One of the most frustrating experiences you can have as a filmmaker is to watch a shot during post-production and notice that it has a defect that you could easily have corrected if only you had spotted it during production.
It happened to me on several occasions in my early work and it was an exceedingly useful if frustrating learning experience. The purpose of this tutorial is to ensure that this never happens to you.
For the avoidance of doubt, “reviewing a take” means watching a shot on a monitor right after filming it. There is no point in reviewing a take if it is clear that it will never be used (it might contain a very obvious mistake, for example). The procedure I am about to describe should only be applied to takes that are promising candidates for the actual sequence.
The two big questions to ask when checking a take
Telling the crew that you’ve got the shot you want and that you can move on to the next setup is a very serious business, because once a setup is dismantled, there simply isn’t time to set it all up again to re-shoot it — you are stuck with it. While reviewing takes you have to answer the following broad questions:
a) Is this exactly what you had in mind for the shot?
b) Even if the shot is precisely as you imagined it, is it as good as it can be?
The answer to the second question is rarely affirmative, which means that you can make the shot even better with some tweaking. While extensive preparation and pre-visualisation are some of the principal activities of a filmmaker, it is equally true that some of the best ideas are conceived while shooting, so you must remain open and flexible. I would say that most of the good ideas are conceived in pre-production, but many of the brilliant ideas come to you during the shoot itself.
However, ironically, only solid preparation will allow you to seize inspiration in the heat of shooting. This is another instance of fortune favoring the prepared.
My personal checklist
Here is my personal list of elements to check in a take before calling it a wrap and moving on – and before you ask, yes, it does mean that you must usually review a take at least two or three times before you can confidently call it a wrap:
Are the actors’ performances what you had in mind? As importantly, is the performance you had in mind not the best way to play the scene after all? You are watching the take on the monitor and you have your earphones on: do the actors’ performances work? Hopefully you will have chosen some seriously talented actors, but even they need plenty of direction. You are behind the monitor; you have been thinking of this film for months or years; it is your responsibility to ensure the performances work. The actors don’t have a big-picture overview of the project; it is not their job. As the director, it’s all on your shoulders.
This is the time to abandon the storyboard and look at the shot for what it really is. Does it really work on the screen? Is it balanced? Is there too much empty space in the frame somewhere? Any unsightly juxtaposition of objects? Have any basic framing rules been broken? If not, is this a shot in which a framing rule should be broken?
3. Camera movement
Is the dolly shot completely free of bumps? Did the dolly slow down or speed up somewhere for no good reason? Does it start and stop smoothly? In complicated shots with many extras, is the camera more or less in
the right place at the right time during the tracking shot?
4. Background action
Ignore the foreground and concentrate on the background actors. Are they in the right place at the right time? Are any of them wearing something distracting that should be replaced? Are they blatantly acting like extras instead of real people? Is the background too empty? Too busy?
5. Design and props
Is there anything in the background that ruins the shot? An
ugly, bright orange fuse box can be covered with a plant, for example. This kind of issue should be dealt with during the tech scout, but sometimes problems only become apparent on the shoot itself, or a problem may arise after the tech scout.
6. Editorial considerations
As a filmmaker, you absolutely must have a reasonably clear idea of how a shot will be cut into a sequence. What shots will precede and follow this particular shot, and how will they be joined together?
If you are shooting a wide shot and know that you will be cutting to a close-up on a specific action – such as an actor taking a sip of water – you must make sure that the actor takes the sip in the same way and at the same time in each shot, to ensure it cuts smoothly with the other shots. If it does not, you will not be able to change it in the editing room – you must correct it now, with the actors present and the camera ready!
The 1st Assistant Director can help you
A good 1st AD will review a take with you and draw your attention to anything that might need correction, making it even less likely that a problem is overlooked. 1st ADs are dispassionate and experienced – in many cases more experienced than the director, which is a good thing. If the 1st AD is familiar with your style, even better. Experienced and talented 1st ADs are amazing – always seek to hire a good one on your projects!
Shooting is a time of intense pressure and responsibility for a director. The schedule is invariably tight, and there is a limited length of time in which to set up a shot, do a take, identify what needs to be tweaked, direct the actors and crew accordingly, do another take, tweak again, and so on, until you have the shot you wanted.
Even then, is the shot truly as good as it can be? Did you overlook something that can make it even better? A decision must be made quickly, and in the heat of production it is not always easy to maintain razor-sharp judgement. While the pressure of a film set can really focus you, it can also blunt your finer judgement and the higher-level thought processes that can produce the most creative and unusual ideas. In other words:
The pressure tends to ensure the director does a decent job, but it can also preclude the achievement of one’s highest potential. Be aware of this.
In the much calmer environment of the editing room, there is plenty of time to agonize over every little defect in a shot that could have easily been corrected on the shoot, if only you had noticed it. I hope that my checklist will help you avoid this outcome.
My early experiences of the type described above – namely, noticing a defect in a shot while editing a sequence – made me ultra-sensitive to this issue on subsequent shoots, and as a result I improved a lot as a director. It is in the editing room that a director’s deficiencies truly come to light, which is why every ambitious director should at least be present when the project is edited, if you don’t actually edit it yourself.
The tips in this article can make the difference between mediocre work and outstanding work. They will be particularly important to you if you want to direct TV commercials or very ambitious films. The more complicated a shot, the more likely it is that something will escape your notice – something minor that will nevertheless torture you when you notice it later. If you have perfectionist tendencies, methodically analysing takes on the monitor will reduce the likelihood of excruciating regret in the editing room.
One final thought: I have noticed that crews love it when I check a take repeatedly, even if it means that the 2nd AC must replay the shot on the RED camera five times while everyone waits. I suspect this is because it’s a clear sign that the director is actually going somewhere with the shot, as opposed to just drifting from one setup to the next. It is called “directing” for a good reason, after all.
I hope you find this useful; good luck!