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DoP Life: Pre-Production Work

This is the first in a series of three blog posts about my work as a DoP! In this post we are going to look at the work I undertake while preparing for a shoot.

So, I get contacted by a Director or Producer asking whether I might be available for a shoot! It’s always great getting phone calls out of the blue but what do I have to do before we get on set?

Usually, the Director or Producer has already worked with me and knows what I can offer to the production. Equally, I have new clients get in touch and I have to try and determine what they require from me and whether it is a project I am able to fulfil and one which I would like to shoot. Usually I can point them in the direction of my projects so they can see some sample work if they haven’t taken a look already.

So I’ve said yes to the project – what happens next?

Depending on the project, the amount of pre-preproduction work required can vary. Some narrative work or music promos will require significantly more pre-production work than say a corporate film but fundamentally the prep work involved stays the same.

Noel rigging the 2K for a lighting effect!

 

WHAT IS TO BE FILMED?

This is my first question. Ultimately this can be split into two categories, scripted and non-scripted content.

Scripted Content

For scripted content I will read the script several times to determine the overall feel of the piece and how I might see it being shot. I will then discuss the script with the Director to find out how they see the film looking and how they feel it should be covered. I may discuss different character traits and moods within the piece and suggest lighting and camera work to match the feel.

I personally really enjoy referencing other films, which I know a lot of other DoPs don’t like to do, but I find it really useful in getting a feel or style across to a Director. This process usually ends up with me preparing a ‘mood reel’ of sections of films set to music. For example – here is the mood reel I pulled together for short film ‘Encore’ which shows the various films and styles we referenced.

From here we can reference back to this film when taking influence over colour schemes, lighting styles, camera work or the feel of a scene. It is also great to share with a Production Designer or Gaffer as instantly they are transported into a fairly decent understanding of what we are trying to achieve.

Once we have determined the look, I tend to work with the Director on preparing a shot list. Sometimes a Director would have prepared something before I get booked, but generally I like to work with them on this, as so much of what I can offer in this stage of production is summed up here! Whether it be general coverage advice or detailed camera moves to fit the story.

Non-Scripted Content

For non-scripted content, like many corporate films and documentaries, I tend to like to ask the Director for sample films or general style guides. From here I can take this into consideration when deciding on my approach to lighting and camera work, ensuring what I capture is suitable for the film. On many projects recently I have developed project specific LUTs (Look Up Tables) for the camera to give a certain colour rendition to the pictures. In addition I have used ‘in camera’ effects to give the piece an overall style, such as slow-motion, handheld or using vintage lenses.

LUTs

LUTs or Look Up Tables, as they are formally known, are pieces of camera code that turn a LOG picture into a picture viewable on a REC709 monitor. Now if you don’t know what I am on about basically the flat looking picture produced by many cameras today are not designed to be viewed on regular monitors, that’s why they look grey and washed out. Therefore a LUT is introduced to turn that picture into something ‘normal’. Along the way you can also use this process to create a look for the film, taking the flat looking picture and transforming the way it displays colours, giving you something ‘pretty’ and not scientific – for instance; how should red look or somebody’s skin, should the shadows tend to blue? All of this can be transformed in the LUT and viewed on the monitor while shooting to give Directors, Producers and Production folk an idea of what the finished film will look like. For instance, on Tata For Now I developed a LUT that desaturated the greens and shifted them toward blue or yellow (depending on their shade) as I knew so much of what we were due to shoot was green and I hate how green looks straight out of a digital camera!

Screenshot from Tata For Now

Generally I will discuss this with the Director before the shoot, and perhaps show them some samples, and we will decide on an approach to take.

WHAT ARE THE EQUIPMENT REQUIREMENTS?

For both scripted and non-scripted work the equipment requirements can vary from just a camera and tripod for some GV filming of a business to a full camera and lighting package for a studio shoot.

Studio shoot with over 15kW of tungsten lighting

Once we have determined what is to be filmed (and a shot list in the case of scripted content) I can start work on pulling together an equipment list.

I own my own camera kit and small lighting package so this tends to fit the bill for most corporate and documentary productions. This is great as it reduces the amount of pre-production time required as there are no additional phone calls to rental houses! It also makes things more streamlined for the production – just one invoice for DoP and kit is always helpful!

My Sony FS7 camera

For more complex shoots the production may have to hire in additional camera or lighting equipment to fulfil certain shots or locations. I can determine what additional equipment may be needed after I have carried out a location recce or been given a location breakdown from the director, along with a shot list.

Recce

A location recce is always welcome, visiting the location ahead of the shoot helps me determine what obstacles we may face while shooting, and not just those on screen but those off screen too like “can we get a dolly up those stairs!?” and it allows myself and Director to determine if our intended shot list will work and where I can put my lights!

As I work in the industry full time I keep up to date with new equipment and can recommend the most suitable and cost effective kit to hire to fulfil our shooting requirements.

Once we have completed the recce, and have a shot list to hand, I tend to work out they way I am going to light certain scenes or sequences and therefore produce a lighting plan and subsequent equipment list to fulfil this.

I rent from several rental houses across the north so can recommend to production the best one to go with given the equipment requirements.

WHAT ARE THE CREWING REQUIREMENTS?

Generally, once I know what we are due to film and what kit we are going to need I can work with Production and work out our crewing requirements. If we are intending to just shoot interviews for a day, myself and a professional Sound Recordist will usually fit the bill; but if we are hiring in HMI lights, track and dolly systems and prime lenses additional crew are required to operate this equipment.

On the beach shooting the last shot of the day!

I have several lighting and camera personnel I like to use and generally will recommend them to Production. By working with my regular crew, production and I get several efficiencies. Firstly, we tend to be tuned into each other and know what role we play in the game, therefore speeding up the way we work. Equally, we have developed a short hand which allows us to know instantly what the other needs, meaning we don’t need to explain things quite so much.

Once we have booked the crew I can start talking to them about the look I want for certain scenes or sequences, discussing lighting plans, or what camera equipment we are going to use. They then will take my plans and ensure we have all the nuts and blots to make it work and delegate certain tasks to their team.

THE SHOOTING SCHEDULE

Sample Schedule

I will very often work with Production, Director and 1st AD to determine a shoot schedule for the production, particularly for scripted films. For non-scripted content I usually make recommendations to Production over the level of material to film in a day or filming at certain locations at certain times to make best use of natural light for example.

THE CHECK OUT

This is the process so often missed by many crews, cameramen and productions. But even when owning my own kit I carry out a through inspection of all my equipment before it goes out onto a shoot. This ensures I have everything we will need and that the equipment is ‘shoot ready’ from the time I turn up on set, so no scrambling around trying to find a filter or to format a card! I am very particular with the way I work, a tidy kit is a happy kit, and everything has it place to ensure I know where it will be when I look for it! Both ensuring we have the item required and that I can find it in a speedy – efficient manor.

Prepping the track & dolly

Sometimes a check out isn’t possible, for instance renting kit in on the day of shooting. If this is the case I will cross reference all kit on the hire list with that collected from the rental house then carry out a full inspection when I arrive on location.

OVERALL

Overall pre-production time for me is very important, as the famous quote goes…

“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail”

I believe that the more work I can do in pre-production the more streamlined and ultimately professional and creative the shoot will be. Even if you feel you don’t need it, it’s worth having a chat with me over the phone or in an email about the shoot so I can prepare and make a plan, ensuring we have the right equipment and personnel to get the most out of your shooting time! It’s always good to have a plan but equally I’m no stranger to ditching the plan if something better comes along while we are shooting! I shall come onto more of this on the next instalment of DoP Life when I look at the shoot itself, which you can check out here!