Allen Easton operates the first shot of the day.

The following is an excerpt from a book I'm writing, "A Filmmakers Guide to Success". This passage is from the Production section of the text.

Day One - here we go!

As I mentioned earlier, many 1st AD’s will try to schedule a couple of easy days at the front of the schedule. This allows the crew to get off to a good start in the eyes of the producers and the studio. Keeping the studio happy means less interference from nervous studio executives who may have stuck their necks out for the project, the director or the lead actors.

On the first day of principal photography, everyone is excited to finally start shooting, enough with the meetings and memo’s. On day one, we rarely get off to a fast start, and once behind schedule it can be difficult to catch up. Success depends on getting the actors to the set on time. The Hair and Make-up teams will take a bit more time today, especially if an actor suddenly decides that their character “look” isn’t working. This can be a real problem and a bad omen. Eventually, the actor will get out of the chair and show up for rehearsals and blocking, though not in full costume or finished make-up.

It’s now time to rehearse the first scene and much discussion might occur for the benefit of the story. On almost every project, there has always been an actor that challenges the director in some way regarding the notion and mechanics of a scene. This can be hard to watch and listen to. Eventually, a compromise is reached at the cost of expensive production time and momentum. Makes me wonder why certain actors with this reputation ever get cast. I never look forward to shooting scenes with actors who are perpetually dissatisfied or difficult and whenever I see them coming I say to myself, “Throw out the Anchor.” You’ll get no names from me.

When everyone is finally on the same page, the process of creating a scene begins. Most actors perform at half speed when rehearsing. Often times they’ll be referring to the script for their lines. I’m a keen observer of rehearsals and it’s the DP's job to help actors get to places that are better for camera and lighting. Like staying out of corners or playing to the lens a bit more. If I see a potential blocking issue - adjustments should be made before everyone gets to used to playing it a certain way. Diplomacy is key here and the blocking revisions should be fair to the actor’s instincts while serving the technical necessities. Sometimes an actor will say no to the new idea and that’s certainly their prerogative. The camera operators input is encouraged at this time because they are thinking about the entire shot and not just the first position. They need to make sure the coverage of the actor is maximized while staying out of each others way. They will work things out together quietly and efficiently - most of the time.

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Camera Operator - James Reid

The First Shot

Throughout the entire rehearsal process Cinematographers are thinking about where the camera will be placed for the first shot. Convention dictates that it will usually be a wide shot where the actors play the scene out in a master shot. Master, meaning that all the actors will be included in a shot that designates their geography and movement within the set. In the studio, the first shot is a bit easier to find because we control the lighting and can move set walls if necessary. But if on location in a room with windows, you’ll want to shoot in the direction of the windows first because the natural ambient light will change rapidly. On lower budget projects where there isn’t a large grip department to control the natural light, its all the more important to shoot the angles toward the windows early on.

As a general rule, the first shot establishes the geography, actor action, screen direction and the lighting scheme. This first camera angle is foundational and all of the subsequent coverage will be informed by it.

When I’m watching a rehearsal and committing to the first shot, I’ll have a reasonable idea about what the next five setups will be. Sometimes directors do not plan that far ahead in the coverage scheme. Now’s the time to quickly review what those shots will be and not just for the director, but for the entire on set crew so they can be planning for their departments needs accordingly. It is usually at this point where the director will discuss any “specialty” shots he wants to add to the general coverage. These shots can be anything from using an unusual lens, shooting at a different frame rate, adding a filter or diopter, introducing a lighting effect or choosing an odd angle that might suggest a different point of view. In other words something “special” and out of the ordinary.

On a television show, where several scenes are shot each day, there are many “first” shots to design. Don’t get careless with these, I’ve seen many a director insist on starting in a direction that ends up being wrong and painful to recover from. It can be stressful and embarrassing and the crew is very sensitive to these “rookie” errors.

Once an exterior location is selected in prep, I’ll visit it a couple of times and shoot a lighting study. Before production starts the director and I will already know where the first camera position will be for the scene - and more often than not, it will feature all of the action in backlight.

If eventually you’ll be travelling to a distant location on a lower budget film, one can plan a shot with Google Earth and any solar positioning application. I’ve done it successfully many times without any issues or surprises.

The Importance of the First or Master Shot:

1. Establishes Geography, Actor Action and Lighting.

2. Defines the “Stage Line” or screen direction.

3. All subsequent camera coverage is informed by this first angle.

4. Scene length can be quantified and recorded by the script supervisor.