Cutting Corners and Taking Risks.

When a production wraps at the end of a day there is usually a round of congratulatory remarks amongst the crew and a euphoria of a good job well done that harkens to an unspoken sentiment of getting though another one without any major mishaps or disaster. The truth is not every shoot goes perfect. In this year alone, I’ve seen an unusual amount jobs that have made questionable decisions and their ramifications. I decided to write a post about it. Hopefully it will make you a little more vigilant.

Anyone with even a grain of production experience knows disasters lurk at every corner, so this is a post about poor decisions, what went wrong, why, and most importantly, what you can do to position yourself from danger when you encounter them. All of the scenarios presented are from real jobs, true stories that I’ve personally been involved with or have happened to very close colleagues of mine.

So who cuts corners and why are they cut in the first place? Well, 99% of the time it is because there is a budget constraint. The ironic thing is there is absolutely no reason for a budget issue to exist in the first place. A tight budget simply means a producer has decidedly chosen to promise more than they can deliver in a given amount of time. That’s all it is.  It’s like saying there isn’t enough time in the day to accomplish everything you need to do. You simply have to prioritize what it is you can realistically get done and leave the rest of it for another day. With production it is the exact opposite kind of thinking.

Let’s suppose “XYZ productions” has decidedly chosen through lack of expertise, or otherwise, to save a buck and set out to accomplish something they can’t realistically afford to do. Things start getting cut as they go down the line and inevitably they turn to you to help them reduce costs. For the record, I am a big believer in cutting gear before cutting people. What good is ten 10Ks if you don’t have enough crew to set them up?

No Data Management

For many productions, this is one of the first line items to be put under scrutiny. There are four likely excuses you will hear as to why a production may want to eliminate data management:

  • “We don’t need data management on this one because it’s not going to be a long day, so one of the producers will handle it on set.”
  • “Can the focus puller do the data managing?”
  • “Let’s just shoot a bunch of cards and we can offload them later in post”
  • “We won’t be shooting that much so is this something you can handle?”

Data management is everything. It is the day’s work right there on those little solid state cards. While solid state technology is robust and generally very reliable, problems can and do occur. Data should never be exposed to any level of risk under any circumstance. But ironically it’s one of the first things that can be compromised when planning a shoot.  Without someone dedicated to managing data it becomes nothing more than an utterly important distraction for anyone else unfortunate enough to be tasked with the responsibility. If something does go wrong with the data, and even if you were not responsible for managing it in the first place, it can ultimately still look bad on you through the power of “association”. The only thing a producer will remember three months down the road is, “oh yeah, we had a data issue on our last shoot” They will conveniently forget that they cut data from the budget and will only associate the negative experience with who was there on that job: YOU. And that’s exactly what happens.

In the first scenario, a whole day’s worth of B-roll had to be re-shot because it was decided that a bunch of cards download later in post would be cheaper than having on-set management. It actually turned out that one of the cards was faulty from the manufacturing process. Data was indeed checked in the field and played back in camera and everything looked fine. Later in post it proved impossible to retrieve any of the footage from the card. Had data management been chosen, that faulty card would have been detected well before wrapping the location and reshot immediately. Not a great situation to be in, but much better than bringing back the crew and talent for another day! Fortunately, heavy duty recovery software retrieved the material and all was good in the end but it didn’t come without the expense of panicked producers and a stressed out DP.

Scenario 2 was for a very well known network (*cough* Sopranos, *cough* Game of Thrones) proof that even the largest brands can and will cut corners and take certain risks where they shouldn’t. They decided in their infinite wisdom to have the camera assistant take care of all data for A-cam as well as B,C,D and E cameras because these cameras were “just” DSLR’s as they put it. Fortunately no material was lost but the material was so poorly indexed there was countless phone calls back and forth from US and Canada about alleged missing material. The mentality was to just worry about shooting it and throw it all down on a computer and sort out the mess in post! Unbelievable. The DP was so stressed because he was questioned if he even shot some of the “missing” shots in the first place. At the time he couldn’t prove that he did shoot certain shots because it couldn’t be located. Not a fun place to be in so don’t find yourself in this situation.

In the last scenario the production didn’t get away so lucky. It was for a very well known brand and it might have been decided that data management would be nixed in favour of filling up media cards and off loaded later in post. This is always a tempting proposition to save money. In this situation there was nothing wrong with any of the cards but there was a fatal non-fixable problem with the audio on one of the cameras. Sadly, it was discovered in post, far too late to fix the problem. Had data management been present this problem would have been flagged earlier and all issues would have been corrected on set. Instead, what was supposed to be a savings to production cost 15X the amount to re-shoot the material on another day. Reshooting because of a technical problem that could have been avoided is the worst thing that can happen next to someone getting hurt.  Even if it’s not your fault, you don’t want to be anywhere near the fall out zone because you can bet someone is out looking for blood.

If you can help it, don’t the take data management responsibility or pawn it off on another member of the crew. They have their own jobs to do just as you do. If it means risking losing the gig over because you wanted a dedicated person doing data then it’s something you have to decide whether or not you want to take the risk. If you do go at it alone have a system in place, discuss it before the shoot and leave nothing for chance. Suggest to production that a PA is on hand to run cards to post during the day to identify any potential problems with audio, card integrity, camera problems, etc. Have enough solid state cards for the whole day, treat them like rolls of film by labelling them with “exposed” camera tape around each one and put them away.

No Sound Recordist

For jobs I typically shoot, I rarely encounter productions wanting to not have a dedicated sound recordist. However, I still do the occasional corporate or online video where these types of productions can be infamous for wanting the camera guy/gal to take care of the sound duties. I can’t discourage this practice enough. Sound and picture are two totally separate things and they should be handled by two separate professionals. Here’s the typical lines you might hear if you are hired for a small online or corporate video.

  • “We are only doing one quick interview, maybe two, and we will be in and out of there in less than a couple hours.” Hint: You are never out in a couple of hours.
  • “I have a small lav mic we can clip on our guy.” Watch out for this one as it’s nothing more than an insidious cover to get you to accept doing sound before you even know what’s happening.
  • “Usually the camera people I’ve used in the past did the sound.” This is nothing more than a blanketed threat to get you to accept the responsibility or risk having the job go to someone else.
  • “Most of the day is just B-roll so I figured we’d handle it ourselves.” We? If there is a problem with the sound you can bet they won’t be blaming themselves.

Usually, online and corporate videos involve an interview or two with a CEO or other VIP of the company they are making the video for. Why people would take the chance of not having a professional be in charge of recording what they say is beyond me.  For me, I’m fortunate enough now to simply not have to work without a sound recordist no matter how small the job.

Doing your own sound is risky on another level too. Beyond taking the job away from someone who makes a living doing it, it also creates a distraction from what you are supposed to be hired for in the first place; shooting. It’s tougher to concentrate on lighting and framing when you are also burdened with monitoring sound.

However, if you do decide to take the risk of recording sound yourself there is something you can do to protect yourself. You can shift accountability from yourself to them by refusing to take responsibility should something go wrong. In the past I’d often tell clients that because I wasn’t a professional sound recordist, I couldn’t guarantee their sound would be problem free.

When you put it that way, one of two things would happen next. First, they understand what is at stake and hire a sound recordist with no more questions asked. Or, they decide to hire someone else who will happily do the jobs of two people and you lose the work. If the latter happens you might find some solace in knowing they probably never really appreciated your skills as a camera person, but rather wanted someone cheap who would do both jobs. Just be careful and know what you are getting into.



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