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What Happens During Principal Photography?

What Happens During Principal Photography?

When the Actors are on set and the cameras are rolling, you are in principal photography. It is often referred to as production, which separates this time period from pre-production and post-production. This is the time that most scenes get shot and the entire crew is focused on shooting the movie. While the Director works with the main crew, there is sometimes a second unit shooting simultaneously, catching pieces of the film in order to making shooting more efficient.

Now, you might notice I wrote most scenes. While there are Producers who can claim to be the greatest schedulers on the planet, there are a variety of reasons why you might not get everything you need in principal photography. It has nothing to do with the quality of scheduling and everything to do with the nature of the filmmaking beast.

In order to understand principal photography, it will help to put it in context. So let’s look at how departments prep for production and what they do during production.

As we explore the topic of principal photography, we’ll discuss:

  1. What happens before principal photography?
  2. Day-to-day during principal photography
  3. Second unit
  4. What does the Editor do during principal photography?
  5. Pickups
  6. Reshoots
  7. Rescheduling

What Happens Before Principal Photography

Pre-production covers everything leading up to the film shoot, from hiring the crew to finding the locations. Once all of that is secured, you move into prep. This is the time period is which every department has consulted and collaborated with the Director and is in the practical phase of preparation. All the costumes and all the elements of production design are mobilized and staged for the shoot. There might be camera tests, workflow tests, makeup tests – all the things that could go wrong are tested to make sure things run smoothly during principal photography. During prep, the Director will create a shot list or storyboards and may also have the opportunity to rehearse with the Actors.

The Assistant Director (AD) is the one who handles most of the scheduling logistics and creates the call sheet that tells everyone when to be on set and where to go. The call sheet has a lot of important information. It tells you what scenes are going to be shot that day, who will be on set, including Actors and crew, along with contact information and other resources. It’s essentially a roadmap of each day during principal photography for the main unit and often has sides attached to it. Sides are the pages of the script that will be shot that day.

After principal photography, there are a few reasons a production might have to roll cameras again. Reshoots, rescheduling and pickups are all a part of the process, but some of them should be avoided.

Day-to-Day During Principal Photography

The main unit is the crew on set with the Director, working with the lead Actors, shooting each scene of the script while the AD runs the set and keeps everyone on schedule. Though the call sheet has all the scenes to be shot, it does not break it down into coverage – that is, the various shots it will take to complete a scene — so the AD keeps track of the shot list to make sure that the Director doesn’t get hung up on a particular scene and fall behind schedule. The rest of the crew is in constant motion, making sure all props are available, the sets are dressed and that from scene to scene, things move smoothly and efficiently.

The first day (well, sometimes even the first week) of a shoot can be quite stressful and there is usually a period of adjustment to get the kinks out. From getting everyone to set to wrapping up at the end of the day, there are a lot of things that can fall through the cracks.

Each day ends with the relief that everything the crew set out to capture is in the can. While the Directors and the Actors go home to prep for the next day, the rest of the crew stays behind to wrap (put away equipment, secure it, etc) and one important person, usually a Production Assistant has to get all the paperwork (called the football) back to the production office, and the film, (or camera cards these days) back to the lab so it can be processed for the Editor. Once the equipment is put away and the film is on the road to processing, everyone can go home and get a good night’s sleep to prepare for the next day. Except for the AD, who is probably still working on the call sheet. So, stay awake until you get it!

Second Unit

The second unit is a separate crew that shoots scenes or parts of scenes that don’t require the main cast. They can be establishing shots or inserts and sometimes even stunts. The second unit will have its own Director and Cinematographer, but the Second Unit Director is hired to fulfill the vision of the Director of the entire production and will want to match the look and the feel of the main unit because this footage will be cut together with what the main unit is shooting. You may also hear the term splinter unit. A splinter unit is usually a few members of the camera department who split off to grab shots while the main unit is shooting without a dedicated Director.

What Does the Editor Do During Principal Photography?

Most Editors are hired for principal photography because it’s better to know while you are still shooting if the coverage is working. The Editor is a very important member of the crew and the Script Supervisor takes notes on set to keep her in the loop. An Editor will usually get the footage within a day or two of each shoot day and will start editing the picture together. If the Editor feels like there is something missing, she can consult with the Director to see if they can get it added to the schedule. This can be inserts or other shots that help the scene tell the story better. Depending on how critical the needs are, an Editor will usually build a list and keep track of the shooting schedule to make sure that any shots that are needed can be grabbed before moving to a new location.

Editorial is often referred to as the last rewrite of the script. This is when you discover what worked on paper doesn’t necessarily make as much sense on the screen. Or perhaps test audiences asked consistently for something that wasn’t there.

Pickups, Reshoots and Rescheduling

After principal photography, there are a few reasons a production might have to roll cameras again. Reshoots, rescheduling, and pickups are all a part of the process, but some of them should be avoided.

Reshoots

Reshoots can happen for a number of technical reasons or they can happen for creative reasons. A camera can malfunction or footage can get corrupted, but many times it can be a creative move by the Director and the Producers if they feel an Actor’s performance could be adjusted to tell the story better, or if the coverage just doesn’t work in the cutting room. For example “a one shot scene” (a one-er) may seem like a good idea during conception, but playing out on screen it might not feed the pace of the film. This is not an amateur mistake. Many experienced Directors have to reshoot. In fact, a good Director will recognize a problem so they can solve it and tell the story right.

Rescheduling

Rescheduling usually involves shots or scenes that were initially on the schedule for principal photography. This can happen due to weather or the loss of a location or Actor. What you don’t want is that it happen because you fell behind schedule. Things that are rescheduled can be lumped into another week of principal photography (adding to the load of another day), or sometimes it’s a day (or whatever it takes) tacked onto principal photography.

Pickups

Pickups are very common and usually worked into the budget. Pickups are usually shot after the film is assembled in post and the Director and the Producers feel that another scene or a series of shots would clarify important story information.

Editorial is often referred to as the last rewrite of the script. This is when you discover what worked on paper doesn’t necessarily make as much sense on the screen. Or perhaps test audiences asked consistently for something that wasn’t there. This is when the Editor, the Director and Writer put their heads together to fill in the blanks, so the Producer can schedule a pickup shoot. This requires getting the camera, a crew and the Actors back on set. Sometimes it’s just as simple as grabbing exteriors to add more texture to the film.

Did you know?

Time on set can be expensive! An average studio picture can cost $500,000 a day! Break that down into a ten-hour day, that’s $50,000 an hour and $833 a minute! (1) That’s why prep is so important. You come to set unprepared, it’s going to cost the production and it could also cost you your career. Remember this even if you’re a Production Assistant. I know a guy who took his dear time coming back from the store with an emergency prop and he was sent home the minute he got back (late!) Time really is money.

In the original cut of ET: The Extraterrestrial, ET dies! Test audiences couldn’t stand the thought of the cute little alien dying, so Steven Spielberg had to shoot new scenes to change the end of the film.

Michael J. Fox wasn’t the first choice for the lead in Back to the Future! After four weeks of shooting, the studio and Robert Zemeckis realized that the Actor they had playing the lead, Eric Stolz — although a great Actor — didn’t have the comedic timing they needed. They recast Michael J. Fox in the role and had to reshoot all those weeks!

1. The Movie Business Book, Edited by Jason E. Squire

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Above the Line Film Roles

Above the Line Film Roles

There are seemingly countless roles on a film shoot and they are divided into two basic (and I mean basic) categories: “above the line” and “below the line.” However, where is “the line”? The line is on the top page of a feature film budget on which certain “above the line” positions and “below the line” positions add up to equal total costs for specific roles divided into those categories. The “line” literally divides roles often considered part of the development and execution of the creative aspect of filmmaking from the roles typically responsible for the craft of filmmaking. “Above the line” items show who and what is necessary before principal photography begins. However, whether above the line or below the line, positions on a film should not be necessarily considered more important than others. I’ve worked with Production Assistants who helped accomplish tasks on a film more effectively than some Producers. So, the division of “above the line” and “below the line” is budgetary.

In this article, I will detail some specific and agreed-upon above the line roles including:

  1. Executive Producer(s)
  2. Producer(s)
  3. Director
  4. Screenwriter(s)
  5. Principal Cast (Actors)

Executive Producers

An Executive Producer (EP) is an individual who traditionally brings approximately 25% of the budget to the table when developing a DGA studio feature film. However, that is a guideline and not necessarily a rigid rule and there may be several Executive Producers responsible for various contributions in addition to money. EPs may also bring Hollywood clout, star talent, and name recognition to a production. For example, recently on the feature film Vox Lux, stars Natalie Portman and Jude Law also served as EPs along with Sia, who wrote songs for the film. EPs are typically top of the food chain on films and they should understand almost everything about the filmmaking process. Sadly, many of them are brought on to the film for financial support while they know very little about the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking. That’s OK if they populate their team with able-bodied and skilled filmmakers who actually know how to make movies.

Where is “the line”? The line is on the top page of a feature film budget on which certain “above the line” positions and “below the line” positions add up to equal total costs for specific roles divided into those categories. The “line” literally divides roles often considered part of the development and execution of the creative aspect of filmmaking from the roles typically responsible for the craft of filmmaking.

Producers

Producers on a film can labor over a myriad of functions and while they may bring money to the production, they usually fill more hands-on roles on a film shoot, including searching for and weeding through potential film scripts (often called “properties”), securing the rights to a script, lining up various forms of funding, hiring Screenwriters if the concept is based on a true story and the screenplay doesn’t exist yet, hiring the creative team including the Director, Casting Director, and department heads, overseeing casting, partnering with the Line Producer in order to manage the budget, managing the film office along with the Production Manager and Production Coordinator, and overseeing the daily pre-production, production, and post-production of the film.

Directors

According to The Director’s Guild of America, a Director “directs the production of motion pictures and whatever is seen & heard in the finished product. He (or she) also directs all related functions & activities required for translating & transferring the script, premise, idea and/or concept to the audiovisual images.” A great Director loves movies and has seen a lot of them. He or she is the visual voice and captain of the entire shoot. A Director will read the script several times, develop a creative vision and style for the film, work closely with the Director of Photography, the Storyboard Artist, the Art Director, the Costume Designer, the Editor, and the Composer to essentially invent and execute the visual and audible style of the film.

A Director’s work is possibly the most important on a film and a great Director is motivational, aspirational, skilled, and a lover of all things art, and has a clear, concise, and provocative vision for the final film. He or she is versed in the art of acting and works closely with Actors on character backstories, the delivery of dialogue, the emotional core of scenes, and the blocking of Actors on set. A Director not only directs cast, but also directs camera and understands the emotional impact compositions and camera movement have on an audience. A talented Director is a guru of pacing and never says “we’ll fix it in post.” He or she does everything within his or her power to capture the best performances, sequences, choreography, stunts, and effects on camera for the most impact on screen. He or she will be brought on early in pre-production and typically, depending on the contract will stay on until picture lock.

