Written by Ali Laventhol
Now that you have sailed through your episode’s PREP, what do you need to know about starting your set days… besides the fact that you’ll likely be waking up before the crack of dawn?
Here are 10 tips for “covering set”. If you haven’t read part one of our “producing your episode” blog yet, here it is!
[Note: This blog applies to dramas and single camera comedies, but not multi-cams]
1. READ THE FINAL CALL SHEET CAREFULLY
Make sure it’s the “final” since they will usually issue “prelim” call sheets which are subject to change. This will tell you where you’re shooting (if it’s a location it will have base camp and parking info), what you’re shooting (scene numbers and page lengths), and which actors are in which scenes. You’ll also see department notes like costumes and props, there will be a prelim schedule for the days ahead, and all the contact info for the production office and EPs and other important people you might need to contact at the drop of a hat. The call sheet will also list the Director, Writer(s) – YOU! – Production Manager and 1st AD. But perhaps most importantly, it will tell you the CREW CALL TIME!
[ProTip: Put phone numbers into your phone as soon as you get a crew list – this should happen much earlier in the season].
[Double ProTip: the day before, ask your 2nd AD to add you to the “set-updates” text chain. This will be a live play by play of what’s happening, as in “1st team rehearsal’s up” (a rehearsal with cast) or “2nd team rehearsal” (a rehearsal with stand-ins) or lighting mode, etc. This way if you have to walk away from set for any reason, you’ll know exactly where they are.
2. ARRIVE EARLIER THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO.
The first rehearsal of the day will happen at crew call time, so factor in time to park, get coffee and walk to the stage (could be a long walk), or hop a shuttle from base camp to the location if you’re not on the lot… all in time to be on set a few minutes before that first rehearsal. There’s a chance the director or actors may want to discuss something before rehearsing, so getting there early allows for this, too.
3. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO REHEARSALS
Each scene will be rehearsed with the actors, director, script supervisor and you, before it is shot. The director runs these rehearsals but you’re there in case anyone has questions or in case they need rewriting. I recommend studying the day’s scenes the night before to anticipate questions or problems. An actor may ask about earlier scenes in the script or story from previous episode, so make sure you have arcs in your head.
By now, you will have heard from the showrunner if there are actors who tend to bump on certain things or have difficulties with certain things. Sometimes it’s as simple as – X actor isn’t great with long chunks of dialogue but we have to give her this speech in this Ep. Let her try it but be ready with trims. You’ll also be watching closely for problems that need to be flagged. Like, an actor is changing a line, or if the director assigns some stage business that isn’t appropriate for the character (yes stage business is discussed in prep but something new often comes up on the day).
Things move fast, so try to catch issues in rehearsal instead of once shooting begins. If you flag something after they’ve shot the master (the master is usually the widest shot) and they’re already into coverage (closer shots), they may not be able to make changes due to continuity. Also note, before the first day of shooting, it’s a great idea to ask your director how they like to work with writers on set so you can find out if they have a particular way they want to get notes from you.
4. DIALOGUE CHANGES
Actors sometimes ask for line changes, or they may just say things differently. If it’s something small and it doesn’t change the meaning of the line or sound awkward to you, it’s usually not a big deal. However, if you feel it affects the meaning of the line or scene, or it sounds weird, you need to bring it up.
First, ask the script supervisor to ask the actor to say the line as written. If the actor doesn’t want to, then listen to their reason. Discuss, if there’s time. Make sure they feel heard. If their change makes sense to you—maybe come up with a third option that satisfies them but is closer to the original intent or line—then ask them to do takes both ways: the new way, and as originally written. That way you’re covered.
In this case, we usually quickly text our showrunner the issue and the change and see if they agree. They may respond in time so that you can adjust the game plan, or they may give a new alt line, but if they don’t respond right away – remember they are doing a million things at once—you MUST get some good takes with the line as written despite the actor’s objections. This can get tricky because actors are smart, so they may purposely give heir best performances on the takes with the line the way they like it. So you have to make sure they bring it on the takes with the “as written” lines as well.
5. HAVE TONE MEETING NOTES HANDY
It’s a good idea to refresh your memory on the tone meeting notes the night before you shoot. When you’re watching rehearsal, you’re not just there to answer questions or listen for wonky dialogue. It’s also very important that you’re making sure the intention of the scene is coming through.
