LEGALLY SPEAKING, IT DEPENDS: That’s a wrap! – Short Film Production Report 3

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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In the final installment of my reports from the production of the short film Key Transitions we finally get to the set. Did all the preparation and planning and replanning and replanning pay off in the end? Were there unintended surprises? Do I still have my sanity? As in all things, it depends…

Mother Nature my fickle friend?

Whether you are shooting a multi-million dollar blockbuster, a guerrilla run and gun shoot or something inbetween, we all have to succumb to the whims of weather. In our case, we had one exterior location, a cemetery, where we planned to shoot on the first of our four scheduled shooting days. I anxiously looked at the weather predictions every day leading up to the shoot and had contingency plans in case it was going to rain. Two weeks out the weather experts predicted an 80% chance of rain. A few days later, 90%. Three days out it was down to 50% and we were still leaning to making the alterations, but I held off on reshuffling and crossed my fingers. By shoot day it was 10% chance of afternoon scattered showers. Our morning shoot was dry. Even the expected severe thunderstorms definitely scheduled to pass through during our interior shots days later miraculously parted its clouds right around our location and left us alone. We didn’t even get thunderclaps on the soundtrack. Sometimes, you luck out.

Of course, we did have alternative plans to keep us on schedule. You would too, right? In fact, all the advanced preparation helped in many other ways.

Yes, Virginia there is such a thing as an eight-hour day

Everyone thought I was daft. I mean EVERYONE. Even those who admired my preparation still thought that my goal of actually shooting only eight hours a day was unlikely. But precise planning and not overreaching my expectations allowed us to pretty much achieve that goal. No actor was on the clock for more than eight hours a day. And although the crew was there for set up before and tear down after each day, no one was working longer than 10 hours any day. The industry “standard” 8-hour day (standard in that nearly all time calculations are prefaced on that theoretical full day: overtime, meals, etc.) is achievable.

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“DP Shawn Schaffer and director Christopher Schiller discuss framing on the set of KEY TRANSITIONS, with Yvonne Perry, John Romeo, Leigh Strimbeck, Solomon Nero and David Bunce on the monitor.”

How to achieve it, though.

1) Don’t squeeze too much in each day. For the 12-and-a-half page script, I scheduled four full days to shoot, and that included a company move to a new location in the middle of the first day. That’s a bit slower than the norm, just over 3 pages of script a day. But with a dialog heavy script with as many as 10 separate set ups for some scenes, it seemed a prudent approach.

2) Discuss with your DP a production plan that optimizes time on set. In my case, I wanted to be able to keep the actors focused on character between set ups so we decided on a preliminary set up time that, once set, would take very minimum alterations to each scene’s lighting scheme. It takes more time at the start of each new scene to light for every angle. The flow from set up to set up flew and allowed the actors to not have to wait to be able to get fully back in character for the next shots. The script determined that this would be a very efficient way of approaching the production. It was written with this sort of production schema in mind, making sure the blocking required could accommodate such an approach, etc.

3) Have every scene broken out in a shot list and lined script so you know which angles you’ll need and which sections of the script will be used for each shot. A trap that many directors fall into is wanting to get the scene perfect from every angle, every time. A flubbed line in one take will often lead them to have another full take, and another and another. Thinking like an editor, you’ll know what parts of each angle you’ll likely be using in the finished piece. That way, you can concentrate to assure the key parts are delivered from the angles you need and the rest is there “just in case.”

Also, having all your shots planned out allows for a fast communication with the crew as to what’s next and they can prepare faster and anticipate your needs. Preparation goes a long way to keeping the production always moving forward.

4) Don’t assume everything is set in stone. Even though I had planned every angle, I anticipated I’d use for every scene I remembered to pay attention to what I was actually getting from the performances. As the scenes played out I was able to alter the plan, cutting now unnecessary angles, adding elements that hadn’t presented themselves from just the script and rehearsals yet but would enhance the story. A film is a dynamic thing. To paraphrase John Huston, we do all the planning and preparation to be ready for the happy accidents on set, those moments that we cannot anticipate. If we’re obsessed with just our plans we’ll miss those.

5) Trust the people that brung you. You hired the right cast and crew. Trust that they’re there with you to get the best possible outcome. Allowing the people around you to perform what they do best without unnecessary micro-management will keep the production on track and happy.

Of course there were problems, but…

Of course there were hiccups. But having the right people in place (see number 5 above,) those few issues we encountered were handled properly even before I was made aware of them. The planning smoothed out a lot of potential issues. The unanticipated ones can still be expected and making sure the crew knows what to do if and when issues arise allows the best possible outcome.

The unexpected can be accommodated if…

When dealing with those unexpected interruptions it pays to consider the big picture when deciding how to react. For example, one major stumbling block for this production was the size of the SAG-AFTRA security bond required in order to qualify the Ultra Low Budget production. Somehow SAG’s calculation of how much needed to be deposited was more than double what was budgeted for the actors’ salary. It took more than what was reserved in our contingency line item. As the start date for shooting was soon approaching, I had to decide between inquiring about the method used for calculating the amount and asking for some sort of adjustment more in line with the production’s true anticipated costs, delaying and possibly derailing the necessary SAG approval in the process, or cinching the belt a notch tighter (who knew there was a hole there?) and finding the funds to cover the absence in the budget until the bond is returned (as of this writing, they still have it) so we could shoot as scheduled with the SAG actors originally intended in the roles.

We made the decision to bite the bullet and float the funds. It was a hard decision to come by but made in the spirit of the necessity of the big picture. By the way, the actual amount paid to the actors was nearly exactly the amount budgeted. In fact we came in almost exactly on budget and definitely on schedule for the whole production.

But sometimes the decisions you need to make are made a bit harder than necessary.

Seek clarity even in the clarifications

As a lawyer, I make a living off of the particularity of words. Understanding the meaning of– and especially the intent behind– the words chosen is key. Ambiguity is to be avoided because an assumption about what you think they mean can often lead to trouble and discord. The process is made exponentially harder when there are multiple documents dealing with the same subject matter and those documents exist within a constantly changing environment reflecting different meanings along an evolving understanding of the issues. Not every document or authority figure is always on the same page.

In plain language, sometimes even things written down are confusing or conflicting with themselves or the way things are really done. When this happens, your best approach is to confirm and verify at each step from the best authority available. And recheck along the way, prepared to make adjustments if an error has crept in the mix. And even though you could be following the rules correctly, it won’t budge a bureaucrat who want’s to do things their own particular way. Accommodate to get the job done. This is most important when dealing with an industry with a lot of complex bureaucratic entities and multi-step procedures. But it’s not a bad tactic when dealing with any area of life.

Next up, more of the same only different

Now I head off into the edit, a completely different, same beast. The lessons I learned in pre-production and on set will guide the decisions and preparations going forward. I’ve already started planning release strategies: a potential crowdfunding campaign for finishing funds and festival expenses, a default distribution strategy as a fall back, my Academy acceptance speech (not really, but one can dream, right?) As always, I have plans in place but am prepared to replace them depending on the turn of events.

Your path through this industry is a lot of applied learning and relearning anew. Even having done something before doesn’t mean the next time through will be exactly the same. Count on it. Your second script is completely different from the first one you wrote. Your next meeting will be completely different than the last one you took. You’ve changed. You’ve learned. You’re a different you. And if you’re honest, you wouldn’t want it any other way.

So, what’s next? It depends…

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For invaluable advice on short film ideas, download the 1st chapter of Roberta Marie Monroe’s book How Not to Make a Short Film! and create inspiring short films today.


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