How many takes to shoot
“One for Lloyds…” is a phrase often heard on movie sets in the UK. It means shooting a second take, even if take one was perfect; y’know, just in case. Lloyds is the centre of the British insurance market – I believe their policies once demanded that a minimum of two takes should be shot of any set-up, in case of unnoticed errors.
With the advent of digital film-making the cost per second of filmed material is effectively zero. This has made it possible to shoot as many takes as time allows.
But should you?
Most directors in my corner of the industry – independent British features – shoot between two and five takes, occasionally straying into double figures on difficult shots. Many of these additional takes are beyond the director’s control: actors fluff lines, booms dip into frame, focus gets missed. But a big part of the director’s job is watching the action and spotting changes to blocking, performance, camera movement, &c. that might tell the story better… then saying “Let’s go again”.
The most limited resource on most sets is time: you have finite hours to shoot your scenes. So the real question is: is it better to shoot lots of takes of one shot, in the hope of getting it perfect, or to limit your quest for perfection and using your time instead to get more angles on the action?
There is no right answer: there are pros and cons with both approaches. Here are two directors with very different approaches…
The most famous ‘maximalist’ had to be Stanley Kubrick. He was notorious for shooting often dozens of takes on a regular basis. I know an editor who had been assistant on Full Metal Jacket and once ended up syncing rushes late into the night. The crew had only shot one set up the previous day, but they had shot more takes of it than could be sync’d in a day. As this demonstrates, shooting a lot of takes means that you can shoot a lot of footage in a day. Less time changing lighting, changing location and working out blocking for a new shot means more time with the camera running. You cover less of your script in a day, but what you do shoot stands to be better – you’ve had time to get it right.
Kubrick’s technique, however, went beyond merely ironing out the creases of camera operation or performance; this can usually be done within ten takes, if you’re really pushing for perfection. But Kubrick often filmed up to fifty takes of a simple shot. This was commonly passed off as the insane, driven perfectionism of a genius. It might have been that, or maybe Kubrick was deliberately building that reputation. Either way it certainly frustrated the hell out of many of his actors. There are stories of Tom Cruise spending the whole day on a shot where he opens a door and walks through. The only person even known to have rebelled was David Prowse, and only then because he was having to carry another actor in the shot – there was a limit to the number of times even a bodybuilder like him could do that in a day. Prowse went on to play Darth Vader.
However, there may have been method to Kubrick’s madness. Shelley Duvall and Matthew Modine both reported that the endless takes forced them to drop their defences, abandoning their acting technique and preparation. This worked best in the boot camp sequence in Full Metal Jacket, where the characters we’re also being worn down by the mindless repetition of military training.
At the other end of the spectrum you have much-loved minimalist, Clint Eastwood. He is known for rarely shooting more than one or two takes. This shows a certain professionalism on Eastwood’s part, and indeed humanitarianism, as reportedly the time saved is used to allow his crew to work civilised hours. The fact that he is known for shooting few takes has an effect on the performances of his cast –they know they’ve got to give of their best first time: they might not get another chance. The pressures of stage acting kick in – there’s no ‘take two’ in the theatre. It certainly appears that actors enjoy being directed by Clint a lot more than they ever enjoyed being directed by Stanley. And it’s not like Eastwood’s films feel rough around the edges for the lack of additional takes.
From an editor’s perspective fifteen – often remarkably similar – takes of one angle usually make our hearts sink (exception made for developmental shots, as described here). In most situations we’d rather have three takes of three angles, than nine takes of one. If you have more than one angle it allows you to cherry pick, cutting between the best moments of any of the shots. With just one angle, you end up using the take with the fewest problems – the least bad take. The beautiful moments in the other takes are rendered inaccessible in a way they wouldn’t be if you had some way to cut around the problems.
It’s also worth remembering the words of editor Chris Dickens who says he tends to find the best performances in the first and last takes. The last take is the most polished, but the first is the most fresh and spontaneous. So maybe it depends on what sort of film you’re making: if you’re looking for raw naturalism, moving fast and shooting more like Eastwood will make your day. If you’re looking to produce something more considered, then maybe you need those extra takes. But not as many as Kubrick. Please.
As for “one for Lloyds” – I don’t want to dismiss the strategy out of hand, but my own experience is this: take one goes fine, someone says “One for Lloyds”, take two goes wrong in some way so you end up shooting three takes, where one would have done. Let’s move on.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2018
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge