Mastering the Art of Set Management for Production

Posted on: Feb 08, 2024

Photo Credit: Grusho Anna // Shutterstock

By Jessica Mathis

The intricate process of film and television production involves numerous moving parts, departments and unique requirements that demand a delicate balance to ensure success. The crucial role of a production manager begins in pre-production and continues into post-production. A solid coordinator or production team focused on efficient set management practices is indispensable throughout the entire process.

From scheduling catering for the crew to securing locations and adhering to union requirements and basic human needs, every detail is as vital as selecting the right gear or hiring the right people.

Understanding Set Management

At the core of set management lies the oversight of spaces where filming and production unfold. This includes all departments, ranging from art and set construction to technical crew and gear, to logistics, housing and catering for the cast and crew. While set management requires collaboration between high-level production coordinators, managers, producers and department heads, the ultimate responsibility often rests with the production manager or line producer. Balancing creativity with practicality is a skill that defines the success of set management.

Thorough Pre-Production Planning

The success of any production is rooted in the pre-production phase. Taking the time to meticulously plan locations and logistics before the crew arrives lays the foundation for a smooth production. This period should involve planning the logistics of the entire shoot schedule, setting up communication and data systems, assessing risks, creating backup plans, testing software and payment systems and conducting run-throughs of processes with everyone involved.

Crew members also need adequate time before shooting. Unfortunately, many productions neglect to allocate enough preparation days for the crew, leaving them unprepared for the actual shoot days. Productions often fail to account for potential holdups as a new team learns to work together and with production systems. Unexpected delays such as purchase card failures, payroll paperwork issues, locations requiring extensive cleaning, or crew members struggling to get the information they need from superiors can occur without enough preparation time to effectively communicate.

Effective Communications

Clear communication is paramount for successful set management. Establishing a clear chain of command and holding daily meetings with directors and department heads, who then relay information to their teams, helps identify potential problems early on. Creating email or chat groups and preplanned methods for information distribution enhances overall communication efficiency.

A common problem on sets is the untimely distribution of call sheets. For example, distributing call sheets at 3 a.m. when the call time is 6 a.m. Providing call sheets in a timely manner, while considering the crew members’ need for sleep, can significantly improve punctuality and well-being.

Team Building and Leadership

While a skilled crew is essential, it falls upon coordinators and managers to foster teamwork, trust and professionalism on-set.

As an art coordinator, hired by the production designer rather than the production manager, I faced organizational challenges from the outset. On the first day of shooting, I attempted to hold a production meeting to align everyone on their tasks, but the production designer said, “I have nothing to contribute,” and walked off. He continued to ignore important warnings about deadlines and needs, focusing only on the present. He exhausted almost his entire budget on the first day of shooting. My attempts to communicate with the line producer were ignored or dismissed because she was overwhelmed with other responsibilities. Our crew quickly learned we were on our own, and we were criticized when things didn’t work out. Eventually, we stopped extending ourselves into unpaid hours to compensate for the lack of organization.

The takeaway: A leader who fosters a sense of being heard and supported inspires the team to overcome challenges and collaborate on solutions.

Budget Management

Production managers are responsible for handling budgets and must allocate funds appropriately. Adding a 10-20% buffer for time and/or funds to all estimations helps account for errors and unexpected expenses. Regularly reviewing the budget, checking in with department heads and releasing funds to them in milestones can better control the flow of money. Listening to crew members can be an important part of this process, whether it’s for important set feedback or tapping into local insights.

In the example mentioned above, I repeatedly warned the line producer that the designer had exhausted his funds. She continued to provide him with money, based on his promise that most items would be returned. She disregarded my warnings that they were purchasing items from vendors that do not accept returns or were voiding return policies by removing tags. In the end, she acted surprised and upset that the department was over budget.

Risk Assessment, Adaptability and Problem-Solving

While these tips reflect an ideal situation, the reality of production is far from perfect. Assessing risks and creating plans during pre-production can facilitate the production process, but problems will inevitably arise. Anticipating potential roadblocks and developing contingency plans during pre-production or crew meetings can pave the way for smoother operations.

However, production unpredictability requires managers to remain adaptable to original plans. They should conduct thorough risk assessments as plans shift and new circumstances arise daily to navigate challenges posed by weather, equipment malfunctions or unforeseen script changes.

Time Management

A realistic shooting schedule is pivotal for prioritizing tasks, examining the needs of the production and determining if additional assistants or backup crew on call are necessary. The manager should avoid being pulled into other tasks and stay focused on managing the budget and tasks at hand.

Technology Integration

Today’s production process involves a multitude of software for casting, scheduling, budgeting and payroll. Researching and testing software during pre-production, rather than learning on the fly, ensures a smooth workflow. Having contact information for customer service readily available for every software being used helps address issues promptly, preventing disruptions that could impact crew morale and production progress.

Legal and Compliance Knowledge

Avoiding production shutdowns due to legal matters requires familiarity with legal requirements related to permits, licenses and copyright issues in the production cities. Ensuring department heads are aware of these requirements prevents issues that could arise during filming or post-production.

Post-Production Transition

A film’s wrap doesn’t mark the end of the need for solid management. A smooth handoff of footage, documentation, clearances, receipts and accounting requires meticulous planning during pre-production. Planning for backups ensures crucial data is not lost, even if the production is put on hold and revisited years later.

Managing a TV or film production demands a unique combination of organizational, leadership, problem-solving and creative skills. Production managers serve as the backbone of a successful production, relying on attention to detail, meticulous planning and flexibility as the foundation. The tips provided aim to foster a collaborative and efficient environment, increasing the likelihood of a successful production.

Jessica Mathis (AKA Divinity Rose) is an award winning screenwriter/performer/producer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the CEO of She Dreams Content Development and Production, which focuses on female forward projects in comedy, docustyle and genre entertainment.

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