An army moves on its stomach.
While feeding your cast and crew isn’t one of the more glamorous topics you argued about in film school, it is often mission-critical. Think about it: If lunch is 20 minutes late every day in a nine-day shoot, you might lose the equivalent of a complete morning of shooting.
Planning how to keep everybody nourished and happy should not be an afterthought. The more demanding the schedule, the more important this element of planning becomes.
The way you treat the cast and crew at mealtime on the first day of shooting is key. Don’t miss the chance to make a good first impression. I always shoot the hardest-to-shoot scene first. This could be the scene with the long, complicated Steadicam move in it, the scene with a lot of complex blocking, the scene with the most extras… or the location where feeding everyone is the most difficult.
Craft service is the first thing you need to plan—i.e. providing some form of food and drink throughout the shooting day.
Let’s start with drinks. Water is the most obvious choice here. But plan on enough water to get everyone through the day, with attention to the environment you are shooting in. Hot days and high humidity demand more water than cooler locations.
Having enough ice to cool drinks throughout the shooting day is important. Sometimes a cold drink in the 10th hour of shooting is more critical than at the beginning of the day.
Craft services (and meal service) are areas where productions can easily generate a lot of waste. For the “greenest” set, provide a source of drinking water and a refillable water bottle for everyone who doesn’t bring their own. If you have to use purchased water bottles, have a PA write a number on the cap of every bottle as the case is opened. Admit it: You must have set down a water bottle somewhere on set a hundred times and been unable to find your own water bottle among the six partially drunk bottles sitting there, so you started a new one. Having any kind of mark or number on every bottle minimizes this problem.
Coffee is the most reliable source of caffeine. A classic mistake is to bring enough coffee for the coffee drinkers to have one cup each at the beginning of the day, but no more. The coffee drinkers I know tend to keep drinking the stuff all day. Do not deprive them of their caffeine. You may be a fan of some high-sugar, high-caffeine energy drink, but do not assume that everyone on set shares your taste. And do not assume that everyone wants sugar with their caffeine. A wide variety of diet and regular soft drinks is the best approach.
Asking everyone what they prefer before production starts is an even more complete plan. Craft service food choices are limited by the general requirement that everything should be finger food, easy to eat on the fly. The snacks you select need to encourage sharp attention and high energy. Protein bars, non-messy fruit (grapes are great), veggies like carrot sticks and crackers fit this. Apples and oranges are great but may be hard to eat in a hurry and can be messy. My personal belief is that bags of chips don’t contribute to attention and energy. Again, ask people what they prefer.
News flash: Humans require nourishment, especially when they are working long hours, dealing with stressful situations, and carrying stuff. I’ve been on sets where the subject of lunch came up on day one as a kind of surprise. This is not a good message to send to cast crew—trust me. Organizing meals is a key aspect of managing time.
In my experience, the productions that have a person dedicated to feeding the cast and crew are the best organized and the best fed. This person doesn’t have to be a cook, although that’s a great solution. They just have to be creative and focused on the task. They should probably be good at finding their way around new parts of town.
A dedicated meal provider will be best able to provide appropriate food at the right time and on a known budget. A last-minute decision to use a nearby restaurant is guaranteed to be costly, not only in terms of dollars per person spent, but also in terms of the time required. Everyone has to go from the set to the restaurant and back. It’s actually a company move, with all of the time and energy costs of doing that. In some situations, leaving the set creates a security problem, the solution for which (someone stays there and you bring them carry-out) further adds time to getting back to work.
The timing of meals is also far easier to control with a dedicated craft and meals coordinator. The key requirement is that food be available at, or a bit before, the promised time and that it be in a form that can sit for 30 minutes. You should plan a meal break no later than six hours after the first call time. But you want flexibility. If the current setup just needs a couple more takes, then finish that. And if the right time to break comes up 25 minutes early, having the meal available early is a huge schedule benefit.
Knowing exactly who to call and who is responsible for providing the meal makes managing the schedule far easier. Relying on the PA whom the camera department just sent to Best Buy is not a great plan.
Having a real meal break, with food everyone enjoys, is a wonderfully refreshing pause during a day of shooting. Some of the key problems and challenges may be solved in a conversation or brainstorm that happens at mealtime. Meals are not “lost time.” They are an investment in keeping everyone able to focus on making the movie.
There is one unwritten rule: Pizza may be served exactly once in any shoot.
There will always be individual cast or crew members with special food requirements or restrictions: vegetarian, gluten-free, sugar-free, etc. You need to be aware of them and provide for them. But the problem of who gets what for lunch gets worse when a key cast or crew member turns up their nose at the menu and heads out to find a better solution in the neighborhood. If you’re shooting in a very isolated location, it tends not to happen, but in almost any other place, it can.
There are two problems here. First, if talent leaves the set, they are unlikely to return from lunch when everyone else does and you lose time. Second, this same talent is unhappy with how you are treating them. This is always bad, of course, even if the talent in question is being a total diva.
The solution: Fix it in planning. Get talent on board with the meal plan, even if it’s just in a quick, informal way. If they buy into the menu, fine. If they object to one part of the plan, better to arrange for one or two special meals for them and stay on schedule.
Extras are a potential challenge. Typically, low-budget productions do not plan to feed extras, but might still ask them to wait around for hours on end. Regardless of budget, you should plan to have drinks for extras at the minimum.
Ideally, you plan for one extra day of shooting. Often, it’s a case of asking, “Is everyone free next Sunday?” Either way, feeding the crew on that last extra day is probably more important than other days. Everyone has been giving their all. Everyone has been through some long days or nights of shooting, and this is the final push. It’s not the day for pizza (unless it’s gourmet, sit-down pizza).
Moral of the Story: Plan
Fixing any problem, including craft service and meals, is easy to do in planning and hard to do on the fly without damage to morale, nutrition and the schedule. If the film is worth making, it’s worth taking hours, days or even weeks to plan every aspect of the shoot in order to avoid the problems that will create havoc. MM
Jim McQuaid has been making short films for the last 15 years. Based in Durham, North Carolina, he shoots just enough commercial projects to support his filmmaking habit, and has worked as AD on a variety of films. His most recent short, “Scene,” has played at numerous film festivals.
Images courtesy of Pixabay.
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