Lessons Learned on a Film Set

Earlier this week I had the privilege of helping on set for the film Anomaly. There is an incredible lineup of talented filmmakers involved in this project, so it was an honor for me to be a part of it. To date it’s the biggest production I’ve worked on, so there was a lot to learn. As usual I took notes in my Moleskine of the things I observed every day.

AnomalyOn-set

MORALE

  • Play music whenever possible. Setting up a scene can take an extraordinary amount of time and energy. A simple iPod dock can do wonders for the morale. In my opinion the only time a film set should be silent is while the camera is rolling.
  • There is an ebb and flow to busyness. It doesn’t matter if you’re the director or a Production Assistant (PA) there will be times when you’ve got a lot to do, and there will be times when you don’t need to do anything. Realizing this is essential to staying motivated. Nobody can run at full throttle for 14 hours of being on set. I’m a firm believer in finding work and doing it without being asked, but it’s important for everyone to realize that there is a time to chill and a time to bust your butt.
  • Don’t waste time on things that don’t save time or affect the look of the final picture. Some mid-level crew members, in an attempt to impress others or satisfy a need to delegate, will find and assign needless work to those below them. One of the things I learned years ago while studying 3D animation is to never do work that won’t affect the final render; the same is true for a film crew. If you’re in a position of leadership filter all of your delegated tasks through those two priorities: will it save time? will it affect the final picture? Working on something meaningless is a sure way to kill morale.
  • Instill hope at every turn. There are hundreds of things that can and will go wrong on set. Stay positive and solve problems with everything you’ve got. This rule also applies to leaders encouraging their crew. Inspire your crew, and watch them move mountains for you again and again.

LOGISTICS

  • Bring twice as much water as you think you need. Include a variety of salty and sweet snacks. Don’t skimp on lunch (time or substance). To paraphrase The Art of War, “Feed your troops and rest them well, and they will fight for you.”
  • Create a phone charging station. Get one of those fancy power strips with both AC and USB outlets and bring a couple extra cables so the cast and crew can charge up.
  • Wear cargo pants. The more pockets you have to keep things organized the easier it is to juggle multiple tasks.
  • Don’t forget about continuity. At very least assign a PA the task of watching for continuity from one take to the next. This is one of the most overlooked roles on set, but it stands out like an elephant in the editing room.

HIERARCHY

  • Humility and approachability are key. There is a tendency to think that a director has to run over people to get his way, but I’ve witnessed the opposite to be true. The less you distance yourself above people the more they are willing to work for you. The more a director feels like a real person the more inspirational he is.
  • Establish roles and responsibilities before production. Treat it like a business and assign/hire the right people for each task. Don’t assume that certain things will just happen.
  • A production coordinator is golden. This is the person who should know all the logistical answers and be able to make up solutions on the spot.
  • Filter expectations throughout the team hierarchy. There should be consistent priorities that trickle down from the director. He communicates to those working directly under him and so on. Everyone on set should know what the end goal is and determine how their task fits into that goal.
  • Climbing the industry ladder is the long way to the top. Rarely will you find someone who aspires to be a PA or an extra. Usually everyone on set wants to be a director, lead actor, cinematographer, or someone else “important.” There is certainly much to be learned from others, but you will learn far more if you jump in and begin with what you love. If you want to be a director then find a story and direct it. Build a team around you, and do it now. Don’t wait for the next project to start and hope for a better job. Create your own destiny and step into it. You will naturally attract an eager crew with equal or less experience. The better you get, the more people who will want to work with you. Build the ladder under you and let others climb on.
  • Submit to the authority above you. In an ideal case you will sign up for the job because you know and respect those you are working with. If you find yourself in a crappy situation (whether that’s doing work you don’t want to do, or being treated like an inferior, etc.) grit you teeth and learn your lesson. You’ve already agreed to help, so don’t go back on your word now. Stick it out and make a mental note of what you will do differently next time.

PERSONAL

  • I don’t like having a boss. I’ve always been a self-starter. I love to collaborate and work with clients, but I can’t stand being told what to do or how to do it.
  • Ask a boatload of questions. Use every opportunity to learn. No one expects a PA to know anything, so there’s virtually no risk of feeling stupid.

I owe a special shout out to my friend Wes Curtis who gave me the opportunity to be a part of this film. I’m so grateful for the experience.

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