Getting things right on Day Zero sets up your entire shoot for success.
It’s the first day of set. The crew has arrived ready for the next five weeks of filming. They’re pulling up in trucks loaded to the brim with cutting-edge equipment. The production tents are up. Tables set. It’s go time.
But how did it all get there? A film shoot doesn’t come together through magic. It’s a meticulously assembled business operation that brings together mountains of supplies from all the departments. Typically, these converge on a single day via a team, a vehicle, and a carefully crafted schedule. While often invisible to shooting crew, errors made during these pickups can have ramifications far down the line, leading to catastrophic losses of time, money, and morale. Here are some tips and tricks for the savvy producer hoping to nail your Day Zero.
There is nothing more awkward than showing up to a rental house to pick up five tons of equipment in your mom’s sedan.
1. Get the right team for the job
The gear pickups on a narrative feature film versus a single day commercial are very different. Always make sure that you’ve assembled the right team. For instance, on indies the trucks are usually driven by Production Assistants. Make sure your driver is comfortable with the vehicle they’ll be driving. If you’re not sure, ask. It’s in nobody’s best interest to put a PA into a dangerous situation, especially in a city where they might be navigating narrow, crowded streets in a large box truck. Make sure they have a valid driver’s license, too.
In addition to the driver, always hire what’s called a “Ride Along.” This person can help the driver navigate, and will be the one who hops out at each stop to load up the gear. This frees up the driver to find parking, or to idle nearby without leaving the truck unattended. On shoots that require specific camera and lighting equipment, it is always preferable to bring in someone from that department to check out the gear before it goes on the truck. These are the technicians who will know if a piece of gear isn’t working correctly or needs to be added/subtracted from the order, before it gets on the truck.
You can’t expect a PA to know the equipment, how it works, how it should look. That’s not their job. Sure, a grip or electrician costs more per day than a PA. But if you want to be certain that the equipment you’re shuttling 400 miles away to your month long shoot works, hire someone from camera and lighting to check it out first. Because you know what really costs money? When the lights shut off while Brad Pitt is delivering a tearful monologue in the last three minutes you have him on set.
2. Get the right vehicle for the job
There is nothing more awkward than showing up to a rental house to pick up five tons of equipment in your mom’s sedan. Always communicate with the departments before selecting your pickups vehicle. Make sure it has ample space for what you’re getting. If any items are particularly heavy, get a truck with a lift gate. A good producer knows how to read an equipment order for key details that inform vehicle needs: Are we transporting a heavy dolly? Is there 12’ long pipe? Are there delicate items that shouldn’t be put next to lights? Are there cumbersome items like large props or furniture that have special needs? Most importantly, can all of these pickups be accomplished in a single vehicle?
In a perfect world, every department gets a separate vehicle. This helps protect equipment and make it possible for crews to “work out of the truck,” because there’s space to do so. Other considerations include knowing if the vehicle takes gasoline or diesel, what the height of the vehicle is so you don’t send it towards a tunnel or parking garage that it won’t fit inside, and whether the license plates are passenger or commercial (as this affects where you can park it.)
You should also know if the vehicle has built-in in locks or not, and act accordingly. Never leave a truck unmanned if there isn’t a lock on the back gates and side doors, and don’t go cheap on a padlock. You’re driving around with thousands of dollars of gear. Finally, remember that there are roads commercial vehicles can’t drive on. Make sure your pickups schedule accounts for these limitations. A good rule of thumb is that trucks can traverse highways, but not parkways. Some bridges and tunnels allow trucks, some do not.
3. Get the right vendors for the job
Film shoots require you to pick up equipment from strange places, at strange times. Always make sure that your vendors are ready for your team to arrive. That means finalizing the order, sending them payment docs, insurance, etc, AHEAD OF TIME. You waste precious time when the truck lands and the gear isn’t approved to leave. Double and triple check the day before that everything is squared away. Inquire as to whether there’s a loading dock or ramp that the vehicle should arrive at.
Also, it probably goes without saying, but make sure the rental house is open at the time of pickup. If your truck lands in Secaucus, NJ and the shop doesn’t open for another four hours, you screwed up. Finally, selecting where you rent the truck itself can be strategic. Some vendors include free miles while others do not. If your shoot is far away, those free miles come in handy and save money. Some shops include EZ passes in their vehicles, which is helpful because you don’t have to hand the driver cash for tolls ahead of time. Pick the best deal for your specific shoot.
There is absolutely ZERO excuse for not having a properly insured vehicle on a film shoot.
4. Get the right insurance for the job
Look, I get it. You’re a great driver. You’ve never been in an accident. Fine. But accidents happen all the time, and they’re never more likely than when you’re careening down 6th Avenue at rush hour in a truck you’ve never driven before. There is absolutely ZERO excuse for not having a properly insured vehicle on a film shoot. Either you get coverage on the policy you’re using for the rest of the gear, or you purchase the cheap daily collision insurance offered by most auto vendors. And when you do experience an accident, keep a level head. Make sure everyone’s okay, and if the vehicle needs to be swapped out with another to finish out the shoot, so be it. Finally, if you’re a PA and a producer is saying you are liable for some damage, they’re wrong. The vehicles are being rented by the production, and the production is liable for whatever damages may occur.
5. Cut your losses
It doesn't always make sense to send a truck. When a piece of gear is particularly far away, or time-sensitive, sometimes you need to bite the bullet and have it couriered. This may take the form of putting it in a cab, having it shipped, or getting a courier service. In some cases, sending a truck can actually add mileage and gas costs while losing hours of time. Some vendors even offer same-day delivery service to your set. Remember: producing is problem-solving.
If you stick to the above, and keep a level head, you’ll walk into your shoot with even footing. A good first day goes a long way towards setting the mood for the duration, and if everything’s where it’s supposed to be you’ll have a happy crew. A happy crew yields a happy set. And a happy set makes for better movies. Good luck!