I had fun last Friday cutting together a two-minute promo piece for a new director I’m mentoring. He had three days of shooting that went into his opening sequence, but came up short of the specific shots needed to tell his story in his way. Whether certain key shots were out of focus or the actor gave him the opposite of what he requested, there wasn’t enough of the right footage to conform the sequence to the screenplay.
The fun I had in that hour came from my experimentation. I cut together the existing footage in the only way possible to create story – A significantly different story than what he intended. He was mildly shocked to see his shots cut into a variation of what he planned and immediately noticed how the changes rendered his act three obsolete.
The observation of the new sequence immediately caused missing shots to pop into his mind and ideas of how to get the actors to perform in keeping with the story, rather than facilitating their adlib. He also realized that because he was missing key shots, it would require a half-day of pick up shots and an additional half-day of capturing coverage shots.
The rookie director missed what pros would consider obvious. Whenever I put together a shoot for a given scene, I note the critical elements that must be captured and the possible coverage shots needed for the film to be cut together properly. Rookies typically miss transitions, set-ups, coverage, and even reaction shots.
A prepared director knows in advance what everyone on set will be doing to achieve his vision, while rookies have a general sense of what they want and might not know how to request or obtain it. The average rookie director comes to the set 10% prepared for the shoot.
The director who owns his vision typically has four large three ring notebooks of prep material for act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3. The rookie typically has a pocket of notes scratched out on a few pieces of paper. That’s not to say that pros won’t keep a lot of the info in heir heads, they do, but experts won’t risk missing anything that they’ve planned – They’ll have their materials on hand to double check everything before moving to the next set-up.
My suggestion for the rookie was, “Think coverage.” He had a great concept and a good story that relied on the audience buying into a character change happening within 5-8 minutes, which requires the audience to suspend disbelief. If he’s able to convince the audience to believe in his created world in the first two minutes, his story will have a chance at pulling off his fast character change – something that features take two hours to achieve.
By thinking coverage, or all the possible shots of the protagonist’s surroundings and relationships, he could capture enough expressible footage to forward the story and compress the time frame in a realistic manner. This would be a huge challenge for the most expressive directors and will be a great learning experience for the newbie. You’ve gotta admire him swinging for the wall on his first picture.
Coverage shots help keeps the story moving. It allows for time compression and gives the director plenty to work with when he has to drop an out of focus shot or poorly acted one. Coverage can also introduce more artistic license into a film, giving the audience a more believable world to experience.
Coverage, coverage, coverage! So, directors must know what they want, pull it together in three segments known as the beginning, middle and end, and shoot it with lots of coverage. Then, the rookie will look more like a pro even if he still only has three wrinkled pieces of paper in his back pocket.
Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers
A note to keep in mind. It appears Peter Jackson just recently confessed he had no idea what he was going to shoot for the battle scene for Five Armies and was making it up as he went along. Not too shabby for no prep work.
There’s always exceptions to everything cinema. However, if I were Peter jackson, I’d have so much experience that I could do it on the fly, blindfolded, with my left hand tied behind my back. I’m guessing you could probably make it up as you went along as well, John. 🙂
Actually, some directors choose to prepare less, so more creative work happens on set in community. Unfortunately, that typically means the budget rises or the quality suffers.