We could get certain locations, but not others, so scene headings changed to reflect our new environment. Actions also changed based on the physical realities of our sets. Finally, some dialogue was tweaked soon after auditions to reflect the natural cadence of our talent. Of course, we changed a few things on the fly during the shoot that never made their way into a revised script because a line or action wasn't working.

If I hadn't spent so much time living with the story and rewriting the script before we went into production, I imagine I would have been rewriting much more on set and in the evenings. The real revision to the script will happen in the editing process when the scenes are streamlined and even rearranged.

That reminds me. I did revise one major sequence during production, but I never revised the script. Instead, I simply realized that we should shoot a sequence of scenes as written, but we should intercut certain moments of those scenes to reveal parts of story just before the audience makes a connection so we can keep one step ahead of them. This was something that had been bothering me before production, but I had never put my finger on the solution until we were getting prepared to shoot the final scene in the sequence. My director brain jumped ahead to post production and saw the intercut sequence with all of the in and out marks so clearly. Honestly, if I had written the sequence with the intercuts on the page, I probably would have confused the reader too much, but the movie's audience will get it when they see it on the screen.

2. Be Prepared (a.k.a. It's Not About the Page Count Each Day)

When you don't have much money to shoot your feature, you need to make the most of your time. And the most important time you can spend on your film is during pre-production to get everything ready before you shoot. As soon as we hired each of our department heads, I would either meet with or call them to discuss my vision for the film and how it related to their departments. Conversations covered everything from which sets we should design and build (and how they should be designed based on characters and the story) to the progression of certain characters' hair and makeup styles over the course of the film.

When a 1st AD breaks down a script to schedule the shoot, the page count per day tends to become the metric used to figure out how much can be filmed each day. In reality, page count helps, but it's not really the determining factor in what can actually be shot. Instead, the amount of setups needs to be considered in conjunction with the scenes and pages scheduled. So, our 1st AD Jimmy Bullwinkle hounded me to finish my shot list as soon as possible so he could map the shot list to the schedule to see if we needed to move scenes around based on the number of setups, not just the page count.

Even with all of this planning, some adjustments needed to be made in production. But instead of waiting for days to get out of control, we actually moved scenes up while we were in production to give us time for key scenes later in our schedule. We could only do this because of our prep work during pre-production so we could work efficiently on set.

I would say the most productive time I spent during pre-production was sitting with our DP Corey Weintraub, walking him through my shot list for the entire film, having a conversation about the visuals, getting his feedback, and finally having Corey sketch quick storyboards for every shot of the movie. Yes, every single shot of CENTS was storyboarded, thanks to Corey. This meant Corey and I spent a combined total of a week, seven to eight hours each day, going through the shot list and translating it into storyboards.

As a result when we were on set, I would open my binder to the storyboards for the scene we were about to shoot so Corey would remember our conversations and how I wanted the scene covered before we set up a single light. When we were pressed for time at the end of a day, the storyboards were invaluable in saving time between setups as well as helping us figure out which shots could be covered by multiple camera setups or should be consolidated into one setup. And on those days when we really had no time left, Corey had already seen the movie in his mind, too, so he could offer great suggestions on how we could get out of our time jam and still make the movie we both wanted to see.

3. Communicate Clearly (a.k.a. Be Specific)

One of the director's main jobs is to answer questions. If something isn't spelled out in the script, the director needs to have the answer. More importantly, the director needs to be specific with the answer.

Early in production, I made the mistake of not being clear about how certain props should look or how certain elements of wardrobe would be featured in some shots. This caused me a bit of frustration on the first day of shooting with regards to certain props, which in all honesty I should have cleared well ahead of the first day of shooting (see Lesson #2). We made adjustments as necessary and figured out how to avoid these mistakes moving forward by making a point to meet several days in advance of the use of props so I could communicate my desires clearly and specifically.

At times, I rejected props and set dressing upon first viewing because I hadn't been clear enough with our art department, but also I wanted something not just different, but better. I expect a lot out of myself when working on a film, and I expect my crew to push themselves to do their best, not just settle for "good enough". In the end, the art department would outdo themselves and exceed my own vision of what we could accomplish. I made sure to let them know when I was impressed with and thankful for their hard work.