Whether above the line or below the line, positions on a film should not be necessarily considered more important than others. I’ve worked with Production Assistants who helped accomplish tasks on a film more effectively than some Producers.

Screenwriters

I may be listing Screenwriters as 4th on this list of “above the line” positions, but “Story Rights/Acquisitions” and “Story” typically appear as the first line items on a feature film budget. That’s because it all starts with the story – whether it be book rights acquired for script development, a story concept that has yet to be written, or a fully written screenplay, money goes to a Writer or a group of Writers responsible for writing the initial property (aka screenplay, story concept, treatment, outline, logline, comic book, novel, or any other form of material that will become the script used to make a movie.) The Screenwriter knows screenplay structure well and will be on board for the initial screenplay and, if he or she is lucky, will also be on the payroll for subsequent drafts. It all depends on the contract. A contract drafted in the favor of the Screenwriter will usually have the writer on for multiple drafts. However, a Producer, production company, or studio may simply buy the screenplay outright, pay the Writer a single fee, and then have the script re-written or revised based on the notes of studio execs, Executive Producers, Producers, and the Director. That’s why screenplay writers must contract a strong Entertainment Lawyer to negotiate the deal.

Principal Cast (Actors)

Simply put, principal cast is comprised of the Actors who you may find on the movie poster and in all of the promotional material put out by a studio, production company, or distribution company, including trailers, promos, behind-the-scenes web content, and radio promotions. They are the face and voice of a feature and they appear in most of it. Whereas supporting cast, featured Extras, and background Extras will appear “below the line” on a budget, principal cast appears “above the line.” They are typically paid the most and are a huge selling point for a film. What would the latest Mission Impossible franchise be without Tom Cruise? He is a Hollywood heavyweight and it’s his face and role as Ethan Hunt that gives the film series a consistent and reliable place among film fans — that’s why Cruise’s lead character is always above the line.

Hopefully, this helps you understand the basics of “Above The Line” film roles. It all relates to the delineation on a feature film budget and the best way to really understand them is to see an actual budget created by the folks at Studio Binder, which you can see here.

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Screenplay Format: How to Write a Script

Screenplay Format: How to Write a Script

Before a Screenwriter can tell that next great love story, historical epic or zany comedy, they need to master screenplay format. Understanding exactly how a script should look and be formatted is important for two main reasons. First, knowledge of each element can go a long way in supporting the more creative aspects of screenwriting, such as creating memorable characters and building a solid story structure. Second, as scripts are meant to be read, a solid screenplay format will help a reader move quickly through the story with ease, as well as indicate to them that the Writer of it is of a professional caliber.

The following guidelines break down screenplay format fundamentals, including:

  1. Font
  2. Point size
  3. Page number
  4. Title page
  5. Scene heading
  6. Character
  7. Action
  8. Dialogue

This is essential learning for aspiring Screenwriters and a helpful reminder even for those who consider themselves veteran scribes.

Screenplay Basics

Font

Probably the most basic of the basics is the type of font used for scripts. The standard in the world of screenplay formatting is Courier. For a Screenwriter to go rogue and use a different font can result in several outcomes. For one, it can indicate to the reader that the Writer of the script is either a novice regarding scripting rules or is simply someone who doesn’t find the rules important enough to abide by them. Two, a script written in another font can throw off the typical time assumed when using Courier, which is one minute of screen time for one page of the script. For these reasons, Writers should stick to the standard of Courier font.

Point Size

Again, as with font, screenplays have a typical point size for all text, which is 12 point. The reason? Much the same as why scripts are written in Courier font. It demonstrates to the reader that the Screenwriter understands standard screenplay format, and it also helps to maintain the usual ratio of one minute of screen time for each page of the script. Moreover, a font smaller than 12 point can make it more difficult to read the screenplay, and a font larger than it may misrepresent there being enough of a story to tell, à la using a larger font for a school essay to hit the required number of pages.

Page Number

It’s important to remember that for many Screenwriters, some of these basic script formatting rules are built into the many types of screenwriting software available to creatives, including the automatic addition of page number in the upper righthand corner of each page, minus the first page of the script. But as with any program that can experience the occasional glitch, Writers should always double-check that their work is properly formatted before sending off their scripts to Agents, Managers, executives or anyone else in a position to help that screenplay come to life. As mentioned, the first page of a script need not have a page number, though every subsequent page should be numbered in proper numerical order.

A font smaller than 12 point can make it more difficult to read the screenplay, and a font larger than it may misrepresent there being enough of a story to tell, à la using a larger font for a school essay to hit the required number of pages.

Title Page

The title page should likewise be part of every script — with one important exception. Many film festivals and contests that host competitions for best screenplay ask that Writers leave off the title page, which typically includes identifying information so that the readers are not in any way biased about the material they are evaluating. Outside of that particular circumstance, Writers should always include a title page when sending out their screenplays. On that page should be the script title, author name and contact information, such as email address and phone number, as well as any WGA or U.S. Copyright registration numbers.

Screenwriting Elements

Scene Heading

Now on to the actual screenplay formatting elements! A Writer can’t tell a story without first alerting the reader to where they are, whether it’s a farmhouse in Kansas or the royal residence of the fictional planet Asgard. Also referred to as sluglines, scene headings identify location and time of day, either independently (ex. “DAY,” “NIGHT,” “MORNING,” etc.) or in relation to the scene preceding it (ex. “CONTINUOUS,” “MOMENTS LATER,” etc.).

Character

This one is fairly straightforward, but the importance of it should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to choosing character names. A first-time reader of a script can get easily confused by characters with similar names such as Ann and Amy, so when selecting names, aim for diversity to minimize mix-ups. Also, while it’s ultimately up to the Writer’s preference, some screenwriting experts recommend always giving a name to even minor characters, such as a Cop or Doctor with just a single line, the reason being that it allows the future Actor playing that role to more deeply identify with it.

Action

The goal of a script is to show and not tell a story. As such, it’s important that Writers not rely on action lines too heavily to explain the narrative. Keep it concise and in service to explaining only what cannot be told through dialogue. Also, Writers should keep in mind that a screenplay is not a novel. Large chunks of text slow the ability of the reader to make it through the script, and more importantly, may dissuade them from continuing to read it at all. Some conventional wisdom is to keep as much “white on the page” as possible, as well as to make sure each page allows the reader to “read vertically” rather than horizontally — i.e. too much description.

Dialogue

Great dialogue is one of the most critical aspects of a good script and probably one of the most difficult aspects of it to explain. Why? Because dialogue relies entirely on the nature of the character speaking it. Is the character a babbler? Are they curt? Do they speak with a dialect that sets them apart from everyone else in the story? Each of these questions points to creating distinct characters that could not be mistaken for anyone else in the narrative, which is one of the most crucial guidelines to keep in mind for dialogue. In fact, some screenwriting experts advocate that each character should be identifiable by their dialogue alone even when their character names are removed from the script.

Parentheticals

Related to dialogue is the use of parentheticals, which typically are used to help inform how a line is spoken by a character. While parentheticals can be useful, a good rule of thumb is that the majority of dialogue — and its intended delivery — should be clear on its own. Therefore, use parentheticals sparingly. Not only can excessive use of them indicate to the reader that the dialogue isn’t strong enough to stand on its own, but also it can hinder a future performance by the Actor playing that role, as they may feel boxed in creatively regarding delivery of their lines.

Extension

Another screenwriting element used in conjunction with character and dialogue is that of extensions. Essentially, when a character name is listed on its own with their dialogue immediately following, it’s assumed that the dialogue is spoken by that character on camera. However, that’s not always the intended case in cinematic storytelling. So to clarify, extensions are used. Two of the most common extensions are “V.O” and “O.S.” The former, which stands for “voiceover,” indicates that the dialogue is being spoken by the character to the reader, audience or themselves internally rather than to another character in their presence. The latter, which stands for “off-screen,” means that the dialogue is being spoken by a character off camera.

Writers should keep in mind that a screenplay is not a novel. Large chunks of text slow the ability of the reader to make it through the script, and more importantly, may dissuade them from continuing to read it at all.

Subheader

In some circumstances, the use of a brand-new scene heading is not necessary. For instance, let’s say two characters are having a conversation with each other within two different rooms in a house. Instead of creating a new scene heading for each line of dialogue between the characters, a Writer may choose instead to use the subheaders “BATHROOM” and “HALLWAY.” However, just as parentheticals should not be excessively relied on in screenplays to help explain dialogue, nor should subheaders be used too frequently to help explain location.

More/Cont’d

As with most screenplay formatting elements, the inclusion of “MORE” and “CONT’D” (short for CONTINUED) will likely be automatically inserted into a screenplay to help preserve fluidity and make sure the reader understands the continuation of dialogue. When there is a page break in a script, but dialogue that continues from one page to the next, “MORE” will be inserted at the bottom of the page to alert the reader that the dialogue continues onto the following page. On that next page, “CONT’D” will be inserted to again reaffirm to the reader that the character’s dialogue is still in progress.

Fade In/Fade Out

Perhaps two of the most exciting screenplay formatting elements are the use of “FADE IN” and “FADE OUT.” Why? Because in many cases, these will be the very first and last words of a script. While some Writers might make alternate creative choices to begin and end their screenplays, these elements are the most common to signify the start and close of the narrative. As such, Writers should include them to help guide the reader into and out of the script.

In mentioning “FADE OUT,” it’s perhaps the ideal time to state that the above screenplay format elements do not encompass all formatting tools at a Writer’s disposal. To fully understand and have a mastery of those elements, Writers should take the time to explore their screenwriting software to learn more about what they can use to help explain their narratives. While a unique story or compelling characters can make a screenplay stand out against the competition, it’s creating a solid script formatting foundation and knowing how to enhance it that will also guide Screenwriters towards future success.

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How to Make a Movie

How to Make a Movie

If you want to learn how to make a movie, the best thing to do is make one. Yep. By starting DIY, you will get a sense of the big picture and be more likely to become a better filmmaker down the road. In fact, there is no better time to learn how to make a movie. You have tools at your fingertips that your creative forefathers would have died for. If you are reading this article on a phone, there’s a good chance that that phone has a better camera than the early digital cameras with which many people learned and mastered filmmaking. So if you have an idea, what are you waiting for?

