5 Lessons Freelancers Learned the Hard Way on Production
If you’re used to working as a one-man-band, the move to a production set can be an adjustment. Here are some lessons that five filmmakers in the Storyhunter community learned from their first days on set.
1. Have a backup plan.
Fernando Teixeira: I once did a big TV production. It was very expensive with lots of crew, lightning, artists, etc. It was a big budget commercial. One shot was to be made with a slider. It was around sixteen feet long and was attached to a scaffolding, so it was in a vertical position. We were doing a time-lapse of a graffiti artist as he was drawing from bottom to top, and the camera was supposed to follow [him]. I was using an ultra prime lens, which is very heavy. Suddenly the slider stopped moving, it turns out the battery was not working, but the production couldn’t stop and I had to solve it.
I didn’t have a replacement battery. I had to use a nine volt power supply that was meant for an electric screwdriver. The battery was not powerful enough to support the weight of the lens. I had to ask the graffiti artists to draw from the other direction. These guys are famous artists in Brazil and they were not pleased with all my delays, but in the end it worked out.
After this experience, I now have a backup for everything. Cameras, lenses, tripods, sound recording, mics, batteries, cards, and stabilization gimbals. You name it. Of course it costs money, and you have to work harder than usual, but this experience really scared me. It could have gone totally wrong. We work with devices and they can suddenly stop working, so the real issue is that you have to be prepared for this to happen, because sooner or later it will.
2. Be prepared to work on your communication skills.
Joe M. Han: On one of the bigger short films I shot, there was a director that was very dedicated and one of those guys that got things done. He and I were shooting a film about magic and there was a lot of talk between me, the production designer, and him about how to pull off magic without doing any CGI.
I called in a favor and I got someone to come in for free from out of town. We had a low budget and they forgot to account for his transportation to the next location. That means he couldn’t come with us. They were just going to leave him behind. I said “What are you talking about?” He had nowhere to go. I kind of made a big scene in front of the production office, [when] I should have taken the director and producer aside and just talked about what was going and not gotten emotional about it. I was young and I didn’t know what I was doing. We never worked together afterwards, but we are friends.
The biggest thing that filmmaking has taught me is not only the art or the craft, but how to build character. Learning to collaborate with other people who aren’t like you or who don’t think like you. No matter how big the project, film is a collaborative art form.
3. Take care of yourself.
Jason Outenreath: While filming for CNN, we were traveling around San Francisco. The heaviest item I carried that day was easily the aluminum tripod legs. The weight added up, and by the end of the day, I had a sore back. Film shoots are difficult enough without finding unique new ways to augment the exhaustion of a day’s work.
I realized while talking with the producer that many of the cinematographers they collaborate with experience chronic and career-threatening back pain as a result of the constant weight of gear their backs are subjected to. That was when the light switch flipped on and I started thinking long term. By switching from aluminum to carbon fiber items, I cut the weight I was carrying substantially. While aluminum items are much cheaper, the health consequences later could be serious, and prompted me to make the switch to carbon fiber. My work often takes me to remote places in Mexico and Central America, as well as the US. The lighter my kit, the better.
4. Trust your crew.
Mathieu Orcel: My first big shoot was in 2004. What I first learned was that working with a team is not an [easy] thing. I was used to doing the camera, direction, and editing myself. I was not used to working with other people. I needed to listen and try to understand that they were bringing me something, rather than me needing to control everything.
I was shooting a movie called Stones for Poor People in the south side of Argentina with a native community called the Mapuche and I was on horseback. I’m used to doing this myself because I ride horses, and I know this community, but my photographer told me “Well, let me check the camera and set it with the ND filters, and then I will give it back to you.”
We [surprisingly] ended up using two cameras. One was on the ground to get the landscape and I was filming up on the horse. He set them with the same settings and that was wonderful for me. His settings were a lot better than mine. I just saw the movie and I am positive the director was right that just by having two cameras together, it was great. He changed my conception of the movie and my way of working.
5. Adapt your shooting style to the production.
Hunter Boone: Five years ago a good friend of mine, Jessie Anderson-Berens, was making a pilot for Nat Geo Wild called “Give Me Shelter” and asked me to help shoot the pilot. I love quick pans and zooms for sketches and branded content (the style you see on The Office or Parks & Rec), but when shooting for her pilot, I kept on getting pulled aside by Jessie, who critiqued the timing of my shots.
When taking my footage back in the edit, my composition was perfect, but I was delivering useable clips of maybe three to four seconds. That was me being conditioned to shoot shots that will work for a thirty seconds ad for a client…but that doesn’t work for a documentary style shoot.
This led to me having to schedule re-shoots with no-pay. I learned quickly to break that habit.
Is there a lesson you learned the hard way during your first days on set? Tell us in the comments below!
By Josh Futtersak, Storyhunter Writer