Best and Worst of Location Shoots

My two weeks of taking on the responsibilities of a producer for two weeks on location are over, and I’ve recovered with a nice week of holiday. Restored and ready to write this blog, I’d like to share with you the best and worst of my producing adventure!

First up, location shoots seem to be 50% standing around watching the action, 40% carrying kit, and 10% frantically sorting out emergencies.

The best part of filming was how the whole team became a little family by the end. Our crew of seven was spending up to 16 hours a day together, day in, day out, for a week. We supported each other through intense heat, hunger, tiredness, long drives and stress. The bonds created between crews are strong and happy ones, connections I hope to maintain for the rest of my career.

The worst part of filming was the lack of sleep. We were working 12 hour days, but that’s not including the evening meal and then the backing up and tidying away of kit and getting everything ready for the next day. I had on average 5 hours sleep a night. That was really tough, and by the end of the first week, the heat and the sleep deprivation really got to me and I started feeling very sick. But I’ve learned from that – I need to manage my sleep better, and become more efficient at backing up the day’s rushes and prepping the shoot materials.

All in all, I’ve come away from the experience having learned a lot, and I know I’ll feel a lot more confident when the next opportunity comes up!

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Best and Worst of Location Shoots

Controlling a Shoot

What a busy fortnight of filming! In the last two weeks of my contract with the BBC, we packed in our four one-day shoots for each of our films, and, as ever, it was all rather hectic. But over the course of the shoots I worked out that you can never plan too much! So here is what I think would be a good way to plan shoots for whichever happens to be my next project. The plan I lay out below may feel rather overkill, and it may seem to encroach on the director’s responsibilities, but in my opinion it’s better to have the plan prepared in your back pocket than to leave it to someone else for fear of encroaching on their remit, only to find that there is no plan.

If you are a researcher or AP working on small scale productions, in an intense dual partnership with a director, your director will thank you when you have all the crucial information at your fingertips – even if it’s as basic as knowing where the nearest ATM is.

On a shoot, you will have a balance of controllables and uncontrollables. Controllables are pretty self-explanatory, but uncontrollables include things like the weather, train delays, traffic (not only of cars, but also pedestrian traffic) and noise. As I’m sure you can draw from that, it means that outdoor shoots tend to have more uncontrollables, and need even more planning.

So here is what I hope will be a useful checklist to make sure that everything is covered for shoots.

  • Are all the locations set up? Location release forms signed?
  • Are your contributors prepared? Has their transport been arranged for them?
  • Have you bought any props you need?
  • Is your presenter prepared with any background info? Has their travel been arranged for them?
  • Have you printed off copies of the script for everyone? Has it been signed off and approved? Have you got separate documents for your interviewees with their questions, and a separate document with the pieces to camera?
  • What tech do you need? What is your cameraman bringing? Are you prepared with the right stock (SD/CF/SxS cards etc. – different cameras need different ‘stock’)? Have you got a safe place to put the rushes afterwards, and something with which to label each roll?
  • Prepare a rough schedule for the call sheet, then a very detailed schedule for your own personal use. In the detailed schedule, mark out what everyone should be doing at each point, and what needs to be being prepared for the next bit of the shoot.
  • What are your Plan Bs for the uncontrollables? E.g. wet weather alternatives, sound checks for planes.
  • Have you got spare release forms?

“’Assume’ is the mother of all screw-ups” – David Gilbert, Executive Producer, Factual Entertainment. This is so true. Even if it seems like a stupid question, ask it. It might just be the crucial question, and it’s always better to double check. Better to be a little bit annoying than suddenly discover that no one has brought a boom pole…

I noticed that often the annoying noise that crept into the sound recording was the rustling of various bits of paper that the crew were holding – scripts, call sheets etc. It would be handy to have all the documents in both paper form and on an iPad, so that they can be consulted silently.

It might even be handy to create a Master Document, dictated by the schedule, so each location has next to it the detailed schedule, the script for that sequence and the shot list, all in one easy-to-read table. I think I’ll give one a go for the next shoot and see how convenient it is! If any of you readers have the chance to try this system out before me, let me know how it goes.

Controlling a Shoot

On Location

The production I’m currently working on involves shoots in six different countries. And most of my job involves setting up the logistics for the filming out there. So as I’ve been working on it, I’ve boiled down most of my organisation to a checklist of things you need to sort out when setting up a shoot abroad:

  • Flights
    • What are the best deals?
    • How much does extra baggage cost, for all the filming equipment?
    • How much would it cost to change the flights once you’ve booked them (almost inevitable!)
  • Geography
    • Where is everything/everyone you’re trying to film? If they’re all really far away from each other, you’re going to have to think about how to get between them and how much time out of your shoot days that will take.
  • Transport
    • Do you need a driver or a hire car?
    • How do you know they’re reliable?
  • Accommodation
    • Where is your crew going to stay? Does the hotel have free WiFi for communication and for ease of uploading footage?
    • Again, where is the accommodation? Is it conveniently located for what you’re planning to film?
  • What’s the weather going to be like? Any considerations we have to take into account, such as monsoon season?
  • What’s the filming itinerary?
  • What filming permits are needed?
  • What inoculations are needed?

Most of the time you’ll have a native ‘fixer’ to help you with these things, and one advantage of documentaries is they may be so invested in the value of the documentary you’re making they might do it for free, or for very little. Basically it’s like planning a ridiculously organised holiday – for someone else! If anything goes wrong, it always has a knock on financial implication, so the more carefully you can plan, the more money you save. And with TV budgets gradually getting squeezed tighter and tighter, especially for documentaries, this is becoming much, much more crucial.

On Location