SETTING UP THE FIRST SHOT

[Filmmaking A to Z by Vic Alexander]

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(This is an excerpt from my book on filmmaking.)

This chapter from my book on independent filmmaking applies more to filmmaking than to videography and digital movie-making. However, some of the techniques might be applicable to both film and video.

The first shot is important because the protocol you establish with it may last you the entire production, with surprising effect on the workings of the set and the ultimate completion of your film.

Get the right actors into make-up first. You donít want them doing an actor who wonít be performing their first scene before the afternoon. Donít do the star just because somebody wants to make a good impression and maybe line up another job for themselves.

Do the first actors that will go before the camera first thing. If one actor takes longer to do, say half an hour, or if itís a prosthetic or whatever, do that first.

Donít get me wrong, if your "star" is in your first scene, obviously do them first!

Then after the make-upís done call the actors to do the first shot.

Make sure you pick an "easy shot" to do first. Donít pick a Master Shot. It might take you all day to rehearse and set it up!

The idea is to get your first shot in the can within the first fifteen minutes of the shooting day!

If youíre directing a TV show and you donít get the first shot within the first fifteen minutes youíre going to get fired! Okay, donít believe me; but, I warned you!

You say, "I thought we were talking film, whatís this with directing TV?" Youíre right, good point. But remember, if you discipline yourself, youíll do better, youíll set a high standard for everybody and things will go smoothly for you on the whole.

Letís say you have a big scene with many actors, a helicopter will land, somebody will get off and a dialogue scene will ensue between two actors. You start by setting up the two-shot (both actors in a medium shot -- approximately waist-high.) You get some dust and wind blowing at your actors (youíll add the sound of the helicopter later!) and you call for a rehearsal of the scene.

Your actors come out of their air-conditioned, dressing room trailers (or out of their beat-up Volkswagen bus) all made-up and ready. You greet them warmly and you ask them to do their lines.

You donít tell them how to do their lines! You let them do their lines the way they came up with them after sweating on them for hours the night before (hopefully not together, right?)

If theyíre worth their salt as actors, theyíre going to give you a pretty good reading on the first day. Establish your authority quickly: "That was great! Letís do it over again for sound." Turn to your camera crew and sound crew, "Okay, letís do a walk through of the scene."

You excuse yourself from your actors. Walk over to your DP and indicate were the camera goes. Ask the sound person if he or she needs a "level" (sound level reading on the Nagra.)

Walk back to your actors. "Letís walk the scene through for the camera crew, they need to set focus. The helicopter will land over there. You guys come out and walk off to this area where weíre standing now." (The Second Camera Assistant will set marks in the dirt for them later. Theyíll proceed to those marks and do the dialogue. The camera will follow their predictable path and maintain a smooth pan or dolly without hesitation and jerkiness of movement in the frame.)

Youíll walk them into the scene, as camera and sound crews take note. Then call for a rehearsal, "Okay, this is a rehearsal, and action!" You always say "And action" because you want to impress everyone that youíve done this before -- just kidding -- because you want to be sensitive towards actors nervousness about beginning a take; so you give them a momentís notice before you call "action." In some instances you can caress them with the "And." "Aaaaaand, action." Certainly you donít want to yell in some actorís ear when they least expect it, "Action!" Make them jump out of their skin and they might punch you! Be sensitive, use psychology, love your actors or just be nice -- itíll make you a better Director.

Weíll talk about this a little later; but, believe me actors are more nervous than crew members, even when theyíre a lot more experienced, because itís they who are on the screen for millions to see. What you do as a crew person is not immediately visible to the audience. Actors sense that and have to be treated differently on the set, especially when the cameras are rolling.

When the camera and the mic are in place, go over to the camera and look through the eyepiece and call for another rehearsal. Call "Action." Follow the scene carefully. If itís at all acceptable, shoot it! Donít hesitate, fret or try to make it perfect -- just shoot it! Say, "All right letís do a take." Or, "Letís give it a whirl." Or, "Letís roll the cameras." Or, whatever you like.

Stand to the right of the camera. The Focus Puller will be standing to the left of it. The focusing knob and all his readouts are usually on that side. "Are we ready ... aaaaand action!" Ah! Itís magic! Your first shot!

You picked an easy shot -- just a few lines of dialogue, hopefully, and youíve pulled it off. At the end of the line yell, "Cut and print!" and walk over to your actors with a smile, "That was great!" Give them a hug. Kiss them.

I know, I know, there are exceptions to the above, for example if youíre working with a beautiful actress with a full figure, shall we say, and you throw your arms around her -- after the first take no less .... Just be enthusiastic and show some appreciation.

Youíre not looking for a sexual harassment suit, are you? (Oh, she doesnít mind? Oh, okay then ... but, hereís a tip: if youíre going to be European about it and all, then you gonna have to hug everybody, all the time; I mean, are you prepared to go on like that, itís very time consuming and youíre on low budget, get my drift?)

If there was a small mistake in the take, whether a missed word or a technical problem, donít make a fuss. Itís a two-shot you can do it another time. You can do it after youíve shot the helicopter scene. Maybe it will even look better when the terrain looks a little more natural in the background after a copter has landed and so on.

For now itís important that youíve put your first shot in the can within the first fifteen minutes! Later, you might use the Master or an over-the-shoulder or some other shot, donít worry about the technical quality of the first shot, just do it for establishing a sense of confidence in the workings of your production, for yourself and everyone else concerned.

Of course, if the first take is botched from the get-go, call "Cut" immediately and set to shoot again quickly, in order to achieve the exact same end. You donít want to say, "Great, print it!" if the take is obviously screwed up. Only a moron would do that, and weíre not morons here, are we?

All right then, the first shot you choose to do in your first fifteen minutes as Director is the most important shot of the production, so donít make it hard on yourself and everyone else. I canít foresee any shooting schedule that wonít allow you to do that.

As a rule orchestrate everything so that all the departments can feel a sense of confidence in what theyíre about to undertake.

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