Working on a film set

By Wayne Sables

Recently I have the pleasure to work on a few film sets. Normally I’m a solo shooter or shoot with a small crew. I don’t really get the chance to work on larger productions where roles are clearly defined i.e the director, the director of photography, the editor, the gaffer etc, for me I usually am the director, the camera operator, the sound recordist, the editor basically for those that are of a certain age I’m the Dennis Waterman of film (I write the them tune, sing the theme tune).

When I got the opportunity to work on the first film set (The Magician with Slung Low) I was a little nervous. I didn’t we want to over step my position (second camera). Any ones that knows Slung Low know I didn’t need to worry. I got my call time, arrived on set, helped set the kit up and waited for the shoot and my role to begin. 

When I’m on my own set I’m never short of things to do, set up the kit, make sure the interviewee / talent are comfortable, client relations, check sound levels, set up and check lights, drink my coffee etc. It’s very weird for me to have space on a film shoot, I don’t like it. The seed of doubt kicks in, should I be doing something?, Are people waiting for me? What’s wrong? You get the idea. 

Having set roles is pretty vital on a big shoot. Lots of things can go wrong, if and/or when they do it’s important to ascertain where and how so that the problem can be fixed and the set can get moving again. Time is money as they say, large crews are expensive and not keeping on course is expensive. Having set roles also means that not everyone is on all the time. You get breaks, you get time to relax, you get to observe or study the next set of shots/camera movements etc, you also don’t get in the way. When you’re a small team or a solo filmmaker you have to do multiple jobs to get the set running. Another big difference is budgets, my clients and partners don’t have the budget for multiple people on set so you have to be good a multiple roles. This is a positive for me as it means you can dip into other people sets on different roles, but it can be overwhelming and things can get missed. As a solo filmmaker you get very good multitasking. 

Larger sets usually have catering. This is an essential part of set life, its important people can have a space to eat and drink, chat, breath, reflect and plan. Filming days can be long and pacing yourself will make the experience much easier. The shoot felt slow to me. I have been told that I move really fast though. I’ll come back to this later in this blog. 

Having a ‘slow’ set is deliberate, everything is planned out and there are a lot of things to organise, people, props, FX, equipment etc and this all needs to be safe so no one get injured, or kit doesn’t get broken and so nothing gets missed in terms of shots. If your working to a script then its very important that everything is filmed. 

Overall my first experience of a proper film set ways very positive. In fact I loved it. 

So when going onto my second major film set I knew exactly what to expect. My role was different on this one but I know how to direct and operate cameras. The producer for set two was inexperienced but was very enthusiastic. We didn’t exactly have formalised scripts but we did have a shared vision and a plan. 

We arrived at the digs (200 miles away from where I live) the night before. Straight to bed before a very early start, get to set, set up kit, lights etc. Chat through the few shots we were capturing that day and prep for the next two days filming. Arriving on set a 7am we set up, chat through the day, test some shots, wait around and begin shooting. It suddenly becomes apparent that this set is different. We have a very small crew (myself and two others with experience) and a very ambitious producer. The following 4 hours is a blur. Roles are mixed, people are confused, tensions are high and we get the shots. 

Not wanting to repeat the stress we grab a beer and chat through roles, expectations, and plan a way forwards. 

Day 2 we get on set at 7am, prep for the day, talent arrive and tell us they have to leave at 12:30 pm. Talent is refers to the actors, I personally don’t like this term as everyone on set has talent. 

Set 2 was a docudrama so the people appearing on camera for this part of the shoot are not actors. I am not going into content specifics in this blog as both films are still in production and I don’t want to give any plot lines away. 

We move very fast, its apparent the script is to ambitious four the time we have.  Myself and the other filmmaker seamlessly switch roles from director of photography, to director, to camera operator. We shoot of instinct, talking as we go, making creative choices in the moment.  I’m in my element.  This way of filming in exhilarating but very tiring. Once most of the people have left we continue shooting with the main person in the film. We wrap at 7:30pm. 

It’s been a whirlwind and we decide to go to the pub, unwind and plan for tomorrow so we don’t repeat the crazy mess of today. 

Day 3 round pretty much the same as day 2, myself and the other filmmaker changing roles seamlessly. It a lot to get through and the producer / director is very particular and inexperience. This makes four a tense shoot at times. We wrap the at 7pm, pack the kit up, load the can and drive 4 hours home, exhausted. 

What does all this mean?

I have a few takeaways. Firstly no set will be the same, you need to be observant to the rules, adaptable, confident within yourself and your ability, enjoy the experience and be safe. It doesn’t really matter if you work as a solo filmmaker, part of a small crew or part of a large crew. You are doing what you love and they are all on the same spectrum. There are positive and negative in both approaches. Will i be moving to working on large sets from now on? No I love being small and flexible in my approach, I love the personal touch I get to give my clients. If the opportunity to work on a large set comes again will i take it? Yes 100% it all adds value to my learning, my experience and my offer to the film world. 

There is no right or wrong way to work in film, find what you love and pursue that, opportunities will come your way when you are being true to yourself.