Respect the Process – or RIP: the rehearsal

William B. Demeritt III
November 15th, 2012

The other day on set, I’m flying a RED Epic and grabbing the slate before we start a take, and I momentarily ponder the slate: why do we still slate? The answer comes from shooting film and the fact we still record 2-system audio: clap the clapper on screen, the camera sees the frame contact is made, sync that to the audio of the clap, and boom! Sync sound!

However, so much of the work we do today is digital, which makes me wonder why we still slate? We used to:
– Camera ready? READY!
– Sound ready? READY!
– OK, roll sound! … ROLLING!
– ID! Scene 15 apple, take 3
– OK, roll camera! … rolling… and speed!
– MARK! *clap* (remove slate quickly)
– Settle… aaaand… ACTION!

On a well run set, that sequence should take only a moment or two, particularly the part from “roll camera, speed, ID, mark, settle, and action”. From “roll camera” to “action”, you’ve got actual film zipping through the camera at 90 ft/min (4-perf, 3-perf is 67 ft/min, etc). Let’s say a 1000′ roll of Kodak (since Fuji stopped making production film) costs $625 per roll. If we’re shooting 3-perf at 67 ft/min, that’s $0.625 /ft. Now, if we guess the average time from “Roll camera” to “Action” is just 5 seconds, but eats 5.58333… feet of film (and that’s not realistic, because the camera speeds up to 24fps, so that’s a few extra feet lost). 5.5833333… ft, or in Producer speak: $3.49.

I’m only going through this process to bring light to the monetary issue of shooting film, but not as a statement of it’s costliness but rather to bring light to it’s other “value” in the process of shooting anything. At 63 cents per foot, or $0.69 per second camera rolling @ 24fps, the cost of rolling the camera adds up quickly.

I’m not making a universal statement against the notion of “shoot the rehearsal”. Some magical things happen during a rehearsal that filmmakers sometime lament that they lost or weren’t filming when it happened. What I suppose I am lamenting is the disrespect or loss of the “process”.

The actors have had their scripts for days? Weeks? They hopefully know their lines, but they barely know where they’ll stand. They have in their mind how they want to play the scene, but do their co-stars know? Does the gaffer? Does the camera operator, or the focus puller? Does the boom operator know where to boom from so he won’t cast shadows?

All of these people should know, because the “take” ultimately should not be a secret kept until the last moment, and the suggestion that we “shoot the take” usually means (more often than not) that the director hasn’t envisioned the scene, or hasn’t communicated it with his actors.

I have a lot of respect for actors, so “shoot the rehearsal” also places their performance in danger. What if the actor reaches a truly jaw-dropping emotional place during the “shoot the rehearsal” take, but we miss most of it because we’re out of focus, or there’s a boom shadow on her face, or she’s not in her light? What would we have really lost on the “day” if we’d only taken the brief time to perform “the process”?

We’re all on set to help make the same movie. The quarterback doesn’t win the game, nor does the placekicker, nor does the linebacker. The team wins. The crew makes the movie, together, and the final film is the summary of it’s parts. The parts were manufactured, day by day, by a film crew with the same vision and support for that goal.

Now, in the digital age, the limiting cost of filmmaking doesn’t restrain people like film once did. We can roll for 5, 10, 20 minutes without fear of per-second cost. I can’t tell you how many shoots where people yell “roll camera… speed”, ID the shot with no urgency, clap the slate (sometimes unaware of the framing, missing the clap and we need second sticks) and wander off set before settling into action. The cost is hard drive space, pennies on the gigabyte.

Of course, as a Steadicam operator, I’m in the unique position (like a handheld camera operator, but even moreso) so protest against “shoot the rehearsal” on the basis that 5, 10, 20 minute takes on Steadicam are, to even the most seasoned Steadicam ops, taxing, exhausting and eventually painful.

When working as a Steadicam operator, one of the most common questions I get is: “How much does that thing weigh?” Depending on my mood, my response ranges from sarcastic to humorous to straightforward. When I’m “locked in”, I may be lifting anywhere from 40 to 80lbs or more. Now, that’s a fair amount of weight, but remember: I’m also not using my hands!

People ask “How much does that weight?”, which usually makes me think that they don’t THINK it weighs much, but they KNOW it does. So, they ask, considering that what I do looks as much like magic as it does marvelous engineering. Engineering redistributes the weight, counterbalances, spring loads it and makes it hang static in mid air with Sir Isaac Newton’s deft hands inertially holding it still. However, the weight doesn’t disappear.

No matter how brilliant the Steadicam, how great the manufacturer: the weight sitting on the dock, the weight on the arm, all weighs what it starts as. 40lbs? 80lbs? Not zero.

The next time you’re considering “shooting the rehearsal”, please take into consideration that the rehearsal is as valuable, if not more valuable, than the time spent rolling the camera. The value added is apparent in every shot in the movie, and greatly appreciated by every department who needs that time to do their job. We share your enthusiasm and excitement, we can’t wait to roll the camera too… but we must wait, we must rehearse, we must respect the process of coming together and putting that energy into the shots we need.

p.s.- in the mean time, I am going to start working on a camera accessory that injects metadata into the digital cinema files to hold the slate information, as well as embed a dummy frame with the slate information, so we don’t have to do the traditional slate method anymore.

William B. Demeritt III