Right. But where do you begin? Getting the idea out of your head and onto the screen can be a daunting task, but once it is broken down in steps, it becomes more manageable. Even better, once you master these steps, whether you are making a film with an iPhone or with a full camera kit from a rental house, they are relatively the same — the biggest difference being that the toys are more expensive and the crews are bigger. But let’s start small. Let’s say that you want to use that phone in your hand to make a movie. What would you need? Well, several things, from the creative to the technical, and if you are not technical, do not let that deter you.

In our discussion of how to make a movie, we’ll cover:

  1. An idea/script
  2. Film tools/film gear
  3. Collaborators/crew
  4. Production
  5. Editing/post-production

An Idea/Script

A lot of people are afraid to get started because they don’t think they have a good idea. Trust me, an idea doesn’t have to be good in order for you to learn or even make a good film. All you need is a story. It can be as simple as telling the story of someone who rolls out of bed, stumbles to the coffeemaker only to find that she is out of coffee. The goal with storytelling is to get someone to relate, and with filmmaking, it’s all about the images you use to tell the story. So as you develop your idea, don’t over think it. It just needs to be something you can visualize and execute. What’s going to make it unique is your point of view. Take the example of no morning coffee. How does she feel when she discovers there is no coffee? How does that translate visually? Does she grab her hair in despair or throw the empty pot against the wall?

Whatever story you want to tell, put it in a script. For the most part, screenwriting is what you see and what you hear. Just remember that it’s always more interesting to tell the story visually. Rather than having the character say, “Oh no, there’s no coffee,” show us the empty coffee container, show us her reaction. Another thing you will want to do is get feedback on your script. Have someone read it to make sure it makes sense. If it doesn’t make sense, fiddle with it until it does. If it does make sense, still fiddle with it to make it better.

How you frame the shot is literally what you see in your viewfinder. Different framing can say different things: for example, if you have two Actors placed at the end of each frame, perhaps you are saying that they are not connecting. If you have a wide shot and the character is small on the screen, maybe you are suggesting that he feels powerless.

Film Tools/Film Gear

The most accessible camera these days is on a smartphone. It can be an Android or an iPhone; all you need are the right accessories. In order for you to get the most out of your phone camera, you will need an app called Filmic Pro; this app will get your phone to behave more like a camera. You will also want to get lenses so you can shoot a better variety of shots. There are two ways to go here — you can get lenses that are designed specifically for smartphones – like Moment lenses, or you can use an adapter, like the Beastgrip adapter that will allow you to use regular camera lenses with your phone. You may also want a tripod or a stabilizer to keep the camera steady; all you need is a mount adapter to put your phone on a tripod and there are stabilizers built specifically for phones.

Next, you need sound equipment. Unfortunately, phones (and most cameras, for that matter) don’t record good sound, so you will need a sound recording device, like a Zoom or Tascam. You will also need a good microphone on a boom pole to record the sound. You can also get lavalier microphones – which are the kind that you attach to an Actor to record dialog, as well.

Collaborators/Crew

Alright, technically you can do all of this on your own and maybe you want to start that way — maybe film your cat to get some practice in, but eventually, you will want Actors, someone to record the audio, someone to operate the camera, and ideally someone to help produce it. (Without getting into it, a Producer will help you stay organized and on track. Learn more about the role played by Producers here.) So, finding collaborators is essential to filmmaking. There are many ways to go about this – you can post something on social media, you can go to events sponsored by your local film community, or if you are in school, get to know the film and media students. One thing to keep in mind as you are meeting people is to find folks that you enjoy being around, who have similar interests, and who are interested in learning and mastering skills. If you know nothing about the camera, lighting or recording sound, find people who are passionate about these things.

Once you have your team, get their input about the script and start to plan what you will need to make it. The more planning you do, the more successful you will be. The basics you will need are locations, Actors, and food! You will also want to talk to your team about how things will be shot. Create a shot list, which will be your roadmap during production. Some people like to storyboard, but that’s up to you. It’s just important to have a plan because you don’t want to waste people’s time during production. Something that will help you create a shot list is to remember that each time you move the camera, it’s a new setup, which is a shot. Shots are like sentences, some are long, some are short, but when you put them together, there is a rhythm and a pace. It’s a good idea to become familiar with the different kinds of shots: wide, medium, close up, etc. Understanding the language will help you communicate your ideas to your team.

One thing about filmmaking is the more you learn, the more you realize the less you know. Each new project will present new challenges, and if they don’t, you’re not challenging yourself to get better, which is really what makes all this so fun.

Production

This is the day you all come together to get the job done! You have done your homework; you have food and drinks to keep you energized; now you will spend the day perfecting each shot. Some of the things you will be focusing on will be blocking – how the Actors move through the space in relation to the camera, framing – how the shot is framed, and the performance of the Actor.

When you block a scene, you decide where the camera goes and how the Actors will move through the set. This includes any action they may do like grab a set of keys, when to pat someone on the back or when to sit down. Once you decide these things, you can put tape on the floor to make sure the Actors have reminders of where to stand and when. How you frame the shot is literally what you see in your viewfinder. Different framing can say different things: for example, if you have two Actors placed at the end of each frame, perhaps you are saying that they are not connecting. If you have a wide shot and the character is small on the screen, maybe you are suggesting that he feels powerless. Working with Actors is also important. Actors come to set with some terrific ideas, but it is important to make sure they hit the tone you are trying to achieve, whether it is humor or drama. Actors love to know what they can do to make their performance better

Editing/Post-production

Once you have your movie in the can, you are ready to edit. Well, almost. You will need to sync the sound in what is called a non-linear editing system (NLE), which is a fancy way to say editing software, where you will put the pieces you shot together. Again, this is something that you can learn and I highly suggest you learn the basics, but there are plenty of people who want to master this craft and are hungry to find material to work on to learn and hone their skills. Also, editing is like writing. Getting feedback will make your movie better.

After the editing is done, you still need to polish your film up. You will need to make sure all your shots are color corrected, which can be done in your NLE or you can have a professional do it. Again, always look for people who want to practice. The same goes for post-production sound. Post-production sound involves a lot of detail work, which includes cleaning up the dialog, laying in sound effects, music, and balancing all these elements in what is called the mix.

Once you have gone through these steps, you are a filmmaker! But one thing about filmmaking is the more you learn, the more you realize the less you know. Each new project will present new challenges, and if they don’t, you’re not challenging yourself to get better, which is really what makes all this so fun.

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Best Screenwriting Software

Best Screenwriting Software

At the dawn of screenwriting, screenplays were typed the old fashioned way: on a typewriter. Back then, a Screenwriter had to really know the specific screenplay format for the script to be considered professionally written. Typewriters eventually evolved into word processors and those gave life to the modern home computer. Now, we all have the benefit and convenience of crafting our screenplays on our laptops and desktop computers with the aid of some advanced and user-friendly screenwriting software programs that allow us to worry less about format and focus more on story. Here are some examples of screenwriting software packages that can help bring your next screenplay to life and even teach you how to write a screenplay.

Our picks for the best screenwriting software include:

  1. Final Draft
  2. Movie Magic Screenwriter
  3. Fade In
  4. Celtx
  5. Writer Duet
  6. Slugline
  7. Montage
  8. Free screenwriting software

Final Draft

Still considered the industry standard, Final Draft has a long history as the go-to screenplay writing software package and it is probably still the most used screenwriting tool in film and television. Its history dates back to 1990 when it was founded by Marc Madnick and Ben Cahan and has even been awarded a Primetime Emmy Engineering Award in 2013. In 2016, it was acquired by Cast & Crew Entertainment Services and it offers the submission-standard formatting structure for studios, the Writer’s Guild of America, and world-wide screenplay contests.

Final Draft is simple, efficient, and powerful and allows the Screenwriter to quickly and effectively navigate screenplay structure while meeting the rigid requirements of screenplay format. One of its best features is that the built-in SmartType component remembers the names of characters and locations and automatically “learns” them so that even when you type the first letter it will give you a drop-down list of options, cutting the time you need to type each item.

Final Draft claims that it is used by 95% of film and TV professionals and it also offers the opportunity to not only write your screenplay, but it also allows you to seamlessly create beat boards, story maps, location, and character lists, is great with colored revisions, and offers a collaboration mode so you can create a script with a partner.

COST: $249

Here’s what you need to note about submitting screenplays to competitions, studios, the WGA, or class assignments: they will either be emailed in the universal PDF format or handed in on paper and the software used to create the screenplay will be inconsequential at that point. So don’t fret about using what’s considered the industry standard. Just find software you can afford and that gets the job done.

Movie Magic Screenwriter

In a very close 2nd place to Final Draft is Movie Magic Screenwriter, which not only allows you to more easily write a screenplay, but also has built-in formats for stage plays, teleplays, musicals, comic books, novels, and short stories. It is also officially endorsed by the Writer’s Guild of American East. Its import option is spectacular, allowing you to import screenplays started or fully written in Microsoft Word, PDF, or Rich Text Documents with very little re-formatting required.

It’s almost impossible to tell the difference between Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter and both are considered “the big two” when it comes to first choices in screenplay software. They are also the most expensive and when updated versions are released, those upgrades usually cost the owner about $99 more to upgrade to the latest version. You have to remember that screenplays were originally typed on typewriters and screenplay writers memorized the format. So, any software that makes your life easier should do so not because it’s expensive or a standard, but because it allows you to focus more on the writing and less on the structure.

COST: $249

Fade In

At a more affordable price tag, Fade In is becoming a competitive and reliable alternative to Final Draft and more and more Writers are using it. Here’s what you need to note about submitting screenplays to competitions, studios, the WGA, or class assignments: they will either be emailed in the universal PDF format or handed in on paper and the software used to create the screenplay will be inconsequential at that point. So don’t fret about using what’s considered the industry standard. Just find software you can afford and that gets the job done.

Fade In gets the job done. It offers extensive formatting options including industry standard layout format, autocomplete typing that fills in characters and locations, a collaboration mode so you can partner with other writers, image support so you can add a vibrant and impactful image to your title page, colored revisions, breakdown reports, and it can go mobile on your phone or tablet.

COST: $79

Celtx

Whereas Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, and Fade In offer one-time purchasing options, Celtx is a monthly subscription, online screenwriting software package that offers screenplay writing essentials including a comprehensive script editor, standard screenplay formats, standard stage play formats, 2-column Audio/Video formats used in television and commercials, storyboarding options, colored revision tracking, and email and online support.

The benefit of Celtx is that if you can write your screenplay in a month, you can save a lot of money compared to the previously mentioned software packages and Celtx is becoming another industry standard. I highly recommend it for film students and Screenwriters working on a budget.

Another interesting option is that Celtx offers progress reports for writers working professionally with an Agent, Manager, or studio exec. As you make advancements on your work, the software can update those folks and keep them abreast of your progress.

