(Before I get started, if you haven't already, check out my post on how to prepare for a shoot, because the shoot itself is only half of it.)
I was on a project years ago. We were in pre-pro, presenting our final touches to the client, when the CMO dropped a metaphorical grenade on us.
"I don't like the puppets."
Yeah, we had puppets. They were pretty much the stars of the 2-minute-long video we were making for the company's biggest announcement of the year. And now, they were officially out. The day before the shoot. Shit.
The truth was, no amount of preparation or "fix it in pre-pro" would've saved us. But what did was the quick thinking and agility of the team on the shoot itself.
The last-resort rally-cry of creatives may be "fix it in post," and while I prefer "fix it in pre-pro," prep is only half of it. The shoot is a massive undertaking, and it's more than the few days you're on the set with a camera and craft services.
It's a whole production. And if you don't know what's coming your way, you're gonna have a bad time.
Almost the Shoot
It's an odd, in-between time, like production Limbo. There's a lot you have to do that's kind of after pre-pro, but before the production itself. You're out of the office and into the fire.
The first time I had to pick people to be in my work was super awkward. I felt superficial and judgemental, which was exactly what I had to be.
You'll do some prep (of course), putting together what are called "casting specs" that give a sense of what kind of people you're looking for. Then comes the weird part.
You'll likely go through two phases: general casting and callbacks.
General Casting - You'll get dozens of actors, even hundreds if it's a big project. A casting company will take care of the casting call, reaching out to all the people who fit the specs you put together, and then present them to you. These days, you'll probably watch videos of the auditions online, choosing a handful of them to come back for the next round. Choose them not only based on their looks, but something called "directability." Make sure they're not stubborn and can respond to the director's...well, direction.
Callbacks - If at all possible, do this in person. You'll need to get a personal feel for the actors, whether it's just their look for a photo or a performance for a video. Here's the hard part: you'll need to be kinda heartless and make decisions that reject people. Remember, they're professionals (hopefully). They'll understand if they don't get the job, but your project will suffer if you don't pick the best ones. Pick your favorites. And backups. And keep in mind that someone you had audition for one role could be better for another.
It's a simple and subtle part of the process, but wardrobe is kind of like a field goal kicker in football (the American kind). If it does its job well, nobody will say anything. But if it messes up, it's the first thing that people will call out.
You can either have it stand out or play it in the background. Most of the time, it's the latter. You want the wardrobe to feel natural, not like a couture fashion show. Unless, of course, that's what you're going for.
A director I recently worked with told me, "You're one of the only creatives that ever go on tech scouts." That blew my mind, because, as creatives, we love being in the details.
But the tech scout is a time for the director and production company to check out the location, get a sense of the sun and lighting (if it's outdoors), and generally see how the flow of the shoot will go, based on the physical space. Sometimes, it's even used as a bit of a rehearsal, if necessary.
Here's the honest truth: you usually don't need to go on the tech scout. But, I've always found having an Art Director be there has helped to solve problems early, rather than rushing to figure them out on the shoot day.
During the Shoot
It's time! You've put in all the prep and now you get to sit around and let everyone else do the hard work! Hah, nope. True, there will be an army of people whose job is to make your project the best it can be. But your role is to make sure that it stays true to your vision, which requires a balance between an attentive eye and creative flexibility.
Getting to the Shoot
There's something called a "pre-pro book," which you probably got during the "pre-pro meeting" that you had a day or two before the shoot itself. In it, will be the shot list, boards, etc. But also, there will be something called a "call sheet."
The call sheet identifies who should be where and at what time. DO NOT BE LATE TO A SHOOT.
Dress for Success
The notes are universal: dress casually, but professionally. You'll likely be on your feet all day, walking between shots, back and forth between the camera and the client. But that doesn't mean that you should show up in sweatpants and a t-shirt. Wear comfy shoes, probably jeans, and a shirt and jacket (if it's chilly).
(Pro Tip: Layers, people. You're going to be showing up really early. And if it's outside, a cold morning turns into blazing sun and back into a brisk night pretty quickly.)
Who's the Boss?
You may be running the show. Or you may simply be a low creative on the totem pole. Make sure that you connect and figure out who the boss is on the shoot. It could be your CD or ACD. But that's just internal.
What you really want to keep in mind is a few other people: the Line Producer (they're the person who's managing everything on the production company's end), the Assistant Director (they're usually the buffer between you and the Director), and the Director (you should know them already).
Who to Give Notes To
Here's the hardest and most sensitive part of a shoot: how do you give your notes to the Director (or Photographer)?
There's no one answer to this. But there are a few safe ones: your creative boss or your Producer. The best way to get your feedback heard is to tell them. They'll collect all your notes, and the notes from everybody else, and know exactly who to talk to.
The next likely folks: the Line Producer or the Assistant Director. Like I said, they're the buffer between you and the Director. Most Directors have so many different people looking to them for answers, that a couple squirrely creatives running up to them, asking to widen the shot or do another take where the actor doesn't scrunch up their face, that could be overload.
And while this is the least likely, I've been on several shoots where they were okay with it: talk to the Director directly. Some Directors love the chaos, they thrive in it. They come alive with their ability to not only manage the entire shoot, but integrate notes on the fly. They want to be partners, and are usually ones that are very quick and nimble in their shoots, refusing to waste time debating whether or not to do something. They just do it and see if it works.
When to Give Notes
Someone told me they were once on a video shoot where a green creative sat there quietly the entire time. The production company finished shot after shot, waiting for feedback every time, and received none. Then, after most of the shots were done, they asked the team if they had any final notes. She said, "Yes" and then proceeded to give feedback on every shot they had done the entire day. Yeah, needless to say, she didn't get any of her notes addressed.
It's a balance, figuring out when to give your notes and when to let the experts do their thing. The more I work with good directors, the more I can see it's an art to get people to do what you want them to do.
The point is, don't jump at the first sign of something you want to give feedback on. Let them do a take or two. See if they get it right on their own. Then, collect your thoughts, connect with the point-person, and let them know what you're envisioning. But at the same time, don't wait too long, or else you'll never get the chance to fix it.
As you do more shoots, it gets both simpler and more complex. You'll find that there's a routine to it, which most people are privy to. But you'll also find that there are way more subtleties to the process and the shoot itself, which are unique to your project (and too long to write down here).
The trick is a paradox: plan ahead and stay flexible.
Because whether you need to replace your puppet heroes at the last moment with the "Apple" hand model, or are taking that next step from pre-pro into the shoot, something is bound to go wrong.
But you, along with a whole lot of other people, are going to make it work.