Aspiring filmmakers often ask me how to effectively make a film with a skeleton crew. For those of you who don't know the term, a skeleton crew is a film crew that is reduced to key crew members, usually to save money on production or to be less noticeable when shooting without permission.
While I've made and produced many shots that were made with exceptionally small crews, there is no formula for putting together a crew of this size. The reason for this is that different films simply have very different requirements. For example, if you are making a short film that is mostly voice-over and there is little or no dialogue on the set, it is of course better if you do not use a location sound recorder and rather occupy this position with someone else who is on others Way creates more value for your production. Conversely, you can record a feature with many outside areas and have only minimal time for settings. In this case, a great sound recorder is your best friend. The bottom line is there is no right or wrong way to do this. In fact, there is no exact answer to how big a "skeleton crew" actually is. According to some definitions, there can only be 2 – 3 people. or by other definitions, it can be as large as 12-15.
For this article, I will consider a skeleton crew to be 5 people. In each of my independent films where we had to shoot with a very small crew, there were usually 5 crew members on the set on an average day. Some of the B-Roll days may have been only 2-3 people and some specialty days were closer to 12 or so, but in general a crew of 5 seems to be the sweet spot to me in really nude productions. In the following I will explain which crew members are absolutely necessary when dealing with such a small number, and why they are on the list. Note that this list does not include the director or producer, as both parties are on the set every day. And as mentioned above, there is no right or wrong way to do this. This is a general framework that works for most scenarios. However, if you have more specific requirements for your film, part of it may not apply directly to your production.
So here are the crew members, in no particular order:
Undeniably one of the most important positions that have to be filled in every production. If you have a DP who understands your vision, you can spend more time directing your actors and less time worrying about lighting and settings. Nevertheless, many directors (including myself) like to shoot their own material. I don't always do it myself, but in some cases I choose it. However, I have to say, if you are not sure about your own DP skills, you shouldn't risk doing your own DP shoot. I do it when I can, but I also have a strong background in cinematography and have many DP projects. DPing your own work can work against you very quickly, as you may burn time trying to handle blocks and camera shots in a way that is completely inefficient. So if you don't have an extremely strong background in the camera department, make sure you get an excellent DP who works closely with you to get your view of the screen while making the days on the set faster and more efficient. And if for any reason you decide to spin it yourself, get the best 1st AC you can find.
Make up / hair
Many indie productions save in this department and it shows. Aside from bad audio, bad makeup, or in some cases no makeup at all, is one of the greatest giveaways of a no-budget production. A great makeup artist will not only do creative, first-class work, but will also work diligently to memorize and photograph certain looks for continuity purposes and ensure that the looks are consistent throughout your production. The value of a great makeup artist goes far beyond making your actors look better (or in some cases worse). It is important for the actors to feel as good as possible and to feel as good in character as possible. The right make-up gives the set a level of professionalism that all independent films should have. It gives your actors the respect they deserve because they know they are in front of the camera and look perfectly appropriate for the scene. Whatever you do, please don't let your talent make up yourself. It's tempting, especially since your female actors may have their own makeup with them, but they're not professional make-up artists. You can look good, but you don't know how to make up your film. If you apply it yourself, it is probably not suitable for your scene / mood and can be very inconsistent throughout the production.
With a skeleton crew, everyone on the set wears a lot of hats and all crew members (including the director) sporadically have to take on PA tasks throughout the production. Still, it is still important to have a dedicated PA on the set so that everything goes well. Even though everyone on the set should be ready to fill the gap if necessary and act as a PA when needed, there are times when you just don't have enough hours a day and your really don't want to ask makeup artist or DP about the equipment move, especially if you know that the next shot is just around the corner and you are running out of daylight. For me personally, the most important thing I have to look for in a PA is a good attitude. PAs are usually still at a stage in their career in which they are learning. The best way to find an indie set is to find someone who wants to learn, has a passion for film and has a positive attitude towards the set.
Your location sound recorder is one of the most important people on the set. As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest mistakes indie productions make is saving in the sound department. It has been said over and over that the sound makes up 50% of your film, but I would argue that it is more. Perfect sound paired with bad graphics always looks more sophisticated and professional than perfect graphics with bad sound. It really depends on the psychology of how we as humans perceive the content we see … But the point that good sound is crucial to the overall success of your film. And once again, you're not just looking for a sound recorder with the right equipment or the right price that fits your budget, you're looking for someone that fits your production. For example, if you're mainly guerrilla-style photography on the street, you want someone who has already done so. Someone who knows how to be discreet, hide the lavs and pull the blender out of his backpack. Or, if you're shooting half a dozen actors together in a single scene, you want someone who can handle a scene of this complexity and who has the knowledge and skills to get it going. Ultimately, this person should care more about the sound than you and do everything in their power to make it sound perfect.
Gaffer / handle
Even if you only use practical lights, some C-stands and a few flags, an experienced gaffer / grip will work wonders on your production. If you fill this position with someone who is quick, competent and competent, you can save a lot of time on the set. This is another position where some indie producers are not always paying enough attention in the hope that the DP can close the gap … But the question is – can your DP act as a grip / gaffer at the same time while he is at the camera is working ? Sure you can. But that means less time doing what they should do and more time physically putting lights and equipment on. In many cases, this can mean either longer days or misses. From a creative point of view, a talented Gaffer / Grip helps your DP get the most out of their recordings by helping them focus their ideas more clearly and effectively.
There is no exact formula for creating the perfect skeleton crew, but the key is that all of your bases are covered. No matter what happens, you will always need support in the camera, audio, and makeup department, and you will definitely be best at getting committed crew members to do all of these tasks. Don't forget to have a great PA (or two) on board as these are the blood of your project and make things go much more efficiently. And of course you adapt your crew to the needs of your project. If you need a production designer, script supervisor, or additional crew (VFX supervisor, stunt person, etc.), make sure you have everyone on the set you need. And above all, no matter what crew positions you have, make sure that everyone on board is as passionate about your project as you are.
For more information on taking photos in this area, see my last post – "10 tips for shooting with available light" as it certainly applies to many productions with skeleton crews.
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!