Directing on a Dime: 10 Things to Never Go On Set Without

Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar. Have questions for Andy about low-budget (or no-budget) moviemaking? Ask away.

I live my life on set by Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. You have to expect (or at the very least pray for) a certain amount of responsibility from your cast and crew, hoping they will be prepared and have all the tools they need when it’s time to shoot. Naturally, they expect the same level of responsibility from you, the director. When it comes to Murphy’s Law, you can’t be expected to take care of each department’s every need, but at least you can be prepared. So here are 10 things I’m always sure to have with me on set:

1) Duct Tape This one is a given. It’s usually something supplied by the lighting department, but just in case, I try to bring a roll and maybe some clothespins as well.

2) iPhone The Swiss Army Knife of today. Aside from some of the great moviemaking apps now available, my iPhone also lets me keep track of time, the shoot schedule and my shot list, as well as take pictures for continuity, contact people, check e-mail, find routes to locations, look up the weather, etc.

3) Swiss Army Knife The actual Swiss Army Knife of today. I still have mine from when I was a Boy Scout, and it’s always handy to be able to offer up pliers/scissors/a wire-cutter/a screwdriver/tweezers when a crew member can’t seem to find theirs.

4) Laptop I serve as an editor or assistant editor on most of my projects, so I make it a point to bring my MacBook and external hard drive on set so we can back up our footage and sound. Having these around also lets you keep track of set and costume continuity by looking back at your footage. And if we have a break in shooting, I can always start cutting or syncing sound. Important: Invest in a couple of good, reliable hard drives for your work. I have two: A portable one terabyte drive I bring to the set and a five terabyte drive I keep at home that has a backup of everything I’ve ever worked on.

5) First Aid Kit Accidents happen. Ideally, you should always have someone on set who knows things like CPR and the Heimlich maneuver, but unfortunately, most of the projects I’ve worked on don’t have that luxury.

6) Batteries I usually make it a point to bring some extra AA, AAA, C, D and 9V batteries; anything that’ll keep us from having to make a run to CVS while losing valuable light and time. I also ask that the DP always charge their camera batteries the night before a day’s shoot and—if they can—keep an extra charged battery ready to go as a backup in case the other one dies on set.

7) Film Directing Shot by Shot by Steven D. Katz This is arguably my favorite moviemaking book of all time. Obviously, I do all my research and preparation for a scene before I walk on set, but this book is helpful in providing different ideas on how to cover a scene. It’s just an excellent resource to have lying around.

8) Extra scripts I always have my own complete, notated script with me on set, but I also bring a couple extras in case anybody forgot theirs. To clarify: I don’t print out a bunch of full scripts every day, because they just end up being lost, thrown away or taken home, never to be returned or used again. So I just print off sides, a version of the script that only includes what’s being shot that day. Depending on the number of actors and crew heads, I’ll usually print four or five copies a day. Some actors and crew heads are really good about bringing their own personal copy, heavily notated for their own work. I try to encourage that, because it usually means a more dedicated worker, a better product and less wasted printer ink.

9) Shot list and storyboards You’d figure this would be obvious, but I’ve worked on some shorts where the director had “it all up here! (points to their brain),” or only had a copy on their smartphone. I like to keep a physical copy in a clipboard with my script; that way it’s always on hand, and I can have a list committed to paper that I check off as we go to make sure no shots are left behind. Let’s just say the “had it all up here” guy didn’t have it all when he got to post.

10) Energy bars and drinks When days run long and you’re still hours away from breaking for lunch or going home, I always eat something that will give me at least enough energy to get through the final push. Believe me, you never want to direct on an empty stomach; you get lazy. Your mind goes from “Let’s make sure we cover all our bases, get good performances, get all the coverage we need…” to “Food! I need food! Let’s just shoot this real quick so we can break for lunch. Two takes? Naaah, we’re fine. Let’s move on. Do we really need this next scene?” The same goes for energy drinks and fighting off sleep at the beginning or end of the day. It’s all temporary energy, but it should hopefully be enough. If you really want to be popular with the crew, bring a box of energy bars or a crate of energy drinks to keep off to the side in case anyone else starts getting a little fatigued.

Murphy’s Law will exist on every set you ever step foot on for the rest of your career, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to be prepared when the worst happens! What else do you always make sure to bring on set? Feel free to leave a comment below. MM

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