Monday, October 18, 2010

30 pages in two days... again!

Today, our seventh shoot day, we wrapped another grueling pair of days. They were challenges, but they were planned challenges, and we beat the odds.

Some background: The general rule of thumb, I am told, is that Hollywood movies aim to cover two to three pages of a script in their average shoot day. Television shows, which have a cumulative running time that far exceeds a typical film's two hours, tend to shoot faster, covering six, sometimes eight script pages a day.

Sheer financial necessity often forces independent productions to cover more ground in less time. Actors, crew, equipment and facilities often charge by the week or by the day, making each additional production day an instantly expensive proposition. "A Modest Suggestion", for example, which is scripted just short of one hundred pages, was scheduled for ten shoot days, roughly ten pages per day. This turned out to be merely an average -- some days would require much more of our cast and crew.

We had set ourselves up with an additional challenge: we had scheduled a lengthy, difficult scene for our first and second shoot days. On top of that, our second day included an additional scene at a different location (which means the cast and crew showed up in one place, shot for a while, then re-located en-mass to our studio). We had roughly thirty pages to cover.

The first days of a shoot are notoriously unstable. Talented people in numerous disciplines are thrown together, often for the first time, in an attempt to create meticulously detailed puzzle pieces, the individual shots that will eventually combine to form a motion picture. Everyone has their own way of doing their job, and their own expectations of how everyone else should do theirs. It can be a challenge on any production, and it usually means the going is slow, sometimes flawed, and often frustrating.

We had our fair share of frustrations on our first day. For me, a lot of it involved learning the rhythms of such a large, compartmentalized crew. I also had to learn how to communicate my careful planning to the crew and production team -- my storyboards and shot lists have made production move very smoothly, but on day one, I still hadn't figured out how to express my meticulous plans to the people around me who needed to understand them. By lunch, we had fallen behind schedule significantly, and I was instructed that I'd have to speed things up.

I tweaked the shot list frantically during our lunch break. When we were called back on the set, I felt the tension mount as the lights went up, the camera rolled in to position, and the microphones swung over the actors' heads. The shot list was organized a bit better, and the cast and crew seemed to have a better sense of each others' patterns and needs. Perhaps lunch had helped them all relax in to the job? Somehow, we got very close to completing our shots that day. We had fallen behind, and we pushed an hour in to overtime, but we got close.

That night, I sat down with our first assistant director to review what remained of our scene. There was a lot left to cover, and we'd only have half a day to cover it, since there was that other location shoot in the morning. We shuffled, tweaked, and shifted shots around, trying to figure out the most efficient order in which to get what we needed. We came up with a new shot list and called it a night.

The next day, on the set, as actors pulled in, and as the crew started rigging their gear, I frantically hacked at the shot list, changing and shuffling our shooting order again and again, continuing to streamline the day's plan.

On set, the team seemed better prepared for the day. By know, they had gone through a busy day together, and had learned a lot about each other. The first day was like oil in the joints, making day 2 flow very smoothly. Needless to say, we caught ourselves up and finished shooting that big scene by the time we wrapped our second day. In those two days, we had covered roughly thirty pages.

It's easy to credit the shot list for something like this. Shot lists require discipline and organization, but not much art. Here's roughly how it works:

A movie or scene is composed of all sorts of shots -- individual camera angles that combine to convey a narrative. Think of the typical movie conversation between two characters. You start out seeing both of them talking. Then, you see one of them, saying something. Then, you cut to the other one, responding. Cut back to the first, with a retort, and back to the second, with a reaction. You might think that movies are shot like that, too: first, the wide shot of both actors, then a shot of one, saying one thing, then a shot of the other, saying the next thing, then back to the first actor, and so on. If we worked that way, we'd still be shooting that first day's scene. You see, every time you move the camera, you've got to worry about the lights, the set, continuity, etc. Everything has to be re-set, moved, turned around, or fixed up. It takes a while. Instead of working this way, most filmmakers will try to group the shots they get together. If, in our example, we get all of the first character's lines and reactions, then reset our camera just once for the other character's lines and reactions, we've only had to re-set things once, but we've got the same amount of footage.

That's the basic principle of shot-listing, as I see it. If the camera is pointed somewhere, you might as well get every possible shot you'll need from that angle before you move the camera somewhere else. Since the scenes in "A Modest Suggestion" are very long, and involve four or five characters moving a lot through the set, the shot-listing was complicated, and often required combining moments from the beginning of a scene with moments that take place ten minutes later, at the scene's conclusion. Jumping back and forth across these scenes is not easy, and that's one of the places we got lucky.

Our actors have been absolutely incredible. Their careful preparations gave them such a keen understanding of their characters and of their scenes that they could almost instantly glide in to and out of each moment. They may try to be modest about it, but their preparations paid off. The shot list was arranged in such a way that we didn't have to reset the cameras, but that would have been meaningless if it had taken us ten minutes to remind the actors of how their characters should behave and interact every time we jumped across a scene. Because of their preparation, the shot list worked.

The crew was also fantastic, especially once I learned how to communicate my shot list to them. There are still a few kinks to iron out, but at this point, it doesn't take two minutes for me to explain a shot before the camera is moved, the lights adjusted, and the sound team brainstorms the best microphone placement. Once we're up for a shot, we're up for everything else that needs to be shot from that position -- that sequence of shots is called a setup. The shot list makes it possible to get through setups quickly, but the crew is the bridge from one setup to the next. The shot list reduces the number of times we have to reset the camera, but when we do, the crew makes that process flow like water.

Now that we are a week in to the production, it happened again. We just wrapped another 30-page pair of shoot days. This time around, our shot list was more carefully refined -- I had been working on it with the 1st Assistant Director since late last week. The actors were even better prepared, having worked together in character for what adds up to roughly half the movie. And the crew, of course, had become a family -- a very functional family!

So, with two shoot days to go, I am already looking back at what we've accomplished with a great deal of pride. 30 pages in two days is an enormous accomplishment, and we've done it twice. Don't let anyone tell you it's impossible! But don't try it without careful preparation, or without a brilliant, hard-working, dedicated team at your side.

-Arnon Shorr

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