‘I like to keep it a bit loose when it comes to shotlists.’

‘When can I get the shotlist?’

‘I like to keep it a bit loose when it comes to shotlists.’

Go home.  You are wasting everyone’s time.

We’ve all had this, a director who forever delays the shotlist. Or worse still, an overly indulgent producer who rolls their eyes with a smile and says, ‘Richards not hot on shotlists, but he’s very talented’.  The conversation generally ends with a gentle ‘I’ll see what I can do to hurry him along,’ as if they’ve kindly agreed to donate their first born’s kidney to the AD department. 

Let’s not lose sight of the goal here folks.  We’re here to make a film. A good quality film at that. First and foremost you are here to tell a story – the set, costume, cast, makeup, sound and cinematography are here to aid that. Every film lives and dies by what you see and hear on the screen.  The director needs to be completely clear on the vision and the best way of doing this is to create a story board – there’s really no excuse not to do one.  Work it backwards and voila you have your shots.  The director who talks big but won’t provide a shot list is akin to a writer who, in the synopsis, describes a character as ‘sharp, witty and cutting’ but doesn’t write their dialogue or action to reflect that.

So let me break down why the shotlist is so important. The golden rule here is ‘No one can effectively prep for something they don’t know exists.’  This is the same all across the board, for every department.

Let me give you a hypothetical example.  Make up are told they have 40 undead extras to get through, but they’ll all be seen from behind in a wide shot only, being led away from the main action.  The makeup department will need a good bit of time with those extras and will follow that brief – not working the face itself to a particularly fine detail.  Let’s say you get the extras on set and take the shot, at which point the director decides he wants to see the reverse. All forty of their faces will be seen but he simply must have that shot.  Suddenly you have a massive problem.  Make up doesn’t have enough putty to build up certain features on their zombified faces. Every zombie we’ve seen on screen so far is wearing contact lenses and makeup didn’t order an additional forty pairs, because they didn’t know they needed them.  Even if they had, forty additional pairs of contact lenses aren’t factored into the budget.  Nor is the additional putty. Had they known their faces would be seen, makeup would have got an army of dailies in and they would still have been getting them through makeup since dawn.  The number of makeup dailies the budget could stretch to would affect the speed of getting the cast through makeup, and would subsequently affect how late the scene would be scheduled in the day.  Chances are costume aren’t happy about this sudden turn of events either and the DP will already be telling you just how long they need to do the massive lighting reset for the new setup.

Needless to say the suggested shot will probably be subject to a ten minute discussion, then massively simplified to see maybe three zombies from the front, or dismissed as entirely unfeasible.  This is an extreme situation but it’s a good illustration of a typical problem.  The director’s refusal to commit to the shotlist has made a simple shot unworkable, or he has to compromise on it.  Had the shotlist been adequately worked out, it could have been properly prepped for and they could have had the shot. The person who really loses out here is the director.

Next on the list of problems is scheduling. The director who won’t provide a shotlist leaves the AD in the awkward land of guess work.  Lets say I estimate that two people chatting across a table will be a fairly unadventurous five shot setup, plus cutaways; a wide, two over the shoulders and two close ups.  So I’ll schedule that accordingly in terms of time given to the scene. Once on set it turns out the director wants an additional four shots – this time we have everything we need for them, but we’re bang on schedule and two are complex setups.  This is going to set us back significantly.

Cast for the next scene have already been through makeup and are going through costume as we speak. The additional shots will push their scene until after lunch, which means they could have had a later call time.  One of the cast for the scene following that one has absolutely one hundred per cent got to be off set by 4pm, and there’s a sudden danger you won’t get both scenes by that time.  So you have to swap the running order of the next two scenes.  Everyone has been prepping for a different running order and now there’s a dash to get everything ready for the later scene.  The actress whose scene was supposed to be finished before lunch is not particularly happy as she’s just been told we’ll be with her at about 4pm now, but at least it means we can get both the scenes.  A few extra shots can really mess things up, and if that happens consistently you will be dropping scenes daily.

Now seems like a good time to highlight a secondary problem; the director who proudly sends through the shotlist (or a vastly updated one) at 1am, for an 8am call time.  This is better than no shotlist, but not by a huge amount.  First of all you can bet the 1st AD won’t go to sleep that night, or if they do it will merely be for an hour or two.  Our work starts with the shotlist and it takes a long time to carefully order it to maximise the shoot time. It may involve a change in the timings for each scene depending on the number of setups, and subsequently the running order, which in turn can affect the cast call times.  By the time you work all this out it’s 4am – you have cast called for 9am and they’re boarding a 6am train to get to location, they will not be happy with a last minute change – and how do you ensure they get the message in time? Generally it’s best at that point to leave everything the way it is and try to rejig the timings as best you can around the current call times.  Trust is an important thing and you don’t want cast and crew to feel they need to check their email before they leave the house every day.

