Sunday, April 21, 2013

What's Expected of a Student Assistant Director?

Continuing our "What's Expected" series, let's now take a look at what makes a good Assistant Director, or 1st AD, for student productions.

1. Keep Your Team Safe. Hold a "safety meeting" every morning, outlining basic safe practices, specifying a rally point in case of emergency, and letting the crew know if anything unusual will be happening on set that day (such as pyro, smoke, wind machines, smoke, gunplay, etc.). The safety of the cast and crew is your responsibility (and that of the Key Grip) throughout the shoot day. If you see anything unsafe, it's your obligation to stop work until the unsafe conditions can be corrected.

2. Get a Handle on the Shotlist. Before each shoot day, make sure you have a copy of the shotlist from the director and DP. Do some quick math and estimate how long they're going to have for each setup. The average shoot day is twelve hours long, but when you subtract initial setup time, lunch, etc., you're lucky if you have 10 hours, or 600 useable minutes of production time. A shotlist of 60 shots means your team will have 10 minutes per shot - kind of unrealistic for a student crew. So do the math and advise your director and DP on ways they can condense, combine, and eliminate unnecessary shots.

3. Manage Comms. Your job is dependent on communication. Headset radios (a.k.a. "comms") will be your best friend. Get comms distributed to department heads first thing in the morning. Determine which channels will be used and let everyone know. Insist on proper radio etiquette. All conversations should begin with the speaker self-identifying and then requesting the specific person or persons they want to speak to. "AD for director," for example, or using first names. Repeat requests back to the other person to indicate comprehension and action. For example: "Director for AD, please send in the actors." "AD, actors inbound." Set the tone on radio etiquette for your team and stick to it.

4. Watch the Clock. A wristwatch or a timer is one of your most valuable tools on set. Track those minutes as they tick by. Keep the director and DP abreast the need to move on to the next setup (based on the math you did in item #2). Balance your need to regularly make them aware of the time with their need to focus and create. You're also in charge of managing the timetables of grip & electric, hair & makeup, and wardrobe. Get time estimates from all departments and check back with them to ensure they stick to their estimates. Alert departments regarding the estimated completion time of items they're waiting on. For example, letting the director and DP know when hair, makeup, and wardrobe will complete their work and release actors to set. You're the timekeeper for everyone on set and off. You call lunch break and you call when work resumes.

5. Make the Calls. Technically it is your job to call "quiet on set," "roll camera," and the like. Some directors like to do that themselves, but technically it's your responsibility. At the very least you should be the one to announce to the crew when camera is going to roll ("Quiet on set!"), when another take is being done ("Going again!"), and when the director is ready to move to the next shot ("Moving on!"). Be the person to repeat the director's commands in a loud, booming voice (or over comms as necessary) so the rest of the crew clearly understands what's happening.

6. Wrangle the Cast. Shuttling actors on and off set is your responsibility. Deliver actors to the director when requested, and release actors back to their green room (waiting area) when required, or when you see that the crew is making changes that will take longer than a few moments. In particular remember your #1 job - keep the team safe - and remove actors from set when heavy equipment is being moved, lights are being raised or lowered, or any time you think they might get injured.

7. Follow Abby Singer's Lead. Abby Singer was a Hollywood AD and Production Manager in the 1940's and 50's who exemplified efficiency with his crews. He was the first to realize that when a crew got to "This shot and one more," clean-up could be expedited by immediately beginning to pack any equipment not being used on those last two shots. Nowadays we call the second-to-last shot of the day "the Abby Singer" in his honor. So do like Abby and get your crew working on clean-up as soon as you see that there are only two shots left for the day. That way once "the Martini" (a.k.a. the last shot of the day) is in the can, everyone gets out and gets home more quickly - and you look like the best AD, ever.

8. Make Your Day. This goes hand-in-hand with watching the clock - make sure the director and DP get the footage in the can that they need to tell the story. A day that finishes on time but leaves out important shots or moments from the script isn't a "made day." And a day that goes past 12 hours isn't a "made day" either. If the shoot begins to fall behind - and you know that from the math you did back in step #2 - then it's on you to help the director get control of the shot list, further streamline it, and make the day.

