by Marina Lohova
This past Saturday was the first time I gave out my business card, as well as sent out an email as a “Director”. That felt amazing. Small, but significant steps towards “living the dream”, as they say. Over the course of three days I directed a commercial and learned hella a lot from it. Here’s the second installment of my story.
A few good men.
Your team is crucial, and no matter the size and budget of the project, must include at least these key people.
Director of Photography. Find yourself a DP that will elevate you! His or her ability to quickly navigate locations, instantly determine the shots to provide the best possible coverage of the script, craft a sexy composition and develop a lighting scheme *fast* is priceless and a time saver. When you are in a rush to shoot many pages a day these qualities matter. Compare to a DP who is able to craft the most beautiful lighting, but it takes an hour. And ends up being a huge stress on the production schedule. Choose your DP wisely, also because you will be spending most of the time on set in his or her vicinity. You guys have to really click, because you are a tandem. Like Siamese twins. Or human centipede — whichever you prefer.
Super important! Don’t cut costs by not hiring an Assistant Director 🙋♀️. This goes for any project, big or small. Money spent on a quick and savvy AD will make up in the rate of success of the production. He or she sends out call sheets the night before, coordinates props, wardrobe, actors, logistics, and catering. Keeps track of time. If a film shoot was a wedding, a director is a bride, cast is a groom, crew is the parents — and an AD would be a wedding planner. A wedding without a planner is bound to be a nightmare experience for the bride. Don’t be that director bride, so to speak! And find yourself an AD that’s going to look at you like Romeo did at the bacon avocado sandwich. Seriously.
1st Assistant Camera is your magical unicorn 🦄. Pulling focus is number one important thing that makes the magic of cinema. Any type of a cool shot that does not live in the realm of student projects involves some sort of camera movement and/or actors movement relative to the camera. Quick example. A man walks into his bedroom, after coming home from work early, and catches his wife devouring their monthly supply of Trader Joe’s veggie chips on their marital bed. Shocker! As he approaches his criminally inclined wife, his face is still in focus. Why? Because focus pulling. You don’t know it’s there, but it is. In every dirt piece of commercial that boasts a plethora of weird CGI characters, such as Jumbo Molar peeking (and talking!) out of someone’s mouth in front of a bathroom mirror, pulling focus makes everything look professional and therefore, acceptable. Focus pulling is KEWL. It is what big boys use to make big cinema, and 1st AC is 100% behind it.
Moving on… Why is having a MUA so critical for a good production? We all live for that perfect shot. Nothing ruins a great looking image you crafted like a forehead of your lead actor if it shines like the Northstar. Production value instantly lost due to the fact that the picture on your monitor now resembles one of those embarrassing night club photos taken with flash where everyone is drunk (and hella shiny in their T-zone!). Here comes the MUA to save the day! Think about it this way — your production needs a pair of hands equipped with a powder puff and spare eyeballs to keep an eye on talent’s forehead. And there’s that.
Sound is just as important as picture, something that people often miss. Imagine, you have the most lavish image in the word, but it comes with the most terrible sound. Keanu Reeves delivers a dramatic monologue before finishing off the Russian Bad Guy, but the bathroom echo ruins his most powerful lines. Harry and Sally profess their love for each other, but LADWP decided to dig a hole in the road. Again. Obviously, it annihilates the viewing experience for your audience big time. Which is why you shouldn’t cut costs on a sound guy. From police helicopters and roaring cement trucks when shooting outside to the ambient music that can’t be turnt off at that co-working space that you highjacked because your friend rents a desk there — your sound guy needs to know how to tackle these situations. Make sure he or she comes with a set of decent lavaliers and a great spatial awareness so as to not get their boom stick or furry boom cover in every frame. Or their shadow. Or both. Hey, maybe he or she is an influencer hence the inexplicable gravitation toward the lens?? 🤔Anyways. Just find a good sound guy/gal with recommendations, and you are good to go.
Oops, one more thing. You will most definitely need a grip/electric! Think of it as a pair of spare hands that will move lights up and down the staircase, roll up stingers, plug and unplug things. Grip electric can also double as PA or whoever it is that person you didn’t hire because you didn’t have the budget for this. Womp. A quick learner and team player, wears-many-hats, ready-for-everything attitude ✅ is a must.
The rest is…well, how big is your budget again? I doubled as Art Department and even PA at times, no one of the crew was spared doing that PA thing, actually, and we made it work, but never — NEVER — low ball on the MVP production team of a good DP, amazing 1st AC, sensible 1st AD, an unobtrusive sound guy, a grip/electric dude and a seasoned MUA. Thank me later.
* A note from my Director of Photography >>> Oftentimes 50% of success of a DP is attributed to Art Department. See Wes Anderson’s films that rely so heavily on art direction, so maybe keep that in mind, too, and do not attempt to moonlight as Art Dept, like I did.
The night before
Oh, the night before production! Jitters keep running all over your body with a mix of terror and excitement. Adrenaline is pumping in your ears, and you keep mentioning how you plan to get at least 8 hours of Director’s beauty sleep tonight (it’s just like regular beauty sleep, but way more indie), but who are you fooling. You already know there’s no way. There’s just too much left to be done…
The pages of your script are neatly laid out on the kitchen counter, as you are trying to model the scenes in your head. Yes, your head is basically a 3D modeling emulator now. You are not going to launch Elon Musk space rockets with it, though. What you will try to do is to envision the scenes of your script with as many details and nuances possible. How do you want it to look? How do you want the actors to deliver lines? What is the timing of each actor in the scene? How do the actors, including extras, physically move within the scene? In two words, what is your creative intent here? In order to determine it, try to emulate the scene to the tiniest detail in your head. Read the sides out aloud! Actually move your body across the room! Freak out your nerdy neighbor at a co-working space when you are doing this! This effort will come in handy the next day when everyone will be turning to you for guidance.
Think about the keywords you will provide for each actor in the scene. Such as, if the actress is supposed to be doing yoga on the beach, the keywords describing her intention going into the scene, might be “spiritual”, “serene”, “peaceful”. Try to find at least three precise keywords that build a visual in your and hopefully your actor’s head. If the character just stole an expensive exotic car, it might be just a “Fuck yeah!” that will perfectly sum up the mood of the scene.
Keywords must be relatable and emotionally tangible to build a vibrant visual. Like, when I say “Lululemon”, I legit see all these chicks on social media in effortless Svarga Dvijasanas. But when I say “Sad”, that falls through, because it’s too abstract and not emotionally tangible. The keywords have to develop a strong association. Write down those keywords in your director’s Moleskin, which you obviously already own.