A shot list is usually created by the director and the production manager (or associate producer).
The shot list is the first step in the larger task of scheduling the production, and the principal factor in organizing the shot list is efficiency. The considerations determining the organization of our shots, in more-or-less descending order of importance, are major location (and time of day), camera setup angle, shot size, on-set logistics, and pick-ups. Additionally, there may be some exceptional considerations that might determine when certain shots must be scheduled.
Location and Time of Day
The first organizing principle for order of shots concerns location and time of day. In general, we organize our shooting schedule so that we shoot all scenes occurring in the same location together, regardless of where they appear in the script. For example, if we have a script with four scenes in a restaurant kitchen; one in the beginning, two in the middle of the film, and one at the end, we will, nonetheless, group all of these scenes together and shoot them back-to-back. This way, we minimize the number of times we need to travel to a location and set up lights, camera, sound, etc. Imagine the waste of time if we were to shoot the first kitchen scene, then strike the set to go shoot the next scene somewhere else, and then return to the kitchen location another day and set up all over again.
Camera Setup Angle
A camera setup is the physical placement of the camera for each shot in the marked/shooting script. Once camera is placed and the shot is framed, a great deal of production time is spent dressing the scene with set pieces and props, lighting that area, and wiring it for sound. Because of this, we cluster all shots with similar setups together on the shot list. This way we move the camera, position the lights and microphones, etc. fewer times.
Generally speaking, we further organize our shooting to go from wide shots to close-ups. For example, we would shoot master scene two shots, before we shoot the close-up reverse shots in a two-person interaction. We do this for several reasons. First, the master scene generally covers more of the script and requires more set attention, lighting, etc. If we run out of time and have to abandon a shot, it’s usually easier to reshoot a close-up later, or even do without it. Keep in mind that many close-ups require fewer cast on camera, so you’d also need to call back fewer people to reshoot a close-up. And, it’s much easier to begin with the broadest lighting setup and slightly adjust lights as you move in closer, than it would be to light a close-up and then have to relight the entire scene for a wider shot.
On-set logistics is where common sense comes into play. It is especially important to avoid keeping your cast and crew waiting needlessly until you get around to their shots. For example, if we have a scene in which a teacher is lecturing to a class of twenty-five students and we plan to cut back and forth between the teacher at the chalkboard and the class taking notes, we would shoot all shots that include the class first (i.e., master shot of class with teacher and the reverse shots of the class). Then we can let the class go home—preferably before lunchtime to save on our food budget!—and shoot the reverse shots of the teacher without the twenty-five people on the set.
Pick-ups are shots that don’t require any actors to be present; pick-ups include shots of landscapes, location-establishing shots, and shots of objects and cutaways (i.e., a looking shot of a clock). Often these shots require only a skeleton crew, so it’s not uncommon to have a small crew “pick up” these shots while everyone else goes home. Why keep a sound recordist on the set while you shoot cutaways that require no synchronized sound? Why shoot a close-up of a still life while an actor waits around for her scene to come up?
Every now and then you’ll have no choice but to organize your schedule around exceptional considerations. I once made a film in which I needed a police cruiser. The township where I was shooting was willing to let me use a police car for free, but only for forty-five minutes beginning at 5 pm. There was no alternative but to shoot the entire scene involving the police car at that exact time—despite the inconvenience. Much of my shot list for that day revolved around this one extenuating circumstance. Actors’ schedules, location and prop availability, and equipment availability can all force you to stray from your ideally efficient shot list schedule. In these cases, you just roll with it and do what you need to do—but keep the rest of your scheduling as we have already discussed so that you remain as efficient as possible.
Another special circumstance to consider is directorial and performance approach. There may be times when a director needs to preserve the momentum of the cast’s creative and interpretive energy by shooting a scene more or less in order. It may be inefficient, but if you get better performances from sequential shooting, then it is worth the trade-off. This is especially a factor when dealing with nonactors or actors not familiar with single camera style shooting.
Mick Hurbis-Cherrier has taught film and video production at Hunter College for more than a decade. He works professionally in both film and video as a director, producer, cinematographer, and editor.
Excerpt from Voice and Vision: A Creative Approach to Narrative Film and DV Production by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier © 2007, Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.