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The following paragraphs document lessons we learned during production of A Journey of Hope. Lessons are sorted by phase encountered, and by category within phase.
When doing a not-for-profit shoot, one doesn't have to give away the store: The first working agreement giving the sponsor full rights to the production, allowing them to pass title onto others, was not necessary: the sponsor only needed a perpetual license to use the work. Two cast members had their agents review the participant to producer working agreement. Both agents had objections to surrendering full rights.
Follow up and reminder phone calls are helpful: One cast member never got the production schedule in the mail. Another cast member instead told the first about the shoot on two days in advance. The first cast mamber did get the script, however. Had someone made follow up phone calls, we would have caught the error sooner.
Have a reading rehearsal for all cast and crew: We did not have any rehearsals and everyone did the first shoot "cold." We had some problems with talent getting used to lines and crew getting used to equipment. Had we taken an extra day for us to read the script together and practice shooting, we could have worked out some bugs ahead of time.
Focus on creature comforts: We asked many people to volunteer their time without pay. But there were some simple things that we could have done to make people feel more appreciated. The sponsor provided lunch and a team member brought in water and sometimes cookies. But we did not schedule breaks so people could have enjoyed their food in peace. We did not make sure talent had easily access to the water on set under hot lights. Someone thought of bringing some books for people to browse while waiting but did not; it would have been nice if we had.
Add discriminators to character descriptions: Several discriminators are referenced multiple times in the script. For example, ALICE and BOB have been married for eleven years, have an elementary school aged son, and so on. Make sure the character descriptions explicitly note these discriminators: don't expect talent to discover discriminators buried in the dialog. This will help talent remember key details while acting out a character.
Diagram character relationships: In software development, we use Entity Relationship diagrams to show how various pieces of data relate. It would be helpful to have an ER like diagram for a script that shows at a glance how the characters relate to each other.
Add a timeline or timetable to the script: This work was a chronology: BOB beats ALICE, ALICE calls hot line, ALICE visits shelter, ALICE gets job, BOB gets help. Those are the major events, but there are several minor events: GINA arrives at the shelter before either HEATHER or ALICE. After leaving the shelter, ALICE gets a job, HEATHER changes apartments, GINA dumps her abusive boyfriend. A time line or table documenting what happens when would be helpful.
For example, consider GINA's line, "I don't know what you're complaining about Alice. I mean a hundred and eighty degree turn-around in just a few days." Is "days" the appropriate word here? Or should it be weeks or months? As it stands, the line implies ALICE did an about-face and made some sudden, remarkable progress. The word "weeks" implies a more gradual process. Had we written out a time line, we would have put more thought into such issues.
People want feedback: They need both constructive criticism and praise. A cast member asked the director for constructive criticism during break, in spite of a good performance: the director just didn't say anything negative or positive.
If a shot is not going well, it's best for the director to act: Call "cut," fix the problem, and start the shot again. Don't worry about offending volunteers for stopping. If anything, doing this saves time so people can leave earlier.
Do dry runs of scenes from top to bottom on set: Cameras and lights do help talent get into character. After a few times top to bottom the talent should be ready to perform smaller sections and still remain in character.
Make crib sheets for the equipment operators: Provide 4x6 cards with checklists for potential gremlins. For camera people it might be things like check white balance and turn off data screens. For sound people it might be keep the level high enough so that meters just peak and listen for problems.
People really enjoy doing this kind of work! Do all one can to keep things that way.
Keep cameras low and make sure both eyes on a person's face can be seen fully when doing close-ups: Our lead videographer is six foot plus. Some shots look like the view a person six foot plus would see. Strive for shots a person the same height as the character would see.
Supervise all shots: Our lead videographer was basically off alone shooting ALICE. He did a good job, has experience shooting video indoors, worked on other productions, and does weddings on occasion. On the other hand, the director didn't monitor this videographer's takes and did not know what transpired until after screening the tape: a bit too late to make any corrections.
