As you sit there, writhing with anxiety, they’re talking. It’s a group huddle and you’re not invited. Instead, you’re merely a spectator waiting eagerly to hear their decision.
You know that if they walk away with smiles on their faces, you’re good to go.
But you also know it’s possible that the director will turn to the producer with an exasperated sigh and say, “Alright, one more time before we wrap.”
Of all the long moments that take place on set, this decision is by far the longest — or so it seems.
An Early Wrap is Usually Too Good to Be True
Producers, I think, cringe at the thought of an “early wrap.” They cringe in the same way a struggling business trembles when you bring in a 50% off coupon.
Both want their money’s worth and both, though they know it’s a fair deal, can’t shake the feeling they’re getting shafted.
So whenever I’m on a shoot supposedly ready to wrap early, I wait a few moments for it to really sink in.
More often than not, there’s a group pow-wow and the team of decision makers come away with extra stuff to shoot, embodying the while-we’re-here-we-might-as-well-do-it mentality.
It’s not that I’m against that — or don’t think it’s smart filmmaking — but there are times when what you’re shooting is the film equivalent of running up the score in a football game: the numbers make you feel good, but there’s no real purpose to it.
I was working on a commercial once when we powered through the main shotlist and had moved onto a shot wishlist. It was a small crew: myself, the director of photography (DP), a producer, and the advertising agency member. The client (who hired the agency) had left to attend to other matters, so we were shooting at the whim of the producer and agency woman.
Eventually, after a few needless shots, the producer stepped aside with the agency person and had a talk.
The clock started and we waited. Optimistically, I began to place a few things back in the camera bag.
“We’re good. Go ahead and pack things up,” he came back to tell us.
Quickly I removed the lens from the camera, took apart the handheld rig, zipped the bags and shut all the cases. It was no less than 5 minutes later — when everything was ready to go — that the producer came back.
“Actually, we just talked. I know you packed up and we called wrap, but is there anyway to take this last shot?”
The DP turned to me, desperate, and I looked back at him waiting for his answer. If he wanted to shoot, I would, but it wasn’t my call to make.
Exasperated, he asked me to bring out the camera and put on a mid-range zoom lens. Just as quickly as I had put the camera away, I obliged and built it again.
As we walked away from the agency member, I could hear the DP furiously letting the producer have it, “You can’t just call wrap and then say you want more shots. We gave you all the option to keep going. On any other shoot, this wouldn’t be acceptable.”
And like the politicians that producers sometimes have to be, he profusely apologized, thanked the DP, and said, “I know, you’re right. I know, you’re right.”
“It’s f*!#ed up, dude.”
“I know, you’re right.”
The Fear Factor of Making Decisions
It was after this shoot that I started to take any talk of early wrap with a grain of salt. Even the promise of wrapping early by a half hour makes me hesitant.
There’s always something else to shoot. Another take. Another angle. A different lens. How about this line instead of this? What if they walked right instead of left?
And what all of this comes down to is decisions. In so many ways, it’s about decisions.
I had a film professor who always told me, “Creativity is problem solving.” That’s true. In every step of the filmmaking process, you drive creativity by making decisions — from basic choices of character gender to complex choices like blocking a 5-page scene.
And you know what? It’s not easy to make decisions, especially with so many options.
There’s a definitive fear factor in place and when you keep shooting it helps calm that a little bit. Because the more footage you have in the can, the more you can put off important decisions until later.
With non-linear editing, you can not only make a multitude of decisions after-the-fact, but you can cover your ass for them too. Don’t like the shot how it was? Try this one. No good either? Swap back in the old one.
But on set, there’s no going back. If you decide the protaganist walks in the room on one side, you have to stick with it through every shot and throughout the entire scene. Sometimes that means you’re dealing with a single decision for an entire 12 hour day.
No wonder those group meetings about whether to wrap or not last so long.
Imagine the laundry list of choices made running through each person’s head, and the nagging voice asking, “Are you sure you got it the way you wanted?”
Abby Singer Never Liked Martinis
Abner E. Singer might be the most famous Hollywood crew member you’ve never heard of.
He worked as an assistant director and became famous for embodying the “one more time” attitude. Whenever crew would ask how many shots before lunch or how many before wrap, Singer would reply: “We got this and one more.”
Thus, the Abby Singer is now a term in the film industry used to describe the 2nd to last shot of the day.
The alternative story, the one I first heard, better describes how the Abby Singer is actually used. It was said Abby Singer was a producer who would constantly call for the last shot of the day (known as the Martini) and then, being wrong, find out there was actually one more.
That’s how it happens most of the time on sets these days: you’re told the last shot is up and it turns out to be the Abby.
Awhile ago, I wrote about one of these instances, where the DP and I were asked to take an extra shot for a producer. We were both bitter about it and thought it was a dumb idea, but did it anyway.
After that shot was done, it became one of my favorites from the entire shoot. When we watched it on playback, I turned to the producer and gave him a look as if to say: “I know, you’re right.”
And that’s the rub of it all: No matter how tired you are, how excited you are to wrap early, or how frustrating it is for you to reset your gear, sometimes it’s worth it.
Many times it’s not.
But either way, as a crew member, that singular tense moment when you’re sitting there — hand ready at an instant to strike some lights, debuild the camera, or deal with some cable — waiting for the department heads to call wrap seems to last an eternity.
Just as you’re beginning to think, “We could’ve done another take in the time it took for them to figure this out,” you’ll find yourself doing just that.
“Lock it up, let’s go again!”
And for another few minutes, you’re sucked in — limping to the finish line and waiting for the dry taste of that sweet martini.