This past Saturday, I had the honor and extraordinary experience of serving as Second Assistant Director on the location shoot of an independent short film that a friend is making. It was an amazing experience that I truly appreciate being part of. And I realized that there are great lessons in it for business and life in general.

“Quiet on the set!”

The Movie

The film is called Somebody’s Darling, which was a euphemism for a dead body during the American Civil War. The action takes place on and off battlefields, and this past weekend’s shoot was on location at a Georgia hunting club that provided the backdrop for battle footage.

(If you’re interested in donating and reading a bit more about the production, go here – This promises to be a fascinating addition to stories about the civil war!)

The Lessons

Despite the heat, repetition, and a few technical difficulties, most participants (ironically, especially those who worked the hardest) reported after the fact that they had a blast and would do it again. Sure, we had some snags and delays, but thanks to laying important groundwork, we were able to handle the snafus so smoothly that we actually ended up finishing ahead of schedule all the shots that Writer/Director Jeff Ballentine wanted.  That’s incredible.


Skirmishers in the woods

The main lesson I gained from this adventure was the immense payoff of teamwork and division of labor. There was a hierarchy of positions, similar to jobs on any professional movie set but ones that might be overlooked on a small independent production. We were all volunteers, so I’m sure it was a bit like herding cats to make sure everyone came through. In the end, though, almost everyone pulled his or her weight and then some. The spirit of cooperation, jumping in where needed, and keeping eyes on the main objective of capturing excellent footage for the film were tangible.

The take-away from this for life, be it business dealings and group activities, is to give people a clear role, ask them to commit to that role, and then let them fulfill that role. When someone has too much on his or her plate (as did our Second Unit Director / Costume and Makeup Manager / Set Dressing and Continuity Manager), get people to help! The star in the overloaded position may be the absolute best person for the job, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be assistants for each task. This strategy worked like a charm.

Horses are often more patient than people … no surprise there 🙂

Preparation and Commitment

The key to keeping a bunch of people on task during a project of this magnitude is preparation. They need to know what is expected of them, have at least the outline of a schedule, and be asked to commit to doing what they promised. Thanks to the organization persistence of Assistant Director Leigh A. Jones and the loving commitment of a really amazing group of people, we had that. The foundation was laid in several production meetings and constant communication on a site set up for the group. Everything was shared so everyone felt included, and those with specific jobs to do were asked to actively participate and take charge of their areas.

A major lesson in preparing for and executing a big task is to take advantage of delegation. Find out who is reliable, what their strengths are, and let those people run with the tasks that they find exciting.

We did fall short on some prep. For instance, the fluid shot list was simply not ready for anyone to see, so we just had to rely on the Director and AD to tell everyone what they were doing next. But there’s a lesson in that too, and it’s called “Plan ahead, but be flexible.”

Some people, equipment, and supplies didn’t show up as planned. This called for more flexibility, of course. But it also brings yet another lesson: “Those who do not come through should not be asked to do important tasks the next time.” Of course, there might a very good reason that someone was AWOL or something left undone, and it’s a judgment call about what to do with that. However, be aware of patterns emerging and set a limit as to how many times someone is allowed to let you down and slow the progress of the undertaking.

Taking Care of Yourself

Battle scars

Unlike some professional Hollywood types, we don’t have handlers. It was made clear that each of us needed to take care of one’s self—come prepared, stay hydrated, and let designated individuals know if you needed anything. This was a beautiful plan that mostly worked throughout the day. There were only two instances in which I saw the potential downsides to self-care fall through, and it reinforced the lessons of teamwork and preparation: the first is the potential for someone to feel as though he or she can blend in, fall back, and not have to carry the same weight as others, but dead weight always drags down a plan, especially a small-scale one in which it’s all hands on deck; the second is the opposite type of personality that is gung ho and means to keep going despite personal endangerment, and what results is others needing to take care of that person. Could these breakdowns have been foreseen? Maybe, maybe not, but the lesson is that, in any endeavor in life, these are two pitfalls to attempt working out in planning—when you examine the capabilities and personalities of people involved—rather than during execution.

Preparing for a shot in the breastworks

My own paranoia about getting eaten alive by bugs or falling into a patch of poison ivy helped me prepare—maybe even overprepare—but it was successful preparation. Despite being in outside all day (at least twelve hours) and in the woods for part of that, I don’t think I came home with a single bug bite! Thanks, Cutter! It also helped that I wore appropriate clothing, including work books and a big hat.

More of an issue was the heat. Though it was cooler than we’d expected (Georgia has been having quite the heat wave, but recent rains cooled it down a bit for us), it was still oppressive for the soldiers in their wool uniforms as well as for the effects crew who were lugging around generators, fog machines, and assorted pyrotechnics equipment. We went through hundreds of bottles of water (yes, we recycled!) and a huge vat of Gatorade, but we still had a couple of bouts of heat exhaustion. It pointed up the wisdom of following the suggested preparation guidelines that our crew had sent out for pre-hydrating (like athletes do a day or two before competition), staying hydrated on the set, and limiting alcohol and caffeine. Fortunately, everyone reports a full recovery!

The Experience

Those who know me will understand how fabulous an experience this was for the MovieFreak! At the end of the day, I had dirt in my underwear from the explosions, my feet throbbed, and I really needed a beer. But, HELL YES, I would do it again and hope that I get to do so very soon.