TV COMMERCIAL PRODUCTION: What to do when everything around you is falling apart

By - CTL
May 29, 2017

By Marcus Honesta.

There’s no doubt that if you stay in the Television Commercial Production Industry long enough you’ll experience at least one, “Shoot From Hell”.

When disaster strikes the trick is to recognize it for the very exciting learning curve it can be and not let it send you around the bend. “Tough times,” it is said, “Never last, but tough people do”. As a producer with over 40 years experience, I believe this is only partly true. Contingency planning and having great support is vital.

The shit hit the fan for me when, some years ago, I was involved in a co-production with a U.S. based production house. Strangely enough it’s usually the little things that can seriously derail a shoot and cause the most angst.

Rudyard Kipling once wrote: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too. If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies, or being hated don’t give way to hating, and yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”

Clearly Mr. Kipling has never been at the broken bottle end of a film set.

My personal “HELL” started in pre-production. The car that the director wanted, and had ordered, was a “Fire Truck Red”, Ford Focus. What was delivered to the set was a Maroon Ford Focus. This wasn’t a good start, however our American director, in the spirit of cooperation, was happy enough to proceed.

This is what it should have been…

Another draw back was the shoot was in Melbourne. So we were not on our home turf and had to work with unfamiliar enemy forces.

The budget was considerable at just over $1.25 million dollars. It was a five-day shoot with five very distinctive, separate locations. It was challenging enough moving 110 people, including overseas clients, agency and talent, over a vast distances, from a country homestead, to a rural farm, to a city manufacturing factory, and finally to a racetrack for a little insane Nazcar Racing.

On day one we were out in the country with six cameras set. In time our huge lighting setup was in place. As we were shooting outdoors in a simulated American Yard Sale, we had hired a huge 120-kva generator for the occasion. We fired it up and it ran perfectly – for ten minutes, after which it ground to a halt. Our lights dimmed, then flickered and finally completely failed. The generator operator freaked out, the gaffer rushed over to help as gloom descended upon our enormous set.

What could the problem be, a tripped breaker or a short circuit of some description? Our experts gathered in a huddle and appeared perplexed. Twenty-five minutes later however they had power and lights restored. Hope returned, and spirits were again high ….. but unfortunately not for long.

We didn’t know it at the time but a pattern was emerging.

It was decided our electrical workhorse could not be relied upon and a replacement was called for from Port Melbourne. It was estimated it would take at least three and a half hours to reach us. We broke for lunch to consider our options, which turned out to be picking up as many tight shots as we could and then calling it a day.

This was a disaster; however, keeping calm was the most important thing. What we needed was a contingency plan that would keep us on time and budget. We met later that night and re-scheduled the pick-ups for the final day, as it was a reasonably light, and with a bit of over time we could cope.

Day two was no better. The grip truck ran into a fire hydrant, resulting in water flooding the strawberry patch we had cast as a place of natural nutrition, beauty and good health turning it into an unusable mud paddy. We were only about two hours into the morning and all shooting had to be abandoned. Again we met later that day and re-scheduled the lost day’s filming. We decided that we would add an additional day to the end of the shoot. We sent the location scout to find another strawberry field, as we weren’t confident the original would drain in time. “Stay Calm and Carry On” was the mood we were trying to maintain.

Day three passed without a crisis; but tension was high, and tempers slightly frayed. The Nazcar’s all behaved with out incident or accident, which in itself was a miracle.

Day four was worse than days one and two put together.

Our lead talent, flown in from Mississippi especially to star in the spot, and despite all our instructions and warnings, got her hand caught in a packaging machine and needed to be immediately conveyed to Royal Melbourne Hospital for emergency treatment.

We pulled ourselves together for day five plus the now two extra days required to pick up missing shots. They went with out any further incidents.

Thinking back, the fact we all more or less remained calm and started forward planning as soon as trouble presented itself, made it possible to finish what was the most torturous shoot of my entire production life.

Fortuitously, and perhaps intuitively, prior to starting the shoot I had taken out a specific insurance cover called “Machinery Breakdown Insurance”. It salvaged what could have been a complete financial disaster. The overages bill was $186,000 dollars. We put in our claim and after a bit of jousting with the insurance company, we were paid.

Even if your planning is meticulous, shit can still happen. It’s how you deal with it that makes all the difference.

If you panic, your fear will filter through the cast, crew and clients like a dose of salts. But if you stay focused and calm all will take inspiration and confidence from you and seemingly insurmountable problems will be solved and order restored.

The value of a top-notch line producer cannot be underestimated. At the end and sometimes during the day, I would ask our line producer exactly where were we with our money. Her answer would always be, “Give me 15 minutes and I’ll tell you.” In doing so we were able to make informed and definite practical decisions. Eliminating the guesswork took much of the stress out of the equation.

Having an experienced and flexible location scout also assisted in saving the days. He knew we had problems and kept ahead of them by coming up with feasible solutions.

But the most important thing was sharing the issues with the agency, and the client. Making it “our problem, not just mine”.

When you’re on a shoot and problems arise, prioritize the issues, and deal with them one at a time. A lot of things you thought would be trouble will simply disappear.

Remember what Mark Twain said:

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” 


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