I Need to Clean My Brushes

About a year ago a young and stressed makeup artist approached me on the second to last day of a short. She looked simply harassed and terribly unhappy with what was at the time her first or second outing on a film set.  She hadn’t expected the days to be so long, for them to be so stop start, for such early calls or simply the occasional intensity and pace of the job.

‘No one understands,’ she lamented. ‘My day’s not over at wrap time.  When I get home I need to clean my brushes.’

I had no choice but to nod politely and comfort the woman, she was very sweet and she really had worked hard. The reality of the situation is however the same for everyone.  On low budget shoots it’s not unusual for the gaffer to undertake a two hour Panalux run in the morning, then work a twelve hour day and not mention it once.  Or for the art department to put in extra hours at the beginning of the day to finish set dressing. DIT stay late to transfer and back up rushes on location. The director, DP and AD will usually run through things quickly for the next day.  The list goes on.

For myself, I regularly don’t have a second AD so there’s sending out the call sheet out, and writing up the next one.  That can take hours.  As well as getting sides together, finalizing the running order of the shot list if there have been any changes (and there often are) and there’s usually a quick update for the producer or PM in there as well.  All in all, once I’m home I’ll often have two or three hours work before I can even think about bed.  For the record, how much time spent prepping for the next day is often directly linked to how early or late I was brought on a project and the strength of the pre-production period. This is a prime example of why preparation is all and trust me, no one really wants to be on set with a tired and stressed AD who is getting four hours sleep a night trying to lock elements which should have been sorted weeks ago. Aside from the grumpiness factor, it’s genuinely dangerous.

Looking after your kit is important, it’s your livelihood.  I’m sure cleaning the makeup brushes is time consuming and probably does go unrecognised by the rest of the crew, but so do their time sacrifices.  No one’s day truly finishes at wrap time and sometimes that really sucks.  Working in film is an all-encompassing job and you don’t really have the option of going to the theatre after work, or even popping down the pub for last orders.  The sad reality is that if you get to spend an hour with your partner at the end of the day you count yourself lucky.


‘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.  

Wrap Time is Sacred

A gaffer once said those exact words to me and they’ve stuck with me ever since. I had to break the news to the crew that we would be going over wrap time by one hour and check that everyone was alright to stay late.  It had been a long and tough day as it was and we had some tricky days ahead.  The gaffer looked at me with dark puppy dog eyes, the disappointment apparent in his face and simply said quietly ‘Wrap time is sacred.’

He is of course correct. Working on small shoots no one is getting paid over time, it’s a fixed rate for the day, the week or the whole project – if they’re getting anything beyond glorified expenses that is.  The first shoot I worked on where people were being paid anything close to a proper daily rate I was shocked to be presented with a breakdown of what it cost to go over by one hour – and for the first time I really understood why for financial reasons wrap time really is sacred.

But let’s look at the all too common scenario of paying the crew peanuts and then expecting to own them for the duration of the shoot.  There is a common viewpoint from a lot of indie producers and directors who feel that if a crew are working below the standard daily rate, then the production itself can exist outside accepted standards of practice. By which I mean, for example, pushing for less than a twelve hour gap between wrap and call times, ignoring the six hour maximum between meal breaks, trying to pass a turn-around day as a day off, and in short, treating the crew like cattle. Financial penalties don’t exist in this world, so as an AD you’re generally seen to be causing trouble needlessly if you flag up these things.  If people are working on a lower than acceptable rate, it’s even more important to maintain standards.  To recognize that the crew aren’t getting as much out of the project as they should be, and to make sure they’re getting a fair deal in terms of working conditions.  They work really hard and deserve to be treated with respect.

I have upon occasion gone over the wrap time – there’s no way around that sometimes.  However, the most common reason for going over the wrap time is a time wasting director. A director who hasn’t put together a story board, who’s not terribly clear on his shotlist and is constantly changing everything.  Watch this space for a full blog post on this one as it’s one of the single most destructive things anyone could do on a film set and it’s a pet bug bear.

If there will be no financial penalty, it will not span into an unacceptable turnaround time and everyone has been working hard and maintained a good focus; I will be comfortable in running to another hour.  Usually in this situation most people would rather get the shots right than rush them through and not short change themselves on the film’s quality.  If the crew have worked hard and the director has been pissing about, I am very reticent to push the wrap time because I feel the crew aren’t getting anything out of it and are being penalized for someone else’s lack of preparation.

The reality is however, that you often don’t get a choice as a disorganized director usually realizes they are contributing to the problem, which makes them overly emotional and if there’s going to be a tantrum at any point it’s going to be now. Which doesn’t help anyone and generally beats the entire crew into silent submission for the next forty minutes.  So next time you’re asked to stay late with little financial gain, think of that brown eyed gaffer with such sadness in his eyes, trust me he feels your pain and so do I.

