So you’ve been dragged away from your natural habitat behind the screens and tasked with being the on-set VFX supervisor on a live action shoot?
The project might be a large production with a crew in the hundreds or a small setup with just a handful of people.
You might be an independent contractor or representing the VFX house handling the post work on the project. Maybe you’re the artist who’ll be doing the work afterwards. Regardless, it will be your job to ensure that the footage will enable the VFX team to do their very best work.
A movie set is a unique place, yet it’s one of the industries where things work pretty much the same way, whether you find yourself shooting in Thailand or Norway.
You might even notice that certain jobs on the set attract the same types across different cultures. (Somebody really should do a research paper on this.)
But it’s also a place with a lot of unwritten rules and where every minute costs a lot of money.
Maybe you’re one of those people who can turn up in a new environment and absorb the culture in 60 seconds and then fit right in. Maybe you already know everything about film-making.
If so, stop here. I don’t want to waste your time.
If that’s not you, keep reading.
In the following, I’ve mainly summarized my own experiences.
The aim is to help others avoid at least some of the many mistakes I’ve made over the years.
Full disclosure, this advice is probably less useful if we’re talking guerrilla film-making, where everybody wears multiple hats.
As an unscientific rule of thumb: check if there’s a food truck or “Craft services” (a table that used to be full of cake and chocolate but which is now mostly fruit, nuts and herbal tea) on the set.
If there is, there is a good chance my advice applies.
Please also note that though this is written from the viewpoint of an on-set VFX supervisor, I’m not going to get technical.
There are many great articles and blog posts out there getting granular on Greyballs, tracking, Lidar and lens grids. This post is about the other stuff.
Let’s dive into it – here are 15 pointers to help you survive being an on-set VFX supervisor.
1. When you arrive.
- Show up on time. If you get a call sheet before, check it. Then check it again. There will be a time where you are supposed to be on set, and a time for a pickup and a ready to shoot time. Don’t be late.
- Prepare for the shoot. Look at the storyboard. Check the VFX breakdown if one exists. Read the script. Get as much info as you can. And again, read the call sheet. You’ll be amazed at how much information can be squeezed into an A4 page.
- Make sure you don’t bring more gear than you can carry by yourself. Find a place to put your stuff where it won’t be in the way. And be prepared to move it at a moment’s notice. And then to move it again later. It’s also a good idea to mark your bags or whatever you carry your stuff in, with an easy to read “VFX” so that if someone else needs to move it, they can let you know.
- Dress for the location. Wear sturdy clothes and shoes. Wear layers. Check the weather forecast if you’re going to be outside. There will be a lot of standing still and it can get very cold/hot.
- Introduce yourself to the producer and the AD (Assistant Director) who should be your best friends on the set. If it’s a small production you’ll of course meet the director and DOP (Director of Photography ) right away. If it’s a big shoot, you’ll meet them when they need you.
- Beware of cables and stuff you might knock over. And remember that things get moved all the time so just because there wasn’t a cable to trip over an hour earlier doesn’t mean there isn’t one now.
- Check out the phone/photo etiquette before getting cosy with your iPhone.
On some sets, people are on their phone constantly, other times they’re not. If grips and wardrobe have their phones out and you really have nothing to do, you’re probably ok.
- Don’t get in the way, don’t get in frame, don’t block lights, and keep quiet during takes.
2. You’re not really wanted.
But you’re needed. Accept it and move on.
This has gotten better over the years as people recognize what VFX brings to the table, but there is still some truth to this.
On the set, you’re making things difficult for the rest of the crew. You’re that person who complains about the quality of the Green screen that it took 6 people hours to put up, the thickness of the cord used for a harness or a reflection in a door.
You take up valuable bandwidth with the DOP and director and need time to measure sets and take HDRIs while people are trying to shoot the next scene, move the lights, go to lunch, get stuff done.
And, you are one of the others – the people involved in the movie production that happens AFTER the actual shoot, which some film workers regard as a completely different industry.
But, you’re also the person who can say, Don’t worry, there’s an easy fix to what looks like a big problem on set.
And, once the edit is locked your decisions on the shoot will make a huge difference for the final look of the film and can potentially save hundreds of hours in post.
3. Make friends with the Script supervisor and the AD.
The Script supervisor’s job is to make detailed notes about every single shot.
They are usually very friendly people who are highly organized.
Have a talk with them about what kind of data you’re looking for in the scenes and they might help you get it. (A lot of useful data gets embedded in the meta-data but it doesn’t always move downstream to the VFX artists.)
The AD is the link between the director and the rest of the crew. They know everything about the shoot. If you need a clean plate, a slate, or have a question about the next shot, they are the person to talk to.
