lessons learned

Things I've Learned on Set - Part 1: Communication

Over the past few months, I've had the opportunity of being on a few sets for feature films, commercials, and television series. And there are a few things that have stood out to me. While some of these things were to be expected from watching behind the scenes features of DVDs and Blu Rays, there's a lot that doesn't get put into special features. The first of those observations was how the crew communicates, and what bad communication can do to the shoot overall.

The Director Sets the Tone

On any set, someone has to be in the driver's seat, but just because someone has great vision doesn't mean that they can be a great director. The director needs to be able to communicate. However, communication isn't just limited to telling people what to do. It's also about setting the general atmosphere for the shoot. I've seen plenty of shoots crumble into situations where everyone is yelling, people are saying things like, "I'll never work with them again...", and the general attitude is pretty negative. On  the other hand, I've seen shoots where the time has gone by so quickly, because everyone was having fun, invested, felt respected and like their contribution mattered. The main difference here is the ability of the director to set the tone of the shoot. There are two ways to address the tone on a shoot that I think work best:

  • Pre-shoot meeting:  Let as many people in the crew (and obviously the cast) see the script as possible. Let them know what to expect, and why things are happening. The more they see how each piece of what is filmed will affect the outcome of the final piece, the more they'll understand direction you give. This also gives you the opportunity to tell everyone involved that their safety is your main concern, stay hydrated, don't get hurt, and other important notes.
  • During the shoot: Don't yell, don't raise your voice, don't be disrespectful. These kinds of actions trickle down from the top, and you set a precedence for how others should act. This can make things get ugly really fast. Keep your calm, and no matter how frustrated you get, don't raise your voice or belittle anyone on set, cast or crew. That's an easy way to make sure these people don't appear for your next shoot. 

Share the Praise

Another great way to communicate is at the end of a shoot. I know, I know. You're tired, you want to look at your footage, you want to have that martini. But take a moment to get together with your cast and (especially) your crew and go over what went well. Communicate what worked, and what didn't, and anything that needs to be done for the next time, (especially if it's there is another shoot day coming soon. Pick out a few people who did especially well, and give them some praise.

While one person has to drive the bus, it's always helpful to have everyone feel like they're included. Communicating with your cast and crew about what you're hoping to achieve, what you expect, and giving them praise afterwards will keep your shoots fun and productive, and it will keep people coming back. Remember to have a clear vision of what you want and be able to vocalize it. Also, remember to keep a cool head in the face of frustration, and keep everyone involved as much as you can.  

Have you been on a film/commercial/video set? How has communication impacted the flow of work?

Sometimes things don't work out, and that's OK.


When learning to do anything, from ice skating to film making to hang gliding, there are always going to be setbacks and mistakes (hopefully not so many in the last one). What we learn from situations that don't pan out can be just as, if not more important than when things go perfectly. Through mistakes and unwanted situations, we're able to learn first had the consequences of our actions and decisions that we could have possibly prevented, were we aware of where they were leading. Further, the impact of negative consequences is a better teacher than someone telling us, 'don't do this, that will happen,' as we ourselves must then directly face the outcome, and dig our own way out of it. 

Something like this happened about half a year ago. Wanting desperately to find a partner in filming, I joined a social network that specialized with video, film and creative arts. I found someone who lived nearby, and we eventually got together to give it a shot.

The shoot was not my favorite experience, I found myself extremely frustrated, it left a bad taste in my mouth. I had to take a few days to really understand exactly what bothered me so much about the event, and realized a lot of it were things that I could have preemptively addressed, if not recognized red flags earlier and gracefully back out before things got heated.

And things indeed got heated.

Now, to be clear, there was nothing wrong with this individual, but we ended up not seeing eye to eye, which lead to harsh words, and blocked numbers. It even let to me holding on to the project, not editing the footage or adding visual effects, because I was so negatively impacted by the experience. I didn't want to see it, touch it, and any frustrations that I would have found during the editing process were only intensified by my feelings towards him and the shoot. 

After the parting of ways between myself and the other team member, I had a really difficult time doing anything film related. I couldn't write, I didn't want to try to learn any new visual effects, I didn't touch my camera in weeks. I didn't realize that I was so negatively impacted by not only the experience, but frozen because of the guilt that I didn't want to edit the footage. That negative impact stopped me from moving forward, from getting better, learning more and trying new things.  

I was very close to scrapping the whole thing, deleting footage, forgetting that it ever happened. However, I took a moment to stop and think. This supposed failure has been a greater teacher than my most popular videos. I've learned what I will and won't stand for, what to avoid in order to have a more productive shoot, what type of people I work best with, and most importantly of all, the ramifications of negative feelings towards a project.  

So, in an effort to close the book on the whole experience, but also show myself that I learned something, I opened up the project file that I hadn't touched in weeks, and hit render. Below, you'll find the uncompleted project, warts and all. It's not bad, and there are a lot of things that I could fix, but it's important to see it for what it is. It failed, but it wasn't a failure. In fact, it's some of my best camera work with what I had at the time. And if it's taught me anything, it's that sometimes, it's OK to fail.