COST: $20 monthly
($180 if you pay for the yearly subscription)

Writer Duet

Writer Duet is offered completely online, but also offers off-line writing options. The best thing about it is that you can write your first 3 scripts completely free online with their cloud-based writing software. There is no page limit, no time limit, and no limit on exporting or importing your work. It is a great option that offers many of the screenwriting choices offered by Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, or Fade In.

It is also compatible with Final Draft, Celtx, PDF, Word, HTML, Adobe, and Rich Text. It offers really visual and intuitive index card options that allow you to move around scenes, action, and dialogue as if using a virtual office cork board. It will color specific revisions within the script and it prides itself on its ability to allow collaboration between multiple Writers online.

I personally used Writer Duet for some professional jobs as an Assistant Director, allowing me to break down a script and schedule certain locations and it worked really well. I recommend it as a much cheaper alternative to some of the larger screenplay software packages mentioned above.

COST: $11.99/month

Firstly, learn screenplay format without using any software -– learning how to write a script is imperative. Think of yourself as a Pilot. Sure, automatic pilot exists, but don’t you want your Pilot to really know how to fly a plane? You should understand screenplay format until it’s intuitive and software should make your life easier as a Writer.

Slugline

Designed exclusively for Mac, Slugline is affordable and clean. The developers of Slugline claim that it is the best-reviewed screenwriting software in the Mac App Store and its mission is to take formatting completely out of the Writer’s way, allowing the Writer to focus on story. It works very well on the iPhone and iPad and its Outline Navigator updates your script live as you write. It offers a cool night mode for writing at night next to your partner while he or she tries to sleep when you just have to make a deadline. It offers touchscreen editing on your phone or tablet. It’s very modern, fast, and affordable.

COST: $39.99 for desktop
($19.99 for iPhone and iPad)

Montage

Now we’re starting to get into the lesser known screenplay packages that may not be as fluid or well-designed as some of the industry standards. However, don’t write off a software package like Montage just because of its lower cost. Its best asset is that it allows long-time Final Draft users to easily import Final Draft formatted scripts with little to no re-formatting. That is a huge benefit for Writers looking to keep writing in an industry standard while saving a few bucks. No one wants to re-write a script and Montage allows you to pick up where you left off while no longer having to use Final Draft. The copy of FD you have may be on disk and perhaps you can’t afford the cost of new FD downloads. That’s where Montage can step in.

COST: $29.95

Free Screenwriting Software

Here is what you have to remember when writing a screenplay: it’s not what you write with, but how you write. Firstly, learn screenplay format without using any software -– learning how to write a script is imperative. Think of yourself as a Pilot. Sure, automatic pilot exists, but don’t you want your Pilot to really know how to fly a plane? You should understand screenplay format until it’s intuitive and software should make your life easier as a Writer. It can’t, however, do the work for you. You can even still write on a typewriter — George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino still write with pen and pencil. So, no matter which screenplay software you choose, it’s all about the story!

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What Are the Key Elements of Mise En Scène?

What Are the Key Elements of Mise En Scène?

A great visual film is an amalgam of layers created by lighting, composition, art direction, costuming, makeup, and texture. These combined elements create what is known as Mise En Scène, which essentially means “visual theme.” Its creation begins with writing a screenplay that illustrates not only the action and dialogue, but also details (within reason) certain visual elements including the specific time period, essential descriptions of settings, and even character costumes and props. The explanation of these elements helps a Movie Director, Director of Photography, Art Director, Costume Designer, Makeup Artist, and Actors understand the tone of a film. Let’s dive into the essentials of Mise En Scène — an important and foundational part of film theory.

The key elements of Mise En Scène are:

  1. Composition
  2. Production Design
  3. Lighting
  4. Costuming
  5. Hair and Makeup
  6. Film Texture

Composition

One of the fundamentals of Mise En Scène is the framing of a shot and it can be determined during the storyboarding phase of a film. A Storyboard Artist will work closely with a Director and sometimes the Writer of a film to visually draw, illustrate, or graphically design storyboards of each scene in a screenplay. It is during this phase of pre-production that the framing, compositions, and camera movements can be determined before shooting. Some Directors like to work in very steady and traditional wide shots, medium shots, single shots, and close-ups. They want story to take the lead over style and don’t want the compositions to interfere with the acting and dialogue. However, some Directors prefer more kinetic and even frenetic shots and choose to shoot hand-held, Steadicam, or on jib and dolly. Perhaps shots with more movement are desired for a more fluid and active tale where style and story are equally expressed. Regardless of the style of the Mise En Scène, it can be determined during the storyboarding stage and then created on set with camera angles and moves.

How silly would Star Wars be if not for the original and historically inspired costumes of the Empire and the Jedi. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would not have the same visual impact if Gene Wilder were dressed in jeans and a T-shirt instead of his classic and recognizable purple velvet long coat, patterned silk vest, and his Bell Topper hat. These costume choices are all about adding to the value and mood of Mise En Scène.

Production Design

Think about the movies you’ve seen. Each one has its own visual merits partly created by the setting you see captured within the frame of each shot. If you’re watching a period piece like Gladiator, then the story can’t stand on the costuming, props, and lighting alone. It must also exist in the time period that showcases a believable backdrop — in this case, Ancient Rome, filled with gladiatorial training camps, the Colosseum, rural fields of grain, and ancient Roman architecture. It’s the art direction, scenery, and backdrops that give Gladiator its sense or realism and three-dimensional quality. When creating your own film, it’s important to ask yourself, where will my story take place? Does the setting, created by the art direction, strengthen the Mise En Scène? It’s important to producing a believable story that connects with viewers and you can do that with the proper locations and production design.

Lighting

Once your setting is determined, locations are locked in, and production design is constructed, all of that needs to be lit in a way that elevates your intended Mise En Scène. Let’s cite the aesthetic of the feature film Drive, lit by Newton Thomas Sigel. The night scenes are lit in what I like to think of as “Neon-Noir” (not to be confused with “Neo-Noir”). The night scenes feel like the dark and lonely inner world of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of the Driver. That is the true depiction of smart Mise En Scène. The rich contrast and bleeding colors of Sigel’s cinematography represent not just the tone of the world in which the characters reside, but also the inner workings of the main character, who is somewhat of a lost soul trying to find peace and love in a chaotic Los Angeles. Mise En Scène represents the inside and outside of that world.

Costuming

Can you imagine how little sense the world of The Dark Knight would make if not for the elaborate, artistic, and comic-book-inspired costumes worn by Batman and the Joker? Or how silly would Star Wars be if not for the original and historically inspired costumes of the Empire and the Jedi. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would not have the same visual impact if Gene Wilder were dressed in jeans and a T-shirt instead of his classic and recognizable purple velvet long coat, patterned silk vest, and his Bell Topper hat. These costume choices are all about adding to the value and mood of Mise En Scène. Now, that’s not to say that the costuming for your film has to be as elaborate and theatrical. In fact, many straightforward stories that are less fantastic and more rooted in everyday reality still make sure that their characters are wearing costumes that strengthen the tone and quality of the film. In a film like Back to The Future, Marty still wears “character” costuming and his signature puffy red-orange vest, denim jacket, and patterned button-down shirt are now an iconic Halloween costume. His character starts in everyday clothes that became part of pop-culture zeitgeist. Regardless of the costuming you choose for your characters, just make sure that they make sense within the Mise En Scène of the world you’re creating on screen.

It doesn’t matter if a movie is some grandiose, science fiction blockbuster or some small, independent character piece that takes place in genuine locations – it’s about using compositions, production design, lighting, costuming, hair and makeup, and film and video textures to envelop the audience into a world that is believable, captivating, and fluid.

Hair and Makeup

Hair and Makeup are essential in a movie and when you think of a film like Grease, the hair and makeup echoes the look and feel of the 1950s. Pomade-greased hair for the men and hyperbolic rouge and eye makeup for the women were part and parcel to bringing those characters’ looks to life and showcasing them in the hair and makeup styles of the era. The same goes for the fictional, politically charged world of a film like The Hunger Games. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has a look that can be considered gaudy, filled with bravado and flare. Her character dons the look of cotton candy hair and burlesque-style makeup. Her look is ironic in a world where children are forced to fight to the death. In contrast, Katniss Everdeen’s hair and makeup are often subdued, basic, and rural. Her look represents the life she leads: that of a country girl who hunts and lives off the land. However, when she is put on display by the totalitarian Capitol of Panem, she is made to look theatric and warrior-like. Her hair and make-up transform with her character development through different phases of her arc in the film. That is a pure personification of Mise En Scène.

Film Texture

Movies can have any number of final looks that can start with the type of film stock or video camera selected and end with the post-production effects and filters used before a final movie is screened. Traditional Directors of Photography who may still shoot on film will select different film stocks that offer fine, contrasty, or grainy textures. In the world of video, it’s best to shoot the best quality video you can afford and then choose a fine or grainy look in post-production. Take, for example, a movie like filmmaker Michael Mann’s Collateral starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. Cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron shot that feature on the CineAlta HDW-F900. According to a quote by Cameron from an article written by Jay Holben called “Hell on Wheels” for The American Society of Cinematographers, “Using HD was something Michael (Mann) had already settled on by the time I came aboard,” recalls Director of Photography Paul Cameron, who prepped Collateral and shot the first three weeks of principal photography. “He wanted to use the format to create a kind of glowing urban environment; the goal was to make the LA night as much of a character in the story as Vincent and Max were.” Often, the latitude (or the array of sensitivity of film stocks or HD cameras) is taken into consideration when shooting a film or video. How film or video reacts to light is important and should be considered before shooting.

The point of understanding all of this is to note that Mise En Scène embodies almost everything that appears before the camera. It includes all of the ingredients necessary to help audiences willfully suspend their disbelief so they can enjoy a film. It doesn’t matter if a movie is some grandiose, science fiction blockbuster or some small, independent character piece that takes place in genuine locations – it’s about using compositions, production design, lighting, costuming, hair and makeup, and film and video textures to envelop the audience into a world that is believable, captivating, and fluid.


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What Does a Director Do?

What Does a Director Do?

When it comes to movies, it’s the Director who gets all the accolades, but what does a Director actually do? The term “visionary” is often tied to great Directors, but what does that mean? When I hear the word visionary, my mind conjures up images of historical game changers, who did things like send us to the moon or invent the iPod. These are all intimidating things to live up to, so what does the term visionary mean when it comes to directing? It’s really quite simple. The Director’s vision can be boiled down to two things: what she visualizes as she reads the script and how she interprets the script’s meaning. This includes everything from how the film will be shot, how it will be cast down to how the characters will be portrayed, the mood, music and where the film will be set. Essentially, anything that we see or hear in a movie comes from a decision the Director made.

