The other day I wrote about doing your prep for each shoot. The most important thing you’ll create from that prep is your shot list. It will reflect most of the choices you make about how to handle the production—sort of like your cheat sheet for the day’s shoot.
Each shot listed on your shot list is something you “owe.” I’m not sure who you owe it to—the production, the editor, yourself—but by the end of the day, you better have them on tape or film. (Often I’ll list shots that I’d like to have, time-permitting, but can live without if the going gets rough. Knowing the difference is another important function of prepping your shoot.)
But all of that comes out of prep done at your desk or the kitchen table before you step onto the set. When you’re there, “on the day” a lot of other ideas will occur to you—maybe an actor brings in a nice piece of business you’d like to work in, or there’s a great background for a certain moment, or perhaps you just see a new way to pull things together. It’s likely that you’re going to owe some new shots.
When I realize there’s an opportunity to add something important, I tell my AD and DP, “we owe a reaction shot for that line,” or something like that. If it’s a small shoot, then I may just note it on my shot list. Probably I’ll write and tell as many key people as possible, since in the heat of production, things like added shots can easily be missed.
Now, you probably already have a full boat with your brought-from-prep shot list, so what’s worth adding? All kinds of things. These are the shots worth crunching your schedule to get:
- Special moments: When you get a bunch of creative people together in a room, a lot of new possibilities are going to emerge. As a director, it’s your job to keep your eye out for special moments that come out of the process, foster them, and, if they fit, find a way to work them into your production. Usually that means adding some shots. (It’s worth it every time.)
- Matching back the master: Did something great happen in the coverage of a scene that makes your master useless? Maybe a wonderful comedic or dramatic moment emerged. That’s the magic of a shoot. You have to roll with it. But you also have to match back on things you’ve shot before and make sure they gel with the new dynamic of the scene.
- Reaction shots: Often an actor will make a lot more out of a line than you initially suspected. Again, it would be wonderful if you could know about this in prep, or at least on the master. But sometimes great things happen while you’re working on an actor’s single, and these are always gifts. Often you can get away with just a new reaction shot from another character instead of re-shooting the whole master. Another way that reaction shots can be worth adding you is when your scene has a lot of “background actors” who are supposedly interacting with the leads, but without any real lines. Say, when you’re shooting a conference room scene where only two or three characters are really the core of the action. It’s easy to build a shot list that focusses on the principals only to get there “on the day” and discover you need to feel some interaction with the rest of the room. As hard as it can be to add it to your already crowded shot list, it’s a lot easier to get it on the set than to try to make your scene work without it.
- Cutaways: I’ll admit, I almost never think to put “Cutaway” on my shot list in prep. I don’t know why that is, except that I tend to think about the images I want to shoot more than the placeholder categories they may fill. But once I get to a set, I usually find something funny, telling, or interesting enough to capture in a quick cutaway shot. It’s usually worth adding one to your shot list just so the editor can later tell you how he “saved your shoot” with this great cutaway shot he found.
- Bridge shots: Today’s editing style is all about cutting from the middle of one scene to the middle of another, so it’s easy to forget about bridging scenes together. Most of the time cutting into each scene en medias res is the way to go. However, making a whole production without the connective tissue of a bridging scene (or shot) makes up films and videos that seem disjointed. When I’m shooting a scene, I always try to keep in mind where the characters have just been and where they’re going. If I see a quick way to bring them into or out of the scene—maybe provide some context for the story as a whole—I add it to the shot list. (This works in narrative shoots, of course, but its just as important in documentary projects.)
- Exteriors: Working on low budget films or smaller budget videos, you find yourself inside a lot of the time. It never hurts to get outside and shoot a quick exterior to set your scene. Sometimes this is a free shot when most of the crew are setting up a new shot or scene. You can run out with the camera and pop a shot. You’ll be glad you have it.
- Sound effects: Often a sound can act as the punctuation on an important moment in your scene. It’s hard to underestimate the power of a good sound effect on drama or especially comedy. If you have an ample budget for your production, you’ll get the full Foley treatment. But a lot of productions don’t have this kind of time or money. Plus it can sometimes be hard to exactly match the real sound of something happening in the room your scene is playing in. I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of just getting a bit of wild sound when I feel that a sound is particularly important. But to take it a step further, if something is worth hearing, it’s worth seeing, so if there’s any way to do it, I’ll add a quick insert shot to the wild sound. Now, this should be quick and easy, but of course, your DP is going to want to move a ton of lights around and make the shot look gorgeous. Don’t let him! Often, you’ll just use the sound and any time spent on futzing with the lights for a better picture is wasted. But even if the insert shot does make it into the film, it’ll be less than a second. However the lights were for the master is probably fine for this shot. Give your DP a one-minute limit to spice it up and then shoot it. Let’s face it, you’re adding shots to a shotlist that’s probably already plenty ambitious. You can’t wreck your day to get them.
- Background plates: Indie filmmakers know the pain of discovering in post-production that a scene could use a different line or performance, but not having the budget to fix it. Studio films may be able to go back and reshoot a scene to make it work, but the best Indies can do is cut away and ADR a new line. That’s not very satisfying to the filmmaker or the audience. Well as digital formats and tools improve, we have new options for reshooting a line or two for a scene at minimal expense, but you have to plan for it during your principal photography by shooting a background plate of the actor’s close-up without the actor in frame. Later you can shoot your actor against a green screen with a minimal crew and can seamlessly composite a new line or performance into your scene. But you can only work this magic if you shot a background plate during the principal photography. So any time you feel a scene might not be working, it’s worthwhile to have the actors step out of their frame and pop off a ten-second shot to use as a background later.
Of course, the real trick to adding to your shot-list is knowing when to stop. Otherwise you’ll end up with all the extras but only half the shots you were planning to get.