Blog 6

Blog 6: Crewing For The Shoot

Posted By:
Writer / Director
Oliver S. Milburn


The crew! That integral part of filmmaking that largely goes completely unconsidered by your average movie-goer. Rightly so, of course, we go to films to be entertained. Most people may be aware of the director and/or producer, as well as usually knowing the key actors involved. Yet the crew can make or break your film in a technical sense and will certainly change its outcome.

Oh yes, make no mistake, that vision you have in your head? When you’re working on this kind of budget, it’ll never turn out like that. In many ways I prefer the way Harsh Light turned out, but it wasn’t what I’d visualised. The essence was still there – and that’s what you have to hope for. You may not get every one of the great shots you’d planned, you may not even get remotely close to the general aesthetic style you’d planned, but you can always wrestle that essence of what you’re trying to do from it. Again (yawn), this is hugely down to the script – and there are plenty of great low-budget films that look or sound like crap, to counteract the many many many huge blockbusters that look amazing but are actually horse-piss shoddy.

However, a good looking and sounding film will stand you in much better stead with festivals and distributors. I’m not going into individual camera pros and cons, as anything I say will likely invoke a flood of nit-picky technical corrections from any cinematographers reading this (they do that). There are plenty of comparisons online, but be grateful we’re in a new age of accessible, good-looking digital technology. All I will say is that it depends on how you want to shoot, both visually and in terms of the demands of the production. The popular ones for low-budget films at the moment tend to be either Sony Ex3 with depth-of-field adapter, Canon 5D or RED One, all of which give a cinematic depth of field in a digital system for a fraction of the price of film. However, its also worth checking out newcomer Panasonic AG-AF101 (fixing a lot of the flaws of the 5D for filmmakers), and recently I’ve spoken to a few DoP’s espousing 16mm with a heavy post-production cleanup. If you’re interested in the post technical, they’ll be more on this in my later post production blog.

<p><a href=”″>Red One, Canon 5D Mk II, and Panasonic Lumix GH1 Footage Comparison</a> from <a href=”″>Birns and Sawyer</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Whatever you shoot on pick your crew carefully; and it’s not all about experience. In our case, we knew we had to pick people who would stick with the film through what was – without a doubt – going to be a difficult, long and tiring shoot.  On the whole I’m pleased to say our crew were amazing. Many of them are still my first port of call when I have something new to shoot but, being awesome, they’re generally quite busy.  Back when we hired them however, the vast majority were relatively recent graduates with no feature film experience in the roles we were hiring them for. Don’t get me wrong, most of these guys and girls were well trained and skilled as hell – you need experienced, skilled people. The trick is finding them at a time when they need the CV slot (rather than the money) you can offer them.

A showreel is very important when looking at any crew on the visual side. Insist on seeing previous work; the evidence will be there. This is the one place I think we occasionally slipped up, as once or twice we hired people who – while not lacking in skill – didn’t really see the level of filmmaking that we wanted to achieve and therefore found themselves a bit overwhelmed when it came to the crunch. There are plenty of good online crewing resources such as Film Crew Pro and Mandy, as well as some more expensive ones that may require less wading through of CV’s.

Most of the crew actually came from hiring two people with whom I shall forever work (I hope). This was the DoP (Director of Photography) Sam Stewart and the 1st AD Toby Tomkins. I could go into every crew position in detail since all are very important, but I’ll keep it to a little more about these two roles and you can extrapolate:

DoP: Sam was probably the least experienced DoP we interviewed. That said, he had a brilliant showreel. Anyway, when I described the film to Sam, he didn’t lean back in his chair, starch his chin and sagely utter ‘O.K.’. No, he seemed to suffer some kind of internal electroshock treatment and shouted “Oh my god that’s like my perfect movie you gotta let me do it!” From then on, every time I spoke to him he had new ideas, new workarounds for the kit and a constantly building excitement and enthusiasm. This is what you want, because in both pre-production and production he was 110% energy, even when the days were long and the food was scarce and a fetid miasma of other issues were surrounding us. Also – and equally importantly – when you see the film, you’ll notice that he’s pretty shit-hot at lighting too.

Sam brought with him most of the camera crew; they were all very skilled and used to working together. Often your ‘heads of department’ can do this and, as long as you think it’ll be beneficial, it takes the weight of finding them off your shoulders. So hire those guys first – your DoP, Art Director, Sound Engineer etc. In all cases see their previous work (or get recommendations where visuals don’t apply).

1st AD (or First Assistant Director): I have seen low-budget features which, by virtue of wanting to keep the crew small, have decided to go without a 1st AD. This is almost always wrong. A good 1st will stop you having to worry about all the stuff which – as a director – you really don’t want to be worrying about. These include (and all of these are genuine things I’ve been asked while directing a scene in the past): travel arrangements, sleeping arrangements, people falling out, people’s family problems, when a certain prop is needed on set, how you are transporting crew/kit/props/costume. The 1st basically becomes an encyclopaedia of everything to do with the production. They also take on a lot of the stuff you can reasonably be expected to answer, such as where the next camera position is, how many shots are in the scene, how long the crew need to take setting up the next shot etc etc – the list goes on. The 1st should have your storyboards, shot list and a time-based shot breakdown. They can effectively direct the crew – given that the creative/aesthetic elements should have been worked out in advance with the DoP.

I’d also like to mention SOUND and ART DIRECTOR briefly – get a good sound recordist. There is no excuse not to. Bad sound will ruin your film, and good sound design (which needs good sound) can make up for so much that is visually lacking (more on this later). We paid top dollar by our standards for good equipment for our very experienced sound recordist to use – he/she is AS important as any other part of the crew. A good Art Director/Production Designer is also hugely important, especially for a horror film, since they contribute hugely to the aesthetic style, and can take care of visual elements you may miss as a director.

So to summarize – mix skill with passion in your crew criteria, find references/previous work, be sure you’re going to get on with the person, and ‘crew up’ (i.e. allow people one rung higher on the ladder than they’d get on a higher budget production). Finally, make sure you like them all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time together.