He sat behind a large 35 mm movie camera with his eye glued to the eye piece and a cloud of smoke floating above his worn red baseball cap. There were dozens of other people on the set. Extras, crew members, cops. They all milled about a respectful distance from the man with the cigar who kept popping his head up from behind the camera to look at the cordoned off street of downtown Los Angeles in front of him.
Director Tony Scott took the cigar out of his mouth as the First Assistant Director (First AD), James Skotchdopole approached him. They had a brief conversation before Skotchdopole walked towards the milling masses and gave instructions. Everyone snapped to their job. The setting went from casual chaos to a tightly choreographed routine.
The movie was “Enemy of the State” with Will Smith. I was there in a very minor capacity to shoot photos that were going to be used as props in the movie. As the day unfolded I watched James Skotchdopole deftly manage the location, droves of people, me, and about thousand other elements crucial to the shooting of the scene. It was evident that the set was moving with military precision under the leadership of Skotchdopole.
The military style hierarchy translated into an effective, well-run set. It had to. There were too many elements involved in the shot for it work any other way. As nice and approachable as Skotchdopole is, there was always a buffer of respect between him and the rest of the crew. He had found a balance of congeniality and command.
Let Me Give That A Try
Inspired and emboldened by James Skotchdopole’s style, I approached my next shoot with the intention of running my set the same way. Just distant enough to be respected, but still personable.
I walked onto to the set the day of the shoot with just a hint of attitude, anticipating that it would get me the respect I was seeking. What I got was a pat on the ass from the makeup artist, a first assistant who was on the edge of an emotional breakdown because his boyfriend was dumping him and a recounting of the “shoot I just did in South Beach” from the model that was so long winded it almost put us behind schedule. Try as I might to move the production forward more quickly, I could see I was only having a very minimal effect with my pleadings. It became obvious that there was a lot more to Skotchdopole’s leadership style than copping a little attitude.
Wanna Talk About It
I confess, I’ve never been much of a dictator. Probably because I started working very young (19 years old) in an industry full of enormous personalities. When I started I didn’t possess the talent that granted the aristocratic right of the tantrum. So I did the opposite and tried be everyone’s friend. This actually served me well as I was learning the ropes.
But as my career started to evolve into better, more complicated, higher paying jobs I began to notice that my sets were becoming increasingly disorganized. Also, there was this bizarre, constant, undercurrent of drama. The drama was effectively masked from the client, but I was starting to feel like a shrink with a camera. Minor conflict resolutions, tirelessly understanding when crew members showed up late mumbling something “my baby, my sweetie, my honey.” It was exhausting and felt unprofessional. If my career was going to continue on a successful path, I was going to have to change some things about how ran my set.
Let Me Tell You Why I’ve Asked You All Here Today
“Everyone on the set exists for the vision of the director.” That’s a quote from James Skotchdopole. And it’s true. As a photographer you have to come to terms with the fact that you’ve been hired for you visual abilities, not because you know what end of the camera to put a compact flash card in.
With that in mind, you need to also understand that everyone on your set is getting paid by you, to aide you in executing your vision. That’s the only reason anyone showed up at the designated call time. It’s a mindset and a responsibility that you need to get used to. Confidence in your own abilities and position is paramount in getting respect. Even if you find yourself nervous because you’re shooting a gig that’s way over your head, no one else needs to know that except you.
Hire Good Captains
James had great people working for him. They respected and supported him and his decisions. When you’re working with a producer they should have the same respect and loyalty for you. But by the same token you should harbor an environment where your producer can raise a question if he or she thinks you’re making a mistake. All of the producers that I’ve worked with had the freedom to do this — but they did it quietly. They always take me aside, out of the earshot of everyone else. Even their body language was subdued. There was nothing audible or visual that ever conveyed the fact that we were trying to sort out a problem, or that one of my decisions may not have been the smartest.
Hire Good Lieutenants
An advertising shoot is the culmination of a lot of different types of talent; production staff, makeup, wardrobe, props. These are departments. Your first assistant handles production issues and should be allowed to hire his or her own people. If a second assistant perceives a problem or has a suggestion it should be brought to your first assistant. If the first thinks it’s worth your time — he or she will bring it to you. Trusting your people is an important part of setting up a chain of command that will shield you from really ridiculous questions like “have you seen the left handed cable release.”