On one particular day, I had not let the costume designer know that we would see the soles of a character's shoes for a particular shot. As luck would have it, the shoes that character needed to wear that day had huge logos emblazoned on the rubber soles -- logos we had not cleared. By the time we noticed, we were already shooting the scene. We enlisted the help of our art department to wear down the rubber soles by any means necessary (sandblasters gave way to using sheer force and rubbing the soles against the rough edge of a plywood table in a workshop). We continued to shoot other setups from the scene where the actress's feet weren't visible. Forty minutes later, we were reshooting one of our first setups, now with defiled rubber soles. Making movies.

4. Wrap Each Day on Time (a.k.a. Why 10-Hour Days are Great)

Too often, film crews work overtime -- ridiculous overtime. Overtime is inevitable on most productions, but 16-hour days are avoidable. In fact, I argue that 12-hour days are avoidable. I know because we just shot a low budget film in 24 days with scheduled 10-hour days -- and we wrapped everyone on time. Like I mentioned earlier, we moved scenes up on several days to make better use of our time when we were running ahead or needed to give more time to other scenes later in our schedule.

Because we were working with minors of a certain age, New Mexico child labor laws dictated that our main talent could only be on location for nine hours plus an extra half-hour for meal time, and they could only be on set for seven hours. So, our crew call time was usually 8 am (breakfast served at 7:30 am) with cast call times at 8:30 am and first shot at 9 am assuming initial setups could be completed in one hour. Our 2nd AD John Carrillo and our key set PAs Alex Benz and Patrick "Mac" Puhl also had to track every minute our minors were on set to ensure they had enough rest time and didn't go over seven hours on set. When the extra half-hour for meals was added, our main cast had to wrap no later than 6 pm each day. That meant we wrapped at 6 pm. Done. No more shooting.

I loved this schedule. Every morning as I prepped for that day, I would figure out how many setups we had scheduled for each scene. I would identify the midpoint of the setups and make sure our 1st AD Jimmy and I knew where we needed to be at the midpoint of our day -- which was not our meal time since that was six hours after crew call. Since our lunch started at 2 pm, but we wouldn't be back in until 2:40 pm or so, I learned how to maximize those final three hours before wrapping at 6 pm.

Everybody is happier when they are consistently working 10-hour days instead of 12-hour, 14-hour or 16-hour days. We even started production on the 4th of July holiday week, so we had a three-day weekend after our first shortened week of production. Most of our crew couldn't remember the last time they had a three-day weekend during production. No one was driving home and falling asleep at the wheel. Crew members could do their jobs well on set. Accidents were avoided and damage was kept to a bare minimum because people watched out for each other and the equipment.

This is actually the norm in some countries. When Game of Thrones shoots in Ireland, they are restricted by law to 10-hour days just like every other production in Ireland, and the directors love it according to two of the show's directors, Michelle MacLaren and Alex Graves, in their interview with KCRW's The Business. And if you're on a Clint Eastwood film, you'll be moving scenes forward from the next day and you still might be wrapped at lunch.

On my next film, I'll definitely plan to keep the shoot days short and efficient just to keep everyone healthy and sane. I encourage other filmmakers to do the same.

5. Set the Emotional Vibe

Even before we started principal photography, I realized how I approached each day emotionally would likely have a large impact on the overall feel on set. Of course I was anxious to get started and nervous how everything would turn out, but I made a conscious effort to keep things light and take opportunities to make fun of myself. Thanks in large part to a great crew and cast with a good sense of humor, we definitely had a good vibe on set most days.

I realized the opposite was also true when I came to set stressed or anxious. In the middle of our second week, I arrived on set frustrated with one particular setup from the day before after reviewing dailies, which also revealed a larger problem that had not been brought to my attention as a producer during pre-production. I was in a foul mood for most of the day, and it had a negative impact on the cast and crew. After I had quietly aired my grievances with those who needed to hear them, I had to hit the reset button at lunch. This made a huge difference for the final setups of the day as we raced against rain and had to shoot around reflections and mirrors in a practical location.

During the final days of shooting, weather and equipment conspired against us to slow things down. Thunderstorms rolled in almost every afternoon. Our A-camera recorder overheated. Footage that we confirmed was good after checking the gate mysteriously got corrupted with dropouts by the time our DIT ingested the data. I started referring to the ghosts in the machine as if they were real.

In the face of adversity with no time left in the schedule, I certainly struggled at times to keep things light on set. So, if I wasn't able to joke around, I did my best to stay calm and be zen about things that were out of my control. At a minimum, I knew this would help me and the crew stay focused when we had limited time to finish our day.