9. Be a Jerk. A crew that works hard all day but goes home on time is happier than a crew that slacks off all day and runs into (unpaid) overtime. Remember that. If you're everyone's pal all day long, you won't be anyone's pal once hour 15 or 16 rolls around. So crack that whip and keep everyone on task!

10. Take Care of Your Crew. Lastly, work with the producers to ensure that the production sticks to the "12 on, 12 off" model - no more than 12 hours of work followed by no less than 12 hours of down time before the next shoot. Stick to that and your crew will love you - no matter how hard you drive them during the production day!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Avid Capturing Tutorial

Following up on our "DV Deck Configuration" tutorial, here is a two-part lesson on capturing tapes and importing media into Avid Media Composer.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

UAT DV Vlog: Behind the Scenes of "Ouroboros"

We're kicking off a new semi-regular feature, the UAT DV Vlog, which will offer behind the scenes looks at our students and faculty in action on set and in the studio. Here's our first installment, a look at the filming of our new sci-fi film "Ouroboros."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What's Expected of a Student Director of Photography

Continuing our "What's Expected" series, it's now time to take a look at what makes for a successful student director of photography, or DP.

1. Develop a Visual Vocabulary for the Film. As the Director of Photography, your primary responsibility is to assist the Director in interpreting his or her vision of the story on the page into compelling images on the screen. That means thoroughly reading the script and spending time with the Director discussing non-visual things like theme, character arcs, mood, and emotional beats, as well as visual elements like camera movement, color, light, and shadow. Firm understanding of those non-visual elements buried inside the text will enable you to effectively communicate those deeper elements to the audience through your lighting, lens choices, camera moves, and overall visual style. And that understanding will also enable you to quickly improvise, make changes to your plan, or simplify your methodology on set without compromising the artistic integrity of the film.

2. Lead by Example. You're the "Captain of the Crew" in that the Camera, Grip, and Electrical Departments all report directly to you. They will look to you for direction and approval for everything they do on set. But more importantly, your behavior shapes theirs. A DP who is chronically late to set will train their crew to not have any urgency to get going in the morning. A DP who leaves set while the rest of the crew is cleaning and packing gear will show the crew that their work isn't respected. And a DP who publicly battles with the Director or even goes so far as to direct actors diminishes the Director in the eyes of the crew.

3. Manage Your Equipment. As far as camera, grip, and electric equipment goes, it's your responsibility to reserve it as soon as a shoot is scheduled, check it out of the Library the night before the shoot, inspect it thoroughly, charge all batteries, clean all lenses, confirm that bulbs light up, make sure monitors have all their cables, etc. While your crew will be responsible for much of this on set, you do yourself and your team no favors if you haven't inspected everything beforehand. What's more, you don't know who might have checked out your gear before you or how they may have left it. Don't assume that a camera is set to the right ISO, white balance, or frame rate. Be sure. Check it. Dial in your settings the night before so your AC can literally set up the camera without you in the morning while you go over the day's shot list with the Director.

4. Brush up on Your Fundamentals. In the heat of production, you're going to be expected to execute the plan and solve any problems that come up, quickly and efficiently. To do that you need a strong grasp of all the fundamentals of cameras, lenses, depth of field, lighting, and grip equipment. Review terminology, techniques, and important steps from classes like DVA241 and Cinematography. Knowing the difference between "move the lamp left" and "pan the lamp left," remembering the names of the three positions of an apple box, and grasping the key visual differences of all the lenses in your kit will make you a more effective and more efficient DP.