The same goes for the other departments on your set. Makeup, props, wardrobe — all these areas should have smart, experienced people in charge. They’ll handle the little stuff, leaving you to focus on the overall vision of the shoot. Your demeanor should be one in which the people working for you have the latitude to make suggestions (you never know where the next great idea is going to come from,) but ultimately the final decision is yours and should be enacted without question.
One Voice To Rule Them All
When I was on the set of the movie with James, the director was trying to get a complicated shot in the can. The shot involved the movement of traffic, extras walking on the street, and a myriad of other elements. Somehow Skotchdopole had to coordinate all this at the same time. He was doing brilliantly until a wardrobe stylist decided to lend a helping hand.
A group of extras that were set to walk into frame when they were cued weren’t able to hear that cue when James yelled it. To compensate for the problem James had arranged for a PA with a walkie to stand near the group and flag them on when the PA heard the cue in his earpiece.
The “helpful” stylist was in position between James and the extras and decided that she would flag the group at the appropriate time. Her insertion into solution totally screwed the shot. James very sternly and directly told her to back off and leave the job to him. He made his point quickly and effectively without resorting to a tantrum of swearing. He was focused on one thing, shooting the scene.
On your own set when directing talent, lighting or any element of the shot there should only be one voice, and one voice only yelling directions. Personally I like to tell my first assistant what I want from the production people. He usually knows the fastest way to get things accomplished because he knows his crew and their assets.
I’m the only one that directs the talent. Even if the client starts chiming in, I usually stop shooting and ask them not yell direction from behind me. I ask the client what they want and then I translate that to the models. In one or two cases I’ve threatened to stop shooting all together if the extraneous dialog didn’t subside. A cacophony voices always disrupts and confuses things. It should always be discouraged.
Sometimes You Have To Be An Ass
Throughout your career you’re going to have to make tough decisions. Not all of those decisions are going to make everyone happy. Get used to the idea that you’re not on the set to be everyones friend. The reason you were hired is to create images. Your absolute loyalty is to the job and to your reputation. If there is a person or situation endangering those clear goals do not compromise because you’re worried about hurting someone’s feelings.
With that said, don’t be an ass just because your the boss. It harbors a lot of ill will. It also tends to cause your crew to keep to themselves which can be a handicap. Some of the best ideas that I’ve had on a shoot have come from my crew. The distance between you and the people that work for you should be just enough that a hierarchy exists, but not so much that ideas can’t flow.
I Said I Wanted a Hot Cappuccino
Stories about ridiculous outbursts pervade our industry. I once saw a commercials director throw a luke-warm cappuccino at a PA. Apparently he wanted his coffee hot. Never mind that the nearest Starbucks was a 10 minute drive away. Not surprisingly the director wasn’t considered particularly talented, and he had a reputation for making up for his creative shortcomings by being a douchebag.
After the outburst, everyone on the set had a weird, uncomfortable look. Morale on the set plummeted. The crew and everyone else maintained their professionalism, but no one was offering any inspired suggestions. And, no one was having any fun.
That said, some people that work for you are going screw up. It’s a reality of the gig. 95% of the time, that person didn’t mean to make a mistake. Don’t lose your temper and make them feel like crap. Trust me they’re already beating themselves up worse than you ever could. What I’ve found is that the person that made the mistake is already half- way to a solution by the time the problem reaches your ears. Give them the opportunity to redeem themselves. They’ll put a lot of passion and energy into it, and you’ll command even more respect for addressing the problem with cool head.
Finally there are the ding dongs. People who put themselves up for work on a photo set, but really have no business being there. Fortunately this business has a wonderful gossip network and the bad apples get ferreted out pretty rapidly. But if you find someone on your set who is beyond redemption dispatch them immediately. Working on a photo crew is for those with a motivated work ethic. There is no room for anyone else.
I Want To Be Alone
Advertising photography depends on a convergence of different talents and personalities that exist to serve one unique vision that is yours. You cannot micro- manage a set and be creative. The two disciplines are mutually exclusive. The idea of employing and maintaining a military hierarchy on the set is to keep you insulated from the insignificant, mundane details, and focused on the big decisions that are required to make flawless images. That’s what you’re getting paid for.
Style Breeds Success
I found James Skotchdopole’s style of direction to be fantastic and inspiring. It has a brilliant balance of approachability and authority. But I’m not the only one who thinks so. His list of producing credits is huge, and he just won an Academy Award as one of the producers of 2014’s Birdman.