Up and coming filmmakers often ask me how to effectively shoot a film with a Skeleton Crew. For those of you that don’t know the term, a Skeleton Crew is a film crew that is stripped down to the bare essential crew members, usually in order to save money in production, or to be less conspicuous when shooting without permits.
While I have directed and produced many shoots that were done with exceptionally small crews, there is no cut and dry formula for putting together a crew of this scale. The reason being, is that different films simply have vastly different requirements. For example, if you’re shooting a short film that primarily consists of voiceover and there is little or no dialogue being recorded on set, then you would of course be better off not bringing in a location sound recordist, and rather filling that position with someone else that would add more value to your production in other ways. Conversely, you may be shooting a feature with lots of exteriors and have minimal time for set ups, in which case a great sound recordist is your best friend. The bottom line is there is no right or wrong way to do this. And in fact there is no exact answer to how large a “skeleton crew” really is to begin with. By some definitions it can be as little as 2 – 3 people. or by other definitions it may be as large as 12 – 15.
For the sake of this article, I will consider a skeleton crew to be 5 people. On any of my independent films where we have had to shoot with a very small crew, there have usually ended up being 5 crew members on set on the average day. Some of the b-roll days may have only been 2 – 3 people and some specialty days may have been closer to 12 or so, but generally a 5 person crew seems to be the sweet spot for me on really bare bones productions. Below, I’ll outline which crew members are essential to have when dealing with such a small number and explain why they are on the list. Keep in mind this list will not include the Director or Producer as it is a given that both parties will be on set every day. And as I mentioned above, there is no right or wrong way to do this… This is a general framework that will work for most scenarios, but if you have a more unique set of requirements for your film, some of this may not directly apply to your production.
So here are the crew members, in no particular order:
Director of Photography
Undeniably one of the most important positions to fill on any production. Having a DP that understands your vision means you can spend more time directing your actors and less time worrying about lighting and set ups. With that said, many directors (myself included) like to shoot their own material. I don’t always do this myself, but in some cases I choose to do so. I must say though if you are unsure about your own skills as a DP, you should not risk DPing your own shoot. I do it when I can, but I also have a strong background in cinematography and have DP’d many projects. DPing your own work can work against you very quickly as you may end up burning time by trying to deal with blocking and camera set ups in a way that is completely inefficient. So unless you have an extremely strong background in the camera department, make sure you get a great DP that can work closely with you to bring your vision to screen while making the days on set run faster and more efficiently. And if you decide for whatever reason to shoot it yourself, get the best 1st AC that you can find.
Many indie productions skimp out in this department and it shows. Outside of poor audio, one of the biggest giveaways of a no-budget production is bad makeup, or in some cases no makeup at all. A great makeup artist will not only do a top notch job creatively, but also be diligent about remembering and photographing specific looks for continuity purposes and ensuring that looks are consistent throughout your production. The value of having a great makeup artist goes far beyond simply making your actors look better (or worse in some cases). It is important for the actors to feel their best and to feel in character as much as possible. Having the right makeup applied adds a level of professionalism to the set that all independent films should have. It gives your actors the respect that they deserve, knowing that they are going on camera looking completely appropriate for the scene. Whatever you do, please do not have your talent do their own makeup. It is tempting, especially since your female actors will likely have their own makeup with them, but they are not professional make up artists. They may be able to make themselves look nice, but they don’t know how to do makeup for your movie and if they apply it themselves, it will likely not be right for your scene/mood and may be very inconsistent throughout the production.
With a skeleton crew, everyone on set wears many hats and all crew members (including the director) must take on PA duties sporadically throughout the production. With that said, it is still crucial to have a dedicated PA on set to keep things moving well. Even though everyone on set should be willing to pick up the slack when needed and act as a PA if they need to, there are times when you just don’t have enough hours in the day and you really don’t want to ask your Makeup Artist or DP to start moving gear, especially when you know the next shot is just around the corner and you’re running out of daylight. For me personally, the most important thing to look for in a PA is a good attitude. PA’s are typically still at a stage in their careers where they are learning, so on an indie set the best you can do is find someone that wants to learn, has a passion for film and brings a positive attitude to set.
Your location sound recordist is amongst the most important people on set. As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest mistakes indie productions make is skimping out in the sound department. It has been said time and time again that sound is 50% of your film, but I would argue that it is more. Perfect sound coupled with poor visuals will always come across as more polished and professional looking than perfect visuals with bad sound. It really comes down to the psychology of how we as people percieve the content that we are watching… But the point it that good sound is critical to the overall success of your film. And once again, you are not just looking for a sound recordist with the right gear or the right rate that will meet your budget, but you are looking for someone that fits in with your production. If you’re shooting mostly guerilla style on the street for instance, you will want someone that has done this before. Someone that knows how to be discreet, hide the lavs and run the mixer out of his or her backpack. Or if you’re shooting half a dozen actors together in a single scene, you want someone that can handle a scene of that complexity and has the knowledge and skill set to make it work. Ultimately,this person should care about the sound more than you do, and should do everything in their power to make it sound perfect.
Even if you are only using practical lights, some C-stands and a couple flags, a skilled Gaffer/Grip will work wonders on your production. Filling this position with someone who is quick, knowledgable and skilled, can save you a huge amount time on set. This is another one of those positions where some indie producers don’t always pay enough attention to, hoping that the DP can pick up the slack… But the question is – can your DP simultaneously act as a Grip/Gaffer themselves while working the camera? Sure they can. But that is going to mean less time doing what they should be doing and more time physically setting up lights and gear themselves. And in many cases this can mean either longer days or missed shots. From a creative standpoint a talented Gaffer/Grip will help your DP get the most out of their shots by helping them to focus their ideas more clearly and effectively.
The above positions are by no means the only five that need to be filled on a small crew. In some cases you may need more or less crew members, or you may need to sub out one for another. Two positions that are equally crucial to fill but didn’t make my list are: Production Designer and Script Supervisor. A great Production Designer can work miracles and make your project look like a million bucks, even when your budget is very low. Since many indie films shoot guerilla style and use lots of exteriors, I didn’t include this position in the list above, but depending on your production it may be one of the most important positions to address.
Having a talented Script Supervisor on set can also be a life saver, especially if your film takes place over the course of many days and you have a lot of continuity to keep track of – wardrobe, makeup, props, etc. Again, I didn’t include this on the list as many indie productions are so scaled down that they aren’t as demanding in this regard, but if you do feel that you need a Script Supervisor, do not overlook this department. In the long run they can save you tons of time by avoiding having to stop before every scene and double check your dailies to make sure everything is consistent.
There is no exact formula to creating the perfect skeleton crew, but the key is to have all of your bases covered. No matter what, you will always need assistance in the camera, audio and makeup departments, and you are certainly best off getting dedicated crew members to tackle all of these tasks. Don’t forget to have a great PA (or two) on board, as they are the life blood of your project and will keep things running much more efficiently. And of course, customize your crew to suit the needs of your project. If you need a Production Designer, Script Supervisor or any additional crew for that matter (VFX Supervisor, Stunt Person, etc.), make sure you have whoever you need on set. And most importantly, whichever crew positions you fill, make sure everyone on board is equally as passionate about your project as you are.
For some extra reading on shooting in this type of environment, be sure to check out my recent post – “10 Tips For Shooting With Available Light” as it certainly applies to many productions using skeleton crews.
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