Long before most actors will have a chance to utter a single line in a feature film and take on a supporting role, they will get valuable experience on short film sets. Some of these productions are paid, although a majority of them for me have been unpaid. Regardless of the compensation, the lessons that can be learned are invaluable.
Last night I wrapped 2 days on a short film called FOSTER CARE in Houston. The script, less than 20 pages, took four days to shoot and heavily utilized high school students as the bulk of the production staff. Seasoned pros served as department heads, including the Director of Photography, Wardrobe and Makeup. The blend of veterans and young filmmakers created a fun and vibrant atmosphere.
Based on my observations on this particular short film, I created a list of 10 ways for the entry-level actor to approach this type of work. This list won’t instantly make you a great actor, but it will help you understand the expectations of a director and crew. That’s a smart way to reduce the amount of confusion you may have and lessen the chance for friction.
1. Know the script/story/context.
This film introduces a teenager who enters foster care and struggles with the experience. Reading the script is a first step but understanding the context of the story involves more work. In this case, researching foster care is helpful. It gives you a chance to think about the impact of foster care on teens and can open your eyes to the perspectives of foster families, experts and teens themselves.
2. Go beyond learning your lines.
On set last night I discovered the actress playing my wife would start reading an actual scripture as the scene came to an end. I was supposed to pick up where she left off and read the rest of it. Instead of reading, I memorized it. My thinking was this devoted Christian husband would know this verse well enough to not need the Bible in front of him.
3. Arrive early and be prepared to stay late.
Production demands can be constantly changing and affected by variables outside of the control of the director and crew. Showing up on time, even if you’re not needed for an hour or two, means there’s one less concern for everyone. Also, anticipating an end time based on how many pages you need to shoot is not wise. Even if given an estimated end time before shooting starts, have your bases covered if you end up being needed several more hours.
4. Follow all instructions provided in advance.
Call time is only one important piece of information. Directions, parking and what to bring with you are also important. Parking in the wrong place can not only get your car towed, it could create an issue for a neighboring homeowner or business and reflect negatively on the production itself. When asked to bring your own wardrobe, bring several options that look camera ready. Also, it’s helpful to bring back anything you previously wore on that production in case the director decides a reshoot of a scene is necessary.
5. Learn the function of each crew member.
Whether it’s a 2-person crew or consists of 20 or more people, each person has a pre-determined list of duties. Asking the makeup artist a wardrobe question is only appropriate if the makeup artist is also handling wardrobe. You’re welcome to ask usually, but it’s better to simply pay attention on set and observe what each crew member is doing and saying.
6. Assess the “climate” of the set.
I really enjoyed yesterday’s opening prayer by the director before we started shooting. It’s an experience that doesn’t happen often for me but felt natural because of the production company’s mission as a teen film ministry. It really set the right tone for the rest of the day, reminding us to conduct ourselves with integrity on and off set. Each film experience will be different so look to the director or First Assistant Director (1st AD) to find out what’s allowed and what’s off-limits each time, such as having your personal cell phone on set.
7. Make your whereabouts known.
You’re used to moving about on your own without telling people but on a film set this can cause delays or create stress. Even if you need a bathroom break, let people know so no one is wasting time looking for you when the director is ready to rehearse or shoot your next scene.
8. Respect the set and the location.
Moving items on a table randomly could mess up someone’s placement of them intentionally for a scene. Move nothing on a “hot set” without asking first. Also, be mindful that someone else owns the home/business/property where you’re shooting. You don’t want to be the actor who broke something valuable because you weren’t being careful.
9. Respect the other actors.
Each actor has a personal approach to the craft and deserves respect on and off set. Interrupting an actor who is listening to music, quietly reflecting, rehearsing a scene or otherwise involved in preparation should be avoided at all times. When the camera is rolling, attempting to intentionally get the actor’s attention or making unnecessary movements is unacceptable.
10. Show gratitude for every on set experience.
Many actors will shake the hands of everyone involved in the production or hug their fellow cast members and crew. Whatever you do, make sure the people who you worked with and who are responsible for allowing you to be there are aware of how grateful you are for the opportunity. Kind words and praise at the end of a long day will go far.