Cold eyed they stared at me, moaning softly to themselves. It was as if there was something they wanted to say, but they couldn’t quite figure out how to formulate the words. I knew I had to do something. They needed food and they needed food now - or the next thing on the menu might be me!
That’s a small exaggeration, but you‘ve probably had times where you felt like a zombie after a long day on set. We may laugh about how hard we work (and even have a certain bravado about it), but one of the biggest dangers on a set is a zombie crew - a crew that’s run out of energy and is operating on fumes - because this can lead to missed footage, improperly shot scenes or even injuries.
As we all know, there are a lot of moving parts to any film production. There are so very many things that could go wrong at any time. A lot of our job comes down to mitigating risk and adapting to changing circumstances.
One of the biggest risk creators, in my opinion, comes when we don’t properly gauge the energy levels of our cast and crew. Even when we're working on projects we're really passionate about and therefore feel energized about shooting, it’s critically important to maintain even energy levels.
We work long hours and our work is physically grueling and requires complete focus. Even if we have contingency time planned, sometimes you just can’t recreate the magic of that one take and if someone isn’t on their game when that moment happens, it can be lost forever.
Of course a set can also be a dangerous place when you've got lots of people moving heavy and very expensive equipment, hot lights and electrical cords everywhere, animal wrangling, firearms and even explosives on occasion, stunt work, etc. We all have to be alert to avoid accidents.
For actors, if you let your energy levels fluctuate you may end up with an inconsistent performance. An actor needs to be thinking and feeling at a high level so that they can respond to the emotional input they are receiving from other actors while being aware of their space, camera placement and framing, blocking, and any instructions given them by the director. The same can be said of every department, from the director, to the sound crew to the lighting folks, to continuity to the camera department, makeup and soon. If you are not carefully observing everything going on around you, you may not catch a critical error. Your work may be great in some parts of the film and substandard in others.
I’ve learned from my own errors and I take great pains to monitor my own energy levels and the energy levels of my cast and crew when I direct.
Here are a few tips on how to keep those energy levels consistent and get the most out of your team and yourself.
1. Watch your food intake
Make sure you eat small and consistent meals throughout the day. Be careful and make sure to eat foods that really sustain you. A small candy bar here and there may be a good idea, but don’t overdo it. Junk food is convenient and can keep morale up but everyone’s body is different.
Learn what foods in what quantities tend to agree with you and how much to eat to keep your energy high without getting “pigs disease” (that sleepy feeling when all of your body’s energy goes towards digesting that big meal you just had).
2. Meal Planning
It’s really important to let your caterers plan for different food needs. If you have crew members who are allergic to peanuts and all you’re serving that day are prepared peanut butter sandwiches, your people have to choose between eating something that could kill them or not eating enough. A hungry crew is a Zombie crew.
3. Bring Snacks Anyway
Even though the production should be responsible for feeding you, bring your own portable and easy to eat snacks if possible to make sure you have something you can grab that agrees well with your system, especially if your diet is very specialized. It may be too much for some film crews to adapt to.
4. Drink enough water
I’ve gotten dizzy from dehydration on set more than once. On one of my sets, shooting out in the Arizona desert in the middle of summer, a crew member didn’t drink enough water and didn’t wear protective clothing and passed out completely in the middle of a scene. It was scary! (He was okay ultimately and did a great job on the project).
5. Wear appropriate clothing
Dress for the climate you’re shooting in. Hats and loose, light clothing in hot weather, warm clothing in winter etc. Enough said! Actors can’t always do that. Watch the actors and make sure they aren’t overheating, freezing to death or something else depending on the costumes they need to wear. They won’t always show it until it’s too late. They are actors after all.
6. Don’t Assume That People Will Tell You
We film people are made of tough stuff and it's counter to our culture to complain if we’re tired or pushing too hard. AD’s and directors, you see attentions are starting to wander, tensions are high, or anyone is physically suffering, consider getting everyone a five minute break to regroup, rest up and refocus even if everyone says they’re okay.
7. Make Sure You Take Breaks Too
If you’re in a leadership role, make sure you, yourself take an occasional emotional break. You need to have energy for everyone else. It’s important to remember to keep an eye out for each other when working on a film set. If we don’t have each other’s backs we’ll never do our best work.
And don’t forget to carry zombie repellant!
About Eric Schumacher
Eric is a classically trained character actor and an experienced producer and director. Eric has produced or directed a variety of series projects, commercials, industrials and film projects and is creative director for a small production company, Seelie Studios, LLC. As an actor, Eric spent many years on stage before transitioning to the screen where he has played leading and supporting roles in a variety of online series, tv and film projects. Notable roles include his role as Wyatt Earp in FOX TV’s Legends and Lies: The Real West, as Doc Holliday in legendary director Alex Cox’s (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, Walker) new feature film, TombStone Rashomon, and as secret service Agent David Killjoy in the popular sci-fi web-series "Zhon: The Alien Interviews" which he also co-produced. Eric is a frequent guest speaker at various comicons and science fiction conventions and has been quoted in many publications regarding the film industry. More about Eric can be found here.