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3 Tips to Supervising a Commercial Shoot

3 Tips to Supervising a Commercial Shoot

Commercial shoot supervision, as anyone will tell you, is easy. Take some measurements, shoot some stills, assure the agency producer that things will be fine. Easy. Then there are the times when it’s hard. Today I’m going to give you some tips for supervising a commercial shoot, such as who you need on your good side and what to do when things go sideways.

1. HOW TO INTERACT WITH PEOPLE ON THE SHOOT

On a commercials shoot (my personal background) you have two groups of people: the Advertising Agency, often with their Client, and the Production
The Ad Agency is comprised of many people. The key people are the Creatives, which are frequently a duo. They have a Producer with them. The Producer handles all the non-creative decisions: logistics, money, personnel. Basically everything not directly related to what is being shot that day.
 
The Production is the crew. Your director, cinematographer, grips, gaffers, catering, crafty, makeup, wardrobe, art department are all the Production.
 
Here are the people you need to befriend and come to an understanding with:

  • The 1st Assistant Director - This person, above all other people, is the one you need to be on a first-name basis with. They make and control the shoot schedule. Befriend them and make sure they are aware of your needs. If you have to shoot chrome balls, lens grids or elements, tell them days in advance. No one wants to hear that their already tight shoot schedule is going to be delayed. Shoots can get VERY costly once you factor in things like meal penalties and OT. So, get to know the 1st AD and make sure you’re on the same page to ensure your shoot will go well. Fail to do this and you’re not getting invited to the wrap party. 

  • The Agency Producer - After the shoot is done, the crew all goes on to other projects, but the Agency is going to move into your studio as you finish the spot. Knowing and getting along with their producer is key.  They are likely to approach you multiple times during a shoot to either reassure their client about how the VFX will work, or with various requests for new VFX.

  • The Director - This one’s obvious, but if the director keeps you in the loop, you’re likely to tear a lot less hair out once you get the footage back to your office. Keep in mind that no one’s time is more precious on a shoot and most of your concerns should be run through either the 1st AD or one of the departments.

  • The Script Supervisor - This person keeps a record of everything that’s shot, and if you’re lucky they’ll be willing to write down some of your VFX data too; such as lenses, focal distances, and camera heights. 

  • The Camera Department - The DP, the 1st AC and the 2nd AC will be the people you’ll need to get all your lens info from. You’ll need their help to light chroma-key screens, shoot lens grids and all the rest of it. Most camera crews are very VFX savvy and you won’t need to stress about how they’re lighting your blue screen. The best time to get them to shoot lens grids, if time permits, is on the camera prep day before the shoot.

2. PREVENTATIVE MEASURES

The first preventative measure, as I’ve already detailed somewhat, is planning. Planning means getting together with the director and any other crew who will be involved and working out how to accomplish the shot;  how the camera’s going to move, how the actor is going to move, what the SFX guys are going to do when, and so on. You get all that down and your VFX will go smoothly. 
 
However, many times you will not be afforded the ability to plan. So, what do you do if you’re turning up on set with a camera, tape measure, and some green gaff tape? Find the 1st AD — Explain what you need and see how much of it you can get. It’s unlikely you’ll get everything, but they'll do their best. Make sure they know you want to run in after every setup to take light reference or that you need to get to the back of the set to apply tracking markers and take measurements. 

As soon as a setup is wrapped, take as many reference pictures as you can, from as many angles as you can while people are dismantling everything and moving to the next setup. Be flexible. Every little thing helps when you’re trying to rebuild back at the office.
 
Helpful Tips: 
  • I make sure to offer up VFX solves to on-set problems. Nothing crazy like offering to rebuild the entire background if someone’s unhappy with it, but if you can do something small that’s going to keep the production on-schedule, people will be grateful. There will be plenty of opportunity to offer up small paint-outs, color fixes and other 20 minute tasks that are going to get everyone on your side, so that when you do need your plates they’ll think of you as the helpful VFX person, and not the person who says no to everything. Don’t go crazy with this, but pay attention and when issues come up, offer help.

  • If you aren't able to help with a shot, you should answer with something like, “We don’t have the time on this one, sorry,” or “that’ll take a lot of time away from the stuff we bid for.” It’s the same thing, but it’s more polite. Its hard in VFX to say you can’t do something, because anyone itching for a fight will point to the latest Star Wars movie as proof that VFX can do anything, and they’re not wrong. It’s just a matter of TIME, not MONEY

3. WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS GO SIDEWAYS

I was on a night shoot for a very big and very CG job. The other supe and I were setting up the witness camera and laying out some tracking markers when we noticed the director shooting over on a completely different part of the set with an out of focus object in front of our only usable tracking marks. If this shot got in the edit, it would be a painful one. 

The options were to bring the shoot to a halt or think of how we were going to crack this problem in VFX. I did a bit of both. I got one concession from the director to remove the occluding object (with a sincere promise to restore it in post), and the shoot went on. You’re not going to win every battle, so make sure that the ones you lose are less important than the ones you win.
 
Fortunately, supervising most commercial shoots are pleasant. In the off chance your shoot does go sideways, these three tips will help smooth out the wrinkles.

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