In a nutshell, the Director’s job is to get all the ideas out of her head and onto the screen and she does this with a team, collaborating from pre-production to post-production to assure that vision is fulfilled.

In answer to the question “what does a Director do?” we will explore:

  1. How a Director works with a Writer
  2. How a Director works with Casting
  3. How a Director works with Production Design
  4. How a Director works with Wardrobe
  5. How a Director works with the Camera Department
  6. How a Director works with the Editorial Department
  7. How a Director works with the Post-Production process

How a Director Works With a Writer

The genesis of a story begins with the Writer. Sometimes it begins with the Producer or a book, but it is the Writer that crafts the story into a screenplay that can be shot. Once the story is written it goes into “development.” This is when a Producer and Development Executives work with the Writer to get the story in rock solid shape, making sure the story works and will translate to screen. When a Director is attached, she will also get a chance to make changes to the script. This is the first job of a Director – making the story better (yes, it can always get better). A Director is usually hired because she has a sensibility – a particular perspective that will bring the script to life, so it might not always be the case, but often a Director will have a chance to give notes to the Writer and help them shape the story for success. It is not the Director’s job to rewrite the script, but it is the Director’s job to give feedback that will help the script translate visually on screen and have the right emotional impact. Sometimes a Director will be asked to “make a pass” on the script, in which case the Director does, indeed, rewrite the script.

If you watch a film you will notice that colors of the sets and the wardrobe are calculated. What are the colors saying about the environment or the wardrobe? Are they drab and depressing or are they vibrant and exciting? It all depends on the story the Director is trying to tell.

How a Director Works With Casting

A large part of a Director’s job is finding the right Actors, which involves working with the Producer and a Casting Director to find the talent. The Producer and the Casting Director will present choices to the Director and the Director will participate in auditions to decide who they want to see again so they can make sure the Actor is right for the role. Though an Actor is hired because of what he or she brings to the table, during production, the most important role a Director has is to work with the Actors, who are sometimes there for a only few days, to make sure they have everything they need to strike the right tone and find the comedic and emotional beats in their performance.

How a Director Works With Production Design

An important part of a Director’s vision is production design. This is establishing the world in which the story takes place. It can be as simple as decorating a kitchen to creating a futuristic world that is a product of the Director’s imagination. The Director will work with the Production Designer to find a location and decorate it or build a set from scratch to create an environment that enhances the words on the page. If the script calls for a dated 1970s kitchen, the Director will work with the Production Designer to decide what that means – is it a fancy kitchen from the ’70s or is it a working-class kitchen from the ’70s? What will the colors be? What will the space say about the characters? Are the dishes tidy and lined up on the drying rack or are they piled up dirty in the sink? These are all the details that a Director will mull over with the Production Designer, down to the hair on a comb. They will also discuss the color palette. If you watch a film you will notice that the colors of the sets and the wardrobe are calculated. What are the colors saying about the environment or the wardrobe? Are they drab and depressing or are they vibrant and exciting? It all depends on the story the Director is trying to tell. Production design usually will entail some sort of visual effects (VFX), so a VFX Coordinator is often brought into the conversation.

How a Director Works With Wardrobe

Wardrobe is another product of the Director’s imagination and is in some ways an extension of production design. In fact, the two departments work closely together. First, we establish the world in which these characters live and interact then we decide how they are dressed. In some cases, costumes must be designed and made, and other times they are purchased. Whatever the case may be, the Director works with the Costume Designer to decide what clothes the character wears from scene to scene and why. A single mom may be dressed in a shirt that looks like it has been worn a million times, while an uptown gal might have freshly pressed clothes that look like they came right off the rack. A Director and a Costume Designer work together to make sure the clothing is consistent with a character and tells a visual story about who this person is and what is going on in the story.

How a Director Works With the Camera Department

Next up is the Camera Department. Once a Director establishes what is to be shot, the next order of business is to decide how the film will be shot — will it be shiny and slick or dark and depressing? Though a Director is not expected to know which lens to use, how to light a shot, or all the ins and outs of the camera, a Director does decide how things are shot and what coverage to get to achieve the overall look of the film. It can be handheld or it can be very still with limited movement. It can be bright and sunny or it can be muted and serious. This is all a part of the Director’s vision. The Director will also create a shot list or make storyboards to help the Cinematographer understand what pieces they will need to shoot. Where the camera is placed and how the shots are framed may be a collaborative effort between the Director and the Director of Photography (Cinematographer) but ultimately, it is the Director’s call.

It’s the Director’s job to see, in the moment, what is working and what isn’t working, and to find a way to make it work. But as much as a film is a result of the Director’s vision, very much of directing is communicating.

How a Director Works With the Editorial Department

Once the film is in the can, as they say, the Editor will have a go at cutting it together. Ideally, the Editor is working through production, to make sure that what the Director is getting is cutting together and informing her if she needs any pickups or coverage that would make things better. The Director will consult with the Editor throughout the process and hopefully have time to see cuts along the way. Once the shooting is done, the Director will sit with the Editor to get the film polished and tight. This usually involves going over the footage to find the best performance from the Actors and finding the rhythm and pace of the film and making sure all the setups pay off.

How a Director Works With the Post-Production Process

Once the edit is finished, there is still work to be done! When the picture is locked and everyone is happy with it, it still needs to go through post-production. The edit gets handed off to the Post-production Sound Department and Colorist for all the fine-tuning. If the movie has VFX of any kind, they, too start working. While this is happening, the Director works with a Composer to score the picture, going through the movie beat-by-beat to decide where music will go and why, and what the tone should be. Once the music is finalized, the music goes to the Sound Mixer who works with the Director to tell the sonic story of the movie and balance all the dialog, music, and effects. Once the sound is mixed, the Director sits with a Colorist to fine tune the look of the film. And in between all of that, she is approving VFX shots, which get melded into the final product.

There is a reason a Director gets all the accolades in the wake of a successful film. Having a vision is one thing, executing it is another. A Director must have an answer to every question, and over the course of the production, a Director makes countless decisions, answering questions from all departments. If a set looks fake or cheap, or if an Actor’s performance is cheesy or melodramatic, it falls on the Director. It’s the Director’s job to see, in the moment, what is working and what isn’t working, and to find a way to make it work. But as much as a film is a result of the Director’s vision, very much of directing is communicating. A good Director will choose her department heads based on their talent and vision, so more often than not it’s about “being on the same page” rather than telling someone what to do.

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Script Coverage: Why You Need and Where to Get It

Script Coverage: Why You Need and Where to Get It

Content is king, and you know it — that’s why you wrote a script. But if you don’t get script coverage before you send your baby out to prospective buyers, you might not be putting your best foot forward. If you just wrote your first screenplay, you already know script writing is a great place to get started in the film and television business. It costs nothing and all you need to invest is your precious time… (and perhaps some cash on script coverage — but we’ll get to that). That said, it’s an incredibly competitive field and the number of scripts that are written vastly outnumber the scripts that get produced. You need to stand out. If someone requests to read your script, you might just get one shot to show them what you can do. If your idea is great but it is poorly structured and under-developed, you might be perceived as a hack, and be quickly dismissed. On the other hand, if you hand in a polished beauty of a script and they aren’t hot on the idea, they are more likely to look at something else you have.

By now you’ve probably done your homework. You’ve read every book on script writing, you’ve listened to podcasts, you’ve given birth to a draft, and have suffered through many re-writes. You’re so close to success you can taste it. But until your script has an audience, you really have no idea if it is working or will have your intended effect on people. This is why you don’t want to send it out, yet. You don’t want a very busy Script Analyst, Producer or Manager who holds the key to your future to be your guinea pig. Let someone else do that, someone who will give you constructive feedback and make your script better. And the best person to do this is a professional – someone who analyzes scripts for a living. But before you dole out money for script coverage, I would take a look at other ways to get feedback on your script before you spend the big bucks.

In this article, we’ll look at the following options for script coverage:

  1. Writers groups
  2. Film festivals like Slamdance and Blue Cat Screenplay Competition
  3. Websites that give feedback like The Blacklist and American Zoetrope
  4. Script coverage services like
  5. Writer career sites

Writers Groups

The safest place to get feedback is from your friends. They are so supportive and want nothing but success for you. They also rarely tell you the cold, hard truth. They will focus on the good stuff and not mention what isn’t working for them. So you may want to start there, but move on quickly!

The best way to begin the torture of getting criticism is to find other Writers. Even if they are not seasoned professionals, they can tell you if something isn’t clear. If you are open to it, they can also suggest something that might help make it better. It might not be something you agree with, but it might lead you to the right solution. Make sure you choose people who have the same sensibilities and are equally as motivated as you. You won’t get everything you need here, but it’s a great place to warm-up.

There are loads of script coverage services out there. Here’s what you need to look for: have these people, indeed, worked in the industry doing studio coverage for industry insiders? Have they worked in development? Are they in the Editor’s guild as a story analyst? Check their credentials before you fork over hundreds of dollars.

Film Festivals

Another place to get objective feedback is through film festivals. Two of the most popular places where they offer decent feedback are Slamdance and Blue Cat Screenplay Competition. It may not be too detailed, but it will be anonymous, which has its benefits. They don’t know you, so their critique is formed solely by the words on the page. These people, however, are rarely industry professionals, so it won’t be as constructive as in-depth coverage. Nevertheless, it’s a great stepping-stone that costs less than script coverage services. Screenplay competitions otherwise don’t do much to advance your career so be careful about spending money in this arena. There are exceptions, but do your research. By choosing festivals that offer feedback it’s easier to justify the fee. At $35 and up a pop, I’d submit to a few and save your money for something that can be more beneficial to your writing career or getting your script in tip-top shape.

Websites That Give Feedback

There are two kinds of websites where you can get feedback – peer critique and industry critique. Both have value. You just need to take the feedback with a grain of salt. There are a number of these sites, but two of the most popular ones are The Blacklist, which is industry review and American Zoetrope (of Francis Ford Coppola fame), which is peer criticism.

The Blacklist website was designed to give writers “industry access.” There are a number of sites like this, so make sure you know what you are getting into. They often dangle a carrot: if you sign up with them and your script is up to snuff, it could get the attention of Producers or Managers, who can search the site to see if anything grabs their attention. This might happen, but don’t hold your breath. The Blacklist touts that six scripts have been produced in three years… out of 55,000 scripts submitted!

American Zoetrope is a peer review site, which is an expanded version of a writers group. In order to get reviewed, you must give a review, so it’s a bit tricky. You don’t know how experienced the Writer who gives feedback on your script is, and not everyone is good at constructive criticism. You have to have tough skin with these sites. They both can hit you in the gut.

