Monday, 1 July 2013

The 4 Things I Learned On Set as an Intern

Here at Swagger, I’ve had the opportunity to be on set numerous times for shoots for different clients. Being an intern, I shared my first real on-set experience with Swagger (my own short “films” don’t count). Being on set has really opened my eyes to the production process, and with my learning curve up in space, I tried to absorb everything I could. By any means, don’t take this as an instructional manual for what to expect on set, for this will hardly prepare you. But here are my most potent observations as I aimlessly wandered around the important people doing their jobs.

     Efficiency is key.

The most important and clear thing I noticed about shooting is efficiency. Despite everyone’s creative passion and willingness to film/act/light/manage audio until his/her last breath, no one wants to be there longer than he/she wants to. 

This sentence won’t feature “/’s,” so I’ll be able to reach my point more directly: preparation for the shoot is almost as important as the execution. Even before being on set, employers and employees alike united as one to create detailed shot lists, down-to-the-minute time blocks for sections of the shoot, and specific settings for the camera equipment they were going to use. Now whether everything goes to plan or not is a whole other can of whatever, but having a schedule can really make a difference between spending three hours on set or an entire week.

Also, communicating with the out-of-house workers makes or breaks a reputation for a firm. Swagger does an excellent job of contacting everyone working on the shoot that isn’t in the office and giving he/she (here I go again) specific instructions for when to be on set and what Swagger is planning to use he/she for. For instance, at one shoot, Swagger planned out a specific time to do voiceovers. That way, the sound man could show up at that time and get his job out of the way, saving him from watching us (them) shoot all day. I highly doubt that every firm is able to manage its time as efficiently.

The director sets the mood on set.

You always hear of famous directors having interesting personalities on set (Woody Allen is quite serious, Steven Spielberg is often the opposite, Terrence Malick is overly melodramatic), but you never understand how that plays out or how that affects the execution of the shoot until you experience it yourself. Our director, although not on the same “fame plane”  (plane as in level, or plane as in airplane, you’ll never know) as the aforementioned, knows how to remain professional but still have some fun with it. When the shoot is getting started, he jokes with the others to illuminate the big schedule ahead. And when we’re in the thick of it and it gets down to brass tacks and the shoot is in it’s most critical moment and everything has led up to this one shot and the workers are hectically preparing their aspect of the scene…. he still jokes around. And this might have a bit more significance than meets the eye.

A scene can really absorb the aura of its surroundings, and if the director is mad or frustrated or apathetic, others in the area will essentially take on a similar vibe. Have you eve been around a guy that is just lively and jokes all the time, and then one day he’s really down? You can’t help but get down as well (not dancing, literally being sad). Sets are run by people, and the energy that someone creates can instantly get passed around. Professionalism with a light-heartedness seems to increase efficiency and make everything go smoother.

Gettin' down.

The script is constantly being polished.

Ever heard about a famous scene that wasn’t written? The scene from Raiders of the Last Ark where Indiana Jones shoots the swordsman after his exceptional display of scimitar mastery is the perfect example. And the funny thing about this is that it happens on nearly every shoot. Swagger brings numerous copies of the shot list and script and constantly revises it as the day proceeds. If there is one thing a screenwriter knows all too well, it’s that something that looks good on paper doesn’t always look good on camera. The important thing is to be flexible, to allow others to make changes and give you notes for the betterment of the entire project. Once again, the trick is to be efficient, so if there is a change that should be made, it should be done quickly so the shot can move on. Before, I thought that whatever you write on the computer was carved in stone by lightning on Mt. Sinai, but this isn’t the case at all. It’s amazing to see a few minds connect/butt heads as they come up with a better way to convey their message on the spot as everyone is watching.

         Lighting is incalculably important.

You’re sitting there going “duhhh,” and I expected that, and I’m one step ahead of you. That’s surely untrue, but I do realize that many have figured this out before me. I always knew that the lighting set the tone and was important, but I had no idea how specifically lights are placed. Maybe it’s Swagger being extremely detailed and never settling for a shot below its potential, but the amount of time that went into lighting exceeded everything.

The most eye-opening realization was that one shadow far upstage in one frame could ruin an entire project. One glare could take away all your attention from the heart of the project. Fixing lights so purposely seems to be a preemptive strike on the evil shadows and dark spots that plague your shot. Getting the light to look natural takes time, but it’s worth every second. So it’s completely necessary to adjust your 1Ks, apples, filters, gels, C-stands, bags, C-clamps, etc. etc. (I just wrote down random things I placed in my short-term memory after hearing them being yelled across a hallway. I assure you I’m not showing off.)  I am getting the hang of the functions of the lighting equipment, however, and this is invaluable knowledge when on set.

I’m extremely dated, but I now feel bad for the lighting man Christian Bale screamed at. It’s OK, my friend, I understand your importance.

Oh, Christian. You did wrong.

In the end, my learning curve is still in orbit, but I couldn’t be more excited about it. These observations are the building blocks of a skill-set that could really help me in my arduous quest to become, I don’t know, something.

 [Editor’s note: Eric just shared his last day on set with us this past Friday and everyone at Swagger would like to say a big thank you for all his hard work and help (and for doing an excellent job of ignoring Angela while she talks to herself at her desk). Best of luck to you, Eric!]

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