If the director or actor is making a choice not in line with the subtext – or if something isn’t working emotionally or if you see a problem with blocking – it’s your job to speak up. I recommend having a private sidebar with the director AFTER the rehearsal is complete. There will be a break while the set is being lit, and you can pull them aside then. Keep in mind, it’s likely that the non-verbal moments you didn’t see in rehearsal were only missing because cameras weren’t rolling, and actors therefore weren’t fully in their performance. So, a casual “I just want to make sure we get his hurt reaction after this line…” to the director would be a good way to go. No need to panic yet. However, if it’s still not there a few takes into shooting the master, then another mention to the director is important.
After rehearsals is often when cast will want to talk something through with you. By all means… discuss! However, in the director’s contract it does state that “only the director may direct the actors” so if your discussion results in the desire to change something, please pull the director into the conversation ASAP. However, if the actors just want clarification or have a question about backstory, you do not have to bother the director.
Actors may also want to know where their storylines are going in the season (and they may use their charm to try to get secret info out of you!). Best to be vague about this, since things are usually not set in stone until final rewrites and you don’t want to tell an actor they have this incredible storyline coming up in which they reconnect with a long-lost child they didn’t know they had, only to have that storyline be cut completely from the show.
6. BEFRIEND SCRIPTY
The Script Supervisor or “Scripty” is your best friend on set, or at least they should be. They’re in charge of so much, including continuity, timing the script, circling takes, listening for dialogue mistakes and giving actors lines if they forget. If you and the actor or director make dialogue changes in a sidebar, you’ll need to tell Scripty since they update the script. During a take, if you hear something in the dialogue that the actor isn’t saying, or they’re mispronouncing, then tell Scripty and she’ll run it in between takes.
7. STAGES ARE FREEZING.
The stages sometimes feel colder than a meat locker and you’ll be sitting around a lot. Like, for hours. So bring layers or whatever you need to stay warm. I do laps around the periphery of the stages during turnarounds (breaks in the shooting to light from a new direction) so I can keep my blood moving. That and puffy coats usually keep the frostbite at a minimum!
8. BRING A LAPTOP
As hard as it is to lug it around all day, it’s important. We’ve gotten calls while on set from a showrunner asking us to make changes to scenes that aren’t shooting until the next day. They needed us to rewrite and get the pages to the Script Coordinator for proofing and distribution. Not something you can do on your phone!
[ProTip: A clip light is a great idea. Video village, where you’ll be sitting, is dark. In order to read your sides, you’ll find yourself using the flashlight on your phone… but it drains the battery. We got a clip light and it was a great solution!]
9. BRING CHARGERS
You may have a day where your showrunner isn’t on set and you need to communicate with them a lot. If wardrobe isn’t right, if a prop isn’t working, if there’s conflict between so-and-so and so-and-so, if someone is held up in Hair and Make-Up and set is two hours behind… most showrunners want to be kept abreast of this stuff. Some do not. Be sure to ask. But, if they do and your phone battery dies, you’re in trouble.
10. SET CULTURE
When you’ve been in a writers’ room for months, going to set can feel like culture shock. Crews work incredibly hard and fast, and a good crew is like a well-oiled machine. You want to do your best to stay out of their way since time, on set, is money—a LOT of money.
You’ll be in the midst of lots of people and equipment crammed into a small space, and just when you feel settled, you’ll notice all of it moves! Try to learn people’s names and what they do. A camera operator has a very different job than a stand-in. A 2nd AD has a very different job than hair and make-up. You’ll learn things like: when you need sides those come from the 2nd AD, when you need a headset, that comes from the sound department.
ProTip: simply pay super close attention when you first arrive to everyone around you and what they’re doing. When you introduce yourself remember their name and their job if you can. It will help you get the lay of the land, which is important because the more comfortable you feel, the better you’ll be able to do your job and make sure your episode turns out the very best it can be!
A. Make notes on your favorite takes so that once you get to editing you can remind yourself if you have a better take of something that you’re not seeing in the cut.
B. At the end of each shooting day, send your showrunner a text with a quick synopsis of the day. This can be very brief and is usually positive since, if there was a problem, you’d have already texted them about it! Call out a few standout moments. If there was a moment or a prop or a costume or a performance that exceeded your expectations, let them know. They are hearing about problems ALL DAY, so giving them a quick hit of good news is a nice idea and also keeps them abreast of everything going on.
Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.