This is the third in a series of guest posts by filmmaker Raafi Rivero.
"Going again!" There are a million reasons why you do another take on a shot: bad camera move, bad sound, flubbed line, etc. But there are pitfalls to shooting too many takes just as there are shooting too few. Sometimes you go again without giving actors feedback (this is bad). Sometimes you don't go again and walk away with a sub-par performance (this is worse). Let's talk about the realities of shooting multiple takes on set.
First, a cardinal rule:
Do not walk away with a performance you do not love.
So things are going swell: your druggy is looking villainous, your femme is looking fatale, and after a few misses you've just nailed a "clean" take, meaning your camera move worked with the blocking and focus pulls and nobody missed a line. People are tired. And there's a pause where everyone holds their breath.
"Let's go again." A perceptible sigh fills the room as the crew and actors reset. Ignore it. This is your director's perogative and another big one:
Sometimes you get a clean take and STILL need to go again. Refer to the cardinal rule.
Why are you shooting again? Usually it's because the performance didn't work. But be careful. When you simply say "we're going again" and don't tell your actors why, you're punishing them and your crew. Nobody knows what went wrong and your performers are doomed to make the same mistakes again. If you are trite "can you say it faster?" or terse "louder" you are doing nobody any favors either.
Should he talk faster because he's in a rush to hide the drugs under the bed, or because he's on drugs? Eventually, with trust, you will develop a shorthand with your actors and crew. "Going again, folks. Faster, remember he's on drugs! Slate in please." Everybody understands the moment. The drug-addled scene you're trying to create with your actor will permeate the pace of work with the crew, the feeling on set.
Whether on set or prior, it's important to develop concepts that the actors and you both know to mean the same thing. A shorthand will develop through repetition, often in rehearsal. For instance, "red backpack," might remind a performer of a detail implanted in a character's memory. Whatever these shorthand callouts end up being, they become essential in communicating broad concepts to actors on set when (especially for us Indies) time is precious. Generally speaking, a momentum develops in shooting multiple takes and it's better to keep rolling, or cut with minimal break time in order to preserve the emotional space created by the actors. It is here where this shorthand performs best enabling you to make minor tweaks without sacrificing big stoppages in time.
When you finally do have the walk-away take, you and everyone else in the room will know.
It is possible, in my opinion, to overshoot a scene. To do take and take and take until the actors lose their place with the material. Every moment has been parsed down to its molecules and there's nothing left. If your name is David Fincher and you have the opportunity to shoot as many as 90 takes at a time, this is no problem, everybody's paid well. You simply keep shooting until the scene gets good again. But for the rest of us, making your days and keeping good relationships with cast and crew are essential parts of the job. People go to the mat for you because they believe in what you're doing, and because you treat them with respect. Overshooting is wasteful and counterproductive -- all of it is work that could have been done alone in a room with the actors prior to shooting.
Perhaps I'll cover the "let's try it both ways" method of shooting for ad agencies in a later post. But for now, keep it fresh, get your material in a minimal number of takes.
Clint Eastwood is famous for being a one-take director. He rehearses relentlessly and shoots only when ready, holding film and other costs down. This also has the effect of making each shot more like theater, establishing a "live" feeling. While I do not practice this approach, there is something to that feeling of risk that is worth preserving in places on your productions.
You may find yourself in run-and-gun situations where you are either shooting without permits, losing daylight, or breaking the law. You're unsure of how many takes you'll be able to get. These can be some of the most exciting times on set. It is essential in any situation like this that all cast and crew knows the score and is prepared to get it on the first take. Assuming that your camera team and crew can execute in these situations, what do you tell your actors?
Being as clear as possible about the goals of the shot and what kind of performance you expect to get is essential in these situations. But I'd also like to propose that in cases where anxiety or excitement is building before an important shot, you direct only in the most oblique terms. Talk about the world of the scene and the characters -- the story in general -- and let the action explode on the screen. It is a tremendous feeling for film actors to, you know, be acting. In filmmaking there is so much time spent in between takes and prepping shots that the moments that the camera is actually rolling are precious indeed. That is part of the magic of the craft. In one-of-a-kind moments where the "live" feeling can be preserved, look for ways to enhance the actor's anticipation and commitment to the scene. These will be some of your best memories on set.
Directing actors, in the end, comes down to trust. If someone is good and you trust them with the material, you say less and give them freer reign -- talking more broadly about the material, the feeling of a particular moment. If a performer hasn't earned that level of trust, your notes to them will be much more specific. Non-actors, in particular, often prefer very direct language and even line-reads. But at some point, you are required to hand the material over to the people who'll be on camera. If they've earned enough of your trust to be there, you'll both be surprised how well it will turn out onscreen.
Next time: Bad and Good actors. To see all the posts in this series (to date), click here.
Raafi Rivero is a filmmaker and designer living in Brooklyn, NY. In between stints slaying dragons and leaping small puddles in a single bound, he's managed to snag a couple of industry honors and is hard at work on the upcoming feature How to Steal. Raafi has directed content for HBO, Sony, and Discovery as well as shady record labels and satisfied customers the world round. His short, Their Eyes Were Watching Gummy Bears, will play festivals this summer. Follow Raafi on Twitter here.
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Thanks for this excellent series, look forward to the next one...
February 16, 2011 at 2:03AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Thanks Fred. Getting the rhythm of shooting multiple takes, and knowing how to work a scene on set is one of the most important things you do. It's odd because, for something so crucial, nobody ever talks about it.
February 17, 2011 at 5:16AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
Raafi, I wish you'd done this series about six months ago - Although then I might not be able to relate to it as I do now, having made my first short. I'm particularly nervous about the process of working with actors, in rehearsal and on set, and I'm finding this series informative and (frankly) comforting. Looking forward to the next one!
February 17, 2011 at 3:25PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
@Jak I wish I'd done this series six months ago too! Writing these posts helps me to think through some of my ideas on the process. The most important thing, though, is to keep at it. The african proverb: Fall down seven times, stand up eight.
February 17, 2011 at 3:44PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM
These posts are good, incisive and insightful, and they've become one of the highpoints of my weekly Nofilmschool emails. Thank you much. Looking forward to the next post. And yea, hopefully there will be a post talking about 'editing while shooting' or something like that that teaches about shot breakdown. Regards.
February 19, 2011 at 4:14AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM