Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Priorities - Coverage

There are points in the chronicles of the films I've worked on that I think it's appropriate to address a production issue at greater length, or expand on a point made in one of the production posts.This will be one of those posts.  I refer to these posts as "Priorities," the things we need to focus on in production.  As I brought up our script supervisor's participation on The Bet, I thought this would be a good time to talk about the work of script supervisors.   

The digital age has brought many wonderful advantages to aspiring movie-makers, but the reduced budgets have also led to breaking some things that were not broken, and they need to be fixed, among them an understanding of coverage and respect for the position of script supervisor.

They used to say that low-budget films are often set apart from their bigger brother counterparts by poor sound, but that is less and less of a problem even on no-budget sets.   As budgets have shrunk, budget priorities have become skewed, with money spent amply, and sometimes foolishly, in certain areas, to the  neglect of others.

Let's get one myth out of the way here and now - if you screw it up in production, it's highly unlikely you will be able to fix it effectively in post, and it will cost you more and not be as good as  if you had gotten it right the first time.

In the last post on The Bet, I mentioned that our brilliant script supervisor, Christine, was an integral part of the discussion on how we would shoot scenes.  We worked on some small budgets, but we would never think to save money with a less-than-experienced script supervisor.

Mind you, we were shooting film, so we had to worry about the cost of raw stock, and printing and developing, so making sure we had the right amount of coverage but not so high a ratio that we were wasting film was all part of the mix.  The script supervisor is essential in this process.

The completed project on The Bet is a testament, in no small part, to Christine's great work, and the work Matt, the director of Lucky Stiffs, did as editor.

Today, I see countless ads for "First AD/script supervisor" - two positions that are completely separate and cannot be done properly together.  On other sets, the script supervisor is whatever unpaid intern agrees to do it, often the person with the least idea of what coverage is needed.

I spoke with an actress making the transition to production recently.  She was hired on a film as a PA, moved up to production coordinator and asked to take script notes on a feature.  She had no idea what coverage was, but just wrote down what someone else told her, someone with as little understanding of coverage as she had.

Coverage has always been tricky.  When I made the transition from theater to film, coverage was the biggest mystery to me.  I could understand how to stage a scene, and how the master played, and could understand a few close-ups, but the range of coverage was something it took me years to fully comprehend.  It saddens me,then, that people who bring significantly less experience to the table think they understand it, and that they don't need any help.

I advised on a short about a year ago where the director talked endlessly about shooting like Scorcese and movement.  When the producer showed me the rough cut, I asked about shots that seemed to be missing.  The producer's answer over and over again was  that we didn't have that angle, or that the one take of that angle was bad.

This was not for lack of money.  Indeed, the director of photography could not have spent more on the equipment rented, insisting on anamorphic lenses and, when we discussed shooting on the 7D, which was more in line with the original budget, he said the crew wouldn't feel the movie was as "important" if it weren't shot on the RED.  The RED is a good system; the reason for renting it shouldn't be to impress the crew.  I hear this sort of nonsense endlessly.

So, he had his lenses, and a huge lighting package, and his RED, and then went out and got way too little coverage.  This for a director and DP who could not make one day as scheduled, despite a very talented and more experienced AD who tried her best to move them along.   The script supervisor?  It was a friend of the director's from when he was in school - when he showed up.

I mentioned that there is a balance between over-shooting and not getting enough coverage.  Even on movies where I've seen not enough coverage, I've seen tons of footage shot.  They were often in long takes, or endless takes to get the shot right, or angles that seemed like coverage but didn't cut so they left the editor in an either/or situation , not really more choices.

Let me repeat: the fact that you exposed a lot of footage does not necessarily mean you have enough coverage.

I find it ironic that in an age where the cost of raw stock, printing and developing is no longer  a concern for the very low-budget filmmaker, micro-budget films seem to suffer from a lack of coverage.

To move efficiently, I try to explain to directors that you are either looking at multiple takes or multiple angles, and on low budget films, you don't get both.  That means if you have carefully thought out your coverage, and your DP and your script supervisor both see it as sufficient, you are doing as many takes as you need to get few angles right, or you do enough angles that you will have choices when one angle isn't perfect.

Don't only try to cut in your head - the beauty of movies is that it is not necessary.  Your shot list or storyboard should not represent the only possible way to cut the movie, it should be your guide to choices you can make later.

If there is one mistake I can keep low-budget movie-makers from making as they read this post, I would suggest that they take the role of script supervisor seriously.  If you really feel you cannot afford this position, then hire your editor before the shoot and have them do the position.  This isn't optimal, but it's better than the alternative.

I have had the honor and privilege of working with so many amazing script supervisors.  They contribute so much to a completed project, and as producer, line producer or AD, I always consult with them and listen to their opinions.  In an earlier post, I mentioned a movie where the producers could have known on Day 3 that they needed to make cuts to the script; instead, they ignored the script supervisor's advice (and mine) and wound up cutting more than half the film after shooting it, at a great cost.  The Black Box.

All of this is not to mention the obvious advantages of having a script supervisor; avoiding continuity errors and saving time when editing because you know exactly what you have available in any given scene.

Now that monitors are pretty much WYSIWYG, scriptys can usually be found in video village, that wonderful cove set aside for monitor and key crew to view it.  Back in the day, even though we had monitors, script would always try to position themselves somewhere immediately behind camera, so that they could see the action from the same angle as camera.  This often meant script supes doubled as contortionists, cramming themselves into whatever small, hidden space they could find that was not in shot and did not throw a shadow, all while timing the shot and writing away.  Today, we don't spend as we used to on Polaroid film from that angle for continuity, but, of course, use digital, but those images are still quicker for script to have than constantly going back over footage to check which hand the cigarette was in.

They provide both lined script, showing that each and every line of the script is actually covered and from what angles (below right), and script notes, (below left) showing director's preference on takes and any issues or problems with those takes that were done.

Of course, when shooting 35mm film, this helps in terms of knowing what takes to print and which ones not to print, which saves money.

When wrap is called, the script supervisor's job isn't done.  Many will type up their notes - I know Christine always did - to make them easier to read.

Everyone brings a special craft to the set, but because people see this one person seemingly just sitting and writing, I often feel they aren't given their due in terms of their importance to the final picture.

Long-time pros, of course, know the value of a good script supervisor, and for them, most of this post seems obvious.  The point of these "priorities" posts is to highlight some areas I see over-looked today, and to pass along some helpful advice to emerging filmmakers.  For those not in film who follow this blog, and want to know more about script supervisors, I direct you to the  Script Supervisor's Elevator Speech, a wonderful blog for those in any area of the business as well.

I've been in this business for more than twenty years, and if I were directing a project tomorrow, I wouldn't think of doing it without a good script supervisor.  No matter how smart you think you are as a director, or how good your DP is or thinks he or she is, a good script supervisor is a vital asset.

Respect them, and respect the work they do.

Okay, preaching over.  Next post, the reason why the subtitle to the tale of The Bet is "The Fall of Love."

Andrea, one of many talented script supes I know

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