In Part 2 of the film pipeline overview, I discussed the final aspects of production before going on-set. Once you're on set, however, the character of production changes. It becomes much more intense, as there's always a ticking clock. It really is like a second act in that there's an ongoing race against the clock, herculean efforts to overcome obstacles, and rising and falling tension as on-set problems flare-up and are resolved.
It may seem like everything is happening all at once, and that on-set production is total chaos rather than a pipeline. This is only true if you let it get out of hand.
But when you're inexperienced, your production simply will get out of hand at times and you'll just need to get it back on track. To help you do so, it helps to understand what things basically ought to look like if they're going right, so here's an overview of on-set production as a process.
What is especially helpful about this is that while the actual on-set activity may sometimes seem overwhelming and frenzied, when looked at as a process the structure of on-set production is relatively simple. Knowing this pipeline can help you focus and bring things back under control when something goes wrong.
Here is a visual guide to the main (on-set) phase of production, followed by a summary of the process (the parts that weren't already covered in the preproduction article, which are included in the diagram since finishing those tasks likely will carry-on past the production greenlight):
Crew Call; Location, Grip and Lighting Work
The day starts with a crew call. On many sets, the Director and Producer may not even be on set at this point -- particularly if there is a location move involved. The First A.D., Line Producers, Location Manager, Key Grip, and Gaffer are responsible for getting the location moved and equipment ready. Other services, such as portable toilets if needed and craft services, are also expected to arrive early.
The camera crew (often without the D.P.) arrive to start prepping and testing the camera. When the D.P. is scheduled to arrive, the camera crew, grips, and gaffers are expected to be ready to start putting lights and cameras onto the proper grip gear and into position for the first shot of the day. If sets need to be constructed, the Set Foreman heads this up, and the arrival of the Art Director is the cue for set dressing to begin. All the mechanical aspects of prepping the set are expected to more or less be done before the cast arrives.
The Director (and Producer) may choose to oversee any and all of this, of course. It depends on the level of trust you have with your crew. Very experienced Directors with experienced crews, particularly ones they've worked with before, trust everyone to work from the boards, previs, set blueprints, art packets, and so on that the Director has already approved in preproduction -- and the Director makes occasional walkthroughs during initial setup to make sure all is well, or decide on last minute changes when inspiration strikes. Otherwise, the Director focuses on working with the actors (and, if necessary, the writer -- see below).
Script and Storyboard Revisions
On-set script and storyboard revisions happen for one of two reasons: the Director has a flash of inspiration, or disaster has struck. In the former case, it is dependent upon the Director's personality (and the extent of the change) whether to bother with script and board changes or to just give verbal adjustments to the cast and crew.
In the case of disaster -- whether it's a scene or sequence that just isn't working, a cast member has quit (or, God forbid, become too sick to work or passed away), or the production has fallen so far behind schedule that major portions of the script need to start getting cut -- it is best for all involved to get the changes down. It will help mitigate the chaos of the disaster, and the comfort of seeing the changes committed to paper will enable you to more easily get back on track.
Cast Call and Cast-Director Check-in
By the time the cast is scheduled to arrive, the set is expected to be ready for them. The First A.D. and Production Assistants will check the arrival of the cast, make sure they get call sheets, answer questions, bring them water and snacks, and generally get them settled-in before the Director arrives to go over the day's shooting.
Not all sets bother to (or can afford to) give the cast and Director time before the shooting starts, but if you can make it happen, it's a great idea. It allows the cast to ask questions and give suggestions to the Director in a more intimate environment. Some actors don't feel comfortable either seeming to need help, or giving suggestions to (or being critical of) the Director, in front everyone. Time spent alone can enable a freer exchange of ideas, and help diffuse potential issues before they become a big deal.
Wardrobe, Hair and Make-Up
Once a cast member is on-set and informed of the day's work, they will get their hair and make-up done, and wardrobe fitted. This may happen before or after the Director check-in, and if the preparations are especially complicated (which may be the case for special effects make-up or elaborate period costumes), the cast call may be at exactly the same time as the crew call (unless, of course, a location move has happened and the wardrobe, hair and make-up trailers or rooms are being prepped), and the actors may be in wardrobe, hair and make-up the whole time the technical set-up is happening.
Before the cameras roll, five main things happen:
Lights (1), Camera (2), and Grip gear (3) are set-up. For the first shot, things are supposed to be pretty close when the cast arrives, but the D.P. still needs to visually inspect the shot with the actual cast in-place, take light readings, and make any necessary adjustments to the lighting and camera rigs before shooting. When a new shot is started, things may change radically. This is when the cast and many other members of the crew get a break (or, in the case of the cast or a crew lead who needs Directorial input, perhaps go talk with the Director) as the camera crew, gaffers and grips work fast and furious to get the next shot ready.
Sound gear is set-up (4). This basically consists of the boom operator getting into proper position, and the sound recordist doing level checks. To make this work as it should, the boom operator has been in rehearsals with the cast, is present for all on-set warm-ups, and gets informed of any updates to dialog and timing. If that's happening, an experienced boom operator can get set-up without having to ask for run-throughs before the actual shooting.
All the parts of this set-up that requires interaction with the cast are expected to happen very quickly, so the cast spends minimal time worrying about technical issues and maximal time acting.
Shot Direction is given (5). Once the set-up is finished, the Director gives the final directions to the cast and crew. If it's not the first take, then refinement directions are given -- or the call is made that a good take has been achieved and it's time to move on to the next shot.
Once all the set-up is done, and Direction given, the First A.D. calls "action". Then the cameras roll, almost always for a very short period of time, and then the Director calls "cut". That's it. You just shot a take. This process happens again and again until the shooting day is done.
In between takes, it's just the Director giving direction and occasional technical tweaks (and/or touch-up on wardrobe, hair and make-up). In between shots, it's just somewhat longer versions of the same thing. Sure, throughout the day there are meal and restroom breaks, longer set-ups during which some people get to take a break, and so on -- but a shooting day is basically this over and over again: technical set-up / adjustment, cast and crew direction given, and roll cameras.
Once you've done that for as many days as scheduled for shooting the entire film -- have a wrap party, because now you're ready to go into post production.
NOTE: Animation has a much different production pipeline, which I have written about in the Visual Effects Society Handbook of Visual Effects. Future articles will cover some of that material, but this series is about live action production.