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Lights, Camera, Action!
This is the most exhilarating part of the video production process.
Principal Photography, also known as Physical Production is the heart and soul of Video Production.
When people think about the movie business or the television business. They are thinking about Principal Photography. Lights, camera and action. The actors are on set, their lines are memorized and they are performing for you and the rest of the world.
This is by far the most exciting part of the video production process.
Principal Photography from an Actor’s Perspective
You pull up to base camp, wave to the security guard and head to your trailer. It’s your first day on set and it takes you a second to find your trailer. Cast trailers are parked neatly and everything feels like it has structure and purpose. The crew has planned everything perfectly during pre-production and it shows. PA’s and crew walk around the production grounds – setting up, and breaking down, lights, equipment, and sets – preparing for your arrival. You are prepared, you have studied your lines and know them front to back and you are ready to improv if your scene partner goes off-script.
A PA walks to your trailer and asks if they can bring you anything. You have some food then they escort you to hair, make-up, and wardrobe before heading to set for rehearsal. The set looks so real you settle in on the first run through. A, B, and C cameras are all pointed at the location the Director and DP have blocked off. You move into position. Take notice of the lights and cameras so you are aware of how to play to the camera.
“Quiet on the set,” yells the AD. 50 crew members surrounding you fall silent.
“Action”, yells the director.
It is a magical experience. I wish everyone could experience acting in a big project, if only just once.
Principal Photography from a Producer’s Perspective
Years were spent preparing for this moment. You worked side by side with your production manager, writer, and director to make sure everything is perfect. You hired the best creatives and crew your budget allowed and you spent months interviewing and finding the right writer, director, and cast. Your entire crew showed up on time and ready to work – thank God. You find comfort in that.
The director is taking control of the situation, being the leader they are supposed to be on set. You feel joy knowing you hired the right director for this project. You stand in video village which is set up just close enough to the action where you can head in if necessary but far enough to be out of everyone’s way. Let the creatives create is your motto. You handled the business on the front end and you see the D.I.T is there organizing everything for post-production. You are a seasoned producer so you know that D.I.T. stands for Digital Imaging Technician (lol).
All the sudden, you hear over the radio one of the featured actors did not show up. Standing in front of your semi-comfortable chair in video village, you spring into action. You became a producer because you love solving problems. You ask the 2nd AD if they have called the talent as well as their agent. They have been calling for the past two hours. Twenty minutes pass, no one is answering their phone. You instruct them to start calling other agencies, but it’s Saturday, you are filming in Ireland and no one in your crew knows the local casting directors well enough to have their cell phone numbers.
You instruct the team to line up the extras, someone is about to get a nice pay raise and opportunity. The problem is, no one fits the description as this is a character role. Shit. 50 crew members are looking at you, but you don’t sweat. You look back at them, confident, working scenarios through your head. . .
. . .and that’s when you spot him. The guy in the grey sweatshirt and black sleeves. You haven’t seen him before. Curiously, you call out, “Hey you, grey sweatshirt, black sleeves.” He looks at you, confused. “Me, sir?” he replies.
“Yeah, you. What do you do here?” you ask.
“My girlfriend is 2nd AD.” says the man in grey.
“Want to act?”
It’s a small part you think to yourself, under 5 lines. You check with the Director, they agree, this is a feasible solution.
Principal Photography from a Director’s Perspective
The Morning of
It’s the day of a big fight sequence. It’s 4 AM and you have a 6 AM call time. You are going over your shot list and storyboards. You like to know exactly what you have planned for the day. The shots to get, how scenes are blocked, and who will be on set to help you get things done. Your car arrives at 5:15 AM, you jump in the back of a black Mercedes, script in hand. The punchline at the end of the fight sequence is not doing it for you. You call the writer and express your concerns. They agree. You arrive at basecamp and the writer meet you at your trailer. You discuss the changes and find a solution. Your assistant sends changes to the studio.
You head over to Crafty for breakfast and are joined by the 1st AD and DP. You talk about some of the lens options and how the new closing lines will affect how the story plays. Together, you make lighting and lens adjustments.
On to set
You walk the blocked off scene with the DP. Your PA’s have the stand-ins in place. You and the DP both take your cell phones out and begin to see what the cameras will see when rolling. One of the actors needs a rim light, their hair needs more separation from the background. Your AD calls the best boy grip and electrician over to make the proper adjustments. You walk the scene one more time with your team. The lights are perfect, the set is perfect, your VFX team has all proper areas marked with green and blue tape. You are ready to call in the principal cast.
Your AD releases the stand-ins and the principal cast is called in for the shoot. With Principal cast in place, you begin rehearsals. The entire crew is watching with eagle eyes. After the first rehearsal, a few adjustments are made, the dolly is moved, Key Wardrobe and hair rush in to remove lint from the actor’s shirt and make sure their hair is in place. Make-up sprays the actors face with a proprietary SFX compound which mimics sweat (remember this is an action sequence).
Looking at the monitor, everything is exactly how you envisioned things at 4 AM. Go time.
“Quiet on the set!” yell the AD.
50 crew members fall silent.
Principal Photography is. . .
the culmination of years of hard work for a handful of people and a major collaborative effort spanning months. Writers and Producers spend years writing and developing a script, packaging the film or TV show and getting the distribution deal from a top studio. Everyone on set has a role to play and everyone’s role is important to the production. Skilled crew present polished and professional work. If one person is weak, it hurts the entire production. Imagine filming Black Panther and the studio cut costs on costume, location, and VFX. Wakanda might look like New York.
Principal Photography is the most fun, but understand that a lot is at stake. Scenes are allotted a certain amount of time to film. Each day has a shot schedule and somewhere in that schedule is breakfast lunch and dinner. I don’t know if you have ever been around 50 hungry crew members who are all fuming because a scene is running behind. It’s not a pretty sight. Even more important, if your scenes run late, you start having to pay overtime to Union Crew. No one likes having to pay overtime. If you are lucky, you have the backing of a Major studio. If you do not, hopefully, overtime was taken into consideration when the budget was being organized.
Physical production is a thing of beauty. It has its lure, its seduction because of the history of old Hollywood and Entertainment. Creatives are the most fun people in the world to be around when things are clicking… .but… .make no mistake. . .
When you are on set…it is a business. Get your ass in gear and be on your A-game. There is no room for slackers.
Stay focused, have fun, and be the best at everything you are responsible for onset. It will take you places you always dreamed of. If anyone you know needs to read this article, you can share it with them using the buttons at the bottom of this article.
Work hard, and I am sure we will see you on set!