First of all, it’s ok to disagree with a note. I have a five-time rule. If five people say it, I need to think about it.

Script Coverage Services

There are loads of script coverage services out there. Here’s what you need to look for: have these people, indeed, worked in the industry doing studio coverage for industry insiders? Have they worked in development? Are they in the Editor’s guild as a story analyst? Check their credentials before you fork over hundreds of dollars. Also, check out what they offer. Some will just give you “studio coverage,” which is the kind of coverage they would give to their bosses; others give you more constructive criticism. I prefer the latter. Studio coverage will get in the weeds and let you know what is working and what is not, and give you a “recommend,” “consider” or “pass” grade, but detailed feedback will give you more tools to jump into a rewrite. See if they offer a phone consultation so you can clarify things and ask questions.

Writer Career Sites

Another resource for Screenwriters are sites like the International Screenwriters Association or Roadmap Writers. There are others, but these are the most popular. Both of these sites offer coverage, but also offer ongoing support for Writers. Roadmap Writers, in particular, will work with Writers not only on developing great scripts, but they also help Writers develop their careers. They, too, offer to hook you up with industry professionals, but they help you hone your craft first, then pair you with industry professionals they know and who would be a good fit for you. With these sites, you get more attention and they offer a solid sounding board for Writers who toil away alone in the dark. They can also be your champions. The more Writers they shepherd to the top, the better their reputation is and the more business they get.

What to Expect With Notes

First of all, it’s ok to disagree with a note. I have a five-time rule. If five people say it, I need to think about it. Also, sometimes people will respond with their taste. If it’s not their favorite genre, they may not be hot on your story. Or if the character is someone they don’t like, well, you’re out of luck – with them. Let it roll off you and move on.

However, there are times to pay attention. If something isn’t clear, make it clear. It might make sense in your head, but not to a reader. What information did you forget to put on the page? Character notes are also important. If the character is misunderstood or has no depth, you really need to take heed. We watch movies to identify with characters so dig into these notes to make sure you have created a character an audience can latch on to. The same goes with the character motivation. These things are the backbone of your script.

Structural notes are also important. I’m not keen on the three-act structure, or things happening on a certain page, but if your reader can’t follow the story, that’s a legit problem. One somewhat ambiguous note you might get is, “the stakes aren’t high enough.” To address this note, a good question to ask is, why do we care about what happens to these characters? The more your character has to lose, the more engaged your audience is.

The most important thing about getting notes is to remember that they are not personal. The more you get notes, the more you will be able to decipher what is critical and what is opinion. Don’t let your ego get in the way.

Ultimately your goal is to sell or produce your script. So you absolutely want it to be rock solid or it will be tossed in the garbage after a few pages, or, if you made it yourself and got it on a screen, it will be turned off in two minutes. Your work will get better with notes. Notes are a part of the life of any filmmaker. Quite frankly, the more successful you are, the more notes you will get – Director notes, Producer notes, studio notes…. Get used to them and make them work for you!

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How to Storyboard: Envisioning a Film’s Look

How to Storyboard: Envisioning a Film’s Look

As a filmmaker, how to storyboard is a critical skill in bringing the story from script to screen. But for someone who has yet to take this step, the central question may initially be what exactly is storyboarding? In short, it’s putting pen to paper — or using digital software — to draw out the scenes that will become the visual road map during the filming process.

While every filmmaker may differ regarding to what degree they flesh out their storyboards, having them offers a clear direction from which the entire production crew — including the Director, Cinematographer, Production Designer, Costumer, etc. — can move forward to create a cohesive look for the film. Given the highly collaborative nature of filmmaking, storyboards offer a critically important blueprint of what a story is going to look like on screen that all members of the crew can continually refer back to throughout production.

So where to start? The steps below highlight some of the key stages of how to storyboard:

  1. Study the script
  2. Select character positions
  3. Decide character motion and camera movement
  4. Determine background elements
  5. Include shot numbers
  6. Assemble storyboards

Study the Script

What eventually becomes part of a storyboard can typically be traced back to what was in the script. Every element of a script — slug lines, dialogue, action — can inform what belongs in a storyboard, so it’s crucial to first analyze the screenplay.

How a filmmaker wants to label the elements of a scene is entirely up to them. Some prefer using computer programs that help to identify and categorize various components like character, wardrobe, and setting. Others may instead physically mark up the script with highlighters to differentiate those elements. Should a filmmaker choose the former, they have at their disposal a wide array of software options, many of them entirely free to use. Among some of the more popular digital storyboarding options are Boords, Frameforge Storyboard Studio, Moviestorm, Plot, Studiobinder, and Storyboarder.

This stage of storyboarding is important for two reasons. Not only will it aid the filmmaking crew in identifying what will be required for each scene, but also it can help to clarify budgetary needs. For instance, if a scene is set in the Empire State Building, the filmmakers will have to address whether they intend to film on location or replicate that venue, a decision which usually will be based on cost.

At this early stage of the storyboarding process, a filmmaker may also want to make the decision of aspect ratio, meaning the dimensions of the film as a whole. Why would this be important before the camera equipment is even rented for the shoot? Because aspect ratio will determine the size of the storyboard frames. Most features are shot with either a 1.85: 1 aspect ratio or 2.39: 1 aspect ratio, depending on the film genre.

Camera movement can also be shown in a storyboard through the use of arrows. Tilts, pans, zoom-ins, zoom outs, as well as other types of camera movements, must be clearly described during the storyboarding process so that the cinematography unit can better understand what will be expected of it during production.

Select Character Positions

Not every shot will include a character. Especially in the beginning of a scene, an establishing shot may only be that of a city skyline or rural farmhouse. But in learning how to storyboard, filmmakers should prioritize the placement of any character in a shot that calls for them.

Deciding where the character will be in the storyboard may sound relatively straightforward, but several factors should be considered. For one, character placement is important for blocking purposes, meaning that it will indicate to the Actors where they should stand, sit or otherwise be present from shot to shot. Two, character placement will help in providing subtext to any given scene. Positioning a character front and center in a particular shot may indicate their power or control over others in that scene. In contrast, placing a character towards the side or background of a shot will effectively lessen their literal and possibly contextual presence. Three, with character placement may come decisions about how they look, including hairstyle, makeup and costume.

Decide Character Motion and Camera Movement

Few shots in a film are truly static, where neither the characters nor the camera are moving. In many cases, both are happening simultaneously. As a filmmaker, it’s important to indicate these elements to clarify for the rest of the filmmaking team how to approach each storyboarded scene.

The element of motion is often described through the use of arrows. So if a character is running from left to right in a particular shot, an arrow pointed towards the right can show that motion. Arrows can also indicate if a character is moving from foreground to background or vice versa. In fact, arrows can be used for any display of movement, including if a character is required to twirl in circles in a particular scene, making them a highly versatile tool.

To better estimate if a character’s movement in a scene will work, some filmmakers may go through the additional step of creating an animatic, which is basically a set of storyboard frames strung together that actually show the motion of the character. With modern filmmaking software, the creation of animatics can be done rather easily.

Camera movement can also be shown in a storyboard through the use of arrows. Tilts, pans, zoom-ins, zoom outs, as well as other types of camera movements, must be clearly described during the storyboarding process so that the cinematography unit can better understand what will be expected of it during production. Mapping out camera movement can also help in deciding if continuity is being preserved from shot to shot.

At this point, filmmakers should also add descriptions of the type of shot and camera angle being used for each storyboarded frame. For instance, is the shot a close-up? Is the camera intended to be looking down from a bird’s eye angle? Again, providing clarity regarding specific camera shots and angles for the rest of the filmmaking crew will only help to ensure that the actual production process will go as smoothly as possible.

After sending out their storyboards, a filmmaker should prioritize having their production team look over them so that a conversation can be had about any potential issues, errors or questions. How to storyboard is often a lesson in revisions, as is much of the early filmmaking process.

Determine Background Elements

The next question after deciding character placement and movement in a shot is what surrounds them? Are they relaxing in an Italian villa or walking through New York City? Both scenarios instantly bring to mind markedly different settings, which need to be brought to life through the storyboard.

During the storyboarding phase, it’s the job of the filmmaker to faithfully recreate on paper the scene described in the script. That means for every shot deciding exactly what needs to be in it, and what those background elements are depends entirely on the story being told. Again, that is why step one of how to storyboard sets the foundation for the rest of the process. By paying attention to what is in each scene — or inferred from it — the filmmaker can then flesh out the shot beyond the character with those necessary elements.

How detailed the background elements are in a storyboard is ultimately up to the filmmaker, but it should be noted that storyboards are meant to be shared. As a result, including as much detail as possible can only help the rest of the filmmaking team to better and more quickly understand what is trying to be conveyed in each scene.

Include Shot Numbers

Label. Label. Label. Once all the basic information such as character placement, camera movement, and background elements are drawn or described for each storyboard, it’s essential to number each frame in chronological order.

Filmmakers who use digital software for their storyboarding needs will likely have this step automatically completed for them. For those who prefer to storyboard by hand, perfect execution is mandatory. Having even one shot labeled out of order could mean a costly and/or time-consuming mistake, so taking the time to carefully number every frame is key.

Because some shots may actually be comprised of more than one storyboarded frame, filmmakers should include secondary symbols like ‘1a’ and ‘1b’ to frames that belong to the same shot in order to both differentiate and chronicle them.

Assemble Storyboards

Once all of the above steps have been completed for each scene in a script, it’s time to arrange the storyboards and disperse them to the appropriate individuals. However, a filmmaker’s work is far from over at this stage.

After sending out their storyboards, a filmmaker should prioritize having their production team look over them so that a conversation can be had about any potential issues, errors or questions. How to storyboard is often a lesson in revisions, as is much of the early filmmaking process. For instance, another member of the production crew might have a better suggestion for a particular shot or they might have interpreted a particular scene in an entirely different manner than what was storyboarded. This final phase of storyboarding is when concerns should be discussed and worked into updated depictions of each shot. Only once the appropriate individuals have all signed off in agreement on the storyboards should the project move forward to production.

This final step in how to storyboard exemplifies why the process is so critical to a successful film production. Even the most modest of films require significant collaboration between dozens if not hundreds — or even thousands — of individuals. While executing the vision of the screenplay is of primary importance, into that execution is a considerable investment of time and financial resources. Few productions have an open-ended budget, which is why storyboarding well can help to save precious dollars and energy later.

Many filmmakers are eager to make the leap from script to production as soon as possible. But if in the position of heading up a film project, they should recognize that a thought-out set of storyboards will be much appreciated by the rest of the filmmaking team, making how to storyboard a vital part of a successful film production.

