Independent Review: Finding the Right Crew

Pictured above is an image you’ll see on many college campuses across the US.  In different cities and towns all over, there are aspiring filmmakers attempting to make something that will get them noticed.  In the age of YouTube, the virality of your video becomes your claim to fame, and too  often that limits the scope of what type of filmmaker one wants to become.  There’s a big difference between a few friends making a short or a webisode just to grab laughs.

Many young filmmakers will realize this and step outside of the throwaway sub-culture of viral videos, or figure out how to make them well enough to actually make an impact.  At this point, the filmmaker in question will find himself wanting more.  A crew that knows what they’re doing.  A script supervisor that knows what they’re actually supervising.  People that are taking the project seriously, and not looking at it as a fun way to spend a Saturday.  While that’s how most young filmmaking groups start out, there is a certain juncture where that must change.

While making films can always be fun to do, there is a certain point, to consider yourself a full time filmmaker, the fun has to go.  The friends that show up 3 hours only to complain about having to wear make up, or actors that want to leave early so they can catch the final So You Think You Can Dance? of the year need to go.  Many people who are young and serious about making quality films, or at least doing it on a serious level, need to abstain from these people.  They will not help get your feature film completed.

At the same time, many young people trying to make films have trouble finding anyone at all to help them.  So if you only take what you can get, you’ll might get a good sized crew, but the quality of said crew is guaranteed to be lower than your needs, and often, even your expectations.

My last article was about a young director wondering how to move forward with a project despite only having a script.  I explained the steps to move forward in the process, and what the director needs to expect out of every aspect of production.  With that explained, many still asked: “Yeah, but where do we find these people?”

In my experience, I’ve found that the same thing will hold true across any job.  If you have a co-worker who does a great job, day in, day out, even if the job sucks, they’re the perfect type of person to approach as a crew member.  Remember, you need people that are reliable.  This means people that will show up on time, help when asked, and stay until final clean up is finished (and even among dedicated groups of people, few will actually stay for the full clean up).  So one example is a dedicated, organized co-worker that may be interested in movies.

Now, here is your key:  Making movie is not only fun, but many people see it as glamorous, no matter how small your production.  Many crew members would be flattered to be asked on a movie, maybe only because they’ve never done so.  Which is the main point of this entire column:  Experience isn’t everything.

Of course, if you go to a four year college and you know the talented prop maker in the theater department, then experience is nothing to scoff at.   Speaking of the theater department, this brings us to a great place to find potential help:  local theaters.  Whether they be community, student, or dinner theaters, anyone involved is already expressing interest in the performing arts.  While some stage hands, costumers, set designers, and production assistants on a play will have no interest (or time) in a film, there are plenty that are simply in the program because they haven’t been involved with a film yet.

Often, theater people (be they actors, set dressers, prop makers, lighting techs, etc) will already have skills or general knowledge that can come in great handy on your film.   While setting complicated cues for stage shows may be vastly different than the needs a film has in the lighting department, at least they would have general knowledge of how the light works (how to plug it in, what type of outlet can take the plug, etc) and how possibly dangerous they can be if used improperly.  Too often, people trying to make a film will just have their brother run the lights, meanwhile, he has no clue that plugging a 1K into the wrong plug can pop the whole breaker.

These are the simple advantages that even amateurs with some knowledge will afford you over just asking friends to help.  Catering is often a big issue on independent productions, and on any production, it’s by far one of the most important aspects.  Everyone needs to eat to have energy to perform at their best, let alone at all.  This should be the easiest department, but often it’s the most difficult.  Everyone eats, so therefore everyone should have at least a small idea of what a full day’s worth of work will cost in food per person.  If you don’t have any friends that will cook, this is the place where that one mom who wants to help can actually do a lot of good.  Starting at 5 am?  Have a meal pre-made if the caterer you’ve convinced to help doesn’t want to be up with the rest of the crew.  Trust me, they’ll need their rest into the later hours, when food must come quicker and in better quality or performances and attitudes will begin to suffer.