But we always made our day. And usually, we wrapped with a laugh -- or at least a smile.

I certainly learned much more than these 5 lessons on set of my first feature film, so stay tuned for part 2 of this post where I'll share 5 more lessons I learned during our shoot of CENTS.

Have you had the opportunity to helm a feature film? What lessons did you learn about yourself and the filmmaking process during your feature shoot?

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29 Comments

Thanks, look forward to see CENTS.

August 18, 2014 at 9:25AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Gul Ramani

Thanks, Gul. So do I!

August 18, 2014 at 4:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Appreciate this article series. Hoping to head into pre-pro early 2015 on my first feature.

August 18, 2014 at 10:53AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Brandon

Thanks for the feedback, Brandon. Hope some of these lessons as well as future posts about CENTS help you on your project.

August 18, 2014 at 5:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Nice details. Can't wait to see the film.

You don't have to "clear" logos. So long as a product is used in its intended manner- drinking a coke, wearing Nike's. You are fine. Shows cover logos NOT because of some law, but because it might offend a sponsor of a shot (show's sponsored by Puma, character wears Nikes).

Did your actors feel constricted because you already figured out what they should do in your storyboards? Were you able to adapted based on performance? Were they (the storyboards) developed after rehearsals?

Finally, none of your lessons were specific to the director/actor relationship in creating performance/character. You mention "some dialogue was tweaked soon after auditions," but part of rewriting during production comes from a director/writer learning more about his or her actors.

Still, casting and working with minors is tough. But you offered a great reason why it could be a good idea. (Every 20-something actor who plays younger will be pissed at you;0)

August 18, 2014 at 11:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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profwilliams

The storyboards didn't really constrict performances, but rather established camera angles and camera movement, and they flowed from the script. We shot much of the film handheld, so we followed our actresses' natural movements and tendencies. If we needed one of our actresses to move in a specific way to make a shot work (particularly for close-ups and "dirty" over-the-shoulder angles), we would make those adjustments as necessary. We also shot a lot of coverage, so we gave each of our actresses opportunities to give their best and most natural performances from a variety of angles.

To your point about none of the lessons being specific to the director/actor relationship, that will be covered in part II of this series as I've already worked on that particular lesson for the next post. So stay tuned.

August 18, 2014 at 11:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

The other great thing about using storyboards -- and putting time inot them before you even cast?
You get rid a bad idea right up front...where it's just you anfd paper and pencil ( or digipad, whatever).

As a writer-director myself, who writes in a strong visual manner as it is ( thank you to comicbooks, graphic novels and strong, visually - driven foriegn and silent movies, as well as many great artists before me)...I can't tell you how many times even slightly detailed STORYBOARDS saved my skin. Draw them, put them up on your walls...and start dissecting them as if you're in the edit room already.

They will make you a better director, even if you want to toss them all away on set.

August 19, 2014 at 5:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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MARK11

(I should add, that you'll be in trouble IF you use a product outside of its intended use: Coke can used as a murder weapon. But as I tell my students one of the best things that could happen to your film is for you to be sued by a major corporation-- great publicity for you, with an easy fix in post.)

August 18, 2014 at 11:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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profwilliams

See folks, film classes at colleges aren't all evil. Thanks profwilliams, for clearing up the logos question. It was something I was concerned about in regards to my short film.

August 18, 2014 at 11:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Gavin

Congratulations Christopher! Another nice article too.
I'm a long time NFS reader and supporter, and I also just wrapped on my first feature, "One Less God" and now drawing in a deep breath before post :)
https://www.facebook.com/OneLessGodMovie/info
Looking forward to seeing how you progress and reading your future blogs.

Prof, you're right, but just to clarify a little further, as depicting logos may create difficulties in gaining E&O insurance, which will greatly impact upon any chance of being acquired for distribution.

"...filmmakers may rely on fair use to depict trademarked products or to use the name of such products and services in dialogue. A trademark owner cannot automatically stop a film company from showing its brand name in a scene. If the trademark is said or depicted accurately, the use in the film will not give rise to a successful legal action. Using trademarks without authorization will raise concerns for the insurance company, however, and could make eventual distribution more difficult."

Excerpt from - Managing Content in the Frame: By Jon M. Garon.

Also maybe worth mentioning that logos, such as those used by government departments, police etc, will require clearance or you won't get your E&O either.

