15 Ways To Fake A Professional Set

first-time-filmmaker
on-set
pre-production

(Bri Castellini) #1

Most web series have excruciatingly low budgets, something we all love commiserating about, but you can do a lot with just your passion, confidence, and ambition. Even without a full staff and the cash to pay them, every production benefits from a semblance of professionalism. Below are the 15 ways you can “fake” a professional set while being a complete amateur.

Before Set

  1. Shooting Scripts: Most projects shoot out of order, depending on location and cast availability, so you’ll rarely be able to look at a full season script and film step by step. Because of this, you’ll want to make shooting scripts, or a per-shooting-day document with scenes arranged in the order in which they will be filmed. This is incredibly helpful for your cast, so they can prioritize memorization based on days, and for your crew, so they know exactly what’s being shot and can refer to a more streamlined document.

  2. Call sheets: Call sheets are documents based on the shot list that lets cast and crew know what time they need to be on set and where the set is located. There are tons of templates on the internet- this one is my favorite. They look official, ensure everyone has the information they need to show up prepared and on time, and they put everyone in a professional mindset for shooting.

  3. Verify dietary restrictions: Every set, no matter how low budget, should provide food. With that comes the responsibility to check on dietary restrictions- is someone allergic to peanut butter? Is anyone a vegan or vegetarian? Asking this up front means you’re less likely to kill or starve someone, plus everyone always appreciates knowing that their needs will be taken care of on set. (Thanks Herman Wang of The Spell Tutor and Chris O’Brien of Classic Alice and Not A Plan for this one!)

  4. Provide wardrobe: “If you want to look REALLY pro, don’t ask actors to wear their own clothes as wardrobe,” explains actor Chris O’Brien. Obviously, consider your budget, but even something as simple as buying a t-shirt or hoodie will make actors feel like this production is a step above the rest. Chris goes on to explain that “But if you do [ask actors to bring their own clothes], write up a simple little agreement/ contract addendum that clearly states that you’ll reimburse them for any damaged clothing - specify clearly up to how many pieces of clothing you’ll replace and up to what cost for each and what cost total…it will put an actor’s mind at ease and create trust that you value them, their time and efforts, and their property. It’s especially important on any set where there’s a legitimate risk of ruining clothes - outdoor shoots, horror movies with fake blood, any scene with food, etc.”

  5. Communicate expectations clearly: While most web series sets are comprised of friends and friends of friends, you’ll occasionally invite more “experienced” people to join the team. They may have a certain level of expectation, but the trick, according to Jason Ryan (Real Adult Feelings), “Mostly it’s just a matter of communicating honestly. I made sure guest actors (often older and more experienced, who did movies with “real directors”) knew what to expect.” You’re never going to hoodwink anyone into thinking you have a billion dollars, but by managing expectations, no one will be taken by surprise or feel taken advantage of.

  6. PLAN. Above all else, make sure you do your planning. Don’t shoot before you’re ready, don’t shoot without an in-order shot list and a schedule, and don’t shoot before everyone involved is on the same page. For more details on how best to plan, check out this post on pre-pre-production and also this one on pre-production.

On Set

  1. CHAIRS. Seriously, have places for people to sit, especially if you’re outdoors. Setting up shots takes time, shooting scenes takes time, and not everyone needs to be (or wants to be) standing for 12 hours at a time. It’s a sign that you respect your cast and crew and understand how hard shooting days are on the humans who are likely volunteering their time to help you out.

  2. Food and water. Bottled water, specifically. You can get big cases for pretty cheap, plus bottled water makes it easier for people to keep track of their individual bottles (rather than cups) and they spill less frequently (rather than cups). Pro tip: get cases of those little bottles- the half liter ones. It cuts down on waste (people will usually drink the whole thing instead of abandoning them half full) plus they’re easier to pack. For food, if it’s an early shoot, either bring coffee or go on an early coffee run as people start trickling to set. Buy a dozen donuts. At lunchtime, either already have a meal made (make sandwiches, plus some fruit options) or hand out a meal stipend. And for the love of all that is holy, have snacks. A peckish actor or crew member without easy access to fruit snacks and granola bars is dangerous for everyone.

  3. Available bathrooms. Especially if you’re outdoors. Either be near a public restroom or someone’s apartment, because nothing makes people more miserable than doing the pee-pee dance while reciting their lines or holding a boom pole. It also makes you look really unprepared.

  4. Confidence. Not only is confidence sexy (what’s UP, hottie playing Bar Patron #3), but it inspires confidence in everyone around you. Nothing is less professional than an insecure, ineffective leader. Even if you have no idea what you’re doing (as is the case for most of us, let’s be honest), pretending like you’ve got it under control calms most storms.

  5. Smart scheduling. This means crew should be scheduled to get there first, and actors shouldn’t be scheduled on set until after you plan to have the lights and camera up. Barring an emergency or unforeseen circumstances, everyone who arrives on set should be working (setting things up, acting, etc) within half an hour of that arrival.

  6. Punctuality. I don’t just mean always be on time, I mean always be EARLY. By at least half an hour. No one should ever get to set before you, and you should always be the last one to leave.

  7. No fighting or gossiping. The vibe of a set is vital to its success as well as its appearance of professionalism, so don’t undermine your own project by bringing negativity along with fruit snacks. If an argument starts, separate the arguing parties (even if it’s you) from the rest of the production and duke it out in private. Focus on solutions, not blame. You can deal with blame later, but right now, you’re in the middle of filming, and it is not the time. The same holds true for gossiping- gossiping is inherently negative, and negativity has no place on a film set! It also implies that you don’t respect your team enough to deal with problems head-on, and it makes the people you gossip to distrust you. They’ll assume you’re gossiping about them too, and even if you aren’t, that seed of doubt can be toxic.

After Set

  1. Be punctual about reel material. Most of the time, actors will work for cheap or free if they’re A. your friends or B. interested in new material for their reels. Acting reels are compilations of the best examples of an actor’s previous performances- think of it as a visual resume. As such, don’t make your actors wait around! I suggest asking actors for the scenes they want to use before you start editing, and then prioritize those scenes in post so you can get them the footage as quickly as possible. They’ll feel like their time is respected and will be more likely to work with you again in the future.

  2. Pay for something. Whether it’s a travel stipend (gas, train tickets, taxi reimbursements) or a small flat fee per workday, your team will appreciate it, and it makes you look really, really good. “Back when I was doing a lot of unpaid student/ indie work,” Chris O’Brien remembers, “I’d find myself frustrated a lot that people didn’t seem to realize or acknowledge that I was giving up a lot more than just my time…Point is, when an actor works for no pay - they’re not just working for free, they’ve actually spent money to be a part of your project. Even if you pay enough that they’ve effectively broken even, the time spent on set is time they may be giving up where they could be in class, auditioning, working a day gig for money - who knows? … A tiny bit invested pays off a lot more than each dollar is worth.”


At the end of the day, the way to appear professional is attitude. Be prepared, be grateful, and be on time. Your team will take their cues from you, and if you treat your production seriously, they’ll follow suit.


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