Make the plan, then make the plan work
The cost and logistics involved in supporting the director’s vision are something Rhun Francis became aware of early on in his career.
Securing his first film job as a runner for a costume department on a Hollywood sci-fi movie based at Shepperton Studios, he was over the moon – until the production shut down six weeks later.
Francis quickly moved on to find other work, progressing through the ranks to producer in commercials and music videos before becoming a production manager – and now line producer – on film and TV credits including “The Show”, “Chimerica” and The Snowman. Now he has more insight into what may have happened on that ill-fated first gig.
“It was a budget of $25m, but I still don’t think that was enough to achieve the vision they had, so the studio made the decision to pull out. It got made a few years later however, with a different director at the helm.”
Making it happen
The line producer is responsible for setting up a plan for the making of a production and then, working as part of a team, making that plan work.
“Ideally it’s best to join the production as early as possible because then you can influence the approach to the budget. At other times it’s later on in the process when the budget has already been agreed. That can be more of a challenge, at that point you work with what you’re given.”
Reporting into the director and the producer, the conversations he will have with them and other key department heads revolve around practical ways of achieving a project’s vision within the agreed budget and schedule.
“It’s all about collaboration and communication – getting them to explain things as clearly as possible, sometimes with references,” he says.
“I try and keep the conversation positive. If there’s an issue, I’ll ease them into it slowly. It’s about presenting different options and finding solutions.”
What is not part of this conversation, he adds, is the sentence: ‘You can’t afford to do that’.
He explains: “If there are a few scenes that can be done in any number of ways then I’ll ask the director how they envision that playing out, or, if something sticks out as not being reflected in the budget, then you’ll bring that up straight away.
“I try and keep the conversation positive. If there’s an issue, I’ll ease them into it slowly. It’s about presenting different options and finding solutions,” he says.
On complex scenes, he adds, it’s always worth spending the time in prep to assess the best method of achieving the desired creative result.
Francis uses the example of a piece of branded content he worked on recently: “The client wanted dancers in the foreground that created shapes behind them which reflected the brand’s identity through a variety of cityscapes. Working out the best way to do that – whether it should be through lighting, projection or visual effects – was a huge challenge and took a lot of time. But once we made that key decision, execution went well.”
The art of the budget
“You need a creative appreciation but you don’t necessarily need to be creatively-driven,” he says. “You also need a really good sense of money, budget, negotiation and people management to do the job successfully,” he adds.
He says there’s no straightforward way of working out the budget on a production. While budgeting software might help calculate things more quickly, there’s no one-size-fits-all.
“You can use a system that does the basic budget for you but there will always be scenes that need more attention. You tend to cost things based partly on experience, but I’ll often liaise with an HoD or another colleague. Even if you haven’t shot that kind of scene before there will have been something relatively similar to it,” he says.
Hiring good crew
While production managers and line producers don’t generally make creative decisions, they do make decisions that can have a major impact on the end product.
Specifically, line producers are responsible for making all the below-the-line hires on a production, including the heads of department, each of their crews, equipment and most of the suppliers that are needed.
While this might seem a relatively straightforward process once you have been in the business a while, Francis points out that good crew are in constant demand and the challenge is “a balance between who is on your wish list and who is available.”
He recalls working as production manager on a two-week additional photography shoot for the 2017 Working Title thriller The Snowman. He says he spent the first four days of a very short prep phase contacting over 50 production coordinators before he found the right person for the job.
Since the pandemic there has been a whole new set of logistics for Francis to tackle. He’s just going into prep on a new six-part Greg Davies crime scene comedy The Cleaner for BBC One, which had to shut down in December due to a Covid-related issue.
While the UK government’s insurance scheme for pandemic-hit productions has been extended until the end of the year, Francis needs to manage on a reduced budget until the claim money comes through.
He estimates that the extra Covid-related precautions the crew must now take (including regular tests, the use of surgical masks, regular use of hand sanitiser and room fog treatments) are adding roughly 10 percent to the cost of the productions he works on.
As we finish our Zoom, Francis will then log on to another online meeting with his newly hired Covid supervisor, a relatively new job role in the production fold.
“They come from either a medical background or they have worked in production but have had special training. For this shoot we decided to opt for the latter,” he explains.
“It’s the supervisor’s job to take responsibility for as many issues related to Covid as possible. For this job they will have four weeks prep for a five-and-a-half week shoot and will come with an assistant and possibly an additional sprayer – it’s become quite an involved job!”