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  • Carter Ferguson

2ND UNIT DIRECTING | A Perspective

FILM FACT: Although filmmakers may refer to having “three or four units working”, each unit would be called an “additional second unit”; usually none would be described as the third or fourth unit.

I come to write this post a few years after working as both Fight Director and 2nd Unit Director on the Black Camel production of Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz (Outpost 3). My 2nd unit chalked up 256 set ups on the film. A respectable number given that we were filming only when both myself (as Fight Director) and Alan (as 2nd Unit Cinematographer but also main unit 2nd Camera operator) were not working with the main unit and when the resources: lenses, props, costume, sets, actors were available. Our set ups account for 20% of the shots in the movie. Of course that doesn’t mean that every shot made it into the film but its the nature of shooting 2nd unit that a fair number of them did.

As 2nd unit director my task was not to shoot whatever I want, but to shoot the vision of the director, Kieran Parker. If you try and change or influence the style in which the director is putting together his or her movie, all that would happen is that it will jar. That of course would mean that the shots you are getting don’t get used. As I’d been an assistant director at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre on many occasions, this role was ideally suited to my skill set. Having already made my own movie, and won a good number of awards for it, I felt confident in the role and did everything I could to bring Kieran’s vision to bear.

In film, the 2nd unit is a discrete team tasked with filming shots or sequences separate from the main, or “1st” unit. I’ll also add that the work of second units should not be confused with multi-camera setups, where several cameras film the same scene simultaneously. The purpose of the 2nd unit is to make most efficient use of some of the resources that are expensive or scarce in film production: actors’ and directors’ shooting time, sound stage usage and the cost of sets that may have been built on stages, and the money that is tied up in a film as it is being made – the quicker it can be finished, the sooner production costs can start to be earned back.

Unusually perhaps given that I was the fight director on the movie, I did not get tasked with control over the filming of the action scenes, as is often the case with 2nd Units. I have to say though that there was so much action in Outpost 3 that it would have required a 2nd “2nd unit” to achieve that, and Kieran would have been twiddling his thumbs. Instead I was responsible for “Pick-ups”. After the main unit has finished on a set or location, there may be shots that require some or all of this setting as background, but don’t require the principal actors. These shots might include things such as close-ups, inserts, cutaways, and establishing shots. That’s largely what I was responsible for. It wasn’t glamorous but someone had to do it!

Every day, as well as arranging the fights, I took on the task of administering a list. That was a list of dropped shots, must have cutaways, additional maybe required shots and the odd mistake that needed to be rectified. That list was presented to the producers every few days and Kieran and Arabella, in consultation with myself, the cinematographer and the 1st AD would decide what should be prioritised or what could be dropped. Thus over 5 weeks, 256 set ups came together and the film benefited from the work of our very busy, and very hard working little 2nd unit.

As this is my promotional site, I’ll state here that I’d happily work as 2nd Unit director again, so if anyone wants to employ me then please drop me a line

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