5. Delegate. It's very tempting to just try to do everything yourself, especially on the first day with a new crew. But resist the urge to change your own lenses, move your own lights, or even pull your own focus. Your crew is there to make your job easier, not stand around and watch you do theirs. Trust them and empower them to do their best work in support of your vision of the film. Your AC is there to manage your camera rig, change your lenses and batteries and memory cards, put down marks for the actors, take focus measurements, pull focus for you, and keep the camera log. Your Key Grip is there to manage your grip equipment and your grip crew. Likewise your Gaffer is there to manage the lights and the electrical crew. Delegate jobs to the right person and let them do their thing, but be ready to give guidance and approval as soon as they are needed.

6. Nail Your Focus. It may be your AC's job to pull focus, but it's your responsibility to make sure it's right. Our newer, large-sensor cameras give us beautifully shallow depth of field but also make nailing critical focus more difficult than ever. Work with your AC to set marks, take measurements, and use all our monitoring tools to check focus again and again to be sure it's sharp. Consider the aperture of your lens. Do you need to shoot so wide open that your depth of field is so shallow that if an actor breathes, he's out of focus? Probably not. Should you be shooting so closed-down that almost everything in your shot is in focus? Again, probably not. Check those settings, make your marks, and make sure it's sharp before you roll camera.

7. Shoot with VFX in Mind. Visual Effects are part and parcel of what we do here at UAT. You're going to need to light greenscreens, pay attention to tracking markers, and add interactive lighting for effects that should be emitting light into the scene. You may have to compose shots for elements that aren't there and won't exist for months. You may have to shoot actors separately with the intent of having them composited together by the VFX team. All of this requires you to have at least a basic handle on visual effects work and the ability to previsualize the final outcome of a shot so you can provide the VFX team with the raw materials they need to make it happen.

8. Watch Dailies. Watch your footage while the film is still in production. Don't wait til the end. You should be watching footage every day, hence the name "dailies." That means you're probably staying later than the rest of the crew, or you're taking footage home with you, or you're arriving an hour before everyone else in the morning. Whatever you have to do, do it. Because you can't improve upon yesterday's performance unless you see the footage with your own eyes and assess what you could have done better.

9. Manage Color. Shoot with the flattest dynamic range possible. Adjust the picture settings on your camera to give you the most information in the highlights and the shadows so you can dial in your final look in post. Then make sure you manage the color grading process or even better still, grade the film yourself. The color grade can dramatically change the look of a film, just make sure you aren't handing the responsibility for that off to someone else. Ultimately the image still belongs to you as DP, and you need to be satisfied with the final product.

10. Develop Your Own Style. Finally, start to develop your own signature. You can always tell a Gordon Willis film from a Wally Pfister film from a Roger Deakins film. Figure out what makes a film uniquely yours, the type of shots you want to be known for, or the type of lighting that feels like your signature. Put some of yourself as an artist into everything you shoot, no matter who is directing, no matter what the genre. But make sure it serves the story and isn't just "cool for cool's sake." A bad DP lets his or her personal style overwhelm the substance of a film. A good DP serves the story first and foremost. But the great DPs know how to serve a story while also expressing their personal style in harmony with the rest of the film.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Phoenix Film Festival 2013 Kicks Off on Thursday!

Arizona's premiere celebration of film and filmmakers kicks off its 13th outing this Thursday, April 4th and as usual, UAT Digital Video faculty and students will be in attendance. Here are some of our picks for this year's festival:

High School Shorts
Featuring Audience Award winner of the 2012 UAT DV Festival, "Recipe for Love," directed by UAT DV Festival Grand Prize Winner and future UAT student Gwyneth Christoffel!

Friday 4/5 @ 3:15 pm
Saturday 4/6 @ 9:25 am

Arizona Shorts
Including UAT DV's 48-Hour Film Challenge Winner, "Screaming in Silence," directed by student Neil Sparks, produced by student Caleb Evans, and written by Professor Paul DeNigris.

Saturday 4/6 @1:05 pm
Sunday 4/7 @ 4:15 pm

Feature film by friend of the DV Program Paul Osborne. A must-see.

Friday 4/5 @7:45 pm
Saturday 4/6 @9:!5 am
Sunday 4/7 @2 pm

Check out the full schedule HERE. See you at the festival!

