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Way back when I was in college, a young director came to speak to my class and share his experiences with making, for the time, a moderately budgeted film. Nearly 30 years later, I can still remember him saying that a location day costs $150 a minute. That meant arriving on set, walking over to craft services, and getting a cup of coffee—cha-ching! $150. Drinking the coffee—cha-ching! That’s another $150 (think about that the next time you get a Grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk at Starbucks.) That comes to $9,000 an hour, or $90,000 for a ten-hour day, and this was back in the early 1980s. When you stop and think about it, with all the crew costs, location fees, transportation costs, feeding people, etc., it all adds up to what I think is the most expensive time on Earth.
So what does this mean to you? Well, whether you are spending $150 a minute on location or $150 is your entire budget, the realities of shooting are the same. There is only so much time to get what you need done. Okay, sure you can buy all your own gear—and you know where to go for that—so you don’t have to worry about paying for additional rentals. However, with a few noticeable exceptions aside (Apocalypse Now, Eyes Wide Shut), unless you are Francis Ford Coppola or Stanley Kubrick, shooting endlessly is not likely to help your film, and will more likely hurt it.
Remember that extra time you spent getting that perfect master shot in the morning when you had a good 10 hours of daylight to work with? Well, maybe you ought to have saved it for the end of the day when the sun is going down and you are trying to get those emotionally charged close-ups. This, of course, also applies to night shoots when you are racing against the coming dawn, or interiors, when you have to be out of the location by a specific time. So whether you are director, D.P., or crew, you want to work efficiently. So, as director, you can have those extra few minutes to help the actors finesse their performance or, as a D.P., to tweak the lighting “just so.”
When I was working as an A.C., a cameraman said to me once that the best thing I could do to improve was to cut the fat out of my work. What this translated to was, become more efficient. It is sort of a game based on seeing whether you can figure out the next five things that have to happen and then how to get them done, but at the same time working in a way that no one notices you are away from the camera doing them. It’s a hard game, but a good one, when you win. Really anyone can play it, no matter what their crew designation. However, beyond just how you work on set, your workflow with equipment makes a difference.
I’ve always detested the term, “It’s better,” because better isn’t defined. Newer is newer, or as a mechanic once said to me when I asked if the engine rebuild would make it like new, “The only thing like new is new.” When it comes to working on set, part of what gets you re-hired is how smoothly and how fast you work. Got a light package, and one of your stands is a little wonky? Well, any stand can wear out, once. But if you show up next week with the same gear unrepaired, people are going to notice. Sorry, but part of this game really is about maintaining your gear. Sure, if a leg lock on your light stand unexpectedly fails, a piece of gaffer tape may suffice in a pinch, but that just isn’t going to cut it over time. Repair or replace in is order. And, please, let me assure you that it doesn’t matter if you are working for your rate, giving a discount, or donating your time and gear. The gear has got to work; if it doesn’t, no one will care how much of a deal they got on the gear.
This goes the other way, as well. An experienced cast and crew are far more motivated to work on your project than a friend who is helping you out. They will have a better idea of what a set is like and how to cope in our specialized world. I can’t stand working on a project in which the producer has a friend who will “help out,” because it usually turns out that their idea of helping out is watching the movie being made. Or perhaps the producer’s editor wants to be an A.C., but that person isn’t very good or quick. Penny-wise, pound-foolish makes the production life miserable. Be warned—it’s great that production saved a few dollars, but when we don’t get the shots needed, the final film is not so good. When I’m directing, I never want to hear an AD brag about getting out 15 minutes early as if it is a good thing, not when I was rushed and didn’t get the shots I wanted. But that is where my decision to use a friend who wasn’t an AD as an AD came back to haunt me. I’d rather finish right on time, having gotten the shots I want, than be out early without the footage I need.
Be thankful if you never hear this, but you will. Often it is from a producer who doesn’t want to pay the studio/location time while you wrap your gear or download the day’s footage. So what if you are using a USB 2.0 reader or your laptop only has Firewire or USB 2.0? Can you say data bottleneck? Gone are the days of downloading the film or dropping off the tape. If you are downloading the day’s footage and you are on a multi-camera shoot using multiple camera people and their personal gear, now you’ve got three camera people needing the data off their cards and the last one is going to be pretty miffed. That’s okay, though, because you’ve already read this article and have a USB 3.0 card reader and compatible computer or download device, and data bottleneck just isn’t going to happen to you.
Think of a production day like a gas pump: the longer it goes, the more that day costs. Whether it is costing you actual money or you end up having to sacrifice the number of shots and takes you can have. Need to drill down deep into menu systems to format a card for your camera? That takes time. Camera companies listen and release new firmware, not only for new features, but also for speeding up formatting or camera boot times. Big deal, you think? Well, it is a big deal. Save five seconds here, five seconds there, and it adds up. Shave five seconds between each take, and then do five 25-second-long takes. Hey—you’ve just gotten yourself a whole extra take. Gear that works right and a motivated crew can save you time over finicky gear and some people just “helping you out.” And that can be the difference between getting that extra shot or extra take that makes your film. So boot up that camera, build your download station, or stage your gear first thing in the morning, while everyone else is having their egg sandwich breakfast—because during production, time really is more precious than money.