I worked on a producer’s shoot recently that tried my patience and forced me to exhibit the most professional side of myself that I could muster up, despite being frustrated with the day’s events. It also gave me a great learning opportunity because the production deteriorated into a desultory exercise of playing it by ear. We had to solve problems live on set that we didn’t face in class, so it was a sink-or-swim moment for us all.

This shoot was a simple “talking head” setup that would have graphics and voice overs edited in during post. The producer’s plan was to begin with his life story, lead in to his thesis statement, present his evidence, and then close his argument. Simple…in theory.

It was a small production consisting of the talent, who was the producer; the camera operator, myself; and the floor manager, another producer I worked with before. One other operator, who I never worked with prior, arrived shortly after we assembled the studio to monitor the audio. We were using a basic one-camera setup with a lavalier XLR mic connected directly to the camera and three-point lighting.

We learned, in our TV studio production class, to man our respective posts and never, ever interfere with another operator’s tasks, though the heavens may fall (the rules are too strict and I’d prefer they be relaxed to avoid jeopardizing a production). We were trained differently, though, so I didn’t interfere when this production began exhibiting signs of trouble.

There was no clear direction on set, no absolute voice of authority to heed, and too much contamination of roles where operators spoke freely to one another when attempting to troubleshoot a problem. Tempers began to flare and confusion set in, leading to an awkward period of unhealthy tension that further unravelled the frayed nerves on set.

Reason eventually prevailed and we resumed the production. The floor manager tightened the reins and led us to a successful completion, infusing a bit of humor as needed to thaw the icy environment.

I believe much of the confusion stemmed from a lack of organization and poor communication. This was the producer’s first production, and it was expected to be less-than-stellar. All producers are counseled in this regard: we’re told that nothing will go as planned on our first shoot. Nevertheless, we are still expected to employ proper production standards and get our shows aired.

The fortunate producers make it through, battle-weary or not, and learn from each outing. I walked away from this production with two major lessons learned.

Learn from Everything

I already committed myself to gaining as much experience as possible, as quickly as possible, so that I could become the best producer I could possibly be. It doesn’t matter whose production I’m working on, whose attitude needs adjustment, whose scriptwriting needs work, or anything else.  I’m there to learn and I consider everything a lesson. That includes crew selection. I learned (or was reassured) that hand-picking a tightly-woven crew is an absolute must for a smooth-sailing production. Personality clashes, rogue behavior, and untrustworthiness jeopardize the integrity of a working crew.

Document Everything and Distribute the Documentation

There were no shot lists, no storyboards, no layouts, no timed segments, and no clear direction of what was expected of anyone. It was akin to an ad-hoc production, despite the producer reassuring the crew everything was “in his head” and he knew “exactly” how he wanted his show to go. That’s excellent for the producer while in discovery, and simply disastrous when in production with a team of volunteers. The crew needs to know what they’ll be doing ahead of time so they can carry out the producer’s vision. No documentation leads to confusion because the crew has to stand around, wasting production time, asking “what do you want me to do?”

I’m working as cameraman on a production this afternoon and will keep my eyes and ears open for more lessons. Everything will make me a better producer, so I welcome the lessons.