While many of these suggestions may be helping, many might still be asking:  “How do I take all this information and implement it?”  I’ll try to help.  A bare-bones skeleton crew for an independent production should be a minimum of the following (for efficiency’s sake):  An assistant director, a script supervisor, an on set producer, a camera operator, a cinematographer/director of photography, prop person, costumer, and of course your beloved caterer.  It wouldn’t hurt to have an assistant with the camera, or a few grips and gaffers to help out the director of photography, most of which have to do very little outside of listening to the person directly in charge of them, like the director of photography.

All told, that’s only 8 crew positions, and once you begin working with some of these people, you’ll see they can do more than you have them doing.  A great script supervisor might be able to meticulously track each shot as it’s completed, but in-between be able to help the caterer or camera operator.  Independent films are notorious for having crews that wear multiple hats.  The key here is to find the hats that fit best, and that don’t distract from the others valuable points of interest, like a crew member’s original duties.  It does you no good to have a great assistant director who has your actors on their marks ready to go, if the costumer remembers at the last second that one of the main characters needs a wardrobe change.

So let’s go over these basic elements a bit, just to give you an idea what you should be looking for in each crew member.

Assistant Director:  They should know everything the director knows, with the paperwork in front of them in case the director needs quick reference.   They should know where all actors are, when they should be there, and who needs to be doing what to prep the next scene, all while making sure the current scene goes smoothly.

Script Supervisor:  A good script supervisor will let you know exactly where you are in the script, what has been shot, what needs to be shot, what has been changed, what needs to be changed, and who needs to change it, working closely with the Assistant Director.  Think of your the person who can keep a schedule every time, all the time.

Props:  Again, we’ve spoken of places to find people with some experience, but here what you really need is someone that can do what you need, on time.   Often, your props don’t need to look perfect (the better quality they are, the better, of course) but sometimes props can be hidden with good lighting.  Either way, this should be a crafty person that has no problem working quickly and to strict demands.

Costumer:  This is another one of those roles that can be performed by someone who has no experience, but the more experience the better, as always.  A good costumer really needs to manage costumes.  Often, on low budget productions, the director will have made all the choices pertaining to wardrobe.  However, managing them on set can be just as complicated as directing a scene in some cases, especially when characters are often switching costumes for scenes or different days within the story.

Caterer:  Again, this is one of the roles that requires only experience cooking.  If you can find someone that can cook, that’s all you need.  It is then up to you to figure out what to serve, on which days, minding dietary restrictions.  Often a producer will help with this, just to keep an eye on costs.

On-Set Producer:  There are still many different definitions of a producer on a film set, and what a producer does, but in this case, we’re talking the money person.  This is your crew member that knows what money is being spent where, on what, what needs more or less, and when to authorize expenditures.  Here you need someone that can manage finances and still have a mind to keep the big picture organized.  Think of the person you know who pays their rent a week in advance and has a spotless apartment.

Camera Operator:  Now we’re getting into the few roles that actually do require experience and talent if you want to get something more than your typical bland shots.   An amateur can still shoot, but not as well as an experienced eye behind the lens.  Don’t know anyone that has ever used a video camera before?  Find a talented photographer, while the skill sets are vastly different, the angles, use of the camera, and eye for a good shot easily translate over into the video medium.

Director of Photography:  The most important crew member on a low budget production.  You can ace every department, but if it looks like crap on the screen due to poor lighting, then it was all for naught.  Again, it will be hard to find an experienced director of photography willing to work for little or nothing, but again, there are always trade offs.  If you have no one with any experience lighting a scene for a camera, then at least someone with a small amount of lighting experience would be better than a complete amateur.  If you can find a theatrical lighting tech (again, going back into the world of theater), I’m pretty sure you could find someone that would be able to do a decent job, even if it’s not what they typically do, or are interested in.

So there you have it.  Not solid instructions, but ideas on where to start.  This is where networking comes in.  With social  networking taking over the internet, surely you can organize some type of crew of motivated people.  That’s key here, people who are motivated.  I hear many filmmakers complain “I can’t find anyone that gives a damn”.  Trust me, they’re out there.  There are dedicated, hard-working people that are willing to help out in the creation of a movie, no matter how low budget.  One of your talents as a director or producer has to be the ability to find these people, and make good use of them.  Relying solely on your production staff will get you nowhere, even if you’re working on a film at WETA.   Hard work and talent always beats luck when it comes to filmmaking.  Always.



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