Innocent sounding enough, as Ed Colman said over at CML, “when you are told to ‘shoot the rehearsal’ it’s not a rehearsal any more.”
Shooting the rehearsal means to film or record what would normally be considered a rehearsal. The main logic behind this practice is that it saves time. Rehearsals do take time and why not run the film or record to the drive and have that extra take? Especially now with shooting digital, the cost of recording to a hard drive isn’t the same as recording to raw stock. The third cog in this thinking is that magic can’t be repeated and if something unique happens during the rehearsal, you wouldn’t have caught it unless recording.
It’s hard to argue against many of these points, but rehearsals are very important for a variety of reasons. They are crucial to many crew members on set and allow everyone to get a practice run in before tossing up the slate and clapping the sticks. Rehearsals allow key members of the crew such as the cinematographer/DP, production designer, and make-up to get last looks on their respective lights, sets, and make-up. Rehearsals also allow dolly grips to hone complicated moves, Steadicam operators to master their flow, as well as camera assistants to grab focus marks and see the action.
What shooting the rehearsal does is effectively move all of these last-minute changes into an actual take. While it sounds harmless, the fear that many crew members have is that this take may actually end up in the film without their last minute changes/tweaks and it will degrade their work to a small degree. For a camera assistant, this includes focus. Oftentimes I have been asked to shoot the rehearsal without ever seeing the scene blocked out. Following focus with unpredictable action is less than ideal unless shooting on an 18mm stopped down to T-11 so my depth of field gives me the most leeway I’d ever need.
In fact, I can think of only a few scenarios where I am completely OK with shooting the rehearsal. The first, I mentioned above, is when there is a wide lens with large depth of field and pulling focus on the fly is more than manageable.
The second is if the camera move is unpredictable and can’t be repeated. This situation recently came up for me on a short film that took place at a convention. The camera was on handheld and was going to float through the crowd and I was supposed to catch focus on whatever I could. In this case, there isn’t really a defined move as the camera and the convention goers are going to move among each other different everytime. There isn’t much for me to practice since there are too many variables to change.
The third scenario is if there is a camera move that is hard to replicate. Sometimes a camera move will be difficult and take a long time to reset. In this situation I try to grab marks as best as I can and rehearse as much as I can without doing the entire move. It’s hard to argue when you know something will be challenging.
Other than that, shooting the rehearsal is a bad habit to get into, I believe. It makes it tough for crew to get their jobs done correctly and it risks a less-than-perfect take ending up on the silver screen. The thing about shooting a rehearsal is that I am not always 100% confident in my ability to pull it off and that is not a position I like to be in. My job as 1st AC/focus puller is to make sure everything maintains as crisp focus as possible and having to put forth an effort that may not result in a full completion of the job makes me uneasy.
Focus pulling, especially on longer lenses, is a tough job and one that requires precision, practice, and a certain amount of touch. Rehearsals, no matter how brief, allow me to master that and deliver under the tremendous pressure that is normally there. It may not sound that bad, but when you have a group of people standing around a monitor watching an image go soft, everyone knows whose fault it is (when you want to be invisible). And when you shoot the rehearsal, and the subject goes soft, nobody is thinking that it’s a rehearsal anymore; they’re all thinking about how you just blew the “take.”