L.A.-based filmmaker Noam Kroll is currently working on his second feature. He keeps a production blog at his website NoamKroll.com. He wrote this entry after people asked him what the most important roles were to have if you only had money for a few crew members. Check out Kroll's blog here, and his production company post-production house Creative Rebellion here.
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.