Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Year Of Firsts

It has been more than 15 years. I am proud that I have kept a reasonably flawless ‘track record’ in my collaborations. I have kept consistent to my principle of working effectively and productively with what the circumstances have presented, creatively and technically.

However, during the first half of 2012, the unimaginable happened.

I had to do re-shoots!

Yes, the much-dreaded process among television production teams. The last thing that is needed after a much worn-out and exhausting daily 10hr plus filming schedules.

And it’s not just a re-shoot for one production, but two!

The thing that I had consistently avoided professionally, since I left film school in 1996 slapped my face like a violent surf break! Some may argue that re-shoots are part-and-parcel of production. But it's not part-and-parcel of my production. I strongly feel that reshoots can be avoided if more thought and diligence have been put into the production management.

I’m highlighting these issues not to shame those involved. I brought this up to highlight what not to do to avoid reshoots, regardless of the circumstances.

I can point to a handful of reasons why I have consistently avoided re-shoots since I’m being paid to do what I love.

1. Confirming the script. In television world, a simple script needs and would have gone through various levels before one can call it the ‘shooting script’, ie the approved script before one begins the shoot. This means that the storyline has been confirmed as consistent with the original conceptual narrative and beats. In the case of info-eds or magazine shows, the content would have been representative of the ground research. This would mean involving an exceptionally effective scriptwriters and inspired researchers.

2. Production management. This is one of the most important aspect during production that many tend to overlook. A professional filming process needs a professional, core production team – professionals who presumably, would have had credible production portfolios before they embark on their current gig. This is very important as it covers production areas that tie the location-cast-crew-schedule. When the management in this area breaks down, the whole production crumbles.

3. Finalised casting. I'd rather have professional actors carry lead and first supporting leads. Subsequently, their commitment to the filming schedule needs to be checked. Good, effective actors makes a difference between emotive and wooden characters. Good effective actors save time, seriously.

To talents who are non-actors/who want to act, the set is not a classroom or rehearsal grounds for non-actors. Training should be done before coming on set. Each time non-actors do a retake (and further retakes), they're eating into the production time. This is relevant to the bosses too. You may have your little favourites, but have a thought for the production team. And the directors who have to be the one to deal with these non-actors on set! Think about it.

4. I admit that I’m possibly one of those directors that wants perfection, one that sees quality control as a necessity that comes with the job – mainly because the thought of re-shoots is enough to make me squirm with dread. This makes me work extra hard for any television series that has my name on it. My instincts in regards to the programme content and filming process needs to be respected. Kindly check the accolades I have received in the last 15 years (nationally and internationally). Yeah I think I’m allowed to brag here, and I feel good about it.

Everyone wants to work with a winner. Everyone wants to be in a work that’s going to win awards. But no one wants to make an effort to work for a winning production management.

Thus, what possibly went wrong?

THAT football show
This is the perfect example of what happens when you allow interns/post-internship newbies to run 85% of the show. And it’s not just runners or PA (production assistants) I’m talking about.

Let me state an obvious fact – never allow interns/post-internship newbies to hold key positions in a major television production 
(or any industry for that matter) - regardless of your production budget and bottomlines.

You pay peanuts, you get monkeys!

Imagine this in a typical day’s call sheet as prepared by an intern/post-internship newbie,
– 30mins for a 2-page scene
– 30 to 45mins for several big scenes involving 10 pre-teen boys playing soccer, outdoors. 90% of the child 'talents' are non-actors.
– with an incredible time duration (aka 30mins) allocated for each scenes, especially the soccer action scenes, how would one be able to realistically execute fancy camerawork/angles with the soccer scenes?
– zero contingencies for the outdoor soccer scenes. It rained 3/4 of the day in 80% the days allocated for outdoor field scenes.

no budget *gasps* allocated for the regular soccer-player extras. The EP was barking orders to wrap scenes quickly, for one can never be sure if these kids are able to be present at subsequent shoot days. 
– no dinner when the shoot extended/overrun past dinner time, not even kiddy snacks for the child talents. 
– 95% of the scenes were shot without scene slates (not even the back-to-basics, primitive write-on-paper ‘slates’). These slates were there only when I yelled for one (...come on, I can’t be yelling for slates the whole day when no one else is yelling at the short-on-attention-span pre-teen actors and extras) 
– no one looks after the continuity 
– 35 scenes (yeah, the big-action soccer scenes) all to be shot on my final day of shoot. Reason being the production needs to catch up on those days lost previously for "whatever" reasons. 
– Bad meals. I would like to point out that the cast and crew deserve good food, ie good for human consumption after working their asses-off to make the production work. Hey bosses, providing good healthy meals is a requirement and an entitlement!

                            A typical day’s lunch. A hungry production is an unproductive one.

Furthermore on many days, I saw missing production team members. Apparently they had been tasked to swap/cover their tasks in other concurrent productions. It seemed that accountability was never taken seriously. 

The reshoot number 1. It happened at a primary school at Singapore’s eastern tip. I don’t wish to speculate the communication that took place between those in-charge of production and the school’s authority (aka vice/principal), but I sure saw a highly displeased vice principal that afternoon. 

As a result, the school decided to invalidate the scenes that have been shot. Thus, 10 big scenes had to be re-shot at another school location.

The situation spiralled downwards from here onwards that on the last day of shoot, Nature would have me walk off the set. It seemed an easier thing to do when the EP rudely barked unnecessary orders at me - perhaps mistaking me for an intern. But Grace worn over - I could not break another of my professional record that day.

I am disappointed to say that this is a production run by a company of pioneering, senior film school graduates. 

THAT family show

With all due respect, this production is a perfect example of script work that suffers from communication breakdown between the EP heads and the script panel, especially halfway through the series. This production highlights another crucial aspect of shooting scripts – not to leave the script approval at the last minute, regardless of the overwhelming concurrent projects being handled.

The point I'm trying to make here is, one cannot discount storytelling in a visual narrative medium. Storytelling existed before technology. And storytelling will live past technology. Storytelling is not an afterthought. Story is king.

The reshoot number 2. And I was in the unfortunate position to be directing the last couple of episodes. Now, if you don’t wish to get me involved in the scriptwriting process (… and to sit-in during the final edit) I respect that. However, jolly well get your act together (heads and script panel) BEFORE you hand me the ‘final’ shooting script.

Alternate endings are fun to do, but do not leave the narratives leading to these alternate arcs at the last minute. However you might want to call it, ie additional scenes, new scenes, improvement scenes – they are all unnecessary reshoots in my dictionary. 

PS: I have to mention that coming straight to the family show after the football shoot, was like a breath of fresh air. Lunch and dinner were being well-taken care of. And of course, I need not yell at the adults.

I stress again that the purpose of this blog is to share critical and valid production concerns with fellow producers, assistants, runners and interns. I understand many would not be able to voice these as many are too concerned of their ‘rice bowls’ to raise such matters. I empathise the enthusiastic yet gullible newbies who are preyed upon by these gleeful production houses.

In the last 15 years or more as a freelancer (and with relatively many film school graduates themselves these days in television productions) the abovementioned issues are getting too critical to ignore.

I heard that Big Things Have Small Beginnings. When the bottomline rule all aspects of the production, small yet very important details are often over-ruled rendering the production ineffective. Art becomes numbers. Reshoots can not be part-and-parcel of productions. They are avoidable.

Small things tend to be overlooked. Small beginnings are interesting study subjects.