I remember making my first short film after high school. It was the first time I had a crew that wasn’t just my buddies from school. I had fancy things like “Actors” and a “Director of Photography”. With my friends I had just randomly pushed through the day, making up what I wanted to shoot as I went along.
At the end of the day I can still clearly remember the DP quietly coming up and saying “How about tonight you write down what you want, then tomorrow we don’t have to figure it out as we shoot”. KABOOM, huge mental bombshell. It’s embarrassing to admit but that had never occurred to me. Over a decade later I could never imagine how far my journey with the “Shot List” would go.
I’m now a working director, with two 15 day features under my belt. I’m also the designer of Shot Lister, an app for digital shot listing and scheduling. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about shot lists, so I’m sharing my revelations with the unconverted.
1. It forces you to make choices.
A film set is a wonderfully chaotic beast, but not necessarily the best environment to be making tough choices. You are already good at knowing what you want, but inevitably the moment will come when you need to choose between your children. The real filmmaker shines when they tell the team what they don’t need.
Shot listing forces you to think about what you want. Usually for me that is a long list. I want cranes, I want helicopters, I want dramatic close ups! Quickly that list grows beyond the possibility of what I can film. That forces me to ask what I actually need to tell the story. I can then cut the shots down in the safety of my home, rather then with a hundred people standing around waiting.
2. It helps you decide what comes first.
Now that I have a shot list, I know everything I need to tell the story. The next step is to decide on a shooting order. This is often an overlooked but important step. When you’re on set every minute is precious, and the more you know beforehand the more shots you can get in the can.
I may be shooting a scene for 4 hours, but does the crane need to be built for the first shot or the last shot? If the big awesome steady cam shot is the first shot, then I know it’s going to take 20 minutes to build the rig, so the camera team should get started early. All these questions come up on set, but are quickly solved by knowing what to have prepared and in what order before hand.
4. It helps you invest time where it counts
The next step is to estimate how long each shot is going to take. Some shots are easy and some are really hard. This step is most crucial, because it makes sure I don’t run out of time for things that matter most.
Knowing I have a really important shot at the end of the list, prevents me getting precious at the beginning. I rush the unimportant stuff, rather then run out of time on what I care about most.
3. It gives the team confidence
I share my shot lists with the entire crew at the beginning of the day. It shows them there is a plan and gives them confidence to follow me into battle. Not everyone looks at it, but those who do are prepared.
I’ve also noticed that producers tend to be way more relaxed and leave me alone. They can just follow along at video village with their cheat sheet, rather then bug me while we’re shooting.
5. It allows you to throw it all away
There is a danger in getting too attached to your shot list and not seeing the opportunities standing right in front of you. To prevent that from happening, I always get to set early and take a long look at what is actually there on the day.
The process of building a shot list trains my mind to know what I need, so now I am free to open my eyes. I’m not bogged down worrying if I have what I need, so now I can look around for what I missed.
Shot Lister App – the shortlisting and scheduling app
After my first film I was unimpressed with the state of the art for shot listing, which basically came down to a piece of paper and a red pen. So I designed an app available for iOS called Shot Lister. It allows you to digitally build, organize, schedule and share shots lists and shooting schedules so you’ll never have to suffer your own KABOOM moment.