Making magic in production

Crew on the set of I’m Going to Mum’s (2013). Includes Amelia Johnson, Chris Drake, Antonia Stehlin, David Green, Matt Dickens, Estelle MacDonald, Lauren Jackson, Simon Ambridge, Simon Raby and Pepe de Hoyos Ramos


OK, you’re ready to roll! You’ve got a great script, a fantastic crew, actors, locations and gear. You’ve done as much planning as you possibly can. What now?

Work your schedule

If you have scheduled your production correctly, your first day of principal photography (and each subsequent day) should see every department fully aware of where they should be and what they’re supposed to be doing. This means production should be smooth. However… the reality is that production is usually a roller-coaster ride and you will need to be prepared for every eventuality.

Call sheets

Call sheets are the daily realisation of all the hard work you put into scheduling. These pieces of paper are produced each day and hold all the information your crew members need for that day’s shoot. Call sheets should include:

  • Names and contact phone numbers for everyone involved
  • What is being shot today and who is in each shot
  • Call times for everyone involved
  • Location details, with directions and maps
  • Where the rushes will go at the end of the day
  • Who is responsible for first aid on set.

After each shoot day, you will compare what you have achieved against your schedule. You will then create a new or updated call sheet for the next shooting day. This must be emailed or delivered to your cast and crew so they can be prepared.

Who does what on set?

Film sets are traditionally very hierarchical. New Zealand crew are used to working this way. No matter if you have a crew of five or 50, you need to clearly define what everyone’s role is before you begin shooting. Make sure all your crew know who they should ask if they have questions, so your director can concentrate on working with the actors and the DOP. Here is a list of the key departments and what they do.

  • Production department

    Your producer is the boss. Even though many short films are director-driven, ultimately the producer owns the film and the project. They are responsible for figuring out how the film can be made, acquiring the resources to make it, making sure the legal boxes are ticked, and keeping tabs on progress and budgets to ensure the movie can be completed. Some of these tasks may be delegated to other people in the production team, e.g. production manager, production accountant, location manager.

  • Lauren Jackson, Simon Raby and John Whiteside on the set of I'm Going to Mum's (2013)

    Lauren Jackson, Simon Raby and John Whiteside on the set of I’m Going to Mum’s (2013)

  • Director’s department

    Your director holds the vision for the film and is responsible for delivering that. They decide when to shoot and when to call “cut”. They need to spend most of their time working with the actors and the DOP, so you should try not to bother them with technical difficulties or questions.

    • The 1st AD (first assistant director) is the director’s right-hand person. This is a crucial role on set and they are the ones who call “action!”. The 1st AD is in charge of safety on set and managing the crew. They also have the job of keeping the production on schedule. They might also have assistants: a 2nd AD, 3rd AD, etc.

    • The continuity person also works closely with the director on set, taking notes about what has been shot so far, and whether there were differences between takes or a diversion from what was in the script.

    TIP- A great director doesn’t just just talk, they listen.

  • Camera & lighting department

    Your cinematographer/DOP is in charge of your camera and lighting crew. They work closely with the camera operator(s), 1st AD, gaffer, grips and others to select the best camera gear and manage the lighting, framing and composition on the day to achieve the director’s vision.

  • Art department

    Your production designer is responsible for creating the look of the film and dressing each set. They work closely with the director and cinematographer and oversee the work of your art director- who manages the team that designs and creates your sets and props. They also make sure all necessary props are on set. On smaller sets, these roles are often combined with make-up and costuming.

  • Make-up & costuming department

    Your costume designer and hair and make-up artists work with your actors to ensure the director’s vision for the characters is realised. They design the looks in advance during pre-production, then execute their plans on set.

  • TIPS- Unless your characters need a very specific look, don’t spend a lot of money here. Powder, concealer, blusher, mascara, lipstick and hairspray will probably be enough for most projects. Looking for costumes and props on a budget? Scour your local op shops, or borrow items from friends and family. Limiting costume changes on a low-budget project makes things easier too.

  • Sound department

    Poor sound is the number-one criticism of low-budget short films. It can ruin your film and is expensive to correct in post-production. On short film shoots, the head of this department may also be your boom operator, who uses mics just off screen to catch dialogue and ambient/environmental sounds. Take the time to listen to this person and give them what they need.

  • From the set of I'm Going to Mum's (2013)

    From the set of I’m Going to Mum’s (2013)

    TIP- Not familiar with a slate (the clapper tool pictured above)? Check out this short (<4 min) video from RocketJump Film School

More tips for making your production work

  • Feed your crew well. (An army marches on its stomach!)

  • Get release forms signed. You NEED releases from all your actors, musicians, artists, designers, and anyone else who creates something that appears in the film. Getting clearance signatures before and during the shoot is simple and takes you moments. After the shoot, it can become difficult or impossible. Don’t get caught out – do it now.

  • Thank everyone. A small word of thanks goes a long way.

  • Don’t forget to enjoy it. Take a moment each day to breathe in the atmosphere and savour the buzz of the project. Encourage your team to do the same. This is where cinematic magic turns your dream into a reality that you will be able to share for years to come.