The shot list is usually created by the director and the production manager (or associate producer).
The shot list is the first step in the larger task of scheduling the production, and the principal factor in organizing the shot list is efficiency. The considerations determining the organization of our shots, in more or less descending order of importance, are (1) major location (and time of day), (2) camera setup angle, (3) shot size, (4) on-set logistics, and (5) pickups. Additionally, there may be some (6) exceptional considerations that determine when certain shots must be scheduled.
1. Location and time of day. The first and broadest organizing principle for ordering shots concerns location and time of day. In general, we organize our shooting schedule so that we shoot all scenes occurring in the same location together, regardless of where they appear in the script. For example, if we have a script with four scenes in a restaurant kitchen (one in the beginning, two in the middle of the film, and one at the end), we will, nonetheless, group all of these scenes together and shoot them back to back. This way, we minimize the number of times we need to travel to a location and set up lights, camera, sound, etc. Imagine the waste of time if we were to shoot the first kitchen scene, then strike the set to go shoot the next scene somewhere else, and then return to the kitchen location another day and set up all over again.
2. Camera setup angle. As we mentioned earlier, a camera setup is the placement of the camera for each principal camera angle from which we can shoot one or multiple shots. Once a camera placement and angle is determined, a great deal of production time is spent dressing the set, lighting that area, and wiring it for sound. For this reason, we cluster all shots with the same general setup together on the shot list.
3. Shot size. Generally speaking, we further organize our shooting to go from wide shots to close-ups. For example, we would shoot a wide master shot, before we shoot the close-up reverse shots or cutaways in a two-person interaction. You can see this with scene #16 (see illustration left: Shot List 7/20/10). The master shot 16A is first to be shot, followed by the reverse shots 16B and 16C. We do this for several reasons. First, the master scene generally covers more of the script and shows more of the space, so it therefore requires more attention to set details, lighting, and so on. If we run out of time and have to abandon a shot, it's usually easier to reshoot a close-up later or even do without it. Most close-ups also require fewer cast on camera, so fewer people need to be call back to reshoot. And it's also much easier to begin with the broadest lighting setup and slightly adjust lights as you move in closer than it would be to light a close-up and then have to relight the entire scene for a wide shot.
4. On-set logistics. On-set logistics is where common sense comes into play. It is important to avoid keeping your cast waiting for hours needlessly until you get around to their shots. For example, if we have a scene in which a teacher is lecturing to a class of 25 students and we plan to cut back and forth between the teacher at the chalkboard and the class taking notes, we would shoot all shots that involve the class first (i.e., master shot of class with teacher and the reverse shots of the class). Then we can let the class go home—preferably before lunchtime to save on our food budget!—and shoot the reverse shots of the teacher without the 25 people hanging around on the set.
5. Pickup shots. Pickup shots are quick shots that are often not part of the original script previsualization but that are taken after (and sometimes during) production to fill in gaps, to make editing smoother, or to add something that, in retrospect, can improve the scene. Pickups are not to be confused with reshoots, which means reshooting significant shots or scenes for one reason or other. Pickups are usually taken with a skeleton crew and often don't require actors; pickups include shots of landscapes, location-establishing shots, and shots of objects and cutaways. There is no need to have a sound recordist on the set while you shoot cutaways that require no synchronized sound and no need to keep actors waiting while you shoot an ECU of some still-life detail. Often these shots are done after everyone goes home or on another day.
6. Exceptional considerations. Every now and then (or a little more often than that) you'll have no choice but to organize your schedule around exceptional considerations. Actors' schedules, location restrictions, prop and equipment availability, location sound issues, weather conditions, and other factors can force you to stray from your ideally efficient shot list schedule. In these cases, you just roll with it and do what you need to do—but keep the rest of your scheduling as efficient as possible. While shooting the film Chop Shop, director Ramin Bahrani's location was an actual, working auto repair shop, so he had to be sensitive to the needs of the shop owner to run his business (see the box on page 127). He ended up shooting many interior scenes at night after the shop had closed and shooting day scenes around normal business activity, which could change unexpectedly from day-to-day. He was also always ready with contingency scenes at other locations.
One other special circumstance to consider, and this one supersedes all others, is the directorial and performance approach. There are times when a director needs to preserve the momentum of the cast's creative and interpretive energy by shooting a scene more or less in order. It may be inefficient, but if you get better performances from sequential shooting, then it is worth the trade-off. This is especially a factor when dealing with nonactors or actors not familiar with single camera-style shooting.
Mick Hurbis-Cherrier has been teaching all levels of film and video production at Hunter Colletge in New York City for more than a decade. He works professionally in both film and video and has performed a wide range of duties on films, including producing, writing, directing, cinematography and editing. His films and videos have been shown around the country and have garnered prizes in many festivals. His book Voice & Vision is available from Focal Press.