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Script Writing Basics: Creating a Story That Stands Out

Script Writing Basics: Creating a Story That Stands Out

Why do the basics of great script writing matter?

Because a professional Script Reader might read eight or nine scripts in a single day. That’s nearly 50 scripts a week. Over 2,000 scripts a year. And that’s not including the “favor” scripts they agree to read for friends and friends of friends on weeknights and weekends. Managers, Agents and Development Executives have an endless pile of scripts on their desks as well.

These professionals are typically the gatekeepers through which Writers make it to earn fellowships, win contests and get meetings. So to truly stand out from the thousands of competing stories vying for the attention of these individuals, stellar script writing is key.

And for a Screenwriter to rise to the top, it’s essential that they master not just one but all of the following script writing fundamentals:

  1. Unique premise
  2. Memorable world
  3. Distinct, engaging characters
  4. Suspenseful plot
  5. Cathartic climax & resolution

Unique Premise

Every great script begins with a compelling premise. A shark terrorizes an east coast community over the Fourth of July. An adventurous Archeologist searches for the lost Ark before the Nazis find it. A young boy tries to hide and protect an alien left behind on earth.

The above concepts might all belong to Steven Spielberg films, but they’re also some of the most iconic movies ever produced. Why? Because at the time, those stories had never been seen before. Spielberg — and his Screenwriter collaborators — found a hook in each story that got people to not only pay attention but also want to know more.

That can be an overwhelming challenge to an aspiring Writer. After all, what story hasn’t been told at this point? It sounds simple, but in many regards, the first step to great script writing is asking one simple question: “Would I want to see this story?” While few scripts will appeal to all demographics, by keying in on a novel concept or putting a twist on an established genre, a unique premise will invoke curiosity and interest.

Memorable World

Let’s go back to those concepts. Beyond hooking the audience with a unique premise, each story was brought to life through the creation of a believable, three-dimensional world — and that world begins long before a camera shoots it. It always starts on the page.

It’s important to note that a screenplay is not a novel where lengthy, and sometimes flowery, descriptions of the world are common. In a script, economy of space is vital. Which makes it all the more essential that a Writer knows how to describe and build a world with minimal words.

World-building also applies to all genres. Some Screenwriters might think it’s applicable only for fantasy or sci-fi stories, but it’s just as important to create a fully fleshed out world for an intimate, character-driven story set in Omaha, Nebraska as it is for a large, action-driven piece set on Krypton. For Writers who prefer to set their stories in a real locale — don’t be complacent about creating that world because of the assumption that the audience already knows it.

It sounds simple, but in many regards, the first step to great script writing is asking one simple question: “Would I want to see this story?”

Distinct, Engaging Characters

When deciding on characters for a story, here’s a good rule of thumb for Writers: you should know who is saying what even if you remove the character headings from the script.

Characters should not be interchangeable. Each one must have a distinct voice that is separate from every other character in that story. But how to develop those distinct voices? While not mandatory to create a memorable cast of characters, many Writers choose to write backgrounds for each of their characters. Others have a list of questions that they answer for their protagonists and antagonists. Both exercises serve to provide more specificity for their characters, which helps to make them more distinct. Again, think Quint from Jaws, Elliott from E.T. or the titular Indiana Jones. It doesn’t matter if the character seems larger than life or like the boy next door. They should all make an impression that sticks with the audience.

Script writing, as it applies to characters, also means making each character count. Some Writers like large ensemble casts, as it often translates to more opportunities for conflict and dialogue. But another question that a Screenwriter must ask themselves is whether or not every character serves the story. In short, are they helping to move the plot forward? If not, merge that character into another or remove them entirely.

Suspenseful Plot

Speaking of plot, a logically and thematically sound plot is crucial to any script. Writers should keep in mind, though, that logic doesn’t necessarily mean what makes sense in the real world. They can make up any rules they want for their story, but those rules need to both fit together and build upon one another. Whatever the logic, it must make sense for that particular world.

Another question to ask: what is the story really about? Is it just about an Archaeologist finding a lost piece of history or is it about the forces of good overcoming evil? While the plot should move along the action and progress of the story, it should also be continually building upon the larger themes of the story, whether that’s love, redemption, independence or any other human experience. Because while a fast-paced race to find the Ark of the Covenant can be fun to watch, it’s the larger themes of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark that make the audience care about whether or not Indy will be successful.

And when it comes down to it, that’s really what sets apart expert script writing from the rest — caring about where the story goes. The truth is that if someone doesn’t care about the story by page 10 — or sometimes earlier — they likely will not invest the time and energy to see if they change their minds by page 90. A Writer must immediately set the stage for a suspenseful plot that keeps the audience wanting to follow through until the end.

Keep in mind, though, that a suspenseful story doesn’t have to mean stakes as high as saving a community from a man-eating shark or helping an alien get back to his home planet. It can mean a reconciliation between an estranged father and son or a couple finding out that they’re going to adopt the baby they’ve always wanted. But for the audience to care about those outcomes, not only do Writers have to find a unique premise with which to draw them in, create a world that immerses the reader or viewer and draw characters that feel authentic and memorable, but also they have to build a plot that takes the audience willingly along to find out what happens.

It takes time, persistence and energy to hone the skills that will make for a great read. It’s not uncommon for Writers to get the attention of a Manager or have a script optioned only after they’ve written a dozen or more other stories that never see the light of day.

Cathartic Climax & Resolution

When the audience does find out what happens — that Brody blows up the shark or that E.T. does go home — how will they feel? Will they think the outcome was warranted? That there is satisfaction in how the final climax leads to the resolution? It’s up to the Writer to give the reader not necessarily what they want but rather what the story needs.

Some people may have been shocked and saddened that not only was Quint not the one to kill the shark, but also he was the victim of it. Sure, he could have lived, but then would it have been as compelling to see Brody — a man who is admittedly afraid of water — be the one to step up and kill the shark? Not the lifelong shark hunter, not the academic shark expert, but instead an urban Sheriff who came to find that moving his family to a sleepy little town could be more terrifying than New York City?

A Writer should always be looking for the climax and resolution that makes sense for the story and characters, and sometimes that means going against what they think the audience wants. For instance, Rhett doesn’t stay with Scarlett. R.P. McMurphy never escapes the psychiatric ward. Jack dies before he and Rose can be rescued. They’re all bittersweet yet ultimately satisfying endings precisely because they adhere to the way the final climax was executed.

Additional Script Writing Reminders

Sometimes it can feel like Writers are creating in a void, which is why it’s essential to find trusted individuals from whom to get feedback. For some Writers, that means joining a writing group. For others, it’s finding one or two objective colleagues who agree to read their material. But whatever the relationship, having someone to read drafts is critical before a Writer tries to submit to a contest, fellowship or development professional.

Having even one other person to read their script and give notes can help a Writer know if they’re adhering to all of the above tenets of good script writing. While screenwriting is a highly subjective craft, it always helps to get the opinion of a trusted individual — especially if their feedback falls short of expectations. From there, a Writer can evaluate those notes and see if it makes sense to incorporate them into their work.

Finally, Writers should remember that excellent script writing is a marathon and not a sprint. It takes time, persistence and energy to hone the skills that will make for a great read. It’s not uncommon for Writers to get the attention of a Manager or have a script optioned only after they’ve written a dozen or more other stories that never see the light of day. Just as with any other trade, practice and patience are key. But with a dedication to evolving and improving their script writing, any aspiring Screenwriter can stand out from the pack.

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Who Does What on a Film Crew?

Who Does What on a Film Crew?

On a movie set, the film crew keeps the machine we call production running smoothly. The crew is a well-oiled machine that follows traditions as old as cinema itself, and for a newcomer, it might be hard to distinguish who all these people are and where one might fit in. Examining the credits at the end of a film helps, but it doesn’t necessarily explain it all.

Though everyone may not be familiar with the terms “above the line” and “below the line,” most people are definitely more familiarized with the “above the line” crew – the Writer, the Director, the Producer, the Actors…. But the busy factory of a movie set is made up of so many more important people that have been categorized as “below the line.” Though the term may suggest that “below the line” may be less important, that is the farthest thing from the truth. A film set can’t run without everyone you see running around and everyone down to the PA is important.

Understanding what makes up a film crew can help you not only figure out where you might fit in at the start of your career but even as a filmmaker, it will help you understand the team you will need to execute your vision. Let’s break down the departments to help you understand more.

A film crew consists of:

  1. Production Office
  2. Assistant Director(s)
  3. Art Department
  4. Camera Department
  5. Grip and Electric
  6. Sound
  7. Costume Department
  8. Editorial

Production Office

Let’s start with the production office. The ruler of the roost in the production office is the Line Producer. Under the Line Producer, you have the Unit Production Manager (UPM), who works with a Production Coordinator (POC) and the Assistant Production Coordinator (APOC) to make sure that the production runs smoothly. The Line Producer is the “on the ground” Producer who manages the budget, while the UPM, the POC, and the APOC are administrative positions that get the job done. There are other positions in the production office, but these folks are the backbone.

Assistant Director (The AD)

The Assistant Director is probably the most misnamed crew member. Though the AD does “assist” the Director, the real role of the AD is to run the set. The AD has the responsibility to keep the crew on task and on schedule and is the link between the Producers and the Director. “Making the day” or completing everything that’s on the schedule falls on the AD. The AD is also very much a part of creating the schedule and is the one in charge of getting call sheets out and wrangling all departments. You need something from the Director during production? You’ll have to go through the AD to get to her!

Safety is also a top priority for the AD, so if there is a safety hazard on set, the AD should know about it. Luckily the AD has a team to get the job done. Depending on the size of the production, there is a Second or Third AD (sometimes called the 2nd 2nd) as well as PAs. The First PA that many PAs report to is usually poised to be an AD, himself. It’s an intense gig.

Art Department

The Art Department is in charge of all the set design and dressing. The head of the department is the Production Designer, who collaborates with the Director and the DP to fulfill the Director’s vision of what the sets will be and how they will be decorated. The Art Director is the person who is in charge of executing this plan like a Contractor, and the Set Decorator is the one who takes either the built set or the location set and adds all the necessary set dressing, from furniture down to the details of the story, such as tossed clothes in a messy room or the aftermath of a crazy party. Think about that hotel room in The Hangover!

Another member of this department is props. The Prop Master is in charge of all the props in the script – a gun, fake wine, or even jewelry if it is crucial to the story. The Prop Master has a team to both construct them and keep track of them during production. The Art Department must work closely with the Camera Department; Camera communicates to Art what they are actually going to be getting in a shot, because if the camera isn’t going to point somewhere, no need to decorate that space.