Shooting with two cameras is hard work: It may be faster to just use one camera and make sure that process goes well.
Shop lights work well: With four, shadows are faint. Take the grills off!
Watch the background: Get rid of anything in the background that might be a distraction. We moved the markers and eraser on the white board between shots: a big no-no! Also white boards produce glare: might as well shoot at glass.
Another thing on background: video can't handle a two to three stop latitude in brightness levels within a scene. Shooting against the white background was problematic with one cast member, as her skin tone is about three to four stops down from the white wall. On the other hand, the highlights in another cast member's hair came out better when shot in front of a light brown door.
Overkill on audio is great: Four lavaliere microphones and a mixer, which is what we had thanks to a crew member, is a godsend.
Speaking of lavalieres: Black ones hide well on dark clothing: black, of course, but also green and navy blue. The best position seems to be low enough so that the variation in distance when someone turns their head is minimized, but high enough so that the gain can be kept reasonable. Two cast members had great success with the mic at the "vee" of a shirt. One cast member had problems with the mic at mid-collar rubbing the collar bone.
Furniture blankets are a big help: They can be placed in front of windows to reduce glare. The blankets also damp stray sound.
Shoot the easy stuff first: We had talent from all experience levels. Everyone in the final analysis did an outstanding job. But the director made the mistake of shooting in scene order irrespective of relative experience or scene difficulty: junior talent did the most complex takes first; senior talent did the simple scenes last. The most complex lines were without question those delivered as INDRA and FAITH. Had the director reversed the order of takes such that the easier scenes came first, these two complex, difficult scenes would have gone smoother.
Shooting schedules are mandatory: The director did not get a medium or long shot of ALICE during group counseling at the shelter and that oversight "tripped up" the scene. By a happy coincidence, there is a medium shot along with ETHYL in the same place from the prior scene. A hard copy shooting schedule would have reminded the director to get some establishing shots with ALICE.
Do everything possible in production: Don't try to "fix it in post (production)." Had DEBI been on set for the voice over, we would not have had the complex problem of dubbing voice into the hot line call scene. There will be enough problems to fix in post production, so minimizing those generated during production is always a plus.
Use a nine inch (or larger) monitor: The home owners had a 9" combo TV/VCR which we used as a monitor for the conflict and hot line scenes. We probably spent more time setting up for those scenes, but we caught problems in advance. The footage from this shoot is better than any other shoot, and that's primarily because we couldn't see problems on our 3.5" LCD monitor.
Counsel talent on beats: A beat is the amount of time it typically takes an audience member to digest a line. When ALICE and BOB stomp on each other's lines in the first scene, there is no beat. When ALICE listens to a counselor and reacts, the time it should take for her to react is one beat.
During editing, one can choose where the beat occurs. For example, assume a series of close-ups during a conversation: the sequence is line, beat, line, beat, line, beat, and so on. One character can deliver a line and the editor can choose to either let the close-up stay on that actor for the beat or cut immediately to the receiving character for the beat (or perform an audio bridge if the reaction is more than a simple beat). However it's important to counsel talent on keeping the beat rhythm, otherwise the editor may be forced to make a choice one way instead of the other.
Be mindful of audio and video insert: All but rock bottom editing equipment has both audio and video insert. This can be a big help in building an edit decision list. Consider a person delivering long lines, like our counselors, in close-up. Rather then cutting to another scene with different audio for a reaction shot, just do a video insert. This keeps audio consistent and makes the job of timing the reaction shot's length easier.
Room tone: During production, record the ambient noise of the set for a minute or two. That way the sound of the set, or room tone, can be added to eliminate blank spots in the audio during editing.
Have an independent person proof the video: We released Version 1.0 with three errors: over-modulated audio on one line, failure to include a cast member in the credits, and an incorrect running time statement on the label. Had we asked someone independent of the editing process to view the video and look for mistakes prior to duplication, we would have caught all of these.
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