The Actress and The AD

Recently I found myself in a particularly unusual situation on set.  I came on board a project very late and while the crew were exceptionally welcoming, I experienced an unusually high level of hostility from the lead actress.  Now and then it happens that you just don’t click with someone and you just have to make the best of it, in this instance it wasn’t even that.   I actually got on fairly well with said actress on a personal level, but now and then she would come out with a very aggressive and snide dig.

On the most basic level she objected to me putting pressure on the wardrobe and make up departments to get the cast on set sooner.  The actress objected to this so strongly that she accused me of picking on the costume girl and using deliberately belittling tactics. Like every AD in the world, occasionally I’ve been accused of being abrupt, or rude or overly pushy – but I’ve never in my life being accused of singling anyone out.  Generally I’m told that I’m pretty fair on set and treat everyone equally.

Most cast at a certain level reach the same conclusion ‘They have a certain amount of my footage in the can so they can’t fire me without costly reshoots.  I can say and do what I want and no one is going to intervene.’  Cast need to maintain good working relations with the director, so it’s not wise to vent frustrations to them.  Taking it out on a runner, gaffer, sound recordist etc. is equally as problematic as the 1st AD may be forced to have a quiet chat. The best person to use as a human punch bag is the 1st AD themselves – the only person left to turn to is the producer and asking them to intervene could be extremely negative to cast performances.

It’s easy to see why cast can get frustrated, they have a really rough ride sometimes, especially on low budget indie projects.  It’s not an easy job and they’re pulled around the set like dolls at times, occasionally treated as little more than a walking prop.  Actresses often wear skimpy dresses for night shoots in sub-zero conditions, and no matter how many warm coats you wrap them in the moment you cut, it doesn’t take away from the inside-out chill that only a hot soak can ever really get out of your system.   It doesn’t help when the DP can’t find the shot and is casually sipping herbal tea in their layers of thermals and their North Face ‘I-work-in-film-don’t-ya-know’ jacket.  Cast regularly hang about because you’re running a ‘little late’ and often don’t even have adequate green room facilities.  I’ve seen costume changes in public loos, the kit truck, in a runner’s car, behind a bush, in the street, you name it.  Cast have to maintain their figure to maintain their livelihood, yet on set catering on a budget is usually pure stodge. Carbs carbs carbs.  They’re cold, uncomfortable, badly fed, rushed and they’re expected to maintain a calm focus and character for The Shot. Let’s not forget The Shot, which is after all the point of the whole endeavour. Working conditions shouldn’t be like this, but the reality is that making a film on a shoe string budget dictates these things. Without a doubt, acting is tough.

So is ADing. Put simply, the role is to deliver the project on time and in budget awkwardly straddling the line between the director and producer.  It wasn’t until the next day that I realised the actress in question only half understood the job.  In one of her little gripes she said she would never presume to pick someone up on their ‘professional  failings, or supposed failings’ and of course we would finish on time that night because ‘that’s your job’.  I suddenly understood why she felt I was picking on the costume and makeup departments.   The actress believed the role of the 1st AD was to stand with a watch saying ‘It’s five o’clock guys! Lets speed things up a bit here’.  It’s not.

The role of the 1st AD is extremely complex and broad and I could talk about it for days.  In order to deliver the project on time you have to manage the crew and run the set so the director can focus solely on the artistic aspects of the production and work with the cast. You plan every moment of the shoot day in advance and make sure everyone is moving towards the same goal. The 1st AD will order the shot list to best utilise the time, reducing the number of setups needed to achieve the shots.  Any changes throughout the day need to be immediately communicated to the cast and crew.  You have to know at every moment what every department is doing and make sure they’re prepping for the next setups. This is achieved by managing the crew, knowing what they need to be doing for the next scene, getting them started and focused on it.  It’s about keeping the energy up, the morale high, playing the peace maker, the disciplinarian, being the protector for cast and crew and being the fall guy when things go wrong.

When I put time pressure on the wardrobe department the lead actress, whose background is predominantly theatre, understood that to be telling them how to do their job.  To be overstepping my mark and in short, she understood my job to be to stand in a corner and simply chime the quarter hours on a loudspeaker.   While it’s true that cast are unlikely to be fired or even reprimanded during the course of a shoot, and the AD department are seen as fairly expendable, it won’t help an actress get cast again. Nothing is more miserable than an entire crew who feel a performer is taking the piss and they have little power to do anything about it.  Directors and producers notice it as much as anyone.