The biggest reason directors are reluctant to lock a shotlist is because they feel it’s going to restrict their creativity in some way. Frankly, this is a load of codswallop.  If you have a clear and locked shotlist, the AD department can actually do their job.  They can keep everyone posted on where you are in terms of the scene, how long roughly until the next setup, how long until the unit move, how long until a particular cast member is required back on set and keep everyone moving.  Everyone can continue to effectively prep for the scenes later in the day and the whole ship becomes beautifully streamlined.  The shots which have previously been like pulling teeth, suddenly roll out nice and smoothly and everything speeds up.  An extraordinary thing happens at this point – everyone’s in a really good mood and there’s an air of quiet concentration.  Everyone’s thinking about one thing, The Shot.  Rather than being restrictive, the well planned shotlist has sped everything up and there’s time to work properly with the cast. Often you find so much time has been freed up that the director can have a couple of impromptu wish list shots, because we’re ahead of schedule.  

The bottom line is, filming is just too expensive to be stopping for long, protracted conversations to work out your shots on the day.  As a director, do you want to have a long discussion between the DP, AD and script supervisor about how to re-establish the line of action in a particular scene? Or would you prefer to be working with the cast while the shot is being set up for you?  You can almost hear the money pouring down the drain in the background, for a decision which should have been made three weeks ago. The director who’s reluctant to commit to his shotlist ends up making a lot of compromised decisions on the spur of the moment because the clock is ticking and the pressure is on.  Of course you’re going to need to talk through the shots on the days, that’s a given, but those conversations need to be about framing and action, not about whether or not you’re going to get in on the dolly, or which direction you’re going to shoot. There is always going to be the odd moment where an additional shot is genuinely needed, or you find two shots can actually be rolled into one and that’s ok – but it needs to be the exception and not the rule.  

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10 thoughts on “‘I like to keep it a bit loose when it comes to shotlists.’

  1. This is a very well written and insightful blog. Thank you for following me, and I am looking forward to more behind-the-scenes insights to an art form that I am most interested in.

  2. Sorry for the long comment. I am a indie producer who has been down this long and painful road and I agree with every point you make here. In fact one of the best things a novice director can do is to talk with an experience AD and get his/her head on straight. I would add that shot sheets and story boards allow the creative team to think and plan with clear, well-rested brains. Always a plus.

    I once worked with a director and in our first meeting said that the only requirement I had was that he prepare shot sheets and storyboards. Although he agreed, he later on chose to dispense with both, his rationale being that if a single shot or a single sketch was discarded or otherwise unused, it would “completely ruin everything” and besides, he intended to “follow the script.” When it was pointed out that were screenwriters to operate that way no scripts would ever be written, he replied “Oh, those are just words.”

    The first shot of the first day was short and simple: an actor walking into the frame, pausing and continuing on. No dialogue, no sound, the camera locked down. A sixth of a page – at most, 10 seconds of screen time, but it was his first shot so we gave him an hour. It took over four, and nearly five days to recover from the delay, as he struggled to collect his thoughts, find his shots and remember where he was in the story.

    As i noted, he had initially given his word that he would prepare adequately and then did not. My advice to anyone in a similar situation is to walk away. It is simply not worth the trouble.

    • Hi Heidi, thanks for your feedback. That really sounds like disaster territory, what a nightmare! Not having a shotlist, or a reluctance to stick to it is simply the most damaging thing any director can do and it just wastes so much money, which is always so stretched as it is. Preparation is definitely the key to eeking out every penny for the best finished product.

      • Yes, and did you see that Jim Jarmusch thing that was floating around last week? All about he doesn’t prepare, blah, blah. People that say that sort of thing are like the kids in school who pretended that they didn’t study.

  3. Great post and great blog!

    I had a director tell me in the interview that he had the entire film pre-vis’d in a 3D programme so we were going to be able to shoot very quickly and really push the pace. Turns out, that wasn’t exactly true and in fact I had to make the first hour of every day of the shoot be his alone time so he could write the shots for the day. Crew all got a lovely long breakfast every day, so they didn’t complain, but it was a pain in the butt!

    I’m now in pre-pro for a shoot for September and we’re prepping the fight scenes by shooting them on video first so we have a moving storyboard. Makes me feel just a little bit calmer.

  4. Hi TheJackdaw! Thanks for your feedback- that sounds like my worst nightmare. A moving storyboard sounds pretty amazing – let me know how it goes and if they stick to it.

  5. So true Heidi. I think a lot of directors think it sounds better in some way. It’s quite selfish in a sense, as it means that crew are sometimes forced to put their name to something that isn’t up to their usual standard.

    • There’s definitely some very “romantic” notions about directorial inspiration that many people buy into, treating apreparation and organization as if they are for plodders and people with no imagination. in truth, those who prepare know that in doing so they have free their own and everyone’s imaginations.

      What are you going to blog about next?

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