10 Onset Tips for Filmmakers

Today we’re going to present you some handy set tips to help make your projects run better. I’ve been working in film, video, and animation since the late 80’s and you learn a lot of great tricks on set that has also become standard practice. 
A film crew is made of many departments with very different disciplines that work together to get the shot in the can. And when you’re working on your projects, more than likely, you and everyone else is wearing many of those hats at once. It would be good to have these standard practices under them.

When you setup to shoot on a stage or location (let's admit it, for a lot of us, it’s our homes, like my wonderful dining room here). There are lights, monitors, hair dryers and many other items that need to be powered. That means cables everywhere. 
Sets are temporary, especially lighting setups, so it's easy to just throw cables willy nilly and not worry about their placement because you’re wrapping at some point. 
Sure you need to have set legs and watch were you walk but for general safety, any cable that runs across a doorway or a well-trafficked path should be taped. 
Gaffers tape across with a few cross pieces to help keep it in place. 
You could also throw a rug or a piece of rubber mat over it. if the cables are really thick you may need to put a white piece of tape across the bump so it looks like a speed bump and people will notice it.
Oh, on gaffers tape. Always add a tab. G tape is some seriously strong stuff (it will easily rip the paint off a wall). Getting it off things is a pain without a tab.

Bag that Leg
We know sandbagging lights is a good idea to keep them from tipping over and getting moved when bumped. But sometimes you have to set a light in a position where a leg juts out into a high trafficked area. 
Though the light is already sufficiently bagged, place an extra bag on this leg to help prevent it from being kicked and if it does, it’s less likely to move the light. 
there are no basements in California. where are those stairs going to?

Level It
Level the camera. If your tripod head doesn't have a bubble level get one like this from the hardware store. You may need to place it on the tripod head without the camera. 
Some DSLR’s have a built-in leveler. 
An unleveled camera may look fine at first but then you pan and screw up your shot so get into the habit of leveling the camera every time you move it.

Cap It
And if you’re moving the camera or adjusting its height, put the lens cap on. If someone is spraying something on set, put the lens cap on or cover the lens. 
If you need to build the camera, work on it etc, take the lens off, then put it back on when it’s set and ready to go. Project your lens.
When you change the lens blow of the end cap and the end of the lens. Getting dust or hair behind the lens or on your sensor is bad news. Which brings us to…

Checking the Gate
When shooting film, hundreds of feet of film go through the gate, literally.  Physical film. I know it’s weird right. So…analog. 
That film would drag any errant hair or broken film sprocket into the gate with it if it could. So when the last take of a setup is complete, before anyone moves anything, the AD would yell “check the gate” and the AC will pop the lenses off and check to see if there was anything stuck in the gate. If there was, they cleaned it out and shot again. 
There’s no gate in digital media but we still check the gate by reviewing the last shot on whatever digital media we’re using, SD cards etc, to confirm they recorded properly. You can pull the cards out and check them on a laptop or some videographers have a button assigned to playback that last few seconds of the last recorded take. Check the gate.

Get a Safety
On an indie set, you never have enough time. When you know you have a good circle take, get another one. It’s called a “safety” and it’s just in case there’s something off in what you thought was a good take.

A Room’s Tone
If you don’t have a dedicated sound guy, you will forget to get room tone. Here’s the trick I started when I was an AD. When you’re shooting the safety, the last take, tell everyone you’re getting room tone at the end. As soon as cut is called, call out “room tone” and keep whatever device you’re recording audio on running. Everyone’s already still and quiet for the take, you’re just continuing that quiet for another 30 seconds for room tone.  Make sure to mark that room tone in your shot notes so you can find it later.

Stop Interrupting
I love takes where actors cross talk over each other but though you may have a character interrupt another in a two shot, don’t do it in the single. They’re off camera, and you need to get clean dialogue in that single of the actor on camera. It may be awkward for a character who’s interrupted to just stop…what they’re saying but that’s what you need.

Start and Stop
If you’re doing a dolly shot, whether on a doorway dolly, tripod wheels or a slider, you’ll have a start and end position for your move. Here’s how we mark it on a dolly. 
Run a piece of white tape under or on the side of the dolly or slider where you can see it when you push it. 
Make a pointer from a piece of white showcard and point it down at the tape. Mark your start point and then for your end point, put a line that leads up to it. This helps warn you during the move that it’s coming up so you can feather to a stop.

Which brings us to feathering. Pushing a dolly is a lot harder (and heavier) than a DSLR on a slider but feathering is still important on both. 
When you start the move, slowly ramp up to speed, called feathering, so you don’t jerk the camera.  
Do this by pushing only with your arms like a piston and then move your whole body. But don’t over extend your arms. Keep them flexed at the elbows so they can act as springs to absorb any errant movement you don’t want to transfer to the camera.  
When stopping on your end mark, do the opposite. Stop your body and let your arms extend out, feathering to a stop. It takes practice but well worth it.

Marking Talent
Put tape marks down in a T shape so your talent knows where to stand. This way whenever they have to move, either out of a shot or to hit craft service, they can get back into that start position where they’re lit and framed. 
Actors also use these marks out of the corner of their eye to walk into a position but if it’s too tricky, like for a tight shot, ask the actor if they would like a sandbag as a mark. This way they know they’ve hit their mark when they feel it with their foot. 
Or they can just do what Spencer Tracy did.

These are just skimming the top of the tons of onset tips but I think these can be the most helpful. Stay tuned to Pull My Focus as we bring you more tips, tricks, and techniques.

Music & Audio

Life Is Sweet
Silent Partner

The Big Score (Music bed)

Opening Audio
Thunder Clap And Rumble
By Kinoton

Sandal Walk And Trip
by dspeight

Falling Down Stairs
by elliottmoo

Piano falling down stairs
by tantaramusic

by primeval_polypod

by sketchygio

Thunder Clap And Rumble
by Kinoton

Filmgate still

Doorway Dolly

Dolly with slate By Ralf Roletschek

Boom Operator By PRA

Makeup Artists By Charlie Brewer from Sydney, Australia - Australian Fashion Week - Backstage at the Lee Mathews Show