A Day in the Life on Set

Ever wonder what a typical day is like on set of production? Hillary Nussbaum has got you covered. After a successful fundraising campaign, Nussbaum has been documenting her time on set to give netTVnow readers a firsthand look into her work. Read below the jump for more!

Every shoot day is different. One day you may be grabbing sidewalk scenes through unexpected snowflakes, while the next you’re filming in a closed coffee shop at 1am, cranking up the lights until it looks like daytime. But as different as every day can be, things do eventually fall into a semi-predictable pattern. Here’s what a sort-of-average day might look like on the set of Keep Me Posted.

The Night Before - For me, a shoot day starts the night before. I review my directing notes for the next day and look over the shot list. I may tweak it a bit, but ultimately I’ll decide it looks perfect, airtight, and pretend that my first half hour on set won’t involve completely revising it. 

I pack up whatever I need to bring to set - a combination of standard things like a script and a water bottle, and less-than-standard things, like a set of aqua throw pillows and an old bridesmaid dress (set dressing). 

Then, I set my phone alarm for 6:30 AM, and try to relax. I spend the next few minutes double- and triple-checking my alarm, set a backup for 6:35 AM, and decide just to give up on relaxation and go to sleep.

Crew Call - The crew arrives on set, unpacks and gets ready for the day. Someone brews a pot of coffee (very important), and the DP and I do a walkthrough of the location, discussing the day’s shooting order and rough blocking. This is the point at which the neat, color-coded shot list becomes a jumble of cross-outs and arrows - we ditch unnecessary shots that will require a disproportionate amount of setup time, and rearrange the rest for maximum efficiency. Often, that means grouping shots according to where lights will be placed, rather than what scene they’re from. Ultimately, it’s faster for the actors to change into and out of the same costume multiple times, than to re-set the lights over and over. 

Cast Call - The cast arrives on set. By this time, the caffeine is starting to kick in. The DP and Gaffer are setting up lights (with the help of a PA and maybe the AD standing in for the actors). The Production Designer is nearly done working her magic - transforming a tiny hallway so it looks like the dressing room ata fancy bridal store, or deconstructing a comfortably furnished studio apartment until it looks like our characters just moved in. The Wardrobe Designer starts dressing the actors in their first costumes for the day, the Sound Designer gets them mic’ed up, and I’ve attempted to explain the scribbles on my shot list to the AD.

Run Through - The actors and I walk through the first scene, running blocking and addressing any character or dialogue questions that arise. We try to figure out just how long it would take their character to type that angry text message, or to stage that totally fake Instagram post. We figure out the placement of hands - and tongues - that will bring just the right amount of awkwardness to a makeout scene. 

The DP and Gaffer tweak the lights accordingly, or ask for blocking changes, while the Production Designer and Wardrobe Designer make last-minute adjustments. The AD starts to get antsy about the time and drops some subtle hints, then finally ditches the subtlety and tells us to get rolling.

Rolling -  The lights are in place, the set is dressed, the actors are mic’ed and wardrobed, the DP adjusts focus, sound speeds, camera rolls, the AC or AD claps the slate, and I call action. 

This is usually when a new problem presents itself. Sometimes it’s something small - a sweater rustling over a microphone, or an exploding science experiment that’s not reading well on camera. The Wardrobe Designer swaps out or adjusts the sweater, the Production Designer gets resourceful and squeezes highlighter ink into the science experiment turning it (and her fingers) bright blue. 

Sometimes the problem is bigger, like when you’re filming in an apartment where the neighbors happen to be installing new flooring, and it sounds like they’re drilling directly into the ceiling overhead. Some city sounds - sirens, subways, honking cars - are expected, and relatively easy to work around. Others - say, flooring installation - are not. But when you have a tight shooting schedule and a limited budget, you can’t afford to lose a full shoot day. So you find ways to work with what you have. For us, that meant sending two crew members to find out the construction workers’ schedule, then squeezing in a few shots while they were talking and not drilling. From there, we filmed what we could on their midday break, and put the rest of our shoot on pause until the late afternoon, when construction wrapped for the day.

It seems like there’s always something - a surprise snowfall, a location owner that’s 30 minutes late to unlock the door, a class of middle-schoolers that surrounds your set, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone famous. But there are times when everything goes right on the first take - the lights are perfect, the set looks great, the wardrobe is spot-on, the sound is clean, the actors nail it. Everything just works. 

In those cases, you congratulate the team on a job well done, and do it all over again anyway, with some lighting tweaks and acting adjustments, just in case. 

Repeat - The bulk of the day follows the pattern above, with a meal break, some snack breaks, and many more pots of coffee sprinkled throughout. Lights are re-set for each additional angle. There’s a run-through for each scene. We grow disoriented, delirious and tired by 4pm, because we spent the afternoon filming a late-night bedroom scene, and the windows have been blacked out for the last three hours. 

New problems present themselves throughout the day, and the team solves them as they arise. Sometimes, the finished product is better for it - together, you come up with a creative solution that’s even better than the original plan. Other times, you just squeeze three crew members, sound equipment, a camera, tripod, and a bounce board into a shower to film a bathroom scene and try not to laugh mid-take.   

Wrap - With a full shoot day in the can - or more accurately, on the memory card - and every shot crossed off the shot list, it’s time to wrap. The footage is backed up onto a hard drive, the crew dismantles the lights and the set. We put the location back together so you can’t even tell that we were there. We quickly review tomorrow’s plans and call times, then head home. 

I set my alarm for 6:30 AM - and 6:35 AM - then prepare for the next day, ready to do it all over again.

Meet the Author
Hillary Nussbaum is a freelance television producer and writer, and recently completed work on her upcoming web series, Keep Me Posted. You can find her writing aggregated here, or check out some of her earlier work on late night reruns of Cash Cab, for which she worked as a writer and researcher. And here's a fun fact, she risked life and limb in the name of sports photography, in which her photos have been published in National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.