Best Wishes
Lliam

August 18, 2014 at 1:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Lliam Worthington

If considering the broader distribution possibilities, TV in some countries cannot broadcast logos.

August 18, 2014 at 2:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Owen

Lliam, while you may be correct regarding E&O, I cannot imagine a distributor saying, "we LOVE your film, but because a character dives a Ford, we can't distribute it." No way. IF they want your film, they will find a way to distribute it. Period. In truth, the biggest issue is not logos, but music clearances. Still, swapping out a song, a quick edit, or VFX can fix these issue, and distributors know this.

Filmmakers should never feel constricted by fear of a Corporation or lawsuit. The film "Escape from Tomorrow," which filmed without permission in Disney is a great case study on some of these issues. Here's a link:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/its-a-mad-mad-mad-mad-disn...

August 18, 2014 at 4:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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profwilliams

"I cannot imagine a distributor saying, “we LOVE your film, but because a character dives a Ford, we can’t distribute it.” No way. IF they want your film, they will find a way to distribute it. Period."

Agreed, but that's governed by the assumption that distributors "LOVE" your film.
If they love a film, and see great commercial potential, they'll surely bend their own rules, wait for edits, or work hard to help get the E&O in place. But there are certainly many stories of people missing critical windows of opportunity for not having E&O in place. Quite likely at times when the distributors don't particularly "love" the film, but they're still considering it...against many other possible acquisitions.

"Filmmakers should never feel constricted by fear of a Corporation or lawsuit."
I love this statement and support this mentality for the pursuit of meaningful or important subject matter, but it also behoves film makers to remove or avoid as many potential obstacles as possible if they offer no substantial value to the film in and of themselves.

Anyway, looking forward to checking that case study out. Thanks for that Prof.

August 19, 2014 at 2:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Lliam Worthington

As for our shoot, I agree with profwilliams about being able to use trademarked logos in context. But we're taking the route the Lliam points out regarding avoiding trademarked logos to obtain E&O insurance. For a low budget project like our film, it's easier to avoid logos altogether unless we have already cleared a product in advance or have the good fortune to get product placement deals (which we did not).

We did have our script reviewed by a script clearance company in anticipation of obtaining E&O. I mention this because we do mention some companies by name in the dialogue, but they are not mentioned in a defamatory way, so our script was cleared to use those instances of dialogue.

Also, for the particular shot that I refer to in the article, the logo actually became quite distracting as it was in the foreground of the shot and was not intended to be the focus of the shot. This also added to our desire to get rid of it. Sadly, for continuity sake, we couldn't simply put the actress in another pair of shoes. That would have been the easiest solution -- and it was one we considered.

August 18, 2014 at 4:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

I worked with Alex and Michele on GoT season 4 and Im just about packing to get to season 5. I was 2nd Assistant DIT and I can tell you 10 hour days are awesome but we almost always did 12 hours. It is no problem but those last two hours really are bloody work especially in 35°C.

August 18, 2014 at 2:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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vladimir

Hey vladimir,

Great to hear a little first person perspective on GoT shoot days to add to the conversation. Our shoot was nothing like the monstrosity of mounting GoT, but my DIT and I always put in at least two extra hours at the end of every day so I could get dailies (especially when our DIT had to help operate another camera). Of course, I'm sure you're referring to wrapping the GoT shoot at 12 hours, regardless of DIT work being complete :)

(Oh, and for our readers in the US, 35℃ is 95℉)

August 18, 2014 at 4:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Great stuff Christoper - thanks for sharing. I've just finished day 18 of my first feature - 7 more to go on the main shoot. Absolutely exhausted, but we're getting there and the footage is looking great (I've been posting it up on my Twitter feed - www.twitter.com/hit_delete )

I'd add a couple purely practical things to these lessons, just from what I've picked up in the past few weeks... We're working on an ultra-low budget, which I suspect many other NFS readers will be too, and everyone in the crew is doubling up on roles. In those circumstances, it pays to be as well organised as possible.

1) Get hold of cheap peli-case knockoffs, with foam, and neatly store EVERYTHING that you can.

2) Name those cases - and the things that go in them - with sticky labels. We've been shooting on cliffsides, in rivers, in the middle of forests and in caves - being able to ask the nearest person to you to "Grab 'big battery' from Case A please" (and knowing they'll be able to figure out what you're talking about) has been a lifesaver.

3) Buy as many variants of tripod thread screws as you can. You never know when a 10 pence double ended standard thread screw is going to be exactly what you need to fit something on a cage, a magic arm, a runner...