4. Stay close to the DOP and the director but don’t crowd them.
They might need you unexpectedly but, when they don’t, they have other stuff to think about.
And don’t volunteer your opinion about the director’s or DOP’s artistic decisions unless they affect the post production or you’re specifically asked. This is not to say that you can’t say something looks great, but hey, keep it constructive.
5. Don’t do another person’s job unless asked / Respect other people and their jobs
While it’s perfectly cool and respectable to pick up a couple of bags if the video village has to be moved at a moment’s notice or to help someone who’s struggling with a prop, don’t just start moving lamps or cameras or other very expensive equipment. You might be interfering with someone’s job. Also a flight case full of Cook lenses can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and you DON’T want to be the one who drops it. (The craft services rule-of-thumb applies here.)
Everybody’s trying to perform at their very best. From talent to runners. Show them respect and they’ll respect you. Also, you might meet them again, so be nice.
(I’ve been on a shoot where one of the extras – who are generally seen as barely above child-actor’s parents in terms of the film-making pyramid – turned out to be the director’s dad.)
6. Stay out of office politics.
Unless you’re working on a VFX-heavy show, often the on-set VFX supervisor is only present for the days where it makes sense to pay you, when there is meaningful stuff for you to do.
This means that there might be all kinds of intrigues going on from previous days that you’re happily unaware about.
Keep it that way.
7. Take notes / Take pictures.
You might be an outlier who is able to remember all lenses and angles, camera moves and focus distances months later. Good for you.
The rest of you: Take notes about the shots. Digital or analogue.
You’ve probably got a camera anyway to make HDRI and reference for textures, tracking etc. Make a habit of taking some shots while you’re standing around anyway. They can come in extremely handy if you need to recreate something later digitally. Let production know why you’re taking the photos though and don’t share stuff on social media unless you get the OK or the photo contains nothing sensitive to the production.
8. Careful where you wander.
There might be hours on end where you have nothing to do. You might be tempted to go for a walk around the area you’re shooting and collect some data. Check with production first. They’re paying for your time. Not only might they suddenly have an important question for you, you could also be walking into an area where you really shouldn’t be.
(Yes, I’ve done it.)
There might be people with a certain level of fame or general juice on a shoot.
Cool people you desperately want to become best friends with and hang out with for barbecues every weekend. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m still hopeful.
Most of the celebs are ok and very hard-working people but the more successful they get, the more they tend to be insulated from other people.
Use your common sense here and err on the side of caution unless you have super-crazy social skills.
10. Try your very best. Even if the project isn’t.
Making any kind of movie, even a bad one, is crazy hard.
A film shoot demands that everyone does their best regardless of the project’s budget and ambitions.
Besides, it’s only once the film is in the can that you’ll really know if it turned out good or not. Movies are weird like that.
11. You screwed up. Don’t panic. A lot can be fixed in post.
You made a mistake; didn’t get enough tracking points on the
Green Screen; or didn’t get the lens info. If you’re working directly for the
production, let them know. If you’re representing VFX, let them know.
It’s not good, but you probably won’t die. Things might take longer in post but it’s often fixable. These days almost anything is possible with enough time and money.
Try and avoid it though. Someone will have to pay for it down the line.
12. Try not to complain about the work.
Even if other people do and you’ve been working for 14 hours and you’re cold and tired. This is hard, many of us enjoy a good rant, but it’s bad form during the shoot. Save it for when you’re home again.
13. Be ready to go.
It’s no good if you need twenty minutes to set up your HDR-rig or your gear is back at the hotel.
Set up that rig in advance, you’ll be happy you did.
14. Keep cool when things change.
Don’t panic if they’re suddenly setting up a shot that you haven’t prepared for.
Talk it through calmly with the stake holders and work out the best possible way of doing it. If it will significantly affect the amount of post-work, let the production know. Then they can decide if the shot is important or not, if they need to find more money, or some other solution.
15. If you notice a potential issue with a shot just as everyone’s ready to shoot.
If there’s an easy fix, like asking to move a C-stand out of frame or suggesting to the camera operator he only keeps the physical set in frame, say something.
If they are about to do something which will add a lot of money to the post bill or you might have a better method, do speak up.
That’s why you’re there.
If it’s a small thing for post but tricky to avoid in live action, consider letting it go. Quite often the frames in the shot you’re worried about won’t even make it into the cut.
Also, if you can make the day better for the production, this is sometimes a good trade off. It’s better to add two days of post for one man rather than half a day for a live-action crew of 100.
Good luck and remember to enjoy yourself.
Thanks to my old colleague Peter Hartwig for valuable input.
A humorous short story set in the eighties. Based on real events. Click here to read it.
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