Solutions To Common On-Set Problems (Step 9)

Production is probably the most exciting part of filmmaking, and it’s also where a film or series lives or dies. I’m not trying to scare you, but it’s important that you understand how tenuous the success of your project is at this stage. With that in mind, what follows is a list of the most common problems that might arise on your film set and how to deal.

PROBLEM: Cast member is late
SOLUTION: Utilize the extra setup time wisely. Run lines or rehearsals with other actors, test out more ambitious lighting or camera set-ups, or, if possible, film scenes or angles where the missing actor isn’t needed.

PROBLEM: Cast member doesn’t show up
SOLUTION: Already have a second set of scenes that people are prepared to shoot, and cobble together a new shot list based on who is actually on set and available. Depending on the cast member’s eventual excuse and how many scenes you’ve already shot with them, you might need to consider recasting. Everyone can be replaced. Sometimes, you can even replace them with an extra or a crew member.

PROBLEM: Crew member is late or doesn’t show up
SOLUTION: Always, always already have a backup plan, especially for people you don’t know very well. When shooting the pilot for my web series, Brains, my cameraman didn’t show up after the first day, because he lost his camera and all of the first day’s footage. Thankfully, I had brought my simple camcorder to set to record behind-the-scenes videos, and we ended up using that camera for the rest of the season.

PROBLEM: Not enough extras
SOLUTION: Get creative with the angles you’re filming from. Spread people out to make the room or space look fuller, add lots of movement so it appears busy, or have extras dress up in multiple outfits throughout the shoot, so it doesn’t look like you’re reusing a person. Also, consider changing the location slightly — Rebecca Shoptaw, creator of the show Middlemarch, once filmed a party scene with only one extra by changing some sections of the scene to take place in a hallway leading to the party, and filming against walls to add party sounds in the background later.

PROBLEM: Actors haven’t memorized their lines
SOLUTION: If you’re doing a traditionally filmed show (where a single scene is filmed from multiple angles), either film the actor who hasn’t memorized last, to give them time to practice, or film in small chunks. You’re going to piece together the scene from many takes anyways, so focus on a small section at a time instead of going through the full scene all at once. If you’re filming found-footage style, meaning you can’t cut to different takes during the scene, find somewhere in-world to hide the script, or reschedule the unmemorized scenes for later in the day. In a lot of ways, an unmemorized actor is as bad as an actor not being there at all, so depending on the circumstances, consider recasting.

PROBLEM: Someone has to leave early
SOLUTION: Restructure the day so that the person or persons who have to leave early do all their scenes first. Sometimes, this will mean filming all their “coverage”, or angles where they’re the only ones in frame, and then having a different person read their lines when you get coverage of the other people in the scene. Other times, it means prioritizing your shots, and figuring out what the bare minimum you need to get done is. You might have to sacrifice a beautiful yet complicated setup, but that’s the risk of filmmaking on a shoestring.

PROBLEM: Someone gets hurt
SOLUTION: Stop filming immediately! Bring a first aid kit to set just in case, and if they’re willing to continue working, take a break and have a conversation about what went wrong and how to avoid the safety risk in the future. As someone who shot a zombie series, I am no stranger to injuries on set, but as long as you take as many precautions as possible and are communicating with everyone clearly, everything should be fine.

PROBLEM: You forgot/ran out of craft services
SOLUTION: Pay for delivery or send a nonessential crew member to a nearby fast food chain. A hungry crew is bad, but hungry actors are impossible, and this is a cost you’re just going to have to deal with. In the future, try to plan better by buying nonperishable food in bigger quantities than you think you’ll need. It won’t be the most nutritious crafty (do try and provide people with an actual meal), but it’s better than nothing.

PROBLEM: Your planned location is unavailable or only available for short windows of time
SOLUTION: Once again — this is why you have a Plan B for everything. If it’s unavailable, is there somewhere else you can go? Better yet, can you rewrite/restructure the scene so it takes place elsewhere? If it’s only available for a short window of time, plan a rehearsal beforehand so the shoot itself goes smoother.

PROBLEM: You’re scheduled to film outdoors and it’s raining
SOLUTION: You can go about this a couple of ways. First, could your scene still work in the rain? For my show, we ended up having to film a scene in the rain and it turned out better than the original plan. We just rehearsed all the blocking indoors before heading out. If your scene can’t be filmed in the rain, though, can you and the available actors film a different scene somewhere indoors?

This is an inexhaustive list. Every set is different and comes with its own unique moments of stress. But listen to me: you can do it. There are horror stories from no-budget sets and there are horror stories from multi-billion dollar ones.

Once you’ve wrapped principal photography, your finished product is in sight, but it’s not over yet, by any means. Next week, we get into post-production.

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