By the first day of filming, every member of the crew is expected to be familiar with the shooting schedule, and all the necessary equipment for the day's work should be available. Each member of the crew is provided with a call sheet, itemizing when and why they are required on set. The sets will have been built and dressed, and lights positioned in accordance with the scheme agreed by the director and the director of photography. Cameras and microphones are positioned and camera movements and lighting adjustments are rehearsed with the help of standins who walk through the actions. Marks are placed on the floor to ensure that actors make the same movements when the scene is shot. While this is going on, the actors spend time in costume, hair, and makeup. Once the technical aspects of shooting the scene have been firmly established and the actors are dressed, they are called to the set. At the discretion of the director, some time is normally spent rehearsing before the scene is filmed.
When the director is ready to shoot, an assistant calls for silence. If filming takes place in a studio, the doors are closed and a red light switched on above them to signal that entry to the set is forbidden. The director instructs the camera operator and sound recordist to begin recording. The scene and take numbers are read out and the hinged clapperboard snapped shut, which assists with marrying sound and image in postproduction. The director then calls "action" and the actors begin their performance.
The first take is not always successful. It may be spoiled by actors flubbing their lines or marred by errors in camera movement or focus, or by lights or microphones making their way into the frame. Repeated takes are therefore often unavoidable. Some directors, such as W. S. Van Dyke, nicknamed "One-Take Woody," have always endeavored to keep these to a minimum, while others, such as Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick, developed reputations for demanding an extraordinarily high number of takes before their exacting standards were met. Few go to such extremes as Charlie Chaplin did when he went through 342 takes of a scene in City Lights (1931) in which his Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind girl (Virginia Cherrill). In general, careful planning and rehearsal can help keep the number down and reduce unnecessary waste of expensive film stock.
The difficulty of deciding whether a take is satisfactory has been much reduced since video was introduced into the process. The practice was pioneered by the actor and director Jerry Lewis when filming his feature debut, The Bellboy (1960), in which he also starred. Lewis sought a way to instantly review the recording of his acting performance. He decided to use a video camera linked to the main film camera and recording the same material. This invention came to be known as the "video assist." The recent advent of digital filmmaking has meant not only that master footage can be viewed at any time, but also that it is economically realistic for the director to request a greater number of takes than with 35mm, or even 16mm, film stock, since digital videotapes are considerably less expensive.
When the director is satisfied with a take, he or she will ask for it to be printed. The same scene may still need to filmed again from different camera angles, though. Alternatively, a scene may be shot with more than one camera at once. This allows a range of options when it comes to editing, and it is an especially valuable technique where a scene can only be filmed once due to danger or expense. Gone with the Wind , for instance, used all seven of the Technicolor cameras then in existence to shoot the sequence depicting the burning of Atlanta.
At the end of each day's shooting, the film is developed and the takes the director has selected are printed and screened for the director and production company executives. This material is known as the "dailies," or "rushes," and is used to evaluate the film's progress. It also reveals mistakes overlooked during the day's filming and directs attention to scenes that must be reshot while actors are still available and sets still standing.
While the director concentrates his attention on filming the main scenes—normally the ones in which the stars appear—the task of shooting other footage may be assigned to other units. A second unit is often used for filming in other locations, for shooting fights or
Principal photography is probably the most difficult part of the production process in terms of investment and effort. Motion picture production is haunted by stories of shoots that have brought projects to the brink of collapse. A production that illustrates the difficulty of location shooting is Apocalypse Now (1979). The production's problems ranged from difficulties with its stars—the drug-addled Dennis Hopper, the intractable Marlon Brando, and the heart attack-stricken Martin Sheen—to having to deal with monsoons and logistical crises. Another example is the German director Werner Herzog's magnum opus, Fitzcarraldo (1982), which experienced comparable difficulties with location, logistics, and climatic conditions. In the case of Fitzcarraldo , matters were made worse by the loss of two main actors halfway through the filming (Jason Robards left due to serious illness and Mick Jagger left due to a prior commitment with The Rolling Stones). This meant principal photography needed to be restarted from scratch. As difficult as production on these films proved to be, the directors could take comfort that they were completed and went on to receive considerable critical acclaim. Terry Gilliam's abortive production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is one of the rare instances in which the difficulties of principal photography led to abandonment of production. The saga of this unfortunate production is recounted in detail in the fascinating feature documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002).
Although problems encountered during principal photography are common to many films—difficult locations, poor logistics, and recalcitrant actors—the methods that filmmakers use to address them can be very different, as are their outcomes. My Son John (1952), Solomon and Sheba (1959), Dark Blood (1993), and The Crow (1994) all had to deal with the deaths of their lead actors during their shoots. My Son John was completed by incorporating outtakes of Robert Walker from his previous film, Strangers on a Train (1951). Solomon and Sheba recast the role of Solomon, replacing Tyrone Power with Yul Brynner, and reshot all of Power's scenes, while The Crow succeeded in resurrecting its star, Brandon Lee, through the use of computer animation. Dark Blood , however, was abandoned after the death of River Phoenix in 1993, as the insurance company considered this to be the cheapest option.