4) Test everything in advance, but be prepared to improvise. On day one, I realised that the cables from our power supply don't fit when there's a cage on the camera (which only arrived the day before the shoot). Fortunately I had adequate backup batteries, but that night we soldered a bunch of new (thinner) cables to fit through the cage.

I know some of that probably sounds pretty obvious - but I'd been preparing for months, and still managed to miss a couple of things!

August 18, 2014 at 4:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Hey Alex,

Thanks for sharing your lessons from your current shoot. These are great nuts-and-bolts lessons for our DIY crowd. I imagine many of our other NFS readers have similar DIY lessons and workflows that work for them and hopefully they'll chime in, too.

Best of luck on the final 7 days. Those last days can be some of the toughest in terms of stamina.

August 18, 2014 at 4:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Hi Christopher - yep, I'm feeling it now...! We had some truly awful weather for most of the first two weeks, and lost a couple of days - so we're working every day until the end now... Averaging about 6 hours sleep a night. Another tip - get someone else (trustworthy and thorough) to backup everything each night if you can. Little things like that are taking an age...!

August 18, 2014 at 5:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ah, weather. We had rain one morning that rearranged our day -- ironically, we had to make rain 2 days later for a different scene that we couldn't move up because of cast and schedule. Thunderstorms also messed with our schedule during the final week, but we persevered with cover sets when possible (and ultimately got lucky).

Our DIT created all of our backups - we had a RAID plus an additional backup drive in addition to our editorial drive and my dailies drive. Plus, our DIT added a LUT to mimic Kodak 5219 stock as a one-light color correction to all of the footage, which helped give me an idea of how a lot of scenes will look in the finished film (of course, we'll do a full color correction in post).

August 18, 2014 at 6:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Oh and the other thing is production stills... My AD is also our stills photographer, and he's amazing. He's been published in all sorts of fashion mags in the past, and the stills he's getting on set are worth their weight in gold.

August 18, 2014 at 5:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Agreed. Production stills are a must for press kits.

August 18, 2014 at 6:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Thanks for the Great and in-depth up date! I was wondering how things were going. Your past kickstarter posts have been a major help and this one is as well. THANK YOU!!!

August 18, 2014 at 11:51PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Thanks, T. Glad to hear the posts have been helpful. Pre-production and production sucked up my whole summer, so it's great to be back on NFS to share our progress on CENTS.

August 19, 2014 at 7:25AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

You and micah are doing stellar! Well done!!
Now, what happened to that basketball film...?

August 19, 2014 at 5:28AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Joko

yes any updates on Manchild? Lots of people handed over their money

August 19, 2014 at 5:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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peter

I love how you stress the importance for 10 hour days.
As a director mainly working on commercials, I've started to implement short days as well. Many call me nuts for doing so, but the crew and cast is better off thanks to it. Plus, it forces me a tad more to focus on what I really need to get instead of just covering my ass with tons of footage.
I highly encourage everyone to follow that. It makes set life so much better and your film/spot/whatever will gain thanks to it.
Good luck in post!

August 20, 2014 at 9:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Elias

Great ideas - especially about reasonable scheduling!

August 20, 2014 at 2:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ed Wright

Great post. I live in Tanzania, and for 3 weeks in Dec 2012, we shot our first feature, Our Story. It will soon be launched! Wahoo! (www.our-story.co) I'd already been living here for a few years but still among the difficulities were either language (daily Kiswahili is different from try to direct actors...), or the heat. My wife is Tanzanian, and she is in the film, translated the script from English and so we worked through those difficulties (although she couldn't change the temps!) together. Having people 'on board' really helped, and it was so cool. I was so happy, I realized, because it was birds of a feather: no matter the difficulties, we were all present for the same reason, to make a film.

We had some Kagera War scenes to shoot, and I just was awed, and felt another level of respect for our talent and crew, those days about 30 or so people, because we had travelled no small distance to a partial 'bush' area and quickly ran out of drinking water, etc., and we were all running around, in fact I took off with my "army" for the action parts, so it was tough but fun. weapons broke, kids appeared out of nowhere... What I'm getting at here is an addendum, that things might get difficult or insane, but take time to remember the big picture, and to enjoy the moment- no, you're not in some office, you're not stuck on a bus, or in traffic, whatever: you're making a FILM! Feel it in your gut and you will have more energy.

August 21, 2014 at 4:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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