The Assistant Director is probably the most misnamed crew member. Though the AD does “assist” the Director, the real role of the AD is to run the set. The AD has the responsibility to keep the crew on task and on schedule and is the link between the Producers and the Director.

Camera Department

In the Camera Department, you have the Director of Photography (DP) who works with the Director to establish the look of the film and how it will be shot.

The Camera Operator operates the camera under the DP’s guidance, actually getting the shots, while the 1st Assistant Camera (1st AC) pulls focus. The 1st AC also runs the department. He works with a 2nd AC who keeps track of the footage, recording things in camera reports and slating each take, as well as swapping out the camera cards. A Data Wrangler is in charge of offloading and backing up the footage. In some cases, this is done by a Data Image Technician (DIT), who will color the footage to the DP’s specs so it can be viewed on set. Sometimes, the Director and DP will want shots with a Steadicam. This requires a Steadicam Operator, who operates the camera with a special rig. This particular rig allows the Camera Operator to move the camera smoothly – almost like a dolly. Most Steadicam Operators come with their own rig, unlike other camera or lighting equipment.

Grip and Electric
Within the Camera Department is the Grip and Electric Department (G & E). This is the crew that lights the set and harnesses the electricity to run those lights – this can be hard wired or through a generator. The Gaffer is the head electrician that is in charge of lighting design under the direction of the DP. The Gaffer’s Key Grip executes the lighting design and the Best Boy assists. The Dolly Grip is the one who attaches the camera to the dolly (and pushes it) and a Swing can bounce between Camera and Electric.

Script Supervisor
The Script Supervisor appears to be a lone wolf, but he is part of the Camera Department. The Script Supervisor, endearingly known as “ the Scripty” has a huge responsibility. During pre-production, he will make sure there are no inconsistencies in the script as well as give estimates of the film’s timing. During the shoot, the Script Supervisor is still keeping track of timing but is also keeping track of coverage — ensuring that there are enough pieces to cut the film together, making sure there is continuity between takes, and keeping track of stage direction, all while taking copious notes and generating daily reports.

Most of what the Scripty does is for the Editorial Department. Because the Editor is not on set, the Script Supervisor is the one who communicates all the details from the day to the Editorial Department — what the Director intended or any problems that arose while shooting (bad sound, etc). It’s all about keeping the Editor in the loop. For example, large scenes are often covered in more than one day, so the Scripty makes sure the Editor knows that more footage is coming so he doesn’t start cutting without all the material.

A supportive PA is every department’s dream. Many people often get a general PA position right off the bat, but if you want to move up the ladder, it’s a good idea to target a department that strikes your fancy.

Sound

The Sound Mixer records all the sounds from a scene, the obvious being the dialog. However, every production sound needs to be recorded – the door opening, the engine of a car starting, the glass slammed down on a bar, etc. A Sound Mixer will put microphones on the Actors and a Boom Operator will hold a microphone above the Actors’ heads as they speak. They record wild lines and room tone, which are are useful tools for post-production.

Costume Department

The Costume Designer is a department head, like the Production Designer, who is brought onto a project early on. She works closely with the Director and the Production Designer to design the costumes and has them made or purchased. On set, there is usually a Wardrobe Supervisor who has a crew that keeps track of the costumes and has them ready and organized for each Actor and each scene.

Editorial

Tucked away in a dark room, usually far away from set, you will find the Editor and her team. At the very least there will be an Editor and Assistant Editor. The more footage and the tighter the deadline, the bigger the team is. The Assistant Editor organizes the notes from the Script Supervisor as well as the footage in the editing system, making sure that all the scenes shot have made it into the project (which includes checking a lot of paperwork). As soon as the footage is ready, the Editor starts editing, making sure everything the production team is getting is working.

Finding Your Home on a Set

With all these people on set operating in a military fashion to keep the production on track, film crews always feel like they never have enough time or people to get the job done. A supportive PA is every department’s dream. Many people often get a general PA position right off the bat, but if you want to move up the ladder, it’s a good idea to target a department that strikes your fancy. If you get to a department and you don’t like it, stay positive, do a good job and try another one on the next gig. If you do a good job, people are happy to refer you.

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How to Fit the Production Assistant Job Description & Land a Film Crew Gig

How to Fit the Production Assistant Job Description & Land a Film Crew Gig

Most of us have a strong desire to perform in an above-the-line role on film and TV sets. Those roles range from Producer to Director to Director of Photography. Many of us even desire below-the-line roles like Unit Production Manager, Assistant Director, or Gaffer. However, the film and television industry is still very much a blue-collar, apprenticeship-oriented vocation and it is very reluctant to let newbies and recent film graduates to just slide into one of those positions – and with good reason. Film school teaches you the basics in a student-level environment and until you work in the film and TV field, on professionally run sets, then you still have a lot to learn. That’s why Production Assistants – the often unsung, but extremely important – heroes of production are a necessary part of any film, video, or TV shoot.

So let’s dive into what it means to be a Production Assistant by explaining:

  1. Production Assistant job description
  2. What makes a great Production Assistant?
  3. Targeting the best department as a Production Assistant
  4. Finding work as a Production Assistant

Production Assistant Job Description

A Production Assistant or PA is a role that is far more important than most people know outside of the film and TV industry. A PA is often thought of as an assistant, and while this is true to some degree, this “Assistant” role is far-reaching and encompassing of several skills and abilities. A PA can exist in nearly every department including producing, production management, the writing department, casting, the camera department, the art department, locations, and even the wardrobe department.

What makes a great Production Assistant?

Attitude and gumption are everything as a PA. Here are the defining traits of an excellent Production Assistant.

Have a Fantastic Attitude: There is a lot of grunt work that accompanies almost any PA job. It’s difficult and PAs are pulled in several directions by department heads, Coordinators, and other production industry employees in lead roles. On any given day, regardless of the department, you may be asked to make copies, make and deliver coffee, label and distribute walkies, attend meetings and take comprehensive notes, take lunch orders and make sure they are correct, organize files, handle phone calls, and take out the trash. It is so important to roll with the punches and have a great attitude while accomplishing goals. Don’t take anything personally.

Be an Amazing Listener: A great PA keeps both ears open and listens carefully to direction. Producers, Directors, Production Managers, Production Coordinators, and various department leads are busy during pre-production, production, and post-production. They don’t have time to repeat directions, so pay close attention.

Write Comprehensive Notes: A successful PA takes comprehensive notes to make sure he or she doesn’t miss something. Write notes on a pad and then photograph your notes just in case you lose your note pad. I take notes on my phone, however, it’s important to keep in mind that writing notes on your phone may seem like you’re texting or distracted, so writing in a note pad sends a clear message that you’re writing tasks down. Then, email yourself those notes just in case you misplace your phone.

When in Doubt, Ask Questions: Yes, you should be paying attention and writing down notes, but sometimes, something doesn’t make sense when someone gives you a task. It’s ok to think about it for a moment and then ask clear questions that help clarify. A Producer would rather you understand the direction instead of just trying to wing it and get the task wrong.

Stop Obviously Competing: Some new PAs come off as competitive, trying to do everything in spite of the other PAs who are available to help with the workload. They jump on every task and never admit when they are overwhelmed. It comes off as desperate. Stop it and be a team player. Share the work and don’t bite off more than you can chew. It doesn’t mean don’t work hard – it just means don’t be too anxious and frenetic.

Anticipate Needs: After a while, a smart PA will anticipate the needs of his or her department. A PA will start to develop the ability to think 2 to 3 steps ahead, realizing when someone wants coffee, when lunch orders need to be taken, when script copies will be needed, and when an office will need to be set up for an incoming executive or new employee. The PA who can see what’s coming is invaluable and in demand.

A successful PA takes comprehensive notes to make sure he or she doesn’t miss something. Write notes on a pad and then photograph your notes just in case you lose your note pad.

Targeting the Best Department as a Production Assistant

Early in your career, you should have some indication of what you’re drawn to in the film and television industry. Therefore, you should be thinking about the type of PA job you want. Do you want to be a Producer or work in the Art Department? Do you want to get your hands on camera gear or learn the nuts and bolts in production management? Whichever department is most attractive, don’t be hesitant to seek out those roles and don’t be shy when asked, “What department do you want to work in?” Too many first time PAs jump into whatever role is available, and that may be OK. Sometimes, you just want to get your foot in the door and if all the production has is a Craft Services PA, then go for it. However, if they ask you about a specific PA role, go for the position that gets you as close to the department you eventually want to work in.

You should also be thinking about whether you want to work in the office or on set. Here are some basic departments to consider:

  • Office: Production, Post-production, Casting, Development, Writing
  • Set: Assistant Directing, Camera, Grip, Electric, Locations, Costuming, Craft Services

Here are some resources to find work as a Production Assistant:

If you work hard, show up 15 minutes early every day, listen, take notes, pay attention, and anticipate needs, you will be wanted by everyone who has worked with you. A strong PA is indispensable and in high-demand.

Should I Work for Free?

The short answer? No. However, there are exceptions. If you have zero experience as a PA, then perhaps volunteering on an independent production like a short film or webisode may be an option to gain some experience. Here’s what you should be wary of: job postings that promise an award-winning Director, name talent, and working with a professional crew. When I read that, my first question is: if they are so advanced, then why can’t they pay their crew? It sounds like nonsense to me. However, if you really need some experience, then perhaps volunteering on at most three free gigs will help build your resume. At least make sure they have insurance so that if you get hurt on the job, you can be covered. After three free gigs, stop working for free!

Tips on Rates

What should a Production Assistant be paid? Depending on the market, you should be paid at least minimum wage in your area. In Los Angeles, the general rule of thumb is $186.50 for a 12-hour day. That takes into consideration 8 hours of straight time plus 4 hours of overtime. After that, you should be paid overtime for the next 4 hours and then it goes up from there based on local labor laws.

The general rate for experienced PAs is $200 for a 12 hour day. The highest would be $250/12 to $300/12 for a Key PA or really seasoned PA, depending on the department.

How Long to PA

One to three years tops. After that, you should be looking into APOC (Assistant Production Office Coordinator), PC (Production Coordinator), or different types of Assistant roles like AC (Assistant Camera), AP (Associate Producer), 2nd AD (2nd Assistant Director), or Wardrobe Assistant roles. After three years, it’s time to advocate for advancement in your career. You can’t PA forever and you shouldn’t PA forever.

Learn While You Earn

Being a Production Assistant gives you insight into how productions and sets are really run and you will be able to learn while you earn. If you work hard, show up 15 minutes early every day, listen, take notes, pay attention, and anticipate needs, you will be wanted by everyone who has worked with you. A strong PA is indispensable and in high-demand. So, get out there and assist productions like a pro!

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