Monday, April 1, 2013

What's Expected of a Student Producer

Continuing from last week's "What's Expected of a Student Director," let's turn our attention to the person who makes the director's job possible - the producer. Producing can be a thankless job, one that many people - even people in the industry, sometimes - don't quite understand.

So what, exactly, is the job all about?

1. Breaking It Down. Producers thrive on "breakdowns." The Script Breakdown is a master list of every scene in the script and every character, prop, set, vehicle, etc. that will be required to film those scenes. The Casting Breakdown is the list of the characters in the film and the brief descriptions of the types of actors you want to read for those roles. The "Day out of Days" is another type of breakdown, used for scheduling actors ("Actor X is on set for 3 days out of a total of 10 days of filming," for example.)

2. Doing Paperwork. The paperwork doesn't end with the breakdowns. If you're using Screen Actors Guild actors, you need to file paperwork with the Guild 6 weeks before you start production. Once SAG approves your production, you sign more paperwork and become "SAG signatory," meaning you've now entered into a contract with the Guild. And that spawns more paperwork - actor contracts, time sheets, final production reports.

3. Wrangling Locations. If you want to shoot off-campus, you need to help your director find the locations that will work for the film. Then it's your job to get them to agree to let you film there. If it's a public location, you'll have to work with the local film office to get a permit (more paperwork). And a public or commercial location will most likely expect the production to have insurance - which UAT can provide after you do (you guessed it) more paperwork.

4. Scheduling. Your actors - SAG or otherwise - probably have day jobs. Your crew members have other classes, homework, part time jobs, social lives. Your locations have restrictions on when you can film there. Equipment gets reserved for other productions. Juggling all these factors to find the best times to get everyone and everything on set at the right times can be a full-time job unto itself.

5. Issuing Call Sheets. 12 to 24 hours before filming begins, it's your job to send out a call sheet to all cast and crew that includes the location address, call times for everyone to arrive on set, contact info for you and other key personnel, even the address of the nearest hospital in case someone is hurt on set. And as each shoot day wraps up, it's your job to issue the next day's call sheet.

6. Sticking to "12 On, 12 Off." Shoot days can be LONG. On student and indie projects they can get out of hand and go 16 hours or more. It's your job as producer to stick to a policy of no more than 12 hours of work on any one day, and no less than 12 hours off between wrap time on one day and call time on the next. Sometimes your director will work against you on this, going longer than planned. It's your job to encourage the director to wrap, or it's on you to revise your call time for the next day lest you incur the ire of your crew.

6. Feeding the Team. Like an army, a film crew moves on its stomach. A well-stocked craft services table, a constant flow of water, sports drinks, and coffee, bagels in the morning, and a hearty lunch halfway through the day will keep things running smoothly. And if you're working with SAG, remember to feed your actors at the 6 hour mark or risk violating your contract!

7. Preparing "Sides." Every day on set you need to provide the day's script pages - a.k.a. "sides" - to all department heads. These sides need to be half the normal size of script pages (i.e., two pages side by side on an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper) and must only include the materials being shot today (meaning anything else gets blacked out with Sharpie). This is a daily task that on a bigger production would fall to a Production Coordinator or an Office PA, but since this is a student film - you're it.

8. Missing All the Action. You're going to be so busy making sure the next shoot day will go off without a hitch, that you're probably not going to be on set much, if at all. If you thrive on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, then the producer gig isn't for you.

9. Getting Very Little Credit. Once the film is done, everyone is going to talk to the director, congratulate the director, praise the director, and credit the director for everything that went right in the film. No one in the general audience even comprehends everything you did to make the film possible, so try not to take it personally if they overlook you.

10. Realizing That You Are Now a Professional. In spite of all that, try and remember that there's a reason why it's the producer who gets the "Best Picture" Oscar at the Academy Awards - because without the producer, there is no movie. And now that you've been through this experience, you're ready for just about anything the industry is going to throw at you!